Wednesday, 3 April 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.

18 comments:

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Ramesh - thanks for posting this on your blog and for your generous comments. Your bias obviously shows. But this does not belong here - my apologies to your readers who may be logging in to read something pithy and insightful from you and instead find a diarrhoea of trivia from one of your strangers. My advice is to take it down.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - The first piece of pure unadulterated twaddle from you ever since you started commenting here. I shall do no such thing :)

Deepa said...

It's an honour to be able to relish a piece so beautifully written. I feel like a block of my heart cut out and transformed into words. We'ed seen our dad a million times caressing his records, placing them on the player and going into his zone with the static as soon as he placed the needle on them. For eons we were NOT allowed to touch it, until the bug got into us and he could no longer hold us back from playing our favorites from his collection. The sound quality simply transported you to the Jagjit & Chitra Singh concert at the Royal Albert Hall or the Carpenters studio recording of 'Top of the world'.

Aah! You just made me miss home.

Asha said...

Beautiful piece of informative writing! Even listening to music is an art. Glad you shared it with us.Like your writings, this piece too requires a wider audience.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Thanks for letting us be part of your very personal LP listening ritual. I had goosebumps when the piano began....
- Sanyo listening J

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Deepa: Thanks for the comment. These patriarchal practices perpetuate. What do you think happens at chez moi?

@Asha: thanks for the generous comment. Glad you liked this, though I still believe this post got in here only because of guanxi and nothing else.

@Anonymous: Thanks. Lots of audiophiles are snobbish but thankfully that's one afflication I dont have.

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, that is some serious commitment to music and the technology. cool!

As I read your sentences on the "sound stage" effect, i was reminded of an essay in the New Yorker about 3D music, and the research into it. Unfortunately, it is subscriber only:
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/28/130128fa_fact_gopnik

Happy listenin' everybody ;)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Sriram - thanks. I wanted to add another $0.02 worth of "geekery" while I am about it.

CDs are supposed to be inferior to LPs because LPs have "pure analogue" sound, whereas CDs are made by digitally analysing the sound signal and converting it to a set of 1s and 0s.

The human ear can receive a sound signal of upto 20,000 Hertz (or 20,000 cycles per second). The entire CD industry essentially rests on something called the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem - named after two mathematicians in Bell Labs. Shorn of its mathematical formulation, in effect it says that to accurately represent a piece of sound that varies from 20Hz to 20,000Hz, the minimum sampling frequency at which the sound has to be converted to a digital signal is 40,000 per second.

When Philips co-invented the CD in 1980 they codified the standard for recording and playing back CDs in a document popularly known to audio-geeks as the Red Book. Guess what. The Red Book specifies that the minimum sampling frequency has to be 44.1 kilocycles per second (the extra sampling being added to prevent something called aliasing).

The fact is that this sampling frequency will adequately convert an analogue signal into its digital equivalent. Where the quality factor comes in is where engineers start compressing the signal (to fit more songs into a CD) or changing the signal (to make the song sound better on a crappy car stereo playing an FM channel).

So - a CD can accurately reproduce the sound provided the engineers dont change the recorded sound. Which is why the Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo CD versions that came out in 1991 were so ground-breaking because the sound was not tampered with at all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ramesh and Ravi for the beautiful trip down the history of recorded music and explaining the nuances. Consider myself somewhat of an audio geek, born after the advent of tapes. Have seen lps that belonged to an aunt but never had a chance to listen to them.

I am a big fan of Amy Winehouse's Back to Black too. However it came out in 2006. And Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27 - yet another addition to the 27 club (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/27_Club)

gils said...

wow...etho thesis paper padichaa maathri irukku!!

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

Anonymous - thanks, and thanks for the corrections. Put it down to time compression due to advanced age.

gils: - ellam vetti velai machi.

The Million Miler said...

Wow, what a post. I've always felt that the LP quality was superior to the CD/Digital format. Thanks for introducing the science behind this hunch. (Mech engineers like me can only touch and see things and explain- real abstract stuff like waveforms etc are reserved for the more evolved electrical or the electronics types engineers. My logic on choosing mech engg over electronics - I can see gears, cannot see waveforms!)

Vincy said...

You know Ravi, I am a big fan of Thalai ( our own Ramesh ) and have great regards fo rhim and his blog. So much so,if I debate on an issue, my better half winks at my son and says Your mom gets all this info from Ramesh's blog :-) :-) I am only happy :-) :-)

The point is I have also realised it is not just Ramesh, but even Ramesh commentators / readers of his blog are as intelligent as him.

This is such an insightful piece with so much of relevant information thrown in. Like Gils said this is so much like a reasearch article. Enjoyed reading this.

Ramesh, I liked the intented pun in the title. :-) :-)

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

@Million Miler: Thanks! I must tell you, in full disclosure, that I am a humble BCom. No more no less.

@Vincy: No one matches Ramesh in IQ in my opinion - but I have a few arcane hobbies on which I know a lot. Dont get me started on steam locomotives, for instance! Thanks for your comments.

The Million Miler said...

Wow Ravi, another wavelenght match
Gosh I did'nt realise that I was the only nutter who fantasised about the YPs and WPs and the later day WDMs and WAGs. There is an Indian Locomotives fan club with Co-Co and Bo-Bo and all that fancy stuff. I'm glad to be a member of that club.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

I sense a guest post coming up....:)

J said...

@Ravi: Looking forward to your post on steam locomotives and expect that it will be as brilliant as this one. You've set a high bar for yourself :)

Swamy said...

Recently I had the opportunity to visit Edison Labs in Edison, NJ. Blessed to see the works of Edison and listened to the music through wax cylinder. It was a treat to hear the audio through this medium. The guy who took has through the process of this invention stated that Edison couldn't succeed in this format of recording and finally gave up..

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