The Case Of The Self-Raising Tone-Arm

True there’s nothing like a dame, but I also firmly believe that there’s nothing like a disc. I don’t mean the shiny palm-sized object that reflects all the colours of the rainbow when you hold it in the light; I mean the big black vinyl disc that should be held reverentially in both hands. The record.

I’ve taught my daughter to revere the record. Although she tends to stream Spotify on her hand-me-down laptop, she has informed her parents of a dream one day to own an apartment in Paris, in which she would have a hi-fi system built around a record player. She has already been up to Brick Lane in London with a friend, who likes to go hunting for old vinyl at weekends. And she has studied carefully as I’ve talked her through the ritual of cleaning and playing a record on the deck.

I like rituals. We don’t observe the Japanese tea ritual in this house, but we do tend to turn Sunday morning breakfast into something ceremonial. The ritual of the record, though, is something that you can enjoy every day. That careful removal of the disc from its inner sleeve at times accompanied by a little snap of static; the initial brief inspection for hazards lodged in the microgrooves; the laying of the disc onto the platter; the lifting of the arm from its resting place and its careful sighting over the lead-in groove at the edge of the record to start up the turntable; the light-fingered dusting of the surface of the disc with a carbon-fibre and velvet ‘disc cleaning pad’; and finally that deft flick of the lever to drop the tone-arm – ever so gently – onto the record.

Over time, I have modified the ritual when necessary. There was a period of my life during which I also had to point at the vinyl a Zerostat pistol – a bright red affair that looked like something that Captain Scarlet or Buck Rogers in the 25th century might have wielded – and gently squeeze the trigger to counteract the static charge from the record. Even worse and even more time-consuming was a cleaning device that involved rolling over the surface of the disc a contraption that looked like a miniaturised garden roller, equipped with sticky paper to trap all the particles of dust. Fortunately, the carbon-fibre cleaner rendered both devices obsolete.![](upload://9sMxjXZcxL76KyKjEFQNrfYCrnv.jpg)

When you add up all the time involved in this ceremonial faffing around, it would amount to a significant proportion of your life. What’s more, the music only lasts on average 20 minutes, before you have to get up out of your chair and go through the whole operation again. All this means that it’s not ideal if you have to get on with something adult that demands your attention. Much easier to slip in a cassette lasting 45 minutes, or – even better – one of those shiny laser discs that provides up to 80 minutes of uninterrupted music. The Daughter would advocate streaming MP3 files, but I still can’t countenance something that you can’t actually touch.

Call me a Luddite if you will, but I still derive as much satisfaction from re-discovering – on record or cassette – something forgotten from the past as I do from finding something new. Besides, the record player comes into its own during another outmoded operation, one that might even die out with my generation. It’s December, so it’s… Christmas cards! Since this involves great bursts of concentrated energy, it’s an ideal opportunity for playing records. There are only so many cards in which you can scribble Christmas messages without getting up to rest your brain and exercise your feet – and 20 minutes or so is an optimum period.

This year, though, things went wrong. My trusty Dual deck developed ‘wow’. Or I persuaded myself that it had. I experienced again the angst of my teenage audio years. Was the music sounding as it should do? Was there or wasn’t there a problem? If so, what was it and why?

I decided – as I often tended to in the past – that there was a problem. If I were to enjoy spinning old vinyl treasures while writing our Christmas cards this year, it meant acting fast. Since I had to go to Brico Depot to check out some D.I.Y. materials, I popped into my shop of choice. Cash Converters is like a flea market or American thrift shop under one small roof. People who want to move with the times (or should I say people who are so hard up that they need to raise a little urgently needed cash?) bring their outmoded music and equipment there. The shop pays them a pittance and offers the stuff for sale to foragers like me at slightly more than a pittance. I have to resist a strong temptation to create a museum of hi-fi separates. Two CD decks will have to suffice, even if there are Sonys on sale for a tenner.

Anyway, this particular visit yielded a Dual record deck. Not only a Dual, but one with the same interchangeable head as my current ailing platter. A quartz model, what’s more. I’m not sure what ‘quartz’ means in practice, but they used to cost quite a lot of money. More than I was prepared to pay. I didn’t quibble with the 25 bucks asking price, even if there wasn’t a box or a manual.

