Articles > Articles & Reviews > 2010 Rocksposure Reviews
The music just didn't sound a good as I thought it should.
First thing's first: I unplugged everything, wiped down all the connections with electronics cleaner, plugged everything back in good and tight ... Ehh, a little better maybe. I clicked around a couple A/V forums looking for advice, and a consensus began to emerge. So I headed down to Jo-Ann Fabrics and bought some cork sheets and foam board --
Yeah, the craft store. You mean you've never made a custom platter mat for your turntable?
Turntable. "Turn-table." Well what else am I supposed to play my records on?
"Re-cords." You know, vinyl?
Oh for the love of Robert eff Zimmerman, don't tell me you listen to music off those loud little discs with the ear splitting volume and all the tone of a cement block?
Wait, you plug what into your stereo? Really? THAT's how you listen to music at home? Hey, I've got a Zune, too. I've told you over and over that no serious music fan should be without a Zune Pass.
Well, there's like two games and Facebook, but apps aren't the point!
The point is I love my Zune in the car, at my desk, at Starbucks. But you can't fill up your living room with all those compressed little soundwaves. You like hearing instruments and vocals smushed together? You spent $1,000 on one of those Best Buy HTIBs, and you pump smush in there? Really? And I'm the idiot?
Oh, yeah, right, Joann's. See, my mom bought me one of those all-in-one Crosley turntables for my birthday a few years back, nice retro-looking wooden unit with built-in speakers, a CD player, radio, and a cassette deck I never used once. You couldn't adjust anything on the turntable except the speed, but the music coming out of those crappy little speakers wasn't like anything I'd heard before. Without resorting to troglodyte cliches about "warmth" ... Well that's just impossible. The music sounds warmer, more real, less crystallized for maximum loudness. It's the difference between listening to someone play a saxophone, and listening to someone blow a vuvuzela.
When that trusty Crosley finally died last month, I knew I was committed enough to invest in my first real turntable. Luckily I didn't have to -- my parents had an unused circa 1988 Sherwood ST-887R in their office. I doubt they'd ever played a single record on this machine -- all the moving parts were still clamped down with shipping screws. A little Endust and a tribute to the store that helped cultivated my vinyl collection, and my New Old Turntable was as good as new new.
I plugged it in, punched down on the Start button, and, after twenty long years on a forgotten shelf, the turntable spun to life, its platter twirling, its arm moving, its weird red screen doing ...
Well, I didn't know what. Was it a broken LED screen for track numbers? Did they have LED in 1988? Did they have track numbers? It looked like the little red lights were spinning around for some reason. And then there was this chunk of plastic with a dial on it that fit on the back of the turntable arm, and another dial at the base of the arm with corresponding hash marks and numbers. My Crosley didn't have any of this stuff. What it did have was a needle, which didn't fit my New Old Turntable.
Of course the answers to these and pretty much all of life's questions were only a few snooty mouse clicks away. Why didn't my Crosley needle fit? Well, first off, Joey, you ignorant slut, it's a CARTRIDGE we're talking about, not a needle. As for the "needle," do you mean the STYLUS that juts out from the bottom of the CARTRIDGE? Your old one doesn't fit because the Sherwood arm is mono P-mount. Yup, mono, not stereo, bucko, which is why if you plug a vintage turntable into a modern receiver you'll hear only a faint echo of the music on the record. Receiver doesn't have a built-in mono preamp? Then you need a mono pre-amp to bridge this decade and the last two or three. That weighted dial at the end of your turntable arm? That adjusts the pressure with which the needle touches the record. Probably don't want to set that very high, right? Wrong again, dummy -- set the pressure too light and the needle will bounce off the grooves and scratch the record; too hard and the record will wear quicker. That other little dial at the top? That's the tracking force -- the arm's resistance to the centrifugal force of the platter pulling the arm towards its center -- which should match the needle pressure. Those spinning red lights? That's the pitch, showing you if the record is spinning too quickly or too slowly.
