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Michael Fremer is a senior contributing editor for the American „Stereophile”, commonly regarded as one of the most important audio magazines. Established in 1962 (Vol.1 No.1, Issue No.1 of “The Stereophile” was published by J. Gordon Holt in Wallingford, Pennsylvania) this year the magazine celebrates its 50th anniversary. And Michael Fremer has been one of its pillars. Vinyl Man, analog guru, and magician – he is called all that. Not all are in favor of him; he also has open enemies. In one word – interesting man.
Z Michaelem Fremerem rozmawia Wojciech Pacuła

Text: Wojciech Pacuła/Michael Fremer
Pictures: Michael Fremer | Wojciech Pacuła

Date of publication: 01. March 2012, No. 94

Wojciech Pacuła: First of all, please tell me when and where you were born.
Michael Fremer: I was born in New York City in 1947. I am fairly well-preserved, don’t you think?

WP: Oh, yes, I am shocked, really! Anyway - how was your childhood?
MF: I had two older sisters who each had their own room until I showed up. Then they had to share one. Sibling torture was a price worth paying for my privacy. When I was around four years old I used to entertain my parents’ friends by identifying every record in their collection of 78s, even though I couldn’t read. I knew them by the label art. When there was more than one record on a particular label I could distinguish among them by scratches on the paper or other marks and blemishes. They found this ability amusing and entertaining.The first record I ever owned was “The Glow Worm” by The Mills Brothers on Decca Records. I also had “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” by Patti Page. My father wasn’t particularly affectionate towards me—in fact punishment was the only time he ever touched me, but I did manage to get him to buy a decent stereo system when I was about eleven or twelve years old. His office was in Manhattan very close to “Radio Row” where the American hi-fi industry started. It was downtown where The World Trade Center was eventually built. Every store was a hi-fi store or an appliance store or a surplus electronics store. It’s where Avery Fisher and Saul Marantz, among others, went to buy the parts they used to build their first “hobbyist” audio systems, before turning the hobby into a business. So at least I grew up with a decent stereo system in the house! It was a Bogen receiver, a Garrard Type A turntable and some Jensen speakers, later replaced by Acoustic Research 2ax.

WP: Where did graduate from and what did you study?
MF: I got a degree from Cornell University in Industrial and Labor Relations and then dropped out of Boston University Law School after finishing a year and half. By then I had been working in a record store to feed my vinyl habit and I’d begun producing radio commercials for the store that proved to be very popular with the Boston radio audience. In no time I was earning a living (meager) producing radio commercials and I’d become a minor celebrity. I did commercials for record stores and for stereo stores. They were funny and outrageous and listeners actually called the stations and requested the commercials.
Soon I was hired as a disc jockey at WBCN-FM, which was one of America’s first and most respected ‘free form’ progressive rock radio stations. So my first professional radio job was at the very top! I got fired. Not for not being good, or not being funny, or for not being popular, but because I did something the program director told me not to. I got back on the air but eventually got hired to work on an animated film called “Animalympics” that you can find now on YouTube. It was on television in America and in movie theaters overseas. I co-wrote it, and did voices on it. I also supervised the surround sound mix and edited the movie. I then went on to supervise the Academy Award nominated soundtrack to the movie “TRON.” All this time I was still producing radio commercials as a side business, and writing for magazines in Los Angeles.

WP: How did you come to audio business?
MF: I was always into hi-fi—since I was a kid. Growing up I read Stereo Review, High Fidelity [American one – ed.] and Audio. But by the early ‘70s I started losing interest as the scene got homogenized and taken over by big companies. The hobby quality had gone out of it. Then, around 1973, a friend from my law school days introduced me to The Absolute Sound. I’d never heard a really high-end stereo since I was still caught up in the mid-fi, it all sounds the same philosophy of Stereo Review. I got hooked again when I heard my friend’s system consisting of Audio Research electronics, a Kenwood KD-500 turntable, Infinity Black Widow tonearm and a pair of Magnapan Typani 1C speakers. I’d never heard anything like that! He introduced me to The Absolute Sound and I began reading it.
In 1986 The Absolute Sound’s Harry Pearson wrote that he was looking for a pop music editor and I applied for the job. I sent him an article about how bad recorded sound had gotten that I’d written for a Los Angeles magazine called Music Connection and he liked it enough to hire me, though I kept producing radio commercials for stereo and video stores. So I began reviewing music for TAS and eventually started reviewing equipment but not before I’d learned how, thanks to Pearson. He returned many reviews to me before he felt I was ready to be published. Unfortunately, today, few such “filters” exist and anyone can be an audio reviewer without getting any kind of training, or proper editing.

