All Things to All People Vol. 6

I hate to complain about anything having to do with Sorry State, but it's shaping up that this blog is the place to do that, so here's another one. One big part of my job as the owner of this whole enterprise is what is euphemistically referred to as "customer service." Let me start by saying, 99.9% of the time the customer is always right, and customers for a punk business like ours are generally way more forgiving than they actually need to be. Every once in a while we do get a punisher (though that is usually by other channels like eBay or Discogs), but it almost doesn't even matter what the customer's attitude is... apologizing for mistakes (mine or others') is emotionally exhausting. Things go wrong... packages get damaged or lost, orders get mis-filled, and records are defective, and as the customer service person for Sorry State I'm the one who has to deal with that. And mostly it means eating shit over and over and apologizing for said mistakes. I guess that I'm a perfectionist, because every time we get an email or a phone call saying that a mistake has happened (even if it wasn't precisely our mistake), it feels like a punch in the gut. All in all it's a relatively small part of my job because we don't make all that many mistakes, but it really makes me sympathize with customer service reps whose entire job is to be (at best) complained at and (at worst) yelled at and berated all day long. Clearly I would not be well-suited to such a profession.

So, this week I also wanted to talk a little bit about how I listen to music. The other day I decided to put a little sofa in my office / record room at home and it sits right across from my main stereo setup (the picture you see above is the view from said sofa). Every time I make a slight change to my stereo setup it always prompts me to spend a little more time in front of the stereo, which I've been doing quite a bit lately. This is, by far, my favorite way to listen to music, but unfortunately I don't get to spend nearly as much time here as I would like.

In my life, the place I've probably spent the most time listening to music is the car. Really, the car is probably where I first fell in love with music. I've also driven a lot in my life... when I think about how many miles I've put on each car I've owned, I think that I've driven well over 500,000 miles in my life. Conservatively estimating an average speed of 50 miles per hour, that means I've spent somewhere upwards of 10,000 hours driving, nearly all of it listening to music. My first car had a cassette player and I had a big box of tapes with me at all times, most of them home-dubbed affairs with the kind of combinations that you make when you're a 16-year-old trying to figure out punk in the pre-digital era. I distinctly remember a tape with Screeching Weasel's Boogada Boogada Boogada on one side and Fugazi's In on the Kill Taker on the other, I'm pretty sure with Thee Headcoatees "Ça Plane Pour Moi" single added to the end of whichever album was shorter. My second car had a CD player, so I carried around one of those giant CD booklets that hold something like 180 CDs, and this collection pretty much permanently occupied the car's passenger seat. Since, even after I got my first CD burner, ripping vinyl was still more or less impossible, I listened almost exclusively to full-length albums all the way through, which is something I wonder if kids today really develop a taste for. Nowadays I'm good at ripping vinyl and I have an iPhone, so I have pretty much everything I could ever want right at my fingertips. Frequently this is too much choice and I end up listening to my entire library on shuffle.

I still love listening to music in the car, but I don't take as many long trips as I used to, and now that I've invested a bit of time and money into creating a good home stereo setup I'm increasingly irked by the shortcomings in car listening. Some things are great for the car... mostly things with big melodies, so it would make sense that '77 punk bands provide my favorite road trip music. However, I've really come to notice how much road noise at high speeds obscures the low tones, particularly in heavy music. For instance, I've been listening to Napalm Death's Mentally Murdered EP a lot in the past couple of months, but I haven't even bothered to put that album on my phone because all of my favorite parts of that record--mostly Lee Dorian's vocals and Mick Harris's bass drum work--occupy the lower frequency range and would be completely inaudible in the car.

The other primary location of my music-listening is at the gym. However, listening at the gym has some of the same fidelity problems as the car (since they're always blasting dance music), and more importantly the point of listening to music isn't so much to enjoy the music for its own sake, but rather to distract me from the necessary discomforts of exercise.

So, that brings me to my home setup. I'm perpetually broke, so what I have has evolved very, very slowly, in much the same way my record collection has grown and evolved over many years. I first started making an effort to fine-tune my setup after hanging out with the guy who does electronics work for the used turntables and receivers we carry in the store. He's a big-time audiophile so he has spent, I'm guessing, tens of thousands of dollars on his stereo system. After hearing music on his system my mind was blown... it literally felt like I was in the room with the band. I also could distinctly hear what every instrument was doing. Rather than being smashed together into a big, unified roar, I could hear all of this dynamic interplay between the different instruments, even on records that I thought I knew very well. I asked him for some advice on how to improve my setup, and he suggested upgrading my components one-by-one, starting with the the beginning of the signal chain (i.e. the turntable and cartridge) and working my way toward the end (the speakers).

