Organic vinyl

Finding a space for my turntable on top of my rack had eluded me for more years than I could easily remember. I had simply lost interest in my modest vinyl collection at some point. Most of the records I might have wanted to enjoy were too well worn from decades of repeated listening. Surface noise had driven me inexorably towards the evil digital CD replay. The occasional secondhand vinyl purchase had proved a great disappointment due to surface noise, wear and distortion. So my Linn had rested unused on top of a cupboard for years. Like some long forgotten, ageing sportscar in a backstreet garage. It even had its own cloth throw-over to keep the worst of the dust at bay. Sadly this had not excluded the slow oxidation of the aluminium alloy platter and general dulling of the muscular, Ittok VIII arm.

My system, with a series of subwoofers culminating in the IB, had reproduced endless CDs to a very reasonable level of satisfaction. I had online access to a vast national public library of CDs completely free of charge. All I had to do was find a CD in the online catalogue then place my order with a few clumsy taps of the keyboard with subsequent editing for the all too literal server dummy. A few days later I'd be able to collect my chosen CD(s) from my local library on receipt of their email notification of arrival. It was almost intolerably easy even for one so pathologically lazy like myself.

CDs had fuelled my system for years. But there were still the live organ recitals and street musicians constantly nagging at my subconscious.. These often left me feeling that my speakers had been stuffed with thick winter socks. Or I that I had succumbed to a head cold. Yet I hate bright speakers. So upgrading didn't look like an easy option at any price this side of the national debt of a small African country. Having made so many speakers in my time I had scant respect for the commercial products which are held in such awe yet seeming to need constant upgrading. Without which, last years model was merely a tawdry copy of perfection.

One day, while wandering around yet another flea market looking for cheap CDs, I found a pristine looking organ LP with an excellent pedigree. The price was foolishly low. Nah. Well..? Possibly? It was cheap enough to throw away if it should it prove a dud. As had others, equally promising, in the past. The purchase was made.

Yet, despite my potentially interesting find and deep, unsatisfied curiosity about vinyl organ bass the LP had rested untouched but safely vertical. Sitting beside the rack you see above in its latest configuration. No two shelves have the same free height. That makes for interesting arrangements of expensive metal boxes and the potential for yet more if only the endless grid-locking of available rack space could be overcome.

Then, only yesterday, while wandering around a charity shop in a distant town, I found a Rega turntable shelf. It was hiding amongst the junk furniture in a back room. It was so ridiculously cheap that it simply could not be ignored. Nor left behind!

Next day, after a particularly stormy autumn night, I had decided that it was time to spring clean the rack. There was much untangling of the huge bundles of knitting to do prior to an exploratory setting up of the infamous LP12 turntable. So several backbreaking hours later I had moved everything up or down in the rack. I actually had a clear top surface for a turntable. Unfortunately the enticing Rega metalwork had proved impossible to hang anywhere useful due to a complete lack of suitable vertical walls in my attic AV room. The Rega shelf however had served a far more important purpose. That of providing the impetus to try vinyl again. A larger piece of toughened glass was quickly found amongst the reserve collection. (rack owning audio fans should never ignore nice bits of glass begging for a comfortable home) The glass chosen was floated on hard foam strips on top of my tall rack to support my old LP12. I hadn't even bothered to level the rack at this point. Sorry about the dust. Try to imagine this is an antique in appearance if not strictly within the hundred year old category.

The large, black and shiny, organ LP was reverently placed onto the thick felt mat. The Ittok LVIII arm, with attached DL304 cartridge, was swung across. In best building-crane-like fashion. Cued, and the "needle" dropped safely into the run-in groove in the well-rehearsed manner. I may be showing my age here. Easy peasy, I thought smugly to myself. Just like riding a bike! Until, that is, I trod one step back to admire the warmth of the age-darkened, afrormosia woodwork of my decades old Linn plinth. Oh, and to increase the volume considerably. The CD volume setting on the Naim NAC72 preamp is considerably lower than the low output moving coil cartridge requirements despite the matching low output moving coil internal cards.

It was only then that I finally remembered why I had stopped using the turntable. The floorboards up here had much the same quality as a trampoline but offer only a vanishingly small fraction of the fun. With some practice and a delicate touch I was finally able to tip-toe hesitantly to my listening chair without the pickup arm bouncing completely off the record. Every time I moved it was behaving like some old biplane trying to land on an unimproved meadow. You should have seen see the exaggerated cone movement on the IB! We are talking seismographic quantities of excursion here. I might even sign up to become a monitoring station for North Korea's nefarious activities.

