Thursday, September 4, 2014

Back From the Dead Turntable: Elac Miracord 650

The latest addition to my vintage audio gear collection is this nice Elac Miracord 650 turntable. I was not familiar with the brand prior to me picking this one up. These turntables would have been the competition for Dual turntables in the 60’s-80’s, and some believe they are a step up. I’m bias, I like both!

It is an Idler wheel turntable which has 4 speeds: 16, 33, 45 and 78 RPM. Some prefer a belt drive turntable over the idler wheel as they say the moving parts cause “rumble”, but I have yet to see/hear this become an issue. My opinion is that if you have these idler wheel tables set up properly, they’re well-oiled and greased so all parts move freely and quietly, they will work great. If there is a “rumble”, it is so low that it is virtually inaudible to the common non-audiophile (some of these audiophiles can hear stuff that I sure can’t… I guess I’m lucky I can’t hear it).

This turntable has a square tube aluminum tone arm, the adjustable counter weight is also rectangular in shape, which gives it a unique look. The head shell accepts a ½” mount cartridge (2-screws on top rather than one through the side). The part of the head shell which holds the cartridge unplugs and pulls right out, which I really like. This makes installing a new cartridge super easy to do. Also, if I can find another one of these head shell parts, I can have another needle already aligned and ready to plug in when I like. This would come in handy if I had a mono or 78rpm needle, I could easily switch them as fast as I can switch records.

The base is made of beautiful wood construction giving it a really nice retro look.

This table can be used as a record changer, meaning that I can stack a number of albums (up to 6 I believe), and it will play one album after another. The spindle holds records above the turntable and after the first record plays through, the next one will drop on top and begin to play. Most record changers have an arm that moves over and holds the records flat on the spindle, this player has a different design. Instead of this arm, the spindle has 3 little shelves on it which holds the records flat.

The only downside I have noticed so far is that the spindle needs to be removed in order to change records unlike most BSR and Dual changers which are made so that you can just lift the record directly off the spindle. Not a very big inconvenience, but just different. At least the spindle does not lock in place and is very easy to remove. Also, they designed the turntable case to have a storage area for the spindle on the side so I won’t lose the spindle (as well it stores the single record spindle that was also included).

This turntable is nice and heavy and really has a nice build quality. There are very limited electrical parts: basically just the motor which turns and the rest is mechanical (I also saw a capacitor or two which is most likely used to keep the motor speed consistent).

I’m very happy with this turntable find and it proudly replaces my other record changers as my primary multi-play unit. It’s nice to be able to stack a bunch of 45’s or albums and let them play through. Of course I also have my manual turntable for normal use as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Revisiting a Classic - The Hangmen!

Nineteen eighty nine was a big transition year in rock music: Aerosmith released PumpMötley Crüe was at their height in glam rock releasing Dr. Feelgood, and Skid Row had one of the year’s biggest hits with 18 to Life. Meanwhile, in a grungy apartment in Seattle, a young Kurt Cobain quietly began his destruction of hair metal by preparing for the release of Nirvana's debut album Bleach.

Somewhere stuck in the middle, was the LA based band The Hangmen. They are often labelled as a hair metal band, but that seems far from an accurate description. They would be way closer to punk rock than metal: perhaps a mix of 25% heavier blues with about 75% Stooges era punk rock. Singer Brad Small cites Iggy Pop and Gun Club as influences, and both artists are clearly represented in their style.

Their debut self-titled album was the sole release with Capitol records who quickly dropped the band following mediocre sales. While they never lived up to Capitol’s expectations of the “next big thing” in rock, this is one hell of an album and I feel that it is a must-have for any punk/hard rock collection.

The Hangmen's lineup for this album was: Bryan Small on guitar and vocals; Billy Catterson on guitars and vocals; Johnny Holiday on bass and vocals; and Lenny Montoya on drums and vocals. 

This album was produced by Vic Maile who also produced Motörhead’s Ace of Spades and The Who’s Live at Leeds. While I was scouring the net for interviews with Bryan Small, the same response kept coming up: he was never satisfied with the production and sound of this debut album, although he was happy with the songs. Major label relationships never seemed to work out for The Hangmen and they seemed happier on the independent circuit. 

While never gaining huge recognition, The Hangmen have stuck together and are still performing today (well... kind of... Bryan Small is the only original member). There was an eleven year stretch between this debut and the follow up album Metallic I.O.U., but have since released a total of five albums on indie label Acetate Records.

This album has long been out of print, so you may have to do a bit of hunting to track this one down. It's sure worth the effort. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Revisiting a classic: Joni Mitchell - Clouds

Here is my normal routine when trying a new-to-me Joni Mitchell album:

1) Listen to it through for the first time, quickly decide it's not her best and toss it aside.

2) Two hours later I have some medley or verse in my head, trying to figure out where I heard it before, then remember I heard it on the Joni album earlier. Dig out the album and give it a second spin.

