Laurence Borden: Joël, welcome to Dagogo. Please begin by telling us about your extensive musical background.
Joël François Durand: Thank you for the invitation! I’ve been composing for more than 35 years. I studied piano as a child, then moved on to composition, which I studied first in Paris, France, then in Germany (Freiburg); finally, I completed my Ph.D. in musical composition at the University of Stony Brook, New York. Right after finishing my music studies, I worked for two years in New York City as a recording engineer. I was then hired in 1991 by the University of Washington School of Music, in Seattle, to teach composition, where I’ve been since. My activity as a composer has led me to work with many of the finest musicians and to attend many concerts in some of the finest concert halls in Europe and in the US.
LB: There is a wide-spread belief amongst audiophiles that musicians don’t care about high-end audio because they, the musicians, listen to “different things”; though what those things are is never made clear. In your experience, is there any truth to this? And if so, to what do you attribute your interest in high-end audio?
JFD: Yes, we’ve all heard about musicians having lousy sound system because they don’t need anything better. It’s not that they necessarily listen to different things, it’s just that when you know a piece of music very well, either by having played it or having studied the score, or having heard it many times in concert, you don’t necessarily need a reproduction system that helps you hear all the details, because you compensate mentally for what isn’t so clear in the reproduction. If, for example, you can’t clearly hear all the notes in dense or complex textures, you can mentally separate out what’s going on if you know the piece well; then it’s not so bad if it sounds like a bit of a mess to an audiophile ear, in that sense. So it’s true that as a professional musician, it doesn’t necessarily matter how much you can hear through the recording when you already know what’s there.
To illustrate this better, I’ll mention a situation with which all music lovers are familiar: that of the old recordings, where a lot of information is missing because of the age of the recording. They are not what one would call audiophile quality of course, but a lot of them are remarkable, musically speaking, so it’s alright if the sound is not so good because you listen to the interpretation, to the particular qualities of the musicians, to their uniqueness. Anyone who has appreciated this type of recordings for what they are can easily relate to the enjoyment I’m describing. It’s not about resolution or spatial presentation and so on, but it can be immensely gratifying nonetheless. In these cases, you obviously don’t expect to hear everything, as you would on audiophile recordings; that’s not the reason you listen to them. So everybody knows that experience of paying attention to only what’s musically interesting about a recording—the interpretation, the phrasing of the musicians and such, that are still audible even without all the information—and accepts the fact that they are lacking in other ways. You might not get all the details of color the performers are creating in the phrases, or the realistic rendition of the timbres, or their exact location in space, but it doesn’t matter so much. You don’t expect, even need that level of realism because the musical content is still there; the performers’ emotion and originality are still perceptible. And since that is such a big part of what the musical message is, you can have a wonderful experience. I only discuss this at some length because it has a relation to the question of what musicians “listen” to. But it doesn’t mean that they don’t enjoy very good sound when they hear it. It’s not true that musicians don’t care about audio. In the past few years I’ve discovered a number of friends in the business who are very knowledgeable, and some who actually have very good systems—or dream of having one.
To answer the last part of your question, my interest in high-end audio started when I was a teen-ager. Like many people at that age, I didn’t have any money to buy anything of high quality so I was happy with what I could get. I didn’t have any kind of expectation of realism at all, anyway, so as long as it could play rock music loud enough, it was great! I also remember the first two records of classical music I bought, Debussy and Mahler—I still have them, and being entranced just by the fact that I could hear them in my home. I was going to a lot of concerts in Paris at the time so the records were the ideal way to listen to the pieces again and again, after having heard them live. It was the best way to familiarize myself with the music, and when listening with the score, I could perceive what wasn’t very audible in the reproduction. Recordings were never an end in themselves, they were an extension of the live experience.
