All About Phono Cartridges

What do you really know about your phono cartridge? Just enough? If you’d like to know more, read on.

I make records. Really, I cut music into lacquer disks that get made in to vinyl pressings. It’s a very cool job. One thing that I noticed over and over during my career is the more detail you look for the more details you will find. The more you know, you find out that you know even less than you thought you did.

Turns out that it is quite comfy to understand “just enough” about most things. For instance, do you really want to know how long your eggs sat on the blacktop waiting to be taken inside the supermarket? Do you really really want to know all the details about how your car was put together? For most of us the answer is: I know all that I need to know; I don’t get sick eating groceries and my car doesn’t drive it’s self off the road.

Ok, fair enough. What do you really know about your turntable and the playback thingy called the cartridge? What would change if you knew more about it? Would your enjoyment of vinyl increase or decrease?

What I want to do is introduce you to some of the terminology and some of my observations about phono cartridges. Then I’ll suggest that you use your ears to help you decide what to do with that knowledge.

phono-cartridgeFirst, a mind shattering tidbit: Cartridges wear out over time and not just with prolonged use. There are all manner of glues, resilient plastics, and other polymers inside a typical phono cartridge. None of these things are inherently (or completely) stable over time. They change their characteristics. Wooh, that’s a biggie.

You mean that my cartridge today doesn’t sound the same as it did a few years ago ? Yes, the not so minute details of the playback characteristics change over time. If you play your phono regularly, though, you may bnot notice this effect until you replace your cartridge. Anyone who wears glasses will find this is a similar observation. Things change very gradually—almost imperceptibly—over time. But, after a while, you may not even understand why, you just grow out of love with the sound of your turntable.

Let me digress for a minute… Every element of your playback chain matters, not just the turntable. You have to confirm the condition of every piece of equipment that you put your music through. Power supplies sag, capacitors give up their charge capacity, and tubes age dramatically. Even cables and connectors age, especially anything that is exposed to modern urban environments. Oxidation can rob any device of some of it’s potential.

But this effect is very hard to measure as a consumer. You only have your instinct and gut feelings to go on. And, any stereo shop salesman will be sure to bring these points to your attention. “Are you sure your turntable sounds proper? How would you know for sure?

So, lets jump back to the little ole cartridge. This device is somewhat field-serviceable, and an upgrade offers some of the most dramatic changes to your listening experience. You see, there isn’t just one way to play back a record, there are many different cartridge types and each has it’s advantages and shortcomings.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to learn all of that to have a great vinyl experience. I make these things every day and I don’t even know all of the nuances between playback systems. What I do know is that what I play back my records with affects my enjoyment of the music. And it’s not subtle. From, “oh, thats a nice record;” to, “OMG! Everyone should hear this amazing record!”

What I wanted to know was why should I choose one type or one model over another. Beyond the salesman hype and the in-store playback demonstrations on exceptionally expensive turntables, how do you decide:

1. Is my cartridge worn?
2. Is my stylus worn or damaged?
3. Is the stylus’ movement being impinged?
4. Am i getting the performance I should be getting from my cartridge?

And then:

5. Is my cartridge re-build-able?
6. Is it time for a technology upgrade?
7. How many dollars am I willing to part with to fall back in love with my records?

Well, don’t be too shocked to learn that you have to bring your cartridge to someone who can measure it, repair, rebuild it if it’s an expensive model, or offer you recommendations. You have to go beyond your stereo shop. You have to go to someone like Sound Smith in Peekskill, New York. There are many qualified service centers, these guys just happen to be located only 10 mins from my home and they came very well referred from my professional audio friends. They know a ton about cartridges… because they make their own. And these guys are the specialists that you need.

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Valentine’s Day Dubplate Special

Masterdisk dubplate special
Ever want to hear yourself on vinyl? In the reggae and DJ worlds these things are called “dubplates.” In record collector circles you might hear them called “acetates.” We’re calling it a Valentine’s Day Special!

http://www.masterdisk.com/valentines-day-vinyl/

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Tony Dawsey on Bass

Tony Dawsey on Bass - Tony discusses his approach to mastering
Tony Dawsey on Bass

Q: People come to you for your bass.

A: Yeah, I’m a bass head. It’s the first thing I deal with. Do I want to enhance it? Do I need to take something off? Because it’s got to sound good. As tight and punchy as possible. It’s totally key to get the bass right. You need that clarity down there.

Q: Has that always been your approach?

A: Yeah, I’d say so. I was working on a lot of different kinds of stuff in the late 80s and 90s. Indie rock, hard rock, all kinds of stuff. Now a lot of people come to me and say “I want that bass that you get in that record” and they name a particular hip-hop record I mastered. Back then they would say, “I don’t want it to sound disco.” OK, I say. But really, it’s in the mix. I enhance what you’ve already done. That’s the role of mastering. I always say, it’s the icing on the cake.

Q: Any tips for mixers when it comes to getting the bass right?

