The High End Arrives

After first experiencing music recordings played back via separate, high quality components, and finding out just how much more there is to be heard in all recordings, I found myself bitten by the “high fidelity” bug and began reading everything I could get my hands on.  Back in those days, there were three monthly periodicals I knew of and read fervently: Stereo Review, High Fidelity and my favorite of the three, Audio.  Of particular interest to me in the latter, were the “Behind the Scenes” column by Bert Whyte and the technical writings of Richard C. Heyser.  Where the earliest hi-fi systems were mostly built by hobbyists, the field was growing as new companies arose to fill the demands of interested consumers.  The magazines featured a constant parade of products in both the editorial content and in the accompanying ads.  They introduced me to the traditional laboratory measurements used to evaluate component performance using specific test signals.

In the early 1970’s, I would meet regularly with a few friends who shared my interests in music and in music playback systems.  We’d spend evenings spinning our latest vinyl acquisitions, sharing new musical discoveries and talking, not only about the artistry but about how the recordings themselves sounded when played via our respective systems.  Around this time, I discovered other enthusiast journals from other parts of the world, primarily the United Kingdom but also, a new type of journal from the U.S.  Stereophile from J. Gordon Holt (and later, The Absolute Sound from Harry Pearson) took a radical approach to reviewing audio components: listening.  While the traditional magazines talked of “total harmonic distortion” and “frequency response” and “signal-to-noise ratio” measurements, the new journals were pointing out that devices with similar measurements would often sound quite dissimilar — and that good measurements did not at all guarantee good sound.  Holt introduced the idea of evaluating components, designed for nothing other than listening, by listening to them.  (Strange that this idea is still a radical one in some quarters and a heretical one in others.)  Pearson suggested the sound of real instruments playing in a real space as the reference point for evaluation (hence the title of his journal).

The concept of high fidelity led to what became known as the “high end”, where many designers took a no-holds-barred approach to come up with new ideas in pursuit of something that would sound less like electronic reproduction and more convincingly like being in the presence of the musicians as they play.  The term “high end” appropriately defined many of the achievements, as well as the prices of some gear but it would be a mistake to overlook the many commensurate achievements in the more affordable price ranges as well.  Around this time, I first encountered the term “audiophile”, which Webster defines as “a person who is enthusiastic about high fidelity sound reproduction”.  I remember a large format book that came out at the time, “Audio Alternative” by Mark Tobak.  This was an audiophile’s dream book, containing photographs of and short essays on a wide variety of components, from better than average sounding modestly priced gear, to what were at the time, the components representing the state of the audio reproduction art

Having started my audio education with the traditional magazines and furthering it with what came to be called the “underground” magazines that followed, I found the contrast between the approaches taken by the two different “schools” set into stark relief by two particular listening experiences and what I came to learn from them.  The first was when one of my audio buddies brought over his turntable for comparison with the one I was using.  At first, I couldn’t understand the point as both units turned at the correct speed and we were both using the same model cartridge to read the grooves on our records.  I knew cartridges all sounded different but “turntables just turn”.  Then I listened.  Then I learned.  The unit I had been using was a popular, modern servo-controlled, direct drive turntable.  It had great measured specifications (or “specs”), with very low measured “wow and flutter” (i.e., it turned with very little deviation in speed accuracy).  It had been very highly rated in the traditional magazines.  My friend’s turntable was an older, lower cost, belt driven model with an inexpensive AC motor and a very bouncy suspension – the platter and tonearm rode on a separate substructure from the main body of the turntable.

What I heard from that old turntable was tighter and more extended response in the bass instruments, much smoother sounding treble instruments and an overall relaxed quality about the musical presentation, compared with the relatively thin, edgy sound from my more modern, slicker looking design.  It turns out those servo controlled, direct drive motors were always adjusting the speed of the turntable as they constantly sped up and slowed down, reaching, then passing their target speed.  These small variations did not show up in the “wow and flutter” measurements of the time but the harmonic changes that resulted showed up in the listening.  Another thing that didn’t show up was how sensitive the newer unit was to vibrations in the room as they impinged on the turntable surface from the air and entered the device via its supporting shelf.  Once they were in the turntable, these vibrations easily made their way to the record surface and then to the cartridge.  They became part of the signal fed to the amplifiers – a signal that should have been derived only from the undulations of the record groove.  The lightest, gentlest touches of a fingertip on the top surface of the turntable would translate into a thunderous rumbling sound through the speakers.  In contrast, I saw my friend cover the top surface of his turntable with a towel (to protect it from what was to come) and actually hit the top with a hammer (!), which resulted in no disturbance at all of the record as it played, no sound from the speakers other than that of the record itself.  The lightest, gentlest touches of a fingertip causing havoc with the new turntable and hammer blows having no effect on the older one.

