Matt McNulty is well known for his refurbishing work on the classic Townshend Rock turntables and has moved into re-bodying cartridges. Stuart Smith has a chat with him.

HP: You are well known on the British Audio scene for your work in taking old Townshend Rock turntables and completely renovating them, how did this come about?

MM: That’s a bit of a long-winded answer I’m afraid, as it’s been nearly 25 years, that story. I guess the first thing I should say is that I’m a massive fan of all turntables, especially the Rocks in all their forms – and I love the mechanics and the interaction you get from using records and turntables. I got my first Rock II in 1987 (bought with my first grant cheque at uni! (shhhh!! ). Later, (00’s), after owning several more Rocks, A Voyd and then realising my dream of obtaining a Rock Reference with Excalibur I realised that I was paying a fortune to have it set up every time I wanted to change something and actually it was coming back worse in some cases. Being an engineer I decided to take the thing apart completely and rebuild it as it was getting long in the tooth.

Again later, troubled (financial) times hit and so I had to sell both the Rock Reference AND a reasonably recently acquired Avid Acutus/SME V (which went first). This was around the time when vinyl was really dying and I realised the skills were getting very scarce, regarding the ability to set up TT’s, so I started offering a volunteered service for petrol money where I’d assist people who had vinyl system problems due to set-up. I’d invested in a lot of set-up tools by then so I’d go to their house, set their system up and come away, them happy that their system was performing as it should be. I did this for about 10 years, and still do it if someone needs help…so, in exchange for the RR I took in a Rock II. It needed lots of work and my experience with these decks (I think I’d had 3 by then) told me they were of ‘intermittent quality, (let’s just call it) in terms of their fit, finish and overall looks!! I restored several of them to the standard black finish (we’re still in the time here where all hifi components were black, here!) I knew, of course, they were inherently great-sounding decks (and a bargain for the money). Side note: I’ve always maintained they are a bargain, especially today, but by the same token I do acknowledge they are not the best deck out there – Townshends newer/later Rocks take that accolade along with many others in this TT heyday. However, nothing comes close at the price you can buy them for, in my opinion, if you get a good one, properly set up.

OK, so only about 3 or 4 years ago I started buying up the decks because they were so cheap and vinyl had again started to bloom (understatement of the year – it hadn’t ever stopped for me!) Whenever friends said they were looking for a deck I’d show them one, and invariably it was the best thing they’d heard, both non-audio people and seasoned audio people love it when they hear it – there’s a lot of scare stories around the use of a rock, mostly ill-conceived and untrue! Of course, operationally they work exceedingly well, but they do look bland, so I painted one in Escort RS Cosworth Blue (I have contacts from my other hobby to do with old VW’s in the paint business – in fact my brother is a painter). As you will know, given the Internet nowadays, a few posts and it kind of snowballed a little from there. This culminated in my being given the ultimate honour of having the Blue deck shown on the Townshend stand at the Bristol Hifi show just this year, to great praise – I think everybody who saw it really liked the concourse level paint job! Thanks, Jamie!!.

To me, Max is the closest you can get to an audio God so it really was an honour for me that he and the whole Townshend family had embraced what I was doing to keep their legacy TT’s alive and well. I really do have to thank them for their support, especially Harriet as many companies would have cried sacrilege and not wanted to help someone in my position. It’s Max’s design after all, not mine…he’s the genius, not me. So all due praise goes out to the whole Townshend family. Such lovely people. Thanks, Townshend for your support, and for welcoming not just me, but my wife Sarah, into the fold!

HP: What does the process of renovating a Rock involve and are you improving on the original design?

MM: It can be tailored to what people want, but essentially, when I do them for myself (mostly!) it’s a full rebuild, which involves: Complete stripdown Prep and paint the plinth to concourse standards, in very high-quality Automotive paint. Prep and paint the armboard, trough, trough pillar and repair/paint platter (often they’re cracked). Refurbish and re-lap the bearing and use a new ball, either standard or I can use a ruby or ceramic ball. Sometimes this involves refinishing the shaft as well. I have had to (twice only), reset the bearing in the plinth. Once because I had to take it out to fix a bent shaft (don’t ask!) and once because I bought a parts deck that had been dropped and badly damaged. Re-condition the small PSU board with new components and new PSU lead where necessary. New improved motor. New Belt New Trough Fluid New Bearing oil New double outrigger headshell kit (if required) Re-wire tonearm – I generally use Missing Link Cryo pure silver wire as it gives great insight and I respect Mark Sears greatly as both a friend and an engineer. I use a mixture of both his and Townshends in my own system.

