Down In The Grooves
By Mike Jurkovic
The ruler of Analog Planet (www.analogplanet.com) was having a particularly bad day when I arrived forty-five minutes late. A ground hum was eluding him and his digital sources, as they do to so many so often, had betrayed him.
“I was hoping to play the vinyl then the digital sources for you so we could do A-B-C comparisons of the sound. But the damn thing is telling me I’ve only got 67 discs stored when I know there’s thousands in there. Besides, I can’t play music with a damn ground hum.”
I didn’t want to see Michael Fremer flipping out over his stereo system (yea, it’s still called a stereo system though this part of his basement looks like an NSA hack center) but it was oddly re-assuring knowing this master audiophile cursed and fumbled with his own equipment like the rest of us. Kneeling on his basement floor trying to find the source of the rogue hum while on hold waiting for some far distant tech support to tech out his computer malfunctions.
What was even odder was here I was, a rock n roller who had given up on vinyl and was still using a Technics SA-110 stereo receiver from ‘84 (my Fishers and Pioneers had done the dodo dance long ago) hanging with a dude whose turntable (a Continuum Caliburn) alone was ninety thousand dollars.
“Well, I didn’t pay that much for it and I paid it off in 2007,” he adds with a calm smile, though he’s growing more and more impatient with that hum.
Michael Fremer spends a lot of time in his basement and, 1) his wife is really cool about it and, 2) he doesn’t usually end up fighting his gear. From his chair situated perfectly between two Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers (I won’t even discuss prices here) he conducts his business as senior contributing editor to Stereophile Magazine and does his reviews for his own highly regarded website, Analog Planet. He listens to music as he passionately has for decades, on vinyl, the way it was meant to be heard.
There’s vinyl everywhere. Rows and stacks and Stax and rows of albums. Twenty-five thousand I think he said. “Every record I’ve ever owned is here,” he says with a pride that’s etched in the tracks. “I bought them in school and in college. Later, as people began getting rid of them and going digital, I bought them in yard sales and estate sales.”
I must admit I’ve been wanting to get rid of mine but my wife’s a collector and won’t let me. “Listen to your wife,” he advises as he minimizes the hum but still not to his exact satisfaction “Anyway, screw all that. What do you want to hear?”
What you need to understand about Fremer is that he asks that question with genuine enthusiasm. Like an old college roommate, he can’t wait to play you his favorite or his newest album. Or maybe it’s your brother coming home with the latest Ramones.
He reaches for a recent remaster of the Beach Boys Summer Party. “You’ve got to hear “Help Me Rhonda,” he exudes. And I do. Like for the first time, despite its seventeen million spins through my lifetime.
Abbey Road. Side two.
“Tell you what,” he says. “Let’s get the original ‘69 British album.” I pull it from the rack. He slips it from its black inner sleeve and places it on that just paid for turntable. He holds a fine brush over the grooves then reaches for one of the tonearms (Remember tonearms? Well this one has two.)
“This is still the best pressing,” he ordains.
Even with all the new remasters?
“O they’re horrible. Even Geoff Emerick (the original studio engineer) said so. He absolutely hates them.” He checks his digital library so we can do some comparison listening but the system core says zero music exists.
“Well that’s just **^%!! great! Excuse my French.”
Will the new 180g and 200g vinyl discs snap, crackle, warp, and pop like the oldies?
“No, they shouldn’t. That’s the grand scheme anyway.”
How does the new vinyl help us with breaking away from fossil fuels?
“Well my feeling is since we’re moving towards renewable energy, there will be plenty of oil to make records. Supposedly there’s a new company out there with a new way of making records which won’t require vinyl, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”
He’s beginning to zero in on the elusive hum. A new pre-amp. “The problem with all this stuff is they all have different grounding schemes and to isolate it takes time.”
What’s your electric bill like?
He laughs. “Oh I really don’t know.”
“This is really making me crazy and I’m crazier than crap to begin with.” At this point there’s no analog or digital sound source. More French. Like I said, a bad day.
“Let’s keep talking while I figure this out,” he instructs. I suspect my next question is hardly new to him. How does the regular guy get back in the game with all this high- end gear?
“There’s amazing equipment for not much money. In fact, later on I’ll take you upstairs and play you something through a $239 pair of speakers that I have hooked up to a cassette deck. (It’s true, and eventually he plays me Bringing It All Back Home and those speakers, ELAC B5s, they’re awesome!)
“A good starter turntable will cost you around five, six hundred. A good cartridge could get expensive. But if you know what you’re doing on eBay the stuff you can find - vintage stuff - for little money is absolutely incredible.” He moves to his laptop, pulls up eBay, searches for vintage stereo equipment and the first thing we see is a ‘72 Marantz 200 watt receiver for $200. “There you go!”
The records are more expensive though.
“Well if you put it in dollar terms with inflation, deflation, stagnation and whatever, a $16-$18 record today isn’t much more than what we paid back then.”
For the time being he reigns in the hum. “You sit right here and listen. I’ve got to get back on the line with those tech guys and figure this damn thing out.”
And I’m sitting in Abbey Road. George’s ever graceful, ever joyful guitar intro to “Here Comes the Sun.” The dynamic shift and wash of “Sun King.” I could sit here all day.