That experience was followed by another one where the same friend arrived one night carrying a coiled up set of speaker cables.  Having already gone from “turntables just turn” to getting a different turntable, I was ready to listen.  Truth to tell, I already had “heavy gauge” wires feeding the speakers.  Once the cable was sufficient to pass the requisite power to the loudspeakers, I wondered “how could cable make a difference?”  Once again I listened and once again I learned.  Where did all that musical information come from?  What was formerly just a guitar chord was now a set of individual strings sounding together to make that chord.  The room in which the musicians were playing was suddenly also much more clearly evident – both in recordings made in real rooms and those where a “room” sound was added artificially via electronic reverberation.  Where cables had previously been not much more than an afterthought, required to get sound from one component in the chain to the next, I came to realize they are components in themselves and as with any chain, the weak link will determine the overall strength.

I was still a few years away from my first job as an audio engineer in a recording studio and a few years further from the day I first heard stereo.  More to come.

New Horizons

Some folks say music is a universal language.  It has been argued that the popularity of Western music around the world is attributable to people of different cultures all finding the same emotional response to various musical selections, implying happy music, sad music, scary music, etc. are interpreted the same way everywhere.  If true, I would think the phenomenon would work both ways and that citizens of the Western world would then interpret music from other lands in the same way the folks to whom such music is native would.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to note the similarly in the musical intervals (i.e., the differences in pitch between notes) used in lullabies from around the world.

Interpretation aside, when it comes to appreciation of “foreign” music, the evidence suggests there may indeed be a universality among dedicated listeners from all over the world.  Having first been exposed to the instruments used in Western music, from those in the orchestra to those in popular music to those in a jazz ensemble, my first experiences with musical sounds from a kalimba and a shakuhachi and the conglomeration of instruments in a gamelan were akin to viewing a rainbow made up of colors I’d never seen before.  Beyond the unfamiliar but entrancing sounds, the music these instruments and ensembles made still enthralled.  Though it came from cultures and places unfamiliar to me, and though I may not have responded exactly the way a native listener might, it still touched the spirit.  The 16 beat teentaal rhythms of Hindustani music, the ecstatic vocals of Qawwali from south Asia, the tranquility of a master playing Japanese bamboo shakuhachi, the call and response of Haitian mizik rasin (“roots music”), all languages of their own, each new discovery, continuing to this day, pushes the musical horizons outward.  (It was only a few years ago that a friend showed me the beauty of Haitian music.)

Paralleling this expansion of musical horizons came a related one in the form of an evolution in how the music arrived.  I don’t recall when I first heard the term “high fidelity” but I very much recall how it felt when I first listened to music on my sister’s system, built around Acoustic Research AR-3a loudspeakers.  Suddenly, every recording I listened to revealed a lot more of the music, intensifying the entire experience to a degree I’d never imagined.  It was so much easier to hear all the component parts of a musical composition, all the separate vocalists and players as individuals contributing to the ensemble sound.  There was more of each individual instrument to be heard than I was used to from listening via radios or the compact record player that first introduced me to music.  Rather than the simple outlines of the sound of a kalimba, there was a sense of the player’s thumbs pressing and releasing the metal tines.  This was a profound increase in how much more of the music captured in a recording could be  available to the listener.  I was finding there was much more to be heard in every recording I played.  Now, in addition to the music and the means by which it is captured by recordings, I was absorbed by the idea that playback of those recordings could be of a much higher order than I’d previously experienced, than what had already captured my imagination and my heart.

Music: In Gratitude

I can still see, in my mind’s eye, the vehicle by which Music first came to me.  It was a small, tan and reddish brown, all-in-one record player, which had one speaker, perhaps 3 inches in diameter, located between the light brown platter and the base of the tonearm. The “needle” assembly was the type that had a small extension going to the side, which could be used to flip the assembly over in order to expose a second needle. One side was used for LPs and singles, the other side for “78s”.

