The non-essential record player

A man, walking down a public street, is stopped by an obese policewoman who asks him,

“Where are you going, Sir?”

“I’m going to buy a record player.”

“Sir, I’m sorry but you can’t do that.”

“What do you mean, I can’t do that?”

“Sir, a record player is not an essential item.”

“How can you possibly know what is essential to me?”

“Sir, you are only permitted to go out to buy food or medicines.”

“Well, I don’t need any medicines because music is my medicine; therefore, it is essential for me.”

“Sir, music is non-essential.”

“Who decided that?”

“The government.”

“The government cannot possibly know what is or isn’t essential for any human being, can it?”

“Sir, you must return to your house now.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Sir, I will have to arrest you.”

“For wanting to buy a record player?”

“No Sir, for violating the quarantine order.”

“But you are violating the same quarantine order, are you not?”

“No Sir, I am not. I am an essential worker.”

“You don’t look very essential to me. What exactly is essential about you?”

“Sir, it is my job to enforce the law.”

“So, why don’t you go and arrest the bankers who destroyed our economy.”

“I’m not authorised to do that, Sir.”

“I see. You are authorised to arrest me for wanting to buy a product, but not a banker for fraud?”

“Sir, I must ask you to return to your home immediately.”

“But my record player is broken, and I therefore must buy a new one, as it is essential to my well-being.”

“Sir, the shop that sells record players is closed.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me that in the first place.”

The man turns around and starts walking home, wondering if he should be grateful or regretful that he forgot to bring his baseball bat with him.

Quarantined with a record player.

I remember it well: Friday the Thirteenth, March 2020 – they threw me out of the bar. I’m not sure if I should be proud or ashamed to say that’s the first time I’ve ever been ejected from a bar. But I didn’t take it personally as they threw everyone else out, too. They said, “go home and stay there until further notice”. Quarantined ad infinitum?

Mind you, being quarantined with a record player and thousands of records seems better to me than being confined with an awful wife (there used to be an L there, but the Alphabet People stole the L.) For me it’s nothing very new as I’ve been more-or-less stuck at home since the banksters blew up the financial system over a decade ago and left me without a business, family or income. Some millions more will now be joining me in that predicament, as the second wave of financial catastrophe now unravels what was left of our economies.

Here in Spain, we’re a week into this lockdown. Most economic activity has ceased and there’s no end in sight. Are the ‘authorities’ over-reacting, or late to the game? I honestly don’t know. But I do know that the world, as we knew it, has changed. Perhaps forever. Human behaviour is now modified. Our monetary system is disintegrating. The globalised, financialised, just-in-time, money-above-all order is tottering on its arthritic knees. Good riddance, I say.

I lied. I’m not quarantined with a record player; I’m quarantined with three. I’m short food and money, but not records, cassettes or CDs. Priorities, eh? To relieve the boredom, I retrieved an old CD player from under a pile of retired electronic things in order to listen to some CDs I’ve not listened to in years. I now remember why I retired the CD player: CDs sound awful; they skip and jump; they’re second rate. And they taste awful, too.

Record player to the rescue. An escape portal from the silence outside, the anxiety inside and the need to keep oneself occupied. I considered instigating a routine around disc selection – alphabetically, geographically or random? Maybe a good time to service the player? No, leave it alone, now’s not the time for pedantry. For the moment, I’ve concluded that old, established routines are best because they’re comfortable. Why cause oneself any more discomfort than necessary? Unless one is a masochist, in which case I’d recommend back-to-back Schubert’s Trout Quintet (possibly the most horrible music I know) or a long night of Heavy Metal, played backwards through a megaphone.

Rachmaninov is perfect for melancholic moments, Messiaen for those seeking spiritual guidance. Bob Dylan’s lyrics seem to have been written for this time – how weird is that? I’m finding jazz a great comfort: the twisted, lilting, experimental make-do of an age of optimism. Amidst the rigours of enforced quarantine, the revolt that was jazz now poses a new vigour of alternative medicine in the fight against orthodoxy, State Power and bland, corporate music. Good jazz was all about spontaneity – something hard to invoke in times of lockdown and the deprivation of essential human contact.

I will be writing to this blog more frequently now. I need something to do, and you fellows need something to read. I’ll keep you updated. Please feel free to post your comments. We’re all in this shit together now. Take care and happy record player listening.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke.

