Interview with Simon Yorke

Matej Isak talks to Simon Yorke of Simone Yorke Desings

Hello Simon. Much appreciated, that you took the time and efforts.

Where and how did it all start for Simon Yorke? How did you come into contact with music?

It’s in my genes. Both of my parents were professional musicians, so it’s no surprise that music runs in my blood. I ‘knew’ this from a very early age.

You came in your life to the point of creating your first record player. When and why did that happen?

I was given my first record-player, as a present, when I was about 8 years old. I owned only a few records, which I played to death, and so then took to taking this record-player to pieces, to find out how it worked - because it seemed to me to be a ‘magical’ device, a machine that was capable of changing my emotional state, of inspiring me – something that intruiged me.

Inquisitiveness led to fascination and ultimately the desire to create my own ‘magic making’ machine, even though I had no idea how or where to start.

You certainly had to elaborate and evolve somehow with knowledge of electronics and mechanics from the start. How important are they in the terms of creation itself?

Creativity is a state of mind, and the tools we use to translate ideas into reality are secondary to the ‘intent’ necessary for creativity. In order to create a poem, for instance, we must first have something to say but, in order to say it well, we must understand language and have the appropriate linguistic skills necessary for its construction. In order to create a painting, we must be cognisant of colour, form and perspective – but first we must have something to say: a vision. The same is true of a record-player: the creative intent defines the machine but, without a good understanding of mechanics, the relevant electronics, acoustic theory and other ingredients, it probably won’t be a very good record-player.

I started off with the intent to make a record-player but quickly found out that I lacked the technical know-how; so I set out to learn – I went to college to study engineering and, later, electronics – but always with the understanding that both these disciplines are secondary to the Art that is human creativity. The Sciences serve The Arts, not the other way around.

You name your products as record players. Does the term ‘turntable’ apply   to the original purpose?

A ‘turntable’ is just that: a revolving table. It is not a record-player until it can play records - which involves a tonearm and a cartridge - and, usually, some electronic components, too. I started off designing just a turntable (we all have to start somewhere) but, noting that different tonearms produced different results, I understood that in order to control the ‘sound of my intent’ I would have to either stick to using just one tonearm or design my own. I chose the latter, both for the satisfaction of the challenge itself and the opportunity to design exactly what it was I was hoping to create.

Your players are not a statement, or wanted to be, but more of the so- called functional art expression of a person who cares deeply for music, that conveys listeners much closer to an intimacy of their musical universe of choice. Do you see yourself as a via-medium artist and how does this reflect in your products?

I don’t consider what we make as being ‘products’. They are only ‘products’ in the sense that we ‘produce’ them and are willing to exchange them for the means to survive and to continue with our creative life.

I do consider what we make as being ‘statements’: they are statements of intent, statements about visual form, aesthetic sensibility and architecture. They clearly state: “Come, enter this musical world with me...”

I know many outstanding people in audio industry and the one I respect the most seems to have little or nothing to do with any given labels of so-called strict audiophiles and high-end. Is it the love for music or a certain view, that sets you guys apart from the mediocre populism?

It has always been about music. The equipment we use to reproduce music in our homes is merely a means to an end, not the end in itself. Cherishing our equipment is all well and good, but being subservient to it is slavery.

Thirty years ago the majority of audio equipment was mass-produced for a largely undemanding audience – functional ‘home stereo’ music-centres – and those few people who wanted something ‘better’ were forced to either build their own equipment or search high and low in order to locate those few small businesses engaged in ‘pushing the audio envelope’ further. Such people may be described as ‘audiophiles’ – people for whom audio is an important aspect of their lives – a term that has more recently been hijacked by a class of people marked by a rigid adherence to theory, half-truths, pseudo-science and shamanistic beliefs rather than any desire to enter more completely into the magic of music. The audiophile of today is often more interested in the equipment – his ability to control everything – than in his emotional self or his willingness to discover new things. He has enslaved himself, not freed himself. His ‘audiophilia’ has become an intellectual obsession, pulling him away from the sensations of music and replacing them with a cold, hardened preoccupation with technique.

Everything is getting crazy these past few years in the world and so-called high-end audio is not an exception. Where and how did everything go bad and turn into a giant pompous show-off?

The term ‘high-end’ arose from the simple premise that devoting more time and money to the development of audio reproduction equipment should result in a better musical outcome. Of course, in time, and as with almost everything else, this premise was hijacked, corporatised and abused in the name of profit. The ‘audiophile’ (see above) became just another victim of this financialisation-of-everything ploy.

A man and a machine? One on one? Japanese artisans favour the creation or path towards the end product as sacred as the result itself, if not even more. How do you relate to your work process?

