Secret Songs Wrapped in Boxes
The most important lesson I've learned about vinyl in my six months of playing with it is that it's a pain in the ass. I've made iTunes my bitch but I once opened up the bottom of a turntable, I was almost reduced to tears by the complexity of it.
I began my quest for a vintage turntable after researching a mundane technical problem. I had a record, Neil Young's Comes a Time, that had a distracting skip during the first track ("Going Back"). This wasn't merely a loud pop on top of the music, which I would accept as coming with the territory, but it was a slight skip forward in time, which was too much to handle. I made sure the record was clean, and in researching the problem I discovered that this is frequently an issue with settings of the tracking force and anti-skate. I go to apply these principles to my brand-new Sony and learn that it does not have an adjustable tracking force and counterweight. You can't upgrade the cartridge (which is the piece on the tonearm that houses the stylus, or needle). It is what it is and there's nothing you can do with it.
So, as I continued to research I learned that there's a large community online who advocates vintage turntables. The consensus is that turntable technology hasn't changed a bit since the 70's, and indeed tables have simply been built cheaper and cheaper in the decades that followed. So, you're ahead to get a 70's (preferably Japanese-built, though there were fine tables made in other countries) table running over buying something new.
I got my mom going on this principle, and she made it her goal to get me a vintage table for Christmas. So, we made days of it, going around thrifts and antique malls between here and Memphis. We eventually landed at this place over on Norman Bridge. The guy that runs the shop is super old, and just the sweetest man. He's stooped over so much but with his stoop he matches my height. His teeth have wide gaps between them which make them look like fangs and he ends every sentence with "anyway" as in "that'll make you a good turntable, anyway" or "I think you can put 'ya a new cartridge on that, anyway." His shop smells like all the grandpas you've met and there are stacks of lifeless grey glass and dim lights all over. I ask him if he's got turntables and we find a corner that's stacked with stuff that he hasn't really looked at. It's in a precarious position and I'm moving all these old tables around trying to find something that catches my eye. One does, an Onkyo with a wood plinth (base) that looks pretty good. The man fires it up, it spins good and consistent and he sells it to me for not much.
I take it out of the store, into my office, and as I'm looking over every glorious corner and angle of this machine I notice that it's missing a counterweight, the part of the tone arm that basically balances it, a pretty key component of the mechanism. My joy turns into dismay as I realize that it would be a little cheaper to replace my own arm than it would be to replace this one. So I post to this audio forum, explaining my situation and asking what on the cheap fixes I might pursue. I'm told I basically have to find another Onkyo table arm to replace the one I have.
Then, a guy on the forum says he has an Onkyo turntable with the same arm, and that he'd give it to me, all I have to do is pay shipping. Sure enough, I send him the money and he sends me the table from California. I could not believe my luck and the dude's generosity.
So, I try the arm transfer myself, and am way over my head quickly. Remember the tears I mentioned earlier? So I call Mr. Lorberg. He says he can do it. I take both tables to his shop, he charges me almost nothing to do it (I think he felt guilty for selling me a table that he thought worked in the first place) and now I'm spinning vinyl on a big beautiful machine.
To simply watch it work, to see the tonearm's slow journey across the record is to see art in motion. It is very much a unique performance of the music. I watch it and imagine the machinery dancing inside the table and the way it moves my eardrums.
A quick note on 70's era Japanese turntables: back when they made things in Japan (nowadays, stuff is made in China for almost nothing) the Japanese factory workers took pride in their craftsmanship, and aimed to make the best possible machines they could. It's very beautiful and very Japanese, and it gives me so much respect for my table, knowing that it was built by people who cared about it deeply.
Onkyo turntables are not frequently sought after, and there are other brands that command more attention and money, but I sure do love mine. The word “Onkyo” is a tiny poem waiting to be read; it’s Japanese for sound harmony.
© H. M. Shephard
Bio: Hank Merrill Shephard writes and listens to music in his spare time, when he's not writing and listening to music for a living.