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.