Analog Corner #288: I've Been Everywhere

I went everywhere!

Attending the two-day Making Vinyl Berlin B2B conference on May 2 and 3, 2019 was an obvious decision for me, even if Day 1's "Physical Media World Conference" panel discussion was more about optical digital media than it was about analog vinyl.

The two previous Making Vinyl Detroit conferences I'd participated in had been successful, well-attended events. This year, organizers Bryan Ekus and Larry Jaffee invited me to participate in a music journalist's panel discussion on Day 1 and then to run two vinyl-related panels on Day 2. The venue was the famous Hansa Studios in the Meistersaal, where, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, David Bowie recorded the albums "Heroes" and Low. This was a symposium not to be missed, especially for this big David Bowie fan who regularly wakes up in the morning and reminds himself that he's still alive and Bowie isn't. Plus, the building houses the Emil Berliner Studios, where mastering engineer Rainer Maillard has his lacquer-cutting facilities.


Rainer Maillard at his VMS 80/SX-74 Neumann lathe.

Maillard famously wheeled his lathe down the block to the Berliner Philharmonie to record, direct-to-disc, a Brahms symphony cycle conducted by the orchestra's conductor at the time, Sir Simon Rattle. Maillard is someone I certainly wanted to speak to!

The only problem was what to do during the break between Making Vinyl Berlin, which ended on the evening of Friday, May 3, and the May 9 opening of High End 2019, in Munich. It was only a few days, so it didn't make sense to come home. I could take a well-deserved vacation somewhere in Europe, but if I did, it would be without my wife, who has a real job.

I did once take a much-needed solo vacation that she didn't believe I would take. I invited her to join me in Hawaii after a late November Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society gala, but she didn't want to go, even though, at the time, she wasn't working. Part of the reason was that she didn't believe I would go. So when she saw me packing my snorkeling stuff, she said "Why are you taking those things?" What followed shall remain private.

Back to Berlin: Instead of a vacation, I hatched an insane plan: CH Precision's Raphael Pasche had invited me to visit their Geneva manufacturing facility while I was preparing my review of the M1.1 amplifier, but up to now the timing hadn't worked out. Why not do it after Making Vinyl Berlin? Of course, they were busy preparing for the Munich show and couldn't babysit a visitor for five days, but with me that wasn't a problem: I didn't need to spend more than an afternoon there.


An NHB-458 monoblock being upgraded to an NHB-468.

What else could I do? Well, I could call darTZeel's Hervé Delétraz and visit his manufacturing facility. And as long as I was going to be in Switzerland, why not see if Micha Huber of HiFiction would have time for me to visit him in Winterthur, just outside of Zurich, where he manufactures Thales turntables and tonearms (and now EMT cartridges, as well)? That could bring me up to Monday evening, and then I could fly to Prague and visit GZ Media, the record-pressing plant, on Tuesday, and then fly back to Berlin and find my way to Röbel, home of Optimal Media—another record-pressing plant—and then, finally, on Wednesday evening, fly to Munich in time for the show's 9:00am opening the next day.


The entrance to Optimal Media.

The logistics were even tougher than that sounds. I could get from Berlin to Geneva Friday evening on a 6:30pm EasyJet flight, and from Geneva to Winterthur on a Sunday afternoon train, and from Zurich to Prague on a Monday afternoon plane and on a late Tuesday evening plane back to Berlin, where Optimal's Andreas Kohl would pick me up and drive the two-plus hours to Röbel. On Wednesday morning and afternoon, I would tour Optimal, and then we'd drive the two hours plus back to Berlin, where I'd catch a flight to Munich via Frankfurt, arriving at my hotel well after 11:00pm Wednesday. Would I be too tired to wake up Thursday morning for the show opening?

It was an insane schedule made more so by a commitment I'd made months earlier to play records and entertain a group of show attendees at a Friday-evening dinner. That required me to schlep around, everywhere I went, a heavy bag of records, in addition to a nearly 70lb suitcase filled with two weeks' worth of clothing and an office in a rolling bag. I had to push those records through airports: No way I was going to check them with my luggage.

Being insane, I pursued the insane schedule. These are all places I wanted to visit and share with AnalogPlanet and Stereophile readers (and viewers), and here was the perfect opportunity. Plus, I figured it would present me with a serious test of my stamina. Hey, I have retired friends my age, and dead ones. It's good to test yourself.

