[SoundStage!]Synergizing with Greg Weaver
Back Issue Article
September 1999

For a Few Freebies More

The continuing saga of the "spaghetti" tweaking series

Following the precedent set by Sergio Leone with his mid-‘60s series of westerns shot in Italy, I bring you the third installment in this series to compliment episodes one, A Fist Full of Freebies , and two, (Another) Fist Full of Freebies. Unlike the cult spaghetti westerns (which all started with a blatant knock-off of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Yojimbo) starring Clint Eastwood and featuring Ennio Morricone’s bizarrely haunting musical scores, these articles feature neither a rugged protagonist nor a great soundtrack. Like the films, however, these columns don’t cost much. They may even bring you somewhat closer to the musical truth.

Record clamps

A few months ago, I had an opportunity to play with the KAB Record Clamp. Though I found it to be markedly better than no clamp at all, I was more than a bit saddened to find it to be less significant than anticipated, especially in comparison to my reference clamp, the J.A. Michell reflex clamp. I had only paid about $30 for the Michell clamp some decade plus ago, but it had so drastically bettered the KAB clamp that I had to admit my disappointment. After some considerable research on my part (or so I thought), I turned up little in the way of available record clamps under the $200 price point, and I went on to say that you would be hard-pressed to find any other clamp in the KAB’s price range. For this reason, it was in a class by itself and thereby merited your attention.

Whoops. It never fails that when I open my mouth around here, I find it to be just in time to change feet. Several days after the issue with the KAB article appeared, a reader e-mailed me with a Canadian website that listed the J.A. Michell clamp for $53 ($70 Canadian). Then the new Summer 1999 Music Direct catalog showed up. Guess what is listed on page 16 for just $40? You got it -- the J.A. Michell clamp, available in black or gold. You can order it online at www.amusicdirect.com with part number AMICCLAMPB for black or AMICCLAMPG for gold. Oh no, here comes that whining voice again: "But this is supposed to be about FREE stuff!" Read on, simpering one.

A method that I had played with over the years before I had the J.A. Michell clamp was the use of the lowly mayonnaise-jar lid. Don’t believe what you’ve read about necessity being the mother of all invention. Necessity has a stepsister -- poverty. Go to the cupboards and find any plastic jar lid that is less than four inches in diameter. Good candidates on the shelves of the audio analyst’s pantry include peanut butter and mayonnaise jars. But be sure to use the creamy-style peanut-butter top; using the lid from a jar of crunchy could add a degree of grain that I’m sure you would find objectionable [insert mental rimshot here]. But seriously folks, album labels are four inches wide (or about 10cm for those of you who are imperially challenged), so you can’t use anything wider than that. Be sure to wash and dry your chosen lid thoroughly to remove any foreign material that may soil or contaminate your precious records.

Most of those lids have a molding bump or depression at dead center. If not, you must carefully identify and mark the dead-center point for piloting a spindle hole. Grab your favorite drill, corded or otherwise, insert the smallest bit you have on hand in her chuck, and lock the bit down. Grab a scrap of wood for drill-through protection and place it under the lid. Situate the lid in the upside-down position, with the flat part of the top of the lid solidly on the wood scrap. This prevents the lid from flexing while drilling, preventing the inadvertent creation of an oblong hole -- true round is our goal. It is important to get this pilot hole centered; being even slightly off center can negate the dynamic balance of your platter. Next, chuck up a 9/32" bit and, centering on the small pre-drilled hole, bore the lid to the new width being careful to go straight through without rocking side to side. This hole needs to be somewhat smaller than your spindle or the record hole, as the friction that it offers when seating on the spindle is what clamps your record to the turntable platter and mat.

I’ve suggested using a 9/32" drill bit, but you may find that too big. There is some variance on spindles, especially with age and wear, but I found this to be fine for my ol’ Linn Sondek LP12. If you’re worried about it, and you should happen to have a 1/4" bit lying about, you can start with that. If it turns out too small, move up to the bigger 9/32" bit. And hey, if you mess up, just go get another mayo Jar. I wonder if my stock in Hellmann’s will go up?

Once the clamp is fabricated, place your clean record on the turntable and press the lid/clamp soundly down, moving your fingers all around the inside of the lid to be sure it is firmly seated. Fire up the table, drop needle to groove and be prepared to hear more truthful timbre, more inner detail and improved resolution and focus. To remove, just grab the upturned rim of the lid and twist it back and forth until it slides off. Do this gently and you will find yourself replacing your home-brew clamp less often. More reckless removal will prematurely enlarge the hole and may cause accidental damage your record.

If you like, you can try to fill the lid, and thus add mass, with coins or other small uniformly heavy objects that won’t spill through the spindle hole. But this may be dangerous. It is very hard to get the mass distributed evenly within the lid, and this can again throw off the crucial dynamic balance of your platter. Also, some platter bearings aren’t properly designed for any extra mass, and you could cause premature and permanent damage, so proceed with caution here. If your turntable manual specifically mentions that it is unwise to use clamps with any extra mass, don’t.

