Accurate SoundThursday, October 20, 2011
On Saturday night I anticipate the arrival of my Sunday NY Times. My senses are attuned to hearing the loud thud (or feeling the vibration) that the heavy paper will make when it lands on my front porch.
I will immediately pick it up and race upstairs to bed to read my favourite section (it has gone through some name changes) which is now called Sunday Review.
In last Sunday’s I read a most interesting essay (written in a question and answer format) called Happy Birthday iPod! (its 10th anniversary from its introduction) written by Daniel j. Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University who is the author This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession.
This caught my eye:
Is iPod sound quality better or worse that a basic home stereo system?
Worse. The MP3 standard ruined high fidelity. It’s possible to upload CD quality onto the iPod. But most people opt for the default, lousy quality of MP3 and M4A compression. An entire generation has grown up never knowing high fidelity, never hearing what the artists heard in the studio when they were recording. This is a real shame.
This piece of news, something that did not startle me in the least came in the heels of an obituary published October 17 in the NY Times, Edgar M. Villchur, A Hi-Fi Innovator is Dead at 94.
Villchur (who headed a company called Acoustic Research) invented all kinds of hi-fi stuff like acoustic suspension speakers and most famously the AR-3 speaker and the AR-3A that followed. I owned a pair of these in Mexico in the early 70s. When I moved to Canada I sold them and bought a new pair when I arrived in Vancouver. I had been shocked at the difference in price between buying them in the US and buying them here so I did the very thing I had sworn never to do as we left Mexico and this was to smuggle or deal in the shady. I bought the pair and had them delivered to a friend’s house in Point Roberts, Washington. Then I brought the speakers (one at a time, in two smuggling runs) in the front of my Fiat X1-9. This mid-engine car had two trunks, a largish front one and one behind the engine in the back. This meant that the Canadian border agent had no clue and let me pass twice with my treasured speakers.
The speakers were stolen (I had left the front door unlocked) some 15 years ago when someone just walked in and carted them away with my CD collection. I had the AR-3As replaced (the insurance did so) with some very good JBL studio monitors.
The AR-3As in conjunction with my AR-3A amplifier and AR turntable (both the amplifier and the turntable a beauty in simplicity and reduced knobs) gave me the sound I had always wanted to experience. It is an experience that I still enjoy (as I write this in my living room, my JBLs in the other side of the room are pumping out André Previn & His Pals - Shelley Manne & Red Mitchell – West Side Story) .
My experience with listening to music went from changing needles in my home radio/record player in Buenos Aires in the mid 50s (undecidedly low-fi) to listening to Yma Sumac in a device called a Hi-Fi player in the first furnished rented house we lived in when we arrived in Mexico City in 1954.
By the late 50s I had removed the speaker (and replaced it with a smaller one) from our living room Zenith console TV and placed it in an opening in my modern style closet. I sealed the opening and then covered it with (I remember so well!) with a green towel. The sound was my primitive version of Villchur’s idea that sealing a speaker enclosure increased bass response. My turntable was a Garrard which by not having an adjustable weight device for the tonearm ruined many of my early jazz recordings. But the sound was not bad even though the amplifier was a low watt Mexican amp.
By the early 70s I was a firm believer in the accuracy of sound recordings and I would show anybody who was remotely interested a b+w photo from an AR (Acoustic Research) brochure that showed the Fine Arts String Quartet in a Cambridge, Massachusetts forest playing next to a an AR-3A. People around them, we read, were unable to discern the difference between the live playing and a recording.
At the time I listened to classical recordings in three labels that I really liked. They were Angel, Archiv (mostly baroque music) and Turnabout ( I remember a very good recording of Vivaldi’s Gloria and some lute piece transcriptions of Bach’s violin sonatas). These three record companies stressed the accuracy of the sound. By then I had plunked good money to get a Shure cartridge for my AR turntable. Later on I invested in a Stanton.
The sound in my living room I liked to boast was accurate. I could play the initial bars of Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Tharathustra ( the only version I was able to find in Mexico City was a quadraphonic one!) ( without distorting the very low pedal bass of the organ. But it wasn’t only Strauss. There were many jazz recordings in which I enjoyed the then most fashionable separation of stereo channels. Gerry Mulligan’s sax on the left, Art Farmer’s trumpet on the right, Brubeck on the left, Desmond on the right.
I have not changed my musical tastes much since and I of course do not agree with the concept of surround sound or increasing bass output or much less the idea of “improving” sound.
For me the most memorable sound event of my life happened on January 27, 2006 at the CBC’s Studio 1. It was there that I listened to Mozart all day and in particular to the Borealis Quartet. I was sitting pretty close and yet the sound from each instrument was distinct and had its place in the space my ears said the sound was coming from. This was not surround sound. This was not with an enhanced bass response.
It was accurate, live sound, sound that Edgar M. Villchur would have appreciated. It was a sound that sadly so many people now would find much too flat for their taste.
And this is a real shame.
Live versus recorded
Shostakovich - Stalingrad - Kharkov & Kursk