When I got it home, I did what I usually do with electrical goods. That is, I left it fallow for a few days to stare at occasionally, without quite daring to tinker with it – for fear that it won’t work as God intended and that I will have to take it back or something equally unpleasant. This time, because of the urgency of the Christmas cards, I gave it only five days to mature before summoning up the courage to disconnect the old deck and wire up its replacement. This was not easy, since all the machines that produce music here are housed in an old item of furniture bought from an auction in Sheffield. It’s gloomy inside. There are too many crucial looking wires into the back of the amplifier to pull out for easy access. So it involved connecting everything up with the aid of a torch and a pocket mirror.

Happily, it went as well as could be expected. I was able to swap the interchangeable heads, re-balance the tone-arm, set the tracking weight and anti-skating control et voilà… Off I went, happy as a little sandboy to see how gently the cuing device dropped the stylus onto the record. Analogue sound wonderfully restored, I could concentrate on the Xmas cards, flushed with the knowledge that the ‘X’ derives from an old Christian symbol of the Dark Ages.

The only trouble is, the platter seems to have a life of its own. From time to time, the arm – as if moved by an unseen spirit – lifts itself off the record. This has added an element of stress to playing records – just as I’ve finally learned to be more philosophical about crackles and pops and even skips and sticks. It doesn’t do it very often, but often enough to make me uneasy. I give it the hard stare now when I drop the arm down and hope that I can subject the self-raising tone-arm to my will.

It came with a month’s guarantee and I could take it back, but I’m inclined to hang on. It’s quartz, after all. So far it has resisted my iron will, but I haven’t altogether given up hope. If it does renounce its propensity for levitation, then what I really want for Christmas this year is someone to come round and play records with me.

Lazy bones…yep, Mark, Hoagy with words by Johnny Mercer, I think.

Clive, please forgive me. I read your name as Chris. That'll learn me for not putting my glasses on.

Chris, I'm sorry but you can't come and play records with me because I no longer have 78rpm. I think the last deck I owned with that archaic facility was my old BSR MacDonald. But more power to your winding elbow, sir. It's lovely to hear of someone still changing over the steel needles. My maternal grandparents bought a wind-up machine for us kids, which we would play down in their basement (cue Sugar Pie De Santo, was it?). I seem to remember spilling the little box of steel needles and having to crawl around the floor searching them out. One of the records we played was a version of 'Lazybones' - was that Hoagy Carmichael?

Stuart, do try again some time. I'm normally in. It must have been some freakish event like walking the dog (cue Rufus Thomas)... just-a walkin' the dawg...

This is so charmingly written and right up my street. Although I have several hundred vinyl LPs, I collect 78rpm records, of which I have about 4,000 covering many genres of music. Most of them date between about 1900 and 1939. Many of them, especially the pre-electric ones, I play on one or other of my five acoustic gramophones, a couple of which also play 1920s and 1930s "electrics" very well. I also have a splendid Goldring-Lenco turntable which offers speeds of 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78 and, more importantly for early 78s, an infinitely (well not quite, but that's what it's called) variable speed adjuster. (Before circa 1930, 78 was a misnomer. At least two major labels stuck to 80rpm until about then, and earlier so-called 78s were recorded at anything from 72 to 90-plus rpm.) OK. I'll take off my anorak. Many thanks for your evocative article, Mark Sampson, and do continue to enjoy your vinyl rituals as much as I enjoy steel needle changing and handle winding.

Ah- Brighton in the 60s! The Art School, the "Whisky a go go", the "Pennyfathing", the "Fortune O War" (pub with no spirits and no wine just beer and cider under the prom), the Committee of100, my first pair of Levis, a black roll neck sweater and group readings of Jack Kerouac on the beach. Heady days!

I still have my collection of albums. I even have about 20 wax 78's from the 1930's with people like Bing Crosby, Deanna Durbin, Nelson Eddy etc.
My deck was bought when I was 15 back in 1970 and is a Garard SP25 mk IV. Have sadly had to change the cartridge as they no longer make them any more. My amp was bought at the same time Amstrad Integra 4000 Mk II. I have (my brother has actually) taken out the circuit for ceramic cartridge and replaced it with a circuit that takes my CD player bought about 30 years ago. My four speakers were built by my brother 30 years ago as well. Everything works perfectly but some buttons need coaxing to click into place and my fuse holder at the back of the amp is held in by glue but otherwise an amazing system. My Amstrad tape deck bit the dust some years ago so I no longer have a tape deck attached. :-(

I used to buy second hand jazz, Miles Davis, Mingus and so on in The Lanes, a nice little record shop that served coffee and sandalled people nodded heads to English folk music or Joan Baez, those were the days.