I'm writing this on the home leg of the journey—on the airplane from Munich to JFK airport—and not only am I still here, I'm wide awake after almost two crazy weeks on the road. That's partly because I'm buzzed and full of energy, but also partly because I didn't get the business class upgrade I was banking on, so I'm sitting in the very cramped last row of an Airbus A350-900.

As soon as I'd posted my plans on AnalogPlanet and Facebook, I received an offer from a stranger to pick me up at Berlin's Tegel airport at 8:50am and take me to my hotel. When I told Sharon, she reminded me: "You don't even know who this person is!" True, but he knew who I was, and that was good enough for me!

The former home of Odeon Records.

I lucked out on the flight over with a business class upgrade, so I could sleep flat after consuming too much wine. I love sleeping on airplanes—especially in business class—and was out cold shortly after dinner. I met Mr. Frank Wonneberg outside the terminal door, and he took me on a Berlin tour that included the usual tourist stops, plus some vinyl-centric ones, including one at an auto repair shop in a somewhat rundown section of a Berlin suburb where, in 1903, Odeon Records was founded. Odeon later developed the world's first two-sided record, pressing it in a plant located in the building.

Wonneberg wove a complicated tale involving Carl Lindström, a Swedish inventor living in Berlin who began building phonographs in 1893 under the brand names Parlograph and Parlophon, and later pressed records, out of which came familiar labels like Okeh (originally OkeH, named for Otto K.E. Heinemann) and Parlophone. I'd been off the plane only a few hours and, thanks to a stranger, my head was spinning at 33.3rpm.

It turned out that my host has written a beautifully produced, heavy, now-out-of-print coffee-table book, Grand Zappa: Internationale Frank Zappa Discology, as well as other highly regarded vinyl-related books. I'd been picked up by German vinyl royalty!

My lunch and dinner plans, I was informed, included meeting up with tonearm designer Frank Schröder (whom I've known for some time) and Consolidated Audio Berlin's Michael Ulbrich—one of whose "Monster Can" MC transformers I'm currently reviewing: a nice coincidence. Later in the afternoon, I got a private tour of Rainer Maillard's studio and cutting operation, which turned out to be much more useful than the next day's very crowded nonprivate one, which was part of the Making Vinyl conference.

The studio includes the lacquer-cutting facility equipped with several reel-to-reel analog tape recorders (including one I'd never seen before: a 16-track, 2" Studio Magnetofon STM-700), vintage mixing boards, a fairly large, well-treated "live" room, and a newly configured Dolby Atmos-equipped surround-sound room. Over the past few years, Maillard has cut and released a series of D2D records including a really fine Gershwin solo piano recital by Katie Mahan. Lang Lang has called Mahan a "fabulous pianist."

Maillard himself showed me and played for me one D2D record that has not been released, but should be, if only as a Record Store Day oddity: Last year, Johnny Depp and members of his band Hollywood Vampires (including Alice Cooper and Joe Perry) paid a visit to the Meistersaal. Maillard told them about the direct-to-disc recording process. The group dug it and decided to make a live-in-the-studio recording of "Heroes," an homage to David Bowie.

Lacquers should be plated within 24 hours, but there was so much legal wrangling and hesitancy that the Vampires cut sat in a refrigerator for way too long before being plated. Nevertheless, the test pressing Maillard played for me still sounded great. Musically, it cut a deep, swaggering groove, with Depp producing a rich, guttural, Bowie-ish vocal. The sound was big and full. The group only cut two tracks that day—perfect for an RSD limited-edition 12" 45.

Making Vinyl Berlin
The Day 1 panel I participated in was "Home Entertainment Trends According to the Journalists." My new friend Frank Wonneberg was also on the panel. Naturally, I stressed vinyl's resurgence and the downward CD trend as well as the importance of high-resolution streaming both for its own sake and as a way of finding music to buy on vinyl. I'm sure I annoyed some, since Day 1 was not supposed to be about vinyl—or streaming for that matter. I had the last word, and I stressed the importance of high quality over quantity—something Sony Music Entertainment's Gerhard Blum spoke about the next day in his vinyl-centric keynote speech.


jimtavegia's picture

I hope that you are considering putting all of these stories from all your years of work into a hard cover, coffee table book. It would be a reference for the ages.