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Hi-Fi - Same As It Ever Was?

Our memory might be telling our ears what they want to hear...

 

by Craig Anderton 

 

 

Dear Musician - 

They’re called fanatics—people who listen to their vinyl albums on vintage gear like Macintosh amplifiers, old KLH speakers, and turntables with Stanton cartridges. They swear it sounds better, which of course, can’t be true—right? After all, today’s gear is so much more accurate, whether you’re talking DSP to flatten speaker response, or distortion so low it almost can’t be measured. Granted, there’s appeal to having rare gear, restoring it, and doing the loving maintenance that keeps it humming decades after the companies making the gear went out of business. But maybe those fanatics aren’t so crazy after all, because the naysayers may be overlooking the most important point of all. 

 

Music has a proven relationship to memory (for more information, check out this thread). One of the more interesting experiments involved putting together a playlist of songs that were popular in someone's youth, and seeing patients with Alzheimer's or dementia light up. So it's understandable that people enjoy reliving what was wonderful in their past, and of course, pretty much anything that was ever recorded is accessible via the internet. However, maybe it's not only about the music itself, but the sound that plays with our memory.

 

The music of the past was listened to on the equipment of the past, and was mixed and mastered on speakers and amps designed using the technology of that time. This was brought home to me recently in a very dramatic way, because I was one of the first people to hear the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s. I was gigging in a town near the Capitol Records pressing plant in Pennsylvania, and a fan of our band had smuggled out a copy. With no idea what to expect, suffice it to say I was blown away. I eventually bought the CD, but could never replicate what I heard half a century ago…until I was visiting a friend who had a lovingly restored stereo system from that era. Over that system, it sounded like I remembered it.

 

So if you want to know what the world heard when a classic album like Are You Experienced? was released on an unsuspecting world, it's possible that the only way to truly hear what it was intended to sound like would be to listen on the playback equipment of that time.

 

The speakers of that era didn’t benefit from computer-aided design, or the improvements in cone and magnet materials that have occurred over the years. Ribbon tweeters, although invented back in the 20s, have only become popular recently. Audio transformers and tubes added their own coloration, records were mixed and mastered to take the RIAA curve for vinyl into account, and back in the day, people listened to speakers moving air in an acoustical space rather than over headphones.

 

Yes, it may be crazy to devote your life to listening over painstakingly maintained vintage gear…but it’s crazier to think that the way we listen to music in 2017 is the same way people listened to music half a century ago. And if you want the experience of listening to music in 1967 (and all that implies with respect to music's relationship to memory), then you probably need to listen on equipment made in 1967...that is, until technology perfects the digital emulation of vintage playback systems!

 

 

______________________________________________ 

 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

 

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nice keetee  |  June 06, 2017 at 1:45 am
insightful observations Craig, as usual.
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JazzMastaJim  |  June 05, 2017 at 9:52 pm
The inevitable crackles & pops in even the best vinyl always drove me crazy, and I found the distortion & altered frequency response near the center of the record almost as annoying. I have discs that are half-speed mastered and recorded direct-to-disc and both fall short, in my experience. So, needless to say, I prefer a well-mixed or well-remixed CD to vinyl. However, I completely agree that a good amp driving good speakers beats the daylights out of headphones. There's just something about cranking up the volume and actually feeling the music!
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Chamark  |  June 05, 2017 at 3:43 pm
Good article. Obviously listening to vinyl back in 1967 is different than listening to the same vinyl today even if we still have the same equipment. Hearing changes through the years even for the accomplished ear.  As the Sade song says 'Never as good as the first time'.
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