WP: How did you get to Stereophile?
MF: I stayed at TAS until 1994 when I felt I needed a change. By then Stereophile had become a serious TAS competitor and was thriving. So I asked John Atkinson for a job.

WP: Did you write solely about turntables from the start?
MF: I told John I wanted to write a monthly column. He said “about what?” I said “about analog and vinyl records.” He said “Well records and turntables are going away and you will eventually write yourself out of a job.” I told him I was resourceful and that if that happened I would find something else to do because I hated the sound of compact discs and that I was not interested in covering an industry stuck with CDs because I didn’t consider them sonically involving and found them difficult to listen to. So I started writing my “Analog Corner” column and within a very short time it became one of the magazine’s most popular features! It certainly wasn’t something I planned to happen. It just did!

WP: Did you believe that there’s any hope for vinyl in the 80’s and the 90’s when digital seemed to be the last word in audio? How did you know that vinyl would survive? Or maybe it was just a lucky shot?
MF: I always held out hope for vinyl’s survival. I couldn’t imagine a world without records, nor can I imagine one without books. I thought the sound was so bad that eventually people would notice! Yes, the technology was ‘sexy’ but the packaging was as awful as the sound, even as people insisted it sounded great. It didn’t. It was convenient, and what wasn’t there (noise, etc.) was great, but what was there was pretty unconvincing. Even though on the surface it appeared that vinyl would die, I kept hearing from people around the world who agreed with me. So many people! That made me think vinyl would survive. When Michael Hobson started Classic Records to re-issue great recordings on vinyl from the ‘50s and ‘60s I felt the vinyl resurgence had begun. Then other companies began issuing vinyl and now look! I always felt vinyl would “survive” because there was a big generation of people who grew up with it and loved it but I really never expected a young generation would embrace it but that’s what’s happened. It’s not a huge number of kids, but it’s big enough to justify most rock groups issuing their music on vinyl. Vinyl and downloads is the future and that’s how it should be. I always said a spinning digital disc was ridiculous—especially since a CD is really an analog format! The pits and land surfaces on the disc are analogs of the “1s” and “0”s.

WP: Tell me about your – is it a magazine, a web portal or something else? Why did you start it?
MF: During the mid-90’s with a partner, I started a music review magazine called “The Tracking Angle.” It evolved into a full-color glossy, perfect bound magazine we were very proud of. But it lost money because we had trouble attracting record company advertising—even though we were all about physical media, both CD and vinyl. After four years we felt we were going to get support from the record labels and the people we were trying to get to advertise with us were about to come on board when the “great record company consolidation” occurred. Sony merged with BMG, MCA merged with Polygram, Island, Def Jam, A&M and others and became UMG (Universal Music Group) and all of the people we were dealing with literally disappeared. We decided to close the magazine rather than lose money for a fifth year. is a music review website specializing in vinyl record reviews and feature stories about music and sound. You will find interviews with Beatles producer George Martin, engineers like Roy Halee (Simon and Garfunkel, The Byrds, etc.), studio owners like Stan Ross (Goldstar where Phil Spector recorded) and dozens more. With The Tracking Angle gone, and the world wide web becoming popular, I started the website to post all of The Tracking Angle content and to have a place to continue writing music reviews that would cost a lot of money.

WP: What are major strengths and weaknesses of printed magazines?
MF: A high production value print magazine, published on thick, glossy paper, containing beautiful photography cannot be matched by reading the same content and seeing the same pictures on a computer. You linger on a beautiful photo in a magazine than seeing the same photo on line. You read it differently on the two formats too. Even a generation brought up on computers will want to read some content on the printed page because they are different experiences. Unfortunately, print magazines are expensive to produce and distribute.

WP: Any weaknesses of internet-based magazines?
MF: The biggest weakness of internet-based magazines is the unlimited word and page count. You can write as much as you want and unfortunately too many “writers” go on and on and on. It takes great editing and discipline to produce a good internet-based magazine. It can be done. Unfortunately, particularly in the audio field, few are produced that way!

WP: What would be your advice to someone who wants to start flirting with vinyl – what is the path?
MF: Well of course I recommend getting my two DVDs! “21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up” and “It’s a Vinyl World, After All.” They are now being imported to Poland by Audio System. Even an entry level turntable like a Rega P1 or a Pro-Ject Debut III can easily “hook” you into vinyl! From there the experience only gets better and better as you spend more money. There’s a lot of great information about vinyl online. Search the web and you’ll find great sites about records (including, of course!) and about vinyl playback. And of course now you can order records online and have them delivered to your door.

