The Sound of Music,
circa 2009, pt. 2

By Beppe Colli
Sept. 3, 2009

Quite predictably, it's Beatlemania all over again (for the umpteenth time). Right at this moment, it's all over the media. I've watched (let's admit it: from a certain distance) the rising tide. But now it's the time: as it's by now widely (!) known, on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 (09-09-09), two boxes (one stereo, the other one, mono) will be released (at last!), featuring the whole audio Beatles in a new, improved, digitally mastered edition.

Maybe because my interest in the whole matter is not strong enough (the real arguments about the mastering will take place as soon as the new editions will be made available to the public), it appears that I totally missed something quite important: that on the same date of release of the two Beatles boxes, a new videogame - The Beatles: Rock Band - will go on sale. Here, while my usual paper sources appeared as they were basically reporting only from what was written in their press release, a giant of journalism like the New York Times featured (in their Magazine, August 16, 2009) a long article by Daniel Radosh titled While My Guitar Gently Beeps (which can obviously be accessed on the paper's website).

Meanwhile, my usual press sources reported about those long years - four years, it seems - sound engineers working on the project spent tweaking the original masters. Analogue masters, of course. So, the promise was of a superb sound.

Then, on August 26, 2009, while visiting the Steve Hoffman Forum, I happened to read: Message from Allan Rouse - precisely one of the sound engineers who had worked on the boxes. One thing I immediately noticed: the new stereo versions of Help! and Rubber Soul do not use the original versions, but those that had been re-mixed by George Martin in February 1987. I was stunned. A few days later, I was able to access an independent source where it was said that the original 1965 stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul, which have not been previously released on CD, will be featured as an added bonus on the mono Help! and Rubber Soul discs that are featured only in The Beatles in Mono box set (which is defined as having been created "with the collector in mind", hence... in a limited edition).

It's at this point that a very dangerous thought crossed my mind: It appears that the only interesting item I read about the videogame appeared in the New York Times Magazine; while the one and only really important piece of information about the box was in a message by Allan Rouse which appeared in Steve Hoffman's (Web) Forum. So what was all that other ink (and paper) for, just to reveal the unknown fact that those Beatles guys were pretty good?

The one thing that in the last few years has made me definitely puzzled is the by now quite famous phenomenon going under the tag "Back to Vinyl

While being perfectly conscious of the dangers implied by the transferring of music from one format to another (here I'm referring to the issue of having the new CD versions as being identical as possible to their vinyl counterparts), at the dawn of digital as a viable commercial medium I was aware that the new format offered so much convenience and ease of use that regular buyers would meet it with open arms: no more problems concerning stylus and cartridge, no more tone arm adjustments, etc.

Besides, we all knew first-hand those terrible problems concerning the "variable quality" of the LPs on sale: the ones with the off-centre hole (which offered "sea-sick sound"); the ones that were hissy and noisy (no piece of news could be scarier than learning that records by group X were about to be distributed - and pressed! - by label Y); those that, for various reasons, were warped or "cup-shaped". All this, it has to be noted, as facts preceding the introduction of the terrible "dynaflex", and the cheapening in quality of vinyl following the energy crises of 1973-1974 and 1979.

I wonder whether it's really possible that today's vinyl is so devoid of any defects. It obviously has to be, since nobody mentions them. Me, I've got my doubts. With a few exceptions, today's vinyl doesn't sound "silent", or without "pops". And I really doubt that pressing machines make more centered holes. I can only guess about Eastern Europe vinyl and pressing plants, by now one of the main sources for what is released in Europe. Then we have those albums with excessive sound level, and those sounding so soft that the music is forced to compete with the sound of vinyl. While those albums of vintage material all suffer from lack of information regarding the source master: a "flat transfer" from the original analogue tapes from '67, or a "primo distorto" sounding like the hi-fi is just about to explode?

It goes without saying that at this point there are those who reply that even at the absolute peak of the vinyl era it was definitely uncommon for a review to make any comments about such matters. The only difference being that nowadays listeners that are used to "digital silence" are faced with vinyl's unpredictability while paying a sum that in the case of re-releases is four or five times higher than the corresponding CD.