I checked out once I got to the part where I was supposed to use this protractor to align the angle at which the needle touches the record:
For one, as an English major, I haven't picked up a protractor of any kind since my Sophomore year of high school. For another, I could see the slippery slope that lay (or is it "lie"? Shit ...) beyond fine-tweaking my needle's azimuth. Like any group of obsessive elitists, vinyl enthusiasts spend a lot of their time and money futzing with expensive equipment whose aural benefits may or may not be self-fulfilling placebos lacing every high-priced pill they swallow, and then pressuring noobs like me into making similarly lavish purchases so that they don't feel so lonely. Would my dusty old Sherwood, connected to a phono preamp and then a 40-watt mini-amp, rock warmer if I sprung for the fabled $60 Grado Black cartridge instead of the $20 Audio-Technica I ordered? Hell, why stop at $60? These things are made out of fucking DIAMONDS, some of them running hundreds, even thousands of dollars. And what business did my parents' dusty old Sherwood have housing a $5000 diamond cartridge? Obviously I needed a turntable worthy of this cartridge, a turntable with an acrylic platter, or, for even more warmth, a block of pure wood. Yes, only THEN I would know what music truly sounds like!
No, squinting at the protractor pulled me back from the brink (for now ...), but one tweak did make sense to me: the platter mat. You know that crackling sound everyone associates with records? That's what a scratched, dirty, crappy, or static-charged record sounds like. A good clean piece of 180g vinyl snap-crackle-pops less than a dry bowl of Rice Krispies. I knew my vinyl was clean -- I wipe down each record with my Audio Technica Sonic Broom velvet brush and cleaning solution before every play -- but I also felt the hairs on my arm tingling when I flipped to side two. Sometimes the vinyl even gave me a shock. Some more mouse clicks, and sure enough, turns out static charge on a record comes out as snap-crackle-pop over my speakers.
Which also sucked, I decided. So while I waited for new Yamahas to arrive from Amazon, I checked out other ways to keep my records from shocking me. One was this $100 gun, which somehow fires neutralizing atoms. The hardcore vinyl guys swore by it. They also recommended buying a washing machine for your records.
Again, slippery slope.
Changing out my stock rubber platter mats made sense to me: the record spinning causes friction, which creates static, which translates into snap-crackle-pop. There are all sorts of theories about what material best reduces this charge build-up between the record and the turntable. Some people play their records directly on the platter, no mat. Some just use a piece of paper cut into a circle. Some use shelving liner. More expensive options include acrylic or carbon fiber discs.
People too cheap to go off the deep end, like myself, have another option: DIY spotmats, which support the record at various points while allowing anti-static airflow between the mat and the record. Some combination of cork, poster board, and foam were the most popular options I came across, with various spot patterns suggested for various static-reducing reasons. It seemed important to leave a space around the record label, which is almost un-noticeably thicker than the rest of the record. This ensures an even spin, which reduces needle bounce, which ... and down the slope we slide. At the bottom of the hill: Jo-Ann Fabrics.
I'm about as good with a pair of scissors and an exacto knife as I am with a protractor and graphing calculator, but I managed to cut a decent cork mat using my rubber mats as a template, on top of which I arranged smaller cork circles to create my first DIY spotmat.
And it was ... OK. A little too thick. Less crackle, but more needle bounce, which caused skips. Plus my pepperoni pizza design, though less taxing on my mediocre arts and crafts skills, didn't provide even support. My mat needed to be flatter. I tried a foam base, but that was also too thick -- the vinyl barely cleared the spindle. God only knows what that was doing to my precious azimuth.
At this point I'd done more tracing, cutting, and gluing than actual listening. Plus I had new speakers to unbox. Plus I had superglue blisters on a couple fingers. Plus I was thinking about going back to CDs. So I decided on one last DIY: a black poster board base, and much smaller cork circles arranged thusly. Minimal thickness. Even record support. A nice space to accommodate the record label bulge.
The needle dropped on a beat-up, cleaned-up copy of "Led Zeppelin II." I adjusted the pitch, kicked up the bass a bit on my mini-amp, and it sure as hell sounded like Robert Plant was having a whole lotta love right there in my living room, his wails chasing Page's reverberations back and forth across the left and right channels. That's why I love vinyl, that's how records sound to me -- immediate, alive, like I'm hearing something that's going on right in front of me, not its cold, digitized, fossilized remains.
