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David W. Fletcher, 1940-2021

Tribute by Robert S. Becker, co-founder, SOTA Industries and Pacific Microsonics, inventor of HDCD.

Two qualities inform David W. Fletcher’s brilliant, four-decade analog career: mastery of the entire LP turntable “ecosystem” and exceptional top-down and bottom-up skill-sets that resolved disruptions, in his words, from an “unknown and hostile environment.” His time as U.C. Berkeley graduate student in particle physics confirmed his foundation in theoretical science and precision testing. His bottom up, hands-on talents began in his father’s electronics repair business, expanded when running his own Berkeley shop, and shone forth when directing Sumiko, the preeminent U.S. analog importer/producer of tone arms and cartridges. Besides SOTA, my focus, David’s iconic tone arm (“The Arm”) – plus affordable, topnotch Premier tone arms and Talisman/Alchemist cartridges – confirm his analog design preeminence.

As challenges grew, so did his expertise across mechanics, materials, construction and manufacturing. In my two decades, I met a handful of audio wizards. None surpassed David in range, nor superior analytic ability to identify on what musical performance most depended. He mastered sources (analog, CD, tape), tube/solid state amplification and loudspeaker dynamics. Finally, David advanced the High-Definition Compact Disc (HDCD) encoding process, a major systemic digital advance.

Further, David was an invaluable business partner. Beyond science and technology, his business and marketing acumen, plus the “emotional intelligence” to understand people, enhanced our planning and strategizing. No one played business chess better, especially against presumptuous foes. Iconoclastic, even curmudgeonly, David had strong opinions, dark wit, and didn’t suffer fools lightly. In critical moments, he knew when to barge ahead – and when to back off. He declined drink and drugs, no longer smoked, and favored train travel over flying (“I know what can go wrong, no thanks”).

Without David, I would not have co-founded SOTA, the happy consequence of his 1979 quip, “what the world needs is a great American turntable.” The SOTA design breakthrough happened because this polymath/designer/innovator understood, then resolved the full array of interfaces when a stylus reads a minuscule, resonant, record groove on a spinning platter in a real room. Our holistic ‘table design set industry thresholds that challenged all others.

David put SOTA on the global map

While improving Sumiko’s bland, fact-filled brochures, I got the first of countless after-dinner calls. Under my belt was a PhD (in English!) plus a two-year high end stint, a year in retail sales and a year as factory rep for Dahlquist. To his credit, David bypassed this sparse resume, offering an equal partnership in a major undertaking. That pivotal night we talked and talked, more about Frank Capra movies than tone arms or cartridges. Wonder to behold – here was no nerdy technologist but a sophisticated, worldly mensch with a mission. Friendship cemented, we envisioned how to make the first, classy American turntable since the AR decades earlier. The prominent, Scottish Linn Sondek ruled the roost, yet inadvertently had opened the floodgates by showing that turntables mattered more than audiophiles realized.

David was primed with testable proposals, and SOTA was born in 1980. Despite different personalities, we clicked and fed each other’s strengths. In twelve SOTA years, I can’t recall one serious disagreement. He taught me the physics that powered the “turntable Newton would have built.” I marveled at the straight-forward, understandable way this inventor, who revered Edison, conquered hard variables others neglected. As a given, David refused to accept any trade-offs between design elegance, environmental challenges, and worry-free set-up and reliability.

Other ingenious solutions would appear, but none matched our performance, functionality or price point. “Making a great table isn’t hard,” David admitted, “when price is irrelevant.” So we tagged the first $995 Sapphire as a “grand table for less than a grand” – more than the Linn but we thought we had more to sell.

No magic, no secrets

The SOTA Sapphire isolated the ever-sensitive stylus motion by using great mass, in platter and sub-assembly, a jeweled sapphire bearing (thus the name), and vinyl-like record mat that sucked up unwanted resonance. Dynamic stability demanded a heavyweight (12 lb.) platter stabilized by a 22 lb. sub-assembly, with four corners set at 2.5 lb. (thus facilitating tone arm set-up). “Just level the platter” and turn it on. Four suspended springs, with weight at the bottom of the pendulum, delivered fortress-like isolation. One could pound the SOTA cabinet while playing – and we gleefully did.

Thus did the first, fully designed, musically neutral turntable system overcome set-up, placement and continuity issues. Best of all, for the entire marketing department (me), the sales format followed function: simply judge any turntable by the totality of design. I told prospects: “if your high school physics doesn’t prove why ours sounds and works better, don’t buy it.” David’s design defined the sales pitch: sonic shootouts aside, we sold our turntable by educating folks how understanding basic Newtonian mechanics drives our solutions (and by extension the purchase decision).

Vacuum hold-down logically followed, less to offset badly warped records than maximize contact between the lively LP and dead platter. After twelve years, David and I had succeeded in our own terms, the market was shifting, and I was ready to move on. We sold SOTA to Jack Shafton, shipped everything to Illinois; then, to our great delight, Kirk (now deceased) and Donna Bodinet eventually took over, with David as consultant.

With a Sapphire VI now entering its fifth decade, our design assumptions have passed the test of time: SOTA Sound Inventions (Wisconsin) has steadily improved quality, speed control and performance, plus fit and finish. Donna and Christen Griego do us proud by honoring SOTA’s original paradigm shift, sustaining one of a very few historic turntable designs.

Also by 1992, David and I, along with CEO Michael Ritter, had founded Pacific Microsonics. Michael presented the matchless HDCD opportunity – plus two bona fide wizards, Pflash Pflaumer and Keith Johnson on board. The task: make digital sound as musical as the best analog. Always a product development project, Pacific Microsonics was destined to merge with a global marketing powerhouse.

What! David did digital, too?