But your point touches a more fundamental, and personal reason why I got interested in high-end audio. To me, music is first a source of knowledge, then sometimes also of entertainment. That means that, in order to understand and receive the full message of a piece of music, I need to hear as much of it as possible, in all its details. For example, in music with complex textures, I find it important to hear what all the instruments are doing, not just the first or secondary lines. It’s the kind of knowledge you gain from studying a score. One could say that the only way to really know a piece of classical music is by reading and studying the score. However, music is about communication, performance and transmission, so besides the score, the experience of listening to interpretations is just as fundamental: you gain a certain kind of knowledge about a piece by listening to what a good performer does with it. This observation applies just as well to types of music that are not entirely written down such as jazz or music based on oral traditions. Good performers can teach you aspects of a musical work that you didn’t know before. You can only get that fully in live situations so that’s why audio reproduction is most valid to me when it’s as realistic as possible. That’s the only way to hear inside the textures, to perceive (almost) everything.
Talea photos ©Michael Cole 2010
LB: Let’s turn now to the Talea tonearm. When did you first decide to design and build a tonearm, and what was your motivation to do so?
JFD: It started in late 2008. It had nothing to do with “design” at that time, it was just about the idea of building a very basic tonearm to see what it would sound like. I had no intention, no project in mind. I had just bought an old Rek-O-Kut turntable on eBay and made a plinth for it. Since the tonearm that came with it was broken, I needed something cheap to play with. Rather than buy one, I just cut a piece of wood, put some wire on it, found something to act as some kind of pivot, mounted a cartridge and listened to what happened. I don’t know why I did it, I was just curious, I suppose. The funny thing was that it didn’t sound half bad! I was actually surprised that it worked better than I had thought. Then I started to have all kinds of ideas on how to modify this and that part, how to make it better here or there, and so on. Before I realized it, I was thinking about it day and night, imagining solutions for all the little problems I found along the way, experimenting with all kinds of shapes and materials. I had no ambition whatsoever about doing something high-end, or even to get into business! It was a game, really. It’s the same spirit that guides me today, and has guided me all along in this project; the “what if?” syndrome.
LB. Did you have any hands-on experience in audio design, or was this your first venture?
JFD: I had very little experience before. I built a set of loudspeakers and some other small electronic devices when I was a teen-ager, but I never pursued any of that very far.
LB. Designing on paper is one thing, building actual models for testing quite another. How did you (and do you) handle the manufacturing side of things?
JFD: In the development of the Talea, I didn’t design first on paper, then proceed to testing. Both aspects were completely integral to each other. After a couple of months of working out of my garage, I realized that I was very limited by my tools and knowledge, and wasn’t sure where to turn. Then I discovered that there was a machine shop in the department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Washington and that it was available for students and staff. So a few weeks later I took the course to learn how to operate the machines. I ended up spending a lot of time there in the following months. The staff in the shop were very helpful; they were there to help the students learn machining so we could ask any question about anything and always get directions. From that point on, my imagination expanded considerably because I could essentially think of anything I wanted, go to the shop and make it. I also slowly learned what was possible (and impossible…) to do with the machines, something that became very helpful later on when I started to interact with professional shops. Some of the shapes I made up to machine sometimes had the shop guys at the University scratching their heads because it wasn’t exactly standard procedure, but they invariably tried to figure a way to make it work. I also learned a lot about what could be done with what materials, how they reacted, and of course how they sounded, alone and in combination with each other. My workflow was pretty efficient: I would one day make a little sketch of an idea I had for a specific aspect of the mechanism, then make the part in the following days and test it right away. Then I would do it again in order to improve something because I suddenly had a better idea, and so on. Because everything was in my hands, I was able to progress very quickly—much faster than if I had been dependant on an outside shop. I also soon realized that I needed to learn a CAD program. Until then, it was very artisanal, so to speak. But it’s impossible to program even a 2-axis mill without correct drawings, so that was another thing I had to learn quickly.
I’ve kept the same approach to prototyping since: First I make the parts myself, then test them. When I started to plan going into production, I had to look for professional shops in the Seattle area because the facilities on the University campus are only available for research. But I still do my research hands-on there when I need to.
LB: Building a tonearm from scratch must have been an enormous undertaking. About how long did the entire process – from initial conception to final product – take? How many prototypes did you built and test?
