Vinyl’s difficult comeback

Posted: January 7, 2015 in Turntables, Vinyl

Can the creaking machinery of the few remaining record pressing plants cope with demand?

On an industrial estate in Röbel, 90 miles north of Berlin, the vinyl presses at the Optimal factory were grinding and pumping away. They made a percussive racket – regular clunks, wheezes, and hisses, underlain by a droning hum – and created a distinct aroma, sharp and metallic, suggestive of steam engines and old cars: not instantly recognisable to a British visitor like me, perhaps, but the singular smell of things being made. My guide to the Optimal plant was its operations director, Peter Runge. Together, we watched copies of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Live From KCRW tumble from one of the machines. Across a narrow aisle, a press dedicated to seven-inch records was spitting out copies of The Boy From New York City, a 1964 single by the Ad Libs, a soul group from Bayonne, New Jersey. A few yards away sat fresh stock of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Next to those was a growing pile of the album Clandestine by the Swedish death metal band Entombed, being pressed on purple vinyl. Beside each machine, bins were collecting surplus plastic shorn off the edges of each disc, to be fed back into the production process.

“Instant recycling!” said Runge, who stared at the factory’s operations through rimless glasses. He grew up, he told me, in Rostock, in the old German Democratic Republic. When he was 19, he applied for an ausreiseantrag – an East German exit visa, the same day as the East German premier Erich Honecker visited West Berlin. This modest act of subversion led to an appointment with the Stasi, and he was barred from going to university. So he got a job in the university’s workshop, helping to build electronic prototypes, where he gained a practical understanding of engineering. When the Berlin Wall fell, two years later, he belatedly became an undergraduate at the same institution, and eventually earned a PhD in industrial maintenance. He joined Optimal Media in 1997, was put in charge of “process optimisation and re-engineering” and given the job of setting up a production planning system. Now 46, he oversees the manufacture of DVDs, CDs and books, but the task in which he takes the most pleasure is supervising the production of vinyl records, in what he and his colleagues claim is Europe’s biggest pressing plant. Their clients are split between the major record companies – who have trusted Optimal with the work of such titans as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie – and the independent companies who kept the vinyl format alive through the 1990s and early 2000s while the rest of a terrified music industry embraced digital technology. Optimal’s machines run 24 hours day, for most of the year, and production capacity has to be booked up to a year in advance. And every hiss and wheeze of the company’s machines attests to a story that, 20 or so years ago, would have seemed unthinkable: the renaissance of the vinyl record.

In the first half of 2014, officially registered sales of vinyl in the US stood at around 4m, confirming an increase of more than 40% compared to the same period in 2013. In the UK, this year’s accredited sales will come in at around 1.2m, more than 50% up on last year. That may represent a tiny fraction of the industry’s estimated sales of recorded music, but still, a means of listening to music essentially invented in the 19th century and long since presumed to be dead is growing at speed, and the presses at Optimal – along with similar facilities smattered across the UK, mainland Europe, the US and beyond – are set to grind and pump on, into the future.

“Isn’t it strange?” Runge mused. “I’m an automation engineer. I never thought I’d be dealing with vinyl. It’s unexpected. But it’s also unexpectable.” He shouted this over the din of the machinery. Each press sat in a space not much more than four metres square. Two circular paper labels were mechanically plucked from one end, while tiny vinyl pellets were sucked into a steam-driven heating process. The result was a hunk of plastic with the circumference of a beer mat, heated to 130C, to which the labels were attached, while 50 tonnes of hydraulic pressure squashed and spread it into a disc. Metal stampers pressed against either side, and it was quickly cooled to 40C. With another clunk, the finished product was dropped on to a spindle, ready to be inserted in its sleeve. The whole cycle had taken 27 seconds. Each day, the factory makes somewhere between 50,000 and 55,000 records.


American inventor who created surround sound remembered as ‘a true visionary’


Ray Dolby, the American audio pioneer and inventor of surround sound, has died at the age of 80.

Dolby, who founded his namesake company in 1965, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and was recently diagnosed with acute leukaemia. He died in his home at San Fransisco

His work in noise reduction and audio technology created an entire industry dedicated to delivering compelling and thrilling audio. The Dolby Stereo system was responsible for creating unique sounds of films from A Clockwork Orange to Star Wars.

“Today we lost a friend, mentor and true visionary,” said Kevin Yeaman, president and chief executive of Dolby Laboratories.

Dolby’s work earned him a number of notable awards, including several Emmys, two Oscars and a Grammy. Other honours included receiving the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton and an induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the US and the Royal Academy of Engineers in the UK.

