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It takes something uniquely special to inspire–and my lack of posting recently reflects an acute lack of inspiration on my part.

Well, today, I arrived home to something special. So it’s time for another post.

I can’t think of a record I’ve been anticipating with as much excitement since it was announced as Universal’s all-analogue, deluxe master tape box replica set of Nick Drake’s 1972 masterpiece Pink Moon.

Fans of Nick Drake have long bemoaned the lack of a proper, all-analogue re-issue of his records.  The sparse, ethereal, intimacy of Pink Moon is particularly deserving of a pressing from the original analogue tapes.

But, for the last few decades, any re-issues of Drake’s records on vinyl have been digitally sourced (including the Simply Vinyl and Universal “Back to Black” versions of Pink Moon I own).

Unfortunately, as representatives of Drake’s estate and Universal (who own the rights to the Drake catalogue) have consistently maintained, the now 40-year old master tapes are not in any condition to be used regularly to cut lacquers for vinyl without a degradation of the tapes.

Hence fans being stuck with buying digitally-sourced re-issues or hunting down original pressings costing hundreds of dollars if they wanted the record on vinyl.

Until 2012, that is. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Pink Moon, Universal tasked John Wood (who originally engineered all three of Drake’s studio albums) to oversee a re-master using the original analogue tapes. The mastering took place at Abbey Road in July 2012 and the record was pressed to vinyl at Optimal Studios in Germany.

The box set itself is exquisite. The outer master tape box replicates a worn version of the cover of the record.

nd - box cover

On the underside of the front of the box you get a replica of the recording details.

nd - box inside

There is also a replica print of the analogue tape.

nd - tape

On the backside of the tape is the release, mastering, and pressing details as well as instructions on how to retrieve digital downloads of all three Nick Drake records in FLAC or mp3 (digitally remastered in high res audio at 24/96).

nd - mastering

The box also contains a large poster.

nd - poster

Another cool piece of memorabilia is Nick Drake’s own handwritten lyrics for the first four tracks.

nd - lyrics

nd - lyrics 2

nd - tape box back

The record is inside a high-quality gatefold jacket.

nd - cover

nd - gatefold

The 180-gram vinyl is pressed flat and deadly quiet. Listening to this record as it was meant to be heard is an enthralling experience. If I close my eyes, I could swear Nick is sitting in the room with me. Every note of every chord is acutely present. The soundstage is full, both deep and wide. The sound quality is, simply, fantastic.

nd - label

nd - back

I have to say, I can’t recall many other occasions when I’ve been as pleased with a re-issue as this. The last one that left me similarly awestruck is the Omnivore replica test pressing box set for Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. All other things being equal, this is exactly how re-issues should be done.

Indeed, it should please audiophiles and Nick Drake fans alike. The box contains many wonderful pieces (e.g., the poster, the lyrics, the mastering sheet), the record is cut all-analogue and sounds amazing, the pressing is pristine, and there is even a hi-res digital download should you ever want to listen with the convenience of computer audio.

Apparently this deluxe set is only available in limited quantities. And it does cost anywhere from $40-60 CDN, depending on where you can find it. But, trust me, you don’t want to miss this one.

SME Tonearms

One of the things I love most about my analogue adventures is the interesting people I meet along the way. Most recently, I had the pleasure of doing business with Alfred Kayser at SME Tonearms–a man I can’t praise enough or be more impressed with.

First, some context. When I moved all of my stereo equipment out of storage and into my new place, it seems something happened to my SME 3009 Series II tonearm along the way or possibly during its hibernation. Specifically, once I started listening to it again, I discovered that I had somehow lost sound in the left channel.

I ran a few basic tests to make sure there was no issue with the phono stage, cartridge, or anything else in the chain (there wasn’t). I isolated the problem somewhere between the tonearm and its RCA connectors.

At this point, I resigned myself to the need for a re-wire/rebuild of the arm. After all, while it was in excellent condition visually, the arm was well over thirty years old–and the wiring and connections were a tad brittle, to say the least.

After doing some research, talking to a few people, and contacting SME directly in the U.K., there was only one thing to do: contact Alfred Kayser at SME Tonearms (conveniently located for us Canadians in Minesing, Ontario).

Alfred is well regarded and his work highly praised–he is the person to talk to in North America when it comes to SME tonearms, parts, and service. I gave him a call, explained the situation, and arranged to send my arm to him for a re-wire and rebuild. As Alfred describes the service:

When you send us a SME tonearm for re-wiring, your arm will not only be re-wired but completely rebuilt and cleaned from the ground up. Naturally, all worn parts will be replaced with New Old Stock SME parts. In addition, when you receive it back, your arm will come with every accessory that it left the SME factory with, including all original manuals, templates and adjustment tools, at no extra cost. Its not just a re-wiring, its a rebirth!

The service costs $350 plus shipping (plus the additional cost of any significant parts that need to be replaced).

