October 11, 2005

In This eNewsletter:
• A Ripping Good Time, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Strangest Audio URLs, from Wes Phillips

By Wes Phillips

A Ripping Good Time, by Wes Phillips

Sometimes I think my life is a Ricky Gervaise comedy. Gervaise wrote The Office, a BBC TV show about a clueless sad sack who thinks he's getting the joke when, in fact, he is the joke.

Welcome to my life.

Because I work at home and spend 12 hours a day listening to hi-fi with intent to commit prose, it occurred to me a few years ago that my wife and I should join the Park Slope Food Coop—not merely for the good prices and great food, but also because working two member labor shifts each month would actually allow me to get out among other live human beings for a change.

My first shift, I found myself unloading a produce truck next to a guy who built tube phono preamps for a living. One of the Coordinators (that's Coop-speak for full-time manager) overheard us in full audio-geek mode and sneered. I'd have resented it, but replaying the conversation, I could see his point. We hadn't spoken about music, just formats and gear.

Besides, the Coordinator, Eddie, proved to be a fascinating chap. He was a musician—a guitarist, mandolinist, and mandocellist—and he knew so many of the really obscure musicians I love so much. We'd work together for hours happily babbling about Dave Apollon, Cliff Edwards, and Hans Reichel.

"You know," Eddie said, "I have an LP of Reichel playing a full-fret guitar that has never been fully released on CD. Some of it is available on a disc with parts of another LP."

"I'd really like to hear that," I said.

"Sure. I'll bring it in—just make a copy for me as well."

The next time I saw him, he had three LPs for me: Reichel's The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir; Som de Prata, Flauta de Lata, by the flutist Carlos Poyares; and Eu Canto Samba, by Paulinho da Viola. There was just one problem. I no longer owned a turntable.

So I did what any writer would do. I whined about it to my editor, John Atkinson, who, as I well knew, had a stack of dCS ADC gear and owned a Linn LP12 turntable. "Could you rip these for me?"

Months went by. Eddie kept asking politely. I kept making promises. Finally, John had an inspiration—which, by the way, is mostly what editors do.

"Why don't you do it? It'll give you something to write about." The other thing editors do so well: delegate.

Well, I do have an RME DIGI96/8 PAD soundcard, which has an ADC section. The only problem I had was that it's on my PC, which I hadn't used since I bought an Apple Power Mac G5 in 2003. Yes, I could fit the RME card in the Mac—it goes both ways—but I reckoned it would be quicker to recommission the PC as a music system, borrow a turntable, and get the job done.

I phoned Roy Hall, thinking I'd wheedle a $314 Music Hall MMF-2.1 turntable out of him. I'd heard they were pretty good, though I'd never actually used one. "The problem with that," Roy explained to me, "is I actually sell so many of those, I just don't have any extras. I do have an MMF-9 that was used in a photo shoot a few days ago, so the box is open. You could try that."

Play with a $1500 'table instead of a $300 model? O-kay!

"And the photographer shot a Whest PsU 2.0 phono preamp, too. Shall I send that along?"

This was getting better and better.

But real life isn't that simple. I had to extract the PC from the mare's nest of cables under my desk—and I couldn't find my RME break-out cable to make the analog connections to the soundcard. It's here somewhere, but you try to find something that looks like a cable in my cable closet. Finding a needle in a haystack is actually easier—at least needles aren't made out of hay. I ordered one for $60, expedited delivery.

Then I had to assemble the turntable, which was a snap. The carbon-fiber arm was premounted, as was the cartridge. All I had to do was balance the arm, hang the antiskating weight, use the protractor to space the motor relative to the platter, and connect all the cables. Oh yeah, and completely relearn how Sony Sound Forge worked in order to import the audio files. I hated it.

Not the sound—the sound was pretty good. Really good. But I'd begun to invest some effort in the whole schmeer and was beginning to think I might like to rip a lot of music to uncompressed files—either to listen to it on CD or keep in my computer.

It's not a matter of which sounds better, CD or LP. I've made my peace with that one. I love the way a good LP sounds on a good turntable rig, but I love the convenience of CD and the organizational aspects of computer-controlled archival systems. If you want to tell me that LPs sound better, I won't argue the point. I'll just sigh, agree, and cue up another track on my Mac. Or on the Ayre C-5xe universal disc player in my big rig.