Simon 21/3/20

Record Player as Portal #1

As our Western Civilisation careens into the abyss of its own histrionics, and we thinking apes are dragged down by its vortex, I suggest an experiment…

You have a record player, right? And a sizeable collection of vinyl records from way-back-when, yes? So, use these two resources to step back in time. You can do it if you really want to and know how to use your powers of imagination. The disc and its player can’t do it alone. They require your perception to complete the circle. You can’t influence the abyss but, at least momentarily, you can escape its pull if you deny its presence. Here’s how it’s done:

First, you must be alone. In your familiar den. With booze and, preferably, a sleeping dog. Hunt out a record from the 1950s – I suggest an original Blue Note, maybe a big band or lesser-known jazz quartet. Don’t bother to clean it. Fire up your audio system and devote at least five minutes to contemplate in silence your impending journey into what was. You must be still, and you must be prepared to let go. Don’t be pissing about with hi-fi. Focus on your escape plan.

Lower the stylus into the run-in groove and take your seat. Marvel at the surface noise, gathered over the years as a result of your ordinary manliness, close your eyes and give in to the sounds of yesteryear. Visualise. Go with the flow. Don’t do anything else or think about anything else. Keep visualising. What is the drummer wearing (not a red dress)? And the saxophone player? Black or white man? Does the bass player smile or grimace as he traverses the neck of his instrument? What were these guys thinking about at the time of the recording? What cars did they pass on the way to the studio? Are they stoned?

Now, with the music filling your habitats both external and internal, imagine the world that produced this music: its fancies and concerns, its glories and defeats, its ambitions and ghettoes. This is your past, whether you lived it or not. These sounds are the precursors of today’s sounds, without which today’s sounds could not be. Your participation in them revives them. Thus, you are transported into them, and they into you, as fully as you wish it to be so.

Don’t work at it. Just let it be. Allow yourself to be captivated. Don’t analyse. Be what the record is.

Meet the audiocrat.

First, there were a few boffins who wanted to improve their music reproduction equipment – as the bulk of this equipment was designed to suit the production system and its profit motive, not the music lover.

Then, came the corporate takeover – the injection of big money and big marketing in order to dominate the sphere – with their diktat “spend more to get more” and the added insistence “modern technology will always improve everything.” Both are very dubious claims.

Now, a backlash has inevitably arisen with the maxim: “everything new is inferior to everything old” and “the amateur is more enlightened than the professional”. This is also a cargo cult, a voodoo club of contrarian faith every bit as dishonest and disappointing as its corporate predecessor.

Adherence to ideology and dogmatism are the provinces of religious zealots and political zombies, not of the rational or inquisitive man. The corporate lobby (whose motives are profit, market domination and ego) plies the untruth that there is a linear correlation between price paid and pleasure received, brushing under the carpet both the exponential law of diminishing returns and lessons learned from interpersonal relationships.

The cost of corporate propaganda is high and must be recouped via high prices. These often-extravagant prices have created a counterinsurgency of the now-impoverished, confused audiophile whose reaction is to turn his back and seek his own reality. Sadly, he currently appears to be being led by charlatans of every possible persuasion peddling piffle, pseudoscience or outright bollocks. He is coerced into believing that the laws of physics are now either super-relevant-corporate-edicts or quite-irrelevant-banished-gods. And he must choose between one or the other.

Engineers are primarily interested in results, the means of achieving them being of lesser importance. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are primarily concerned with processes, the results being less important. Thus, the traditional audiophile (an engineer) is interested in learning how audio equipment can best help him with the process of enjoying listening to music. The audiocrat (a bureaucrat), on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the equipment (the process) itself, the music being of secondary concern.

The audiocrat is convinced that just one more tweak of his system or one final purchase of the latest gadget will bring him to audio nirvana. He will keep dreaming, spending, tinkering and cajoling forever, if he can. It is even possible he has now rented a warehouse in which to store all the equipment his addiction has burdened him with. He is truly an addict.

He switches on, chooses a record… but no sooner has the music started, he jumps up to adjust something, cocking his head, straining for that revered detail his latest purchase guaranteed would be revealed to him – but never questions if this particular detail has any relevance whatsoever to the nature of enjoying music. He does not listen; he analyses sound.