Have a cigar…or build an effective designer product for next to nothing

I for one am glad to see the rush to the cigar "fad" by the wannabes finally drawing to a close. Why? More affordable pricing and better selection for me! But you probably know someone with a few empty, unused and (occasionally) very attractive-looking wooden cigar boxes sitting about just gathering dust. It’s really quite difficult to just throw them out. Just because they are empty isn’t enough; it just seems like such a waste to toss out such a perfectly good-looking and functional container. Is there something productive that can be done with them? Funny you should ask.

There are many various shapes and sizes out there and, depending on how you acquire them, some of you won’t have much choice as to which ones to use. Because of space limitations in most component racks, boxes with a shallow profile will be the most desirable. I have a couple of favorites that I have collected from my dear friend "Tin Ear" Bob in South Bend. The LaFinca Romeo boxes, at 6 3/4" wide, 7 1/4" deep and only 2 1/2" tall, and the Las Cabrillas Ponce de Leon boxes, at 9 3/4" wide, 7 3/4" deep and only 2" tall, are the most usefully shaped of the lot.

Head on down to your bank, or one where they don’t know you if that will make you feel any better about it, and buy $12 or $15 worth of pennies. Yeah, I know there is a shortage right now. If you’re one of those hoarders out there responsible for this national crisis, empty that jar full of change you have in your bedroom where you deposit all your pocket change nightly and scarf what you will need for this tweak -- and then put the rest back into circulation. Otherwise, I’ll give your address to the US Mint stormtroopers!

Pour the loose pennies (yes, unroll them, silly) into the box until it is full, then shake them around to get them to settle into the smallest, most compact formation. This nets you a boatload of ballast -- and copper too! Gently place the finished box, or several if you have room, atop any of your components, taking care not to scratch the covers or obstruct any cooling vents.

You can use a piece of felt or something similar as a pad between the component and the box, but be sure it doesn’t interfere with the coupling of the two surfaces. Using small pieces for feet, or any other partial covering for that matter, will prevent the efficient mating of the two surfaces, reducing the effectiveness. These boxes are especially effective on tubed gear, preamps with highly RFI- and EMI-susceptible phono stages and source components, but will offer similar benefits with just about any component you might choose. The mass damps resonance and vibration while the densely packed copper shields stray RFI and EMI.

The improvement realized will come in the form of better resolution of low-level detail, greater focus, sharpened image outlines, and more accurate timbre. You will often hear tighter bass too and a darker background (lower noise floor). Oh no, there goes that whiner again. "Fifteen dollars worth of pennies isn’t free!" No, but you still have liquid cash on hand, not that the pizza-delivery boy will want it.

Power down and unplug anything that isn’t necessary

One of the things that can play havoc with your system’s sonic integrity is the electricity your system uses to re-create the music. Dirty and fluctuating power will affect the re-created music signal, and just about anything that is "running" contributes to degrading the AC. Lights, especially florescents and those quartz jobbies with dimmer switches, fans, dish washers, washing machines, sump pumps, televisions and computers all conspire to ruin your musical experience. The worst offenders seem to be things with motors or digital gizmos. You can take simple measures to help stabilize and clean up your power supply whenever you choose to listen.

In one home I had, I installed a switch on my refrigerator for just such reason. That and the fact that it was a mere dozen feet from my listening chair! I still go so far as to shut off all my digital components, like my D-to-A converter and computer, during critical analog listening. Actually unplugging them, even more so than just shutting them off, can make a big difference. I even turn off my heat or air conditioning to avoid unwanted fluctuations in the AC delivery, as well as to remove extraneous background noises. Turning all these things off and unplugging them removes a form of hash from the overall sound of my system and allows everything to be re-created amid a much darker background by lowering the intrinsic noise floor, both electronic and acoustic. This has the trait of enhancing low-level detail, timbre and focus. In my system it has also contributed to the top octave’s warmth and seemed to provide more tautness to bass runs and drum skins.

Lest you judge me too harshly, I got these tactics from Pierre Sprey, the gifted engineer and founder of Mapleshade Productions. He wouldn’t dream of making a recording without first unplugging the refrigerator and shutting down all the computers and other digital gizmos in his home/studio. Virtually all of his recordings are made late night/early morning with all his appliances and computers shut down and unplugged. If you’ve ever heard one of his recordings, you can plainly hear how quiet and transparent they are. Now, while these maneuvers alone are not the sole reason for the recordings’ wonderful sonic result, you can be sure that Sprey wouldn’t bother with them if he felt they made no difference.

Give it a try. It won’t cost anything. Hey, where is Mr. Whiney? Quiet at last! I guess even he has to admit that this one is truly free. Well, fade to black and roll the credits as I ride off into the dusty sunset.

...Greg Weaver


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