At the Melbourne Audio Visual Show in October of last year, Edgar Kramer got a chance to catch up with Dietrich Brakemeier of Acoustical Systems to discuss all things analogue and the Axiom tonearm.
Edgar Kramer: Please tell us Dietrich, what do you think are the reasons for this resurgence in analogue playback?
Dietrich Brakemeier: I must say that it’s an irony that analogue took off just before being put in the trash can of history. It really started to diminish in the late 1980s. Analogue is the last niche in audio where you can physically do something yourself, it’s a haptic approach. We are seeing in the next few years the CD leaving the market altogether and what we’re left with is either downloads – which is not tactile and as humans we need to touch something to build a relationship – or analogue which offers the option to fine tune the sonic experience to ones tastes and expectations with much wider options of highlighting and fine tuning. There is no absolute fidelity, each of us has our own idea of what the right sound is for us. Analogue is a wide field where a gifted designer can fine tune towards a sonic experience which he wants to achieve. Analogue can accomplish music which can connect to your taste, to your brain, to your senses, to your soul…
EK: Moving from that, on a technical level, some say that tone arms, turntables and so on are mechanical devices and by nature are flawed. But on the other hand why is it that it can sound so good?
DB: Because analogue gives you what is not necessarily preserved when it’s encoded in ones and zeros. Analogue gives you the very fine… fractions. The signals in between. Not cut off at 20kHz. Even if we don’t hear an isolated signal above, say 16kHz at best, you still hear the harmonics. Hearing is very complex and not only takes place in your ears but also in your brain. The brain composes out of the many ways of reception we have in our bodies, our eye lids, cheek bones, even skin on our face, it all adds to a complex impression which we call hearing and digital has failed in my opinion to prove that it is superior. They promised superiority but never lived up to the promise. We have to thank digital for the convenience, but more importantly, because it forced analogue to either keep up or leave the field altogether. Analogue should be very grateful to digital for forcing it to prove what it can really do after 130 years.
EK: So given what you’ve just expressed; where do we go from here?
DB: Good question. I think we still have a lot of options to explore where we can further expand and fine tune analogue playback. Up to now there has been very little research into the interaction between the different links of the chain in analogue audio. The complex relationship between the cartridge and tone arm which is mechanical and electrical, for example. Every tone arm designer claims their arm is universal; cartridge designers claim theirs works best with all arms, same with phono stage designers, and turntable designers claim theirs works with every tone arm. Each of them is laying the complexity and the quality on his own product. But it is a chain, components depending on each other; it’s a system.
With digital there are some things that can go wrong but really not many. With analogue there’s an abundance. But if you get everything right, and it’s not a question of chance or luck, you then can arrive at a result that you can only achieve with analogue, in my opinion.
EK: What have you aimed for with the Axiom tone arm?
DB: It’s a unique situation. It’s the first arm that was designed from scratch without all given “proved” facts in tone arm design. It uses a different tangential geometry to any other arm and built with one main target and that was to ease, amplify and escalate the energy transfer from the tracking process itself to the highest possible degree. To get the energy from the groove, which is like a mechanical explosion, to go through the arm and arm board without causing the cartridge and arm to oscillate and to pick up resonances from this tracking process. It’s mechanical transport media that has to isolate itself, at least the parts which are purely there for geometrical guidance and isolate them from the tracking process itself and not give back reflections back into it and ruining, to different degrees, its own results.
EK: On a personal level, who are some of the people or designs that you admire or have inspired you?
DB: In terms of tone arm design there’s only one person whom I really admire because his work was not influenced by any audio perspective but by pure mechanical engineering and its consequence. And that is Isamu Ikeda a Japanese engineer and founder of Fidelity Research and later Ikeda Sound Labs who in my perspective invented 40 years ago a tone arm design that has stood the test of time. It has proved, in my opinion, that until late last year it has been on par with any design that followed it.
Many tone arm designers that came later forgot vital perspectives such as mechanical and cross vector aspects in pivot tone arm design. If you looked at it from the pure standpoint of an engineer without any audio perspective – free from audio pre-knowledge and history - learning from scratch about mechanics and static and dynamic behaviour in moving objects, you’d find that a lot of designers have simply not done their homework.
There is ample field for further improvement in analogue audio, be it tone arms, be it cartridges, be it turntables. Two of them are purely mechanical things. No aspect of mechanics has changed since the fifth century before Christ when the complete perspective of mechanics until today has got its theoretical foundations. Nevertheless we see today, in contradiction to the late 1970s when most of the great tone arm designs were made by real engineers, that designers are gifted, very ambitious and very enthusiastic audio amateurs. They are not trained engineers. If you look at many of the tone arm designs, like the Ikeda, Micro Seiki and Pioneer Exlusive tone arms, they were very complex things. Nothing you could make in the tool shed or the kitchen table. Nowadays you see tone arm designs popping everywhere with one USP [Unique Selling Proposition – Ed] which they can market as being new or unique or that it offers a secret ingredient from the whole potpourri. Like for example wood-based materials for the tone arm which can carry detrimental resonances and have a sound signature.
The tone arm and cartridge have to be a happy couple. The tone arm has to have zero interference. People say, “Oh, this tone arm sounds superb”, well a tone arm should have no sound at all, it just allows the cartridge to shine. That’s all.
EK: Where do you hope analogue goes to in a decade or so?
DB: It’s a question of how many young people analogue reaches in the next few years who are willing to sacrifice convenience for individuality. It has survived the 1990s, which I wouldn’t have bet on at all, and I’m optimistic because there will always be a significant fraction of people who go for quality and who is willing to listen. If you’re willing to listen then analogue will survive, evolve, develop and we are a long way from seeing the end of the horizon for analogue audio.
Given the ample supply of records over the last 60 plus years and immense amount of music that you can’t find anywhere else, and in the way you’re not just downloading, but searching, hunting for it. For example, Amazon’s vinyl sales figures have escalated by 800 percent over the last five years and today there is 19 times more records pressed than 12 years ago. So, even though analogue barely survived 20 years ago, it is now going very strong and will grow and survive into the future.