DVD Review: 21st Century Vinyl
21st Century Vinyl is better described by its subtitle: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up. The heart of the program is a series of segments in which Fremer turns three uncrated turntables into functional music machines. Along the way he encounters problems but keeps his cool. In so doing he sets a good example for 21st-century vinyl neophytes who are attracted to the musicality of vinyl but intimidated by the mystic art of getting a complex mechanical device up and running and sounding its very best.
In the name of full disclosure I should point out that Fremer and I share a common employer, are on friendly terms, and a few dollars of his found their way into my silken pockets when I was pruning my LP collection. Let me add that I kept 95 percent of my vinyl holdings—it's the collection I've culled least ruthlessly. It's also safe to say that Mikey is one of the audio industry's media celebrities, buoyed by his column "Analog Corner" in our sister publication Stereophile, hardware reviews for that mag and Ultimate AV, and music reviews on his own website musicangle.com. He was the official spokesperson of the recent Home Entertainment Show 2006, treading the show floor with a cell headset attached to his skull.
What a character he is! This turntable tutorial begins with your guide standing in front of his record collection. He starts off loose and funny, his usual mode of operation, going through samples of various novelty formats that have not stood the test of time. The main point of this segment seems to be: Hi, this is what I'm like. For those who have not met him up close and personal, this is a necessary icebreaker. The shelves of vinyl towering in the background are a powerful visual and become part of the message: Enter here and find treasures.
Having casually but carefully defined his character, not unlike a good novelist, Fremer takes us to Sterling Sound, where he chats with mastering engineer George Marino about the mysterious process of LP mastering. This segment further binds the receptive viewer to the format. It says, look, the guys who make these things really care about their work, and this specifically is how their caring goes into the process that turns master tapes to black vinyl grooves to be read by the trembling needle.
Having served two rounds of cocktails, Fremer moves on to the appetizers: setup accessories. He discusses stylus pressure gauges, both analog and digital (and prefers the digital kind, horrors!). Tools for the horizontal alignment of cartridges may be anything from a paper protractor provided by the turntable manufacturer to the fancier Wally Tractor, with the tracking arc laser-etched onto mirrored glass. More mundane but just as crucial are the little things, like an adjustable lamp and a mini-magnifier to help you see what you're doing. To make sure the tonearm is parallel to the playing surface, Fremer recommends a simple sawed-off ruler. And of course you'll need some needle-nosed pliers to fit those teeny clips onto the pins in back of the cartridge. Did you know you can loosen the clips with a toothpick? Cue Johnny Carson saying: "I did not know that." Fremer also defines the steps of the setup process.
Finally he serves the main courses, setting up a Pro-ject RM-5 turntable with a Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge, a Rega Planar 5 turntable with an Audio-Technica AT-OC9ML/II cartridge, and a V.P.I. Scoutmaster turntable with Lyra cartridge. For each turntable he installs the cartridge, sets vertical tracking force, fiddles with horizontal geometry, and sets anti-skating. A lot of people (myself included) never get any further than that. But for best results you should also follow the instructions on vertical tracking angle and azimuth.
These segments are delivered in long takes. Rather than conceal the difficulties of turntable setup with slick editing, Fremer just lets you watch him cope. It's a testament to his skill and experience that he surmounts every difficulty while discussing it in detail (when I set up a turntable, I surmount every difficulty while swearing a blue streak). He has made no attempt to edit factual errors out of the program. Instead, quick spot graphics correct and explain, like visual footnotes. They go by so quickly that you may need to back up to catch everything. More crucial visual aids—like the animation showing how the tonearm, cartridge, and stylus should align with the groove—stay onscreen longer. There's also a PDF file at the end that serves as a catchall for various minor issues but the video covers everything significant.
The end result is part premeditated and part improvised, just like real life. It's also practical—Fremer repeatedly points out that approximate settings are OK because grooves are so wildly variable. And it's leavened with humor, some brown sugar and raisins for your oatmeal.
21st Century Vinyl is a helpful bridge between the first flush of analog enthusiasm and a longterm survival strategy. Have you rediscovered or inherited a good collection? Or found a hot flea market full of $2 discs? Worried about what'll happen when you're face to face with the contraption that plays them? Quit fretting. When the moment of truth comes, just set up a worktable in front of your TV (or vice versa) and go through the setup process step by step with a master. The path may be winding and narrow, but your feet are stronger than you may imagine.
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater. His other book, Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants, is now a free resource on the web.