I’m sorry chaps, but I just can’t do this anymore. My analogue fingers seize up, I have forgotten how important tasks were once accomplished, I now require football-stadium lighting in order to see, I often need to take a pee before the glue has set, and farting has become dangerous. Oh, and: What did you say? There is no glory in any of this. For a man who used his hands to build things for over forty years, and no longer can, the frustration is depressing.

Analogue man has thus been relieved of his duties via a combination of physical  malfunction and his inability to be successfully digitised. The world he knew and understood has been transformed into a world he struggles to relate to. Creativity cannot occur without empathy, without the sense of belonging, and it was the creative drive that kept him going. They admire his creations still, but have no appetite for more; technology has rendered analogue man ‘a thing of the past’.

In his place has become the digital man/woman, the technologically-dependent, now-automated biological entity. And whilst he understands the principles of digital audio, he cannot relate to it. Somehow, he feels his innate biology is being cheated. Thus, analogue man is out-dated and unwanted; he doesn’t fit in anymore, doesn’t tick all the necessary boxes, questions things, doubts official narratives and is inclined to be stroppy.

Stroppy man made some interesting machines – machines which delighted the minds of other men, got them dancing, weeping or archiving – which he would not have achieved had he followed the diktats of his ‘superiors’ and the servile unquestioning they demanded. Many of those machines are still at work, still enriching the souls of those open to enrichment, still transcribing discs from ancient times. And, one day, a small boy will watch this record-playing process with awe and wonder, and be beguiled forever. He be blessed.

Analogue man is troubled by the children of the digital world. The young females, in particular, who now seem incapable of being, without a hand-held gadget to guide them. They live in a land of pixelated, narcissistic make-believe which has robbed them of their original selves. Pre-programmed and, as Menken observed, “ready to gulp down ready-made ideas”, they are lost to humanity. Also, their music is crap.

Analogue man thus expires.

Jan Allaerts MC1 reborn

I have had one of Jan’s MC1 cartridges for, well, ages. At least 20 years. Since we first knew one another. It has been a mainstay in both my developmental research and private listening for most of that time. Yes, of course, I have used many different cartridges over the years, for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to sitting down with a glass of wine for a well-earned music-listening session at the end of the day, Jan’s MC1 invariably rules the roost. At least, that was the case until recently.

This year, imprisoned in my house by feckless bureaucrats desperate to be seen to be ‘doing something’ (even though it was the wrong thing) I rather fancied that my MC1 was worn out, or at the very least lacklustre. It just didn’t have the same gusto and panache as before. It seemed tired and disinterested, unable to buoy my own sense of fatigue, my craving to be uplifted by the joys of music.

So, I installed something else and, for a while, I was content. It was something new and different, a-change-is-as-good-as-a-rest kind of thing. But it lacked the balance and maturity of the MC1. It offered excitement, yes, but at the expense of the MC1’s quiet sophistication. You know when you experience something that is ‘just right’? There is no need to analyse it, to ask why. You simply acknowledge that it has an equilibrium well-matched to the universe and leave it at that.

I was thus a troubled man. A man whose musical partner (in this case a cartridge) was out of sorts. I needed assistance, and Jan came to the rescue: “Just send it to me” he said, “and I’ll see what I can do.”

I packaged my beloved MC1 with great care and, despite being prohibited from buying shoes, walked to my local shipping agent, who assured me it would journey its way back to its maker in Belgium promptly. They were true to their word: Jan confirmed receipt of it a few days later (relief touched my brow) and assured me he would attend to it as soon as time and silly rules permitted. Both persisted unreasonably.

Belgium came to occupy the headlines with harrowing tales of death, and fear of death. Death: the ultimate statistic. I feared for the well-being of my cartridge, and the man responsible for its birth, and now its resurrection. Emails went unanswered. Oh god.

And then, out of the blue, I received advice that my MC1 was reborn, sporting a new stylus and cleansed of a decade or two of dust, dog hair and other detritus. Better still, it was on its way back to me. It arrived in a surprisingly large box which I opened immediately. And there it was, that familiar golden cube of greatness, my old friend, that trusted stalwart of my private and professional life, ready and waiting for its rightful place in my music machine.

It didn’t take me long to set it up again (I’m a dab hand at this malarkey by now) and press it into action. The MC1 sports big, bold sides – very helpful in the alignment process – and a wonderful nipple on its underside to protect the stylus from careless handling. Jan said it would need 10 hours to run in. I managed that in two listening sessions. Apparently, it has a new, expensive, FGS (Fucking Good Stylus?) diamond tip, perched on a boron cantilever (handy if your nuclear reactor needs subduing) and it glided through my vinyl grooves with panache and alacrity, as though they were lubricated. Boy, does this thing track seamlessly: zero fuss, zero drama. A pleasure to behold.

