Vinyl in Space

jack white

Jack White aims to play the first vinyl record in space.

From The Guardian:

With the aid of a ‘space-proof’ turntable and high-altitude balloon, the singer’s Third Man Records will try to beam Carl Sagan’s A Glorious Dawn from orbit…

The Guardian link writers came up with

The Vinyl Frontier

Now that’s quite good…!

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HD Vinyl

Apparently there is talk of developing “HD Vinyl”

Imagine a vinyl record that has 30% more capacity, 30% greater volume, and double the audio fidelity of a typical LP sold today.

The layers of irony inherent to this concept are many:

The HD Vinyl process… involves… perfecting the topographic, computer-generated, 3D modeling imprint before any physical manufacturing takes place.  “We adjust the distance of the grooves, we correct the radial/tangential errors, and we optimize the frequencies,” Loibl continued.  “You could say we ‘master’ the topographical data, which is a totally different approach.”

After that, a ‘pulsed high-energy Femto-laser’ burns the audio directly onto the stamper.

Over a year ago, I was pondering on the idea that the way hi-fi was going, we would end up with 3D-printed phonograph cylinders. I am glad that the process is well under way.

Going backwards…

One of the running themes of this blog is the observation that the hi-fi industry is going backwards: it reached sonic perfection (almost literally) in digital audio, yet most audiophiles now aspire to own ever-more ‘retro’ hardware (“My digital system is OK, but not as good as vinyl, obviously”, as one person told me) and they want to hear recordings via the media of the past. We have had valves and vinyl for a while, then the mono cartridge, and we may be seeing the first stirrings of the mechanical-only movement that I thought I was predicting a while ago.

In this piece, the writer is squarely in the hi-fi mainstream in his certainty that vinyl is superior to CD:

Maybe I’ll buy an inexpensive CD first to see if I like his albums a lot and then upgrade to the vinyl…

But he then goes on to describe the joys of the mechanical-only playback system:

When I play 78s for friends, I sometimes see a look of confusion on their faces as they somehow expected a high fidelity stereo recording to come out of the monaural gramophone. Instead they hear this loud-but-small music which somehow punctuates and fills the room, much in the same way my 5.1 surround system does.

I have to remind them that this is a different medium and you have to listen differently. You have to be involved with it, getting up every few minutes to switch discs, needles and cranking up the motor.

I can enjoy a mono 78 RPM disc of Duke Ellington from the 1920s just as much as Steven Wilson-produced 5.1 remix of Yes’ Close to the Edge or Beck’s Morning Phase on 180-gram vinyl made at a fancy European audiophile pressing plant in 2014.

Clearly, people are craving less ‘sterile’ experiences in their lives, and I think the actual music may only be tangential to this; the collecting of 10,000 LPs and the messing about with old hardware is the bulk of ‘the experience’.

There may also be something else: at the real technological cutting edge (not that many audiophiles ever get anywhere near it at overall system level) absolute progress in audio quality is now more-or-less impossible. By going ‘retro’, a very attractive prospect presents itself to high end manufacturers and hobbyists: the chance to apply modern techniques to technology that was developed using slide rules and old school manufacturing methods. If, at a stroke, we simply define vinyl as inherently better than digital, then absolute progress is suddenly back on the agenda! Technology has progressed in the few decades since vinyl was ‘put on hold’, so we can now start designing and manufacturing low cost turntable parts using CAD/CAM, regulating platter speed with microcontrollers, making things out of carbon fibre… because we can. And so on.

Many ‘retro’ audio products are amenable to this ‘progress’. For example, speaker horns can now be 3D printed to exact mathematical shapes derived from simulations (- it doesn’t mean they’re valid, however; they will no-doubt still sound wrong!). It is an engineer’s playground that can be extended as required by simply re-defining various old technologies as inherently superior to the misperceived sterility of solid state, digital audio.

