Music and culture
By Angus on Monday, 10 July 2023

Lyrical renderings of childhood memories sometimes manifest as overwrought retellings of the events that inform them. Sometimes padded out by embellished narrative and an adult’s heavy-handed attempts to evoke the emotions of a child, these feelings are often so long forgotten by the artist that their recounting is difficult to grasp.

On ‘Randy Described Eternity’ however, the opening track from Built to Spill’s 1997 magnum opus ‘Perfect From Now On’, we’re treated to a retelling that’s both simple and direct as in a child’s understanding, but so succinctly penned that only one of indie rock’s great lyricists could’ve conjured them.

Album artwork: Built To Spill - Perfect From Now On
Randy Described Eternity takes a memory of a Christian youth group leader proselytising the concept of eternal damnation to lead singer, lyricist and then-child Doug Martsch.


‘Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter
Floats just a few yards past the Earth
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
'Til you've worn it down
To the size of a pea
Yeah, I'd say that's a long time
But it's only half a blink
In the place you're gonna be’

The metaphor is, of course, intentionally outsized. A gigantic metal object, worn away over thousands and thousands of years until it’s the size of a pea. The reference points here are shrewdly simple, as in the mind of a child; the object is ten times larger than Jupiter, by the end of the verse it’s been worn down to a pea.

Built to Spill live at Treefort Music Fest 2016
Aaron-Rodriguez-Treefort 2016-212 / Wikipedia

The culmination of all this enormity is delivered with the impact of a sledgehammer in the final two lines of the verse - if that sounds big, well kid, get ready, because in the halls of eternity, it’s only half a blink.

What’s most impressive for lyrics that are laden with such deliberate overstatement is that they relay an idea simply without sounding forced or obvious. As the genius.com user ‘REALcounterfeit’ fervently states in the comments section for the song - “yeah so I’m absolutely sure that these are potentially some of the best lyrics of all time.”

The second verse doesn’t drill down any further into the memory, but does take a wonderfully pithy swipe at (presumably) the same Christian camp leader’s ideals of redemption with the line “I’m going to be perfect from now on, I’m going to be perfect starting now”, as if salvation is still available at the drop of a hat when repentance is settled upon.

Cartoon of Built to Spill performing live
Cun Shi / The New Yorker

Read on a page as words without music, it’s difficult to ascribe a meter or musical cadence to the lyrics of ‘Randy Described Eternity’. Even after the first few listens, committing the melody to memory is difficult.

`The song begins with two guitars lilting lazily between three notes together, with drums and bass soon joining with a loose, meandering feel. The instruments all hang there in unison for a moment, until about the 47 second mark when suddenly a coarse buzzsaw synth comes pulsing in like an alarm, waking the band from their collective slumber. A cascading, raucous rush crashes across the speakers and Doug Martsch’s vocals are centre stage.

The use of dynamics are deft on this track, moving nimbly in between the lines of soft-loud-soft-loud that were so ubiquitous in alt/indie rock at the time. The lyrical passages only occupy about half of the 6:05 runtime, the track’s second half gradually morphs from a loose, reverb-drenched midwestern indie instrumental into a fuzzy, frantic jam session that mushrooms into a sort of shredfest and then slowly fades.

Built to Spill Live  at Mr. Small's in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2023

Matthewvetter / Wikipedia

The band generously give us the runtime of the track over again, offering time to absorb and ponder what’s just passed.

The level of fan examination bestowed on this song is a testament to how beloved it is by the BTS community - in 2019 a physics PhD student at Brown University in Rhode Island penned a scientifically accurate breakdown of how long it would actually take to wear the sphere down, and how it relates to the concept of eternity.

This degree of analysis and adoration is spawned by two things; great art, and the passage of time, a reflection of the magnitude of artistry contained within the song.

Listen to Randy Described Eternity on Spotify / Apple Music / YouTube

By Angus on Wednesday, 05 July 2023

As someone who cut their teeth on the indie rock scene of the early 2000s, a time marked by what many saw as the dying embers of truly original rock music, I've found myself ensnared in an ongoing debate, typically with older generations. That debate? Whether the sonic panorama of modern rock music, in its reflection of the sounds of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, is a derivative rehashing or (as is my belief) totally original music that deserves to be judged in its own light.

Carlos Tischler / Getty, Rob Verhorst / Redferns 

 

Bands like Interpol, The Strokes, and LCD Soundsystem, which held the pulse of certain pockets of my generation, are frequently thrust into comparative analyses with the likes of Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and Suicide. These comparisons are perhaps unavoidable. Must they undermine the validity of the music, or can we find a new paradigm for appreciating modern rock music in its own right?


Consider Interpol, a band whose guitar-laden post-punk revival sound draws constant critical parallels with Joy Division. Listen to their debut album, "Turn On the Bright Lights," and the influence is unmistakable, especially in tracks like "Obstacle 1". The propulsive bassline, the icy guitar riffs, and the Paul Banks' baritone may conjure memories of the brooding Mancunians for some.

Yet, Interpol's music, while channelling some of the spirit of Joy Division, is far from being a pastiche of their predecessor. Their lyrics weave a distinct narrative tapestry, a modern melancholy that resonates with a different generation. This isn't a band cosplaying Curtis and co; it's a band that has absorbed, acknowledged, and built upon their influences to create something masterful and timeless.

The music is more textured, more layered, and less spartan than what came before it. Wearing the music you celebrate as having an indelible impact on your own work ought to be celebrated, not spurned.

Band photo - The Strokes

Roger Woolman / Wikipedia

The Strokes, another titan of the turn-of-the-century indie scene, are frequently likened to Velvet Underground. Their seminal album, "Is This It," does carry echoes of the gritty, sleazy sound of the '60s rock pioneers.

And yes, both groups hail from NY, and both had a strong proclivity for leather jackets and black skinny jeans. But to dismiss The Strokes’ undeniable songwriting chops as some sort of derivation of a superior musical force is confoundingly ignorant and willfully stupid. ‘Someday’, ‘Last Nite’, and ‘Hard to Explain’ are sparkling examples of the band's distinct voice, melding overly self-aware lyricism with a distinctly modern, angular musical approach that tranmutates their influences into a brilliantly unique body of work, one which endures among the greatest of the 21st century.

LCD Soundsystem, the brainchild of James Murphy, is a different beast altogether. Tracks like "Movement" from the band’s eponymous debut recall the rhythmic pulses of Suicide, whilst Murphy’s vocal delivery is a very intentional aping of The Fall’s Mark E Smith. Murphy's approach transcends mimicry though, self-awareness oozing from every lazily-delivered lyric.

The band adroitly fuses elements of punk, dance, and electronica into a sonically rich tapestry. Moreover, his erudite, poignant lyrics, most notably on tracks like "Someone Great" and "All My Friends," provide an emotional weight and contemporary consciousness rarely explored in his predecessors' work.

The argument that modern rock music is merely derivative overlooks the fundamental nature of artistic evolution. The creative process is one of assimilation and transformation, where the old is invariably refracted through the prism of the new. The Beatles were influenced by Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin by blues artists like Willie Dixon, and David Bowie by Little Richard. Influence and originality aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

Split screen of Paul McCartney and Chuck Berry

Getty


The key to appreciating modern rock in its own right, then, is to liberate it from the shackles of inordinate comparisons. Influence should be seen as a starting point, not an endpoint. A homage, not a theft. By acknowledging the duality of influence and originality, we can appreciate the artistry of modern rock bands on their own terms. The 2000s rock revival scene didn't simply echo the past; it interpreted, reimagined, and continued the conversation started by its predecessors.

It’s important to approach the music of these bands with a refreshed perspective. Listen again, not for the echoes of their influences, but for the unique sonic narratives they've crafted. Their work deserves more than to be labelled as a shadow of past greatness. It is its own greatness, a testament to a generation's capacity to create vibrant, authentic, and enduring music.

By Angus on Thursday, 29 June 2023

I’ll regularly check in with TheNeedleDrop’s YouTube channel to see what’s on his weekly list of new releases. It’s a decent slice of tracks that are fresh off the shelf, new music from artists of some significance or bearing on the pop landscape, and I appreciate that it’s not limited exclusively to tracks he likes. We get the chaff as well as the wheat.

Logo of Youtuber @theneedledrop

YouTube / @theneedledrop 

 

Last week there was a mention of a song by London-based rapper and singer J Hus. The song itself was fine; a nice bouncy Afrobeat rhythm, some synthetic marimba flourishes here and there and charismatic delivery typical of J Hus. Enter a Drake feature, or rather the over-processed husk of what used to be Drake’s soul. Timbre? Nope. Melody? In a way, but it could’ve been phoned in from any other Drake track from the last five years. Emotion? No chance.

He sounded like he’d been run through a filter that was designed to disrobe his voice box of any signs of humanity. Heavily processed, lifeless vocals are nothing new in modern pop, but personal opinions on Drake’s career trajectory aside, this felt extraordinary to me. New heights of banality. And it’s reflective of a larger picture in the context of modern pop.

We’ve been flying very close to an ever-growing musical black hole for a long time now, and it’s possible that we’ve actually passed the event horizon and pop music is now post-supernova. Some time in the mid-2010’s, radio EDM, trap, pop, and more recently reggaeton began to fuse into an anonymous amalgamation of all of those genres. Unfortunately, this morass took the worst and most obvious parts of each and discarded considered songwriting or lyrical depth, replacing them with a sort of hyper-concentrated sugar rush of musical nothingness.

Still from Interstellar movie of the black hole

At first it seemed reasonable to assume the blueprint would fade away, but as time has passed the hit machine continues to churn. Pop, it seems, has hit a creative low point. Of course, there’s still hundreds of thousands of wonderful artists out there producing music that’s exciting, daring and new, but we’re zeroing in on what occupies most of the charts, presently.

We want to examine the common tropes and complaints when it comes to modern pop, and many lament the dwindling lyrical originality. The last few decades have indeed been characterised by a notable shift towards simpler, repetitive lyrics that are designed for mass consumption rather than cerebral reflection. This is valid, but the spectrum of lyrical themes in pop have never been broad (love, loss, money, etc) and whilst this departure from meaningful storytelling is often attributed to the growing importance of streaming success and easily digestible jingles, you might be shocked at the lack of lyrical depth in any chosen Billboard chart from a given year.

Lionel Ritchie performing live in the 80s

Walt Disney Television via Getty 

 

For illustrative purposes, December 1982’s Billboard top 5 contained five songs about love or relationships or the sexual nature of human beings and little else. And good luck convincing me that AI couldn’t have written the words to ‘Truly’ by Lionel Ritchie, the number four song for that month. Artists and producers today are under increasing pressure to produce tracks that will top charts and yield instant virality, a feat often achieved with catchy, simplistic hooks rather than profound lyrical substance.