Although his innovations in audio recording and reproduction made a big impact in cinemas, Dolby’s work also found its way into millions of homes. For many his name is permanently associated with reducing the hiss in tape playback.

“Though he was an engineer at heart, my father’s achievements in technology grew out of a love of music and the arts,” said Tom Dolby, a film-maker and novelist. “He brought his appreciation of the artistic process to all of his work in film and audio recording.”

Dolby was born in Portland Oregon, and began his professional work at Ampex Corporation, earning his first patents for videotape recording systems before he’d left college.

He graduated from Standford University and went on to study at Cambridge, founding Dolby Studios in London in 1965. In 1976 he moved to San Francisco where the company established its headquarters.

“Ray really managed to have a dream job,” said Dagmar Dolby, his wife of 47 years. “Because he could do exactly what he wanted to do, whichever way he wanted to do it, and in the process, did a lot of good for many music and film lovers. And in the end, built a very successful company.”

Since news of his passing, tributes have rushed in for Dolby, with co-workers describing him as an inspiring and thoughtful man, who cared passionately about engineering.

“To be an inventor, you have to be willing to live with a sense of uncertainty, to work in the darkness and grope toward an answer, to put up with the anxiety about whether there is an answer,” he once said.

He is survived by his wife, sons Tom and David, and four grandchildren. See below for a video tribute to Dolby’s life and works compiled by Dolby Studios.

Mission FS2 Series – Advert

Posted: March 12, 2012 in Adverts

Rich radio from clever Roksan

Posted: July 15, 2011 in Tuners

At Last, the tuner to complete Roksan’s crisp-looking Caspian range has
arrived. It’s an FM-only 5O-preset unit, cunningly controlled by just two
knobs and a pair of buttons. You get manual and seek tuning,
a signal strength centre-tuning display, mono/stereo switching and an
autostore system able to find the strongest stations in your area and
assign them to presets. Operation is a matter of clicking the
left knob round to find presets, or twiddling the right one for further
manual tuning. Add the optional Roksan Caspian System Commander
and you get full control of the tuner from your armchair. However, there’s
no AM reception, and not a sniff of the Radio Data System.
As Compensation you get a tuner with a smooth fluid sound, plus plenty
of insight into the recorded or broadcast ambience. Location panel
games or discussions sound suitably atmospheric, while concert hall relays
are similarly open and attractive. Instrumental timbres are appealing, if
the radio can sound a little lush at times, and voices nicely detailed.

The Roksan also ensures voices have good character and are easy to
follow, while the compressed sound of rock and pop radio benefits from
the Caspian’s mix of warmth and insight, being filled out a little and
having reasonable attack. But though this tuner is good, it’s
not without rivals from the likes of Denon and Marantz. And then there’s
the Creek T43: it has the sound, the three bands and
remote control for £349. All of which suggests the Roksan at £595, will appeal
mainly to existing Caspian owners.

Wharfedale 505.2

Posted: April 12, 2011 in Speakers

Three products graft themselves into the already substantial catalogue. One we’ve already reviewed: the Ventana. This is a speaker primarily configured according to American require¬ments. There’s resemblance to the old E-series, butthis is purely in appearance. It’s a power-speaker, with as much attention paid to good sonics as possible within the constraints of efficiency and price. It has a horn-loaded tweeter, linked to two 200mm mid- bass units. Its bigger brother, the Vanguard, is £100 more expensive at £449, and this uses a 110mm midrange and a 250mm whopper for the bass.

The audiophile entrant is the 505.2. It sits in the popular £150- £200 price bracket, and brings in all of the innovative features Wharfedale are renowned for. The ‘build-ring’ bayonet driver fixing, an internal ring-brace in the cabinet and the 0213 aluminium dome tweeter (with a very high breakupfrequencyof 37kHz) all support the pedigree. There’s even a newfour.-layer voice coil for the 200mm polypropylene bass unit, which extends its power handling. Crossover is hardwire, and the construction standard is to BS5750. Price of the 505.2 is £169.90, in black vinyl finish, and it’s available now. In crown cut mahogany veneer the price rises to £219.90.

Cambridge Audio DAC2 & DAC3

Posted: April 12, 2011 in DACS

Technology-intensive Cambridge Audio products are re¬cognised as being splendid sonically, but are not exactly inexpensive. It’s surprising, therefore, to find a competitively- priced newcomer to the range in the guise of a stand-alone D/A converter. The DAC3, at £299, offers its customer 1 6-bit, 8- times oversampling conversion. All stages are digital, including the input switching with digital polarity inversion controlled from the front panel.

