April 2010

Computer Audio Seems Complicated? Try a Turntable!

I’ve written a number of articles about my experiences with computer-based audio, and have received a lot of e-mails about them. Most contain questions about products people might purchase, but a surprising number express considerable frustration with how complicated computer-based audio seems to be. This surprises me -- I don’t find it too difficult or frustrating at all. On the other hand, I recently had a lot of trouble getting a turntable going, and that experience gave me some insight into why some people have trouble with their computers. As you’ll see, it depends on which side of the fence you’ve gained your knowledge and experience.

About six weeks ago, I decided to again set up a turntable that had been gathering dust on my shelf for six years -- so much dust that it would be more accurate to call it dirt. I cleaned the turntable -- easy enough. Then I removed some bolts to engage the suspension, and attempted to attach the belt motor. Unfortunately, something had changed with the suspension since I’d put the ’table on ice, and I just couldn’t get the platter height right -- the belt kept slipping off, so many times that I felt like smashing the damn thing. Eventually, I called one of our analog gurus, Jason Thorpe, to get some advice. His answer was swift.

"You have to get the platter height right."

"I know, I know . . ." Finally, I gave up, promising myself that I’d return to it later.

Next I readied my phono stage -- and then remembered that I had to make some internal adjustments to it to accommodate the cartridge. That, too, would have been fairly easy -- if I still had the manuals for the phono stage or the cartridge. So I phoned another friend, this one a technician, who was familiar enough with the cartridge -- but not the phono stage. When I tried to describe the stage’s DIP-switch settings, all I heard on the other end of the line was "Hmm . . ." Then I asked him about fixing the broken pump on my record-cleaning machine -- I’d be attacking that next.

"Why don’t you just wait?" he said. "I’ll come over in a week and set it up for you. You also have to align the cartridge and adjust the tonearm weight, neither of which I think you will be able to do."

He was right. It’s a snap for me to set up computers, but when it comes to turntables, I’m a neophyte. As a result, I find computers fun, and turntables incredibly frustrating -- not unlike those who write to me to express their frustration with their computers.

When, a week later, my friend arrived, he was able to set up my turntable faster than I ever could -- he even got the platter height just right. I felt like a dunce. But should I have, any more than those who have trouble with computers should feel like dunces?

Not at all. Computers are easy for me because I worked for years as a network engineer -- I understand their components and I know what makes them tick. Confronted with a computer problem, I usually know how to solve it right away, or I know where to look to find the answer. But I have next to no knowledge and very little experience in the precise setup of turntables, and I’ve never actually attempted to do so without help from someone else. Perhaps if I embraced the challenge with zeal and set up a few (dozen) of them, things would be different. But that’s not the case. Jason Thorpe, a programmer by trade, is in the rare position of understanding computers and turntables.

My point is this: Setting up a computer-based audio system might seem tricky, but it’s no more difficult than setting up a turntable. If you experience frustration with your computer, it’s likely due to a lack of knowledge and experience -- precisely what I lack when it comes to turntables. The key is to stick with it and learn. In the end, you’ll be rewarded with a state-of-the-art digital front end that can play back high-resolution digital recordings and open up for you the future of digital-audio playback -- something a CD player can’t do.

Likewise, my latest turntable-setup fiasco has made it clear that I need a refresher in setting up analog gear. My technician friend didn’t do anything that I couldn’t do -- if I bothered to learn more about it. Besides, getting that ol’ turntable going has reminded me of some of the pleasures that LP playback can provide; now, I wouldn’t mind trying some more turntables in my system. With the little bit more that I’ve learned from having attempted to set up my ’table, I’m hoping that the process won’t seem so daunting the next time. Live and learn -- in high-end audio, it can certainly make life easier.

. . . Doug Schneider