And yet, despite his pedantry, he desperately seeks affirmation from those around him. Like a child, he needs to be constantly praised just as he needs to be constantly acquiring new toys, arguments and ideology in order to justify his addiction. His sickness, as are all addictions, is soul destroying: the belief that only through overarching control (of his audio system) will he be able to attain whatever it is he so persistently craves.

His fatal mistake, of course, is to exclude himself from the equation. He denies that his own perceptions influence the results he achieves by insisting that only the equipment, its arrangements and settings are responsible, and that his management of these variables are sacrosanct.

We have all had the experience: “Yesterday my system sounded great; today it sounds mediocre”. In response, most of us will reason that this phenomenon is an artefact of our own selves, but the audiocrat will invariably conclude: “I must change my amplifier (or whatever)”.

The system has not changed, the listener has, but, so blinded is he by his own control-freakery, the audiocrat denies his own perceptive variance and so blames the inanimate silicon for his own lacklustre mood. We’ve all done it, but only a fully-fledged audiocrat will keep on doing the same thing (blaming the equipment) whilst each time expecting a different result (the great sound he heard yesterday). This is a good example of Einstein’s definition of insanity.

One can only get back what one puts in (there is no such thing as a free lunch) and denying the role of one’s own perceptions in the subjective matter of listening to music is frankly absurd. Only when one abandons one’s ‘self’ to the music – allows it to wash all over and through one’s every fibre – can one receive of its love.

To constantly intervene is to never permit a result. In so doing, the audiocrat condemns himself to forever live in a land of limbo, mumbo jumbo and ennui, surrounded always by the inanimate products which have come to both disappoint and dominate him.

The audiocrat will never be satisfied because he does not want to be satisfied. He wants an ongoing process which absorbs his time and energy, and he demands always to be in control. If he was to be finally satisfied, what the hell would he do with the rest of his life? Listen to music?

SYD reborn

After more than thirty years of trying to make a ‘pure’ record player, this is what I’ve ended up with:
The record player stripped bare by its guardian. (With apologies to Marcel Duchamp)

This is a record player for the music lover, not the audiophile. It is for listening to music, not hi-fi.

It is an authentic entity in a time of universal deceit: raw, unadorned and reduced to its essence. You only need to learn to love it, as you do your wife and children.

“The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right. If it disturbs you, it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed.” (Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)

It must be understood that the listener’s state of mind is as important to the experience of hearing as is the sound being heard. It is not possible to have one without the other. The madness of audiophilia is its refusal to accept the subjectivity of emotion. It ignores the human.

Of all the machines I have designed and built, the S9 remains my favourite. I keep returning to it, because it is inherently ‘right’. It is the only one of my designs that has evolved over time. This version (#3) looks and feels like a machine tool because it IS a machine tool – in service to music.

From an engineering standpoint, a record player is not such a difficult thing to design and make. But when we consider the psychological aspect – how we emotionally respond to the machine – design becomes much more difficult, as emotion is a subjective thing that cannot be measured, quantified or programmed. Unlike the machine, the emotional response is constantly fluid, labile and irrational.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” (E.F. Schumacher)

Good design, like all art, is about expressing an idea as simply and directly as possible. Why make anything any more complicated than it needs to be? Form follows function, decoration is superfluous, and complexity is the precursor to failure.

The essential characteristics of the gramophone record and its means of reproduction were laid down over one hundred years ago and, despite incremental improvements during subsequent decades, remain fundamentally unchanged. The unnecessary application of new technology does not guarantee ‘betterment’ and the law of diminishing returns (the entropic law of thermodynamics) is always applicable. In plain English: “If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

I will produce just five machines per year, by my own hand. I will invite each buyer to visit me, to receive personal coaching regarding installation, setup, maintenance and understanding.

I will make each machine to last, not decay. Providing it is not abused it should continue to perform its function for decades. And, should it be discovered in a cave some hundred years hence, any competent craftsman should be able to discern its function and rekindle it. This is the joy of its simplicity.

If you would like to reserve one of these machines for yourself, please contact me by e-mail and let’s start a conversation. We create beauty in order to make the world more meaningful.

This S9 comes in a double-walled carton: 50x50x20cm (WDH); approx. 20kg mass.