Analog Corner #302: 25 Years and Counting

Mikey outside London's Royal Albert Hall.

I was planning to ignore the big three oh oh—my 300th Analog Corner column—and go about my normal business of covering an assortment of new analog gear and accessories. There's an abundance of those today, 25 years after the publication of my first column. Back then, there was far less to write about: Vinyl was on life support and headed for the obsolete-music-format trash heap atop a pile of Elcasets and 8-track tapes.

As I commenced writing that more conventional column, second thoughts took hold. Three hundred is just a number, but it's a big one: one column per month for a quarter-century (footnote 1). This is, I decided, an opportune time to pause, look back, reflect, and consider the way forward.

If you find this self-indulgent, I promise to do it only once every 300 columns or so.

My first thought as I write is that I can still do this while my friend, the late Art Dudley, cannot. Every Stereophile writer shares it, I'm sure. I think that same thought now every time I put on a record.

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A young Mikey with an even younger Art.

I thought the same thing when our friends and fellow Stereophile writers Bob Reina, Wes Phillips, and Rick Rosen passed away, and also when Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt and The Absolute Sound's Harry Pearson died. Not to be morbid, but over the past quarter-century, many industry leaders have left us: A.J. Conti of Basis Audio and Alastair Robertson-Aickmann of SME; Albert Von Schweikert; Joe Grado; Norman Pickering; Irving M. Fried; Bill Johnson; Franco Serblin; Dave Wilson; and many others.

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The Stereophile crew at an early 2000s Stereophile show in New York. From left to right (front): Kal Rubinson, Art Dudley, Wes Phillips, Sam Tellig, John Atkinson; (back) Robert Deutsch, Larry Greenhill. Photo by Michael Fremer.

Whenever some critic writes, in response to one of my reviews, about "insane prices" or "cable fraud," they usually conclude with something like, "No wonder the audio industry is dying a slow death." But, despite the passing of these luminaries, the industry is not dying, slowly or otherwise. Like so many industries, it's changing.

Grado, Basis Audio, SME, Audio Research, Sonus Faber, and so many others continue in business, in some cases under completely new ownership and management. Others, including VPI, Wilson Audio Specialties, and Von Schweikert, passed from father to son. All of them are upholding their founders' values.

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Michael Fremer with Pro-Ject's Heinz Lichtenegger.

In the analog world, the list of new entrants and revived companies from the past 25 years is long, and the results for the most part are encouraging. I'm thinking especially of Pro-Ject, started in the early '90s by Vienna-based audio distributor Heinz Lichtenegger after he spotted a homely Czech-made turntable in a gas station. It's one amazing story among so many. Another success story is Schiit, which set out to sell high-quality audio gear made in the United States at Chinese-made prices—and succeeded.

The vinyl-record production infrastructure presents another series of incredible stories worth telling, including Ton Vermeulen's, which might be my favorite: In the early 1990s, Sony wanted to unload its "white elephant," its vertically integrated record-pressing plant in Haarlem, The Netherlands. But the boiler, piping, and press-dismantling costs were staggering. Sony looked to the horizon and saw only red.

Vermeulen placed a bet on vinyl's revival and offered Sony the value of the real estate and building, saying he'd bear the cost of infrastructure dismantling. Sony executives had a sucker on the line. They made the deal. Today, Record Industry is one of the world's largest, most successful pressing plants. Vermeulen got the pressing plant free. That's one of so many great record-production side stories.

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Michael Fremer on lead vocals, John Atkinson on bass, Bob Reina on keys, Frank Doris (right) and Mondial's Roland Marconi (left) on guitars at a Las Vegas CES. Can't see him, but Spiral Groove's Allen Perkins is on drums to the right of Bright Star's Barry Kohan on congas. Note the roadie in a union shirt, far right.

For me, the past 25 years have been equally amazing—far beyond anything I might have imagined, and I have a good imagination. A quarter-century passed by awfully quickly. Whatever's happened, whatever success I've had, whatever influence I have in this business, it just happened. I never had a master plan or long-term strategy. For me, that makes it all the more enjoyable and gratifying.

I first noticed something happening at American audio shows and later at ones overseas. The enthusiasm and gratitude with which readers young and old began greeting me has been beyond my expectations—though I've never had any expectations, just as I never made any plans. I especially never expected people seeking hugs, kisses, and selfies.

Emails from vinyl fans in their teens and 20s are the most gratifying, though the ones from boomers getting back into records are almost as satisfying. I get a lot of those as well.

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Mikey in the Philippines with a fan.

I've given turntable setup seminars in Thailand, the Philippines, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Poland, and Australia. I've spoken about vinyl reproduction in Germany, Japan, Canada, and the UK. The travel adventures this job has afforded me have just about filled up a passport with stamps—were it not for the coronavirus, it probably would have. Hopefully it will, soon, once this mess is over. I'm not sure what happens when there's no room left for immigration stamps in a passport (footnote 2).