It is a sort of religious undertaking, a journey into the unknown, a seeking of something profound amidst a world of utilitarian products and processes. It is NOT about making money, ego-stimulation or a desire for recognition amongst ones peers. It is not unusual for me to devote, literally, years of thought and practice in pursuit of the evolution of a record-player – just as it is with meditation in the zen tradition of Japan – so yes, that journey is, in many respects, a hallowed thing, a thing-in-itself (Das Ding an Sich), honourable in itself, regardless of the outcome.

Mystical or not, Simon Yorke Designs holds a certain aura around it. We cannot talk directly about material spirituality, but it’s a fact that one can feel, relate and get captivated with the “invisible” DNA of the creator?
Zen and golden ratio. Something is just right with your record players?

Getting something “just right” is no mean feat. The notion that the simple application of certain given parameters can attain something greater than those mere parameters is, to me, complete nonsense. Of course, a true artist pours his ‘self’ into his work - without his ‘self’ his work is utilitarian and lacks integrity – it becomes little more than ‘product’ – but one has to be ‘adequate’ to the task in hand: informed, skilled AND with a vision.

I’m strongly affected by the Bauhaus movement and your record players hold quite some of that working wholeness. Why so?

The great triumph of the Bauhaus was its breaking down of the social order that separated the fine artist from the artisan. The Bauhaus ‘bridged’ these two opposing views of the world to make them one, democratizing the creative mind, freeing the artist to use ‘industrial’ materials or processes and thereby liberating him.

So not a product, but architectural, sculptural achievement?

Absolutely. To go beyond the concept of mere ‘product’ is envigorating.

Does the same Michelangelo thinking reflect your process too? That is, to take everything unwanted from the solid material and leave just what is needed.

Up to a point. But a record-player is more than just a sculpture; it is also a tool, a musical instrument, a gateway into another dimension. And so all the processes involved in its creation must reflect this multi-faceted holism.

Aesthetics are evidently a strong part of Simon Yorke products. How much is this related to “Form follows function” or simply goes hand in hand with clever solutions?

I am a great believer of “Form follows function” as a broad concept, but refuse to be imprisoned by it as a catechism. Simply put, if it doesn’t function then it is useless, no matter how elegant its form, but mere functionality is unfulfilling to our greater humanity, and thus unworthy. In a record-player one must have both form and function in close harmony or one simply has an incomplete, unremarkable object with a price tag.

Iron and aluminium. Contemporary industrial canvas or just building blocks?

Materials, the ‘right’ ones for the task, are what interest me. Just as the painter mixes primary colours on his palette to realise the exact shade or hue he requires, I mix materials to achieve the end result that I seek.

I learned through the years and especially in audio, that everything matters, and specially little things. This is where true artisans stand out. In creating the wholeness. Your views must be strong on the subject matter if you prefer the complete solution?

When it is impossible to truly discern what is big and what is small - in terms of importance in the ‘created thing’ - perhaps one has succeeded in creating something that is whole and complete – a holistic thing.

Music listening has all sorts of benefits. Even healing ones. How does music affect you and your work and creations?

Music is a hugely important part of my life, always has been and, I hope, always will be. It is a fundamental part of me and I cannot imagine living life without rhythm, harmony and melody nagging at my senses, provoking me and colouring my interaction with the world. It is the International Language of human communication and a force for sharing our common humanity.

Does one’s understanding and respect for music and artists reflect the way certain persons perceive the audio industry and their products?

No, I don’t think so. Most of the professional musicians I know have little interest in audio. They are able to ‘hear’ exactly what they need to hear without being unduly bothered by ‘fidelity’, as such. Rhythm, for example, is often something one ‘feels’ within one’s entire being, rather than ‘hears’.

Digital “revolution”? Begging of the end or (r)evolution?

I am no fan of digital music. I think it’s a con, a trick, very second-rate. Sure, it fools most of the people most of the time and can be very convenient, but it lacks soul, it lacks the essence of human emotion. A c.d. player, for instance, is nothing more than a synthesiser, electronically synthesising sound from a stream of computer code. It takes our human need for meaning on an algorithmic leash and says “There! That’s that!”

What does high-end mean for you?

Today, sadly, it mostly means little more than a ‘product’ sourced from an over-priced, over-hyped, pander-to-the-audiophile-product-factory, with a side-salad of bullshit marketing.

Why do you still pursue the creation of the record players?

Because I haven’t finished yet.

Many do not agree with my assumptions about analog replay. For me it’s not about snobbism or nostalgia. I can simply listen to the records and not think about skipping. Sometimes, not being able to bear a digital disc for even longer than 15 minutes. Does that make me an “old deaf chap?”.

No, it simply means you have sensitivity to what you hear. That you can and do admit it, shows courage in the face of corporate propaganda.

You’re a part of archiving history. This must be a special feeling and it must just feel right?

It is the part of my work in which I feel most ‘pride’. I got involved with archiving national collections with the hope that our children’s children will soon be able to hear what their ancestors were doing...