JFD: It never felt like an enormous project because I was going day by day, without really knowing when it would stop. It was just a constant process of discovery, of small improvements, a few steps forward, then backwards, and so on. The first “tonearm” was made around the end of December 2008; one of the last prototypes was presented at the 2009 RMAF; then I had the very last prototype of the first generation Talea go through a small circle of beta testers (all part of the Galibier “clan”) a couple of months later, and the first production units came out in early March 2010. So it was roughly 15 months from the beginning to that point. By then, I had about 15 prototypes for the Talea base, and over 50 prototypes for the arm wand, of different designs and woods. There are also dozens of prototypes for the smaller parts; for example, I tried many different sizes, shapes and materials for the counterweights—I have a box full of them!
Talea photos ©Michael Cole 2010
LB: I’ve followed many of your on-line postings, and you seem to have a solid foundation in engineering and materials science. Do you have formal training in these areas, or are you self-taught? Are there any individuals in particular to whom you turned for advice and guidance?
JFD: After high school, I first studied in a college to prepare for a career in mechanical and electrical engineering, in Paris. After three years, I got really fed up with it, and since I was mostly studying music instead of doing my homework in math and physics anyway, I decided to just quit and move on to musical studies. At the time, I never thought I would go back to any kind of scientific endeavor.
When I got engrossed in this tonearm project, I went back to my text books, and studied a lot on the subject, as I was progressing with development. I also had a number of meetings with professors in the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science departments at the UW. Other than that, the main person with whom I was in almost daily contact at the time was Thom Mackris (Galibier Design). We would sometimes spend hours on the phone debating the advantages of tonearm geometries, protractors, or specific aspects of my designs. I learned a lot that way. In June 2009, he actually came to Seattle and heard the tonearm, as it was developed by then. He and a few other friends were very encouraging, and that’s when I started to realize that it wasn’t too bad; but I didn’t have many points of reference and was still working for myself. During that summer, Thom invited me to show a prototype at the 2009 RMAF in his room. Then, about the same time, I discovered the principle for my on-the-fly azimuth mechanism. Since it had been done with the use of the facilities from the University, I had to disclose the invention to the Center for Commercialization at the UW. During our first meeting, they asked me if I had plans to take it to production. That’s when I made up my mind. In the following couple of months, they decided to file for a patent, and helped me form the company; there was no turning back.
LB: Where there ever times when you felt you had bitten off my than you could chew?
JFD: I don’t remember feeling that, it’s just been such an extraordinary adventure. Yes, it’s pretty stressing at times, as when you think that, this year it will be different, you’ll be ready in time for the show, and you’re not quite where you wanted to be… Sometimes, I wonder why I’m doing this instead of writing music. But it all comes together in the end, it’s all about music and that’s what matters.
LB: Did listening correlate well with theory and measurements, or did you encounter some surprises that caused you to re-evaluate?
JFD: I encounter surprises all the time! Listening rarely correlates with measurements, although measurements are certainly useful as a baseline. I don’t think anyone really knows what is supposed to be measured in tonearm design to exactly predict what is going to happen in all areas. Part of the problem is that there are so many variables; but I also don’t get a sense that we’ve nailed which parameters are the best ones to work on. You see theories out there that, for example, tell you that the pivot has to be in this or that position in relation to the stylus, or else you’ll get poor tracking, or you’ll have problems with warped records, and so on. So I tried them, to see what would happen, and often ended up with conclusions that contradicted the theories. In the end, if it sounds very good, my task is to try to understand what I’ve done right. That can be the hardest thing to do. Sometimes, mistakes are easier to understand than the good solutions. If a solution works well but doesn’t correlate with a theory, then you need to scratch the theory.
But this also touches another important aspect that’s harder to talk about. When do we know that something sounds good? Basically, if you have enough experience listening to live music, you know what an instrument sounds like. That’s the “good” sound, the reference. It’s not about whether you like it to sound one way or another, it’s just a reality. I am aware that, for some people, the experience of listening to music can have more to do with creating a specific atmosphere than searching for realism. They might like to have the sound be more mellow, or have more excitement, perhaps a stronger bass component, or a bit of brightness; that’s a completely legitimate goal of course. That sound however can’t be said to be “better” than one provided by a more realistic rendition. Nowadays, most people are looking for the most holographic, life-like representation of reality (and not just in sound). If that’s indeed what you like, realistic reproduction is the goal. If you want to feel that you’re in the jazz club with the musicians, that reality is your reference. More generally, if you have somebody play an instrument for you, then listen to the same instrument on a recording, you should be able to tell whether the recording is close to the real thing or not. It doesn’t matter whether you like the reproduced sound better for whatever reason; it’s either closer to reality or not.