Yes the demand for songcraft may have declined, but the narrow scope of themes is a tale as old as recorded music. Putting lyrics to one side, the decline in the dynamic range of modern pop justifies some pearl-clutching. The days of stirring vocal crescendos, sweeping key changes and enveloping songcraft are gone, bucko. Instead, we’ve got songs that maintain a constant ‘flatness’ of volume and scarcely reach for anything resembling the stars.

The 'loudness war', a term coined to describe the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music, is seen by many as symptomatic of the diminishing subtlety and complexity in pop music, but we’d posit that it’s probably the other way around. Either way, this development does a bang up job of sucking the emotion from a song, and it’s ubiquitous on the charts. There’s a very limited degree of how much you can convey with synths that are the same volume as the drums with are the same volume as the vocals which are the same volume as the rest of the song, and that volume is loud.

Fueling the tendency toward flat and loud tunes is the increasingly synthetic nature of the modern pop palette. In a recent interview, producer and DJ A-Trak mentioned the way that requests from the crowd at live shows are moving away from specific songs and towards broader desires like artists or musical flavours. We’re not even chasing a specific song, we’re chasing a vibe.

In isolation these proclivities and musical traits aren’t problematic, but it could be perceived as a preference for music-as-window-dressing rather than the desire to engage emotionally with music. Examining the root cause, the ease of access to music production tools has undeniably democratised artistic output, but it's also led to a homogenisation of sonic textures, with pop tracks often feeling overly polished, lacking the raw emotion that analogue production once captured.

There’s other contributing factors to this musical flattening that we’re living through; TikTok’s demand for trend-friendly musical microclips, the age of streaming and on-demand convenience, shorter attention spans, but these arguments are overcooked at this point.

Despite all of that, let’s not pessimistically dismiss modern pop music as a lost cause. The very criticisms levelled against it—its repetitiveness, simplicity, digitisation—might also be its saving graces. These traits have made music more accessible to both creators and consumers, expanding the realm of musical possibilities.

Just outside the confines of the mainstream, artists are pushing boundaries, experimenting with sounds, lyrics, and structures, and blending genres in ways that were unimaginable in the past. Acts like 100 Gecs are pushing the concept of what pop is and can be to its extremes, but these sorts of artists still dwell on the fringes in relative terms.

100gecs musical duo

The Guardian 

 

The current state of radio pop may appear stark in comparison to the cherished halcyon days of the middle and late 20th century. However, a society standing on the precipice of a golden age doesn’t know it’s there until after it’s happened. Music is a living, breathing entity, forever in flux, echoing the times we live in.

And if what’s popular at a given time is simply a reflection of the current existential landscape, then maybe pop’s malaise is just a mirror for our times, and simplicity for the masses is where we’re collectively at. If this admission feels a bit defeatist, take a second to remember that trends are cyclical, and we’ll eventually come out the other side. In the meantime, there’s plenty else to discover outside the popular realm.

By Angus on Wednesday, 28 June 2023

The world of video game music is a domain generally relegated to low-traffic subreddits and comic book-esque conventions that people from the ‘outside world’ steer clear of. But it’s nearly as diverse and sprawling as the gaming landscape itself, and a woman whose name is being mentioned more and more as a masterful video game composer is Nintendo’s Manaka Kataoka.

At the heart of Kataoka's distinctive oeuvre lie two iconic titles from The Legend of Zelda series: Breath of the Wild and the just-released  Together with co-composers Yasuaki Iwata, and Hajime Wakai, Kataoka has crafted something gorgeous and timeless.

Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


All three have contributed equally to the game’s soundtracks, but it’s Kataoka’s sometimes brutally spare piano compositions that leave the most indelible mark on your brain. Both games have been praised for their immersive open world gameplay, but their accompanying soundtracks are astonishing works of art in their own right.

Discussion of Kataoka's work generally centres around her innovative use of the piano. Unlike some compositions where the piano takes centre stage with dramatic grandeur, Kataoka uses the instrument in a more nuanced fashion.

In both games, the piano serves as an atmospheric tool, providing the player with subtle emotional cues rather than driving the narrative with a powerful, commanding presence. The effect is akin to hearing droplets of rain tapping against a windowpane – constant yet gentle, nonintrusive yet atmospheric.

The notes stumble and scatter, mimicking the lonely, windswept landscape that both games depict. At some points during gameplay, the music is seemingly at the mercy of the wind, echoing the sensation of exploring the vast, richly bucolic Hyrulian landscape.

Two hands playing a piano

Because the arrangements are so sparse, they can turn in seconds with a single note, moving from a sense of wonderment and awe to the feeling of raw, emotional tension, echoing the fear and uncertainty that permeates the game's shapeshifting world.

Repetition is a crucial element in Kataoka's scores. Here, less is more; the scarcity of sound emphasises the powerful impact each note has. The repetitive melodies act as a sort of emotional anchor, grounding the player in the in-game world and the characters' experiences.

The minimalist approach creates an auditory space where the beauty of each note is heightened, and the listener is invited to savour the journey rather than being swept along a turbulent musical river. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped atop a hill in Breath of the Wild or perched on one of Tears of the Kingdom’s sky islands to take in a sunset while the most perfectly restrained melody lilted in the background.

There are plenty of parallels with the world of ambient music. I’d go so far as to suggest that both of these games feature what could be defined as a sort of ambient gameplay.

Kataoka's approach to the score is evocative for me of the work of artists like Suzanne Kraft and Jonny Nash. Just like them, her contributions to the Zelda soundtrack are incredibly patient and value space and nuance.

Sunset image from Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


All three artist’s compositions have room to unfurl at their own pace, offering a gentle push rather than a relentless drive. Their music meanders, lingers, and guides the listener's emotional response, and in Kataoka’s case, subtly crafting an aural environment as nuanced as the game's visual elements.

Kraft, Nash, and Kataoka also appreciate silence. A well-placed pause is just as powerful as a chord struck at the right moment. Kataoka’s music flows, ebbs, and occasionally, stops completely - giving the listener a chance to digest, to absorb, and to feel. It's a masterclass in restraint.

Enjoying Kataoka's work is not just about the music itself, but how it affects the mood and pacing of the worlds she’s soundtracking. In a fictional realm where the player can stray from the broader narrative structure for tens of hours at a time, the soundtrack serves as an invaluable anchor, a sort of musical storytelling device that shifts with the surrounding environments.

Of course, using music to drive or slow the tempo of a game or film is nothing new, but the deftness of touch Kataoka exerts upon the game’s environs is peerless.

Landscape image from Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


Manaka Kataoka has profoundly affected the way I view the possibilities of video game scores to transform the experience of interacting with fictional worlds. Her scores for The Legend of Zelda series elevate video game music from anonymous mood filler to a nuanced emotional journey.

In doing so, she skillfully illustrates that video game music is not just an accompaniment to the on-screen action but an essential part of the narrative. The prospect of what she might do next is a thrilling one.

By Angus on Monday, 10 July 2023

Lyrical renderings of childhood memories sometimes manifest as overwrought retellings of the events that inform them. Sometimes padded out by embellished narrative and an adult’s heavy-handed attempts to evoke the emotions of a child, these feelings are often so long forgotten by the artist that their recounting is difficult to grasp.

On ‘Randy Described Eternity’ however, the opening track from Built to Spill’s 1997 magnum opus ‘Perfect From Now On’, we’re treated to a retelling that’s both simple and direct as in a child’s understanding, but so succinctly penned that only one of indie rock’s great lyricists could’ve conjured them.

Album artwork: Built To Spill - Perfect From Now On
Randy Described Eternity takes a memory of a Christian youth group leader proselytising the concept of eternal damnation to lead singer, lyricist and then-child Doug Martsch.


‘Every thousand years
This metal sphere
Ten times the size of Jupiter
Floats just a few yards past the Earth
You climb on your roof
And take a swipe at it
With a single feather
Hit it once every thousand years
'Til you've worn it down
To the size of a pea
Yeah, I'd say that's a long time
But it's only half a blink
In the place you're gonna be’

The metaphor is, of course, intentionally outsized. A gigantic metal object, worn away over thousands and thousands of years until it’s the size of a pea. The reference points here are shrewdly simple, as in the mind of a child; the object is ten times larger than Jupiter, by the end of the verse it’s been worn down to a pea.

Built to Spill live at Treefort Music Fest 2016
Aaron-Rodriguez-Treefort 2016-212 / Wikipedia

The culmination of all this enormity is delivered with the impact of a sledgehammer in the final two lines of the verse - if that sounds big, well kid, get ready, because in the halls of eternity, it’s only half a blink.

What’s most impressive for lyrics that are laden with such deliberate overstatement is that they relay an idea simply without sounding forced or obvious. As the genius.com user ‘REALcounterfeit’ fervently states in the comments section for the song - “yeah so I’m absolutely sure that these are potentially some of the best lyrics of all time.”

The second verse doesn’t drill down any further into the memory, but does take a wonderfully pithy swipe at (presumably) the same Christian camp leader’s ideals of redemption with the line “I’m going to be perfect from now on, I’m going to be perfect starting now”, as if salvation is still available at the drop of a hat when repentance is settled upon.

Cartoon of Built to Spill performing live
Cun Shi / The New Yorker

Read on a page as words without music, it’s difficult to ascribe a meter or musical cadence to the lyrics of ‘Randy Described Eternity’. Even after the first few listens, committing the melody to memory is difficult.

`The song begins with two guitars lilting lazily between three notes together, with drums and bass soon joining with a loose, meandering feel. The instruments all hang there in unison for a moment, until about the 47 second mark when suddenly a coarse buzzsaw synth comes pulsing in like an alarm, waking the band from their collective slumber. A cascading, raucous rush crashes across the speakers and Doug Martsch’s vocals are centre stage.

The use of dynamics are deft on this track, moving nimbly in between the lines of soft-loud-soft-loud that were so ubiquitous in alt/indie rock at the time. The lyrical passages only occupy about half of the 6:05 runtime, the track’s second half gradually morphs from a loose, reverb-drenched midwestern indie instrumental into a fuzzy, frantic jam session that mushrooms into a sort of shredfest and then slowly fades.

Built to Spill Live  at Mr. Small's in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2023

Matthewvetter / Wikipedia

The band generously give us the runtime of the track over again, offering time to absorb and ponder what’s just passed.

The level of fan examination bestowed on this song is a testament to how beloved it is by the BTS community - in 2019 a physics PhD student at Brown University in Rhode Island penned a scientifically accurate breakdown of how long it would actually take to wear the sphere down, and how it relates to the concept of eternity.