Sometimes, while taking a walk in parts of the town where I live that are still a bit unfamiliar to me, I happen to discover tiny shops selling a variety of things that stock a few (old) vinyl albums. These shops appear to be too behind the curve in terms of technology, so they can't really access the eBay circuit; while their being located in areas that could easily be classified as "periphery" makes them "out of the loop" when it comes to their being of any interest to most shoppers. So I had the pleasure to meet quite a few brand-new albums, sometimes even still factory-sealed (though quite full of dust), by artists such as Paul Simon, Eurythmics, and the Rolling Stones, all selling for 5-10 euros each: not really extremely cheap, in a way (a lot of those were printed in great quantity, so they are of a very limited value for collectors), but for those wanting to experience an album's original sound, it's a chance absolutely not to be missed.

Funny thing: when it comes to quite a few guys who appear to be intent on developing a taste for vinyl, those news fall on deaf ears. There are those who'll say that albums by artists such as Paul Simon, Eurythmics, and the Rolling Stones are by definition of no interest whatsoever to those who do not like Paul Simon, Eurythmics, and the Rolling Stones. But it appears that nowadays most "discoveries" of "new names" happen to take place only inside the "180+ gr." category, like all albums outside this bracket (where quite often one encounters mediocre groups who had better been forgotten - only, the rights to press and release those albums come so cheap as to offer a chance for a "long-due revaluation") don't deserve any real attention. Isn't it funny?

It's at this point that there are those who say "This is technical, difficult stuff that nobody finds to be of any interest, in fact nobody talks about such stuff". This position deserves a long reply.

If we apply the famous "bathroom cleaners equation", which at the moment has people doing menial work in my area getting seven euros per hour, and putting at four hours the minimum amount of time that's necessary in order to review a CD (three listening sessions, plus one hour to write the thing - and obviously it's the bare minimum), we arrive at the conclusion that the minimum compensation for a CD review worth its name is 28 euros. But real life ain't like this, however, most reviews nowadays being written for free. On the other hand, any magazine carrying the blurb "250+ reviews!" on its cover should fork about 7.500 euros per month just in order to pay reviewers (at the aforementioned bathroom cleaning price). So, magazines pretend to feature reviews, and readers (who pay 5 euros for a magazine offering "250+ reviews!", plus all the other stuff they feature) pretend to believe this.

Meanwhile, music increasingly appears as a "Platonic ideal": "I'll tell you who The Beatles were, then about their new releases it's up to you, but you know that they are by The Beatles, which I already told you about".

Maybe expecting reviewers to actually have a turntable is a bit much, also that they actually listen to the LPs, and (in case this is appropriate) that they declare that the vinyl in question sounds like unadulterated manure; right now with vinyl selling, and many are desperately clutching at it, hoping not to drown, expecting this is to expect a bit much.

Now, about the "this is technical, difficult stuff" part. Here the problem mostly appears to be a lack of understanding with regards to the concept of recorded music - for simplicity's sake here I'll only refer to "songs" - as an artificial construction which when experienced inside a given shared cultural framework produces the desired effect. To give readers just a for instance, in his song The Bed, Lou Reed sits in an empty room whose cubature we can easily perceive precisely because the room is empty. Every one of us has experienced an empty room, and the different way it physically behaves. Hence, the tale incorporates more drama compared to a scenario where the narrator tells his tale talking to a stand-up mike: in this case, his story will be less "pictorial". Hence (talking hypothetically) we can say that the producer and engineers who worked on this are "better" than others because working in a psychoacoustics framework they actually suggested that they use that spatial effect (and the echo chamber from Record Plant studios in New York?). The fact that this framework is culturally shared being proved by the fact that nobody listening to this record places the narrator as standing at the top of a mountain.

Here the common error is to mistake the "effect" - as a technical device - for the psychological perception of the effect, as a successful result. Even if s/he doesn't notice the "effect", the listener would be aware of its "absence" (though s/he never heard it!), or of it being applied "wrongly". Here the only difference between a "critic" and a "listener" is that the former deliberately reflects on those technical means that listeners are perfectly free to ignore. But should a remix eliminate space and dynamics from a track - those things that listeners are free to ignore - the final result would greatly differ, and listeners would easily perceive the difference, provided they listen with care.

What's so "technical" about this?

Beppe Colli 2009 | Sept. 3, 2009