SOTA Cosmos turntable Page 2

"It wasn't an easy crusade." Our guide seemed to be echoing my thoughts. "Most who purchased these exotic analog reprostations or turntables already had a large collection of analog LPs. A few sporting individuals, who had fallen for analog's charms with only a handful of vinyl recordings in their collections at the start of the digital age, scraped by as best they could—searching for used treasures. Those in big cities found the quest easier. Some even managed to amass large collections with hardly a new LP in the bunch. Home record-cleaning devices enjoyed a spurt of popularity. By 1996, however, the battle was all but over. With no new vinyl being pressed, and with the available collections already long bought up at increasingly obscene prices by rabid collectors, the market for used vinyl records all but dried up. The market for that 'last turntable' stumbled, but straggled on for a few more years as more and more of those who refused to abandon their large, valued vinyl collections saw the advantage in the best possible playback equipment for them. It was about that time that the society was formed."

"And none too soon," I thought. The society's goal was to give analog lovers a place to will their collections, as well as their analog equipment, to keep them from being abused by ignorant or careless heirs. The recordings were loaned out on a rotating basis to collectors with proven track-records of proper care—to enable them to have a "rotating" collection of up to several hundred discs for a year, at which time they would trade them in for new selections. The cost was high, but less so than maintaining a large, private collection. Living donors received free credit based on the number of records donated.

We now stood in the modest front foyer of Stockham Hall, the repository of all known remaining analog software and hardware, and most of the written audio history of the era as well.

"If you'll now follow me, please." We piled into an elevator and began a seemingly interminable plunge downward. Finally, a stop, and we stepped out onto a large metal platform with an open-gridwork floor.

An involuntary gasp came from the group. I felt my own knees weaken and grasped the rail at the edge. We were in the center of a long, square shaft, at least one hundred yards on a side, extending for at least a thousand feet above us and another thousand feet below.

"As you can observe," the guide continued, "our collection fills the shelves on every wall of this chamber. There are a total of approximately 1.4 billion different recordings in the archives, with another half billion duplicates. Virtually every recording ever committed to vinyl is on file. Of course, you are viewing only a small portion of the warehouse space. There are another nine similar structures adjoining this one."

I felt my knees buckle again.

"As you know," our guide continued, "the lending-library nature of this facility continued for about 30 years, when interest died out. Then, in the middle of the last century, Professor Lydell Pearson discovered a nondestructive method of recovering the contents of the grooves in like-new condition, even with the vinyl badly worn. During the following ten-year period there was a renaissance in interest in the music preserved in this facility. The actual discs remained here; the recovered signal from a selected recording was sent via microlink to the repro-facility on El Cajon Island, where it was transcribed for re-release on New Analog via cold plasma fusion. The Julian Hirsch Center, as you probably know, was established to verify that the transfers were perfect and indistinguishable from the originals. But interest in these old recordings eventually died out, especially after the application of bio-transfer holography to home entertainment, and visitors here became infrequent. Today it is maintained by the Society's endowment fund.

"The network of catwalks and ladders that you see provides the only functioning access. Local elevator service to each level was discontinued 50 years ago, when the collection was closed. Now if you'll follow me, please."

We crossed the catwalk connecting the platform with an opening in the opposite wall. Then a short walk to another chamber. Still impressive, though far smaller than the last, it contained a collection at least as intriguing—the turntables designed during the vinyl era. The names are unknown today—Voice of Music, Garrard, Rek-o-Kut, Linn, SOTA, VPI—and the mechanisms were antiques. But they had served an important function in their day, and likely had given their owners much enjoyment.

Back on the surface, I pondered a fact that my research had uncovered: the best analog recordings were made in the 1960s and 1970s, yet the equipment to reproduce them at their best didn't appear until the last, gasping days of vinyl LP technology. I wondered if the enthusiasts of that long-departed era recognized the irony in that, as I gazed west across the Las Vegas Palisades into the magnificent sunset over the Pacific Ocean...

Back to reality
What a dream. Occupational risk of a writer, I suppose, falling asleep at his word processor trying to come up with a lead-in. Still, it would be great if there were—as Freud would have us believe—at least a glimmer of truth there. If, somewhere in the distant future, today's vinyl recordings would be seen as things worthy of preservation, and not as fodder for some already overflowing, anonymous landfill.

Let's face one incontrovertible fact: the stream of new vinyl LP releases has slowed dramatically. The market for LPs is down so much that many record dealers, especially those outside major metropolitan areas, no longer even stock them. The far more lucrative profits from CDs hasn't helped the availability of vinyl either. And I would expect no improvement in the future: by mid-decade only a few holdouts—mostly small, audiophile-oriented record companies—are likely to be releasing LPs.

Although there are members of the Stereophile staff who listen almost exclusively to analog or digital sources, most of us have a foot in both camps. My experience is probably fairly typical. I am attracted to digital's freedom from noise, pressing defects (usually), and various kinds of tracing distortion. Its relative permanence is appealing. And many older recordings that were difficult to find on vinyl even before the advent of digital are being re-released on CD. On the other hand, I prefer analog for its transparency. Too often (though less so now than earlier), digital recordings resemble a thick wodge of sound being thrust at the listener—ready or not, here it comes. Analog is also less likely than digital, for this listener, to glare at high levels, often has a better sense of three-dimensionality, and sounds more unrestricted in the top octave.