Publisher Profile

Gary Lea Interviews Michael Fremer

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I recently spent half a day talking with the venerable Michael Fremer of Stereophile, formerly of The Absolute Sound and Listener and the one man most credit with driving the resurgence of vinyl as a still viable and preferred medium for music delivery. I doubt anyone would argue the point that Michael is an icon in the industry both here and in Europe where they revere music and HIFI much more than here in the States. As a vinyl junkie, I have always read Michael’s musings on the state of the hobby and have gleaned a great deal of knowledge from him, or so I thought.

We spent the afternoon talking about his journey through the profession of his life in this hobby, his tenure as a radio host and commercial creator and his days as a standup comic. It was pure fascination to hear the road he traveled to become the audio guru that he is now. We even took time and shopped at my favorite used record store, Record City, here in Las Vegas. Mike bought a handful of vinyl because he does not have enough in his collection of over 15,000 pieces. Yup – 15 THOUSAND and growing!!! I have to say that it was one of my favorite days of my audio life. He was self deprecating, humorous, insightful and humble about his own stature in the industry. He is also as committed to his opinions as the summers in Vegas are hot! Of course it is a “dry” heat and they are only his “opinions”. Most of which turn out to be correct. He is a great and gracious teacher and will share knowledge with anyone asking for his help. What does it say about your status in the world of recorded music when Geoff Emerick, who engineered the Sergeant Pepper’s recordings, invites you to listen to the master tapes so you can hear how they were truly meant to be heard? That is exactly what happened to Michael. I am so jealous. Despite that, I’d like to think I made a new friend and gained a mentor along the way.

What follows is a somewhat condensed and highly paraphrased version of the ongoing chat we had throughout the afternoon.

GL -How long have you been involved with HIFI on a serious level and what got you started?
MF -Since before I could actually read. I could not read the labels but I would remember them by their appearance. My parents would ask me to put something on and even though I could not read the label I always got it right. I loved music from as early as I can remember.

GL- When did it become a true passion?
MF -I have always been passionate about sound. The passion never left me or waned along the way, but rather just grew as I got older. I will never forget when I first heard stereo. I hounded my father into buying a stereo system. It wasn’t anything to compare with what we have today (a Bogen receiver, a Garrard Type A with Shure M3D cartridge and a pair of Jensen Unax speakers in cabinets that were way too small to produce any bass) or what might have been the best there was then but it was stereo and that was a great thing. Eventually, I lobbied for a pair of AR 2ax speakers and that was an ear-opener!

GL – At which point did you realize a desire to make it a profession?
MF – I didn’t so much as realize it but fell into it from a number of different circumstances coming together. I was going to Law School in Boston and got a job in radio. I did a pretty controversial type of show. I did Howard Stern before Howard did it. I also did commercials because I had a good voice and felt that most of the commercials of the time lacked anything that would set them apart from each other: Very monotonous in nature and they all started to sound the same despite the differences in product. Some of the commercials that I did were really funny, with different voices and people really responded to them. I got re-hired by the same radio station and fired again for being too controversial. That time it was the station’s fault as they did not screen my show before putting it on the air but they ousted me anyway. I came out to California and worked on an animated film, Animalympics, —you can see it on YouTube. I co-wrote it. The voices were Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and me. NBC commissioned it for its 1980 Olympics coverage. There was a half-hour winter show that ran and an hour long summer show that didn’t run because the Russians invaded Afghanistan and we stupidly boycotted. I edited the movie, got Graham Gouldman (he was in 10CC and wrote songs like “For Your Love” for the Yardbirds, and “Bus Stop” for the Hollies) hired to write the songs and even put the two movies together for an hour and a half feature film mixed in Dolby surround (this was 1979!) that ran overseas in theaters. I supervised that mix.

After that, I supervised the soundtrack to TRON, the first movie to feature computer animation. It was nominated for two Academy Awards but Hollywood is fickle and things just dried up after that so I went back to New York and one thing led to another. All during this time I continued putting together sound systems and collecting vinyl along the way.

In 1986 I wrote a think piece for a Los Angeles magazine about how bad recorded sound had gotten by the mid-1980’s that I sent to Harry Pearson of the The Absolute Sound, which I had read constantly along with Stereo Review and Stereophile.

HP hired me as pop music editor and I also began reviewing gear. I left in 1995. John Atkinson invited met to join Stereophile, and when asked what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to write a column focusing on vinyl. Atkinson told me I would write myself out of a job! That was a good number of years ago and I am still at it. I guess I wasn’t too far off my rocker. I also wrote a few columns for Art Dudley’s now defunct magazine Listener.

GL – What is it that you like best about what you are doing now?
MF – What’s not to like? I love the resurgence of vinyl and it has been a pleasure to be part of that movement.

