One of my least favorite classes taken for my first undergraduate degree was MUS 301: Intro to Music Literature in the fall of 1986, but I admit to learning a lot in the course. One of the most interesting parts was when the professor played the same album on the same stereo and with the same speakers, but with different input formats; first vinyl, then newfangled CDs.
The rumors of the era were that CDs had low fidelity, and the digitization process removed the soul from the music. Listening to those albums I came to the conclusion that stringed instruments sounded worse on the CD, but pipe organs sounded much brighter and better. Of course this was before remastering and improvements in CD technology vastly improved sound reproduction. What does that mean? Mostly that I bought the same albums over and over, on vinyl where I wore them out, bought new vinyl, converted a lot to cassettes, bought the CDs, bought the remastered CDs, and then put all that music on flash drives to play in the car. I skipped the 8-track phase. (Honestly. The timing was all wrong.)
The problem with the process described is that not all music has made the transition to CD. No, really. Some great music has never been released as CD. My side project for the weekend is a good example. Johnny Rivers is the greatest American rock star to be largely forgotten. Rivers had nine top ten songs among his seventeen top forty hits. A lot of those hits came from his six live albums recorded at the Whisky à GoGo night club. The hits are collected on compilation albums, but the rest of the albums that created the go-go sound, have been unavailable. They are landmarks of rockabilly, but still strangely undermerchandised. Since the last time I ranted over their lack, the first two live albums have finally been released on CD, the next three albums still haven’t been released. (Further research shows that two more are digitized in an import version.)
As I type I can see the Johnny Rivers albums in vinyl on one of my bookcases between the Howling Wolf CD boxed set, and the Billy Joel rarities on vinyl. If I could buy a digital version of the vinyl, I would, even though I believe a court ruling says I have the right to make a copy from an obsolete medium. Instead I’m listening to the songs from Meanwhile Back at the Whisky à GoGo as posted on YouTube to help decide if it’s worth borrowing a turntable to digitize my albums. And I am stunned by the differences in speeds of the various turntables. I had completely forgotten what a difference it could make.
I played a lot of albums at least 10% faster than their intended speed. In fact, my first air guitar solo was performed to Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” the day the Glass Houses album was released. I played that vinyl at least 15% faster than recorded, and it rocked.
Listening to YouTubes of vinyl I can see that posters played the songs at many different speeds from 20% slower to 20% faster than the official versions. I forgot that we used to have that control, and that expression of individual taste. It’s not that I can’t figure out how to get the same effect with software. It’s that it used to be built into the system. It was once assumed that we would want to play with what we were hearing in that way.
I believe I’m living in the best world I’ve ever lived in; one so wonderful I can muse over this small loss. Even so, it’s nice to know there are still improvements to be made. Tinkering with playing speed, and greater availability of classic music are on the list for the future.