A: Make sure your speakers aren’t lying to you or your mix isn’t going to be right. Your monitors should be as flat as possible, and you should be very familiar with the way they sound. Also, make sure your listening environment is treated. You can’t just put sheetrock up and expect to be able to hear what’s in your mix.

Q: What about people that mix mainly with headphones?

A: Hm, well…

Q: It sounds like you don’t recommend that.

A: Sure you can do it. People work in all different kinds of ways. But if you mix a lot with headphones, make sure they’re GOOD headphones — and you’ll still need good speakers and and a treated monitoring environment to check your mixes.


That’s it for this time — we’ll have further interviews with Tony in the coming weeks on a variety of mastering and music subjects. Stay tuned…

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Choice Cuts: Tony Dawsey on Urban Knights

Tony Dawsey mastering jazz

Choice Cuts is a blog series where we ask the question all music obsessives love to answer: “What is your essential music?” This time it’s Tony Dawsey’s turn.

He’s well known for mastering hip-hop classics, but not as many music fans know about Tony Dawsey mastering jazz. So the title Tony selected for his first “Choice Cut” might surprise some readers: Urban Knights‘ self-titled album, released on CD by the GRP label in 1995.

“That’s my favorite album of all time I’ve worked on,” Tony says. “Maybe it has something to do with it being jazz; it’s upbeat and it puts a smile on my face.”

Tony Dawsey mastering jazzThe album, which has instrumentals and vocal tunes, features a core group of Ramsey Lewis (piano), Grover Washington Jr. (saxophone), Victor Bailey (bass), and Omar Hakim (drums).

Ramsey Lewis started his career in the 50s, playing straight-ahead piano trio jazz, and scored his first hit in 1965 with the iconic soul-jazz album “The In Crowd”.

Grover Washington, Jr. started in the soul-jazz field in the 60s, and started making records under his own name in the early 70s for Motown and Verve. Like Ramsey, Grover eventually had “crossover” hits in R&B.

Victor Bailey got his first big break replacing Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report. Talk about having some shoes to fill! He’s gone on to be an extremely in-demand sideman in jazz, fusion, funk and R&B as well as a leader of his own projects.

Drummer Omar Hakim also spent some time in Weather Report, but he got his first break with Carly Simon. He made serious waves playing with David Bowie on “Let’s Dance,” and Sting on “Dream of the Blue Turtles” and has been on many hit records since, while still keeping up his fusion chops.

So “Urban Knights” is a sort of soul-jazz / R&B / pop supergroup.

“I can listen to it any time,” Tony says. “I’ll listen to it when I’m home — I can sit down and listen or it’s something that’s nice to have on when I’m doing stuff in the yard or whatever. I’ll play it in the car — though it depends on what kind of driving I’m doing. Sometimes it’s Biggie Smalls in the car! But probably not a month goes by that I don’t listen to Urban Knights. Some people will probably be surprised at that, thinking I listen to hip-hop all the time or something. I do listen to hip-hop, but I listen to a lot of other stuff too.”

Check out Tony’s profile at the Masterdisk website.

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Masterdisk Remembers Lou Reed

Lou Reed TransformerI joined Masterdisk in 2010. A lifelong musician, I had also been working as a marketer in the staffing industry for 10 years. Joining the Masterdisk team was a move I was very excited about. I knew the legacy of the studio, the work of the engineers, and the parade of stars whose music had passed through the Masterdisk mastering consoles.

In my first week on the job full-time — it might have been the first day — I’m going into the men’s room, and who’s coming out, but Lou Reed.

LOU FUCKING REED.

I had that amazing sense of being in the right place (the studio, not the men’s room.) He looked older and frailer than I expected, but he had not been in great health for a while. He still looked cool though. On that occasion he was working with Scott Hull on a video soundtrack. I would see him again a number of times over the next few years.

I think I saw him once around the time of his Metallica collaboration, “Lulu,” that he mastered with Vlado Meller. Same Lou, maybe moving a little slower, still cool.

And then in the last few months I saw him a few times again, as he returned to the studio to do some extensive remastering work with Vlado. One day I was working in the back lounge of the studio, which was then next to Vlado’s room. Lou came in one day, walking very slowly. He made it to Vlado’s room, the door shut. After a little while some of the most iconic sounds in all of rock and roll started vibrating out of the walls. A famous bass line. Vocal lines that have become part of all our DNA. It was an eerie feeling knowing that the creator of those sounds was in that room next door, reviewing them. Revisiting them. Full songs were played all the way through. Some were played a few times in a row. I felt like I was eavesdropping on a very intimate moment.

Later that afternoon, after Lou left, I popped in to Vlado’s studio. “What happened in here today?” I asked. “Lou’s very happy,” Vlado said. “He said he thought his CDs sounded like shit, and he wanted it done right. We got new transfers off the master tapes, and they sound great. You want to hear an A/B?” Yes I did.