I hadn't even waved my magic carbon fibre dust brush above the over-20 year old old organ LP beforehand. There was certainly some of the detested surface noise present on the run up to the usual leap of vinyl faith into the void of potential audio perfection. I braced myself instinctively as Vierne's magnificent Carillon de Westminster started. Expecting only the worst. Pessimism is a learned trait in analogue audio. Particularly where vinyl is concerned. One's ego is easily as fragile as the medium itself.

The ensuing sound was certainly very different from my old Marantz CD63SE CD player with all its daft copper screws. All that glisters is not often gold! The record sounded brighter yet warmer than CD. If that makes any sense. Far more descriptive of the echoing venue without actually shouting about it. I liked this new subtlety. When the bass finally arrived it was warmer and softer too. Without that hard-edged, intricate, infrasonic, balls-out detail I usually get from my better CDs. Still, the weight of the great pipes was really quite shockingly good! I'm a great believer in weight where organs are concerned. If you do not own an IB subwoofer nor attend live organ recitals you probably won't have clue what I am talking about where "weight" is concerned. The overall dynamics were also very pleasing indeed.

The strange thing was the sense of naked realism. There was none of your fine, spacial, 3D detail spread out up front like unique pigeonholes which one often gets from a CD. More a natural feeling of general shape and great solidity at a modest distance. A real organ was actually playing somewhere in front of me. Rather than a cardboard cut out. With its high definition artwork glued to the front and brightly lit with lots of little flashing diodes. Real life does not have pinpoint imagery in my experience. One senses only direction, distance and the "roundness" of the source. No audible singularities exist in reality. Yet these are treated as the holy grail in some equipment reviews.

No matter how I wound up the volume the vinyl sound just got louder without becoming unpleasant. With CD I find one just has to set one's teeth on some of the brighter bits if you give the system its head. Things get all grainy and can easily sound distorted. The Linn just sounded so completely free of harshness and distortion by comparison.

There was also a much greater sense of rhythm from the vinyl. It actually sounded all over the place. Yet oddly realistic and very easy to follow. One moment the organist sounded slow and ponderous and really dragging his heels. Get on with it, man! The next he was galloping across the downs with a following gale and the hounds of the Baskervilles in tow! Both tempos sounded peculiarly correct for their own particular theme. I was able to follow the inner detail of the musical strands and stops far more easily on the record than on my CD player. One could flick one's attention from one set of pipes to another without ever losing the overall plot. CD draws attention to itself like painting by numbers. Listen to this! Then that. Now back to this! Repeat as necessary. Haven't they heard of organic music?

Warning: The enlargement of all the LP cover images is up around 300kB to give a real feeling for the sheer scale of vinyl LP sleeves and their superb artwork.

Swell actually sounded (strangely) like swell. Though I could not easily explain why in simple terms. I had almost forgotten about swell on CD. On vinyl it became not merely louder but suddenly more insistent and far more expressive. On CD swell just sounds as if the volume has been turned up on the amplifier for a moment and may be safely ignored at will. That is if you manage to notice it at all. The character of the music does not suddenly change on CD. I tried the only other example of the Westminster Carillon I had in my CD collection. (on a DG Gold CD) This was played on a French organ and far too fierce to enjoy at the serious levels at which I was playing the record. At that point my wife asked why the CD was so horribly distorted compared with the LP. Always a good sign as I greatly respect her hearing acuity. Far more than I do my own in fact. Pardon? I then had to put on a Felix Hell CD to ensure the CD player wasn't actually broken. It seemed not. Though the sound quality wasn't remotely up to the Linn level of performance by several leagues.

Of course there was always a huge difference in the price between even a modest Linn LP12 and a CD63SE. The Denon DL304 moving coil cartridge alone probably cost as much as the once-popular Marantz CD player when both were common Hifi fodder at the dealers. If I wasn't very afraid that all CD players sound exactly the same in A/B/X blind listening tests I would probably move up market in the CD player department. Possibly one of the new Regas? Nah. Upgrading digital sources is a mug's game. Isn't it? Naim CD Players are now right outside my, deliberately-self-limiting, pocket money allowance. Particularly since Naim sold out to scary greed and started catering exclusively to oil sheiks, investment bankers, pop sluts and overnight software billionaires.