Actually, I think it really came to life after 20 hours in the saddle of my ancient S9. Feeding it with old Blue Note, Riverside, Columbia and Prestige discs from the 1950s, jazz came alive in my room once more, sensual and salubrious, calm and collected, effortless alliteration. God, how I missed this magic. Could it be possible that it was better than ever? Yes, I think so. A new diamond for old ears, almost biblical.

The sound is rich and mature, but not so much as to promote gout. It is masculine (am I even permitted to use such a word these days?), confident and bold, yet capable of great nuance. It does exactly what it is supposed to do, without melodrama or exaggeration. Like good, wholesome food, there is no need for a drizzle of brightly coloured sauce splashed around the edge of the plate – just give me straight up, honest fare to nourish myself. In this respect, the MC1 delivers unfailingly. It lets me know when the disc in play is of inferior quality, and yet delivers the music uncritically. Digitally mastered discs sound digitally mastered, original analogue discs sound like original analogue discs. It even sailed through a nastily warped Prince record without skipping a beat (no other cartridge I have tried has managed this feat).

It doesn’t discriminate either (another accusation avoided), presenting rock as rock, jazz as jazz and classical as, well, classical. Pink Floyd’s analogue recordings sound just as they did when I was a spotty teenager. Sonny Rollins’ tenor sax blows bold and vociferously. Debussy’s scented panorama floats effortlessly in the evening air. Electronic music from the 1990s makes me want to dance, nineties-style. In short, the MC1 does exactly what it says on the tin: it gives out precisely what the groove contains, without bullshit, exaggeration, or annoyance. It doesn’t keep you on the edge of your chair, ready to leap up and make audiophilic adjustments every few minutes. Rather, it encourages you to just listen and enjoy. What more could one possibly ask of a cartridge?

This is highly competent, skilful engineering. Jan should be proud of his work. First-rate musical work.

The Essential Recordplayer

If you have a collection of records, a record player is essential.

Furthermore, if there is no live music to be had, then you must make your own concerts or go without.

It looks as if a great many of us will be spending a lot more time in our homes, whether by choice or bureaucratic diktat. We know this because it has already happened. As ‘working from home’ is now an established part of the ‘new normal’ we are forced to endure, it makes sense for us to create an environment as pleasing as possible. If you spend endless hours sitting at a desk, a comfy and spine-supporting chair is important, is it not?

Nature did not design us to stare at a screen endlessly. Yet that is precisely what a great many of us do nowadays. Whether entering data into spreadsheet cells, manipulating pixels, or watching videos of kittens playing football, we are entirely focussed on visual stimuli. Not a variety of visual input, mind you, just one: close-up, mostly static and soulless. We do this out of obligation or boredom, and it is very unnatural. Instinct commands our eyes to scan near and far: seeking food and water, the avoidance of danger, a potential mate, shelter, delight. But technology has given us the ‘convenience’ of a screen as substitute, and a lot of people seem to rather like it. Better than reality, for many.

To relieve the tedium, we sometimes add a little background music. You know, a click on this or that, and sounds come out of a tiny loudspeaker jammed into the corner of your computer or is piped though buds you poke into your ears. This sound distracts you from your drudgery in a utilitarian way but doesn’t nourish you. It is as soulless as the screen, and equally unnatural. A tinny, emasculated sound courses through your auricular system into your overall psyche, polluting it with a synthetic approximation of what was perhaps once a cultural offering. But it soon passes from being an anti-boredom recourse to becoming an annoying tedium all by itself.

On and on it goes. Our need for other stimuli increases. So, we click, tap, and swipe our day away. We sometimes stare through a window at the world outside our new normal, at the old normal of trees and birds and clouds traversing the sky under which we used to live. Do we hanker for our former biological imperative, or are we now content with our uber-controlled screen-and-buds as substitute? A world of fakery and convenience, subjugation by technology. Is the clicking and tapping controlling us, or us it?

Surveying your home with a new perspective, is it ideal, appropriate, or even fit for purpose? After all, everything has changed. Perhaps your dining room table is now your work desk, or the spare bedroom has become repurposed as a home office. When space is limited, what is truly useful and what is junk? And then you look at that wall of vinyl records…

A treasure trove of music, memories, and potential joy – recently side-lined by digital convenience?

Perhaps it is time to return those once-cherished albums to your immediate life, where they may once again kindle pleasure and remind you of what once was a major focus of your existence, before wives and kids and the pressure of money-accumulation. Do you remember that old normal of high volume, dancing, and seduction, in dimly lit rooms reeking of musk, marijuana and incense sticks?

Listening to Analogue music is an act of rebellion in a digital gulag.

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.