For the Record

When you have to get up from the dinner table every 15 minutes it’s either because you’re reaching an age where your bladder can no longer be trusted or because you own a record player. I remember the amazement of the first CD player; the quality of the sound and more than anything, the fact that you could listen to an entire act of an opera or a whole symphony without having to turn the record. What a breakthrough! So why am I back at the turntable, dusting the shellac?

Of course the shellac went the way of the dinosaurs after the war, to be replaced by the much less brittle, but hugely more static vinyl. That’s when we started to need covers for our players, to prevent large dust balls forming at the needle and the stylus skipping lightly over the whole surface, leaving an indelible impression that could be heard at every subsequent playing. But back to shellac for a while, just because it had such a huge impact on music. A 78rpm (that’s rounds per minute, the first standard speed for records) was commonly 10″ and could record only 3 minutes of sound. The 12″ pushed it to just 5 minutes and there was the limit. Which is why every pop song to this day is still roughly 3 and a half minutes long. Even though we have been free of this restriction for over half a century, we still stick to the 3 minute song.

There is a certain nostalgia to the turntable and all its paraphernalia, which probably is why it has not completely died out. In fact it is seeing a bit of a resurgence, especially in Japan, where the waiter is likely to run off in the middle of your order, because he has to turn the record over. Talking of turning the record, we have a Bill Evans boxed set of 4 records and I swear the whole box could have fit on one record! There can’t be more than 4 minutes of recording on each side, because I’ve hardly sat down when I need to get up again.

There is something comforting about the sound of vinyl. Its very shortcomings recommend it. Like the irreplaceable compressed sound of the radio, it speaks of old times when life was easier. Or maybe life wasn’t really easier and we were just younger and more energetic. But banished be the maudlin thoughts! A kind friend has gifted me a wonderful record of the Supremes being just that. I dug up this old video of them. Of course if you released such a thing nowadays, there wouldn’t be a dry seat in the house.

How times and tastes have changed!

I’ll let you in on a little secret when it comes to sound equipment we are very much Second Hand Roses (see musical note). Eddie bought the amplifier, but all the other equipment has been given us by our friend Jin. When he feels the need to upgrade his audiophillic bits, we get the pre-loved ones. He is so particular about his stuff that even after more than 5 years of use, he sends us the equipment in its original box, complete with the plastic wrap each piece came in. It’s quite incredible and also incredibly generous of him, because I’m sure it could be sold for a fair penny. So there we are enjoying the spoils.

Before I wrap this rambling up, here’s the…

Musical Note:

Second Hand Rose, in case you are younger than us and that is increasingly the case, was a song made famous by Fanny Brice ( in Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, which I wasn’t around to see. and famously reprised by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, which I was.

A bit of History

The very first recordings were of course not made on a disc at all, but on a cylinder, a silly idea, if ever there was one. But then hindsight makes great inventors of us all. Thomas Edison is the man normally credited with the invention of recorded sound, but as is so often the case it was more of an evolution. In 1860, one epically named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded the first sound ever. And here, for your edification is that recording. It was actually supposed to just record and not play back, which seems pointless. It’s hardly Maria Callas, but it’s the kind of thing we techno geeks find interesting.

Then in 1877 came Edison with his “Mary had a little lamb” recording and the rest is history. The recording below is a recreation Edison did in 1927, as he had recorded over the original and not kept the cylinder. Either he was not a particularly sentimental man, or he was oblivious to the monumentous moment he had created.

The first phonographs could record, as well as replay. But they replayed only about a dozen times before the cylinder was worn out and had to be shaved bald for new recordings.

The original idea was of course to preserve moments of historic significance like, say Queen Mary addressing her peoples. But the peoples soon found they’d rather dance than be addressed and the sales of the new sound Jazz swept the world, Enrico Caruso became the first world famous tenor, thanks to his using every free minute to scream into another trumpet.

In 1887 Emil Berliner patented the gramophone and flat record and founded various record companies, Deutsche Grammophon among others. The flat disk could be reproduced much more easily and our friend Caruso could stop recording endlessly onto individual cylinders. Various improvements came along, but the one that really mattered was a long way off. I’m not talking about the CD, but about electric recording. The difference in quality between a record and a CD is nothing compared to the huge jump between acoustic and electric recordings.

While I was working in the music industry, I was given a commemorative centenary boxed set of historical recordings by EMI, formerly known as “His Master’s Voice” and on it is the same piece of music recorded a year apart, once acoustically and once electronically and the difference bowls you over! Suddenly there are nuances, there is soft sound and all the instruments can be heard individually and not as an indistinct sound soup. It’s quite stunning. Unfortunately I can’t find the acoustic recording of the Danse Macabre, so you’ll have to make do with Caruso in 1902 and Stokowski in 1925.

By the way, the name of the dog who posed for “His Master’s Voice” was Nipper. I am font of utterly useless knowledge.

Here’s Nipper listening to his master’s voice.

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