Once the service is initiated, Alfred keeps in regular contact and provides regular updates and information, as required. He explains meticulously what he needs/intends to do after he has examined and taken apart your arm. At every step of the process he is more than willing to talk about any issues or answer any questions you might have. Every time I emailed him with a question, Alfred called me back within minutes of receiving it. His commitment to service and detail is, quite simply, exceptional.

At any rate, after less than two weeks, I had my tonearm back. Out of the box, it looked exquisite. In fact, it looked brand new! In addition to the arm, Alfred sends along everything you’ll ever need for it (including original SME alignment protractor and mounting gauge, Allen keys, mounting hardware, etc.), all carefully packed and protected in bubble wrap.

The best part of Alfred’s service (apart from the tip-to-tip rebuild), in my mind, is his modification of the original wiring scheme. The original SME 3009 Series II has wiring from the headshell that terminates at the base of the tonearm with a four-pin DIN connector. The separate RCA cables and ground wire then connect via the DIN connector. Alfred replaces this with a continuous run of wiring (1.25 metres of Cardas Litz 18 karat gold wire) terminated at the end with 18 karat gold Neutrik RCA connectors, meaning, effectively, no disruption in the connection (not to mention brand new and modern wiring/connectors).

Once I got the tonearm mounted and all the necessary adjustments made (alignment, balancing, vertical tracking force, vertical tracking angle, anti-skate) I sat back in my couch and listened to a few records. To say I was impressed would be a massive understatement. I feel like I have a brand new SME 3009 Series II that can easily compete with the Rega RB 700 on my P7 for years and years to come. And did I mention it looks the business, too?

Coupled with the Thorens TD 125 MkII (connected to a Graham Slee Era Gold V phono stage and Naim Nait 5i amp), the SME 3009 Series II provides excellent bass response, a deep and wide soundstage, and superb dynamics. While I would give the Rega P7/RB700 the edge in terms of delicate refinement and elegance, the TD125/SME 3009 has a lot more presence and, I think, fills the room better. Put plainly, it has a lot more oomph and I think it’s more fun to listen to.

If you’re ever in the market for a re-wiring and re-build of your SME 3009 tonearm, or you want to see what the fuss is about (Alfred also sells rebuilt SME 3009 arms), I would enthusiastically recommend you give Alfred at SME Tonearms a call. If nothing else, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable person to talk to about all things SME.

Don’t just take my word for it. Even seasoned audiophiles who know a lot more about the technical side of things love his work, too.

I picked up the Universal/Back To Black re-issue of The Stone Roses’ Second Coming the other day.

A difficult record to find on vinyl over here in North America, this re-issue is most welcomed. Back To Black has released it as a double-LP on 180-gram vinyl in a gatefold sleeve.

Admittedly, I was a bit dubious as my previous experience with Back To Black re-issues has been rather poor (the re-issues of Nirvana’s Nevermind and In Utero, in particular, were blown out of the water by the ORG re-issues from a few years ago in terms of quality of pressing, sound, and packaging).

But I’ll give credit where it’s due here. I’m very satisfied with this re-issue of Second Coming. The records are pressed flat and play reasonably quiet. The sound quality is also better than I expected. I haven’t been able to determine the source of the master but the soundstage is wide and deep (on my system) and the dynamics are great.

Second Coming itself is a record that, unfortunately, had the misfortune of being the follow-up to The Stone Roses’ 1989 self-titled debut, one of the greatest British records of the 1980s, if not ever, and certainly one of the best debut records you’ll ever hear. There was no way the band could have lived up to the expectations–and waiting five years before releasing their second record didn’t help matters.

Once Second Coming did come out it was panned by many critics and disappointed fans. But, if you can get past the context and give it a fair hearing, there is a lot to enjoy. Sure, the extensive guitar riffs and groovy beats can drag on a bit (starting, unfortunately, with the opener, “Breaking Into Heaven”) but there are some excellent tracks on the record, especially “Ten Storey Love Song”, “Begging You”, “How Do You Sleep”, and probably the most familiar track for anyone who listened to “alternative” rock radio in the mid-1990s, “Love Spreads”. All in all, I think it’s a great record.

At the very least, if you’re a fan of The Stone Roses you’ll want it in your collection–and if you don’t already have it I’d recommend this re-issue.

The first record(s) I bought after my spring/summer record-buying hiatus was Blur’s “21” vinyl box set.

The set commemorates the 21st anniversary of the release of the band’s first record, Leisure. Most importantly, it allows fans to obtain all seven of Blur’s full-length LPs, most of which have been incredibly difficult to obtain on vinyl, particularly in North America.

The set was remastered at Abbey Road by Frank Arkwright and Stephen Street, with the first five records remastered for the first time from the orignal master tapes.

Apart from Leisure, all of the records are double-LPs housed in heavyweight gatefold sleeves. The inner sleeves and labels replicate the original vinyl releases.

All of the records are pressed on 180-gram vinyl. My copies are all dead flat, whisper quiet, and sound terrific. Plain and simple, these records are of tremendous quality.

The box itself is extremely sturdy and, I think, rather sharp.