What I then learned was that my partner, this analog master, was adept at digital, too – invaluable when key investment and technology decisions arose. Pacific Microsonics amassed sufficient Silicon Valley venture capital ($12,000,000); by 2000 we had resolved complex technical challenges but, alas, got trapped by post-2000, tech market woes (greatly shrinking buyers). In the end, Microsoft purchased the company (then failed to follow through).

David’s death last month at 81 came as an unhappy surprise. That aside, I have no regrets and swarms of exhilarating memories, especially when SOTA purposely ignited the 1980’s Turntable Wars (with TAS playing its part). SOTA’s first decade achieved international, state of the art stature, succeeding in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. We enjoyed robust interactions with industry leaders and friendly competition with Linn, Oracle and VPI. True to our opening vision, David and I (plus associates Rod Herman and Allen Perkins) proved how a nervy start-up could redefine the thresholds of turntable design.

Death makes one assess where we are and how we got here. “Tell me to what you pay attention,” Ortega y Gasset wrote, “and I will tell you who you are.” I measure my orbital life shifts towards mindfulness by the great mentors, close friends and obstacles overcome that altered to what I pay attention. David Fletcher was an inspirational partner who enriched my awareness of friendship, technology, and science, plus introduced me to the fascinating personalities who still drive the unique home audio industry. Of the masterminds met on the way, David was in scope and accomplishment the inventor genius I knew best. Peace and fare thee well. If there’s another plane of existence, I will have no trouble recognizing your singular spirit.

 

The Arm: David Fletcher’s Masterpiece

by Paul Seydor

When I went from university professor to film editor almost four decades ago, I needed a way to finance the transition. An audiophile and music lover of extensive experience, I opened a by-appointment audio shop. Three of my best and best-selling products were designed by David Fletcher: the Sota turntable, the Talisman moving-coil pickups, and the MDC-800 tonearm, also known as The Arm, the latter two marketed through Fletcher’s own company Sumiko, the turntable through Sota, a company he co-founded with Robert Becker. As the three of us shared enthusiasms, notably food and movies, relationships that began in business ended in friendship. While the Sota turntable, with its standard-setting isolation characteristics and eventual vacuum hold-down, is a conceptual masterpiece, the original was designed to a price point and had teething products that took a while to iron out. The product he designed with no constraints save one as to cost or manufacturing was the MDC-800 tonearm, which he christened “The Arm.” When Harry Pearson took umbrage at what he considered the arrogance of the moniker, Fletcher laughed, saying, “I was stuck for a name and asked some friends. One of them said, ‘Why don’t you just call it ‘The Arm’?”

After its introduction in the early eighties, The Arm for several years laid serious claim to being the best fixed-bearing tonearm in the world and for moving-coil pickups arguably the best period. It was priced accordingly: $1200 at a time when no tonearm cost that much (about $3200 in today’s dollars). The price was certainly justified as regards design and precision engineering. But like many brilliant designers, once Fletcher solved conceptual problems, he could be impatient when it came to realization. He knew this about himself and always credited his machinist as being the full co-author of The Arm. I cannot remember nor have I been able to find the man’s full name, but his first name was Duncan. No other arm at the time, save perhaps the Swiss-made Breuer (which Fletcher imported for a while and which greatly influenced The Arm), could boast comparable precision in geometry, machining, bearings, and rigidity or a more full-proof setup, the jig used to drill the armboard serving double duty for mounting the pickup.

Favoring moving-coils, Fletcher was obsessed with structural rigidity for resonance control and dissipation. Dissatisfied with the methods—everything from glue, set screws, and bayonet headshells—then in use for securing arm tubes to headshells and bearing housings, he wanted an arm that consisted in a single, diecast piece fore to aft. Lacking the financial resources to make the requisite mold and other tooling, he came up with an idea so ingenious it’s amazing no one thought of it before. He had Duncan make the diameter of the tube slightly larger than it would fit into the receiving holes in the headshell and bearing housing—at room temperature. Come assembly time, the tube was frozen, then placed into a precise jig where it was fitted to the headshell and bearing housing. Once it was heated back to room temperature, you had the closest approximation to a one-piece arm short of diecasting.

Even today The Arm would rank in the upper echelon for moving-coil pickups. Why did Fletcher discontinue it? Among several reasons, the main one, I believe, was the appearance of the SME Series V tonearm, which he said, “embodies all my principles for the proper way to design an arm,” including a single-piece diecast arm. He became the US importer. Although The Arm, being a few hundred dollars less expensive, remained a viable product, I suspect there was something in Fletcher’s temperament that made him withdraw it in the face of a product he judged decisively superior. Another reason might have been The Arm’s perforated headshell, which he told me was a concession to the number of lower-mass moving magnet pickups still popular at the time. Why not just replace it with a solid headshell? “I don’t like to do that modification game” was his answer: “I design the product as best I can and then put it out there. Comes the time when enough changes are warranted, I’ll bring out a new model.”

Both explanations illustrate Fletcher’s integrity as designer and businessman. Meanwhile, his legacy is indisputable, most notably upon what I regard as the finest American arms and tables ever made and among the finest in the world: the Basis products designed by the late A. J. Conti. AJ greatly admired Fletcher’s designs, was the first to admit their influence upon his own, and once told me that one of the highest compliments he ever received came when he showed his unipivot, with its secondary bearing, to Fletcher, who said, “Congratulations, you have solved the problems that drove me crazy about both ball bearing and unipivot arms.” Fletcher never suffered fools gladly and made short work of pretentiousness, but he was always generous before genuinely high achievement in others, including competitors. Now that both he and AJ are gone, when I have questions about pickups, arms, and tables, I do not know whom to call upon for answers of comparable directness, expertise, and hard science, not to mention conversations always lively, invigorating, and thought provoking.

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