The records it played were a mix of some classics (I can distinctly recall the green label on a 78 rpm set of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”), several “33s” of original cast recordings, and a few pop albums (Elvis’ Gold Records stands out in memory) but mostly, the “45s” filled with the street corner harmonies of rhythm and blues based late ‘50s Doo Wop, as well as other R&B.  I can still see the pale blue and tan colors on the label of a single by Little Anthony and the black and red label on the single of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say?”

As music took hold of my spirit, I became increasingly interested in both how music is made and later on, how recordings of music are made.  At age nine, I started piano lessons, then guitar lessons.  We didn’t have a piano at home but I did have a guitar. Guess which one stuck. (Many years later, once on my own, a piano did come but guitar had a good head start.)  I had a set of drums too but growing up in an apartment building set limits on when they could be played.  A few years later, some school friends and I started getting together to “jam” on Saturday afternoons.  I started recording our jams using my brother’s reel-to-reel tape recorder and found I could play drums, then add a guitar part.  It would be several years later that I would hear the terms “multitracking” and “overdubbing”.

If listening to music (of all types) was becoming an important nourishment for the deepest parts of me, the “minimum daily requirement” increased significantly the day I first heard the Beatles on the radio.  While other music seemed to have pre-existed, to have been there waiting for me to find it, the Beatles felt like the moment.  Their music brought a good many firsts to my experience.  I’d never before anticipated an artist’s next release – and each new Beatles release seemed to present a new musical world.  I’d never concentrated on the lyrics to this degree.  (Actually, for the first several listens to any song, I still hear sung lyrics as another instrument.  Only after I’ve digested the vocals as raw sound do I find myself hearing the meaning in the words.)  It is amazing to consider how much musical ground this ensemble covered in a very short amount of time.  There is probably much more I can say about the Beatles and the impact their music had (and has) on my life.  For now, I’ll just say they added value to it.  I know of nothing greater any work of art can accomplish.

Some years later, I was turned on to jazz and with it, radically expanded musical horizons.  Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and countless other artists simply opened up the way I heard music, providing musical landscapes I couldn’t have imagined before.  Charles Mingus could put so much passion in his compositions, the rhythms themselves might warrant an “R” rating.

Ultimately, music is the performance.  It is played and then it is gone.  While there is certainly nothing like being in the presence of the players when the music is created, the overwhelming majority of the music I’ve heard came to me through recordings.  How else could I have experienced the music from so many who had already passed by the time I heard them?  What magic!  No wonder I became fascinated with records from an early age.  Music of the ages, music for the ages, all available at the listener’s whim.  Those early experiences with the reel-to-reel recorder were just the first tentative steps.  I didn’t know it at the time but I was just getting started on a long, wonderful journey.

Ab Initio

Welcome to The Soundkeeper!

This is a blog about audio, music, recording and playback, all things that have captivated me since I was a young child.  I’ve been an audio engineer since 1975, though I was making recordings of friends and myself back in elementary school.  With the “sound with sound” function on my brother’s Concord reel-to-reel recorder, I found I could play more than one musical part — we were using “overdubbing” before I knew what that was.

I’ve always loved talking audio with friends.  In my college days, there were many late nights spent with a few audio buddies, talking preamps and loudspeakers into the wee hours.  I didn’t know it then but those long discussions were providing me with a foundation — a yen for looking at every aspect of audio and music recording and playback from what I later came to know as “first principles”: an approach that questioned everything, every step of the process.  It was a means of formulating questions and then searching out the answers to those questions.  It was the best “recording school” I can imagine.

In the intervening years, I’ve participated on a number of Internet audio fora and written a number of articles for print publications in both the pro and hobbyist arenas.  Several folks have asked me to put my thoughts into a book on the subject.  I don’t know about a book but I thought a good place to start would be a blog like this, in effect, an audio diary, where I’d share some of the thoughts and ideas I have.

To be clear, what is written in this blog represents my own experience and perspective.  I certainly make no claim to having any corner on Universal Truth.  I hope you find these thoughts and ideas of interest.  Until the next entry…

Happy Listening!