All Writing and Photography © Alex Livingstone/Owner's Closet

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A History with Turntables

(This happened Tuesday. Please support your local independent record store on Record Store Day.)

I'm sad to say that my interest in owning vinyl records hit an all time low today. For a moment I considered just selling all my records and moving on. Why have all those bulky, antiquated, fragile discs around when I can fit all of my music into one or two small devices? Hell, I can even hook my phone or laptop computer up to a wireless internet signal and listen to music that is stored on someone else's computer. It just seems like tethering myself to my home stereo that resides in the poorly lit living room of my house in order to enjoy a clumsy, inconvenient music library is limiting as hell. If technology is doing its job, it's facilitating convenience. Vinyl records and turntables as data storage and transducer are the horse and buggy of the entertainment industry. United Record Pressing should consider replacing their entire staff with Amish folk. Move the operation into a barn. I'm sure it would appeal to their back-to-basics beliefs.
My first consistent experience with a record player was in the early 1980s in the playroom in our second house in Spartanburg. I remember having to sit up on a stool to play with the trainset my dad built us. It was on a green painted sheet of 4x8 plywood and sat on saw horses. I assume it was up that high to prevent my three year old sister from reaching the fragile traincars and models that all created a lovely trainscape. Anyway, I had a Fisher Price record player and I'd listen mainly to Disney LPs, but I also had my KISS Alive II  2xLP,  Joan Jett's "I Love Rock N Roll" 45 and the AC/DC "Back in Black" 45. The AC/DC was given to me by an older neighborhood kid named Tony Smart and the KISS album was purchased for me by my grandmother at a rackjobber in Sears during a trip to the mall in 1979. The neighborhood kids and I used to listen to that album and jump around with tennis rackets as guitars. All true. Grandmom bought it no questions asked. I listened to those records over and over. The rub-on tattoos are gone, in case you were wondering.

In the interim between the Fisher Price and piecing together my own stereo system, I relied on the radio and cassettes via jambox. What a peaceful time that was, relying on tapes full of Zeppelin, Beatles, Fat Boys, RUN DMC, Police, Billy Joel, and Van Halen. It wasn't until I was 20 that I needed to get my own turntable. I was already buying a lot of records but I had been using my dad's Technics. When I decided to move to Tennessee with only my guitars and my records, I started compiling my own hi-fi and ever since then I have been plagued with malfunctioning turntables. Sometime before the move in the summer of 1995, I went down to Joe Little Hi-fi in the Elizabeth neighborhood of my hometown and bought my first vintage turntable. It was a BIC 960 from the mid-1970s and it could stack up to 5 records and play them all in a row with one simple setting. How cool!! How convenient!!  I bought a pristine yet cheap copy of Dark Side of the Moon at Ernie's and listened to it on headphones. I remember thinking to myself how good that album sounded! By the way, I can't seem to find my copy of Dark Side of the Moon so if anyone borrowed it could I get that back thanks.

A little ways down the road, after I moved to Austin five years later, the signal in the left channel started dropping out occasionally. Then it dropped out completely. The BIC was broken. Thankfully around that time, a friend of my parents wanted to get rid of his record collection and turntable. Knowing that by this point I had developed quite a vinyl habit, he offered me his collection and his sweet Onkyo CP 1055 turntable for free!!! How could I not accept? So aside from getting a bunch of LPs that were in immaculate condition, as well as a bunch of his wife's 45s from high school that seemed to have been soaking in a flooded basement for two decades, I got a new turntable to replace the BIC. The Onkyo looked cool and was perhaps an upper-mid level unit for it's time, which was probably twenty years prior.  Anyways, about halfway through my tenure living upstairs in the San Antonio St. house, the damn thing fell apart. The spring in one of the two dust cover hinges broke through its plastic casing and kept it from staying open. Also, the left channel started dropping out on this one too. ARGH!

