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VINYL THUMB: Hartsell flips through a stack of records at The Analog Room. He says there are around 20,000 LPs and EPs at his store and even more at his home. Photograph by Greg Ramar

Analog To Digital

It took a few years for Hartsell to find the space that would become The Analog Room—an old house that had previously been the headquarters of the Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara County.

In the two decades he's spent there, Hartsell has filled the building's many rooms with ceiling-high record shelves, and set up a number of hi-fi listening stations—most of them arranged in a manner that recalls the "Blown-away Man" of the old Hitachi Maxell ad campaign, with a pair of chairs facing a pair of speakers, an amplifier, a turntable, and nothing else.

Entering one of the store's back rooms, Hartsell gestures at a pair of speakers that stand about 4 feet tall. In between them, an amplifier rests on the floor, tubes jutting out at diagonal angles, calling to mind a V6 engine block, its top removed to expose the pistons within.

Off to the side, a stand supports a minimalist Rega turntable. A carpenters level sits on the edge of the stand, its bubble at rest between the two lines. Next to the turntable is a large image scanner, which Hartsell received by courier a week earlier.

This is precision equipment for a precision task, Hartsell says, launching into an explanation of how he will be using this room to transform the recordings pressed into the vinyl LPs leaned up against the wall into high-fidelity digital files, and how he will scan and digitize the cover artwork of the first-edition records.

He set his mind on the project in the early aughts. Hartsell says he performed his first vinyl-to-digital transfer back in 2001, but notes that back then the technology was clunky and inefficient, and the size of the files were unwieldy. "Fast forward a decade, and the software had gotten a lot better," he says. Not to mention that at the turn of the millennium, a 516 kilobyte thumb drive cost nearly as much a terabyte external hard drive does today.

He's already taken on one high-profile vinyl-to-digital transfer. He made a digital copy of the first vinyl pressing of Beck's debut album, Mellow Gold, first issued by Bong Load Records.

Hartsell says he was approached by a representative from Universal Records, who asked him to make the transfer because Bong Load's original master tape had gone up in smoke.

According to Hartsell this is not an uncommon occurrence—especially for blues and jazz artists who were lesser known in their time, but who gained prominence posthumously.

"It's amazing how poorly we've taken care of our art," Hartsell says, explaining that record labels have been known to tape over other master tapes in order to save money. Sometimes the warehouses where the tapes are kept burn down or flood. And many great recordings made in the '70s were laid down on a then-new kind of tape, which recording engineers presumed to be superior at the time. Unfortunately, it was not, degrading over time to the point at which some tapes from that era are "unplayable" today.

"Until recently," Hartsell adds, "the major labels have not taken care of their tapes very well."

This is where Hartsell and his expertise in vinyl-to-digital transfer come in. When the master tape for a given album is no longer available, the highest quality recording still in existence almost always comes in the form of a pristine, original vinyl pressing.

"And so, playing a mint condition vinyl record on a state-of-the-art system is probably the best you can do," Hartsell says.

For Hartsell, it's not enough that the music is preserved in the best quality possible. He is also concerned with authentic album artwork. All too often, digital music downloads come with the incorrect corresponding artwork, he says. This is especially true with classical music and jazz albums, which often go through many reissues—getting a new, or slightly altered cover with each iteration.

He points to a record leaning up against the wall: Mating Call by Tadd Dameron & John Coltrane. It's the original 1955 record, he says, noting that later pressings of the album excised Tadd Dameron's name from the cover. "Later on, that became a John Coltrane record."

Much like the original master tapes, the original artwork has not survived the years. Before computer-based graphic design programs, album covers were produced by hand. Graphic artists worked on a light table arranging the lettering and images. The final product was photographed from above and printed on the record sleeves. The original art might have been saved for a time, but the vast majority of it was tossed, lost or destroyed, Hartsell says.

That means that the highest resolution copy of an album's original artwork, in many cases, is on the cover of the most pristine LP of that record available.

"We're going through and scanning all the record covers," Hartsell says.

It may seem like a trifling matter in the age of the iPod. These days plenty of people buy music, one song at a time over Amazon or iTunes. Or they stream their music over YouTube or Spotify. But for Hartsell an album's original artwork is almost as important as the music. He views records and their covers as a cohesive whole, and at the moment he isn't even worried about monetizing the process.

"Right now, I'm doing this just for myself," Hartsell says, adding that at some point it would be nice to be able to profit from the work he is doing, but that isn't his main motivation. "I want the stuff documented. I mean, we're all going to die at some point in time. I want to leave something behind historically—where people can hear what these records were really about and have the artwork that was done at that time."

Doing Things His Way

Low-slung sunlight reflects off the oil-slick surface of the rotating vinyl disc, forming a searing, gold, oblong ring, which wobbles languidly on the wall just above the spinning plate. The shimmering elliptical filament is reminiscent of some far-away galaxy or an as-yet-understood enigma of deep space—a wormhole, perhaps, or the glinting halo marking the event horizon of a black hole.

And from the high-fidelity speakers, oriented just so in the musky, carpeted room, an entire universe emerges on this late November afternoon. The twinkling, meandering notes of Thelonious Monk's piano and the sultry, smooth hum of John Coltrane's saxophone spill out before us in crystal clear stereo, conjuring an entire galaxy of captivating sounds and textures.

Through the bow window, cars can be seen whizzing by on Fruitdale Avenue. It's a safe bet few of the drivers know this place is here. Though Hartsell insists his store is easy to find, it isn't—at least not by today's standards. The building is unmarked by any kind of obvious signage, and sits far back off the road, wedged between the entrance to an apartment complex and a Subway fast food restaurant. It occupies what appears to be a former house, and certainly appears residential from the outside.

Hartsell says the space appealed to him because it had a homey feel.

"I'm opposed to uniforms and salesmen, so I spent a lot of time looking for a building with rooms like the rooms we live in," he says. "If you're buying a stereo to listen to it in home, you oughtn't to be listening to it in some commercial building."

But to say that he was only concerned about the customer's experience is to overlook the fact that Hartsell plays only by his rules. "I didn't want a store like everybody else's," he says. "It had to have a vibe where I was comfortable."

Reading the Yelp! reviews of Hartsell's store, you will seldom see a rating of less than five stars. Should you come upon one less than that, odds are it is a single-star rating entered by a customer who was put off by their experience at The Analog Room—perhaps by what they perceive to be Hartsell's condescending attitude. He can be quite blunt and is often distracted by friends—many of whom regularly spend hours just hanging out in the store with him. "If you enjoy snobs, circle jerks and cigars, than this place is for you," one Yelp! review reads. "They talked right over me when asking questions."

Then there's the matter of the smoking. For many years, Hartsell regularly smoked cigars inside with his pals, which some one-off customers found particularly offensive. "They really compromise the experience with the cigar smoking," one reviewer wrote.

Hartsell makes point of saying that he doesn't smoke cigars inside anymore—but not for the sake of his customers. He gave up smoking altogether he explains ("because I felt like it") before one of his buddies chimes in with a pointed question: "You gave up smoking what?" Hartsell laughs, admitting that he hasn't stopped smoking everything.

It's not an act. Hartsell genuinely couldn't care less about what others think of him. The way he sees it, if a customer doesn't like him, or has trouble finding his store, then he probably doesn't need their business anyway.

"Money's cool, but listening to records?" he asks, allowing the question to trail off without expecting an answer. "You can overdo the success thing... I have a nice gig. It goes well. I do what I want. Could I make more money? Yeah, I could make more money. Would I be happier? No. I get to listen to music and play with toys all day. Kind of a good deal."

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