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My Endlessly Customizable Turntable and Vinyl and the Sense of the Individual

On May 9, 2016

As my wife is fond of pointing out, I am to the field of mathematics what John Candy was to hang-gliding. As such, the following calculation is one made poorly but should hopefully serve to get its point across. I have in my possession, a Michell Gyrodec turntable. It is available in two versions- one with plinth, one without. Thanks to interchangeable arm boards, it will work with around a hundred different arms past and present. Those arms will in turn work with something in the region of 500 different phono cartridges from the last forty years or so. Idly tallying up the possible combinations of deck, arm and cartridge and you get the eyebrow raising figure of 100,000 possible variations of turntable.

Now, some combinations are sufficiently unlikely that they'll have never been used- pairing a $5,000 arm with a $40 cartridge for example- but when you take into account that less than 10,000 Gyrodecs have ever been made over their 30 year production life (and that this calculation doesn't take into account additional variations like clamps, mats and counterweights) and you have the not unreasonable possibility that a good number of Gyrodecs out there will be the only one of their kind in terms of their combination of deck, arm and cartridge. Neither is this unique to the high end. The flexibility of the Gyrodec makes it an extreme case but if you take the number of options U-Turn offers with the Orbit, together with its ability to work with many other cartridges, clamps, mats and preamps available aftermarket, you still have the reasonable possibility of owning a variation of something that nobody else on the planet does.

Why does this matter? Technically it doesn't- there's no innate advantage to having the only one of something, especially if it would only be a matter of accruing the same readily available components to make the same device. Further to this, the rest of my audio equipment is rather more off the peg and it doesn't stop me loving what it does. Despite this, I can't help but think that an unheralded part of the vinyl fightback is that as well as the advantages we've discussed at numerous points before, the hardware itself can be a reflection of ourselves.

We find ourselves in a world where some products have achieved a ubiquity that hasn't really been the case at any other time in history. You only have to see a row of people sat on a train staring at iPhones to realize this is the case. Sure, you can stick it in a funky protective cover and choose a wallpaper to suit but your phone is still the same device turned out in unimaginable quantities and there are going to be dozens of them within a mile of you. On a less extreme level, this is repeated with our cars, our clothes, even our food.

Against this, the turntable sits like an iceberg in the Caribbean- a device that is designed to do one thing and one thing only in a purely mechanical fashion. If your turntable is an older model purchased used, you have the satisfaction of returning something to service that has survived where dozens of its peers did not. If you have a new standalone deck you have the joy of making it yours. Even if it starts with an off the peg collection of components, you have the option of changing it in a number of ways to better suit your needs- a device honed by you to do exactly what you want of it. Turntables aren't the only product area where this is the case but there are few other items that match it for the sheer number of options open to you even at relatively affordable levels.

The result of this is that the consciously or otherwise, our turntables can be a physical embodiment of ourselves. Even if it never crossed your mind you were making something that might easily be unique, many of you reading this will have done just that without ever seeking to do so. Quite legitimately you can also say your choices were shaped by your budget, or lack thereof or the need for your deck to fit in a certain space or work with another piece of equipment. Even then, you almost certainly didn't have only one option open to you when you made these choices- you sought out the ones that suited you best and each time you did, your turntable and wider system gained a little more of you through those choices.

Is this pretentious? Possibly. Am I anthropomorphising something that is simply a mechanical device designed to drag a needle through a groove? I supposed I am. That music is an deeply emotional construct isn't contested though. We are moved in different ways by different pieces and a three minute song can act as the trigger to a whole lifetime of memories taking us to great- and terrible- places if we desire. If we take this to be a given, it doesn't suddenly seem like too much of a stretch that vinyl continues to hold the fascination it does in part because we are replaying music that is deeply personal to us on devices that are in turn also personal to us- an experience shaped by both hardware and software.

This perfect combination- the work of artists we love on a device we cherish is part of the intangible quality of analogue. That it affords us the chance to assemble something for ourselves in a time of cookie cutter mass production is an extra joy, a simple pleasure that has been eroded from other aspects of our lives by the crushing competence of modern technology. So, the next record you play, take a moment to consider the means by which you play it, its foibles, quirks and strengths and contemplate that you might be the only person on this crowded planet doing what you're doing at that instant with that exact player. Not a bad feeling is it?

Profile Picture of Ed Selley
Ed Selley

Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.

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