I don't hear music like that on my computer, or my Zune, or my iPod. I can't ignore a record, can't relegate it to the background of whatever I'm doing -- what I'm doing is listening, and if I come to a part I'm not crazy about I can't just click past it (I can, however, "Cue" the record arm. I guess "Pause" and "Skip" hadn't been invented in 1988). And sometimes, when you sit there and take in the parts that don't immediately send a sugar rush to your brain, you like them better as part of the whole, and so you like the whole -- the album -- better.
Can my DIY spotmat take all the credit for reuniting Led Zeppelin in my living room? I'm sure upgrading my speakers had something to do with it. And hell, maybe the music doesn't sound any better than it did coming off a rubber mat. I think it does. You might not. Part of vinyl's joy is that the music you hear on your setup is unique. You can't go to Best Buy and grab my turntable off some shelf any more than I could drop $10K and replicate what some audiophile hears from his rig. The condition of the turntable, the quality of the smaller parts, the amp, the platter, the mat, and, yes, maybe even those brain-cramping angles on that protractor, they're all different in every vinyl-loving home stereo system, sound different in different rooms, and, if I'm being honest sound different to a pair of ears that has spent the better part of three days cutting out circles than to a pair that hasn't. Deluding yourself and your ears is part of the fun.
After all that cutting and pasting and upgrading and adjusting, what you hear off your vinyl is yours. You own that sound in a way that's more personal than the digital stamp that says you own the mp3s you just bought on iTunes. You want to take care of that sound, make it better. So you wipe it down with isopropyl alcohol solutions and carbon fiber brushes. You give it gold-plated cables and diamond styli until what you hear sparkles. Vinyl takes a little more effort, and you have to pay a little more for it, but that only makes the sound and the music more personal, more unique, more yours, and more special when you share it with someone else.
And once you've found that sound, that music, you crave more of it. You want to hear the Beatles in mono. You want to hear Miles Davis the way Lester Bangs did. You want to hear your favorite new bands uncompressed, smush-free. You want to close your laptop and shut down the Xbox and sit and just listen, wander around in the spaces between the instruments you never heard before. You want to give Jack White $180 a year to be in his record club. You buy new living room furniture with big, empty square spaces, and you want to fill up those spaces. You want vinyl, vinyl, and more vinyl.
So in honor of my New Old Turntable and the misshapen cork circles now spinning my records, I'm instituting a new policy here on Rocksposure: if your band sends me its music on vinyl instead of CD or mp3, I will praise it to high Heaven no matter how much my skin crawls while listening to it!
Need a money quote for your next press release? I'm your vinyl-loving quote whore! I will revel in your electro-babbling and masturbatory droning, comparing you favorably to bands I hate like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear! Is your album a thousand times better than "Merriweather Post Pavillion?" Do you want it to be? Done! I'll call all the licks you stole from old Stones records "subtle homages" or "the familiar made strikingly new!" I'll encourage listeners to stare at the blurry cameraphone pic you slapped on the cover, which "can't be appreciated on a little old CD," thereby UPSELLING your potential customers! (You'd better include a free mp3 download though.) I'll pour over the recycled high school poetry you scribbled in the liner notes, deconstruct your tin ear for verse as "brave confessionals." If your band works in a genre I don't give a shit about, such as Dance, Trance, World, or Dave Matthews, I'll google said genre to make the review as authentic as possible ("Not since 'Under the Table and Dreaming' has a record sounded so warm on my turntable!")!
And that's if I hate your record! Imagine if your music is actually good!
Rocksposure's Milwaukee office is now open for bribes, shiny, black, 33 1/3 bribes (I'm not as into 45s, but I'll take those too!). No matter how brilliant or lousy your music may be, on my New Old Turntable your songs will sound as good as I think they should. What more could you ask for?
I know, I know. Diamonds. Gold. Oak. I'm working on it.
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com