Another aspect to this question that is tied to these observations is that it seems easier to rely on a theory than to trust one’s ears. If someone says that their product sounds good because of a given theory, we’re likely to think that the reason for the success is the theory. But if you know what you want to hear before you get started, you’re less likely to depend on theories established by other people. Unless you know the people who came up with the theory, and you happen to completely agree with their musical decisions and biases, you cannot blindly accept that they’re right. This isn’t quite as objectively scientific as some people make it out to be because, while the laws of physics are unavoidable, good reproduction of music doesn’t seem to rely only on what we know of them. And then sometimes, it isn’t necessarily the theory that is at fault, but the actual realization, the implementation. That’s a bit harder to evaluate.
Having done all this work so fast means that I’ve had to absorb an enormous amount of information, either by reading or through first hand experiment. It’s hard to realize how much I’ve done because it seems like a short time to develop a product, but I can assure you that I’ve tried to turn over every stone I’ve encountered along the way. Answers have often been more practical than theoretical, but I’ve also understood a few things that I believe are true, and don’t necessarily agree with the generally accepted “wisdom.” I’m not sure I have established a “theory,” nor do I care to have one. Yes, I now have a better idea ahead of time about what will happen if I choose this or that material for this or that part, or if I put a part in this or that position; I can estimate when something will probably not work. But I try it anyway, because you never know… I don’t really care if something is not “supposed” to work, or is too hard to make. In that respect, I’ve been very lucky, in particular with the people I’ve been in contact with (engineers, shop masters), because they have been very patient and willing to do what I asked for, even if it seemed crazy at first.
I am constantly re-evaluating what I’ve done. Having said that, I think that the design of the Talea is now pretty stable and working well. That’s probably why I started to work on a new idea late last year. I’m a bit intellectually restless, I suppose!
LB: The tonearm and cartridge work closely together (some would consider them a single mechanical unit), with each influencing the other. Was the Talea designed and optimized for a particular type of cartridge, i.e., high vs. low compliance? Which cartridge(s) and turntable(s) were used in the design and evaluation process?
JFD: No, interestingly enough, I haven’t encountered a cartridge yet that the Talea doesn’t like. Most of the development of the Talea was done with both high and low compliances cartridges. I’ve also used or evaluated it with all kinds of turntables: idler wheels, direct drives, belt drives.
LB: Audiophiles are often divided into two groups, those who seek the “truth” (i.e., that each audio component should as accurately as possible reproduce the signal fed it), while others seek beauty, wherein components can editorialize the signal so as to make the resulting music sound better. With the understanding that there are many shades of grey, to which side do you lean?
JFD: I responded to this earlier, to some extent. We all know that it’s impossible to get the “truth,” not only because the components can’t be as “perfect,” as accurate as real music (the no-component situation), but, more importantly, because we have no control over the original material, the recording! There are so many different variations in recording technique, mixing, not to mention in the record-making process. That’s the most frustrating aspect of the situation to me. I am indeed on the side of accuracy and realism, but I also know that it’s rarely in the recording to start with! Given all this bad news, all I care about is having the musicians in my room. Of course, that’s not answering your question, because one could ask whether having them in your room means hearing their feet shuffling on the floor, or experiencing the emotion of their performance. Well, again, my answer is: What do you hear in live concert? The feet on the floor or their emotion? Or both?