3) Like the album a bit better the second time, but still think it's a bit too 'out there' for me. Put the album in the record shelf and decide that even though it's not her best, I can appreciate it.

4) A few days later I still can't get the songs out of my head, decide to give it one last try before its lost forever in the record library.

5) Fall completely in love with the album, play it continuously for weeks on end, burn every other album in my collection deciding they are no longer needed as nothing could ever compete.

Ok... maybe I exaggerated a little bit on the last one, but I think I've made my point.

Clouds is the latest Joni album to make its way through my ritual. I picked this album up while digging through a thrift store last year and finally got around to giving it a shot.

Released in 1969 on Reprise records, Clouds is Joni Mitchell's second studio album featuring ten beautiful songs often only accompanied by Joni's acoustic guitar (the only other musician who contributed is Stephen Stills who added some bass and guitar). Love songs like Tin Angel "Still I'll take a chance and see, I found someone to love today", and songs about war: The Fiddle and the Drum "Oh, my friend, What time is this, To trade the handshake for the fist" dates this album perfectly in the love/war movement of the late 60's.

Like most of Joni’s albums, the cover featured her own art work and in this case it’s a self-portrait. Unlike Joni's first album, which was produced by David Crosby, she handled the production for all of this album on her own except for the opening track, Tin Angel, which was produced by Paul Rothchild (producer of the first five albums by The Doors).

This album won Joni her first Grammy award for best folk performance in 1969.

It's always difficult for me to choose one Joni album as a favorite, as they all are held in high regard within my collection, but Clouds is definitely one of my deserted island discs.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Back from the dead turntable - Hitachi HT-20S

I have been on the lookout for an automatic turntable.  My primary turntable is a Pro-ject Debut Carbon which is fully manual meaning that when the record comes to an end it will continuously spin with the needle on the record until I shut it off. While most times this is not an issue I sometimes like to relax with some jazz records on the couch and just can’t do it knowing that it will continuously spin if I fall asleep.

Today I found a used Hitachi HT-20S turntable. This is a semi-automatic turntable meaning that when the record is finished the needle will lift up and return to the tonearm rest while stopping the platter from spinning (a fully automatic turntable will do this as well but also have the tonearm lift and drop at the beginning of a record just by pushing a button). 

Buying used equipment, especially 30+ year old equipment, has its risks as you never know what could be wrong with the table. 

Besides record collecting, I also enjoy fixing electronics as a hobby so vintage usually works well for me. Often it just needs an electronic part or two replaced; a new belt or needle; or often just a good cleaning. I lucked out on this table because the only thing required to get it running 100% was a good cleaning. The needle plays just like new and the belt seems plenty strong. But most importantly, it sounds great!

Sure it’s not the highest quality table ever built, but it’s perfect for what I need. What I look for in a turntable is that the tonearm weight can be adjusted (some are fixed at the factory) and that the tonearm will accept a new cartridge rather than only a stylus. This tonearm is 1/2" mount meaning that the cartridge is held on by two screws at the top, giving me an endless variety I can choose to upgrade to. 

But why bother? The audio-technica cartridge that came with it sounds great and has always proven to be a very solid sounding entry level cartridge. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Sony TC-530 - Reel to Reel!

I found a real treat on a trip to the thrift store: an old Sony Reel to Reel recorder. I`ve never had one of these machines before, but I always thought they were pretty cool looking. Sure it will never get daily use, but just the nostalgia of having the unit, a real snapshot of the late 60`s when this machine was used for live recordings (this particular unit is from 1967). Plus, once it`s polished up, it will look great on display in my musical household.

When we (my Father and I) first plugged it in, the reels spun about three times and then decided to quit. It`s more than I expected actually, being almost 50 years old with probably a good portion of those years sitting around in somebody’s attic. So, we found a digital copy of the owner’s manual online, took the unit apart, and had a look inside. The first hour was spent giving it a thorough cleaning. We did a light vacuum and then hit it with a can of compressed air. Most of it cleaned up quite nicely but we got the stubborn areas with cotton swabs and alcohol. The back of the unit contained all of the electronics and the front had all the mechanical parts which ran the reels.

Even though the reels were no longer turning, the motor was running, and at a fairly good pace too. I found a YouTube video of the same unit and just by judgment, the motor seemed to be running at around the same speed as on this video. This led me to believe that the issue must be mechanical. If the motor pulley was turning at the correct speed, then all we need is for the gears to hit that pulley at the right place with the right pressure, and everything should turn.

The belts seem to be in remarkable condition (I believe they must have been changed at some point) so that was not the problem. The issue was that some dirt gunked up the interior springs not allowing them to work properly. I was able to clean all of these springs except one which appeared to be permanently damaged. Luckily I found a similar spring on an old turntable and installed it replacing the dirty one. Lo and behold, the reels began to spin!