Vlado played me “Walk on the Wild Side.” The old CD against the new transfer. And the difference was astounding. The old CD sounded so thin compared to the vastness of the sound in the new transfer. The bass sounded like a BASS. It sounded like a Miles Davis or Mingus record. You could hear fingers on the strings. You could sense the size of the instrument and the size of the room it was in. It had physical force, air and space around it.

This new version sounds incredible, beautiful, startling. It choked me up. Apparently it made Lou tear up himself as he says around the 4-minute mark in this video:

I asked Vlado about his experience working with Lou.

“Lou was gracious. He had a sense of humor too,” Vlado said. “He was appreciative. He thought the sound was amazing and he was so happy. He said ‘nobody will probably buy them but I don’t give a shit.’ He was a true artist.” A&R man Rob Santos was in attendance on at least a few sessions and Lou was very appreciative of him, and the label as well, for putting up the funding to get the records to sound the way he wanted them to sound. He had a lot of appreciation and thanks to go around. Lou Reed remastered fifteen albums with Vlado over the past few months.

Scott Hull worked with Lou on a number of projects over the years as well, starting with the “Mistrial” album in 1986. Scott at that time was primarily a digital editor — that’s before DAW workstations when digital editing was an extremely specialized skill.

“The call came in in the afternoon that Lou wanted an editor, and it needed to be done that evening. He had been working on the record at another studio and they had made a digital copy of their edit. Lou listened to the original edit and the copy, and was hearing a difference in the tone. The engineer insisted that it was impossible that there was a difference, because the numbers were the same: there’s no degradation and no difference in a digital copy. Well, Lou didn’t agree. He heard a difference. And that was the end of that working relationship. He called us that day and he finished the record at Masterdisk with Bob Ludwig.”

“It’s not that Lou was so stubborn, necessarily,” Scott said. “If he felt something wasn’t right, you weren’t going to convince him that it was otherwise. He trusted his perceptions completely. He trusted his team, and if he didn’t have a very strong opinion about something he would take other people’s input. But once he knew something, that was it.”

Lou Reed New YorkScott said that over the course of his 30-plus year career, there aren’t many artists he encountered with that same level of confidence. “It’s interesting, because their music is so different, but Lou and Donald Fagen are alike in that way. So confident. So familiar and deeply in tune with the music. Donald’s emotional reaction to his music is similar to Lou’s.

The next record Scott worked on was “New York” (1989). “For Lou, it was his guitar tone,” Scott said. “It was everything. Lou’s acoustic reference, for years after, was the first minutes of ‘Dirty Boulevard’. Just like an engineer has a reference recording you bring to a new room, Lou had that. He only needed to hear a few seconds of the guitar part and he understood the room he was working in.”

The last major project Lou worked on with Scott was the remastering of “Metal Machine Music” (2010). Scott remembers, “he was passionate about it. There was nothing arbitrary about it at all.”

The project was remastering the album in both stereo and quad formats. “When we compared the new transfers to what had been released we realized that so much of the low frequency information had been eliminated when they cut the record. For whatever reason. So it was a new experience with all this low frequency energy. What do we do with it? Is it good? It certainly changed the impact. So we spent a fair amount of time going over how that change in tone impacted the listener.”

“The original was stereo,” Scott continued. “Lou and Bob [Ludwig] had worked on a quad master way back. The thing is that Metal Machine Music was a live two-track [stereo] record, so there were no other assets to put into channels 3 and 4. So what they decided to do was to take the entire recording and record it backwards, and THAT became tracks 3 and 4. We manipulated the relation between these channels quite a bit when we did the quad remaster.”

Lou Reed Metal Machine Music“What I remember most about those sessions,” Scott said, “is how emotionally draining it was to listen to the album at a decent level. Even Lou wasn’t really able to listen to the whole thing with intese focus. It just took so much energy as a listener. It’s taxing. The QC [quality control] guys had to listen to it all the way through — two passes. It wasn’t easy work. You had to stay really focused. But when you did, it took you on a journey, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime journey.”

“Lou knew that nine-tenths of the population would dismiss MMM as noise,” Scott continues, “but he opened a lot of listeners to new concepts in music. Minimalism. Maximalism. The avant-garde.”

“I got the chance to work with Lou through several different phases of his career,” Scott said. “When he was deeply into his solo career. Then when he was more focused on performance art and avant-garde music. He reminds me a little of someone else — John Zorn — in the way that most people have a singular idea about him. People have an image of Lou that he’s this ONE WAY, that he makes THIS kind of music. But he was very multi-faceted.”

“I remember when we were working on Laurie [Anderson's] album “Homeland” (2010). Lou attended the sessions. It was a more relaxed Lou, but he was really involved in the process. It was clear that Laurie and Lou worked well together. I remember around that time their dog was having some medical problems and it was really stressful… and so there’s another completely different side of Lou. Collaborating, offering support. Worrying over his dog. He was a three-dimensional guy.

The sadness around the Masterdisk offices, and the city, and the whole music world has been palpable in the weeks since Lou’s death. There’ll never be another one like him, but we can be glad he was here. And we can continue to listen to the legacy he left behind — listen, feel and learn.

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