It’s not real without physical media?

disc musical box

[http://www.cowderoyantiques.com]

In this article on Audiophile Review the author talks about streaming versus physical media, and his coming to terms with the idea that in future we may not be able to buy our music in physical form.

I find it surprising that this might worry someone in the 21st century. I would have thought that changes in the workplace over the last two or three decades would have made us aware of the advantages of making everything digital, backed-up and available via the internet or ‘The Cloud’. Certainly in my work, if I were to draw an olde worlde pencil sketch I would feel that it was the opposite of permanent, whereas if I produced the drawing digitally it would be there forever – or so it would feel. Years later, not only could I find it easily, but at any time I could produce a pristine physical copy, un-yellowed by coffee rings and the passage of time. Until something is committed to the digital world, to my mind it feels ephemeral.

Of course, if the argument is that the quality of digital audio can never match an LP, or that streaming and downloading will always be inferior to CD quality, then the poor, anxious audiophile has a problem.

New, in Mono!

There have recently been vinyl re-releases in mono, and there must be loads of mono LPs available at car boot sales and charity shops. Such is the strength of the new vinyl religion that there is now a marketing opportunity for the mono cartridge. In a review of such a cartridge, the reviewer says:

I feel that I am ‘going off’ stereo altogether. I am now determined to seek out more mono pressings on vinyl.

And here’s an article on portable vinyl players that eulogises the Dansette and other mono players that are only one step up from the Lego turntable. A worthwhile feature is the ability to play 78s too, apparently.

Within audiophilia there is without doubt a movement that is regressing to more primitive technology – but I don’t think the afflicted see it as a regression. They are too young to remember mono and 78s, and digital audio is pretty well perfect now, so this is the nearest thing to genuine progress that they can experience. Can it really be very long until they begin experimenting with purely-mechanical audio?

Update: another mono convert:

As I get deeper into black-disc connoisseurship, I’m more and more attracted to the gestalt of listening in mono… If I were a flush dude, I would have a dedicated mono system with a Miyajima Zero Mono ($1995) or a Miyabi Mono ($2800)

Update 06/05/17

Last night I was listening to a Kinks album that comes with mono and stereo mixes for various tracks. Give me the stereo every time! Stereo separates the individual voices and instruments, and whether the ‘effect’ is real or artificial, it allows you to follow the individual lines with ease. Grotty recording of the individual instrument/voice tracks adds up to a wall of grottiness in mono, but with stereo the individual grottiness clings only to its own track, making the recording sound far better. Individual tracks that are clean can be heard uncontaminated. Stereo works superbly!

Show Report: WAXFEST 2102

By the time we got to the Von Karp phonograph room, people were queuing down the corridor to hear the latest sweet sounds from the Michigan-based company. The night before, in what is now an annual ritual, several of us had been privileged to have dinner with the great man himself at Barney’s Clam Chowder House on Comme d’Habitude Street – that man loves his chowder! In between courses and beer he dropped quite a few hints about what we were going to see today, and as the evening wore on he took no prisoners, lambasting the manufacturers who are promoting discs rather than his highly-refined wax cylinders, and becoming positively animated when discussing the “dinosaurs” who want to take the industry back to the “electrical dark ages” as he put it. In an industry full of colourful characters, Doctor Von Karp is one of the most colourful; and so-compelling was his company that it must have been one o’clock in the morning by the time I staggered back to my hotel room and sank into blissful sleep in anticipation of what was to come.

The Von Karp room itself was one of the medium-sized ones; large enough for the equipment to breathe, but not so large that a purely mechanical reproduction system would struggle for volume. At the far end, Doctor Von Karp had set up a large horn made of what looked like some sort of dull green plastic. Von Karp caught my quizzical expression and smiled broadly. “Chitin.” he said. I looked even more puzzled. “We use four thousand five hundred crickets to create each one” he said, and patiently went on to explain that crickets (yes, the insect) have the ability to generate disproportionately loud chirps for their size, and also have exceptional hearing, and so it was natural that a resin produced by pulping an elite species of cricket would have fantastic acoustical properties. I have a basic grasp of physics, but Von Karp – in common with many other high end designers – is unaware of the magnitude of his own genius, and his explanation rather went over my head. The new Krikket horn may be cutting-edge technology, but Von Karp Research have lavished very traditional levels of craftsmanship on it and it is finished to a standard that would befit any fine home.

