[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
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August 2006

21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up

DIY. Do it yourself. Do it…yourself?

When I first viewed 21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up DVD, I admit to having feelings of uneasiness.

On the one hand, I am a professional. I have been paid to set up countless turntables of various complexities and consider the procedure to be a learned craft. Turntable setup has roots back to the early days of stereo, when listeners were considered hobbyists and turntable setup was one of the things that connected them to their local audio shop. It pierced my heart to hear Fremer advise viewers that everyone should know how to set up a turntable, or "you’re at the mercy of a stranger, and you don’t know how good of a job they’re going to do." Mercy of a stranger? Need I register myself as an analog technician with the local police department?

But I am also an avid DIYer. I am the first person to forego the services of an electrician, plumber, painter, or carpenter. Hey, I’ve managed to keep a 30-year-old central air conditioner going for at least ten years beyond its life-span with tinkering. I just figure that most of this stuff isn’t rocket science, and if a greasy-haired, tattooed, chain-smoking guy named Buck can fix my air conditioner, then I might just have a fighting chance to figure it out. (Disclaimer: I am fully aware that many tradesmen are very intelligent and respectable folks. Our plumber, who has become our friend, holds a master’s degree in literature. Must be the money.)

In the end I must follow my wife’s oft-spoken words of wisdom and "get over it." If Buck’s skills are repeatable by the general population, then I guess mine are as well.

On to the DVD

Now that I’ve finished my little rant, I can honestly say that Michael Fremer has done a very good thing by producing a DVD that will help audiophiles achieve at least reasonably accurate setup of their turntables. This will prove especially valuable to those hobbyists who are not located anywhere near an audio shop with a trustworthy analog technician.

In his over-three-hour-long DVD, Fremer takes the viewer through the setup of three turntables. Two of the 'tables use gimbaled tonearms (Pro-Ject RPM 5 and Rega P5) and one uses an 'arm with a unipivot configuration (VPI Scoutmaster). Fremer also includes an interview with Sterling Sound mastering engineer George Marino, and a tour of Sterling Sound’s Neumann cutting lathe. The menu allows direct access to all of the chapters on the DVD.

Stand-up before the set up

Fremer begins the DVD by drawing from his early career, when he was something of a "shock-jock" on the Boston radio scene as well as a stand-up comedian in the local clubs. Fremer may disagree with the term "career," but he did manage to cut a comedy album called I Can Take a Joke, which is still available as a download on several sites.

In the first chapter, "Why We Love Vinyl," Fremer’s monologue provides some entertaining insight into the world of vinyl and why it hooks its supporters so deeply. He includes a discussion of some formats of the past that are no longer with us (you forgot the Sony Elcaset, Michael). We get to laugh at some of his interesting finds on vinyl, such as Canine Heart Sounds. He talks about cover art and the difference in pressing quality (US vs. Europe) in vinyl’s heyday. Fremer even includes a little T&A (not T+A) when showing one of his early LP purchases, the cover of which has a topless blonde in the briefest of aprons reclining in a leather armchair. A church sale purchase? Right.

Getting ready

Just when I thought that we were ready to get down to business, Fremer spends a brief moment making sure we are really ready for this delicate endeavor. In the short chapter, titled "In the Mood," Fremer advises to "stay calm…don’t get mad…don’t be drunk or on amphetamines." I began for a moment to wonder if we were going to follow Master F. in some tai-chi exercises specifically designed for analog setup. On a very good note, I found it commendable for Fremer to say that there are various ways of setting up a turntable and that he was going to show us "one way." So many times people in this hobby are polarized in their opinions and don’t even allow for other ways of approaching things.

Next Fremer discusses the hardware and tools that are used to set up your 'table. He begins by sticking his foot squarely in his mouth when he says that those who own expensive 'tables will probably want to be "really exacting" and those who own less-expensive rigs may want to get it "in the ballpark." He does catch this, however, and corrects himself in a pop-up bubble that says, "There is no relationship between cost and setup precision. My bad." These bubbles pop up throughout the DVD as Fremer corrects mistakes and makes fun of himself. Although some may wonder why he didn’t go back for another take and make corrections, I found them entertaining and not detrimental to the effectiveness of the content.

