By Beppe Colli
Jan. 4, 2008
Better to admit it right from the start: I (still) love vinyl. I really
do. Though I still recall those magic moments when I precariously held
those colourful, heavy 78rpm 12" in my tiny hands (we're talking about
early childhood here), it was only in the mid-60s that my life really started
to be defined by music - meaning, radio and 7" 45rpm singles. As a
pre-pre teen, I obviously listened to music as a whole, didn't really pay
that much attention to specific parts, with the main exception of those
fabulous song intros, à la Satisfaction, that really defined a dynamite
track. As the decade progressed, though, I started paying attention to
those new, strange sounds that both groups and solo artists, with (more
than) a little help from their friends (producers and engineers whose names
were for the most part unknown to the general public, and whose role in
the whole matter would have been impossible for us to comprehend, had we
known about them), were putting on record.
To make a (very) long story short, my understanding
of music (which obviously included sound, and also the physical objects
that carried those sounds in their grooves) ran parallel to the progress
in consumer audio reproduction. Just paying attention as a listener made
me (and quite a lot of other people) aware of the differences existing
between Italian vinyl copies (more often than not, lousy), UK pressings
(quiet, but sometimes lacking in sparkle), and USA albums (alive, but often
quite noisy - those who've heard King Crimson on Atlantic will know what
I mean). There was nothing "Hi-Fi" or "esoteric" about
this: It was just a natural progression made possible by paying careful
attention to something that those who cared about music held as important.
Which is the same, really, as trying to understand what the lyrics to a
song mean, or how one got those strange sounds ("harmonics")
on a guitar.
This is just a brief intermezzo. The guy being interviewed - Bob Olhsson
- was an engineer at Motown starting from the 60s. The quote comes from
Tape Op magazine. The interview is by Philip
Stevenson, and it ran as Nowhere To Run - Bob Olhsson, Magic And The Motown
Sound. (I suspect the guy mentioned below to be Bruce, not Doug,
Well here’s a classic
tape op interview question for you: how do you feel about digital?
There's so many great things about it and yet - there was a thing at the
AES called "When Vinyl Ruled" - this was incredible. I hope to
heaven that they let them do it again but I can see how a lot of manufacturers
would not let them do it again.
They set up a state
of the art 1962 control room and played back a bunch of old three-track
safety masters from that era. The sound destroyed everything at the show.
I mean, it was a no-brainer better than anything we're doing now, it's
sickening. And at one point, Doug Botnik, who used to be at Sunset Sound
turned to me and said,
"Man I remember the first time I tried to do a session on a transistor
board I wanted to slit my wrists." (laughs).
Skipping the part about how we could tell a USA
LP from a UK LP just from their smell, I'll have to immediately clarify
that I'm not - nor have I ever been, by any stretch of the imagination
- what one could call a collector. I've never paid any real money for an
original pressing, I don't care about "collectors' items" - hey,
I'm not even on eBay!
However, as soon as
I started listening to CDs - in the late 80s - it became apparent to me
that, though I had assumed this to be a given, the new versions didn't
necessarily resemble the (vinyl) originals. A fact that, with few just
a exceptions - special mention here going to (USA) Musician magazine -
went totally unmentioned (also unnoticed?) in the pages of the "non-technical" press.
Practicality and portability being obviously prized above any issues of
sound quality. (It won't be the last time.)
So - in order to clarify
matters to myself in the first place - I wrote a piece which run on Musiche
magazine (Italy) and the ReR Quarterly (UK) under the title Remixes: Cosmetics
Or Fraud? (Though it also talked about modifications taking place at the
I reserve some of my "special, quality time" for
vinyl listening sessions. Of course I'm perfectly aware that nostalgia
has a part in this. However, the point here is being aware of the
"nostalgia factor" - that is, making it hard for it to influence
one's perception and judgment of the music one is listening to. Which can
sometimes be difficult, but it's not by any means an impossibility.
So, while I was more
than happy to know that turntables and related accessories were still being
produced, I was quite surprised to learn that a resurgence in the manufacturing
of vinyl LPs was taking place. Why? Well, though here I have to admit I
haven't listened to many specimens (this being after all a niche market,
copies not really going on sale all over the world), and even discounting
those so-so editions printed on bad, noisy vinyl, all new vinyl editions
I heard were obviously in what I call "digital vinyl" - i.e.,
copies deriving from new, digital, and not the original, analog, masters.
