Summer sounds

CD is certainly taking a long time to die. It's just a little older than I am, and the lifespan of a person is a long time to be using one format these days, though it can be argued that many lived and died during the heyday of the phonograph, which, despite the loud cries of protest this statement is no doubt eliciting from the rafters, is over. Not that the vinyl record is dead, but its heyday is over, and it's people like myself who like obsolete technology who are enamoured with it. Unless you're a hi-fi nut with an SME V tonearm and a Kontrapunt moving-coil cartridge and Whest phonostage. Now they, they're just showing off.

I grew up with CD, but there was enough old tape technology lying around the house for me to unravel, literally, by pulling out bunches of magnetic tape from cassettes to see how much of it there was in there. No matter how much Dolby noise reduction you applied to it, cassette tape technology was absolutely beastly, even when you sprung for exotic type IV chemistry. They snapped. They melted in the heat. They hissed like a feral cat. It's cassette tapes in particular that irk me, with their thin ribbons unspooling and knotting themselves; I love my 1/4 inch open reel recorder, and understand the role of studio master tapes in the production process.

The heyday of CD coincided with the time I was at school, coming of age, and being utterly defined by music. The only thing that mattered more than being cool was being unconventional, so no bestselling pop hits from the main floor for me. In Tower Records, which was where one went to get music, I would haunt the top floors and, in those days before listening stations, take a chance on a band with nice cover art for no other reason than that it was the only copy there. High school couplings, or at least flirtations and possibilities, were predicated on music. We didn't have to have to same taste in music, but we had to have the same taste for music. The same lust for music, for it to become utterly the moment, and take charge of your soul, et cetera. I couldn't imagine dating a guy who didn't have that lust; and I remember a summer afternoon with a McIntosh amp, the meters' needles rising and falling and peaking in a wonderfully graphic metaphor. I remember the amp but not much else.

As I write this I've got a download going in the background, and before any sharp intakes of breath let me hasten to reassure you that it's a legal download. This is supposed to be the future of music delivery; but I fail to be convinced. For all my love of vinyl warmth there's no way it can match the resolution of even a mid-priced CD player, in the same way that much as I love the old-fashioned look that photos taken through the Tessar-based design of the screwmount Elmar 2.8 it's thoroughly trounced by any modern Leica equivalent when it comes to basic image reproduction. I would expect the successor to CD to be an order of magnitude easier to use than CD, the way popping a CD into a tray is so much easier than dropping a needle onto vinyl, and for the realism of the sound to be worlds better than what one gets from CD. The equivalent of resolution (the sonic parallel to resolving power and megapixels) are sample rate and bit depth. CD gives us 44.1 kHz (the analogue signal is sampled 44,100 times a second) and 16 bit (2 to the 16th 'layers' of information per sample). I'm downloading an album that gives me 192 kHz at 24 bits, which is pretty impressive, except it sounds remarkably similar to the sound quality of a CD, despite the fact that it's been downloading continuously since dinnertime. I don't have to do this to myself, of course; there's a CD-quality version available, but whither progress?

The album, in case you're interested, is from Linn records and is Artur Pizzarro and Sir Charles Mackerras performing the 3rd, 4th, and 5th piano concertos by Beethoven. I recently bought the recent box set reissue by Richard Goode, which is not just a great performance but sonically as good a recording as one can get on CD. On the other side of the resolution median, I came back from Harold Moore's Records in Great Marlborough Street with, among others, Toscanini's Beethoven 7. It was only after playing it and not hearing much that I did some internet research and discovered that I had managed to fine one of the 'greatest' recordings of the Seventh (whose authority propels these epithets, I often wonder) but one of the poorest recordings. I have no idea how great it might be because I literally can't hear it, even after scrubbing down the record with the usual cleaning fluids. Pristine Audio, an internet site run by a man who presumably possesses a really good record cleaning machine, has issued their 'cleaned-up' version of this recording, just one of the many historic recordings they offer for download or burned onto a Taiyo Yuden CD-R. I decided not to get the sonically enhanced Toscanini but went for a Sibelius instead that was a mono recording with 'XR Stereo' applied to it. It sounds like a mono recording played back in a big room and then recorded with stereo miking, which might seem at first like a deprecatory description, but it actually sounds okay. Through headphones, it relieves one of the mono deadness that makes it seem like the sound is coming from the middle of one's head; through speakers it doesn't convince you that you're listening to stereo, but you do forget after a while that you're listening to mono. This is great news for the huge back catalogue of mono recordings out there, but at €14 per CD, it makes one think twice about how much classic performances are worth, and what would have been a £1 record exchange shop bargain has to compete with good modern recordings on the mainstream labels.

The summer crawls slowly by, and I try to catch the Proms live on Radio 3 while in the kitchen preparing dinner. If one takes an FM radio to the standing gallery at the top of the Royal Albert Hall, will the transmission from the radio arrive before the live sound? These are the thoughts my mind strays to while promming, which may tell you how much I'm engrossed by the music. I go to the Proms out of desperation every summer to while away the break between concert seasons, and every summer am disappointed by the lack of engagement of the arena setting. So most of my listening has been done camped out in front of the stereo, whether the source is mono LP or high-resolution download; but most of the time it's CD.

Linn Records
Pristine Audio
The Proms

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