Hi Mark, funnily enough I drive past your place, well at least through Martel from time to time. I came to see you once but nobody was around. That was a while back. I don't think I could find it again. But then you are "dans une blede paumé".

What a lovely photo, Stuart. That gladdens my heart. All my 7" singles sit snuggly in the right hand compartment of the Art Deco cocktail cabinet I bought in Brighton when Deco was still affordable. I did briefly own the Curved Air picture disc, but had to swap it for a regular black vinyl edition because the surface noise was abominable. You can please come and play records with me, too, Stuart. And David, I gave a little shriek of horror when I read your comment. I'm not sure that I'd be quite as unkind as Brian and pelt you with rotten eggs. I think you need TLC, maybe even counselling. Wish I'd been the lucky friend, receiving all those Blue Note albums. Heavens to Betsy!! You poor soul. Like you, though, I'm tempted by the Brennan. There's a waiting list apparently. Try the January sales for CDs; I often pick up great stuff for a euro or slightly more.

I've sill got the turntable I bought "cheap" off the neighbour Completely manual, I even have to change the belt drive from 45 to 33. But the quality is amazing. Some of my albums are in better condition than other, usually depending on how old I was when I bought them. I'm a little younger than you chaps ;) so I have a vivid collection of picture discs, purple, yellow blue vinyl. Loads of 12" singles with some remixes longer than you arm. When the boys first saw the vinyl they were amazed by it and wondered how you could get sound from a needle in a groove. Strange that it never bothered them how you get sound from a laser bouncing off a disc or a micro chip the size of the nail on your little finger.

I got the antique suitcase from the loft a couple of weeks ago containing the 7" 45's and like Mark, it's even more of a pleasure than getting something new.

David, stand yourself against a wall and throw eggs at yourself, ideally rotten ones for a grave misjudgement.

I used to be obsessed by having only the latest technology so when casettes came along I GAVE ALL MY RECORDS away! What a tosser! I gave a friend a big collection of Blue Note, Reprise, etc with all the early modern jazz and some wild blues including very rare recordings of prisoners etc. I then gave all away all my casettes (never got into 8 track thank the Lord) but have stuck with CDs and am not getting into MP3 etc etc. Just don't have the time. Have been thinking about one of those ?Brennan things to transfer all my CDs onto- any experience anyone? It's that or a Freeview+ recorder. The only LPs that I still have of my own are Hoffnung and Hancock (who I met on my 17th birthday!).

I saw Kenton’s band twice at the Wakefield Thatre Club in 1970 and 71. Superb.

Know what you mean. I've only done a fraction so far, started with the favourites I want to conserve and working out from there. Gonna take some time, when I have time! Maybe I'll take up the offer one day, you're less than two hours from me according to our GPS!

Hey chaps! Would you like to come round and play records with me? I've got the Peanut Vendor by Stan Kenton, Bruce, but only on 33 and a third. There's a great vocal version of it by Anita O'Day. Haven't got anything quite as wonderful or rare as The Montgomery Bros in Canada, but am a big fan of Brother Wes. I want to get one of your vinyl transfer decks, Brian, but am afraid that I might not get anything else done for the rest of my life once I get started.

I’ve still got my first album, “The Montgomery Brothers In Canada”, bought in 1956, and a 78 of Peanut Vendor by Stan Kenton, that was my Dads.
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Being a notch older, my precious vinyl goes further back into the medieval period of high fidelity. I have precious blues and very early soul music and from my blues enthusiast days, some 78s! One of the 78s is a one sided master cut from maybe the 1930s, the singer was dead by the end of the 30s anyway, so maybe 20s. I am careful. Now, modern of moderns, having suffered a broken arm (record deck meant) I bought one of the digital devices that records the vinyl onto modern media. So I can take my LPs with me on my MP3. Mixing ages of music is a much a delight as mixing metaphors. Long live vinyl and may DJs worldwide remain as loyal as most appear to be.