This degree of analysis and adoration is spawned by two things; great art, and the passage of time, a reflection of the magnitude of artistry contained within the song.

Listen to Randy Described Eternity on Spotify / Apple Music / YouTube

By Angus on Wednesday, 05 July 2023

As someone who cut their teeth on the indie rock scene of the early 2000s, a time marked by what many saw as the dying embers of truly original rock music, I've found myself ensnared in an ongoing debate, typically with older generations. That debate? Whether the sonic panorama of modern rock music, in its reflection of the sounds of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, is a derivative rehashing or (as is my belief) totally original music that deserves to be judged in its own light.

Carlos Tischler / Getty, Rob Verhorst / Redferns 

 

Bands like Interpol, The Strokes, and LCD Soundsystem, which held the pulse of certain pockets of my generation, are frequently thrust into comparative analyses with the likes of Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and Suicide. These comparisons are perhaps unavoidable. Must they undermine the validity of the music, or can we find a new paradigm for appreciating modern rock music in its own right?


Consider Interpol, a band whose guitar-laden post-punk revival sound draws constant critical parallels with Joy Division. Listen to their debut album, "Turn On the Bright Lights," and the influence is unmistakable, especially in tracks like "Obstacle 1". The propulsive bassline, the icy guitar riffs, and the Paul Banks' baritone may conjure memories of the brooding Mancunians for some.

Yet, Interpol's music, while channelling some of the spirit of Joy Division, is far from being a pastiche of their predecessor. Their lyrics weave a distinct narrative tapestry, a modern melancholy that resonates with a different generation. This isn't a band cosplaying Curtis and co; it's a band that has absorbed, acknowledged, and built upon their influences to create something masterful and timeless.

The music is more textured, more layered, and less spartan than what came before it. Wearing the music you celebrate as having an indelible impact on your own work ought to be celebrated, not spurned.

Band photo - The Strokes

Roger Woolman / Wikipedia

The Strokes, another titan of the turn-of-the-century indie scene, are frequently likened to Velvet Underground. Their seminal album, "Is This It," does carry echoes of the gritty, sleazy sound of the '60s rock pioneers.

And yes, both groups hail from NY, and both had a strong proclivity for leather jackets and black skinny jeans. But to dismiss The Strokes’ undeniable songwriting chops as some sort of derivation of a superior musical force is confoundingly ignorant and willfully stupid. ‘Someday’, ‘Last Nite’, and ‘Hard to Explain’ are sparkling examples of the band's distinct voice, melding overly self-aware lyricism with a distinctly modern, angular musical approach that tranmutates their influences into a brilliantly unique body of work, one which endures among the greatest of the 21st century.

LCD Soundsystem, the brainchild of James Murphy, is a different beast altogether. Tracks like "Movement" from the band’s eponymous debut recall the rhythmic pulses of Suicide, whilst Murphy’s vocal delivery is a very intentional aping of The Fall’s Mark E Smith. Murphy's approach transcends mimicry though, self-awareness oozing from every lazily-delivered lyric.

The band adroitly fuses elements of punk, dance, and electronica into a sonically rich tapestry. Moreover, his erudite, poignant lyrics, most notably on tracks like "Someone Great" and "All My Friends," provide an emotional weight and contemporary consciousness rarely explored in his predecessors' work.

The argument that modern rock music is merely derivative overlooks the fundamental nature of artistic evolution. The creative process is one of assimilation and transformation, where the old is invariably refracted through the prism of the new. The Beatles were influenced by Chuck Berry, Led Zeppelin by blues artists like Willie Dixon, and David Bowie by Little Richard. Influence and originality aren’t mutually exclusive concepts.

Split screen of Paul McCartney and Chuck Berry

Getty


The key to appreciating modern rock in its own right, then, is to liberate it from the shackles of inordinate comparisons. Influence should be seen as a starting point, not an endpoint. A homage, not a theft. By acknowledging the duality of influence and originality, we can appreciate the artistry of modern rock bands on their own terms. The 2000s rock revival scene didn't simply echo the past; it interpreted, reimagined, and continued the conversation started by its predecessors.

It’s important to approach the music of these bands with a refreshed perspective. Listen again, not for the echoes of their influences, but for the unique sonic narratives they've crafted. Their work deserves more than to be labelled as a shadow of past greatness. It is its own greatness, a testament to a generation's capacity to create vibrant, authentic, and enduring music.

By Angus on Thursday, 29 June 2023

I’ll regularly check in with TheNeedleDrop’s YouTube channel to see what’s on his weekly list of new releases. It’s a decent slice of tracks that are fresh off the shelf, new music from artists of some significance or bearing on the pop landscape, and I appreciate that it’s not limited exclusively to tracks he likes. We get the chaff as well as the wheat.

Logo of Youtuber @theneedledrop

YouTube / @theneedledrop 

 

Last week there was a mention of a song by London-based rapper and singer J Hus. The song itself was fine; a nice bouncy Afrobeat rhythm, some synthetic marimba flourishes here and there and charismatic delivery typical of J Hus. Enter a Drake feature, or rather the over-processed husk of what used to be Drake’s soul. Timbre? Nope. Melody? In a way, but it could’ve been phoned in from any other Drake track from the last five years. Emotion? No chance.

He sounded like he’d been run through a filter that was designed to disrobe his voice box of any signs of humanity. Heavily processed, lifeless vocals are nothing new in modern pop, but personal opinions on Drake’s career trajectory aside, this felt extraordinary to me. New heights of banality. And it’s reflective of a larger picture in the context of modern pop.

We’ve been flying very close to an ever-growing musical black hole for a long time now, and it’s possible that we’ve actually passed the event horizon and pop music is now post-supernova. Some time in the mid-2010’s, radio EDM, trap, pop, and more recently reggaeton began to fuse into an anonymous amalgamation of all of those genres. Unfortunately, this morass took the worst and most obvious parts of each and discarded considered songwriting or lyrical depth, replacing them with a sort of hyper-concentrated sugar rush of musical nothingness.

Still from Interstellar movie of the black hole

At first it seemed reasonable to assume the blueprint would fade away, but as time has passed the hit machine continues to churn. Pop, it seems, has hit a creative low point. Of course, there’s still hundreds of thousands of wonderful artists out there producing music that’s exciting, daring and new, but we’re zeroing in on what occupies most of the charts, presently.

We want to examine the common tropes and complaints when it comes to modern pop, and many lament the dwindling lyrical originality. The last few decades have indeed been characterised by a notable shift towards simpler, repetitive lyrics that are designed for mass consumption rather than cerebral reflection. This is valid, but the spectrum of lyrical themes in pop have never been broad (love, loss, money, etc) and whilst this departure from meaningful storytelling is often attributed to the growing importance of streaming success and easily digestible jingles, you might be shocked at the lack of lyrical depth in any chosen Billboard chart from a given year.

Lionel Ritchie performing live in the 80s

Walt Disney Television via Getty 

 

For illustrative purposes, December 1982’s Billboard top 5 contained five songs about love or relationships or the sexual nature of human beings and little else. And good luck convincing me that AI couldn’t have written the words to ‘Truly’ by Lionel Ritchie, the number four song for that month. Artists and producers today are under increasing pressure to produce tracks that will top charts and yield instant virality, a feat often achieved with catchy, simplistic hooks rather than profound lyrical substance.

Yes the demand for songcraft may have declined, but the narrow scope of themes is a tale as old as recorded music. Putting lyrics to one side, the decline in the dynamic range of modern pop justifies some pearl-clutching. The days of stirring vocal crescendos, sweeping key changes and enveloping songcraft are gone, bucko. Instead, we’ve got songs that maintain a constant ‘flatness’ of volume and scarcely reach for anything resembling the stars.

The 'loudness war', a term coined to describe the trend of increasing audio levels in recorded music, is seen by many as symptomatic of the diminishing subtlety and complexity in pop music, but we’d posit that it’s probably the other way around. Either way, this development does a bang up job of sucking the emotion from a song, and it’s ubiquitous on the charts. There’s a very limited degree of how much you can convey with synths that are the same volume as the drums with are the same volume as the vocals which are the same volume as the rest of the song, and that volume is loud.

Fueling the tendency toward flat and loud tunes is the increasingly synthetic nature of the modern pop palette. In a recent interview, producer and DJ A-Trak mentioned the way that requests from the crowd at live shows are moving away from specific songs and towards broader desires like artists or musical flavours. We’re not even chasing a specific song, we’re chasing a vibe.

In isolation these proclivities and musical traits aren’t problematic, but it could be perceived as a preference for music-as-window-dressing rather than the desire to engage emotionally with music. Examining the root cause, the ease of access to music production tools has undeniably democratised artistic output, but it's also led to a homogenisation of sonic textures, with pop tracks often feeling overly polished, lacking the raw emotion that analogue production once captured.

There’s other contributing factors to this musical flattening that we’re living through; TikTok’s demand for trend-friendly musical microclips, the age of streaming and on-demand convenience, shorter attention spans, but these arguments are overcooked at this point.

Despite all of that, let’s not pessimistically dismiss modern pop music as a lost cause. The very criticisms levelled against it—its repetitiveness, simplicity, digitisation—might also be its saving graces. These traits have made music more accessible to both creators and consumers, expanding the realm of musical possibilities.

Just outside the confines of the mainstream, artists are pushing boundaries, experimenting with sounds, lyrics, and structures, and blending genres in ways that were unimaginable in the past. Acts like 100 Gecs are pushing the concept of what pop is and can be to its extremes, but these sorts of artists still dwell on the fringes in relative terms.

100gecs musical duo

The Guardian 

 

The current state of radio pop may appear stark in comparison to the cherished halcyon days of the middle and late 20th century. However, a society standing on the precipice of a golden age doesn’t know it’s there until after it’s happened. Music is a living, breathing entity, forever in flux, echoing the times we live in.

And if what’s popular at a given time is simply a reflection of the current existential landscape, then maybe pop’s malaise is just a mirror for our times, and simplicity for the masses is where we’re collectively at. If this admission feels a bit defeatist, take a second to remember that trends are cyclical, and we’ll eventually come out the other side. In the meantime, there’s plenty else to discover outside the popular realm.

By Angus on Wednesday, 28 June 2023

The world of video game music is a domain generally relegated to low-traffic subreddits and comic book-esque conventions that people from the ‘outside world’ steer clear of. But it’s nearly as diverse and sprawling as the gaming landscape itself, and a woman whose name is being mentioned more and more as a masterful video game composer is Nintendo’s Manaka Kataoka.