There’s no such dichotomy as beauty in one corner, truth in the other. In music reproduction, truth is beauty, beauty is truth. I’m not trying to evade the question, I just don’t see how these can be separated. I recently read a very odd comment in a magazine about a comparison between two cartridges: One gave more detailed information than the other one. The reviewer, not wanting to sound negative, argued that the cartridge with less detail might be closer to the reality of the concert because in a live situation, you don’t hear the instruments as being so separated anyway. Ok, that’s true. On the other hand, if the recording was made in such a way that the instruments were spatially well separated (for better or for worse), why would you want to hear them all mushed up together? So again, the real problem is what we have to contend with, what we are given as source material: recordings made by people who have their own bias as to what the original sound was, or should have been, as it were. We can’t hope to “improve” on them, regardless of our own biases. So why not accept that fact and try to “simply” make equipment that brings out what’s there, and nothing else.
I fully realize the weight of this statement, possibly loaded with self-contradictions—we might not actually know what is “there” unless we were the recording engineer. But I don’t want to tangle the discussion endlessly, and I’ll end by re-iterating what I said earlier: I want to feel that I’m there, with the musicians in front of me. If the recording is helpless in that regard, I don’t use it for critical assessment of what I’m doing. I just enjoy it for other reasons.
LB: If we can agree that no tonearm (or any other audio component, for that matter) is perfect, compromises must be made. What sonic attributes were of the greatest importance to you, and on which were you willing to bend a bit?
JFD: I don’t like to think that I accepted to bend anything! I’m happy in the illusion that my goal is to have it all, all the time. Having said that, and to answer your question more precisely, the ideal tonearm would have no adjustment at all! It would be used with just one turntable, one record thickness (one record?), and have the perfect cartridge with an ideally aligned cantilever so the azimuth is always correct, a stylus at the same angle as the one used in the lathe that made that one record, and with a suspension that wouldn’t change over time. Come to think of it, I would say that the ideal tonearm is a nice chair in an excellent concert hall…
Back to reality! With the Talea, I early on developed a basic idea of what needed to be part of the tonearm: easy adjustments for VTA, azimuth, fine calibration of VTF and so on. Once that was established, I had to find the best solutions to implement them. So the problem was to work with these premises and make the best sound possible under the conditions. It’s not as if I compared a version of a Talea without VTA adjustment, then one with it, and said: “Ok, that doesn’t sound as good, but it will do.” I never accepted “good enough” during the whole process but kept my initial goal in mind. I had decided to have those adjustments, so I had to find the best solutions to make them work. That was my first effort at tonearm making, and I wanted to build a nice product with all the amenities.
The time to revisit all this came late last year, when I was satisfied with the Talea II. I then wondered what would happen if I took all these nice things out and started again from scratch. That became the new tonearm I just finished, the Telos.
As I said earlier, the main sonic attributes I wanted, and still want, are all of them! I don’t purposefully favor speed over tonal rendition, or detail over emotional response. Music itself is made up of all these things and if some are not there, it sounds wrong. I don’t mean that I don’t have an analytical mind when it comes to assessing what I’m doing; on the contrary. But my foremost goal is to evaluate whether the result takes me closer to the illusion of having the musicians in the room or not. I am forever astonished to realize that there was still room for improvement once I made a change that went in that direction, whereas I thought that I was already pretty close. That’s something most audiophiles experience at one time or another: You don’t know what you were missing until you hear something better.
LB: Let’s turn now to the actual design of the Talea. Of the myriad decisions you must have faced, I imagine that one of the earliest – and one which influenced all subsequent decisions – concerned the type of bearing. How did you settle on a unipivot design? Was this guided by other tonearms you admired?
JFD: Actually, my knowledge about tonearms, from an engineering point of view, wasn’t very extensive when I started this project. I had experience with a few, but never gave much thought to their design, their advantages or their flaws. The use of the unipivot bearing didn’t come out of a specific theory or philosophy. I had never owned a unipivot tonearm before so I didn’t have any prejudice against that design. I was surprised to slowly and painfully discover the peculiar problems of balance that this type of design has, and I very methodically experimented with every aspect in order to find solutions.
