Sunday, August 14, 2016

It’s the song, not the medium!

This summer, I’ve been following the hot debate of which is better, analog or digital. There have been long, sometimes heated discussion over which is better. I would like to propose that neither is better, they are only different. To me, it is the content! I’ve heard songs that I would not buy on either and songs that I love even though they are poorly recorded.

A perfect example of the latter is the Moody Blues song “Go Now”, the Merseybeat/R&B Fusion song that hit the charts in 64. The “B” side in the US was “Lose Your Money” and “It’s Easy Child” in the UK. There is so much distortion in “Go Now” that I swear the record wears down the needle instead of the other way round. Neither of the B side tunes are that distorted but they are not far from it. Distorted or not, this is one of my favorite tunes. In fact, a friend put me onto the fact that someone has processed “Go Now” to digitally eliminate the distortion. But I must admit that it doesn’t have the same feel as the original version. I must be addicted to the fuzz!

Another example is “96 Tears” by Question Mark and the Mysterians. The hole in the middle of the single we had at WCOS was slightly off center causing the song to warble slightly as we played it. Even the replacement that was substituted when there was too much Q-burn on the original 45 has the same offset hole. When I heard the song on other stations such as WTMA in Charleston or WPDQ and WAPE in Jacksonville, it just didn’t sound the same. I missed that 45 rpm warble that gave it a Hammond Organ sound created by their Leslie Rotating Speaker cabinets. Needless to say the digital copy I know own is the more technically perfect recording, but it is just not the same.

I mentioned Q-burn a while ago. Q-burn is that second or two of scratchy sound at the beginning of all the records that have been in rotation for more than a week or so. It comes from the practice of cueing up a record in order to play it. The DJ would place the needle on the outer edge of the record, rotate the record forward by hand until he or she could hear the first notes, then back it up until just before the first note. When it became time to play the record, the DJ would hold the record on the edge and turn on the turntable which would come up to speed under the stationary record. Then, the DJ would release the record and the music would start at the right time. All of this caused Q-burn. Even to this day, certain songs don’t sound quite right without Q-burn.

Let’s take a couple of songs that were released by artists in the vinyl era and covered using the same musical arrangements by artists later when recording techniques had “improved.” My first example is “Rockin’ Robin”– Bobby Day (1958 Vinyl 45) and Michael Jackson (1972 Vinyl 33 1/3). Even on a freshly minted 45, Bobby Day’s version had audible clicks and noises. Michael’s version was a cleaner recording, but my ears still liked Bobby’s version with his more mature voice better. Another example is “I Want Candy!” The original version was done by The Strangeloves, a pseudonym for the writers; Bert Berns, Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer in 1965. It has a much warmer sound on the bottom end than Bow Wow Wow’s 1982 cover. Conversely, the or high notes in Anabella Lwin’s voice on the later release are cleaner.

The high end, ahhh the holy grail of the digital audiophile; it is the forte of the digital recording. Vinyl 45s were engineered to start rolling off the higher frequencies around 7,000 hertz, which was the practical limit to the AM transmitter of the day. After all, record sales were driven by radio airplay so the match was a natural one. When 12 inch albums came along that were played more and more on FM stations that had double the audio bandwidth. CD’s and HD radio go even higher yet, up to 20,000 hertz.

Ironically the millennials of today tend not to fill their young ears with high quality digital recordings. Most of them rely on lower quality MP3 recordings downloaded from the internet directly from artists’ sites that tend to have the same quality as those 45 RPM records of my youth. Hence my argument that it is the song not the media that makes the grade.

Besides, I can no longer hear music at much over 10,000 hertz. I used to pride myself on being able to walk into at TV station’s master control room and tell if all the monitors were working without looking at then by listening to the 18,000 hertz whine of their high voltage supplies. I guess it is all those hours playing rock and roll on the radio with headphones on, but it is true, my hearing is not what it was back in the days of AM radio. To me, AM radio, 45 RPM records and MP3 files all sound the same, except for the warm bass of the analog sources. And that’s all right with me. After all, it’s the song, not the medium. Oh MY!

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