At the heart of Kataoka's distinctive oeuvre lie two iconic titles from The Legend of Zelda series: Breath of the Wild and the just-released  Together with co-composers Yasuaki Iwata, and Hajime Wakai, Kataoka has crafted something gorgeous and timeless.

Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


All three have contributed equally to the game’s soundtracks, but it’s Kataoka’s sometimes brutally spare piano compositions that leave the most indelible mark on your brain. Both games have been praised for their immersive open world gameplay, but their accompanying soundtracks are astonishing works of art in their own right.

Discussion of Kataoka's work generally centres around her innovative use of the piano. Unlike some compositions where the piano takes centre stage with dramatic grandeur, Kataoka uses the instrument in a more nuanced fashion.

In both games, the piano serves as an atmospheric tool, providing the player with subtle emotional cues rather than driving the narrative with a powerful, commanding presence. The effect is akin to hearing droplets of rain tapping against a windowpane – constant yet gentle, nonintrusive yet atmospheric.

The notes stumble and scatter, mimicking the lonely, windswept landscape that both games depict. At some points during gameplay, the music is seemingly at the mercy of the wind, echoing the sensation of exploring the vast, richly bucolic Hyrulian landscape.

Two hands playing a piano

Because the arrangements are so sparse, they can turn in seconds with a single note, moving from a sense of wonderment and awe to the feeling of raw, emotional tension, echoing the fear and uncertainty that permeates the game's shapeshifting world.

Repetition is a crucial element in Kataoka's scores. Here, less is more; the scarcity of sound emphasises the powerful impact each note has. The repetitive melodies act as a sort of emotional anchor, grounding the player in the in-game world and the characters' experiences.

The minimalist approach creates an auditory space where the beauty of each note is heightened, and the listener is invited to savour the journey rather than being swept along a turbulent musical river. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped atop a hill in Breath of the Wild or perched on one of Tears of the Kingdom’s sky islands to take in a sunset while the most perfectly restrained melody lilted in the background.

There are plenty of parallels with the world of ambient music. I’d go so far as to suggest that both of these games feature what could be defined as a sort of ambient gameplay.

Kataoka's approach to the score is evocative for me of the work of artists like Suzanne Kraft and Jonny Nash. Just like them, her contributions to the Zelda soundtrack are incredibly patient and value space and nuance.

Sunset image from Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


All three artist’s compositions have room to unfurl at their own pace, offering a gentle push rather than a relentless drive. Their music meanders, lingers, and guides the listener's emotional response, and in Kataoka’s case, subtly crafting an aural environment as nuanced as the game's visual elements.

Kraft, Nash, and Kataoka also appreciate silence. A well-placed pause is just as powerful as a chord struck at the right moment. Kataoka’s music flows, ebbs, and occasionally, stops completely - giving the listener a chance to digest, to absorb, and to feel. It's a masterclass in restraint.

Enjoying Kataoka's work is not just about the music itself, but how it affects the mood and pacing of the worlds she’s soundtracking. In a fictional realm where the player can stray from the broader narrative structure for tens of hours at a time, the soundtrack serves as an invaluable anchor, a sort of musical storytelling device that shifts with the surrounding environments.

Of course, using music to drive or slow the tempo of a game or film is nothing new, but the deftness of touch Kataoka exerts upon the game’s environs is peerless.

Landscape image from Zelda Tears of the Kingdom
Nintendo 


Manaka Kataoka has profoundly affected the way I view the possibilities of video game scores to transform the experience of interacting with fictional worlds. Her scores for The Legend of Zelda series elevate video game music from anonymous mood filler to a nuanced emotional journey.

In doing so, she skillfully illustrates that video game music is not just an accompaniment to the on-screen action but an essential part of the narrative. The prospect of what she might do next is a thrilling one.

${activeVariantPrice} (${ activeVariantPriceDiscount }% off) ${activeVariantCompareAtPrice} ${formatPrice(item.price)}
The score: ${ calcAverageScore(item) }
Hi-Fi explained
By Angus on Monday, 03 July 2023

You’ve bought a turntable and a few of your favourite albums on vinyl. You’ve arrived home, unboxed, and set everything up. You drop an album onto the spindle, start the platter spinning, and lower the tonearm. The sound is…. ok? A little muffled? Not really sparkling?

This isn’t at all what you’d imagined, but don’t hit the panic button yet. Setting up and properly isolating a turntable from its surrounding environment is essential for getting the best from your records, and there’s a few areas in which things can stray from the golden path. Check out our suggestions below for perfect spinning.

The Art of Counterweight Adjustment

A crucial point in turntable setup is correctly adjusting the counterweight. It’s worth noting that not every turntable we sell requires this step, some are factory-set and ready to play straight out of the box. It’s only around the Debut Carbon EVO price point that counterweight adjustment comes into play.

This balancing act at the rear of the tonearm directly impacts your stylus' pressure on the vinyl groove. A well-adjusted counterweight ensures the stylus navigates the record’s surface as it should, eliminating stylus wear and ensuring clearer, more satisfying sound. You can buy scales to balance your tonearm, but if your budget’s tight then you can adjust by ear too.


Shift the counterweight until your tonearm is more or less floating, then give it a few turns so that it lays parallel to the platter. Get a record going, and if the sound’s lacking clarity or drive, give the counterweight another half-rotation and try again.


Turntable cartridges are delicate things, and putting too much pressure on the cantilever (the tiny rod that is the bridge between the cartridge body and the diamond tip) can have a dramatic effect on the sound. If the counterweight’s pushed too far towards the front end of the tonearm, the pressure exerted on your cartridge’s cantilever will be too great, and you can expect muffled, flat sound. Easily avoided, but not always accounted for.

Pro-Ject Debut Pro tonearm birds eye view


Isolating Your Turntable: Creating a Perfect Platform

External vibrations are the enemy of any turntable setup. A minute shake can result in distorted sound or even worse, your stylus skipping across the surface of your record like a well-skimmed stone. By isolating the turntable from the vibrations and disturbances around it, you create a controlled environment where your records can flourish.


There’s options for wall-mounting like Pro-Ject’s Wall Mount It 1, but if you’re renting then that’s off the cards. Honestly, get creative here. A dense, inert book like an old Yellow Pages will do a great job! Drape a black cloth over it and you’ve got a tasteful, very affordable solution. Picture the sultry, emotive notes of Ella Fitzgerald's voice, delivered with stunning clarity and depth that transports you to an intimate, candle-lit jazz club, undisturbed by the outside world.

Pro-Ject Wall mounted shelf


Speaker Separation: Giving Your Turntable Room to Breathe

Next, and this is vital, it’s important that your speakers aren't placed on the same surface as your turntable. Speaker cabinets are designed to be as inert as is possible, but vibrations will always escape, no matter how excellent the design.

Separating your speakers from your turntable means the extremely delicate signal coming from your turntable cartridge remains uncoloured and unbothered by your speakers, left to do its best work without rumbles and shudders. If you’re facing spatial constraints and you can’t avoid having them on the same surface, check out the info above on isolation.

A single Pro-Ject Speaker Box 5 S2 on top of a shelf of records

Cartridge Alignment: A Journey of a Thousand Grooves Begins with a Single Point 

Proper cartridge alignment ensures the stylus sits correctly in the record groove, extracting every skerrick of information from your vinyl. This crucial adjustment contributes to stereo balance, reduces distortion, and prolongs record life.

Aligning a cartridge is delicate work, but a well-aligned cartridge will render a record like Miles Davis' iconic ‘Kind of Blue’ with such fidelity, the trumpet's smoky notes will seem to fill the room around you, each instrument vividly etched within the stereo field.

Inside the box of most Pro-Ject turntables you’ll find a small card with a hole for the turntable’s spindle and a sort of grid pattern on it. Before you do any adjusting, pop it onto the spindle, and then take a bird’s eye view of your turntable’s tonearm and check that the front of the cartridge body lines up with the two points on the card.

You’ll need to move the tonearm closer to the centre of the platter to check the innermost point, but if both the line on the card and the leading edge of your cartridge are pretty close to parallel, consider your cartridge optimised. If not, you can use a very small flathead screwdriver to loosen the screws above the cartridge slightly, gently shuffle the cartridge so that it lines up at both points on the alignment card, and then re-tighten. It’s delicate work, but worth the effort if you’re feeling confident.

Cartridge alignment card

Finally, don’t skimp on accessories. You can pick up a stylus brush and record brush for chump change, and they’re the two most important and affordable tools for fighting one of vinyl’s greatest enemies; dust. There are of course more advanced cleaners out there like the Pro-Ject VC-S3 that are akin to sending your LPs to a day spa.

A full rinse and dry brush from one of those will have your records looking like they’re fresh off the press, and it’s a particularly powerful tool if you’re big on 2nd hand albums that might’ve had a previous owner who wasn’t as caring as you.

Pro-Ject Brush It record brush

It also pays to invest in a decent slipmat - Pro-Ject make leather and cork models that make for a delicious sonic upgrade, and they reduce static and thus the amount of dust that’s likely to settle on your records too.

A well-set-up turntable not only enriches the sound but also extends the life of your vinyl and stylus. It opens the gate to a new level of immersive sound, as it allows each record to sing its unique song in the most faithful way. With every adjustment and tweak, you come closer to experiencing analogue music in its most vibrant, compelling, and emotion-filled form.

By Angus on Saturday, 01 July 2023

21st century Australians have become accustomed to convenience and instant accessibility. It’s a tired refrain at this point, but as it relates to the way we listen to, digest, appreciate, and discover music, it’s a brutal truth. Modern wireless sound systems like Sonos make a lot of sense from a purely practical perspective. Music piped throughout the house, and available at the touch of a button. As a matter of convenience, if you can afford to deck your house out with a full multi-room system, more power to you.

Various Sonos products beauty shot

But the validity of traditional hifi in living rooms burns just as bright as it did in the pre-streaming era. We’re talking speakers, a turntable, and an amplifier. The intrinsic value of the convenience of a wireless system is undeniable, but the sonic, aesthetic, and spiritual supremacy of component audio is irreplaceable, and will remain so until the end of time for several fundamental reasons.

The nature of sound from a traditional hifi system provides a raw and authentic quality and texture of sound that is impossible to replicate with digital amplification. It's an intricate dance of physics and electronics, with (in the case of vinyl) the stylus delicately translating the grooves in the record into electrical signals that the amplifier then boosts, and the speakers bellow into the air.

This analogue sound has a natural warmth and depth that’s absent in digitally compressed music. The dynamic range and harmonic richness of vinyl, combined with a properly set up hifi system, can take listeners on a sonic journey that digital systems can’t emulate. What do we mean when we say ‘digital systems’?