To the right of the horn, on the largest gimbal-mounted energy-absorbing rack I have ever seen, was a mouth-watering array of Von Karp’s latest cylinder players and pneumatic amplification equipment. This needed some serious air power, and so fifty feet of high-end semi-synthetic rubber tubing with silver-plated reinforcement mesh had been fed from a large compressor in the hotel basement, sufficiently distant to be almost inaudible. For the show, the compressor runs off mains electricity, but obviously for the ultimate audiophile refinement it should be steam, and Von Karp Research can supply high end fuels, water, and steam conditioners.

Doctor Von Karp took great delight in showing me the new titanium worm screws and miniature air turbines that have virtually-eliminated wow and flutter in his players. Complex and incredibly expensive, it is this attention to detail that sets Von Karp Research apart from some of their rivals.

Great sound also needs a great stylus, and Von Karp have gradually refined the Kaktus Mk III that so-revolutionised phonograph reproduction at its launch in 2094. Von Karp Research has its own greenhouses where they grow genetically-modified cactus bushes that provide, as Doctor Von Karp modestly puts it, “the stylus of the gods”. Each thorn is laser-trimmed by automated equipment more advanced than that used in robot brain surgery, and it is capped with a beryllium plug that facilitates the industry’s slickest automated stylus replacement system – it is even possible to swap to a new stylus while the phonograph is playing! Von Karp phonographs are also compatible with the industry-standard diamond stylii that rarely require replacement, but Doctor Von Karp is adamant that the cellulose-based system is more musical.

But I know what you are thinking: how does it sound? You may feel you are familiar with the musicality of phonograph-based reproduction equipment, but I can assure you that Von Karp’s latest developments take it to a whole new level. Doctor Von Karp had brought a fine selection of audiophile-quality baroque chamber music cylinders that played to the system’s many strengths. But don’t run away with the idea that this is just a single-genre system: he also wowed the crowd with cylinders featuring acoustic guitar, solo voices and small vocal ensembles, light jazz and even unplugged rock music. The system can handle all audiophile music with aplomb.

Then Von Karp turned to us and generously asked “Any requests?”. This was my moment: from my briefcase I took out a compilation cylinder, created by my good friend Gary on his state-of-the-art 3D printer. But this was no ordinary compilation cylinder: Gary had made it at 100 TPI (threads-per-inch) in super-high res. Doctor Von Karp took the cylinder from me and examined it carefully. I think he was impressed. “I’ll have to change the worm gear, and we only have a couple of suitable stylii, so we can’t play it all”, he said. But it was enough. Twenty short minutes later, we were treated to some of the most exciting girl-and-guitar music ever heard at an audio show. The sound was coloured, gaseous, and above all, musical. We hardly even noticed the stylus-swap two minutes in, and when it was all over two minutes later, we felt certain we had witnessed a milestone on high end audio’s road to sonic perfection.

Sure, the electrical-revival boys have got bass and volume. Hell, they’ve even got stereo, low distortion, inaudible background noise and convenience, but to a trained audiophile’s ears, it just ain’t refined. Von Karp’s phonographs have got musicality and character in spades, and in answer to the system’s reputation for compatibility issues, they promise a complete turnkey solution from boiler to horn. A few years ago, many of us predicted the demise of the steam-powered phonograph industry when a Philadelphia audiophile’s cellar was blown to smithereens, but it turned out that he had been doing unauthorised modifications in the hope of increasing pressure. Audiophiles may rest assured that steam powered phonographs are safe and, from what we heard at WAXFEST this year, are set for a tremendous future. Light acoustic music in mono has never sounded so good!