So at this point I'm thinking my trusty Sansui receiver has a bad input or output. I mean, the same thing happens to both of turntables? So I get my father's Harmon Kardon receiver and hook it up to find the same symptom. I hook the BIC back up to check it out and more thoroughly troubleshoot the gear. No left channel on either turntable. It's at this point that I'm considering that my thinking is too uptight and that I need to change gears. I had just purchased my first laptop and I would love to be able to digitize some of my vinyl that hasn't made it onto CD like the assfactor4 records or the first five ZZ Top albums. So I start looking at these new USB turntables and I'm thinking, "The price is great and they're new and I can digitize and listen to the Hoover/Lincoln split 7" on my new ipod. Hell yeah!" I bought one of those, at Waterloo Records I think, and it has been my main turntable ever since.

In the five years after I bought the Ion USB turntable, I took the BIC and the Onkyo in to get fixed at a local stereo repair shop. The guy managed to get the Onkyo back on track except for the lid hinge problem. I was unsatisfied with how I had to prop open the lid with a pencil every time I had to flip sides or change discs so I sold it to a friend of mine for $50. The BIC was another story. The first time I got that back from the shop, he said he fixed it and it worked week for a week or three. Then the channel started cutting out again right around the time Birds of Avalon were staying at my house during SXSW. We were having a late night hang and we wanted to listen to records but the fucking thing hadn't been fixed!! So I embarrassingly pulled out the Ion and apologized for my shoddy electronics. Soon thereafter I took the BIC back to the same guy, telling him it was still not working properly and that I wanted him to fix it. When I picked it back up, he assured me that it worked and when after about a week it crapped out again, my heart sank. That repair man sucks and I have a crappy turntable.
Right around the same time, my Sansui officially started dying which left me in a horrible place. To rectify at least the amplifier situation, my wife and I bought a new Harmon Kardon receiver at Fry's and we love it! About a year after that, I blew my speakers watching the latest Die Hard film so I had to get new speakers. Thankfully the vintage speakers I got for $100 sound great and fit well into our living room.
As a surprise gift for Christmas this year, my wife bought me a vintage turntable from End of an Ear record store.  They knocked a hole in the wall and expanded into the southeast section of that building where they have a hi-fi and drum set showroom. The Technics table she got me looked great and I was so excited. So excited. I had recently bought about 20 45s from a vintage store on the drag so the first thing I did on Christmas Eve was throw one of them on (we both had to work on Christmas so we opened presents on the 24th). The strobing was off so I spent about 15 minutes trying to adjust it to no avail. Hmm. We threw on an 33 1/3rpm  LP to see if that pitch was set and it was. But when the needle got to the dead wax, the arm didn't automatically reject like my wife had been told it would. Oh shit. This thing won't auto return AND it won't play 45s...utter disappointment. I thought this was the one. We took it back and I was without again. Easy come easy go. I've been back in End of an Ear showroom to check out turntables but each time I'm there no one greets me, asks if I need any help or tells me to let them know if I have any questions. This isn't a situation in which I need no guidance like if I were buying a $30 180 gram reissue of Thin Lizzy Jailbreak. This is a $300 plus purchase of a "refurbished" piece of audio gear that I plan on using a lot for as long as I can. At least act like you want my hard earned money even if you don't. Amuse me and tell me which ones you think best suit my needs. I dare you.
Anyway, the last time I went in there is when I decided that was the last time I am considering buying a turntable there. Vinyl only from now on. And when I was driving to work today I remember that I saw online that a store had recently opened where they sell new and used turntables. So I googled it and found The Sound Gallery which is located very near my house in South Austin. Not 78704 where all the yuppies are but south of Ben White. I went by there and lo and behold! Turntables and receivers everywhere and very friendly employees ready to help me with what I'm looking for. They also had a lot of records for sale, an espresso bar, and an antique phone collection that would make Jeff Johnston shit himself.
After determining my price range the friendly fellow helped me narrow the choices down to two different units, a Kenwood and a Pioneer.
The Kenwood was our first choice because of its sturdy construction, stream-lined features and unique faux-marble base but when we test drove it the arm would not
auto-return at the end of the side. Dust cover and auto reject are minimum requirements so that was strike one. Next we hooked up the Pioneer and once theemployee recalibrated the tone arm, the needle hit the wax and skated right across the record. The needle was totally shot so they grabbed the headshell from a sharp looking Pioneer nearby and it sounded great. Though it played fine, the auto return mechanism inside the base was loud as hell through the stereo and out in the room. This Pioneer had the craziest shockmounting I'd ever seen so for there to be loud mechanics seemed to be a shot in its own foot. That other Pioneer nearby which was just over the top of our price range but given the shit  results of the other two, we thought we'd at least try it. The salesman said he had been using it and it was good but when we went to play it the left channel was out. SERIOUSLY? Is that my luck with turntables? The left channel isn't going to work? I try three of them in a row and they're all jacked up in one way or another? Can't I get a fucking clean, refurbished, sturdy, quiet, grounded, well-built vintage turntable for under $500? Can I? It's not seeming like I can.
It was at this point that I questioned the whole thing. Why do I need records? Isn't this just a hassle?  Was buying all this vinyl purely an investment for this very moment when I decide to sell it all and not have to lug it all back to NC. But what I realized immediately is that I am in love with vinyl, I am in love with turntables and I am in love with music. I love putting on records and I love looking at the big artwork while I'm listening. I don't mind getting up and flipping sides and I love searching through record stores for that "find." My vinyl collection is my music library and is my reference to all of the music that has shaped me or will shape me in the future. I can tell you a story about almost every one of my records and I love looking at them on the shelves from across the room and trying to pick out which ones they are based on the color of their spines. I cannot give it up and I hope they will be a part of my life for a long time. I have spent so much time and energy collecting these blasted things that I must get a turntable deserving of my collection. My collection deserves a really nice player. So I told the guys at The Sound Gallery to fix the third one and to call me when it's ready. I can't wait.