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

I’ve had a component hifi system set up at home for almost ten years now, and grew up with one too. I was visiting some friends the other day that I hadn’t seen in a while, and they listen in their lounge room through a soundbar. They’d cued up The War on Drugs’ album ‘Lost in the Dream’.

From the second the reverb-laden drums and guitar kicked in on album opener ‘Under the Pressure’, my ears pricked up. Something was different. The music had a strange, processed sheen about it. Like an overcoat of polish that messing with the sound. The music didn’t sparkle, it was as flat as a lake on a windless day. Every instrument seemed to sit at the exact same volume and location in the mix, one globule of music struggling to free itself from the digital realm.

There’s a counterargument to this, which is “I want convenience and I don’t care what it costs, and if I have to sacrifice sound quality in order to get it, why does it matter if I don’t know what I’m missing out on.” That’s fair. I get it. But if you’re reading this article, I don’t think you’ve ended up here because you’re happy to drift through life with a Bluetooth speaker and the prospect in the back of your mind that your music could sound better if only you made some changes.

On equal pegging with, and for some people of even greater import, is looks. From an aesthetic perspective, there is something undeniably attractive about the mechanical beauty of a hifi system. The gleaming precision of a turntable, the heft of an amplifier, and the stature of speakers make a statement to anyone that sets foot inside your home. You love music, it’s an extremely important part of your life, and this investment demonstrates that.

The act of selecting a vinyl record, removing it from its sleeve, and gently placing the needle on its edge involves a tactile interaction, making the listening experience more personal and intimate. This experience, a blend of physicality and ritual, is central to the spiritual side of hifi. It connects us to music in a way that a simple tap on a screen cannot.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

Furthermore, traditional hifi systems create a sense of sacred space for music in a home. The physical presence of the equipment, along with the required care and maintenance (yep!), contributes to the creation of a dedicated listening environment. The deliberate act of setting aside time to sit down and listen to an entire record from start to finish also encourages mindfulness and presence. The gentle crackle of the needle against vinyl — these are meditative elements that compel listeners to slow down and truly engage with the music.

Despite the undeniable convenience of wireless sound systems, they often detach listeners from the ritualistic and spiritual aspects of music. While they offer vast libraries at our fingertips, they risk reducing music to background noise, an endless, impersonal stream of disconnected tracks.

While the digital age has revolutionised how we listen to music, it hasn't necessarily enhanced the experience. Traditional hifi systems, with their sonic excellence, aesthetic appeal, and ritualistic interactions, offer a multi-sensory engagement with music that transcends convenience. They reinforce the artistry behind the music, compelling us to slow down, listen, and truly appreciate the sonic landscapes created by our favourite artists.

By Angus on Thursday, 29 June 2023

Sound waves behave in interesting ways. The deeper the sound, the longer the wave (more or less). A 20Hz wave, which is the approximate low threshold for human hearing, clocks in at around 17 metres long. That means that the sound of a 20Hz wave will bounce around a room for 17 metres until settling at its resting place, so the distance between your couch and speakers may not be the optimal position for hearing that sound.

In fact, someone standing in your kitchen might be copping a big wallop of bass every time there’s a big sub-bass rattle from a song or film. Of course, nearly all conventional speakers don’t go that low unless we’re talking about subwoofers, but the length of these sound waves is pivotal when considering how a pair of speakers will sound in a particular position in a room, and how that affects your listening experience.

SVS PB16 Ultra subwoofer lifestyle shot

To illustrate a very basic example, think back to a time before Bluetooth speakers enjoyed their current ubiquity, and smartphones were equipped with decidedly lousy speakers. It’s 5am, the club has closed, and it’s back to your sister’s boyfriend’s best mate’s house to sit around on weathered outdoor furniture while the impending sunrise and intrusive birdsong wear away at the cheer of those that haven’t yet fallen asleep in their chairs.

Some tunes ought to lift the mood! It was at this point, invariably, that a phone with music cued would be gently placed into a pint glass in the hopes of slightly louder and better sculpted sound for those still going. In this case, the music playing from that tiny speaker would receive a boost because it now had surfaces to bounce off, and wasn’t just straining its poor wee drivers to push sound into the encroaching morning.

Now take that concept, and apply it to a decent pair of hifi speakers. Since we’re focusing on optimising your sound in a smaller space, and also because more than nine out of every ten pairs of speakers we sell on Instant Classic are bookshelf speakers, let’s start with those. It’s the same concept as glass-in-phone - but now the pint glass is your bedroom, living room, dorm room, whatever. Every surface in the room acts as a reflective point for sound, so it’s up to you to decide how best to utilise those points.

Let’s start with the wall behind your speakers. All speakers have a port, which is a little hole that releases air created by the movement of the drivers (the big circular things that emit sound on the front of the speaker). Whoever made your speakers put it there to push some of the excess pressure created by bass registers from inside your speaker cabinet. Place your hand there while there’s music playing and you’ll notice a gentle breeze on your hand. Remember, bass sound waves are the long ones, so tiny treble waves aren’t making it all the way out the back and beyond.

Encel Brains and Gelati lifestyle shot

I throw on a track with a Chic-esque kick drum and honey-drip bassline like Beyonce’s uber-raunchy ‘CUFF IT’. Through a pair of Encel Gelati speakers placed well away from the rear wall, the track sounds snappy, but it’s lacking propulsion and scale. Shifting the speakers to a spot about a half metre from that wall sees the beat lock into step. Nova Wav’s disco-throwback production takes on a more confident thump, and I suddenly find myself frantically searching my wardrobe for a club-ready outfit. It’s not just bass-laden tracks that benefit from a low end boost either. Take an older tune like The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’. It relies on rhythm section locomotion to push the song along, and a little more low end verve just adds so much satisfaction to the listening experience.

There’s a couple of other tricks you can try for maximising sonic returns on your investment. The first is isolation. Speaker cabinets are designed to be as inert as possible, that is, to not send vibrations out into their surrounding environs. But they do, and it pays to account for that, especially in terms of negating the possible effects on other parts of your system, particularly if you’re running a turntable.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems make a terrific product called Damp-It, small rings of synthetic composite material that slide underneath your bookshelf speakers. In terms of yields, it’s $43 extraordinarily well-spent. You’ll notice bass tighten up, and the other components in your system gain some extra protection.

The other trick is toe-in. This one’s simple, just adjust your speakers so that the angle at which they hit your listening position is a little more direct. That is, shift the tweeters inwards so they’re aiming more directly at your face. Those shorter high end frequencies will be firing directly at you, unlocking frequencies that might’ve previously been lost in the room. It quite literally opens up the sound. All of this is to say that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’ve simply unboxed your speakers, placed them wherever they’ll fit and thought ‘they don’t sound outstanding, but it’ll do.’

Monitor Audio Silver 100 lifestyle shot

We don’t all have the luxury of picking our speaker’s dimensions, and that’s fine. Maybe you picked up a big ol’ pair of floor standing speakers at a garage sale for an awesome price or inherited an aged pair from a relative that still have some life in them. If you’re faced with big speakers in a small space, you can still stop them from sounding bogged down in bottom end.'

Obviously, you’ll want to try the inverse of everything we’ve already mentioned in terms of closeness to surfaces, and that goes for side walls too, not just the one behind. Further to that though, give your listening position some consideration. The closer you can get your ears to the same level as your tweeters, the better the higher-end sounds will be communicated to you. If you want to go a step further, you could even stick some egg cartons to the wall behind you to absorb some of those resonant frequencies, but we understand that might be a bridge too far for most, from both a practical and aesthetic standpoint.

There are plenty of small tweaks you can make to your system that’ll see minor performance improvements, but the aforementioned considerations can yield alterations that’ll have a potentially significant effect. Putting the time and care into speaker placement not only helps maximise your system’s performance, there’s also an intangible satisfaction you’ll derive from knowing it’s sounding its absolute best.

By Angus on Wednesday, 21 June 2023

As often happens when a particular product category experiences an explosion in popularity, there’s been a raft of sub-par, cheap turntables cropping up in the marketplace over the past ten years or so. Where do these cheaper models typically cut corners? Quality materials are the first ingredient to go. MDF and aluminium are replaced by plastic, and vital aspects of good performance like a properly weighted tonearm disappear. A nice slab of MDF for the plinth is replaced by a big, echo-y hollow space.

Thankfully, there’s been some mainstay brands that have stuck by the vinyl faithful through the past 30 years, and our favourite here at Instant Classic is Pro-Ject Audio Systems. In the realm of quality turntables, they’re a beacon of excellence. Since 1991, the brand has been pushing the envelope in terms of style, materials, sound and industrial design, curating a broad portfolio of turntables to cater to a diversity of tastes and budgets. In this article, we shine a spotlight on some of their best cuts from the past few years, the Pro-Ject E1 BT, T1 Phono, Debut Carbon EVO, and X1 B turntables.

Pro-Ject Audio HQ

Pro-Ject E1 BT

The E1 BT is easily Pro-Ject’s most complete effort thus far at integrating Bluetooth functionality into a turntable. It’s got a Bluetooth transmitter onboard, which makes it a great solution for anyone wanting to dip their toe into component audio. If you’ve got a Bluetooth speaker and you’re analogue-curious, start here.

The E1 BT uses a HD Bluetooth module to convert your LPs into a digital signal, then sends that signal to the device of your choosing. That might be a standard Bluetooth speaker, some powered speakers, or even a pair of wireless headphones. Best of all though, you can bypass the Bluetooth functionality and use the E1 BT as a regular turntable - with or without use of the onboard phono stage - later down the line.

Don’t mistake the inclusion of modern tech like Bluetooth with lesser quality either, the E1 BT’s aluminium tonearm and low-vibration motor provide an impressive sound stage when introduced into a complete hifi system. It also offers plug-and-play simplicity, with some of the more finicky elements like anti-skating and the tonearm counterweight being factory set. A wonderful option for less experienced users who want a simple path to listening with a minimum of fuss.

Pro-Ject E1 BT lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject T1 with onboard phono

The T1 with onboard phono actually shares quite a bit in common with the E1 BT. Both are available in black, white and walnut, and are strikingly similar in appearance. But there’s some tweaks to the materials used that prioritise sonic performance over the E1 BT’s diversity of use cases.

As the name suggests, the T1 with onboard phono offers a phono stage which you can activate and disable at the flick of a switch. What’s that mean? Deactivate it and you can use the ‘phono’ input on your amp or an external phono stage like the Pro-Ject Phono Box S2. An external phono stage makes for a nice upgrade once you’ve started to build a sizable vinyl collection and you want to further enhance your sound.