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One of the problems with having written so many columns is that it's easy to forget what you've already written about, so forgive me if I've written this before: Once, as I was sitting in business class on a Tokyo-bound 777, the plane still on the tarmac, the pilot came out of the cockpit to attend to some preflight tasks, looked up, and loudly exclaimed "You're on this flight?" I looked around to see what important or famous person he was referring to, but it was me! He came over and started asking me turntable setup questions. I told him we should talk after we landed so that he wouldn't confuse stylus and take-off rake angles!

Some who greet me at shows credit me with "saving vinyl," which is 100% not true, although I admit I played my part. In the UK, at 2019's Ascot show, one couple credited me with saving their marriage. (Who am I to argue?) Record Store Day founders Eric Levin, Michael Kurtz, Carrie Colliton, Amy Dorfman, Brian Poehner, and Don Van Cleave had a more profound influence on vinyl's revival than anything I've done.

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Mikey's advocacy for vinyl records was picked up by an article in the New York Daily News.

The main credit for vinyl's survival, though, rests with the inferiority of CD. At an early '80s Audio Electronics Society meeting in Los Angeles, I ear-witnessed the North American debut of the compact disc. As it played, I said to myself "This sounds terrible!" I also thought, "This will never catch on."

Afterward, when I realized that the excruciating sound had been met with unbounded enthusiasm by recording engineers, I knew I had to do something, even though at the time I wasn't writing for any audio-enthusiast magazine.


Footnote 1: As JA1 notes in this month's As We See It, this is actually Mikey's 302nd column; his 300th was published in our August 2020 issue—but that was too soon after Art Dudley's passing for any kind of celebration. You can find Mikey's very first Analog Corner here.—Editor

Footnote 2: Mikey, next time you get a new passport, request the one with extra pages. (And thanks for the tip, Linda Felaco!)—Editor

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
volvic's picture

You were a voice in the wilderness! Back in the early 90s when self-doubts started to creep in as to whether or not I should submit and give up on the ol' LP12, I picked up my Stereophile issue and read your defense of the vinyl record. I seem to recall you called the doubters "shills". That bit of confidence reinvigorated me that "yes" I was on the right path choosing the LP12 when I heard the Beethoven violin concerto compared against a Denon CD player in 1984. Fast forward to the present; five turntables in my apartment and a sixth about to be rebuilt as I stash away the new SME tonearm that just arrived from my wife's unapproving gaze!

CDs???? Never heard of them!!!

MatthewT's picture

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-09-10/vinyl-record-sales-top-compact-discs-for-first-time-in-34-years

Anton's picture

I think he adds grey coloring to his hair to fool us into thinking he is aging.

I hear he bathes in Groove Glide and uses Stylast as toothpaste.

You can rub Kirmuss Cream on Mike and he won’t foam up!

He and Frank Schroeder and John DeVore are ageless wonders.

Mike chose ‘vinyl‘ over digital because he thought that he looked ridiculous in a CD body suit.

Dick Clark used to ask Mike what his secret was to staying so youthful.

Last summer at a diner the manager took away Mike’s drivers license because he thought Mike had a fake ID for getting food discounts.

Here’s to the next 300 columns!

Jim Austin's picture

... that Anton was a borscht-belt comedian! My favorite:

>>You can rub Kirmuss Cream on Mike and he won’t foam up!

Nicely done.

Jim Austin, Editor
Stereophile

Glotz's picture

For every great review, recommendations and for all of the laughs throughout the years!

For always being a BULLDOG to champion the Truth and just telling us what you heard.

For bringing on Malachi to Analog Planet (even when it is isn't popular among Old People)!

For getting out to so many shows and enthusiastically putting yourself around the world promoting vinyl playback...

Thank you man!!

PS- Digging the Steller and the Hana ML!

Kudos to Anton for being hilarious and Volvic for his fine insights (here and as always)!

volvic's picture

For putting the "shills" in their place with your well-reasoned arguments and your love of analog and all that makes music reproduction and Stereophile/Analog Planet so enjoyable for all of us. Kudos!!!

Spla'nin's picture

Missed seeing a picture from your mullet era - Los Vegas High End show across the street from the original off strip Hard Rock Hotel if I remember right. Sincere thanks for all the amazing vinyl content over the years ! Stay with it & help find another Art to help fill the gap soon ! Maybe more from Kessler again if possible.

airdronian's picture

Time flies when you're having fun. I happen to be one of those people who emailed you a question, and was surprised how promptly you replied.

Keep up the good work, I am always looking forward your articles.

Anton's picture

You can see the glow of love for vinyl oozing out his pores.