Which is why I began to seethe about the Sound Forge interface. Just as I now live in a digital world, I also live in an Apple reality. What I most resented about Sound Forge running on a PC was that it was on a PC.

I remembered that I'd been sent a review sample of Dragon Burn!, a $40 ripping application for Mac. That seemed a no-brainer solution. There was just one problem: the digital files I created, feeding the Whest phono stage to the G5 Mac's analog line input, sounded like crap, distorted and crackly, which made me wonder if the MMF-9's tonearm was mistracking.

Mark Levinson
Mark Levinson, established in 1972, is a world-renowned manufacturer of the finest stereo and multi-channel electronics. Products range from awe-inspiring monaural power amplifiers to the industry benchmark CD processor. For more information on all Mark Levinson products, please visit www.marklevinson.com.

I rummaged through my setup cabinet and found that I still own a Shure stylus gauge (two, actually), so I confirmed the tracking weight. I also found my Dennesen DiscTractor, so I confirmed the cartridge geometry. Both were spot on. I got out my torpedo level and checked that everything was on the level and on the square. I pulled out three Sorbothane pucks and floated the turntable on a Black Diamond Racing The Shelf. Still sonic garbage.

Finally, I Googled Dragon Burn! and discovered that other users had complained of distortion, too. Back to square one.

What about Roxio's Toast? Jon Iverson uses Toast for converting his home-studio output to CD and he loves it, so I downloaded a copy of the program ($79.99 with rebate) and got to work.

Well, not quite. Now the turntable was slow. I called Roy Hall, who asked me to disconnect the motor from the speed control and plug it directly into the DC power supply. "It won't run at the right speed, but if it runs at a different speed, we'll send a new motor." It changed speed.

"I don't have an MMF-9 speed control in stock, but I'll send you a motor for an MMF-7. Just bypass the 'table's speed control."

The motor came and I carefully used the protractor to space it next to the platter. Now I had only one channel. I changed the cables from the turntable to the phono section. Still one channel—the same one. I changed the cable from the phono section to the Apple G5. One channel. Then I had a stroke of genius. I disconnected the cable from the G5 and ran it to a HeadRoom MicroAmp. Now I had one really loud channel and one very soft channel. Dang! I had to think about this.

Hmmm. Oh. I checked the HeadRoom to make sure that the crossfeed circuit wasn't engaged. It was. I turned it off. Still just one channel.

I called Roy Hall and asked for a different phono section. "I probably only need the phono circuit—no need to send the rest of it."

Fortunately, Roy ignored me and sent a complete unit. When I changed the phono section, I still had mono. Then I switched the power supply. Still mono. Well, the only thing I hadn't changed was the umbilical cable between the power supply and the phono section. Why not?

Stereo at last!

I cued up The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir and listened in awe. Hans Reichel is phenomenally fast, and he was playing a full-fret guitar—frets all the way up to the bridge, even across the sound hole. The sound was bright and clear, although the decay was pretty rapid. When the side ended, I tried to have Toast assign the tracks automatically, but that didn't work. I then tried to insert the track spaces manually, but I couldn't get the silences on the graphic display to match up with the track times. In fact, when I added up the track times, the 20:56 album side did not correspond at all with the 15 minutes of data I had recorded.

What the . . .

Hmmm. I had 75% as much music as the record said I should have. Something about the ratio seemed familiar. Wouldn't that be how long it took a 20-minute LP side to play at 45rpm? I looked at the motor Roy had sent me, but I already knew I'd see a second, smaller pulley on top of the one I'd been using. The 33.33rpm pulley.


I ripped the LP side yet again. Toast still didn't place the tracks automatically at the right points (Reichel uses too much silence, which confused the software), but when I called up the graphic display, I was able to see where the insertion points belonged—at least as long as I used the track timings as a reference.

Almost six months into my promise to Eddie, I had one complete LP side converted to a digital file. Now we were moving.

Actually, we were moving. I ripped side 2 of the Reichel disc, with both channels and at the right speed. Now it was time to archive the files. Toast had the intuitive interface I'd missed with Sound Forge, and I was able to name tracks and sequence the completed files using the same simple command structures that everything else in OSX employs. In other words, no thinking involved—perfect for me.

