“Somewhere around 1950,” Leopold Stokowski once quipped, “recorded sound stopped being a novelty and started sounding like music.”
I was reminded of this the other day, when I received from Netflix the DVD of “A Letter To Three Wives”, which was filmed in 1949 and features Kirk Douglas playing the Brahms B-flat Concerto to friends on an enormous console, probably a Capehart or a Zenith “Cobramatic”. At one point in the movie, he becomes miffed at someone for having broken some shellac, and we see him revealed as an early version of the classic suburban audio peacock, petulant and anxious over any flaws in his equipment.
I sympathize a bit with him, though. In 1949, listeners were just starting out on this journey. Recordings were fragile. Sound usually wasn’t very good. Sixty years further on, we can only now take audio equipment for granted and worry primarily about its portability or convenience. No substitute exists yet for loudspeakers, but scarcely anything else in the digital audio chain would be recognizable to the eyes, nor indeed, the ears of even 30 years ago.
People still serenade each other with recordings, fortunately. They ever will. But the sheer amazement of knowing one can reproduce music at all, like a magician, is probably gone forever, and with it some of the sorcerer’s pride. The central casting audiophile, presiding over Frankenstein-like arrays of controls to give us a few convincing moments of Franz Waxman—has largely receded. The evil scientist is now in the chip, not in the room!
Recently, I replaced the very heart of my sound system, an elaborate but elderly carousel CD/DVD player, with a used Toshiba machine from a thrift shop called “Goodwill: As Is”. I paid $5 for it. It worked to perfection. And in this new decade, why wouldn’t it?
Only a simple part or two actually moves inside the player. A beam of light plays. Mathematical algorithms kick in. Musical tones, reduced to bricks, are effortlessly rebuilt as edifices. Bertrand Russell’s “Logical Atomism”, once judged a failure in epistemology, toils away happily in the auditory realm before our very ears. And undistorted music simply appears. It wasn’t always like that!
One of my earliest childhood memories is of placing a saucepan handle on the edge of a 78rpm record and pretending to play it.. Sometimes, in my imagining, I would impale the record on a pencil and rotate it. I would like to suppose I was no more idiotic than any other three-year-old, though! Before television, and except for the vacuum cleaner, a record player was probably the most elaborate and child-magnetic machine in the house.
One can easily see why. Quite apart from the sounds they produced, 78rpm records rotated quickly and dramatically, black grooves and twirling labels catching the light, and the tone-arm would bounce like a toy truck, lurching from side to side. Turntables in those days were covered in dark pool table felt. Mahogany-edged console dials glowed with amber, or better still, green numbers. And the records, themselves? Before the frisbee? What music-loving child would stay away! Small children could also tear the labels off the records–which they often did. One toddler friend did this to his family’s entire record collection. Fortunately for them, he could recognize the tear patterns and still indicate which record was which.
Some console changers had a strange stacking device in the corner, which would hold a sheaf of discs at a precarious angle, and parents would never let their children touch it, for fear of breakage.. When a record changed, as it would every few minutes, the new one would slap down and slither grittily until it was up to speed. One watched the heavy steel needle descend, wobbling like an unpleasantly decisive insect, and then…seemingly out of a forest fire…something more or less like music would make itself known, full and somewhat chesty, but definitely music. Stokowski was right.
It wasn’t long before I had my own victrola, after some months of monopolizing the Capehart, and I began to listen to Mozart’s Country Dances with Bernard Paumgartner, which I called “bounding rabbits”. A song called “The little White Duck”, with Burl Ives, seemed to win out, though.
The victrola looked like an Oshkosh suitcase. It had one knob and a one-tube amplifier, which always hummed just a little, and a special smell. When the turntable rotated, it made a scraping noise, which no mechanically-inclined family friend ever managed to fix. And, of course, it had a cartridge with a screw at the front to hold in the needles. Sometimes, I would try to play records with slivers of wood or install cactus needles, which were sold in those days to save the music.. More typically, one got about ten hours out of a steel needle, played at about three ounces of pressure! If this was hard on the records, my pre-kindergarten mind took no notice. At least the machine itself was well-nigh indestructible.