I’m not very interested in traditional fixed bearings. They seem awfully complicated to me, although there are some very nice solutions out there. But I don’t see what problem they solve, that a unipivot is supposed to have. What I’ve discovered is that a unipivot shows issues (related to torque and balance, among other things) that a fixed bearing can hide without really solving them; but they are there nonetheless. So if you can fix those problems while keeping the freedom of movement inherent to the unipivot design, there’s no reason to have a fixed bearing. I don’t have any all-encompassing theory. I know what I can do with a unipivot design, and perhaps there’s a better way to make one; I’ll do it if I can think of it.
I don’t feel—or remember—that I faced so many major design decisions. What I had were a myriad of little, or bigger problems along the way. I just had this vision of the sound I wanted and I did everything I could to get there. Many answers came on their own as I was asking the questions. Mind you, I still haven’t reached my goal, because I still can’t see those darn musicians in my room!
LB: Tell us about the arm wand. Why did you choose wood over other materials?
JFD: At first, it was just a practical matter. Because I started with such primitive means, wood was the easiest material to obtain and work with. I also early on developed the idea that the arm wand’s role in the transmission of mechanical forces was fairly similar to the role of the bow used on string instruments. I researched musical instrument construction and discovered some interesting similarities that reinforced my decision to use wood. I’m regularly asked why I offer only one type of wood for the arm wand. It’s simply because it’s the one that gives the best results for what I want to hear, and considering the rest of the whole tonearm system. These of course are two very significant reasons: I know what I want to hear, and I don’t claim that my choice is the best one for all situations. The wood I ended up choosing happens to “mate” extremely well with the metals I use in the base, the way they are shaped, etc. It might not work as well in another design, with different materials, who knows? Another essential aspect of the arm wand is the wood finish—a mixture that I make myself. It’s used for the protection of the wood and to maintain its stability in various atmospheric environments, but it also has a very important impact on the sound.
Going back to the question of the wood itself, I had a number of meetings with professors in the department of Materials Science at the University of Washington, because I was curious to understand exactly why the woods I had experimented with had such different sound characteristics. After analyzing them, I discovered which parameters were important (and which were not so important) for their use as arm wands, and verified that my intuitions about the similarities with instruments were correct. I am not committed forever to the idea of using wood, though. I’m still experimenting, and if I find materials that perform better, I’ll switch.
LB: You have previously described the lower arm plate as being the “heart” of the Talea. Please tell us more about its design and construction, and how it influences the arm’s mechanical and sonic properties.
JFD: This part is critical to both the sound and the function of the whole system. After the arm wand, it’s the first part the mechanical vibrations meet on their way out. It also holds all the functional parts of the tonearm: the arm rest, the arm lift, the bearing, the VTA tower assembly and the anti-skating mechanism. Its design was probably what took me the most time to finalize (besides the arm wand itself) and it went through many iterations. The idea of the threaded column to adjust the VTA came in very early—it was already there in the second prototype. At that time, it was much simpler, and concentric with the bearing. Progressively, I experimented with designs in which the tower was offset in various ways from the bearing; again, this took many different shapes. It’s only when I thought of the mechanism for the azimuth adjustment that the whole thing came together: the two towers joined by a connecting “bridge.”
LB: Why did you decide to incorporate VTA- and azimuth-on-the-fly? Did these cause you to alter other aspect of the design?
JFD: Originally, these were practical considerations. A number of high-end analog users like to have the ability to change the VTA while listening, so I thought that it was an interesting challenge to take on. The idea of the VTA on-the-fly adjustment was already there in the very first prototypes. It wasn’t working very well at first, but I always had it in mind. When I found the best solution, I implemented it in the first generation Talea. I also understood that, more generally, the problem with this type of offset VTA tower design is the fact that you have these two columns of metal (the tower outside and the shaft inside) that can resonate, independently as well as with each other, and add unwanted vibrations in the system. With the Talea II, I finally solved that problem by essentially making the tower into a clamp. These kinds of “comfort” adjustments are always somewhat of a compromise, but some people can’t live without them.
The idea of the azimuth mechanism for the Talea came to me out of frustration with the current systems I knew at the time. The problem wasn’t so much that they were not useable on the fly; it was more that there was no way to repeat a setting, or even know where you were once you started to move things around. Once I realized how important that parameter was in optimizing the set up of a tonearm, I had to find a solution to make it practical, while not affecting performance. The idea I came up with not only allows repeatable setting, but since there is no mechanical interaction between the parts, it can be done on the fly.