The output is fed through a high quality volume control direct to your power amplifier. Analogue areas are all entirely passive. It has a more comprehensive brother, the DAC2, which prices up at £450. This incorporates four digital inputs (two CD and two DAT), plustwodigital outputs.

Structure is 16-bit, with 16 times oversampling conversion as used in the CD2 (reviewed last month). An active stage is included, with its own volume control, expanding the analogue outputs tothree— fixed, passive variable and active variable! It even has a headphone output driven by a discrete class A amplifier rated at 5 watts output.

A tuner comes into the range too. Its the T40, AM/FM, and costs £199 including VAT.

Michell Orbe SE and VC power supply

Posted: November 24, 2010 in Turntables

By Andrew Harrison, Hi-Fi News, March 2003

Changing a winning formula can be a risky business; the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ maxim applies all too well to audio kit. But sometimes, change becomes necessary as much by circumstances as any desire to improve and refine a product. And so it was with Michell Engineering’s range of turntables, which have had the motor type replaced across the range. My experience with turntable motors and their power supplies has shown that seemingly trivial changes in this area can make conspicuous differences in the whole sound. But I wasn’t prepared for the major sonic refit that the change from an AC motor to a DC version would have on the Michell Orbe SE (and VC power supply). Like most belt-driven turntables over the years, Michell always used an AC synchronous motor to drive the platter. This can be an easy, cost-effective solution requiring no more than a couple of passive components to run directly from the mains AC supply, with a fair degree of inherent speed stability as motor spindle speed is locked from the 50Hz (or 60Hz) AC frequency.

Later models were offered a quartz-locked QC power unit which increased performance by lowering motor frame vibration and stabilising any frequency fluctuations by creating a more stable and purer two-phase sinusoidal feed. In effect, Michell’s QC (comparable to the Linn Lingo for the LP12) is capable of substantially improving the final sound available from its AC motorpowered turntables; but a change of design was necessitated by the recent unavailability of the specified Papst drive motor. This Swiss-made unit was one of the best AC motors for the job, and so Michell, along with its electronics partner Trichord Research, developed a replacement DC motor which fits into the same weighty 3kg motor block.

The DC motor option for belt-drive turntables has been exploited in the past by manufacturers such as Pink Triangle and Origin Live, and it has advantages – and disadvantages. In its favour, a DC motor typically has lower vibration, especially compared to the ubiquitous Philips/Airpax motors, and low enough to even allow the motor to be hard-mounted to the same plinth that supports the platter. The principal problems with DC motors are, first, speed drift caused by changes in the DC supply voltage and, second, acoustic noise from the brushes within.

Motor noise wasn’t a problem with the Orbe SE VC. From the outset, the new motor block was as deathly silent as it should be, with no ‘whispering’ acoustic noise to intrude on listening. Speed accuracy was checked with a quartz-controlled LED strobe, and found to be set precisely to 331/3rpm. This is more remarkable considering the subjective replay quality of the SE VC model, – in direct comparison with an AC motor unit on the same deck, the DC Orbe gave music a slower feel.

The impression was of a more sedate, timely rendition, giving more time to take in, for example, a piano concerto in all its layered intricacies, where the AC Orbe would be racing toward the end in comparison.

Timing, the sense that musicians are playing rhythmically and in time with each other, was as excellent as before, but overall pace was slowed subjectively. Coupled with this was a lower noise floor, allowing, for example, the slow decay of a held piano chord to be heard for longer, and very quiet background sounds such as the squeaks of instruments and seating were now apparent.

Stereo stability was also first-class, perhaps better than the older version, letting images lock into space convincing. But the biggest change after ‘speed difference’ was the tonal character, which has changed quite markedly. Treble hash, manifest as a low-level glossy sheen added to female vocals and cymbals, for instance, was never a big problem for the Miche[l Orbe, and so I was surprised when this was removed altogether. Instead I sensed a darker, more ‘analogue’ mood, particularly in the upper presence region. A Clearaudio Victory m-c cartridge mounted on a Rega RB300 Incognito arm was now giving a performance closer to the sublime and far costlier Transfiguration Temper V [HFN Dec ’02].

In conclusion, the latest Michell Orbe introduces real improvement in most areas, but beware of a change in character which might require a little system tweaking, especially if you’re upgrading from the previous version and are wedded to its tonal balance. The difference might not warrant too much concern, and I believe that the positive benefits of the upgraded motor are just too good to miss.