I guess the best way for me to describe it would be presence. Like a pitcher has stuff, vinyl has presence. A presence I know many of us have forgotten. They can stat you to death with micro- byte measures, but it still comes down to presence and stuff. Presence and stuff.
“You lent your records out to friends and left them lying around it stacks for days, right?” He says, pinning my old m.o. to the wall just as “Mean Mr. Mustard” crunches in.
“I was a record nazi,” he reveals matter-of-factly.” I never lent them out. I cleaned them before and after. I always used whatever money I had for the best equipment.”
I pick up a crackle in the system. “Now what?” he exasperates. He goes to a small room off the main listening room, where his washing machine used to be, and comes out with a pair of thirty thousand dollar cables.
“ Well luckily I don’t pay for cables. Now, let’s see if this works.” It doesn’t.
How long will you sit here and review new equipment and records?
“The equipment usually takes a month or two. Everything needs a break in period. Then you have to acclimate to it because you can’t keep comparing things to previous units. With the records well, it’s usually as soon as I figure out what to say and how to say it.”
In this realm you could say Fremer is the most opinionated guy on this, or any other analog or digital planet. Just check his blogs, podcasts, etc. But there was one review . . ..
“I didn’t like the Beatles Stereo Box set (2010) and said so. I said they should do a mono box because that’s just how it was. That was the true picture. Couple months later Guy Hayden (project manager Abbey Road/EMI) calls me. “Hello Michael,” he begins affecting a British accent, “We read what you wrote and we’ve decided to do it your way. Just the original tapes. No digital transfers. No fixing. Mono is how the Beatles listened to the songs so we’d like you to come out here and watch. We’ll fly you over, put you up. . . “ He shows me a slew of pictures of him at Abbey Road. “It was incredibly flattering. I even got to go into Studio A” he says with a fan’s gleam in his eye “Holding those tapes was like, wooooo, man.”
We spend a good while deep in the weeds tech wise, but instead of me trying to explain it all (harmonic resolution, sound tamping based on helicopter rotor technology, magnesium alloys, 3D floating space, vacuum locks, designers with advanced degrees in physics and aeronautics, one who designed escape systems for the space shuttle, Kevlar straps, cog-less motors, airplane grade aluminum racks, 3D printable cartridges) I’ll just refer you again to Michael’s www.analogplanet.com. I wanted to spend more time talking about the back story. Talking tribally, like we used to about each others experiences while an original pressing of Kind of Blue filled the room.
He’s truly in awe of the people he’s met. “Medvedev (Dmitry to you, the Russian Prime Minister) has this turntable. An architect in Greece flew me out to go equipment and record shopping with him. He had read my review and bought three. “One for parts,” he affects a rather poor Greek accent this time. “One for himself and one for a friend of his who couldn’t afford one but deserved one. I got an email once from a British Airways pilot on layover in Saudi Arabia and he had a couple questions regarding the turntable. Another email came from a guy in Beirut, during the civil war. I asked him how he could listen to records with bombs going off all around him and he wrote back that he had it on a pretty good stand.”
I ask to hear Brubeck’s Jazz Goes to College but he readily admits his copy is pretty beat. “How about Time Out? That’ll work.
While he gets a high rez file loaded so we can compare analog to digital (the analog wins hands down) he continues the tale. “I was in Bulgaria last week with another architect who wanted me to spend a few days shopping with him. He’s a big vinyl guy.”
Did he envision all this as a career while listening to The Kingston Trio At Large (the first album he ever bought.)
“Not at all. Listening to records was fun. It still is. I was doing stand up and commercials and animation.” (Animalympics) “I did sound supervision for Tron I was the first guy to hire Harry Shearer to do voice-overs.” (Yes, Harry Shearer of Spinal Tap, SNL, and The Simpsons.) “He’s a huge vinyl guy too.”
“I had a magazine The Tracking Angle in the mid-90’s. My partner and I did music reviews but we couldn’t attract any damn industry advertising. We were going into our fifth year with great distribution when finally we get some recognition from the record companies and then. . .” I know what’s coming next because my own independent record deal became collateral damage with “the great big record company consolidation/sell-off of the 90’s. I mean, advertising with us was like the equivalent of one day’s cocaine account.”
“Pick one more.”
“A Love Supreme.”
“Nice choice.” He gets the record and while Trane’s spiritual masterwork undulates behind us, we begin to wrap up. “Most people have no reference. They’ve lost the art of listening to music. It’s just background. And I believe part of that is because the music doesn’t sound compelling. It doesn’t pull you in. The way we listen today is just a flat experience.”
I must admit I’m listening to Michael but not really. I’m listening to the classic quartet - Trane, Jones, Tyner, Garrison - at peak form. And oddly I find myself comforted by the communal pleasure of listening with another person. Like we used to before all these mass communication devices isolated us.
I must have been glazing over. “It’s incredible isn’t it?” he asks.
I’ve been cynical too long to be honest. I’ve felt the whole return of vinyl was just another industry exploitation of the listener and the artist.
“Well to me,” he assures with a grin while resuming his quest to conquer both hum and digital gremlins, “it never went away.”