LB: Please share with us other design aspects you found to be critical.
JFD: As I mentioned earlier, the shape of the arm wand is very important. I can’t go into much detail because it’s proprietary information, but I’ve done a lot of work on this (which partially explains the 50 prototypes for the Talea, and another dozen for the Telos…). It’s much more complicated than it looks at first. Other small but essential details include for example the design of the bearing column, the types of metals used in other parts of the assembly, where they are used, and their shapes. Each detail ultimately plays a big role.
LB: Let’s return to the topic or turntables for a moment. As you know, there is currently a resurgence of interest in direct drive and idler wheel/rim drive designs. Many of these are refurbished vintage designs such as the Garrard 301, various Lencos, and the Pioneer SP-10, but there are also some modern tables of this design, for example those from Teres, TT Weights, the Beat, and Wave Kinetics, amongst others. Do you feel the Talea works better with one design versus the other?
JFD: I’ve experimented, either in my system or in customers’ systems with different types of turntables. I don’t think there’s any type of drive that works better than others with the Talea.
LB: What do you look for in a turntable? Did the development of the Talea alter your views on turntables?
JFD: I’ve come to realize the importance of the position of the different elements of the turntable and how they interact with each other. Like many people, I used to think that it was more important to spend money first on a good turntable, then upgrade to a better arm when possible. I’ve heard a number of people argue that, with the Talea, and even more with the Telos, this classic hierarchy is not so relevant anymore; they say that it makes more sense to spend less money on a turntable and go for the Talea rather than a less performing tonearm. I think this outlines the growing awareness of the importance of the tonearm in the system, as opposed to the more conventional way of considering it as an inert object that’s supposed to simply not get in the way of the cartridge or the turntable. It actually has a tremendous impact on the sound. In any case, a tonearm cannot be an inert object because it’s made of something, and any material, wherever it’s placed in the whole system will play a role in the final result.
LB: Please tell us about your current dealer network.
JFD: I now have 8 dealers in the US, 5 in Asia, and two distributors in New Zealand and Australia.
LB: The Talea is currently in its second generation. Are there any plans for a third generation, or perhaps another model at a lower price point?
JFD: No plans for a third generation Talea at the moment, or for a lower priced model. On the other hand, I mentioned earlier that I introduced a new top-of-the-line model at the 2011 RMAF, the Telos. This new tonearm integrates all the lessons I’ve learned with the Talea, and pushes the envelope quite a bit further in areas I’ve alluded to earlier. There is no on-the-fly device on this one, although it does have all the usual adjustments. It’s a more minimal design, with every element optimized to the maximum for performance. For example, the idea of the clamping mechanism from the Talea is back, but this time with an even more functional goal. I did a lot of research into vibration transmission, both in terms of materials as well as design of the parts. There are a number of unusual materials being used for that purpose, some of them extremely expensive. Prototyping was quite a challenge because I couldn’t work most of those materials myself, so I had to drive somebody else crazy with my demands… But it was definitely worth it, I think, because I’ve made some very interesting discoveries in that domain.
LB: Last but not least, I’d be remiss if I failed to ask you about the origin of the name “Talea.”
JFD: It’s a bit of an esoteric term used in Medieval and Renaissance music. Basically, it’s a repetitive rhythmic pattern. The pattern is superimposed to a repetitive pattern of pitches that is of different length (called the “color”). So for example, the rhythmic pattern could have 12 values, and the pitch pattern 15 notes. Because of the different number of values in each pattern, the two patterns would not come back in phase with each other—for a very long time! This technique came back in the 20th century and many composers have used it, in different ways. That’s a way to create variety inside a repetitive situation.
LB: Joël, on behalf of the staff and readers of Dagogo, it has been a privilege to have you share your thoughts and ideas with us. We wish you continued success in all aspects of your career.
JFD: Thank you so much for the opportunity to discuss all this!
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