Click here to read Part I.
Earlier in this backward glance, I tried to revive a feeling of what it might have been like to have a phonograph in one’s life. Looking over it, a reader may sense that the 78rpm record was a fragile blessing at best, while perhaps understanding why even today a child would appreciate it. We left off in the early 1960s, where, one might suppose, the advent of the stereo LP solved everything! By then, I had decent quality electronics, and even the admiration of screech resistant female ears.
This isn’t to say I was always so terribly thrilled with the outcomes, myself. The great curse of the phonograph, of course, was its tracking ability, surface noise and distortion. It was one thing to chisel a groove, another for your needle to follow it. Recordings were quite dynamically limited in those days, but even so, the Empire 108 cartridge simply would not track, even at 3 grams pressure, the first tutti in Klemperer’s Philharmonia Schumann Fourth. It wasn’t until 1963 and the Empire 880, that a cartridge could be expected to follow every groove. I was fairly happy with the bass performance of my Lafayette speakers, though. That year Charles Munch’s famous recording of the Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony on RCA was very much a sonic standard, and I was happy to note I could hear the 32cycle organ pedal tones in the slow movement.
By the mid 1960s, all sorts of solid state improvements were taking place. First there was the Harmon Kardon Citation A preamp. Then the AR Amplifier, which managed to achieve enormous peaks of power from its nominal 25 Watt per channel reserves. Then automatic FM tuning made its appearance. And finally by 1970, there were all sorts of subtle things going on to reduce noise, such as the Dolby system. A 1970 receiver would probably sound as good as any manufactured today, for most purposes. An AR loudspeaker of that era, ditto. Empire’s beautiful brass turntable could even track records upside down, and used to be advertised in a rotating window display. But one clearly impossible problem remained: the records themselves.
Record producers always faced two dilemmas, which tended to compound synergistically. How to make the recordings sound better on inexpensive equipment, and how to make the public feel it was getting its money’s worth. Inexpensive equipment couldn’t track big climaxes with lots of bass, so one solution was to reduce bass content and dynamic range. It was also embarrassing to sell records with only 35 minutes worth of music on them, so there was a tendency to run any music recorded all the way in to the spindle, where tracking distortion was worse. Audiophiles learned to hope for a symphonic “filler” on their symphony recordings, so that the finale could end in undistorted territory! The curse would be a record which put the overture first, because then both the first and last movements (usually the loudest) would be crammed into the center of the disc.
Unfortunately, the rivalry between RCA and Columbia resulted in some very cynical recording practices. I tried to avoid both companies. RCA’s Dynagroove pressings made a mess of what had been a very good recording situation in Boston’s Symphony Hall, and the Munch/Leinsdorf recordings did not sound nearly so good at the time as they do now. At Columbia, an alternative theory emerged that cheap equipment sounded muffled. So, starting with the stereo Bernstein and Walter recordings, they began ratcheting up the midrange until nearly all Columbias were unlistenably steely on proper equipment. A good example of this would be Bruno Walter’s Mahler 9th. The monaural disc, released first, was warm and balanced in sonority–the stereo overbright and unlistenably edgy. The pattern would continue.
Stateside, that left Mercury records. (Epic had been excellent for a while, but it was bought by CBS, who tampered with the sound). Mercury had a very interesting recording philosophy. Two microphones only for stereo. One for mono. In the monaural era, they had made some of the seminal Chicago Symphony recordings, but by the 1960s, most listeners would only get to hear Mercury with the Minneapolis Symphony, as yet without Orchestra Hall’s fine acoustic, and with the Eastman Rochester Orchestra, recorded in the Eastman Theater. The result is that, while Mercuries are famous today for being timbrally accurate, at the time they were mostly notorious for sounding dry. In my recollection this notion is so strong, that when I hear of a Howard Hanson conducted recording, I immediately think “mattress warehouse.”
During these years of my youth, Decca/London records was often thought of as a gold standard in recording. They had invented full frequency spectrum lathe cutting at the end of the war, FFRR, and Decca pressings were famously quiet. I always preferred DGG, however, because they seldom recorded any closer to the spindle of the disc than they had to. You could buy DGG Bruckner recordings, where the scherzo occupied only two inches of the record’s surface, and the rest would be blank. Phillips sometimes did this, too. Britain’s other great company, EMI/Angel Records produced many splendid recordings, acknowledged in remastered form today, but they didn’t seem reliably good to listeners at the time as pressings, until the light blue labels came along, in 1962. The first really good sounding Klemperer recording, for example, was his 1962 Schumann Fourth. And two years later came the famous Bruckner 6th, both with the Philharmonia.
By the mid 1970s, music reproduction seemed to be levelling out at a high level of refinement. LP pressings had become quieter. The new cartridges, like the Shure V15 series, could track anything. Dynamic range was increasing. Stereo Review had explained in an article how you could set up extra speakers for ambience retrieval, and the effect was magical. A nice consensus, one would have thought. I had settled in properly with a phase Linear 400 power amplifier, four AR 3A loudspeakers, an Dual 701 turntable, and a Shure V15IV cartridge. I had even bought a tiny tone-arm and vacuum cleaner for records on London’s Tottenham Court Road. People could no longer hear any end-of side-distortion at all on my system. But there was to be one more format convulsion, before the LP would be replaced by its aluminum CD rival.
Unfortunately, by 1973 CBS and RCA had also noticed how magical surround sound could be, and a new and destructive sonic rivalry ensued. CBS came up with something called SQ, which steered strangely pumping surround signals to your rear speakers. Their recordings at least sounded normal, if you didn’t bother with the SQ decoder.
RCA, however, always had a perfect talent for doing exactly the wrong thing: Studio 8H—the 45rpm record— Dynagroove—and in 1968, recording the Philadelphia Orchestra in one warehouse, while piping in reverb from an outer vestibule—with that track record, one just wanted them to go away! Now RCA invented a weird high frequency surround signal that had to be mathematically reconverted downwards into normal sound by a decoder, like reverse Dolby, only in the process magnifying beyond all reason every pop, click, hiss or scratch mark. RCA released a new disc of Eugene Ormandy conducting the Sibelius Second Symphony. Its dynamics were completely flattened out, and the surround channels were nearly unlistenable. Almost immediately following this and a few other RCA releases, surround sound died a much deserved death. Unlike Francisco Franco, who is “still dead” however, surround has revived nicely in the digital era. There was, after all, nothing wrong with the idea itself.
I suppose no recollection about the phonograph would have much flavor, if we didn’t mention record covers. Over the many decades, owning records was a bit like having a personal art gallery. A phonograph record cover was big enough to affect the feeling in a room. Compact Discs, by contrast, are so small, that displaying the covers identifies the music, but little else. It is one of the trade-offs for convenience.
In a way, that’s why I have written this. Very little now stands between the listener and his music. I am deeply grateful for that. We are already on a magic carpet of sound. Perhaps someday we will experience the concert hall by teleportation. But as surely as I am seasoned and prone to reminisce, I know that something we once thought permanent is permanently gone, and I miss it. I miss the phonograph, the way I miss Swiss watches. In the end, I expect, there is something more romantic about the struggles of a machine than the movements of an electron. The phonograph is dead. Long live Thomas Edison.
Click here to read Part I.