New armboard where necessary (if none supplied or a different arm has been selected by the user. Fully polish all brass or aluminium parts or anodise the aluminium of required to match or contrast the deck colour. A full suite of new fastenings, in any anodised colour available or fully polished Ali or stainless, to compliment match or contrast the plinth colour. New Switch, in a colour to match, contrast or complement the deck colour. The build is bespoke to the customer’s requirements so I go through every option for every part. No major improvements, except to looks, no rocket science involved tbh, just methodical and attention to detail work in order to make them look unique (I will only use any one paint colour once), but much more importantly make them last and sound great for as long again, as they already have – most of my customers have had their Rocks for many many years and love them – the oldest Rocks are now up to and over 34 years old – not bad longevity I’d say! Of course, you could say component quality and certainly, the motor quality has improved since then. I’m also, of course, doing each one individually, not on a production line so each one is built with a lot more care than they would have been originally. It is, however, a testament to the greatness of the original design that pretty much every Rock II I’ve ever seen, unless it’s been dropped or properly abused, has always been repairable.

HP: What do you think is so special about the Townshend Rock turntable?

MM: For me, it’s the fact that it can attain such a high level of reproduction for such a small price with the Rock II’s. However, its sound quality (the Rock family of TT’s, that is) is unique amongst TT’s – it’s not for everyone and those looking for that so-called excess vinyl warmth are best suited to look elsewhere.. Rocks are, and always have been, about faithfulness to the master tape – clean, crisp, detailed and solid sounding. Due to the trough and its inherent advantages, bass is much more tightly controlled but deep and not in any way ‘woolly’. Because of the headshell-end damping effects of the trough, it’s also a great arm-leveler. You can use a budget arm on a Rock and it will sound great. You can move to an esoteric arm, and it will just step up to the next level I find. Of course, the Excalibur arm that was designed for it, I love and for me it is a fantastic arm if you can find one (not easy!), but also one of the best arms for the decks as you’d expect, especially when silver wired!! Surface noise is also lowered by using the trough, many people report, with that ‘black background’ all audiophiles crave!

HP: How many of the Rocks have you renovated and what is a typical cost for one of yours?

MM: How many total customisations, with full paint jobs in custom colours, only 4, (as I only started doing it last year) but many many more than that to standard ‘black’ renovation level. I differentiate because the options are limited only by my time (this is my hobby, not a business), the customer’s requirements and budget – to me, this is more about keeping people enjoying their decks, and keeping them alive. I make little to no money on any. It would be a loss leader if I had to.

Each full customisation and complete renovation takes about 35-40 hours of work… But some choose, for instance, not to have a new motor, or rebuilt PSU, in the grounds that they’ve worked for 30 years so don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken and of course, cost! Some just want a service, or a set-up, or an arm rewire or re-tagging, or a belt service, etc so it’s difficult to say how much – There really is no typical cost – I try to work to people’s budgets – if they’re honest with me, I’ll tell them if they’re realistic or not. I point out there are options such as used arms, to keep costs down and give them many options on cartridges – as I’m not a business though, I don’t get anything trade price, so I generally point them in the best direction for their given budget – I guess what I offer is free guidance, if you like, in some respects, as I know what works after all this time playing with them.

I’ve had 19 Elite Rock II’s through my own hands now, but that’s me owning 19, and renovating them for myself! I like to keep these things alive!! I can’t stop myself!! . I’ve lost count in total., although I now totally document any full renovations I do, but for the customer’s sake, not mine…

HP: At the Bristol Show in February you exhibited some very colourful plinths on the rocks, what’s the most bizarre/strange colour request you have had and which is your favourite?

MM: Well so far the two strangest, although Covid has held me back a little and it hasn’t happened yet – I’ve had to postpone it, are Porsche Peppermint green (to match the guy’s peppermint green 911 GT3) and some guy who wants a bright pig pink one! .(Ed – Who could that be?)

HP: I recently found out that as well as renovating Rocks you also upgrade cartridges. Can you tell readers a little more about this; what cartridges you use, what you do to the bog-standard cartridge, and how you think your modifications improve on the originals?

MM: Firstly, this came about because of necessity. I was doing some Rock II’s for 2 (unrelated) people that had both limited budget and limited turntable use experience. So basically on discussion, we agreed that to limit costs (and the first user snapped stylus syndrome) we’d stick to a budget MM cartridge. I suggested Audio Technica, because not only are styli easy to replace, but you can also very easily upgrade them to the next level up, right from a cheap elliptical stylus to a Shibata stylus. They also sound great for the money in all of their forms, which is the point if you’re shelling out on the deck.

In the meantime, I’d discovered that various other companies sell a re-bodied version of the AT series of cartridges in various forms so I looked into those… which got me thinking. So I researched and now I have bodies made and rebody the generator basically. I do use some proprietary damping for compliance-related means and special adhesive to affix the generators into the body, but I can’t give much away on that front!!

The two that are on the Rocks I used as a trial run so I just paid for everything out of my own pockets as an experiment and just to give that something a little extra special and unique again. That’s where it started. Again, it’s not really anything rocket science and I’m no genius, tbh.