PeterPani's picture

It is difficult to write an article of the own past and future. You have done it brilliantly. It is also nice to read that you are still convinced of Malachi.

guerillaw's picture

A small typo at the end, "until there is a virus" I believe should read until there is a vaccine. Fitting a small imperfection in an article about how a more "imperfect" medium better conveys the emotions of music.

pfm's picture

Thanks for the great job you've been doing for all these years!
14 years ago I bought an SME Model 10 with SME v ToneArm after one of your reviews. I never stopped listening to more and more vinyl from that moment.
Reading your reviews is a pleasure, due to your excellent writting style, great humour, in depth analysis of the gear, putting it in perspective with other gear and, specially, a great honesty and coherence in your reviews, mixed with your great experience in reviewing, which is something we don’t find everywhere.

I Hope you will keep giving us the pleasure of your reviews!

Best Luck!

cam08529's picture

this relatively inexperienced digital only audio enthusiast started reading that vinyl page in the magazine. The thought of getting a turntable seemed somewhat daunting and a step backwards. I continued to read Michael’s articles and based on his enthusiasm, decided to pull the trigger on a Scout/Glider/PHD combo around article 120. Today, my vinyl collection far exceeds my digital library but honestly there’s room for both formats in my audio life. I’m sure there are many like me that would have never gone down the vinyl path without Michael’s writing. He’s answered all my emails too. I even won a mmf 7.1 from one of his online contests but he made me promise not to flip it on Audiogon. I still have it Michael. Thanks for all you do...Jeff C

Enrique Marlborough's picture

Congrats, and Thank You!

SET Man's picture

Hey!

Yeah, I got interested in vinyl in most part because of you. Back in the mid '90s while most of my high school friends were saving up money buying CDs, and vinyl were on the decline. I got interested in vinyl thanks to you and Stereophile. I was experimenting with cheap fixer upper turntable I got from junk shop down in Chinatown for $5, a few bucks for the cheapest Ortofon OM and I was mesmerized. And in 1997 I got my first brand new turntable, the Rega Planar 2.

Now 2020, I'm still spinning vinyls, actually as I'm writing this. So, congratulation and I'm looking forward to read more of your articles and reviews of this "obsoleted" format.

Jack L's picture

Hi

Good keep-on-going spirit !!!!

Vinyl beats any digital music media, both sonically, & technically.

Here, who was not a vinyl-CD-vinyl convert? For decades, I only listened to CD music until I CASUALLY picked up a used classical music vinyl disc from a neighborhood thrift store for dirt cheap $1.80 4 years back. Since that 'fateful' day, I have built up my 1,000+ pre-owned vinyl collection (95% classical music). I'll never look back though I still keep my CD, DVD-audio & WiFi Blu-ray players & DAC streaming strictly for convenient casual listening.

Mickey, for yr senior age, you still do yr push-up exercise daily. Amiable !!!!

FYI I am NOT younger than you. Gymnastic? Not for me, my friend. I do my in-HOME physical training exercises EVERY morning after a home-made healthy breakfast. When I said 'physical training', I mean it. It takes me min 1 & quarter hours to complete quite a few courses, including 1,200 push-ups using
proper push-up hand-grip tools as well as 300 times each arm bicep workout using a 20-lb dumb bell.

Otherwise how would I have the energy to work some 40-hour week day job & enjoy my beloved vinyl music after work at my very senior age ???

Jack L

Michael Fremer's picture

Seriously?

Jack L's picture

Hi

No Jokes.

'Conventional' push-ups are always done with the legs pressed hard on the floor. This is 'cheating', IMO.

How? Half, if not more, of the entire body weight is supported by the legs on the floor. So only half, if not less, of the body weight needs to be lifted by the arms ! Noooo good.

So I've sorta kinda 'reinvented' the push-up exercise by lifting the pair of legs off the floor, resting them on a chair (18"). With the hands grasping the push-pull bars, 8" off the floor, the whole body is therefore lifted off the floor - airborne. The arms now carry the entire body weight. Push-up with close to 100% efficiency. No more cheating.

Mind you, I did not started this "airborne" push-up excercise only yesterday, but many many years back.

Before the last, & most strength demanding part of this daily physical training program of mine: the 'airborne' push-up excercise, a thoroughout 'warm-up" with other exercises, including fast stationary jumping jog for non-stopping 1,800 times, followed by the bicep workout with a 20-lb dumb bell for 300 times each arm, is done.

The first part of the aithorne push-up excercise is light push-ups for 800 times as warm-up. Then follows immediately without any resting with the entire body still airborne, the real hard push-ups for 400 times.

Well, on-going practice makes thing easy with firm determination & patience. Despite my senior age, I move faster than many young workmates. Very gratifying !

Sorry for being way way out of the audio topic & far far too boring for most readers here.

Jack L

Jack L's picture

Hi

Yes, "seriously" for a healthy life: No smoke, no booze, not even beer nor coffee for me (as I can't tolerate the sorta bitter taste of any beer & the burnt favour of coffee beans). Home-made healthy meals always at home & pack-lunches for work.

Only a few months back, I started to cook organic beef steaks (from cattles raised without hormones & antibiotics) which I unexpectedly found from a neighborhood grocery store for very affordable price!!!.

Jack L

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