GL – Boxers / Briefs?
MF – Briefs when I was young and more boxers now, though I’m actually in far better physical shape now thanks to Pilates. Highly recommended! However I went to Germany and forgot to pack, of all things, underwear. I ended up buying some fantastic German brand boxer/brief hybrids. I have four pairs of those and love them.

GL – Who influenced you along the way to do what you are doing? Mentors?
MF – Certainly Julian Hirsch and Harry Pearson.

GL – Any regrets about the business along the way? If so, what?
MF – Not so much regrets but you get the feeling after a while you are on a treadmill.

GL – What is your favorite item that you have designed, sold, or written about?
MF – I think it must be the Continuum Audio Labs Caliburn turntable & Cobra tonearm (Stereophile, January 2006) because it is truly an engineering masterpiece. I owned the Simon Yorke S7 for 9 years. Great ‘table. During that time I reviewed many excellent sounding turntables, some of which did some things better but none of them motivated me to switch—until I heard the Caliburn. I knew I had to find a way to own it.

GL – Why is that? What makes it so special and above the rest?
MF – When I first saw it I was not impressed, but I had read nothing about the technology employed or had taken the time to listen. Once I did get more into the mechanics and engineering, the more I liked it. So much so that I bought one. It took me more than a year to pay it off, helped in part by sales of my first DVD. (Must have had to pawn the farm for that one. -GL)

GL – Conservative / Liberal?
MF – Libertarian/liberal

GL – What do you do better than most anyone you know?
MF – I know how to express myself in print (and otherwise) and make it entertaining, even when the subject matter isn’t. Many people writing about audio are professionals at something else and amateur writers and it shows . (At this point I am wondering if that look on his face means this is directed at me. -GL)

GL – What piece of equipment that you reviewed do you now wish you had kept?
MF – Wow that is a great question (pause for a moment for effect). The Rockport Technologies System III Sirius. It is such a beautifully engineered and built piece. I reviewed that in 2000 and wished at the time that I had bought it but I’m glad I didn’t because I like the sound of the Caliburn more.

GL – Do you have a holy grail within audio that you find yourself still searching for?
MF – Not really. I can sit 20th row center at Avery Fisher Hall, which I do once a month – I have a subscription – and when I come home I can put on a record and I can honestly say what I get at home is pretty close! Am I deluding myself? Maybe. But it’s closer now than I ever thought it might be.

GL – If you were not doing this what do you think you would be doing?
MF – Stand up comedy again, or singing in front of a band, both of which I plan on doing before I get too old…

GL – What have you not done that you really want to do before you check out?
MF – I don’t know…I think I’ve done about everything I’ve ever wanted to do. I even got to ride in the Goodyear blimp! I’d sure like to have a radio show again.

GL – What pushes your buttons? Pet peeve so to speak.
MF – Politics. I love it but it makes me crazy. Also the fact that consumer electronics writing in major newspapers has been taken over by computer geeks so audio never gets covered.

GL – Favorite color? What does it emote for you?
MF – Blue – It emotes so much. Calm, coolness, relaxation and depth. It is not a garish color, though there are way too many blue LEDs in audio!

GL – Beatles or Stones?
MF – Both (what a cowardly copout Michael J the right answer is the Beatles and you know that – ok so that is my answer to the question but what the hell you got to hear the Pepper’s master tapes. -GL)

GL – Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen?
MF – Hendrix by a mile! When Experience Hendrix/MCA reissued the Hendrix catalog on vinyl, Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer called to ask if he could hear test pressings on my stereo. Having Eddie Kramer sitting in my chair was a GEEK-THRILL as was meeting and interviewing George Martin for the music review magazine I edited and co-owned during the ‘90s called The Tracking Angle. Everything from the magazine can be found on my website

GL – Do you own an iPod?
MF – Every model that has ever been made.

GL – What do you listen to when you are listening purely for pleasure? Recommendations?
MF – Every kind of music. I don’t even know where to start with recommendations. Read my website!

GL – What advice do you have for someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
MF – Be sure to speak your mind and share your opinions. Don’t try to please everyone (or anyone) or have everyone like you. Don’t become too friendly with those whose products you are reviewing, unless you have the balls to be dispassionate when that person’s product is in your system for review. There’s way too much chumminess in the high performance audio world, in part because most of the people are nice and in part because it’s a small industry. Don’t swallow and regurgitate everything a manufacturer tells you about his “technology.” Question it and be skeptical. Don’t be doctrinaire (12” tonearm is better than a 9” tonearm, planar magnetic speakers are better than moving coils, etc.). Every technology or “breakthrough” involved trade-offs. Most importantly, try to tell people what something sounds like, without making value judgments. Your opinion (whether or not you like it) is secondary. What something sounds like is primary. That is the job. The job is not to mold other people’s tastes or to crown one product “the best.” I hate that!

GL – Words of wisdom for the masses?
MF – I thought that’s what I’ve been spouting for this entire interview! No? (Yes – GL)

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