Fremer then shows a variety of tools at different price levels that allow anyone to get in the game depending on how precise they want to be and how much money they wish to spend. His preference for Wally Tools, by WAM Engineering, is obvious, and he even has a discount coupon for these included. I see nothing wrong with the endorsement, as they are very good tools, and Fremer does offer other options. I use the Wally Tools stylus-pressure gauge myself.

Fremer also touches upon important vocabulary in this section. Horizontal geometry, vertical tracking angle, anti-skating, and azimuth are all briefly discussed as Fremer mentions the applicable tools needed to measure each one. Vertical tracking angle, or VTA, has always been a topic of controversy in the analog community. There are those who prefer to ignore it altogether, and those who are so tweaky that they change it for every record. Fremer lays his cards on the table and makes a good argument for not going too crazy regarding VTA. He shows that on a typical 'arm it takes a 4mm change in the elevation of the rear of the 'arm to equal a one-degree change in VTA. He goes on to show how tracking force can have an equal or greater impact on VTA. Fremer also shares that there has never been a standard as to the cutting angle of the original masters. In the end, he advises to start with a parallel 'arm and then do what you want, but don’t get obsessive.

The setup

The actual setup section of the DVD is divided into sections on the three 'tables mentioned earlier. Fremer goes through the complete setup of each 'table, so it isn’t necessary to begin with one 'table to learn the skills applied to the others. I did find it unusual that he covered the 'tables in the order of expense rather than difficulty. The Rega is the easiest to set up because it does not allow azimuth adjustment and only limited VTA adjustment.

Going step-by-step thorough each 'table that was set up would make very little sense and would be redundant. On each 'table, Fremer takes the viewer through cartridge installation, horizontal geometry, tracking force, anti-skate force, VTA, and azimuth. He uses a variety of tools, from a simple paper protractor to some fairly expensive Wally Tools. He uses tools that require eyesight and judgment calls, as well as electronic gauges that require some math and charting of values. I was impressed to see included a section on using a voltmeter to set azimuth electronically. His instructions are clear, and the camera angles helpful. I don’t think even the most inexperienced hobbyist would have difficulty following Fremer’s directions.

There is one thing that is obvious when watching this DVD: Fremer made a conscious decision to do each setup unrehearsed (at least it appears that way), and he includes all of the problems that he encounters. Some people would have done take after take so that the presenter looked perfect and polished with no unexpected issues. Fremer’s approach is much more realistic, as some problems are bound to pop up no matter how many 'tables you've configured. Right from the beginning, he encounters a loose cartridge clip that keeps falling off. He shows how to solve the problem and moves on. Later he encounters problems with the VPI Scoutmaster’s anti-skating mechanism and has to do some tinkering to make it work. These types of issues are common and are an important part of the learning process.

I have just one major complaint about Fremer’s technique: What the hell is wrong with using the cueing lever?

With as much care as Fremer takes throughout the DVD -- he advises against wearing long sleeves or leaving felt mats on the platter -- he refuses to use one of the devices built for avoiding disaster. He did this not once or twice, but every time he picked up the tonearm. No matter how steady your nerves are, please use the cueing lever when moving the 'arm. One false jerk, sneeze, or slip can cost you hundreds or even thousands of dollars, depending on the cost of your cartridge or retipping it. You live dangerously, Michael!

Especially fine bonus material

One of the most important things on this disc is an included .PDF file that provides 28 pages of in-depth information that would not be appropriate, or interesting , to cover in the video. For those who crave more than the standard DIY "how" of things, the .PDF file gets into the "why." It explains what’s really in the grooves and how it got there. In-depth discussions of horizontal tracking geometry and the various alignment options are included. Almost two full pages are dedicated to mass and compliance. Cartridge loading for both moving-coil and moving-magnet cartridges is explained. The inside scoop on all of the settings you just made to your turntable are discussed in much greater detail than would be practical on the video. This .PDF file is worth printing and keeping as a reference.

Do it yourself?

21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up is a product that should have been around long before August 2006. It provides easy-to-follow, practical advice for obtaining the tools and knowledge necessary to complete competent setup of most turntables. The world is still filled with many technicians capable of providing excellent service when it comes to setting up analog gear. I don’t believe a person needs to worry about being at the "mercy of a stranger" if he or she doesn’t want to attempt the job. That said, Michael Fremer has produced a resource that will allow many to recapture the hands-on nature of this hobby and have their record-spinners making fine music in no time.

DIY? Go for it.

...Bill Brooks
billb@soundstage.com

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