Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Thus spake Ravi

In my previous post on His Master's Voice, I speculated that "the LP nut", Ravi, would have an interesting comment. Instead I got a full post from him, written in his inimitable style. A classic, a collector's item and a passionate and wonderfully written piece. Here it is, as he wrote it.

The LP was not invented in 1902.  At that time, the most common form of recorded sound was the shellac record that ran for 3 ½ minutes on each side. Shellac was easy to  mould but could break very easily.  It was spun at 78rpm on mechanical players. You turned a spindle to wind up the plate on which the record rested, and a little speaker connected to the pick up converted the markings on the record to sound using mechanical conversion.  The first medium for recorded sound was the wax cylinder, which was invented by Edison in the late 19th century. There was no plate, but a spindle on which a wax cylinder was fixed.  Reproduction was mechanical. 

Electrical recording and reproduction soon followed, once Lee Deforest invented the triode in the 1920s that made amplification of current possible. It was possible to record sound from a microphone, amplify it, then use it to drive a cutting lathe that could precisely carve out grooves in a record.  Then an electrically powered motor that could run at a precise 78rpm could power a record player that picked up the grooves using a stylus that generated electrical currents from the arm. Glowing valves in an amplifier then converted scratchy shellac sound into music that could be played at louder volumes in drawing rooms.

America in the 1920s saw an explosion of electrical entertainment. Movies were becoming a very popular form of entertainment, and the problem arose as to how to have music accompany the action.  Western Electric pioneered a slightly longer version of the 78rpm record that could play for 10 minutes that coincided with the playing time of a normal movie reel. Every time the reel changed, the movie operator would change the disc.

Around the same time, radio was mushrooming.  Recording a 78rpm disc was very simple and thousands of locally made discs in small towns in the United States received airtime on the many hundreds of radio stations that dotted the country.  Singers and bands came out in their multitude. Regional and national popularity began to develop. Separately, though, people like David Sarnoff (the founder of RCA) started to consolidate radio stations to ensure uniform programming as well as to create the reach for national advertising. A mechanism was needed to distribute radio-plays that could be relayed across all stations in a network.  Thus was born the Radio Transcription Disc, which could hold 20 minutes of programming on both sides, with an ad break for the side changeover.  Surprisingly these discs survived until the 1980s.

The next innovation was to find some medium that was not as brittle as shellac. As artists began to become popular outside their local areas, there was demand to play their music.  Shellac records broke when sent by post to radio stations.  Enter vinyl – a form of plastic that was more stable and durable, and could also be etched with a finer lathe to hold more programming.

The availability of a stable medium that could be recorded using fine cutting lathes and the desire to listen to longer program music could only lead to one thing. The first Long Play Record was made in 1945 by Columbia Records under a team lead by Howard Scott (who died last year, mourned by yours truly).  This could hold 20 minutes of programming on each side.  The first LP released was of the incomparable Nathan Milstein and the New York Philharmonic (conducted by Bruno Walter) playing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. You can listen to a later recording by Nathan Milstein here.

Stereo recordings followed very quickly (based on technology incubated at Bell Laboratories).  Magnetic tape had been invented in the Second World War - it became the norm for recording music. You no longer needed to cut the disc while recording was in progress in studios. Instead, one could set up a performance in great auditoria that had excellent acoustics and reproduce them on equipment that could come close to the concert hall effect in the drawing room.

In particular, I would mention two great sets of releases. One was Mercury Living Presence.  The second was RCA Living Stereo.  Both had gifted recording engineers.  The Mercury team was lead by Robert Fine, and a lot of their recordings were made at the Watford Town Hall just outside London using Telefunken microphones and Ampex 3-inch tapes.  RCA was lead by John Pfeiffer as producer and Lewis Layton as engineer, and they were ambitious enough to attempt to record a performance live.  The competition between Mercury and RCA produced some stunning recordings, some of which survive today as reference recordings of a piece by any artist anywhere.   LP technology continued to evolve. HMV, Decca, Deutsche Grammaphon and French labels produced records of great quality.  DG in particular, after the War, commissioned a History of Western Music series intended for libraries.  Beautiful recordings of early European masters, not just Bach but those who defined early European music were made by DG under the Arkhiv label. I used to pick them up second-hand in Rue de Chine in Paris for 2 euros apiece!

