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flag Mare Smythii - Full Moon 155 - 05/09/09

Michael Fremer
It's a Vinyl World, After All (DVD)
Music Angle

coverpic It's A Vinyl World, After All is the second DVD from Michael Fremer, senior contributing editor for the audiophile magazine Stereophile. The first, 21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up was also fun to watch and very useful. This new DVD, It's A Vinyl World, After All, is more about vinyl in general, and should reach a broader audience. It's subtitled "Michael Fremer's Guide to Record Cleaning, Storage, Handling, Collecting & Manufacturing in the 21st Century", and if you're even remotely interested in vinyl, you're in for a treat!

First we are invited to visit some of the best active pressing plants (Pallas in Germany and RTI in California) where we get a glimpse into the production process of making vinyl records. Don't know what a lacquer is, or a "mother" or a "father"? You will after watching this DVD. AcousTech is also paid a visit, where we get to see mastering masters Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray in action while cutting a Blue Note lacquer. While these production-side visits are certainly interesting to watch, it gets more useful when Fremer gets on to show us how to handle records, store them, clean them, or simply talking about the many wonderful aspects of vinyl collecting. Fremer comes across as a friendly and funny guy, and above all insightful, as he should be after spending more time than most dedicated to the joy of vinyl and analogue sound reproduction. (He is also clearly a devoted vinyl collector, and we get a short glimpse into his own collection, but people interested in the collecting aspect of vinyl records should rather check out Brett Milano's entertaining book Vinyl Junkies, or if you want to feel good about your vinyl collecting addiction, track down lan Zweig's sad, but fascinating movie documentary Vinyl). Few will have the budget to invest in a vinyl demagnetizing device, but you may end up wanting a vinyl cleaning machine, which Fremer demonstrates in detail.

Now, your first reaction may be: "A vinyl cleaning machine?! Come on, give me a break, could that really be necessary?!". Even though I have been collecting vinyl records myself for a good 25 years, most of those years I laughed at the thought of cleaning records with a machine, doing fine with my dustbrush. Of course, investing in a vinyl cleaning machine is also a matter of budget. But if your record collection has reached a certain volume, you could argue that it is sensible to balance a certain amount of your total spendings on hardware investments like a quality turntable, pick-up & other audiophile equipment. And I can assure you that if you're playing a lot of vinyl records and are more than averagely interested in sound quality, a vinyl cleaning machine is not a waste of money. If you're buying a used record, and it plays badly, you may discover that it could play perfect after being cleaned properly, because of the settled dust that won't come off using a brush. The US-produced VPI or Nitty Gritty machines are solid and recommendable products, but there are also cheaper alternatives available, made for instance in China. Fremer also demonstrates manual cleaning in the kitchen sink, but while effective, it will probably be too labor-demanding if you're planning to wash many records. Perhaps you are only buying new vinyl records that don't need cleaning? Well, if you're lucky, a new vinyl record is perfectly clean, but according to Fremer this is often not the case - waste residues left from production may be present and should be cleaned off.

Fremer: "I'm always amazed when I go to record conventions where there are record collectors, but not necessarily audiophiles. There are no record cleaning machines there, and when you talk to these people about it, they don't even know about it. "You should clean those record on a machine.", and they go "You can clean your records?!". It's like telling someone "You know, you can clean your glasses?" - "You can clean your glasses?! Really?!" And then you clean them for them and they go "Oh my God, I can see now, so much better than I have in the last ten years!".

While I'm sold on the vinyl cleaning arguments, the mentioned demagnetizing machine seems to be a product belonging to the esoteric fringes of high-end technology. I'm not saying it has no effect, but clearly it is not as essential as cleaning your records. Also, Fremer puts forth rather strict recommendations for the frequency of record and stylus cleaning, saying for instance that you shold clean your stylus every time before playing a new record side. While this makes sense from an audiophile perspective in a high-end equipment setting, and for critical listening sessions, I don't believe this is something an average vinyl lover would (or should) commit to. Using a record cleaning machine on dirty records makes sense, so does cleaning your stylus regularly, but the most important thing is of course to play and enjoy your records - it's a music world, after all ... :-)

A final reality check: I fully realize that it is possible to love listening to vinyl records without caring much about the technical and "hi-fi" side of sound reproduction. I once was at a friend's party, music was playing on the stereo, but there was sound only from one of the speakers. "Yes, it's been broken for a while", my friend explained. Curiously, I looked behind the non-working speaker, and found that the cable was not attached! When I told my friend, he shrugged and said "Oh, I never thought of that ...". So I plugged it in, and there was stereo. On the other side of lunacy, I've got friends who've bought special speaker cable "feet", to keep them from touching the floor. Whether you fall in love with music reproduction technology, or blatantly ignore it, says little about your affection for the music itself. This DVD is for people belonging more to the first group, but I guess most vinyl lovers belong somewhere in between, and would benefit from watching it.

Also highly recommended, and one of my favourite music sites, is Fremer's own Music Angle website. While there are lots of other good places to go for music reviews, the Music Angle reviews are highly useful for those buying new vinyl records, because in addition to the very interesting music reviews, they also focus on the quality of vinyl pressings, including the mastering process behind the product, and sound quality in general. Producing vinyl reissues is a thriving industry today, with a lot of small and dedicated labels. But in this age of "the second coming of vinyl" we see also major record companies picking up where they more or less left off 10-15 years ago, typically offering "180g audiophile vinyl releases". However, big or small - the quality of sound, pressings and packaging varies a lot, and Music Angle provides a much needed critical view. Anybody interested in vinyl collecting and analogue (but also HQ digital) sound reproduction, will find a lot of interesting articles and reviews over at Music Angle.

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