Actually, I did have a little thinking to do. I had to decide if I wanted to filter out the almost infinitesimal amount of surface noise resident on the clean, well-maintained LP. I found the noise barely noticeable, so I decided not to—I'm not a fan of most noise-reduction algorithms. I prefer JSP's early jazz reissues, such as Louis Armstrong's The Hot Fives and Sevens (CD, JSP 100), which uses no—or minimal—noise reduction, to the Legacy edition of the same material (CD, Columbia/Legacy 63527), which is quieter but has a sort of glaze on top of the sound.

You might prefer to use some noise reduction on your converted LP files—especially if you didn't grow up listening to LPs with their minor surface imperfections. I always took good care of my records and I kept 'em clean, so it was never a huge issue for me, but if I run into a disc whose surface noise makes it impossible for me to enjoy the music, I'll seriously consider using Toast's filters. It's nice to know they're there, even if I strongly doubt I'll ever use 'em.

If you think that sounds as though I intend to make a habit of ripping LPs, you're right. I don't intend to start building a huge record collection again, because I'm serious about the benefits of computer-enabled song management. And I still love the sound of my Ayre C-5xe for serious listening sessions. However, ripping the Reichel, Poyares, and da Viola discs allowed me to add those recordings, which are otherwise unavailable, to my collection—and they sound fantastic.

Did I forget to mention that? My own 16-bit/44.1kHz files of those albums sound great—not quite as good as the original LP, but better than the fragments of The Death of the Rare Bird Ymir that have make it to CD (I had to check, having gone to all that trouble). It makes me wonder about a lot of music that has never sounded good on CD—such as the complete recordings of Led Zeppelin. My UK pressings of Zep sounded so much better than any of Atlantic's CDs that I could throw away a small amount of resolution and still come out with better sound than Atlantic has ever given me. (Having purchased several versions of most of the Zeppelin albums and at least two different "improved remasterings" on CD, I use the word given advisedly.)

Then there are all the recordings that have never made it to CD at all. My friend Jeff Wong has an acetate of "The Scene of the Crime," a lecture given by Ross Mcdonald (Kenneth Millar) at the University of Michigan in 1953. As far as I know, it may be the only complete recording of the speech to have survived, although an edited transcript was printed posthumously in Inward Journey. I want to hear (and own) the whole thing—to hear a great writer speak about his craft and his métier.

There are also records I'd give anything to own, such as the 1966 East Village Other Electric Newspaper (LP, ESP Disk 1034), which my recently deceased friend Frank and I used to listen to late at night after everyone else had gone home. There was some right garbage on that disc (Plastic Clock Radio, for example, which was literally a plastic clock radio playing news reports of Luci Johnson's wedding), but it also introduced me to Ishmael Reed performing excerpts from The Freelance Pallbearers. I don't want that recording because it's extremely rare (it is) or because it sounds great (sonically, it's the dog's breakfast), but because it reminds me of someone I love and miss. I'd buy it if I could, but I can't. So I'll rip Frank's old copy, if I can convince the person to whom he willed it to loan it to me.

When you come right down to it, one reason I got rid of my record collection was that I was starting to think of the objects (the records) as more important than the music they contained. Sometimes, I think we audiophiles are guilty of obsessing more over the gear or the format or the medium than over the enjoyment we derive from it all. Oddly enough, the series of unfortunate events that led to my ripping three measly LPs put me back in touch with a significant portion of that joy. I had fun—and I ended up with music I would otherwise not be able to listen to.

Even better, it looks as if I'll now continue to be in touch with that joy for years to come. Like any good sitcom, this particular episode turned out just fine.

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
From Wes Phillips

For Mac owners, there's RetroPlayer 1.6.0: "Listen to music as if it were played on an analog record player." (Please Mikey, don't hurt me!)

And here's Hans Reichel's Daxophone website, which is amusingly interactive, weird, and wonderful:

DLP...SEE IT Is Your Guide To Everything DLP
Go inside the technology and find out how DLP microdisplays work. Get all the latest information about DLP televisions and projectors. Learn the difference between DLP displays and the other technologies on the market. Use our shopping tips to help find the best television for your budget. Whether you're a home theater enthusiast or a beginner, DLP...SEE IT has the info you need. Sponsored by Texas Instruments, Toshiba, Samsung, Mitsubishi and SIM2. To learn more, go to www.dlpseeit.com.
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