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Once Upon A Time...
I collected records and nothing but. Audio equipment (or Hi-Fi systems) were for me a means of accessing the music as quickly, conveniently and efficiently as possible. The central tenet of my philosophy is that the music holds the magic and it is the vinyl record which best captures that. I have a particular interest in rare and obscure vinyl records from the early 1960’s through to the early 1970’s and came to audio from my interest in vinyl and the music. I am a record collector who became an audio enthusiast for the love of the music. The earth is round from where I stand.
My interest in audio has a secondary purpose in providing a more faithful auditioning (and 'play grading') platform. It is said that the development of one’s audio system might bring one closer to the magic held deep within the grooves of vinyl records. There is an ideology that the science of audio, in particular certain sound characteristics such as pace, rhythm and timing are the most important aspects of sound reproduction in pursuit of musical nirvana. Whilst this idea may have origins in specific audio products or advances in technology and can offer a view of the world, I am far from a purist but I am open to its application and usefulness. Recognising the contribution ones audio system makes to the sound brings with it the excitement of developing it, anticipation for the outcomes, learning from the mistakes and fun. To remain faithful in one’s pursuit of audio kama, whilst navigating the mythology of audio is no easy task. I have embraced the myth, borrowing what I need from the fountain of knowledge which springs from the creases of the earth in pursuit of what I believe is right for me.
I have been interested in and collecting rare vinyl since my youth; the motivations and desires of the record collector are as personal (and subjective) a journey as they are for any enthusiast. I have lurched from a liking for the eye candy of record covers and the tactile nature of vinyl; it’s smell, its weight and size, the cover art, the surprise of what awaits one inside a gatefold cover or the discovery of an insert, the strange and curious quips of label descriptions, of the record company marketeering or the comments made by bands. Odd things like catalogue numbers, matrix stampers and the like can be a distraction but nevertheless a curious aspect of the whole. The impossible nature of a fifty year old record which has survived groovy parties and which documents a period in time is something quite indescribable. The vinyl record, as a kind of camera lucida, makes one feel a sense of connection directly with ones past, with the band or period of time. As much as the music itself, the nature in which it comes at you has an effect on one’s psyche. The pursuit of the dream where music transports one to another place, to the multi faceted dimensions of collecting or the development of audio playback all build up a rich tapestry of multi layered perspectives, creating a story which complements the musical journey and therein may deliver one a step closer to the magic.
I was not content with aspects of my early audio systems. Over time my approach to collecting would change too. In my pursuit of the magic I found a growing interest in an idea of a more faithful reproduction of sound and what that meant. There still remained a goal about complimenting my record collecting and being faithful to the sound, rather than a total shift in my thinking toward a more scientific approach to audio. I did however want to develop an informed outlook about the audio system and the sound I wanted. I also find one always needs more music to listen to and more of the time. Hunting down original releases is what I love but they don't come easy and making do with compact discs as a bridging measure had its limitations for me. I retain an avid interest in the rare and original releases of the period and styles I enjoy. In satisfying my insatiable desire for the music in a more pragmatic and open way I also buy vinyl re-issues and new vinyl releases so that I can listen to more records and in a way I find satisfactory. The variety of vinyl releases available does put a great demand on ones audio system!
What is this idea of ‘faithfully reproducing music’? Of course there are many ways to look at the question, the two central pillars of thought belonging to the subjectivists and those of the objectivists; a kind of science versus nature debate. Some say that the live performance is as real as ‘real’ gets, but music which is engineered and produced for effect in the studio is also a reality and were intended to be heard that way. It is no less faithful a sound for that.
I listen to lots of 60’s and 70’s era recordings and many of those sounds don’t shy away from colourful experimentation (reverse tracking, channel phasing, delay, feedback distortion...etc) and this is intended to be heard in a way which often cannot be reproduced in a live performance; it is not a garnish to hide otherwise unsatisfying music. In the studio these compositions are layered and put together into the final production. With such approaches to music, the reproduction one may seek is to get as near to the original sound as possible i.e. as the artist (or by proxy the producer) at that time intended. So, faithfully reproducing that sound might be a worthy goal in audio system development in the same way as faithfully reproducing a live performance track is, if at all possible.
I think this faithfulness is a kind of neutrality, of trying to reproduce exactly what was engineered from the production to cutting lathe and above the colouring or otherwise of a piece of music through playback to create a ‘feel’ which both represents the music but tailors it to personal likes or dislikes. I find myself wondering about the treatment or colouration of music used in the production process and how that creates the sound I might enjoy on a particular record. I remain mindful of how any reproduction of that original sound may be being treated or coloured by the characteristics of my audio system. It is this notion of treatment, the presence of which is either valuable or not or how its contribution is being experienced in the creation of the atmosphere (magic) for the listener which I wish to explore.
Is it important to understand what the result of system specific characteristics are or how those suit a particular record in the experience? For now, I approach the subject from the premise that I wish to minimise the excessive treatment of the original sound, partly because I just think this is an honest starting point and partly because without that I’m working backwards toward the music rather than trying to get closer to the music from the outset.
In some ways understanding ones audio system is like trying to classify, categorise or otherwise genres of music, it does have a language. It makes communication easier if we have a common understanding of where we are coming from when we talk about what we like or don’t like, from saying one likes classical, jazz, blues, rock, psychedelia, garage or beat and so on in the same way as we might when talking about rhythm, pace, timing, or control, depth, image and so on. But even then, these are only a compass bearing for where it is we feel we most like music to be at or come from. These things do not paint the full picture of why we might like a particular piece of music, that is a very personal journey.