The advent of tapes and then CDs sounded the death-knell for LPs. Once MP3 players and iTunes got into the game, music purchase from retail outlets was doomed.  The ease with which music could be copied could easily have meant the death of the impulse to create. But in the last ten years vinyl has made a huge come back.  The LP format allowed an artist to experiment.  Anyone who loves the Beatles will agree with me that the B-side of Abbey Road is a masterpiece of symphonic proportions. Had the Beatles been forced to stick only to the singles format, this kind of music would not have been produced. In 2007 that poster-child for post-millennial artistic angst, Amy Black, released her iconic “Back to Black” album on CD and Vinyl.  She died of a drug overdose the next year at the young age of 21.  In my view this album will go down as one of the great pieces of music to be produced in these times and the album itself is a rumination on her young and confused life.  It is frighteningly mature. The format produced the impulse to express oneself in extended fashion.

But that is possible with the CD as well, I hear you say. Fair enough – but the CD came in as a mechanism to record two full sides of an LP on a single disk.  The LP format pervaded the CD at the start at least.  And its not that the single did not exist in the days gone by – indeed, the 45rpm disc which could hold two songs one on each side made its appearance in the 1940s and until the 1980s, was how a song became popular amongst young people. These could also be played in cars with the central perforated disc punched out, and one slid them in like you slide in a CD in a car stereo. The first CDs were pretty bad. But as sampling techniques improved, sound quality improved.  Some of the CDs today are fabulous.  Indeed, in 1991, Wilma Cozart Fine – the widow of Robert Fine of Mercury fame – took the set of old magtapes of the Mercury recordings to Philips and persuaded them to use the finest sampling techniques to encode a set of CDs with the same original sound of the LPs. The effects were astonishing.

Sound quality and musical reproduction are subjective. As a lifelong audiophile I do not seek to denigrate anyone who relies on a high street Sanyo for their musical needs because music has to sound good to you. There is no other test. But some of us are cursed with hearing that is a little more acute – if that’s the word – that can recognize the tonal quality, the separation of musical instruments when a recording is played, the “sound stage” – i.e. the effect of actually being to hear different instruments in their spatial locations in the recording room when the performance is played back in a drawing room.  All this will sound like pseud-talk and I can well understand that.  These warped individuals will think nothing of investing thousands of dollars in equipment that can improve the sound quality just that one little bit.

Late at night, with wife and daughter asleep and their doors closed, I remove two LPs from my collection.  I clean them on my VPi Vacuum Record Cleaner.  The system has been on for a couple of hours playing music softly to warm it up. What is it today? “Waltz for Debby”, by the Bill Evans Trio consisting of Bill Evans on the piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, recorded in July 1961on the Riverside label at the Village Vanguard in New York just a few days before Scott LaFaro tragically died in a car crash?  Or will it be “Pieces de Viole” composed by M. Demachy in 1685 and performed by Jordi Savall and recorded on the French audiophile label Astree in 1978?  I pick Bill.  I mount the record on the Linn Sondek turntable.  I switch the Classe Audio pre-amplifier to LP pickup, and release the arm on the LP.  The sound travels through special cables to the phono stage, from there to the pre-amp, and then through a shielded cable to the Classe Audio power amp.  The power amp gives it a powerful boost and sends the signal to the pair of beautiful Bowers and Wilkins 802Ds.  I sit back on the sofa and read the sleeve notes for the hundredth time as the first notes of the piano lead enters my presence.  I am back at the Village Vanguard Club on July 25th 1961. I sip my brandy and lose myself.

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