Reflection on Electronic Reproduction of Music

Essay written by kt6550 on Tuesday 2, June 2009

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Just a rant from a music lover.

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I'm old. Not real old, of course. And certainly not aged. But I think I am a bit older than most of the people who contribute to these sites. That really doesn't matter, because I enjoy reading their work, and I feel flattered when someone reads mine and leaves a constructive comment. I am at the point in life where it takes a lot to shock me, pleasantly or unpleasantly. Well, today I got a pleasant shock. I want to tell you about it. I was heading out to one of the favorite stores, "Chester County Books and Records," to spend a gift card my sister and her family gave me for Christmas. This is a lovely store with very large selection of books, records, CD's, and DVD's. It also has a BYOB restaurant called "The Magnolia Grill" that specializes in New Orleans cuisine. The food is excellent and reasonably priced. I had a great lunch and proceeded to browse. So many books and so little time! I wandered into the music section and got the shock of my life. Vinyl was being sold! Records! Thirty-three and one-third rpm LP's! Newly released music and re-releases! Holy music, Batman! I thought the LP was dead. I guess I was wrong. Now, in case you are wondering why this would shock me, let me date myself a bit. My first sound system was a Fisher receiver, AR loudspeakers, and a Bang and Olufson turntable. The CD had not yet been invented. I got it while I was in the service, and kept it until the early 1980's. It was a wonderful reproducer of recorded music. It had a warm sound. Classical music was rich and deep, and rock had the required punch to keep me interested. We Americans are great inventors, and then we give our technology away. Witness the automobile, the television, the flat-screen visual display, the microwave oven, etc. All of these items were invented in America. Some of them are now the exclusive manufacturing province of Pacific rim countries. The same was true with stereo. Avery Fisher, Saul Marantz (who invented the receiver,) and H. H. Scott were all engineering and musical pioneers who designed, built, and marketed their own audio components. Some of their gear still commands premium prices on the used market. As these men aged, and sought to retire, they searched for buyers for their companies. By the late 1970's, their companies were in the hands of Japanese owners like Jensen and Harmon International. The Japanese owners proceeded to make excellent sounding electronics sound like, well, Kenwood and Pioneer. They also made them cheaply. In the early 1980's, the Fisher receiver and AR loudspeakers got sold to a close friend. They still give him excellent service, and the only repair that has been needed was a replacement of the woofer cones about six years ago. His wife refuses to let him purchase anything else. She says nothing on the market now sounds like music. I dreaded going into the high end of audio to get good sound, but I had no choice. I purchased a Carver pre- and power amp combo and KEF loudspeakers. The Carver only lasted about five years before it was sold. Carver gear gave excellent sound and the company had great service, but the amps were MOSFET-based. MOSFETS can be notoriously touchy unless you have a very clean power supply. I did not. The Carver's were sold and replaced by Adcom. Around the time of that upgrade, a new medium for recorded music began appearing in stores. The CD showed up, along with claims of "Perfect Sound Forever." I waited a few years before purchasing my first CD. It was a recording of Handel's "Music for the Royal Fireworks." It was dreadful, and let me tell you why. The style of violin playing, at that time, was called "Portamento." Mozart and Beethoven would make the style known as "Vibrato" popular. Portamento, when played properly, gives the violin, viola, and cello a much different voice than what we hear today. On the CD, it sounded like cats in pain and shrieking. That is not portamento. And I was disgusted. Still, the CD seemed to take over. And, like any new technology, there is a learning curve. The sound of the CD improved. The music was still compressed, compared to vinyl, but it was greatly cleaned up. And there was convenience to consider. It is not really practical to play an analog LP in your car or at the beach. CD was starting to grow on me, despite its lack of warmth and depth. There were other musicians, such as Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Wynton Marsalis, Bono, and The Edge who blasted the sound of CD. Neil Young said it was just plain bad. Tom Petty found it offensive. And the Rolling Stones made more and more money. And I began to wonder about something else. Why did so many top-notch guitarists (like Keith Richard of the Stones) like the sound of the EL34 tube-based Marshall stacks as opposed to solid-state amplification? Even amateur guitarists drooled over tubes. Something funny was going on here, and I decided to find out for myself what is was. I decided to investigate by doing a CD and LP comparison. One of my favorite rock bands from the 1970's was "The Who," consisting of Pete Townshend on guitar, John Entwistle on bass, Keith Moon on drums, and Roger Daltrey on vocals. My favorite album is "Who's Next?" I bought the re-mastered CD and compared it to my excellent vinyl. The CD sounded nice. It was clean and even-sounding. And it had some punch. But the vinyl! The vinyl was angry and raging. The vinyl was in-your-face. And that was The Who, from Roger Daltrey's snarls to John Entwistle's thundering, ballsy bass. (Is ballsy a word? I hope so.) Let me illustrate my point with the final track on the album, "Won't Get Fooled Again." As the song nears its closing, one hears the drone of a synthesizer. The drone goes on and on and on. Finally, Keith Moon comes in with a run around his drum kit, not once, but twice. On the CD, the drums sound crisp and clean. On the vinyl, Moon the Loon attacks the drum kit violently. And that was how Moon played. Roger enters on vocals with a shrieking "Yeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaah!" Then he proceeds to sing the last two lines of the song: "Meet the new boss, "Same as the old boss!" On the CD, it is a clean, clear vocal that basically states, "Oh, Dear!" On the vinyl, it is a scream. And the scream says, "We been fucked!" So I had come to a conclusion. CD was good. It was very good. However, it drained the emotion for some reason. Perhaps it is the digital encoding? I didn't know. And I like the emotion. It is the difference between a real woman and a Playboy foldout. That dilemma solved, I decided to look into the differences between tubes and solid-state amplification. Maybe these guitar players weren't crazy after all. I traveled to a fairly close high-end audio salon, asked to hear some "tube stuff," and was ushered into a listening room. I had brought along some CD's to hear. I got bowled over. It was like a punch in the gut. The amplifier was a Conrad-Johnson playing through a small pair of two-way loudspeakers made by Divergent Technologies. And it was sweet. Very, very sweet, like a lovely honeydew melon in midsummer. All of the harsh edge had gone from CD. It wasn't as deep and as rich as vinyl, but it was pretty darn close. I saved some money, and a few years later purchased a Jolida tube amplifier. A few years after that, I replaced my KEF loudspeakers with Totem Acoustic. My Adcom amps and KEFS now reside with my nephew, who has just recently purchased a turntable and cartridge. It looks like the audio industry got good sound right a long time ago. Two-way loudspeakers, coupled to tube amplification, playing vinyl, are the BMW of music reproduction. The Rolls Royce or Bentley, for me, is still a live concert. As for CD, well, I have to be honest. It has come a very, very long way. Indeed, I have just purchased some CD reissues of some classic Miles Davis albums. His trumpet is a bit pinched, and the bass is a bit dry. But, all things considered, it is nicely done. It is kind of nice to know, in the autumn of my years, that some of the "obsolete" technology is not so obsolete and can hold its own against the newer stuff. Now if only they could make it cheaper. Oh, I forgot. I did purchase a new vinyl recording. It was a reissue of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." I am listening to it now. Peace.
   

