Time Warp (selling my turntable)
I sold my Thorens TD-160 turntable the other day. While I was well aware that there are a lot of folk out there who still believe in the LP, I didn’t expect to get ten responses to my Craig’s List ad in less than an hour. Part of it was that I only asked about a hundred dollars. Yes, there are people who get two hundred and fifty dollars for the thing, but I reasoned that these are mechanical devices and I’d used mine a lot. Motors wear out, bearings become less than round, and the whole three point suspension thing doesn’t work after a while. Along with it, I sold the two hundred plus albums that were still taking up some five feet of shelf space in my study.
It had been almost ten years since I listened to records much.. It wasn’t the audio quality. In fact, I put on a Sade Album and a Ben Webster album for a bit just to make sure the thing still worked and was genuinely surprised. Analogue aficionados love to talk about the organic integrity of a good record. You hear the space between instruments and sounds and at its best the music has body. That’s not to say that this can’t happen with digital, but analogue at its best projects a kind of solidity and warmth that's very appealing.
Over the last few months, I’d even given up listening through my CD player. Some audiophiles feel the best way to store digital information is on a computer hard drive. I haven’t gone high end with my computer, but I’ve been playing with APE, Flac, 320 bit mp3, etc. I’m not sure it sounds better, but it’s even more convenient than CD’s and CD’s were dramatically more convenient than record albums. I never liked the tweakiness of turntables. You had to worry about vibration, scratches, ground loops, dust, and odd little humming noises constantly. There was also the whole matter of having to get up every eighteen minutes to change the record. When I started realizing that I wasn't even listening to CD's as much anymore, it struck me that LP's are pretty much like 78's were when I was a child.
Still, it was a sad event. I had a lot of time to myself when I was in my twenties. I’m not terribly social by nature and so I gravitated to browsing record stores and listening to audio equipment. As I peeled through my record collection, I found myself smelling the jackets of my very teutonic Deutsche Gramophon pressings with their precise yellow spines and liner notes in three languages. DG’s never sounded as good as say Phillips or old RCA’s, but there was always a kind of craftsmanship to their production that evoked a lost era. For instance, I can’t imagine people treasuring the first pressing of a CD.
I remembered how I used to read liner notes over and over and how I came to understand that album cover art was its own genre. I also felt real pangs of guilt as I went through some of the music I had that never found on digital, like David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir "Hearing Solar Winds", Philly Joe Jones two Tadd Dameron tributes, the whole Artist’s House jazz label which included some of the most beautifully produced albums of relatively neglected musicians in the late seventies. Because budget records were regularly 1.99, I also experimented a lot more and learned to like composers like Elliot Carter and Ferdinand Sor. Something about records comforted my most compulsive instincts and over twenty years I probably spent thousands of hours either looking to feed my turntable or playing it.
A couple years ago, my neighbor’s wife bought him an old restored pinball machine for Christmas. While pinball machines can still be found, they lost out to the digital video games. Like records, there were irritating things about pinball. The bumpers depended on springs and rubber which eventually wore out. A machine that had been recently tuned had a tactile pleasure that event he most complex video fantasy will never match. On those rare occasions when I’d get lucky and get on a roll of sorts, the bells would be ringing, the lights flashing, and it would seem that my fingers knew the exact moment to catch the ball before it had a chance to drain through the one inch space between them. Video games just don't have the "tweakiness" of your catching them on that magic day when everything is aligned just right. Instead they have Easter Eggs, hidden tips and tricks, and endless levels.
Looking back, I realize that the pleasure of records and pinball had a lot to do with their place as the pleasure pinnacle of the electro-mechanical age that I grew up in. There was this tiny needle negotiating these bumps in the grooves of thin disk of vinyl and if it was set up just right, this enormous sound would come out of my speakers. I remember once even going to my college library listening room and hearing a transcription of an old wax cylinder of Brahms playing the piano (you can still do this on an MP3), and realizing that these were vibrations that Brahms had created with his hands still preserved acoustically a hundred years later. Where my Grandfather remembered the first time he saw a car or flew in an airplane, I'm going to remember pinball and records.
In particular, my Grandfather collected mechanical clocks. He loved their intricacy and the fact that when he was a boy a large, beautifully-crafted clock, was the epitome of wealth in the pre-electrical machine age. Most days, he would wander the house and wind them all with his collection of keys that he kept in a drawer next to a polishing rag in the Ancestor room. As he did his rounds, he would note just how far each of his treasures had deviated from its fellows.
The Thorens wasn't part of that age, but perhaps because it was Swiss it had some of the same sense of intricate precision. The technology of the time wore out, yet those who strove to build the best tried to delay that fact as long as possible. I can't imagine any of my digital devices still working perfectly thirty years from now. For one thing, they keep changing the freaking operating systems. I also remember the way the people who worked on analogue audio seemed to be half-mad scientist and half-magician.
My friend Bill Westerfield wound up doing the modifications to my Thorens. He had a masters in psycho-acoustics from Columbia, had been a talented enough musician as a child to attract the friendship of Leonard Bernstein, and talked constantly about the way the audio-engineering of the time didn't have the measurements to understand everything that happens in the reproduction of sound. He had also suffered from a very severe case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis which stunted his life. Much of the time he was in severe pain and took dozens of aspirin and other medications (over the counter and not so over the counter) to deal with his physical ailments. Bill was a visionary who was constantly frustrated by his own physical limitations. In short, he was the perfect metaphor for the analogue era of music reproduction. My biggest regret in letting the turntable go is that it was a reminder of my friendship with Bill and his wife/girlfriend Claudia. The amp he built for me literally blew up almost fifteen years ago. Bill was actually the reason that I held on to the turntable as long as I did. I could still hear him yelling at me "You don't want to let this go. This is good stuff."
At the end of his life, I remember my grandfather complaining that meat just didn't taste the same anymore, something that may actually have been true with the introduction of anit-biotic feeds, different packaging, etc. Even though, I let LPs pass out of my life, I can imagine myself at some soon to be very old age complaining that recorded music has lost something. Maybe it didn't sound better, but there was a level of workmanship and a zen-like respect for the devices that played your music built into the experience of the well-made turntable that may be forever lost.