HP: Would you ever like to move into improving more esoteric cartridges, or indeed creating your own cartridge design from scratch?

MM: I just like playing, to be honest, and it’s just again to help people out with alternatives to the mass market – Although the bodies are beautiful, I’m no genius, so don’t worry, Koetsu, you ain’t going out of business yet!!! I do have a Denon DL103R that I’m playing with at the moment so I guess we’ll see. But I very much doubt it, especially as I like my Kiseki’s, Koetsu’s and Dynavectors too much to want to start being any kind of competition to them…and I prefer playing with my TT’s. That said, if someone is willing to trust me, then I’ll have a go at most things, so never say never I guess, but mostly the money’s not there to fund that level of pursuit for me…

HP: You are clearly in the analogue camp with regards to music playback, what do you think the benefits of analogue playback are over and above digital playback?

MM: Haha, this question again!!! I genuinely do think that analogue playback sounds more real and digital more artificial. I’ve owned a few high end CD players in my time and all got sold because they ended up sitting idle (that’s a silly plan when you have a Krell worth half the cost of your house just sitting there!!). I know digital audio has many advantages both theoretical and actual, but one of them actually really doesn’t bother me at all, and it’s the main one – convenience – I still use no remote controls in my system! I love the tactility and mechanics of putting on a record and the ritual of using the Rocks especially, with their extra effort of using the clamp and putting the trough in place (hardly!). I think a lot of it for me is merely the fact that the covers are more detailed as they’re larger, obviously! The other thing is that I’m so invested in vinyl replay now (I own best part of 4000 plus records and, at last count 7 record players in the living room, 1 in the hall, 1 with a friend and another upstairs!!) that going to another medium would be stupid. I also spend my whole working life having grief from computer-based products, so I do not want one of those to spoil my listening pleasure!!! Hence no CD player, no streamers, etc…in our house.

HP: What are your five most treasured records and why?

MM: Easy!

1- Gary Numan – The Pleasure Principle – Because it was the first album I ever bought, (well my mum bought it for me) aged 7. I still play THAT copy of it all the time and got it signed by Gary Numan last year when I met him – he was very humbled that it was my fave record of all time. The irony is she bought the WRONG record… I wanted Replicas for Are Friends Electric?! Still, Cars hit the charts and the rest is history!

2 – The Chameleons – Script of the Bridge. Again I’ve loved the Chameleons since day one of their careers. The epitome of indie music for me and the first wave of ‘proper’ Manchester bands along with the likes of Joy Division.

3 -Tool – Lateralus. Just outstanding musicianship, writing and energy, all in perfect synchronisation. Prog metal at its best, along with fantastic mosh and stomp potential!

4 – Yello – Baby. It’s just genius production and fantastically weird, like all Yello’s stuff!!

5 – Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet. The epitome of Prog, again, with fantastic songwriting, great songs and even better musicianship. 5 is nowhere near enough. There should be some Floyd, Ozrics, NIN, Hallucinogen, Astral Projection, Dire Straits, Butthole Surfers, Fugazi, Tori Amos, Nirvana, Mazzy Star, PIL, Marillion, The Prodigy, and all manner of other amazing music in that list, but you said 5, right!!! I like everything from Punk to pop to classical, to Techno to Goa Trance to ambient. The only two I struggle with tbh, are Opera and Jazz – it’s far too pretentious in places for me… But I’ll give most things a go!!

HP: Outside of audio what are your other passions?

MM: Classic cars, mainly vintage and classic Era VW’s but I’ve owned all sorts, my fave outside of VW’s being Alfa Romeo 2000 and 1750 GTV 1005 series Bertones, a Lotus Elan Plus 2S and early 70’s Aston DBS V8. I like most oldies though, with a bit of character.

Additional Info: Previously a Tester/Design Quality Engineer for Celestion Loudspeakers in their heyday of the System 6000/ SL600/SL700/700SE/Kingston, A-Series era’s.

Current system: Townshend Elite Rock II – lots! 2 Townshend Excalibur arms Notts Analogue Hyperspace with Wave Mechanic PSU, Moerch DP8 tonearm Helius Viridia with Omega Silver Ruby tonearm 1 Linn Ittock LV2 tonearm 1 Jelco SA250ST tonearm 1 Kiseki Purpleheart NS 1 Koetsu Rosewood Signature 1 Transfiguration Temper W 1 Dynavector XX2 MK2 1 Dynavector 17D2 1 Denon DL103R 1 ATOC5 Various budget AT cartridges… Manley Steelhead RC phono stage EAR 899 Integrated amp Celestion A3 speakers – nostalgic reasons from when I worked at Celestion – fantastic speakers! A pair of my own vision on what speakers should be like in terms of sound… But that story’s for another time.

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