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My first record player was a cheap red and white plastic affair with which I could play my stack of bright yellow 78s. It was the kind that had a steel needle that was held in place with a thumbscrew on the tonearm, the kind you were supposed to replace the needle after every play. However, we only had the one needle, so I just used it over and over. It had a horrible tinny sound to it, and the records were scratched up and barely intelligible, but I enjoyed it. After we moved house, it and its records lived out in the porch.

Polly Wolly Doodle 78

When I was older, we got a nicer record player, this one played 45s, was in a hinged box of dark blue plastic, and like the first one, lived out on the porch with the kids' records. When my baby sister was little, she had a badly warped copy of "Black Beauty" she'd play over and over. I can still remember the singsong warble as the pitch slid up and down: "Black Beauty! Through the wind and the rain! Black Beauty! Knew the meaning of pain!"

We had a recording of The Night Before Christmas with a skip in it, so it would repeat "He was chubby and plumP, chubby and plumP, chubby and plumP". This was for some reason endlessly amusing.

We also had a copy of The Little Red Hen, which, several times in the narrative, would wind up with the phrase "... and she did!" At which point, I'd mash down on the disc and rotate it backwards, which sounded somewhat like "Baby-snot!" This too, I found endlessly amusing.

At this point, I was occasionally allowed to operate my parents' much nicer stereo. It had a big heavy Rek-O-Kut turntable with an impressively massive tonearm with a complicated balancing mechanism, connected to a string of elaborate vacuum tube boxes and large imposing speakers. My parents' records were mostly high fidelity recordings of classical music, heavy on the Beethoven. I was more interested in program music, and enjoyed the 1812 Overture, Wellington's Victory, and a fancy recording of a musical parade, called Pass In Review. There was also an "introduce your children to classical music" disc which boasted its own baton you could pretend to conduct with, but the baton was missing.

Finally I acquired my first record player of my own. I don't remember where I got the thing, but it can't have cost much. It was a black plastic affair with a smoked plastic cover and a slim tonearm that looked positively futuristic for a cheap piece of plastic. It had a nasty stylus made of some brown material that could really dig into vinyl. I didn't have a working cassette player, but had acquired a broken one somewhere (probably for free), drilled holes into the record player, and managed to get it to amplify the signal from the tape deck. It was ugly and sounded horrible, but it did basically work, and my friends were duly impressed with my ability to get broken sound gear to actually sort-of work. The speakers that came with that record player were nasty plastic things with a bad midrange and pretty much nothing else. I had inherited my family's dead color console TV, so I wired its speakers to that record player. Mounted in a heavy deep wood TV cabinet, even those cheap TV speakers sounded worlds better.

I eventually inherited the Rek-O-Kut turntable too, and placed it in the TV cabinet where the screen had been. I had also acquired the guts of an old vacuum tube FM tuner, and put it in there too. It was pure ugly, but I was unreasonably proud of it.

Turntable and stereo in TV set

At this point, I acquired a job and use of the family car, and would occasionally go out with my friends and troll the local pawn shops and thrift stores, looking to upgrade my makeshift stereo system. This is when I got what I considered my first "real" turntable. I don't know what brand it was, but it was a sleek thing with a featherweight tonearm made of an S-shaped tube of spun aluminum. It was missing its lid and the tonearm counterweight, so it was priced at only $2. I snapped it up. I borrowed time at a machine shop and made my own brass counterweight for the tonearm, and added a tapped hole for a setscrew, so I could secure it in the right position to adjust the tracking weight (a concept I now understood somewhat). The hole I had bored for the tonearm was off-center, so I drilled the setscrew hole on the thin side, so it could sit heavy side down with the setscrew easily accessible. I even went to the music store at the Student Union at the University of Maryland and bought a "fancy" cartridge for it, an Audio Technica I spent twenty-six whole dollars on. The cartridge came with voluminous instructions on its care and feeding, and I even bought a stylus balance to use to adjust the tracking force to the specified 1.2 grams with the counterweight I had made. That turntable saw many many years of use and played countless hours of a huge assortment of albums, both mine and my friends'. I even found a cover for it that sort-of fit, so it almost looked like a decent piece of equipment, aside from the grotty tonearm counterweight I had made. I was inordinately proud of it, and it actually did sound reasonably good.

Years later, I was out in Ohio working on my first real job, and went into a high-end stereo store. Pretty much everything there was completely out of my price range, but they had a table of used more-or-less high end equipment people had presumably traded in, including a Technics SL-J2 linear tracking turntable. At this point, most people were converting to CDs, but I wasn't ready yet, and was intrigued by its ability to search to a selected track, just like a CD player. I spent $125 on it, took it home, and realized it didn't sound particularly good. I decided it was a nice enough unit, just didn't have the right cartridge and stylus. It used a peculiar "P-mount" cartridge that wasn't very popular, so there weren't very many options, but Ortofon offered some very nice P-mount cartridges. I chose a good mid-range one, and upgraded to an elliptical diamond stylus, and it sounded pretty grand. I still have that turntable, and it still sounds good, but I'll admit I do spend a lot of time listening to more-convenient forms of music storage these days.

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