Trough Line… The early development and family history of the Rock project
The collection of (in some cases revolutionary) ideas that were to combine in the creation of the original Cranfield Rock turntable emerged under the tutelage of Jack Dinsdale, already the creator of the first output transformerless solid-state amplifier and a well-received range of horn loaded loudspeaker designs. But it was in his role as head of the Department for the Design of Machine Systems at the Cranfield Institute of Technology that he guided the development of what was to become the Rock. As part of their Masters thesis, each student on his graduate teaching course had to complete a six-month project. Earlier work at CUPE (Cranfield Unit for Precision Engineering) had produced a novel, zero-contact fluid bearing (subsequently licensed but never used by Garrard) and a synthetic mineral material, Granitan S100, both of which lent themselves to the design of a high-quality record player. With Dinsdale’s proven interest in audio reproduction, it was a natural step to encourage students to pursue this path.
In 1977-78, one student, John Hardwick extended the scope of the project by moving into the area of tonearm design and resonance. His work concentrated on creating a system to effectively damp the mechanical resonance established through the playing of a vinyl record. Dissatisfied with the mechanical disadvantages of traditional damping systems set near the arm’s pivot, the obvious route was to damp the tonearm’s movement as near to the stylus/ record interface as possible. Thus was born the (in)famous trough, defining aspect of each and every Rock turntable. But it wasn’t until the following year that another student, Michael Clayforth-Carr undertook the construction of a prototype plinth, constructed from laminated layers of chipboard and aluminium, to combine the bearing design with a simple belt driven platter and a frontend damping trough. It was this model that attracted the attention of Max Townshend, who promptly offered to sponsor further development work.
This became the province of yet another student, John Bugge, and it was he who created the first Granitan plinth, and refined the drive system, trough and tonearm design, the latter concentrating all the forces acting on the arm along with its centre of gravity at a single point and in the plane of the record. It was this design that was widely demonstrated to the public and was to evolve into the first commercial product, the Elite Cranfield Rock, released in 1982. Sadly, with the incorporation of a complex fluid damped suspension along with the other developments (save the fluid bearing, which was never released by Garrard or used in a commercial record player design) the deck proved too costly and time consuming to produce and Bugge’s manufacturing company was wound up in 1983, having only produced some 250 ‘tables. Development now passed to Max’s Elite Gramophone company, and the first commercially viable designs soon followed. The Rock Mk II, launched in 1984, was a massively simplified version based on a solid, plaster filled plinth and platter (a poor man’s equivalent to Granitan), a simple belt drive and of course, the trademark trough. A precision inverted bearing was employed while “suspension” was handled by a quartet of Sorbothane blobs. Available with the Bugge designed Excalibur arm from the Cranfield Rock, it was also offered as a motor unit with a headshell-mounted outrigger to support the damping paddle. Later, a wooden picture frame outer plinth was created to soften the rather utilitarian looks and support a plastic lid. Despite the almost brutal simplicity of the design, it was the Mk II that firmly established the Rock and the concept of front-end damping in the hearts and minds of the record playing public. And whilst even its father struggles to describe it as beautiful, it was affordable and undeniably effective. Used with the just launched Rega RB300 arm the combination became a veritable giant killer, appealing to those who wanted nothing more than to drive a wedge into the first cracks then appearing in the LP12 edifice; 3890 wedges to be exact. But this was also the period when industrial design really gained its first toehold in the world of hi-fi, and soon products like the Arcam Alpha, Cyrus 1 and Musical Fidelity A1 were showing that affordability and superior aesthetics needn’t be mutually exclusive. The Mk II’s functional exterior and prosaic standards of finish were quickly becoming unacceptable, resulting in the emergence of a cheaper but prettier budget model, the Avalon, based on less labour intensive production techniques and materials and retaining only the trough from the original Cranfield design. Launched in 1988 it wasn’t a huge success, but aesthetically it paved the way for arguable the most accomplished Rock design to date, the Reference launched in 1989.