As a record collector I do believe there is a magic inherent in some records which we seek out; you don’t have to be enlightened to get it and it is often an elusive thing. An old school mafioso once gave a rather delightful take on obscure record classification which I liked and speaks to me about the nature of many of the records I covet. We might for example categorise some records as ineptly played with no-magic (inept is not necessarily being used to describe technically poor or bad as it may have charm), ineptly played with magic, well played with no magic, well played with magic and so on with no right or wrong way to classify. You can also add other categories relating to the artist(s) and what they bring into it besides the material; normal people making normal music ('normal' being used at peril), normal people making weird music, weird people making weird music, weird people making normal music etc. It went on, but you get the gist. This I found fun and fitting and just like any other prescription of terms, perhaps helpful, perhaps bewildering and highly subjective.
Quite often we try to explain away the magic with the language of audio, such as in the classification or reproduction of sound. However much one goes down that path you can still not escape the inevitable truth that music has something which cannot be explained away by the application of one language alone. Of course it might be possible to isolate each nuance of a composition and say what it is that produces that sound from the instrument to the audio system; such as how it might ‘extend the image’ or ‘tighten the vocal’, 'be uplifting', 'mindblowing' or 'calm'...but the totality of those parts (the experience) is quite different to the sum of its parts. The important question for me was and is about seeking a faithful reproduction of the original music and by virtue getting closer to the magic. The classification of musical styles or the language and framework we use to describe what we experience illustrates that the impact of a piece on the listener and whether it holds magic for them may be down to any number of variables which build up the story and the journey as well as the musical event itself.
In my case the enjoyment of collecting physical vinyl of the period I enjoy or sub mythologies like classification and style are as important in the process of enjoyment as is the reproduction of that sound and how that might be explained. The journey is not of course a perquisite of enjoying music; the enjoyment of music alone can and does stand quite independent of any wider consciousness of its origins, its measure of reproduction and so on.
Reproducing the magic from vinyl for me is about reproducing what the artist intended. However, when I bring together such things as my interest in vinyl and collecting, the impossible nature of the rare record, my perceptions about the style or genre of music I am listening to, my sense of connection with the band or period, my intellectual or emotional reaction to it and how my system delivers that music for it to have an impact, all make for a sort of alchemy that takes place - the real magic.
If I were to deconstruct that alchemic process to a basis of audio technology alone I might risk losing the enjoyment. For me, the language of audio plays an important role in helping to distinguish what affect something might have in its treatment of music and help me to decide whether to avoid or embrace it. It might be helpful to know what might best achieve accuracy or provide a more euphonic experience. But aside practical or functional considerations, the recipe for enjoyment is not necessarily something which can be bottled.
There is a mythology to the audio experience we each try to deconstruct in pursuit of the magic. I feel that many era LPs hold an atmosphere which somehow seems more faithful and natural a way of music being experienced. The electrical and mechanical processes which allowed us to first record and then playback music are of elements, materials and phenomena we are familiar with in nature; they are of the earth. An evolutionary product of this later brought about the digital age and for all of its attraction or convenience it seems to remain unnatural phenomena. I cannot spiritually connect with it in its base form. It is the thing which brought us binary music.
We have nevertheless had to run alongside the technological revolution and of course without it many of us may not have the means to access the music we like. We have learnt and are still learning how our machines effect the music we listen to, but for the most part it is simply listening that is the deciding factor in the end; no matter how incomprehensibly exacting of or contrary to a scientific premise or theory that experience may be. If I can get a sense from other peoples experiences of what produces certain sound characteristics, or how to achieve an accuracy that is neutral and experiment (not losing sight of the bigger picture), then I might have a good chance of faithfully reproducing the music and enjoying the magic.
The old ways of science, the mechanical and electrical engineering of the bygone days with its purpose and origins in the analogue seem for me most likely to reproduce the sound I most desire from era LPs whose atmosphere is of the very same origin. There is no clear or scientific rationale for why I hold faith in the idea that period engineering and design should be more satisfactory or appropriate to my aims. From my own experience no matter how I arrive at my system choices I remain faithful that it is the vinyl record which most satisfies me whilst listening to music. To explore the playing of that vinyl record as best I can and in a way I feel fits is what I aim to do.
My interest in rare vinyl is nostalgic and a reflection of my interest in our musical heritage as much as it is in a belief that certain period records are more magical for me. It is perhaps fitting that my natural inclination lies in ‘vintage’ audio design and equipment. It is not unreasonable to think of the iconic symbolism of period design throughout the 20th century and how naturally a desire to match period pieces feels right for me. There seems to be an integrity in putting together period LPs and a turntable or system of an engineering pedigree from the same period or era. Perhaps there is a loosely defined idea that a duality exists between period music and our vintage audio heritage; a symbiosis.
Fitting period with period seems harmonizing. Perhaps choosing more radical (progressive) approaches to audio will come, but for now I see any other ways as tracing a movement and not yielding in a way which is complimentary to my interests. When I built my audio system I wanted to explore vintage audio equipment of the same period or era of the music I enjoyed. I preferred the design aesthetic of vintage audio and despite the huge technological developments of modern times, I also believed in British audio of the past with its pedigree in our great broadcasting heritage, innovation and engineering grandeur. Coupled with my personal design tastes, the beautiful nature of vintage audio circa 1950’s through to 1970’s was a double whammy. There was no real science in my audio design, just a yearning for something which seemed to fit a notion or belief I held about the nature of my interests.
Please feel free to visit my website for lots more rare and original obscure vinyl pressings. I am a very friendly collector and will happily help with any questions you may have, so please don't hesitate to contact me if you want more information.