So, what's the point? (The fact that "superior sound quality" -
noisy vinyl, bad pressing, and all - is taken for granted in most LP reviews
I've read, and seldom discussed, makes it apparent that it's their rarity
that's the point here, not sound quality.)
I have to admit I was
quite surprised to read a few articles - recently published in Italy, also
elsewhere - which sketched this Music Industry Scenario: low-quality MP3
files will be sold to most, to be consumed on cheap, portable items; while
high-quality files - and real LPs, big covers and all - will be sold to
the cognoscenti, hence: Premium Money for Premium Content. Does this scenario
actually hold water? Here we have to backtrack a bit.
There is one thing I have to make clear right now: From a technical
point of view, I'm not a cultivated person at all. I just listen to music.
I have to admit that I listen to music as an exclusive activity, which
I suppose qualifies me as a social misfit. However, I suppose that listening
to a CD as an exclusive activity that occurs while sitting still in front
of a (reasonably good) Hi-Fi system (as opposed to, say, listening to a
CD, or to "audio files", on a computer through tiny speakers
- maybe while writing the review already? - while at the same time being
busy in all manners of staff) should be highly prized by anybody who releases
an album, or readers looking for a "sound opinion" (pun intended).
It was at the end of the 90s that I started
noticing that CDs started sounding worse and worse. Flat, too compressed,
unmusical, two-dimensional, shrill, tiring... you name it. A fact that
made it increasingly difficult for me to really enjoy even music released
by artists whose work I liked a whole lot.
It was about seven years ago that I was
sent a link to an article by George Graham titled Whatever
Happened To Dynamic Range On Compact Discs?, which immediately made it
all clear to me.
Then there was the
long thread bearing the title Are DAWs And Squashed Masters The Only Things
That Define This Era's Sound?, posted 12-04-2003 11:18 AM on a Forum moderated
by George Massenburg.
Soon the topic assumed
gigantic proportions. An article titled The Big Squeeze - Mastering Engineers
Debate Music's Loudness Wars, by Sarah Jones, appeared on Dec 1, 2005 12:00
PM, on Mixonline.
Mainstream newspapers entered the discussion
- for instance, see Why Music Really Is Getting
Louder, by Adam Sherwin, Media Correspondent, which appeared on The Times,
June 4, 2007.
But it was a couple
of weeks ago, when Rolling Stone ran a piece by Robert Levine called The
Death Of High Fidelity - In The Age Of MP3s, Sound Quality Is Worse Than
Ever, Posted Dec 26, 2007 1:27 PM, that all hell broke loose.
Well, it's not easy to say. The fact of
CDs sounding louder and louder - and, as its consequence, a lot worse -
has been linked to the fact of music being listened to in increasingly
noisy environments like cars and university rooms - and not at all, obviously,
"exclusive activity". (LPs could not be listened to in cars.) And
nobody wants his/her album to sound wimpy: even artists who should know better
- Joni Mitchell and Lyle Lovett have been mentioned here - have recently
released albums that have been said to sound "louder" - and so,
"duller" - than what was expected from them. It appears that even
the recent Best Of by Led Zeppelin has been made fit to compete in a Foo
Fighters world. And when it comes to files, practicality and portability
are the name of the game, right? Hence, we live in the age of "good
enough". Plus, listening to an album as a whole - even conceiving an
album as a meaningful
"whole" - is a thing of the past in the age of single tracks.
Those with time on their hands are invited
to listen to the many digital editions "classic albums" have
been subjected to since the introduction of the (then) new format, and
draw their own conclusions.
Artists and engineers have been called
to rectify matters. Perspectives are bleak.
I think nothing speaks about the present conditions better than this
quote from Bob Olhsson, appearing in the aforementioned Mixonline piece:
"Going back to
the 60s, a record was a luxury; the idea of it being a commodity was absurd
to me. You didn't buy a lot of recordings, you bought recordings that were
special to you, and you listened to them over and over. And certainly you
are less inclined to listen to a distorted record over and over and over
than you are to one that just sounds amazing. And I don't think that's
a matter of being an audiophile, or a specialist, or anything else. I really
believe the average person can tell the difference. They're not going to
identify what technically they're hearing, but I definitely think that
people are affected by sound and sound quality. I don't buy the idea that
it doesn't matter and you should work to the lowest common denominator."
© Beppe Colli 2008
| Jan. 4, 2008