Now that the reels were moving we thought we were home free, but when I played the tape that came with it (CharleyPride) it was playing way too slow. It took me a while to figure out what the issue was, but it turned out to be this tiny wheel at the bottom of the unit called the ‘pinch roller’ which pinches the tape to this peg called a ‘capstan’. It was pinching the tape too hard causing it to slow down. I tried sanding the wheel a little to make the rubber softer, but it wouldn't work. After some more searching, I found this metal plate that could be adjusted. The farther out the plate was, the farther the wheel is from the capstan. After a few small adjustments, I got the speed set up perfectly!

So, now I can play reel to reels at ease. Next, I’m going to try and get a blank tape to see how the recording feature works. There are speakers on the side of this unit, but it also has two exterior speakers that can be used as monitors. These simply plug into the side of the unit and I flick a switch telling it to use these speakers.

Also included were the original two microphones that came with the unit. These were stored in a small compartment on the top. They are heavy steel microphones that really seem durable. You can use both microphones to record in stereo, one mic for the left channel and one for the right. The speakers clip onto the front of the unit making it portable, folding up like a suitcase (mind you a heavy one...It weighs approximately 50 pounds).

This turned out to be a really fun project. I now have a great antique to display as well as a fully functional reel to reel recorder. These units in the 60’s were built to last, and it really shows. Barely any tweaking was required to fix this unit to just like new condition. Now, to find the perfect place in my home for this piece!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Revisiting a Classic: CSNY - Looking Forward!

It’s hard to believe that it has been 15 years since any new studio albums appeared in stores from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Of course, the quartet has made many appearances and even toured since, but their last studio album, Looking Forward, was released in October 1999. This is the eighth studio album for CSN and the third to feature Neil.


This album began as a CSN album, but after their label Atlantic dropped them due to low sales, they started funding recording on their own dime. It was around this time that Neil Young joined in making it a CSNY LP. Also, when Neil got involved, his label Reprise decided to pursue the album with them.


Even though it is not their best remembered effort, this LP does have some great moments. The song Slowpoke is my favorite. It has Neil handling the lead vocals and CSN coming in for their ever famous harmonies at the chorus. It’s a very slow tempo acoustic song with Neil’s reflective lyrics, harmonica, and a pedal steel guitar giving it that Harvest/Harvest Moon/Prairie Wind feel.

Another honorable mention is Crosby’s Dream For Him. It has a cool rhythm guitar with lots of hammer-on’s and palm mutes as well as a very clean lead guitar playing throughout the vocals. Plus the drummer (Joe Vitale on this tune) uses this catchy jazz style hi-hat rhythm that works well. This is a deep song looking for ways to discuss difficult issue such as death, lies and politics to a child. It has great lyrics and singing in this tune, plus I love that you can still hear the protesting hippie side of Crosby in his songs.


Stills and Nash also contributed on the album, handling the lead on their share. Stills’ opening track Faith in Me has a real Caribbean feel to it which is fun and Nash handles a few beautiful slow songs: Heartland and Someday Soon.


Even if this album is not recognized as one of their best, with these four strong songwriters creating an album together, you know it’s going to be pretty damn good and in my opinion it’s great! Plus, you know when CSNY gets together they always include an all-star list of studio musicians on their albums and Looking Forward is no exception. Some of my favorite musicians appear on this album including Spooner Oldham on keyboards, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass and Ben Keith on pedal steel  (there are many more musicians involved in this album, but these are just three particular names that jumped out at me).

This album has been out of print for a long time now, but one good part of this digital era is that the music is still easily available even if the physical copies are getting trickier to find. I have yet to find it on vinyl but for now I’ll make do with my CD copy.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Secondspin Records is coming to Fredericton!

It’s official, Secondspin Records is opening a new store in Fredericton, New Brunswick (79 York Street). Kris from Secondspin took the time to answer a few questions below:

Please introduce yourselves and tell us a bit about Secondspin!

My brother (Mike) and I (Kris Hopper) opened the shop in Saint John in 2003 and will be celebrating 11 years in business here on July10th.....and plan on opening the shop in Fredericton on Aug 9th!!!

What is it like owning a record store in 2014? Vinyl really made a big comeback in the last five years, have you noticed a change from when you first opened in 2003 up to today? Do you typically see a young crowd coming to your store or does the age group vary?

Over the last 5 years the amount of young people getting into collecting has blown us away and all the folks that collected years ago are jumping back on it. I think right now is perfect timing for the shop in was always the plan to eventually open in the Capital.

Will this location just be records or also comics and toys like St. John?

Vinyl only shop, NO CDS! Strictly vinyl, turntables (R ega & Denon), and a huge selection of posters and t-shirts.

Congratulations on the upcoming Fredericton location. I am really looking forward to the shop and I know many others who feel the same.

I hope everyone in Fredericton is ready to see some great pieces of Wax next month.....if you don't see it in the shop we will get no problem.