Overall, this is an absolutely must have for any Blur fan who hasn’t managed to collect the band’s discography on vinyl, or anyone who is interested in simply taking the opportunity to immerse themselves in some excellent music.

Box (front)

Box (back)

Leisure (front)

Leisure (label)

Leisure (back)

Modern Life Is Rubbish (front)

Modern Life Is Rubbish (gatefold)

Modern Life Is Rubbish (label)

Modern Life Is Rubbish (back)

Parklife (front)

Parklife (gatefold)

Parklife (label)

Parklife (back)

The Great Escape (front)

The Great Escape (gatefold)

The Great Escape (label)

The Great Escape (back)

Blur (front)

Blur (gatefold)

Blur (label)

Blur (back)

13 (front)

13 (gatefold)

13 (label)

13 (back)

Think Tank (front)

Think Tank (gatefold)

Think Tank (label)

Think Tank (back)

Via Vancouver’s own Scratch Records‘ Twitter account, I came across this rather sad montage of closed record stores.

It seems especially apropos of my last post on the imminent closure of Hits and Misses here in Toronto (now scheduled for September 15).

At first blush, it’s easy, I think, to bemoan this as an unfortunate but ineluctable trend.

To be sure, many excellent record stores continue to close around North America–and Toronto is no exception (e.g., Criminal Records and Hits and Misses).

Yet there are signs that might suggest some grounds for optimism. In Toronto, closures have been mitigated by the successful expansion of Sonic Boom to a second location in Kensington Market; renovations at Rotate This! to allow even more floor space to be dedicated to vinyl; and the arrival of a few new boutique record shops around town (including June and Grasshopper in Toronto’s west end). As a regular visitor to a number of the city’s finer establishments, my own anecdotal impression is that there is a steady stream of customers, at least for the time being.

Of course, I immediately discount people such as myself. I appreciate that people who spend a significant amount of their disposable income on records and stereo equipment to enjoy those records are an infinitesimally small part of record stores’ client base.

Still, even though many of the faces in the shops are often different from the days or weeks before, they are nearly always present–and they appear to be spending money.

I’d like to think that people, especially of my generation and those up coming, have found something to appreciate and value in purchasing physical product when it comes to music, especially vinyl.

Whether it’s some sort of intentional backlash against a tsunami of technology that encourages an haphazard and ephemeral consumption of music, an embrace of the sonic benefits of analogue recordings (or, at least, analogue playback), simple curiosity about the hullabaloo around vinyl, or even an irresistible and dutiful urge to keep up with what’s cool, I don’t much care. All I care about is that there is (a) interest in records and (b) some commitment to purchase them.

Based on my own experience in Toronto, I think there is.

Granted,  Toronto is one of the major music markets in North America. I’m certainly prepared to acknowledge that in many other cities the future of record stores might not be so promising.

I hope that’s not the case. If it is, I suppose I have another reason to be thankful I live in Toronto after all.

I discovered some terrible news yesterday. Hits and Misses, Toronto’s go to record shop for punk, hardcore, crust, etc., is being shut down imminently.

Over the years I’ve lived in Toronto I’ve made a point to regularly pop in and scour the bins (both at the old location at Bloor and Ossington and the new one next to Rotate This! on Queen West). I’ve always found interesting stuff I can’t get at Rotate, Sonic Boom, Vortex, or any of the other shops in town.

I’m not going to speculate on the circumstances and I don’t pretend to understand commercial property laws but it does sound from Pete’s post that this is an irreversible process and the store will be shuttered within the next two weeks.

If you live in Toronto or nearby and are into punk or its myriad sub-variants, please do get yourself down there and buy whatever you can.

New beginnings

This past weekend I moved in to my new one-bedroom apartment.

Within two days I had every box unpacked and, most importantly, my listening area (also called my living room) set up to my satisfaction.

 

 

Since I now live alone, I’m able to set everything up as I want without having to make any compromises. The only limitations and parameters are those presented by the room itself.

Fortunately, my living room works very well with my setup. The room is almost perfectly rectangular (the only deviation is a bay window on one of the side walls (opposite my stereo equipment, pictured above) – approximately 10′ wide and 14′ long.

My speakers are placed comfortably in front of one of the short walls, just in front and to the sides of the fireplace. I have my couch sitting opposite the speakers, with the centre cushion (it’s a three-cushion couch) directly between the speakers for optimum listening. At my old place I had a dedicated listening chair but I found it was less than ideal for times when I wanted to have a bit of a lie down while listening or when I had people I wanted to listen to records with.

For the time being I’ve not mounted my Rega P7 table on the wall (as I did at my old place). Given that my equipment is placed in front of an inner wall I figured the putative benefits of wall mounting the table would be blunted sufficiently to make stand mounting it a better short-term option. I’m going to see how I like it over the next few months but so far so good. The floors are solid enough that foot falls are not an issue at all at this point.

Overall, the system sounds terrific in the new room. More than anything, I’m pleased to be able to listen to records again. It’s been a long 3-4 months without them.

So here’s to new beginnings and the resumption of my analogue adventures.

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