Computer Arts - - Contents -

Joe Flory’s love let­ter to his vin­tage Yamaha sound sys­tem

I’m by no means an au­dio­phile. I can’t dis­cern be­tween a loss­less FLAC au­dio file and a com­pressed MP3 au­dio file. How­ever, I’ve al­ways been ob­sessed with good de­sign. Like that of an ob­scure vin­tage stereo de­vice.

At some point in the mid-2000s, when I was liv­ing in New York City, my part­ner in­tro­duced me to the world of es­tate sales. The con­cept at first was a little off­putting. Leaf­ing through the be­long­ings of a re­cently de­ceased wi­dow or wid­ower felt in­va­sive. But there were of­ten trea­sures to be found for great prices, like a rusty Ber­toia chair that we found on a back pa­tio and brought back to life. So I even­tu­ally got used to the idea.

When we grew tired of the hus­tle and bus­tle of New York City, we moved to Port­land, Ore­gon, where es­tate sales are more abun­dant. One Satur­day af­ter­noon, we drove to a house in a neigh­bour­hood of mid-cen­tury ranch homes. There I dis­cov­ered a 1970s Yamaha am­pli­fier and tuner in mint con­di­tion, look­ing like some­one had pur­chased it in 1978, stuck it on top of their teak cre­denza, and left it.

Up to that point, I wasn’t par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in vin­tage au­dio equip­ment. Sure, I had a num­ber of new, mod­ern re­ceivers over the years that were per­fectly func­tional, but some­thing about the Yamaha gear struck me.

It ra­di­ates with a high-qual­ity build. Made from ma­te­ri­als like metal and wood, the de­sign con­trasts the syn­thetic ma­te­ri­als in to­day’s elec­tron­ics. The amp; heavy and built like a tank. The knobs; shin­ing metal. Switches and tog­gle but­tons adorn the com­po­nents with bounc­ing VU me­ters giv­ing vis­ual feed­back. De­sign flour­ishes – like the weighted vol­ume and tun­ing knobs, or the power switch that makes a sat­is­fy­ing thunk when flipped – are ex­pe­ri­en­tial in their aes­thetic.

I be­came ob­sessed with find­ing a match­ing cas­sette deck and turntable. Af­ter sev­eral years, I com­pleted my mis­sion. It’s so sat­is­fy­ing to put on some old-school vinyl af­ter work­ing all day in a dig­i­tal con­text.

The mid- to late-1970s was the height of the ‘golden age’ of hi-fi, when com­peti­tors were putting out in­creas­ingly gaudier, over-the-top au­dio com­po­nents to try and outdo one an­other. Gar­ish light­ing, ques­tion­able fin­ishes and an over­abun­dance of, well, ev­ery­thing con­trib­uted to mak­ing them look like the dated relics they are to­day.

Yamaha, how­ever, took a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ap­proach – one that was more re­strained and so­phis­ti­cated, both in terms of vi­su­als and au­dio en­gi­neer­ing. The light­ing of the am­pli­fier, tuner and tape deck is a soft, sub­tle yel­low green. The type­face used on the metal face­plates, tun­ing dial and me­ters is an el­e­gant, stoic sans serif, akin to Aldo No­varese’s type­face, No­varese.

Mean­while, the sound is nat­u­ral and true-to-life. To achieve this, engi­neers would ini­tially present their pro­to­types to a panel of mu­si­cians, and if the mu­si­cians be­lieved the sound qual­ity rep­re­sented a nat­u­ral re­pro­duc­tion of a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment, the de­vice got the green light.

The equip­ment was built dif­fer­ently from any other maker at the time. Engi­neers em­ployed sim­ple, un­clut­tered lay­outs, al­low­ing for tight con­trol over the au­di­ble de­sign and re­sult­ing in fewer ser­vice is­sues down the road.

Obsessing over this 40-year-old au­dio equip­ment re­minds me that to con­ceive mean­ing­ful, orig­i­nal work, look back­ward. Or even for­ward. Just don’t hang your hat on what­ever is cur­rently trend­ing.

When­ever I start a de­sign project, I step away from my com­puter to gather in­spi­ra­tion. I have a stack of de­sign his­tory and fine art books on my desk, as well as a col­lec­tion of vin­tage ephemera. Re­cently, an ob­scure book jacket de­sign from the early 20th cen­tury sparked an idea, and in­formed the look and feel for a web­site I was work­ing on. It’s im­por­tant to look for sources out­side of de­sign for in­spi­ra­tion, what­ever that may be. For me, that means trav­el­ling, ob­serv­ing ar­chi­tec­ture and his­tory and doc­u­ment­ing these de­tails with my cam­era. These ex­pe­ri­ences feed my work and in­spire an orig­i­nal voice.

They’re also a re­minder to ask my­self: will the work I’m do­ing now stand up to scru­tiny in five years? Ten years? As a de­signer, I fo­cus on cre­at­ing work I believe in, with the hope it lasts for other gen­er­a­tions to believe in too.

Above: The achingly cool ap­peal of the Yamaha stereo is a re­minder that good de­sign is time­less

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