Design-wise, you’re getting a glass platter and improved tonearm bearings compared to the E1, meaning clarity and the tautness of low end gain some sparkle and punch respectively. The glass platter is a nice aesthetic touch too, contributing some visual elegance. The T1 is a small step up in price from the E1 and offers a jump in the quality of materials, resulting in a more muscular, dynamic sound.

Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO is an ode to Pro-Ject's dedication to innovation and quality. It’s a direct descendant of their first model, the Pro-Ject 1. Onboard you’ll find a carbon fibre tonearm which significantly reduces resonances that interfere with a turntable cartridge’s ultra-delicate signal.

Two qualities you want fulfilled by any excellent tonearm material are rigidity and light weight, and carbon fibre ticks both. Additionally, the EVO features a heavy steel platter that’s damped with TPE, a sort of polymer rubber that also minimises vibrations, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge that offers lovely clarity and imbues your albums with a touch of analogue warmth. Remember, vibrations are the enemy of turntable so all of these materials focus on enhancing sonic performance.

Offering a selection of high-gloss, satin, and real-wood veneer finishes, the Debut Carbon EVO caters to design-conscious listeners who seek excellent performance. It’s undoubtedly the most complete iteration of the iconic Debut line. The Debut Carbon EVO is the point in Pro-Ject’s range where all other features of convenience and compatibility are eschewed in favour of absolute sonic performance.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject X1

This is an outstanding turntable that exemplifies Pro-Ject’s engineering prowess and desire for constant evolution. The X1 offers features often seen in other company’s turntables at or above the $3,000 mark.

This is a machine that takes anti-resonance very seriously, featuring a heavy acrylic platter, and a carbon/aluminium sandwich construction tonearm. What little resonance travels through carbon fibre is effectively cancelled out by the aluminium, in this case one material is quite literally wrapped around the other, cancelling out each other’s vibrations.

The X1 sports a recessed sub-platter design with motor suspension that was specially designed for X-line turntables. The motor is effectively decoupled from the rest of the unit, meaning none of the (already minimal) vibrations from the motor are able to travel anywhere.

We’re also treated to VTA and azimuth adjustment. This means that the positioning of the tonearm is extremely flexible, so if you’re considering a moving coil cartridge that’d benefit from some extra room to move in your turntable, this is the model we’d strongly recommend.

Choosing the right Pro-Ject turntable entails considering a combination of features, aesthetics, budget, and where your priorities lie as regards feature set. Whether you're seeking the convenience of the E1 BT, the integrated phono stage and glass platter of the T1 with onboard phono, the advanced engineering of the Debut Carbon EVO, or the audiophile-grade sophistication of the X1, there’s a Pro-Ject turntable tailored to your unique needs.

Let your turntable choice reflect your listening habits, aesthetic inclinations, and personal style as you journey further into the immersive world of vinyl playback.

By Angus on Thursday, 15 June 2023

If you've been listening on a Bluetooth speaker or maybe a suitcase turntable and have decided you want to take the next step into better sound, well, you're in the right place and we’re pretty excited for you. Transitioning to a hifi setup, or full component audio, is equivalent to pivoting from watching films on your phone to a cinema - the difference can be revelatory, and it can be a whole lot of fun too.

Before we dive in too deep, it's essential to understand the basics. Hifi, or a high-fidelity system, consists of a few core components: a source (like a turntable, CD player, or even Bluetooth from your phone), an amplifier, and speakers. Each component plays a vital role, working in unison to create a richer, deeper, and more authentic audio experience.

Kicking off with the most exciting piece of the puzzle (at least for us): the turntable. It's the heart of your system, the beginning of the journey from grooves on a record to gorgeous sound in your ears. As the platter on the turntable spins, a stylus (the tiny diamond tip that touches the record’s surface) traces the grooves, converting extremely small ridges on the record’s surface that contain musical information into an electrical signal.

Pro-Ject A2 lifestyle shot

But that’s not the end of it. This signal is very weak, and it needs some bass and treble adjustment too. Enter the phono preamplifier. This boosts that signal from the turntable to an audible level, ready to be piped into an amplifier and out to the speakers. It might be onboard your turntable, a separate box like Pro-Ject’s Phono Box E, or an input labelled ‘phono’ on an amplifier. As long as you’ve got one of those three, you’re golden.

And so, that aforementioned amplifier. Think of it as the director of a symphony, enhancing the electrical signal from your source component and shaping it into something powerful and robust. A good amplifier retains all the nuances of the original music, skillfully amplifying the softest string pluck and the loudest snare hit with equal precision. This "shaped" signal is still electrical at this point, and for us to hear it, it needs to be converted into sound waves, a job entrusted to our final component: the speakers.

Rotel A12MKII amplifier

The speakers are the end point, the handsome boxes that give voice to all the work done earlier in the chain. They take the electrical signals from the amplifier and convert them into mechanical vibrations, which your ears perceive as sound. This process involves several intricate parts, including a tweeter for higher frequencies and a woofer for the lower ones.

In a typical system, we often refer to these as ‘passive’ speakers. These are speakers that rely on an external amplifier to provide the power. A Bluetooth speaker isn’t passive; it has an amplifier onboard and is thus classified as an ‘active’ speaker. There are active speakers in component hifi too, but for now we’re sticking with what’s considered traditional.

Monitor Audio Bronze 50 lifestyle shot

When you're listening on a basic Bluetooth speaker or suitcase turntable, the audio is pretty heavily compressed, losing some of its richness and dynamic range (the perceptible difference between loud and soft). You’re also dealing with much smaller drivers to push sound out, and quite often the balance of frequencies is altered by the manufacturer to overcompensate for the physical deficiencies of these products, leaving you with unbalanced, muddied sound.

With component hifi, you're walking a lot closer to the original recording. But maybe the biggest leap in terms of the tangible qualities of your sound is width and space. Suddenly, the sound is no longer emanating from a single point. There’s two speakers, with (ideally) a couple of metres between them, and you can hear separate instruments coming from one or the other channel. If you’ve never experienced it before, it’s like seeing in colour for the first time. Truly.

And finally, and this one can’t really be overstated, it’s pride. The sense of immense satisfaction that we all here at Instant Classic derive from having a setup in our homes that makes a statement about our love of music, and also the role it plays in our lives, is almost immeasurable.

Sitting down at the end of a long day to zone out, starting our Sunday in the slowest way we can fathom, something to fill the room with during meal times: these are the times of the week in which music plays a part. Having a system that can be immersive, can be background music, is the musical companion that walks us through the days is something we could never see ourselves living without, and the thought of bringing that into other people’s lives excites us.

Encel Brains Amp and Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo turntable

Stepping into hifi is a big leap, and whilst it's one well worth taking, it also comes with a price tag. Don’t fret though, you can take this one step at a time. It’s possible to run a turntable through a Bluetooth speaker. You can spend on an amp and speakers now and run Bluetooth from your phone and start a vinyl or CD collection later. There’s so many ways in, and the beauty of this journey is in exploration and personalisation. Each component comes in various models and at different price points, allowing you to dictate the terms of the journey.

Patience is key. You won’t build your perfect system in a day. Read some reviews, think it over, and get in touch with us if you’re really unsure. Your journey from a Bluetooth speaker to a component sound system is going to be fun and rewarding, of that we’re certain.

By Angus on Monday, 03 July 2023

You’ve bought a turntable and a few of your favourite albums on vinyl. You’ve arrived home, unboxed, and set everything up. You drop an album onto the spindle, start the platter spinning, and lower the tonearm. The sound is…. ok? A little muffled? Not really sparkling?

This isn’t at all what you’d imagined, but don’t hit the panic button yet. Setting up and properly isolating a turntable from its surrounding environment is essential for getting the best from your records, and there’s a few areas in which things can stray from the golden path. Check out our suggestions below for perfect spinning.

The Art of Counterweight Adjustment

A crucial point in turntable setup is correctly adjusting the counterweight. It’s worth noting that not every turntable we sell requires this step, some are factory-set and ready to play straight out of the box. It’s only around the Debut Carbon EVO price point that counterweight adjustment comes into play.

This balancing act at the rear of the tonearm directly impacts your stylus' pressure on the vinyl groove. A well-adjusted counterweight ensures the stylus navigates the record’s surface as it should, eliminating stylus wear and ensuring clearer, more satisfying sound. You can buy scales to balance your tonearm, but if your budget’s tight then you can adjust by ear too.


Shift the counterweight until your tonearm is more or less floating, then give it a few turns so that it lays parallel to the platter. Get a record going, and if the sound’s lacking clarity or drive, give the counterweight another half-rotation and try again.


Turntable cartridges are delicate things, and putting too much pressure on the cantilever (the tiny rod that is the bridge between the cartridge body and the diamond tip) can have a dramatic effect on the sound. If the counterweight’s pushed too far towards the front end of the tonearm, the pressure exerted on your cartridge’s cantilever will be too great, and you can expect muffled, flat sound. Easily avoided, but not always accounted for.

Pro-Ject Debut Pro tonearm birds eye view


Isolating Your Turntable: Creating a Perfect Platform

External vibrations are the enemy of any turntable setup. A minute shake can result in distorted sound or even worse, your stylus skipping across the surface of your record like a well-skimmed stone. By isolating the turntable from the vibrations and disturbances around it, you create a controlled environment where your records can flourish.


There’s options for wall-mounting like Pro-Ject’s Wall Mount It 1, but if you’re renting then that’s off the cards. Honestly, get creative here. A dense, inert book like an old Yellow Pages will do a great job! Drape a black cloth over it and you’ve got a tasteful, very affordable solution. Picture the sultry, emotive notes of Ella Fitzgerald's voice, delivered with stunning clarity and depth that transports you to an intimate, candle-lit jazz club, undisturbed by the outside world.

Pro-Ject Wall mounted shelf


Speaker Separation: Giving Your Turntable Room to Breathe

Next, and this is vital, it’s important that your speakers aren't placed on the same surface as your turntable. Speaker cabinets are designed to be as inert as is possible, but vibrations will always escape, no matter how excellent the design.

Separating your speakers from your turntable means the extremely delicate signal coming from your turntable cartridge remains uncoloured and unbothered by your speakers, left to do its best work without rumbles and shudders. If you’re facing spatial constraints and you can’t avoid having them on the same surface, check out the info above on isolation.

A single Pro-Ject Speaker Box 5 S2 on top of a shelf of records

Cartridge Alignment: A Journey of a Thousand Grooves Begins with a Single Point 

Proper cartridge alignment ensures the stylus sits correctly in the record groove, extracting every skerrick of information from your vinyl. This crucial adjustment contributes to stereo balance, reduces distortion, and prolongs record life.

Aligning a cartridge is delicate work, but a well-aligned cartridge will render a record like Miles Davis' iconic ‘Kind of Blue’ with such fidelity, the trumpet's smoky notes will seem to fill the room around you, each instrument vividly etched within the stereo field.