The first component I upgraded was my turntable. I saved up a bit of money and bought a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC with an Ortofon red cartridge. Even with my crummy thrift store receiver and Sony bookshelf speakers I immediately noticed a big difference in sound, namely that sense of separation that I noticed on the audiophile system. The only thing I don't like about it is the fact that you have to lift up the platter and manually move the belt to change between 33 and 45RPM. This probably isn't a big deal to the average mustachioed lover of album-oriented rock, but I have a huge (and, I must say, pretty killer) selection of punk singles, not to mention the fact that the 12" 45 is one of the great formats for hardcore punk. If I had it to do over I might buy a different model of Pro-Ject that has an easier speed-change mechanism (or is compatible with a less expensive speed box, since the only one that works with my table costs $600). Oh, and this also makes it annoy me even more when bands print the wrong speed on their labels. I was just listening to the Mansion LP, which spins at 33, and then I went to listen to the new Power LP. The label says it's a 45 so I picked up the platter and changed it to 45, but then the intro came in and the music was obviously way too fast, so I had to pick up the platter again and change it back to 33. First world problems, I know.

Next, I upgraded my speakers. One Saturday morning I went to an estate sale that was advertising a ton of audiophile gear, as well as a whole heap of classic rock vinyl that would be really good for the store. Despite getting there at like 5AM I was still 3rd in line, which meant that I didn't get to nab a $1000 Marantz turntable at 1/4 the price. However, while all of the other customers at the sale raced to claim the main audio components, I noticed that the big floor speakers hadn't been grabbed. I knew nothing about them, but I figured that if they were part of this guy's setup they must be good. Turns out they're a pair of Vandersteen Model 1Ci's that retail for $1249; I got them for $100.

The next components I upgraded were the receiver and an additional pair of speakers. I haven't really put much research into these, but often when I'm buying someone's record collection (particularly someone who hasn't actually listened to the records in years) they'll throw in their stereo equipment as well. I got a pretty good stack of hard rock and new wave from a guy who told me at length about how much research and effort he'd put into his stereo system (I've since forgotten all of the details), and when I hooked up his old Fisher studio standard receiver and Infinity studio reference monitors they immediately sounded way better than my previous gear. In particular, the bassy, modern sound of the Infinity monitors provided a nice counterpoint to the thinner, airier sound of the Vandersteens, and I feel like this setup lets the combination of power and subtlety that I appreciate in punk really shine through.

Now that I have my system much better-tuned, listening to records is an entirely new experience. I generally listen at a pretty loud volume where I can almost feel the air that the speakers push hitting me in the chest, and there are few things I find more pleasurable than hearing a well-recorded "thwack!" of the snare drum played at precisely the right volume. I also find myself getting completely lost in the subtleties of arrangements. Records I've had for years sound new again. The other day I was listening to "Demystification" by Zounds (a song I must have heard hundreds of times before) and I noticed the subtle Hammond organ in the background during the chorus for the first time. Listening to a first pressing of the Stooges' Fun House is a revelation... it feels like you're sitting on the floor between Scott and Ron Asheton. For an album supposedly recorded completely live, there's actually a good amount of post-production, like the double-tracked drums on "LA Blues." I'd always felt like that song was an afterthought on an otherwise perfect record, but appreciating the song's density and the disorientation between the two drum tracks in the two stereo channels makes the song feel like the darkly psychdelic climax that I'd imagine it was intended to be.

So, reading back over the above section it's a lot more gear-y than I really intended. I am, by no means, implying that you need top-notch gear and original vinyl pressings of records to truly appreciate them. What I was trying to get at was how my listening habits have changed over the years... not so much in what I listen to, but how I listen. When I was a teenager it was all about the hook, about screaming along at the top of my lungs on a late-night drive back from a show in a far-off locale. However, when I listen now it's primarily about the playing... about the subtle nuances that players coax out of their respective instruments and how a bunch of players work together to create a unified sound. It's not necessarily a more sophisticated or a better approach to listening to music, but it's different and, I think, worth noting.

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