You can skip the next bit if you have a weak audio stomach:

If one invests heavily in Hifi one's expectations rise to match the expenditure. One subconsciously demands that the perceived performance matches the price paid. Value for your hard earned money is required. It's just the way you are brought up and largely unavoidable these days. So, instead of listening to the music you listen to your system. Inevitably criticising every failure to provide intense pleasure at every listening session. You expect a new dose of noradrenaline from the shrill treble. Or preferably dopamine washing around your brain's reward centres just for buying your latest kit. But the chemical bath soon wears off and you find yourself back at your friendly, smiling (dope) dealers (again). Or searching the online ads for even more high-end Hifi equipment instead of looking for more music to enjoy. This road leads to misery.

As I eventually discovered in my youth. (I use the term loosely as I was late developer in the Hifi wisdom department) I found that a combination of DIY and limiting myself to a level of equipment which I could still enjoy finally worked for me. My system stabilised. One might even suggest that it stagnated. But I didn't care. I was too busy listening to the music rather than the system. I was in the enviable position that I had a system at home which was hard to beat by anything on my annual visits to a large local hifi show. Or on overhearing someone else having a demo at the larger dealers. As I pottered about wearing out the carpets with no real desire to spend any money. Rather like a masochistic, ex-alcoholic who visits pubs and bars just to punish himself.

I also gave away my huge stack of hifi magazines to avoid temptation. Peer pressure is an important factor in many hifi purchases. As witnessed by the heavy personal advertising on most audio forums. Reinforced by the constant congratulations as yet another punter succumbs to the persuasive charms of fellow members cajoling. Total expenditure usually far exceeds the original intentions. It's that voluntary "word of mouth" hard selling which the manufacturers must absolutely love! Perhaps A/B/X listening tests should be made compulsory in schools to bring back some balance of objectivity? Articulate and flowery descriptive English may be a little too much to hope for these days.

My ultimate test of system sound quality is a compelling desire to buy CDs, DVDs or vinyl. It works for me every time. It used to be said that leaving a system switched on made the sound quality better. I dismissed this notion as male cow droppings for literally ages. I never left my Naim amps switched on as recommended by anyone who has edver heard of Naim. It went against the grain to waste electricity on sheer hype. Until I broke the habit and left the amps on quite deliberately for a week. Suddenly I wanted to buy music again. Nothing else had changed but the music suddenly sounded like a good wine was flowing from the speakers. Satisfied that I'd completely fallen off my trolley I then switched off the amps again. There's always a good helping of sado-masochism in every hifi buff, including myself. Only the next day I switched back on and the system had lost its magic again. Inexplicable and still no reason to add to the burden of global warming. The sound quality was still pleasant enough to enjoy. I still played just as much music as before. But something was definitely missing.

But I have digressed exceedingly from the plot: There are still masses of CDs about compared with the sudden lack of vinyl when CDs were being over-hyped by the over-eager, obscenely-greedy, record company barons. So I am very unlikely to run out of the shiny little disks before I grow too old and deaf to enjoy music as much as I still do. That said, I must try and find some more organ vinyl. There is something oddly alluring about the sound. One cannot so easily have vinyl playing as background music even to serial blogging and writing endless nonsense on the forums. The music nags at the edges of one's consciousness until one stops typing to actually listen attentively. Vinyl is like a multi-barbed fishing hook and it is all easy to be caught up in the actual performance. Inexplicable, but true. Your mileage may vary.

Vinyl has many physical challenges though. Surface noise, clicks and crackles and sensitivity to footfalls to name a few. There is almost always some record warp or even occasional wow. Is it all really worth it? What about the trials and tribulations of turntable set up? The not knowing if the journey back from the dealers had undone their expensive sorcery. What about the great Sondek dust attraktor itself? Was it worth the effort in struggling against the dark energy physics of it all? They were practically throwing LP12s together at one point despite the high price in comparison with other turntables. I spent many hours sandpapering the grooves in my brand new Afrormosia plinth the day after purchase. Just to remove the hideous tangle of sharp, jutting fibres from the machine slotting. Ugliness which had managed to pass through several stages of construction and quality control without anyone noticing. Nor caring that the woodworking department were using stone axes to carve Linn's favourite (and expensive) product from recycled, industrial, hardwood pallets.

