January 2010

Michael Fremer on DVD

Analog fanatics are a funny bunch. While we’re willing to spend hours expounding on our beliefs, few of us will admit we could use a spot of help in setting up our turntables and cleaning and caring for our precious LPs. Well, help has arrived from Michael Fremer, who is widely recognized as the authority on vinyl playback. In 2006 he released the DVD 21st Century Vinyl, his practical guide to setting up a turntable. Then in 2008 he released his follow-up, It’s a Vinyl World, After All, a guide to record cleaning, storage, handling, collecting and manufacturing. Between these two discs, anyone is sure to find helpful information -- whether they’re new to the realm of analog enjoyment or seasoned pros looking to extract that last degree of performance from their analog setup.

21st Century Vinyl has been around -- and favorably received -- for the last few years. Why? Because it does just what the title suggests: it shows even novices how to set up their very first table to start enjoying the benefits of vinyl. And for those of us who either grew up with the LP or have been listening to LPs for a number of years, Fremer offers many tricks and tips that will surprise and assist in tweaking turntables for maximum performance. I grew with the vinyl LP and never abandoned the format, but even I found some great ideas that I hadn’t yet tried.

Fremer goes through the setup procedures for three different turntables: the Pro-Ject RM-5, Rega P5, and VPI Scoutmaster. He chooses these three because the Pro-Ject is the type of table someone just getting into vinyl might purchase, and Fremer goes into exquisite detail about how to set it up -- both with proper tools and without -- so that anyone can do it properly. The Rega P5 is a table that the novice might graduate to as they find they want more of that superb vinyl sound. And while many aspects of turntable setup are similar, there are enough differences to warrant the help of an expert like Mr. Fremer. Finally, Fremer shows how to handle the setup of a VPI Scoutmaster table and arm (yes, all of these tables come with the arm already pre-mounted -- it’s one less thing to worry about). The VPI is very near the top of the line for the committed, but not over-the-top, vinyl enthusiast. And its unipivot arm and unique anti-skating mechanism require a bit more in the way of instruction. Thankfully, Fremer goes beyond mere explanation to show you every step.

What I found most helpful, especially for the newcomer, is that while there are many expensive tools to aid you in setting up your table, there are just as many ways of setting it up on a budget and achieving most of its potential. So if you really want to get into vinyl setup, this DVD will show you what tools allow the most accurate way. But if all you want is to set up a decent table as quickly and cheaply as possible to start enjoying your records, Fremer shows you that too. That’s why this DVD is so valuable for both the beginner and the long-time listener. I’ve been an avid collector of vinyl for over 40 years, and I’ve set up my fair share of tables over that span, but I still learned a few tricks that I’d never considered. For instance, his tip about using rubber wedges to hold the platter in place was new to me, but it makes perfect sense. I’ve also always had problems with cartridge mounting, and I’ve looked for methods that would simplify the process. But Fremer shows how threading just one screw in first can make mounting the cartridge leads much easier, as you can swing the cartridge to an angle that allows better visibility. These are just a couple of examples of how this DVD will help you achieve a higher-quality setup with less effort. If you love the LP, then you owe it to yourself to own 21st Century Vinyl. You’ll have plenty of reasons to revisit it as you upgrade your table, arm, or cartridge.

As a bonus, Fremer has a lovely chat with George Marino of Sterling Sound. Marino has been a mastering engineer for longer than he wants to admit, and he knows his way around a cutting lathe. His insights are helpful, especially his admission that there is no one proper angle for the stylus of your cartridge to track the groove of an LP, as the angle of the cutting head (which is what you’re trying to duplicate) is fixed at the factory and varies due to a number of factors. This explanation flies in the face of accepted audiophile wisdom, but once you hear it explained, it’ll make perfect sense.

The additional DVD-ROM PDF file is a treasure trove of detailed information that Fremer just didn’t have the time to delve into in the video. I highly recommend you study it carefully. And if you hunt long enough, you’ll find a little Easter egg that Fremer has included in the DVD to lighten the mood.

While setup is important, simply learning how to properly set up a turntable isn’t enough. With his second DVD, It’s a Vinyl World, After All, we find a DVD chock full of all the other information you’ll need about what you’ll be playing on that newly setup table -- vinyl records. Without records to play on them, turntables -- and our entire stereo systems -- are just expensive boat anchors. So Fremer uses this new DVD to delve into every aspect of owning LPs, from cleaning, handling, and storing them to building your collection, and he even looks at how they’re made. Much like the first DVD, this is a reference that any vinyl enthusiast will use more than once.

The disc starts with a visit to the Pallas record pressing plant in Diepholz, Germany, and Fremer later visits RTI for a session with Music Matters mastering one of their sweet Blue Note reissues. Through these visits we learn anything and everything you could ever want to know about how a record is made. You’ll also learn how each step, from cleaning the minted lacquer to specially preparing the labels before applying them to the LPs, is vital in pressing records that are worth listening to. And while these details may sound a tad boring, Fremer explains how the care that goes into the making of a record goes a long way toward the quality of what you hear at home.

After the visits to Pallas and RTI, Fremer gets into what we as record owners and listeners really need to know: how to care for our precious vinyl collections. For storing a collection, he says that keeping LPs vertical is essential, as warped LPs can sound ugly. He then offers a handy lesson on record cleaning, explaining that how carefully you clean your records will determine how long they stay in good shape and how they’ll sound. Fremer shows us many of the cleaners available today, and he demonstrates how to clean a record using a Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine. He also offers some practical advice on making sure you don’t contaminate your freshly cleaned side while cleaning the other side. I found this lesson to be of particular value -- he validated many of my usual methods, and I learned a couple of new tricks that will help me take better care of my records.

There’s also another well-written and informative PDF file on this DVD that will serve as an excellent reference any time you have a question -- so you don’t need to search the DVD for the information you want.

So here are two full DVDs devoted to turntable setup and record care. Who would have thought 20 years ago that even one of these would be necessary today? Michael Fremer always has. He’s carried the vinyl torch for all these years, through the dark days to the vinyl revival, so he knows what he’s talking about. If you don’t set up your table properly, you won’t extract all the information embedded in the grooves of your LPs. And if you don’t care for those precious LPs correctly, then even the perfect setup won’t give you the best possible sound. So while I wish I could save you some money (to spend on more LPs), these essential DVDs are just what the vinyl doctor ordered.

. . . John Crossett