St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

See If I Care: Audiophiles Through the Ages

Some die-hards still insist that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or worse yet, MP3s). Maybe they do sound better. I don’t care. I love vinyl, but outside the dust and scratches I can’t hear the difference. The fact of the matter is that audiophiles, who insist on the absolute best quality sound, aren’t happy unless they have something to complain about. And don’t get me wrong, that’s lovable as all get-out. But what it means is you can safely ignore everything your local audiophile has to say about everything. “CDs are better than MP3s. Vinyl is better than digital. Vacuum tubes are better than transistors.” Heck, next you’re going to tell me unamplified recordings were better than recordings made with a microphone!

A Victor acoustic recording session, 1925.

A Victor acoustic recording session, 1925.

Aaaaand there it is. Would you believe that in the mid 1920s the fashionable argument was over “acoustical” vs. “electrical” recordings? That is, recording straight to disk vs. recording through an amplifier. Modern readers may be scratching their heads at this point. It’s hard to even imagine music production without a microphone, but it happened. Before electrical amplification they used to stand the musicians around a big pickup horn into which they tooted, banged and honked as loud as they could. The pickup transmitted the sound to the cutting stylus, which cut the vibrations into the master disk. The entire process was acoustic — there was no electrical amplification at all. As you can imagine, the system was not without its problems: “Some instruments failed to register altogether, and few notes were recorded with their proper value. The result was a reproduction in which the imagination of the listener had to fashion a great deal, and his ear had to contend with many unmusical sounds.”1 If you ever see a photo of an acoustical recording session, you’ll see a bunch of musicians fanned out around the room while the singer screams into the pickup. If you want to hear the distant sound of the instruments and the stress on the singer you can listen to an old cylinder recording like “I Remember You” by Ada Jones (1906). The poor woman is singing so hard she’s about to rip out a lung.

A Stroh violin being played (from the pages of Strand Magazine).

A Stroh violin being played (from the pages of Strand Magazine).

The violin suffered worst of all the instruments. Violins produced such a diffuse sound that they got lost in the recording session hubbub. They invented a whole new kind of violin just to direct its sound into the pickup horn. Yes indeed, it’s the glorious Stroh violin, a violin with a gigantic bloody horn strapped to the side. Bizarre as they look, they are fantastically clever instruments and are a very elegant solution to the problem. Instead of resonating its sound through a hollow body and then allowing it to deliquesce throughout the room, the Stroh violin pipes its sound through the highly directional horn (actually through the exact same process as recording onto a disk, only in reverse). Look carefully at the recording session photo above — at the bottom right you’ll see one of these Stroh violinists directing his instrument towards the pickup horn.

But all this necessity-mothered invention was about to change. The invention of the microphone and electrical amplification heralded the start of modern recording and, of course, complaints from the purists. Audiophiles insisted that electrical amplification was sullying the original sounds. “I have observed with keen interest the recent out-break in hostilities between the passionate advocates of ‘historical’ and ‘contemporaneous’ recordings—the reactionaries and the forward-lookers of phonography … If it were not for the microphone and amplifying circuits the phonograph today would be more extinct than Serpent, the Russian Bassoon, or the Lute.”2 The war was short-lived. Everyone loved the new system because electrical amplification captured sound far more accurately. All the instruments could be mic’d and mixed as appropriate. Did that satisfy the audiophiles? Hell no, not until transistor amps began to replace the old vacuum tubes, and then they had something all new to get upset about.

Where will it end? The reactionaries can always fall back on a bottomless well of nostalgia — it’ll never be as good as it was back in the old days. Why, in the really good old days they used to go see music in real life! They didn’t used to fiddle around with records and phonographs! You might think such an attitude is pushing credibility, but I promise people really did used to think that way. When records became popular many people disdained any kind of recording at all. Record-listeners got called “phono-cranks”3 — dunces so uneducated that they couldn’t tell how awful their “canned music” was when compared to the real thing. “For, in the minds of both music-lovers and the congenitally unæsthetic, the bare mention of the phonograph still calls forth notions of the ludicrous and futile … there is something absurd in an apparently healthy and sagacious fellow’s becoming the slave of a machine and learning his music by way of a steel contraption and a lot of black waxen platters.”4

Audiophiles will never happy, and that’s why we love and ignore them. But why end on the pessimism of nostalgia? Don’t strive to emulate the reactionaries. Take a lead from the forward-lookers of the 1930s who anticipated the future of recording technology with optimism and remarkable foresight: “Television is now accepted as one of the problems bound to be successfully solved within the next few years … The fact is, that as soon as television reaches a practical commercial stage, it will be possible to record sight and sound on the same record!”5 That’s all well and good, but will television be as good as live theater? I think NOT.

Notes

Bibliography

  • August, Garry Joel. “In Defense of Canned Music”. The Musical Quarterly 17.1 (January 1931): 138-149. Print.
  • Crosby, L. “A Phonographic High Water Mark”. The Phonograph Monthly Review 5.1 (October 1930): 17. Print.
  • Donovan, D. “The Stroh Violin”. The Strand Magazine 23 (1902): 89-91. Print.
  • Victor Dealers to Give Programs”. The Telegraph-Herald 20 October 1926: 12. Print.
  • Welch, W. L.“The New vs. the Old”. The Phonograph Monthly Review 5.1 (October 1930): 16. Print.


  1. Victor Dealers”. 

  2. Crosby. 

  3. A play on the hand-crank used to wind early Victrolas. 

  4. August, 138-9. 

  5. Welch. 

Certainly never send me any email here: gerald@fuzzjunket.com.