The drive motor has made a racket from birth and continues to do so despite several visits to the dealers for upgrading and set-up. The replacement "improved" inner platter and "better" bearing produced a 1/8" rise and fall at the edge of the original outer platter!! That is until I added packing tape to lift the lower edge of the inner platter step to true the outer platter's wild gyrations to a visually acceptable level. When I had the Ittok 8 fitted the dealer re-used my old Basik base. Producing a misnamed hybrid he probably hoped I wouldn't notice. I was buying Naim pre-power amps and the Denon DL304 cartridge at the same time so respect for the customer at this nationally admired Naim dealership must be inversely proportional to the overall expenditure. Perhaps it was because I didn't buy the Hicap power supply at the same time and upset their entrepreneurial sensibilities? Whatever.

But even such a turntable has its compensations. What about the creaking of the owner's knees at the ceremonial kneeling before the fabled, age-darkened hardwood and pitted, pewter grey relic? The dark offerings to be laid on the sacred, static laden, Linn felt mat. Which lifts without fail with every single record removed from the turntable. The well-rehearsed genuflection of sweeping a line of dust with a vastly overpriced, velvet plush device into a radial bar ready for collection by the naked stylus. The tension-filled moment of dropping the arm, by the silly little lever, suspended on an improbable sculpture of wobbly, Scottish jelly. The cartridge adopting its constant slide to the right as it descends the rubber ski ramp provided by the same lift-lower device no matter however dressed in a "downhill" direction towards the centre of the record. So that the user becomes ever more accustomed to using a virtual 6th finger to lower the stylus effortlessly onto the run-in grooves regardless of one's level of intoxication. The tiny diamond descending from high orbit into a ploughed field full of turnips, boulders and pockets of damp topsoil. Intermingled with puddles from the antistatic, holy water dispenser similarly priced per gallon to designer cologne. All generously mixed with well-felted fluff consisting of dead bits of human anatomy, dog and cat hairs and carpet fibres. This holds true whether you are an alien, own a dog, a cat or even a carpet.

Try doing all this after a few glasses of wine or real ale. Man is truly gifted in the hand-to-eye coordination department when it really matters. He couldn't catch a ball to save his life but can play a priceless collector's LP on a spring suspended, manual turntable with a crappy, lift-lower device. And do so long after exceeding the drink drive limit. Performing chimps don't even come close! Do they even like music? And no, I'm not a drunk. Merely remarking on several decades of experience with the damned thing.

All is vanity! The LP12 after repolishing the platter in the lathe. The lacquer was incredibly tough and far thicker than I had imagined. I began to make progress with 500 emery paper and 100 rpm and then moved onto finer grades backed up with odd bits of wood as the metal became more exposed. I finished off with sponge backed 3M Superfine at 425 rpm half an hour later. The shine is an illusion. The surface is still quite pitted but far more acceptable at arm's length than the hideous, leaden grey, blotchy mess it was before. There are dire warnings from Linn and others not to polish the platter. If, however, the platter metal corrodes over time despite the industrial-strength, Scottish lacquer then something must be done to maintain ones sense of visual decorum.

I really would not recommend hand rubbing with fine emery paper to remove the lacquer. Obtaining an even finish would be very difficult indeed. I used quite a large Colchester lathe with the external jaws of the large 3- jaw chuck expanded very gently just to maintain a grip on the inner edge of the hole in the platter and checked after each run that the platter was still secure. Marking or distortion of the metal is to be avoided at all costs or you might as well throw your platter away! If you botch the fixing on the chuck jaws then the lathe may throw the platter away for you! Approach platter repolishing with extreme caution! Under no circumstances must you try to cut any metal away! A skimming cut might be much quicker than sanding but you may/will end up with a very expensive, very wobbly flywheel on your record playing engine!

I should add here that my vinyl organ music collection grows constantly. I am ruthless in discarding scratched specimens before purchase and seem to have been quite lucky with surface noise. A tiny baroque organ with 8 stops of none greater than 8 feet and no pedal playing Buxtehude can magically capture the period. I wouldn't normally bother to listen to such a thing on CD. It would be stripped of anything worth having. On vinyl the purity, the chiffing of the pipes and the patina of age would be faithfully reproduced. Even if the subwoofer was made temporarily redundant except for action noises. I have been abe to collect some LPs recording very old organs. Many are German or Danish examples. They may lack the thunder of a great British Cathedral organ but still manage their task of distiling the wonder of music into a believable form.

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