Video for Audio: Michael Fremer's 21st Century Vinyl and It's a Vinyl World, After All

by Marc Mickelson | February 18, 2010


uring a two-part video interview he gave at last year's Hi Fi & Surround show in Denmark, Michael Fremer talked about his first encounter with the CD, in 1982. "It was the most god-awful thing I'd heard in my life.... I said to myself, 'We are screwed.'" "We" were audiophiles -- people who care about music and sound quality. This experience became a call to action: "I set about dedicating my life to trying to save the LP, in whatever way was possible."

If his over-two-decade-long public advocacy of the LP and his popular column on analog playback in Stereophile aren't enough proof of Fremer's resolve, there are his two DVDs, which cover most of what you you'll want and need to know about playing LPs -- from configuring a turntable to cleaning and storing records. "When I told my wife I was borrowing $21,000 to produce the first DVD, she was not happy," Fremer relayed to me. "But now that it's sold close to 12,000 copies and continues to sell, she's much happier."

Twelve thousand copies -- more than most of the LPs pressed today, more than several of them combined. The centerpiece of 21st Century Vinyl, the first DVD released in 2006, is a series of segments on the proper setup of three analog rigs: Pro-Ject, Rega and VPI turntables sporting Sumiko, Audio-Technica and Lyra cartridges. While much of this will be rehash for experienced setup wizards, everyone else will glean useful information about tools and techniques that make setting up any turntable easier. Achieving this is no small feat when you consider that beginners will -- and should -- be buying this DVD and Fremer covers the basics for them. If you own a Pro-Ject, Rega or especially a VPI turntable, this DVD will be indispensable.

What I found particularly refreshing was Fremer's disregard for anal tweakiness. He shows no angst over one-point cartridge alignment and no support for finding a single correct VTA setting for every album. His demeanor underscores this levelheadedness. He's relaxed in front of the camera -- natural, not at all self-conscious. And, of course, he knows his subject cold. Need to know how to align stylus azimuth by sight or electronic means? They're both covered here, along with many other fine points that will simply make your records sound better.

There are more than the setup primers on the DVD. Most interesting is a long segment with George Marino of Sterling Sound that explains mastering and cutting in conversational detail. Insert the DVD into your computer drive and you can access a extensive, very useful article in .pdf format that explains much of what the DVD covers. Finally, if you keep watching past the credits, you'll see an Easter egg Fremer buried on the disc -- a short film that, it occurred to me while watching, preceded Seinfeld's use of standup comedy as a narrative technique. I'll say no more, except that an episode of Seinfeld also used selling records as part of the plot. Hmmm.

By Fremer's own admission, It's a Vinyl World, After All, released last year, is "more fun and more interesting" than its predecessor. In the sense that it doesn't deal with the technical aspects of playing LPs, he's correct. It provides background for much of what's discussed in the first DVD, covering record collecting, handling, cleaning and storage, as well as providing tours of the world's two major pressing plants: RTI in California and Pallas in Germany. These show the entire record-production process step by step. Fremer admits that this DVD "was more difficult to produce," requiring "an overseas trip and a cross-country one, three film crews, three different HD formats that had to be reconciled, etc." Some of the footage comes from Fremer's listening room, as he takes us through his record-playing ritual, passively endorsing a few very good products along the way. There are more .pdf files, including two papers from The Journal of the Audio Engineering Society and a 150-page guide on record collecting.

My favorite segment from It's a Vinyl World, After All is the visit to RTI. Fremer and his film crew just happened to be there on the same day Joe Harley, Ron Rambach, Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray of Music Matters were at AcousTech, RTI's onsite facility, mastering and cutting Tina Brooks' Back to the Tracks. Fremer asks just the right questions, divulging some of the secrets of mastering and cutting LPs and revealing the artful touches involved. The aim, according to Hoffman, is to "find that natural balance where we're utilizing the full groove and not taxing it." This is especially important when pushing the sonic boundaries by cutting at 45rpm, used for all Music Matters releases.

Interestingly, for best sound, lacquers must be plated immediately after cutting. I have a test pressing of Back to the Tracks produced from that lacquer, and I ran to play it after watching the goings-on in the mastering suite. "If you cut a good record, it's going to sound good on just about every stereo out there," Hoffman says. With Back to the Tracks, the Music Matters gang has cut a very good record.

If you use an Onzow Zerodust to clean your stylus, you'll want to keep it cleaner than Fremer's, which looks like it was used to pick up spilled coffee. That's my only criticism of these DVDs, which were labors of love, not big moneymakers. "It's all about music," Fremer says in his video interview from Denmark, and it's obvious from his DVDs that music -- on big black discs -- is the object of his affection.

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