Fast forward now to 1961. The stereo LP had already been invented, but in our house we paid no attention. I was sent to boarding school with a victrola just like the old one, except it played 33s, nearly digging holes in them. Despite this, I began to love serious music. Homesickness made me seek out the music my parents listened to, and in the process of hunting for familiar pieces, I learned the unfamiliar ones. A lifelong passion was born.
Serkin’s Beethoven G-major concerto with Ormandy, Rubinstein’s Rachmaninoff 2nd with Reiner, and Kletzki’s Philharmonia Schubert “Unfinished” made a big impression on my thirteen-year-old ears, as did Kubelik’s Chicago Tchaikovsky “Pathetique”, Beethoven’s Ninth with Walter,( the one with the blazing sunset on the cover,) and Koussevitsky’s Fifth. Our school record library contained oddities, such as a ten-inch disc of the Mozart “Prague” Symphony by the St. Louis Symphony. I’ve forgotten who its young music director was back then, but it was the best performance of that work I’ve ever heard. All these were monaural recordings.
I came only slowly to the idea of high fidelity sound, itself. That notion crept up on me through the music magazines of the day and their record reviews. “Hi-FI Stereo News” (later “Stereo Review”) and “High Fidelity” were the two great monthlies, and their editors’ comments about equipment began to educate. And to tempt! The education was much needed. I nearly wrote Columbia Masterworks a letter accusing them of fraud, before I realized Bruno Walter had omitted the Scherzo repeat in Beethoven’s Ninth on purpose!
In those days AR, Inc., maker of the first really good line of “bookshelf” acoustic suspension loudspeakers, had a soundproof showroom on the mezzanine of New York City’s Grand Central Station. It was a brilliant idea. Whole generations of people would pass through its listening room and learn to distinguish among the speakers, while they listened to the latest classical releases. Every minute or two, a light would tell you the music had been switched to a new pair of loudspeakers. Just walking in immediately exposed one to the best soundstage of the day. I recall they used a Garrard turntable with a Shure cartridge and a 35 watt Dynaco Amplifier, at first. In a year or two, it would be AR’s own classic Amplifier and Turntable, both of which I would eventually come to own.
Something came alive for me with stereo recording in that listening room. It was the notion that you could convincingly record the space in which music was presented–not well enough then or perhaps even now to fool one’s perceptions–but well enough to pay a satisfying virtual visit. I couldn’t really afford the components in the AR Music Room, even though they were modestly priced for their quality, but I did manage to pull enough summer money together to opt for a budget system from Lafayette Radio. It was a sensible move, and the following year my best school friend followed suit.
Lafayette, along with Heathkit, was at the forefront of the DIY sound movement in those days. You could purchase their kits in assembled form. $225 bought me the Empire 108, which was the best cartridge of the day, a turntable so speed-unstable it desperately needed the strobe disc that came with it, a 25 Watt per channel amplifier that hummed explosively unless grounded with a clip that kept shaking itself loose at alarming moments, and two twelve-inch coaxial speakers in enormous mahogany cabinets. The speakers came with almost unlistenable tweeters, but you could turn them almost all the way down and then turn the treble all the way up on your amplifier to compensate. That trick, plus daring to put the world’s best cartridge on an inexpensive tone arm, against all advice, became my sonic calling card. Twenty years later I would still be dining out on the results I’d get from my inexpensive home systems. Simply put, they had sweeter treble. Girls, in particular, liked that.
In our present day, knowing a few basics about stereo components and parting with a few hundred dollars would pretty much guarantee the listener a spectacular sounding result. If only it had been that simple in the 1960s! Recordings, themselves, were as problematic as they were miraculous. In the second part of this memoir, we will see how many a slip there could be twixt mike and disc!
Click here to read Part II.