I highly recommend going to The Sound Gallery if you're in the market for some vintage hi-fi gear. They're very nice people and the selection is fantastic.


Thursday morning I checked the voicemail from Robert at Sound Gallery who had called the day before while I was working. I was happy to hear that they not only fixed the wiring on the nicer Pioneer but they had also fixed the Kenwood. Turns out the Kenwood had the wrong cartridge on it and when it hit dead wax it wasn't triggering the auto return mechanism. When I called him back to let him know that I'd be over in the afternoon, I could hear in his voice that he thought the Kenwood was the way to go. I stopped by the house and picked up a couple of records and when i got there he had both turntables hooked up so I could try them both out if I so desired. By that point though I had pretty much decided on the Kenwood due to its unique corian base and streamlined functionality. Polvo's latest album Siberia sounded great and Real Estate's new album Atlas sounded even better. Sold.
I am now the happiest kid on the block. The Sound Gallery rules.They have restored my faith in vinyl and turntables. The first records taken out for a spin were:

Pile Dripping LP
Ovlov Am LP
Bad Brains The Youth are Getting Restless LP [Jennie gets home during "Day Tripper/She's A Rainbow"]
Earth Wind And Fire Best of Earth Wind and Fire Vol. 1 LP
-------7" PARTY------
Culture Club "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?"
Paul McCartney & Michael Jackson "Say Say Say"
Chaka Khan "I Feel For You"
Nuisance "The Rut"
Simply Red "Holdin' Back The Years"
Superchunk "Ribbon" b/w "Who Needs Light?"
Wang Chung "Dance Hall Days"
Pablo Cruise "Love Will Find A Way"
Hoover "Two Down"
Jawbreaker "Busy"
Soul Asylum "Tied To The Tracks" b/w "Long Way Home"
Bananarama "Cruel Summer"
Joe Jackson "Stepping Out"
-------LP Finish------
Pretty Things Parachute

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