Written by 4:22 am Audiophile Music

Doing My Audiophile Duty

Mark Smotroff fights the good audiophile fight…


The Rolling Stones tucked a fun little ditty at the end of their 1966 album Between The Buttons which has become a sort of soundtrack to a real life occurrence that happened to me recently while visiting The Friends of San Francisco Public Library’s annual book and media sale.  Some of the song’s lyrics went like this:

“Something happened to me yesterday,

Something, I can’t speak of right away”

AR-RecordManBlank225.jpgI told a few of my more musically inclined friends about what happened to me and they were equally astounded. 

“No one’s sure just what it was…

Or the meaning and the cause.”

Truly, it was a “face-palm” moment, in an Internet sense of things…  And I wasn’t sure what to do with this tale for the better part of the week.  

“He don’t know if it’s right or wrong.

Maybe he should tell someone.

He’s not sure just what it was

Well, I’ve decided to share this hopefully inspiring little tale from the tech center of the universe with you, Dear Readers. I am sharing it because I realize that we all may have something to learn from it. And perhaps it will inspire some of you to take a more active role in educating people on the history and joys of our beloved audio hobby.

So, this scenario that follows really played out before me while I was looking through the stacks of used vinyl record albums that patrons donated to raise funds for the Library at their sale. 

Two 20-something “millenials” (if you will) show up and are looking at records in the box opposite me. I don’t like to fall back on stereotypes but let me just say these guys looked like they could have been extras on the TV show The Big Bang Theory.  

We affectionately call them “techies” here in San Francisco. Its a thing.

So, one of them is trying to explain to the other about vinyl records as he is flipping through the stack. The other one seems utterly fascinated to learn that these discs contain music on them.  

Of course, hearing this discussion, my ears perk up and I’m sort of watching all this unfold out of the corner of my eye….

Then, the bewildered and fascinated looking one picks up a record from the stack (I think it was a 12-inch single by Howard Jones). As he pull out the disc from its sleeve, he is genuinely looking at it as if he’s seeing a vinyl record for the first time… ever.

AR-VictrolaVVXIDrawing225.jpgAnd, he’s sort of turning the disc, eyeing the grooves, jaw slacked and open mouthed and he sort of asks his friend “There is music on these discs?” 

The friend nods affirmatively…

Then, the curious one says to his friend in all seriousness:  

“How do they encode these discs?”

This is the point where the brain of your’s truly just about exploded.

This is also the point where, me being me, I jumped into the conversation seeing that the friend had no clue how to answer the question….

Over the next few minutes I proceeded to give them a very brief primer on how records work, with brief touches onto analog vs. digital and such. I urged them to look at YouTube and the Internet for more information. I didn’t want to lose them with too much detail — my goal was to intrigue and interest them, and to that point, I think I was successful.

“You mean, there is nothing digital in these grooves?” he asked…

“Exactly,” I replied  “Its kind of magical. The stylus wiggles and through numerous electrical processes music comes out of your speakers.”  

More open mouths and dropped jaws…

The friend says “yeah, that’s how the DJs can scratch their records…” 

]]>Taking it a wee bit further, it was at this point I picked up an old 78 RPM disc that was in the stacks and explained to them about the (perhaps) even more purely analog innovation within those discs. 

Cue: more lyrics from that Rolling Stones song:

“Something very strange I hear you say

You’re talking in a most peculiar way

But something really threw me, something, oh, so groovy

Something happened to me yesterday”

More mind explosions…

AR-VictrolaSoundboxInverted225.jpgAs they grappled with the notion of pre-iPhone audio innovation, I then left my dynamic duo with something to ponder. This is a thought I’ve been sharing with friends in recent months as I’ve been geeking out on my hand-cranked, 100-percent acoustic, all analog 1921 Victrola (a VVXI, for those of you out there interested in those details) and the more recently acquired 1926 Brunswick Panatrope portable 78 RPM player (also a wind-up unit that sounds remarkably loud and punchy, all without any electricity).

The thought I left them with is simply one of perspective and the notion of “evolution vs. revolution.”  My point for them to consider was that (and this is purely my opinion, folks) the real “revolution” in music was not contained on the cell phones in their pockets but in the grooves of the records — and the technology of those original playback devices — which came out at the turn of the 20th Century.  

Technologies championed by the likes of Berliner and Edison. Cylinders. The Victrola. This was where the first “revolution” in pre-recorded music happened. 

Everything since has been “evolutionary.”  

Sure, digital music was a revolutionary expansion point in some ways, but ultimately, it is still just another evolutionary step within the umbrella “revolution” of pre-recorded sound, a process that was created 100 years earlier by those aforementioned pioneers. 

Knowledge is power. 

So, I left these guys there perusing the stacks of old vinyl records feeling good about myself that I’d intrigued them and hopefully piqued their curiosity and interest in audio as something more than just a disposable digital file.  I really do feel that at least one of them — the one who was wondering how they “encoded” a vinyl disc — will be exploring music on vinyl, if only for his own education and understanding. 

Who knows? Perhaps someday he’ll get into this hobby to a point where he becomes a genuine audiophile with big fancy speakers and tube amplifiers and surround sound and such. 

And that is the point of this article: to remind all of us music fans and audiophiles alike that we are part of a continuum, a community with a legacy which we should be actively sharing with future generations whenever we can — especially if we have hopes for the music business and high fidelity audio equipment industry to not just survive, but thrive and grow.  

“Edjumacation” — as some snarky hip kids might call it — can be done in a fun and engaging way that doesn’t have to appear high brow or snooty. Its not about putting down digital and portable MP3s and all that… Its really about showing the fun and wonderment of the hobby.  And perhaps — maybe just maybe — we’ll even get this next generation excited by the magic within all these pre-recorded media, be it a grooved analog disc or a digital file of 1s and 0s. They all can create beautiful sounds to soothe the soul and inspire the heart.  

So, indeed….

“Something happened to me, something, oh, so groovy

Something happened to me yesterday

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