John Crabbe: Firebrand Page 4

"Once we'd moved to Link House, it was recognized that, if it's a serious magazine, the Editor can't really run it on his own. My first assistant was Frank Jones, and it was marvelous to have someone at one's elbow to help with the subediting and so on. Of course, we took across our team of outside contributors, we had the hard core of originals: Ralph West, Stanley Kelly and Jimmy Moir, and also R.S. Roberts. He was the sort of contributor who sent everything in by letter. You would speak on the phone occasionally, but you never met the man! Rather like Gordon J. King, one of our major technical contributors, who lived in Brixham, down in Devon.

"But as the subject expanded, with more and more manufacturers coming in, we needed a wider range of articles. I went into it as a hobbyist, that was the attraction of it—I wrote as a hobbyist wanting to instruct other hobbyists, really. We had an endless stream of DIY articles of one sort or another. And that was really the heart of the business, until gradually the proportion of readers who were sufficiently 'with it,' electronically and acoustically, to design stuff and write articles about it, or indeed to be bothered to try and build things, went down. Then it became more a case of giving information about new products and new developments, and of course equipment reviews. The balance tipped away from homemade equipment to ready-made equipment. And of course the whole international market had changed. The Japanese were manufacturing stuff in a big way.

"You see, in the early days it was cheaper to make your own amplifier than to buy one. That's one reason such things as the [D.T.N.] Williamson amplifier in Wireless World were so popular: you could do it yourself and save money. Then things moved on until, with mass production, you could buy it more cheaply ready-made than you could make it yourself."

John's practical experience and technical knowledge made him an authoritative reviewer of pickup cartridges. He covered the early Ortofon moving-coils, and then the all-conquering Shure moving-magnets of the late 1960s.

"Ortofon eclipsed the Leak, because they managed to combine the cantilever principle, which was a decoupling principle, with a decent coil, putting the coil vertically as opposed to Voigt's horizontal design. By then the better American moving-magnet cartridges were becoming very good. Then, of course, the stereo moving-coil types came in, and they nearly all had inferior tracking ability compared with the moving-magnets, with high playing weights.

"There was an experiment which is relevant to all this. I was listening to a record via headphones, and then lowering a Watts Dustbug [record-cleaning brush] onto it. And you could hear modulation coming through. The stylus was running on a blank groove, while the Dustbug was on a heavily modulated groove—and you could hear that at a very low level from the pickup. In other words, although it was a very lightweight thing, not putting much energy back into the groove, there was no getting away from the fact that the groove is a plastic device, and if it's moving an object—a mass—some motion is going to be transmitted into the record material, laterally.

"This switched me on to the idea that if a Dustbug can do that, what is the pickup itself doing? So, naturally, I tried putting another pickup onto the record, and the amount of modulation that comes through is enormous—like a reverberant version of the original. Which makes you realize that this is happening all the time, whenever you are playing a record! Because of the mechanical impedance of the stylus, it is sending out information into the record material, which will come back to the tracing point and be heard. The logic of it is that the poorer the trackability of a pickup, the more energy is going to come back to it.

"As a further experiment, I borrowed a number of moving-coil pickups which required varying playing weights according to their compliance. Using a lightweight moving-magnet as a monitor, I found that the energy transmitted into the record—that you could listen to—was proportional, more or less, to the playing weight; that is, to the stiffness, or the high mechanical impedance, of the other pickup. Which made me suspect that a lot of the preference for moving-coils—the so-called wonderful reproduction of ambience and spaciousness of moving-coil pickups—is a load of hooey! You are reproducing the information being scattered around the record by the pickup coming back to itself. And these experiments seemed to confirm that.

"I've mentioned this several times in print, and it's not a very popular thought! I'm not saying that moving-coils aren't better in many other respects, which they may well be. Maybe they are more linear—all sorts of factors may come into it. But this was one of the things I was somewhat worried about, when I was concerned about reproducing LPs. I don't have any LPs now!"

As it turned out, the early 1970s brought a spate of new magazines offering equipment reviews in ever-greater quantity, if arguably lower quality. But Hi-Fi News itself went in a completely different direction that happily chimed in with John Crabbe's own passion for classical music.

"1970 brought the amalgamation with Record Review. That magazine had started off way back in the West Country, and was called Audio Record Review for most of its life. But when it was acquired by an offshoot of Link House, they dropped the Audio and it became just Record Review, partly having in mind eventual absorption into Hi-Fi News."

Ironically, back in 1959, Miles Henslow had been obliged to merge the Record News magazine, which he had published since 1953, with the more successful Hi-Fi News. There it lingered as a rather lame six-page section until, at the end of 1960, it was dropped altogether. Yet almost exactly 10 years later, the big injection of Record Review content which created Hi-Fi News & Record Review was successful.

"You're never really certain on these things, particularly if you've got a particular interest yourself in promoting a classical-music section. But there was no escaping the fact that adding it pumped up the circulation of Hi-Fi News by very much more than had been the circulation of Record Review, because suddenly, the magazine was covering both fields at once. And that helped advertising, of course. But the whole business was changing."

And it was a boom time?

"Absolutely. And my book Hi-Fi in the Home was published in 1968, and that went through four editions up to 1973. It sold about 30,000 copies, which for a specialist book was fantastic. I think a large proportion of the readership of Hi-Fi News must have bought it."