WP: What is your opinion about reissues vs original pressings – there are two sides of the story – please tell me something more about it.
MF: Original pressings of older recordings were produced when the tape was fresh compared to a reissue using a forty or fifty year old tape, so in that sense the original has an advantage. However, records were mass-produced in those days and usually the vinyl was not nearly as quiet as it is today, nor was it pressed with as much care, though some argue that the people doing it back then had a lot more experience than some of the people doing it now.
Many reissues sound much better than the originals, particularly the ones done at 45rpm as double record sets. Finding an original that’s clean and quiet is becoming a very expensive and time consuming pastime. Even though double 45rpm reissues are relatively expensive, originals are usually far more expensive, and usually they will be noisier.
So I have two clean original Columbia “6 Eye” pressings of Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” and they sound more “lively” than any of the reissues and Miles’ trumpet sounds more refined and in better focus, but the records are noisier. The reissues have jet-black backgrounds and let you hear further into the soundstage. It’s a trade-off.
The biggest problem with reissues today is that too many people have jumped into it and they are pressing records sourced from CDs or other questionable sources. Who needs a vinyl record sourced from a CD? There are horrible-sounding records coming from Germany and Russia sourced from bad CDs.

WP: What is the best pressing plant nowadays?
MF: There are a few truly great ones today: Pallas in Germany, RTI and Quality Record Pressing in America and GZS in the Czech Republic. There’s also a superb one in Japan, the name of which escapes me, and some smaller ones that are also quite good, including the former EMI plant in the UK. All of them are trying to get better, which is great! For instance, Rainbo in California has always been known as a mediocre “commercial” pressing plant but the owner has made a commitment to improving quality and he has. The Quality Record Pressing plant opened last year by Acoustic Sounds owner Chad Kassem has quickly become one of the top plants. I’d say RTI, Pallas and Quality Record Pressing are the top three.

WP: How about pressings using digital master-tapes – are they viable alternatives to the originals?
MF: The Decca era Rolling Stones box was sourced from DSD transfers converted to high resolution PCM and they sound fantastic and understandably better than CDs! If the source is 192k/24 bit or 96/24 bit then it’s going to sound better than the CD version. If the source is a CD quality file, it could still sound better on vinyl, depending upon the quality of the A/D converter used to cut the record compared to your home D/A converter used to playback the CD. But now that you can buy and download high resolution digital files, it will be harder to make the case for vinyl cut from these files.

WP: Please tell me something about your DVD guides – why, when, where?
MF: The first DVD shows you how to set up a turntable. I set up a Pro-Ject, a Rega and a VPI, but if you watch it (it runs 3 hours) you can set up any turntable. I made that DVD in 2006 and it continues to sell very well. More than 12,000 copies have sold and the feedback I continue to get is very positive. The second DVD shows how records are made at Pallas and RTI and it covers record handling, storage, cleaning and collecting. It’s fun.

WP: Any future plans?
MF: I thought about making a DVD about computer audio but unfortunately that field changes to quickly I’m afraid it will be obsolete before it’s released. So I’m not sure. Probably I’ll update the PDF file on the turntable set-up DVD. It’s a 30 page file you get by putting the DVD in your computer drive. I’ve learned some new set up techniques using a digital microscope and a digital oscilloscope that should be included. Otherwise just keep on doing what I’m doing until my hearing gives out! That’s bound to happen. The truth is, I don’t hear as well as I did when I was younger, but I’m a much better listener because I have so much more experience.

WP: Are you a happy man? Why?
MF: I’ve never been one of those bubbly-happy people. I’m darker than that. That’s why I like listening to Lou Reed more than Abba! And sometimes I think I got screwed by some people I worked for. In fact I know I did! But really, I have a wonderful wife a nice home, I’ve never been sick in my life, never been hospitalized and I really feel great. I work out at the gym three times a week and have the same waist line I did when I was 25! I guess I’m vain. One of the great things about attending a hi-fi show is that when you go to the gym it’s empty! Audio doesn’t attract the most active people!
I’ve been able to earn a decent living writing about audio and music and meeting so many nice people all over the world when I travel is really rewarding. I never imagined when I started writing my “Analog Corner” column in Stereophile that one day I’d be invited to, among other places, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Poland to show people how to set up a turntable and be greeted so warmly!
My job is fun—not as much fun as people imagine—but compared to many jobs it surely is!

WP: Did audio bring joy to your life?
MF: know many, many people who are much more into audio than am I. These are people who collect audio gear. They have shelves filled with it: vintage, new, experimental, you name it. That’s not me. I’ve never been that much into the gear. Music brings the joy. Audio is simply the carrier.

WP: Thanks Michael!
MF: You’re welcome :)