Inside the box of most Pro-Ject turntables you’ll find a small card with a hole for the turntable’s spindle and a sort of grid pattern on it. Before you do any adjusting, pop it onto the spindle, and then take a bird’s eye view of your turntable’s tonearm and check that the front of the cartridge body lines up with the two points on the card.

You’ll need to move the tonearm closer to the centre of the platter to check the innermost point, but if both the line on the card and the leading edge of your cartridge are pretty close to parallel, consider your cartridge optimised. If not, you can use a very small flathead screwdriver to loosen the screws above the cartridge slightly, gently shuffle the cartridge so that it lines up at both points on the alignment card, and then re-tighten. It’s delicate work, but worth the effort if you’re feeling confident.

Cartridge alignment card

Finally, don’t skimp on accessories. You can pick up a stylus brush and record brush for chump change, and they’re the two most important and affordable tools for fighting one of vinyl’s greatest enemies; dust. There are of course more advanced cleaners out there like the Pro-Ject VC-S3 that are akin to sending your LPs to a day spa.

A full rinse and dry brush from one of those will have your records looking like they’re fresh off the press, and it’s a particularly powerful tool if you’re big on 2nd hand albums that might’ve had a previous owner who wasn’t as caring as you.

Pro-Ject Brush It record brush

It also pays to invest in a decent slipmat - Pro-Ject make leather and cork models that make for a delicious sonic upgrade, and they reduce static and thus the amount of dust that’s likely to settle on your records too.

A well-set-up turntable not only enriches the sound but also extends the life of your vinyl and stylus. It opens the gate to a new level of immersive sound, as it allows each record to sing its unique song in the most faithful way. With every adjustment and tweak, you come closer to experiencing analogue music in its most vibrant, compelling, and emotion-filled form.

By Angus on Saturday, 01 July 2023

21st century Australians have become accustomed to convenience and instant accessibility. It’s a tired refrain at this point, but as it relates to the way we listen to, digest, appreciate, and discover music, it’s a brutal truth. Modern wireless sound systems like Sonos make a lot of sense from a purely practical perspective. Music piped throughout the house, and available at the touch of a button. As a matter of convenience, if you can afford to deck your house out with a full multi-room system, more power to you.

Various Sonos products beauty shot

But the validity of traditional hifi in living rooms burns just as bright as it did in the pre-streaming era. We’re talking speakers, a turntable, and an amplifier. The intrinsic value of the convenience of a wireless system is undeniable, but the sonic, aesthetic, and spiritual supremacy of component audio is irreplaceable, and will remain so until the end of time for several fundamental reasons.

The nature of sound from a traditional hifi system provides a raw and authentic quality and texture of sound that is impossible to replicate with digital amplification. It's an intricate dance of physics and electronics, with (in the case of vinyl) the stylus delicately translating the grooves in the record into electrical signals that the amplifier then boosts, and the speakers bellow into the air.

This analogue sound has a natural warmth and depth that’s absent in digitally compressed music. The dynamic range and harmonic richness of vinyl, combined with a properly set up hifi system, can take listeners on a sonic journey that digital systems can’t emulate. What do we mean when we say ‘digital systems’?

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

I’ve had a component hifi system set up at home for almost ten years now, and grew up with one too. I was visiting some friends the other day that I hadn’t seen in a while, and they listen in their lounge room through a soundbar. They’d cued up The War on Drugs’ album ‘Lost in the Dream’.

From the second the reverb-laden drums and guitar kicked in on album opener ‘Under the Pressure’, my ears pricked up. Something was different. The music had a strange, processed sheen about it. Like an overcoat of polish that messing with the sound. The music didn’t sparkle, it was as flat as a lake on a windless day. Every instrument seemed to sit at the exact same volume and location in the mix, one globule of music struggling to free itself from the digital realm.

There’s a counterargument to this, which is “I want convenience and I don’t care what it costs, and if I have to sacrifice sound quality in order to get it, why does it matter if I don’t know what I’m missing out on.” That’s fair. I get it. But if you’re reading this article, I don’t think you’ve ended up here because you’re happy to drift through life with a Bluetooth speaker and the prospect in the back of your mind that your music could sound better if only you made some changes.

On equal pegging with, and for some people of even greater import, is looks. From an aesthetic perspective, there is something undeniably attractive about the mechanical beauty of a hifi system. The gleaming precision of a turntable, the heft of an amplifier, and the stature of speakers make a statement to anyone that sets foot inside your home. You love music, it’s an extremely important part of your life, and this investment demonstrates that.

The act of selecting a vinyl record, removing it from its sleeve, and gently placing the needle on its edge involves a tactile interaction, making the listening experience more personal and intimate. This experience, a blend of physicality and ritual, is central to the spiritual side of hifi. It connects us to music in a way that a simple tap on a screen cannot.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

Furthermore, traditional hifi systems create a sense of sacred space for music in a home. The physical presence of the equipment, along with the required care and maintenance (yep!), contributes to the creation of a dedicated listening environment. The deliberate act of setting aside time to sit down and listen to an entire record from start to finish also encourages mindfulness and presence. The gentle crackle of the needle against vinyl — these are meditative elements that compel listeners to slow down and truly engage with the music.

Despite the undeniable convenience of wireless sound systems, they often detach listeners from the ritualistic and spiritual aspects of music. While they offer vast libraries at our fingertips, they risk reducing music to background noise, an endless, impersonal stream of disconnected tracks.

While the digital age has revolutionised how we listen to music, it hasn't necessarily enhanced the experience. Traditional hifi systems, with their sonic excellence, aesthetic appeal, and ritualistic interactions, offer a multi-sensory engagement with music that transcends convenience. They reinforce the artistry behind the music, compelling us to slow down, listen, and truly appreciate the sonic landscapes created by our favourite artists.

By Angus on Thursday, 29 June 2023

Sound waves behave in interesting ways. The deeper the sound, the longer the wave (more or less). A 20Hz wave, which is the approximate low threshold for human hearing, clocks in at around 17 metres long. That means that the sound of a 20Hz wave will bounce around a room for 17 metres until settling at its resting place, so the distance between your couch and speakers may not be the optimal position for hearing that sound.

In fact, someone standing in your kitchen might be copping a big wallop of bass every time there’s a big sub-bass rattle from a song or film. Of course, nearly all conventional speakers don’t go that low unless we’re talking about subwoofers, but the length of these sound waves is pivotal when considering how a pair of speakers will sound in a particular position in a room, and how that affects your listening experience.

SVS PB16 Ultra subwoofer lifestyle shot

To illustrate a very basic example, think back to a time before Bluetooth speakers enjoyed their current ubiquity, and smartphones were equipped with decidedly lousy speakers. It’s 5am, the club has closed, and it’s back to your sister’s boyfriend’s best mate’s house to sit around on weathered outdoor furniture while the impending sunrise and intrusive birdsong wear away at the cheer of those that haven’t yet fallen asleep in their chairs.

Some tunes ought to lift the mood! It was at this point, invariably, that a phone with music cued would be gently placed into a pint glass in the hopes of slightly louder and better sculpted sound for those still going. In this case, the music playing from that tiny speaker would receive a boost because it now had surfaces to bounce off, and wasn’t just straining its poor wee drivers to push sound into the encroaching morning.

Now take that concept, and apply it to a decent pair of hifi speakers. Since we’re focusing on optimising your sound in a smaller space, and also because more than nine out of every ten pairs of speakers we sell on Instant Classic are bookshelf speakers, let’s start with those. It’s the same concept as glass-in-phone - but now the pint glass is your bedroom, living room, dorm room, whatever. Every surface in the room acts as a reflective point for sound, so it’s up to you to decide how best to utilise those points.

Let’s start with the wall behind your speakers. All speakers have a port, which is a little hole that releases air created by the movement of the drivers (the big circular things that emit sound on the front of the speaker). Whoever made your speakers put it there to push some of the excess pressure created by bass registers from inside your speaker cabinet. Place your hand there while there’s music playing and you’ll notice a gentle breeze on your hand. Remember, bass sound waves are the long ones, so tiny treble waves aren’t making it all the way out the back and beyond.

Encel Brains and Gelati lifestyle shot

I throw on a track with a Chic-esque kick drum and honey-drip bassline like Beyonce’s uber-raunchy ‘CUFF IT’. Through a pair of Encel Gelati speakers placed well away from the rear wall, the track sounds snappy, but it’s lacking propulsion and scale. Shifting the speakers to a spot about a half metre from that wall sees the beat lock into step. Nova Wav’s disco-throwback production takes on a more confident thump, and I suddenly find myself frantically searching my wardrobe for a club-ready outfit. It’s not just bass-laden tracks that benefit from a low end boost either. Take an older tune like The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’. It relies on rhythm section locomotion to push the song along, and a little more low end verve just adds so much satisfaction to the listening experience.

There’s a couple of other tricks you can try for maximising sonic returns on your investment. The first is isolation. Speaker cabinets are designed to be as inert as possible, that is, to not send vibrations out into their surrounding environs. But they do, and it pays to account for that, especially in terms of negating the possible effects on other parts of your system, particularly if you’re running a turntable.

Pro-Ject Audio Systems make a terrific product called Damp-It, small rings of synthetic composite material that slide underneath your bookshelf speakers. In terms of yields, it’s $43 extraordinarily well-spent. You’ll notice bass tighten up, and the other components in your system gain some extra protection.

The other trick is toe-in. This one’s simple, just adjust your speakers so that the angle at which they hit your listening position is a little more direct. That is, shift the tweeters inwards so they’re aiming more directly at your face. Those shorter high end frequencies will be firing directly at you, unlocking frequencies that might’ve previously been lost in the room. It quite literally opens up the sound. All of this is to say that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you’ve simply unboxed your speakers, placed them wherever they’ll fit and thought ‘they don’t sound outstanding, but it’ll do.’

Monitor Audio Silver 100 lifestyle shot

We don’t all have the luxury of picking our speaker’s dimensions, and that’s fine. Maybe you picked up a big ol’ pair of floor standing speakers at a garage sale for an awesome price or inherited an aged pair from a relative that still have some life in them. If you’re faced with big speakers in a small space, you can still stop them from sounding bogged down in bottom end.'

Obviously, you’ll want to try the inverse of everything we’ve already mentioned in terms of closeness to surfaces, and that goes for side walls too, not just the one behind. Further to that though, give your listening position some consideration. The closer you can get your ears to the same level as your tweeters, the better the higher-end sounds will be communicated to you. If you want to go a step further, you could even stick some egg cartons to the wall behind you to absorb some of those resonant frequencies, but we understand that might be a bridge too far for most, from both a practical and aesthetic standpoint.