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    You think that's shocking? At my local bookstore they have the Twilight and Eragon series of audiobooks in the non-fiction section.
    This posting interests me a lot: as a musician, I appreciate the sensitivity you show in the way you listen; as a classical musician, I deeply respect that you acknowledge the importance of making ALL music sound good; and as a Baroque musician, the loss of raw emotion brought on by newer, 'better' technology is something I'm very familiar with.

    I'd like to comment further on this last point. I'd have loved to hear your thoughts on contemporary groups who release albums newly on LP, a sort of opposite perspective on what you're addressing here. How does the sound of 'cleaned up' old albums released on CD compare to new, 'clean,' recording technology released newly on LP? You began to address a really compelling issue here and I'd love to hear more (especially because I am decidedly NOT an audiophile but love to hear people's thoughts on what they hear).

    A final picky point: I'm not sure if you mean 'portamento' or 'portato' - portato is the detached legato style of the Baroque, but portamento DOES sound like cats being tortured, and is used as an effect.

    Great work!
    Whooops, I'm wrong - ponticello sounds like cats being tortured. Portamento is a slide between an interval or an offbeat anticipatory embellishment. My mistake!
    This is a VERY interesting and VERY well written essay! I have been a drummer for quite some time, and I have always enjoyed the classics, like The Who and The Stones. Even with all the new re-issues of albums, I found myself collecting the best quality old LPs I could find. It's great to see that people are re-discovering the warm and powerful sound of the old LPs. I've seen some re-issues at my local music store, but they are really overpriced. We're talking like $40-50. Even with inflation that makes no sense! I am now listening to Won't Get Fooled Again. Grin
    Okay, I am not going to change portamento to portato, after a great deal of thought and re-listening to that CD, because the violins DO sound like shrieking cats.
    i was smiling while reading this. Wink
    Take it this way: u r a senior to most of us den members and more experienced. the word's SENIOR....NOT OLD!Angry
    Does that make me senior as well? I'm three years and 2 days younger than Kt.Wink
    I honestly believe that mass production was essentially a good thing since it brought along, a generation more or less disenchanted with technology.

    At work I hear my friend who's about three decades older than me yap about his sound system ALL THE TIME. I've got two Logitech speakers in my study the size of an eight pack of eggs each. I've got Marantz speakers and amplifier in the living room, the speakers come to the height of my waist. Let me tell you the Marantz is the one doing all the dust collecting, since the Logitech's are strategically positioned at the two sides of my 20inch PC screen.

    Srsly, what's it with seniour folks and their sound systems? ; )

    PP: You know I'm just saying but girls these days are happy with a playlist of Rammstein and Tiesto on the Winamp. Nobody would worry about wether the old music that came out on Vinyl still sounds as good on CD's.

    The world keeps on rolling regardless. A rolling stone gathers no moss*.

    Peace.

    *Ugly brightly colored slogan on a horrifyingly overpriced t-shirt at a mall.
    What the Hell- I'm the oldest member here. kt- I have a lot of vinyl and they aren't re-issued ones. There is no beating the sound on vinyl. I don't listen to them as often because they're wearing out but they're still the best sound.