I always wondered how Series 9 is not exactly “correctly” centred. Can you please elaborate?

Symmetry is not necessary for ‘correctness’, is it? Asymetric symmetry has a power all of its own, it creates ‘movement’ and, besides, symmetry does not only apply to the platter and its chassis – there is a tonearm there, too, that must also be considered as part of the symmetry of the whole.

There are many trends in turntable design. High mass is one of them. Did you ever consider a much more “monstrous” design?

Sure. It’s so simple. Just add mass and then claim it solves all problems. Trouble is, it doesn’t. Mass equals storage and music is ever-changing.  Storage dulls transients. Fill your car with bricks to see how well it handles when you take a sharp corner...

I know you strive for complete solutions, but have you ever thought about direct drive?

Yes, and after thinking about it I moved on. Bad idea, connecting your (microphonic) record directly to the shaft of a vibrating motor, no?

Mixture of materials needed for the best synergy?

Of course. As all materials have a natural resonant frequency, and we are trying to create a musical instrument capable of resolving a large bandwith of frequencies, we evidently cannot achieve this by using just one material. Besides, too much of one thing is usually dull.

Always wanted to hear you elaborate on impact of resonances?

What on earth for? Boring stuff.

Aero arm. Speak more in the musical language?

No. It’s simply a closer replica of the cutting lathe. That’s how records are made. That’s why it sounds so damn good – playback exactly as recorded.

XLR vs RCA? Is balanced phono output a better one?

XLR is a three-pin, centre-balanced transmission system. I’ve never encountered a cartridge with 3 pins per channel, have you? So, what are you going to do with that third pin on your chunky XLR plug? Taking a ‘balanced’ approach to a phono input is a good thing, but adopting the professional line-level transmission protocol (XLR) to do it is, in my opinion, mostly just playing games... marketing.

Who are Simon Yorke Designs customers?

All sorts. We don’t discriminate. Gracious me, I’ve built record-players for politicians, governments and even dentists!

Avant-garde artist or a traditionalist cultural persona?

Neither. I’m not much interested in the labels other people like to use. Labels define and confine us, they are a form of bureaucracy – the antithesis of the creative spirit.

Who draws the line between price and luxury? Customers?

I guess so. One man’s luxury may be another man’s squalour; one man’s ‘cheap’ may be another man’s ‘exorbitant’ so these labels are subjective concepts rather than meaningful statements. I am particularly fond of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: “A man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” It pretty much sums up our own age, don’t you think?

Doesn't the perpetum mobile somehow reflect in the endless spinning of the record? Ever thought in that direction?

No. Records may spin endlessly but there’s only a finite amount of music contained within them and (to paraphrase Bill Clinton) “It’s the music, stupid!” 

Can you kindly let us more about your poetry, art and philosophical side?

I am an artist (not something I ever chose) and I generally don’t distinguish between The Arts – sometimes it’s better to say it with words, sometimes with paint, sometimes with movement, sometimes with music, sometimes with all these things combined. They are all the same. Just different.

What does music mean for you? How does it affect you?

Sorry, but I would need an entire book to do justice to a question so large.

Why did you relocate and how does the Mediterranean affect you?

I like the sunshine. I prefer the less-frantic way of living. I love the people and their generally anti-authoritarian stance. I feel naturally at home in this part of the world – like I was born in the wrong place, perhaps?

Are you passing your heritage to anyone?

Yes. My son Spencer has been a part of SYD since he was a child and now he’s our director of production - because he’s damned good at it, not because he’s my son. But they do say that genes run in families...

Do you feel that one of the human “operanda mundi” is to create?

Personally, I don’t know of anything else, but I can’t speak for others.

What is the fine art regardless of genre for you?

Passion, dedication, determination, abandonment.

It surely feels like magic being able to derive so much emotion and not only information from vinyl. Do you still feel that sublime enthusiastic energy when you hold on to the record and prepare it for listening?

Mostly not. It’s the music that usually does the stimulating.

Charisma vs ego trip?

The ego is a menace and charisma is something other people talk about.

World seems to be rushing into a dark hole with no clear end. When will this madness stop in your opinion?

When it reaches the bottom of the hole and goes splat! Until that time, the madness will continue. We are addicted to our insanity. It comforts us.

What would a perfect, or at least sane, bearable world look like in the mind of Simon Yorke?

That’s a truly impossible question. However, if there were no longer “the mind of Simon Yorke” then there wouldn’t be an impossible question to answer, would there? No mind = no problem. Zazen.

You certainly have strong views about audio and so-called high-end audio society. I would certainly love to hear them.

I’ve done my best to answer some of your questions here but I’m loathe to bore your poor readers any further with my opinions.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

Trust your own ears. Follow your own inclinations. Trust nobody. Be original and seek to uncover your own ‘self’.

Thank you.

Matej Isak

Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine
All rights reserved, December 2011