There are plenty of small tweaks you can make to your system that’ll see minor performance improvements, but the aforementioned considerations can yield alterations that’ll have a potentially significant effect. Putting the time and care into speaker placement not only helps maximise your system’s performance, there’s also an intangible satisfaction you’ll derive from knowing it’s sounding its absolute best.

By Angus on Wednesday, 21 June 2023

As often happens when a particular product category experiences an explosion in popularity, there’s been a raft of sub-par, cheap turntables cropping up in the marketplace over the past ten years or so. Where do these cheaper models typically cut corners? Quality materials are the first ingredient to go. MDF and aluminium are replaced by plastic, and vital aspects of good performance like a properly weighted tonearm disappear. A nice slab of MDF for the plinth is replaced by a big, echo-y hollow space.

Thankfully, there’s been some mainstay brands that have stuck by the vinyl faithful through the past 30 years, and our favourite here at Instant Classic is Pro-Ject Audio Systems. In the realm of quality turntables, they’re a beacon of excellence. Since 1991, the brand has been pushing the envelope in terms of style, materials, sound and industrial design, curating a broad portfolio of turntables to cater to a diversity of tastes and budgets. In this article, we shine a spotlight on some of their best cuts from the past few years, the Pro-Ject E1 BT, T1 Phono, Debut Carbon EVO, and X1 B turntables.

Pro-Ject Audio HQ

Pro-Ject E1 BT

The E1 BT is easily Pro-Ject’s most complete effort thus far at integrating Bluetooth functionality into a turntable. It’s got a Bluetooth transmitter onboard, which makes it a great solution for anyone wanting to dip their toe into component audio. If you’ve got a Bluetooth speaker and you’re analogue-curious, start here.

The E1 BT uses a HD Bluetooth module to convert your LPs into a digital signal, then sends that signal to the device of your choosing. That might be a standard Bluetooth speaker, some powered speakers, or even a pair of wireless headphones. Best of all though, you can bypass the Bluetooth functionality and use the E1 BT as a regular turntable - with or without use of the onboard phono stage - later down the line.

Don’t mistake the inclusion of modern tech like Bluetooth with lesser quality either, the E1 BT’s aluminium tonearm and low-vibration motor provide an impressive sound stage when introduced into a complete hifi system. It also offers plug-and-play simplicity, with some of the more finicky elements like anti-skating and the tonearm counterweight being factory set. A wonderful option for less experienced users who want a simple path to listening with a minimum of fuss.

Pro-Ject E1 BT lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject T1 with onboard phono

The T1 with onboard phono actually shares quite a bit in common with the E1 BT. Both are available in black, white and walnut, and are strikingly similar in appearance. But there’s some tweaks to the materials used that prioritise sonic performance over the E1 BT’s diversity of use cases.

As the name suggests, the T1 with onboard phono offers a phono stage which you can activate and disable at the flick of a switch. What’s that mean? Deactivate it and you can use the ‘phono’ input on your amp or an external phono stage like the Pro-Ject Phono Box S2. An external phono stage makes for a nice upgrade once you’ve started to build a sizable vinyl collection and you want to further enhance your sound.

Design-wise, you’re getting a glass platter and improved tonearm bearings compared to the E1, meaning clarity and the tautness of low end gain some sparkle and punch respectively. The glass platter is a nice aesthetic touch too, contributing some visual elegance. The T1 is a small step up in price from the E1 and offers a jump in the quality of materials, resulting in a more muscular, dynamic sound.

Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO

The Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO is an ode to Pro-Ject's dedication to innovation and quality. It’s a direct descendant of their first model, the Pro-Ject 1. Onboard you’ll find a carbon fibre tonearm which significantly reduces resonances that interfere with a turntable cartridge’s ultra-delicate signal.

Two qualities you want fulfilled by any excellent tonearm material are rigidity and light weight, and carbon fibre ticks both. Additionally, the EVO features a heavy steel platter that’s damped with TPE, a sort of polymer rubber that also minimises vibrations, and an Ortofon 2M Red cartridge that offers lovely clarity and imbues your albums with a touch of analogue warmth. Remember, vibrations are the enemy of turntable so all of these materials focus on enhancing sonic performance.

Offering a selection of high-gloss, satin, and real-wood veneer finishes, the Debut Carbon EVO caters to design-conscious listeners who seek excellent performance. It’s undoubtedly the most complete iteration of the iconic Debut line. The Debut Carbon EVO is the point in Pro-Ject’s range where all other features of convenience and compatibility are eschewed in favour of absolute sonic performance.

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo lifestyle shot

Pro-Ject X1

This is an outstanding turntable that exemplifies Pro-Ject’s engineering prowess and desire for constant evolution. The X1 offers features often seen in other company’s turntables at or above the $3,000 mark.

This is a machine that takes anti-resonance very seriously, featuring a heavy acrylic platter, and a carbon/aluminium sandwich construction tonearm. What little resonance travels through carbon fibre is effectively cancelled out by the aluminium, in this case one material is quite literally wrapped around the other, cancelling out each other’s vibrations.

The X1 sports a recessed sub-platter design with motor suspension that was specially designed for X-line turntables. The motor is effectively decoupled from the rest of the unit, meaning none of the (already minimal) vibrations from the motor are able to travel anywhere.

We’re also treated to VTA and azimuth adjustment. This means that the positioning of the tonearm is extremely flexible, so if you’re considering a moving coil cartridge that’d benefit from some extra room to move in your turntable, this is the model we’d strongly recommend.

Choosing the right Pro-Ject turntable entails considering a combination of features, aesthetics, budget, and where your priorities lie as regards feature set. Whether you're seeking the convenience of the E1 BT, the integrated phono stage and glass platter of the T1 with onboard phono, the advanced engineering of the Debut Carbon EVO, or the audiophile-grade sophistication of the X1, there’s a Pro-Ject turntable tailored to your unique needs.

Let your turntable choice reflect your listening habits, aesthetic inclinations, and personal style as you journey further into the immersive world of vinyl playback.

By Angus on Thursday, 15 June 2023

If you've been listening on a Bluetooth speaker or maybe a suitcase turntable and have decided you want to take the next step into better sound, well, you're in the right place and we’re pretty excited for you. Transitioning to a hifi setup, or full component audio, is equivalent to pivoting from watching films on your phone to a cinema - the difference can be revelatory, and it can be a whole lot of fun too.

Before we dive in too deep, it's essential to understand the basics. Hifi, or a high-fidelity system, consists of a few core components: a source (like a turntable, CD player, or even Bluetooth from your phone), an amplifier, and speakers. Each component plays a vital role, working in unison to create a richer, deeper, and more authentic audio experience.

Kicking off with the most exciting piece of the puzzle (at least for us): the turntable. It's the heart of your system, the beginning of the journey from grooves on a record to gorgeous sound in your ears. As the platter on the turntable spins, a stylus (the tiny diamond tip that touches the record’s surface) traces the grooves, converting extremely small ridges on the record’s surface that contain musical information into an electrical signal.

Pro-Ject A2 lifestyle shot

But that’s not the end of it. This signal is very weak, and it needs some bass and treble adjustment too. Enter the phono preamplifier. This boosts that signal from the turntable to an audible level, ready to be piped into an amplifier and out to the speakers. It might be onboard your turntable, a separate box like Pro-Ject’s Phono Box E, or an input labelled ‘phono’ on an amplifier. As long as you’ve got one of those three, you’re golden.

And so, that aforementioned amplifier. Think of it as the director of a symphony, enhancing the electrical signal from your source component and shaping it into something powerful and robust. A good amplifier retains all the nuances of the original music, skillfully amplifying the softest string pluck and the loudest snare hit with equal precision. This "shaped" signal is still electrical at this point, and for us to hear it, it needs to be converted into sound waves, a job entrusted to our final component: the speakers.

Rotel A12MKII amplifier

The speakers are the end point, the handsome boxes that give voice to all the work done earlier in the chain. They take the electrical signals from the amplifier and convert them into mechanical vibrations, which your ears perceive as sound. This process involves several intricate parts, including a tweeter for higher frequencies and a woofer for the lower ones.

In a typical system, we often refer to these as ‘passive’ speakers. These are speakers that rely on an external amplifier to provide the power. A Bluetooth speaker isn’t passive; it has an amplifier onboard and is thus classified as an ‘active’ speaker. There are active speakers in component hifi too, but for now we’re sticking with what’s considered traditional.

Monitor Audio Bronze 50 lifestyle shot

When you're listening on a basic Bluetooth speaker or suitcase turntable, the audio is pretty heavily compressed, losing some of its richness and dynamic range (the perceptible difference between loud and soft). You’re also dealing with much smaller drivers to push sound out, and quite often the balance of frequencies is altered by the manufacturer to overcompensate for the physical deficiencies of these products, leaving you with unbalanced, muddied sound.

With component hifi, you're walking a lot closer to the original recording. But maybe the biggest leap in terms of the tangible qualities of your sound is width and space. Suddenly, the sound is no longer emanating from a single point. There’s two speakers, with (ideally) a couple of metres between them, and you can hear separate instruments coming from one or the other channel. If you’ve never experienced it before, it’s like seeing in colour for the first time. Truly.

And finally, and this one can’t really be overstated, it’s pride. The sense of immense satisfaction that we all here at Instant Classic derive from having a setup in our homes that makes a statement about our love of music, and also the role it plays in our lives, is almost immeasurable.

Sitting down at the end of a long day to zone out, starting our Sunday in the slowest way we can fathom, something to fill the room with during meal times: these are the times of the week in which music plays a part. Having a system that can be immersive, can be background music, is the musical companion that walks us through the days is something we could never see ourselves living without, and the thought of bringing that into other people’s lives excites us.

Encel Brains Amp and Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo turntable

Stepping into hifi is a big leap, and whilst it's one well worth taking, it also comes with a price tag. Don’t fret though, you can take this one step at a time. It’s possible to run a turntable through a Bluetooth speaker. You can spend on an amp and speakers now and run Bluetooth from your phone and start a vinyl or CD collection later. There’s so many ways in, and the beauty of this journey is in exploration and personalisation. Each component comes in various models and at different price points, allowing you to dictate the terms of the journey.

Patience is key. You won’t build your perfect system in a day. Read some reviews, think it over, and get in touch with us if you’re really unsure. Your journey from a Bluetooth speaker to a component sound system is going to be fun and rewarding, of that we’re certain.

${activeVariantPrice} (${ activeVariantPriceDiscount }% off) ${activeVariantCompareAtPrice} ${formatPrice(item.price)}
The score: ${ calcAverageScore(item) }