ohOne of the big changes in the British countryside is that the hedges and shoulders don’t shine like 20 years ago. The sunlight no longer catches the sticks of tape that festooned with thorns and grass, lost memories of another cassette stuck in the car stereo. It would eject, but emerge dragging a thin, slippery loop of ribbon, the end hooking deep into the player’s bowels. A helpful passenger could release it and carefully return the tape to its case, ready to play and play again; more likely they would rip it off the machine and throw it out the window.
Driving today is less distracting, hour after hour as the MP3 player flips through its huge repertoire, and listening at home is also hassle-free, with a laptop and headphones eliminating the need for all those discs, cassettes, CDs, turntables, amplifiers, wires and speakers. So much time occupied, so much space saved; never has music been so available and yet so immaterial. Perhaps it is this immateriality that has sparked a renewed interest in old audio technologies, for recording and listening modes that involve something more tangible than a flow of digital code. Tellingly, this is a revival led by people too young to have used these technologies when they were at the cutting edge, possibly too young to have thrown that cassette out of the car window. It’s that generation that buys vinyl, and it’s musicians of the same generation that make records, experiment with tape recorders, and get enthusiastic about analog sound.
Part of that is of course fashion, an audio equivalent of steampunk or hipster beard growth, but there’s also something bigger going on. The march of progress has taken us from innovation to innovation – mechanical to electrical, 78 to 33⅓, mono to stereo, LP to CD, Walkman to iPod – each new technology overwhelms us with its superiority and the way it has solved problems. recurring audio engineering. – recording fidelity, more signal and less noise during playback, longer listening times. Resistance was futile because the two halves of the recording industry walked hand in hand, phasing out production of older playback equipment as new formats were introduced.
It is only now, when this march seems to have reached some sort of destination – all the music in the world available at all times, usually inexpensively or for free, in crystal-clear recordings – that it is possible to wonder if that’s really where we want to be, or if we’d rather pick up on some points along the way. It is this retrospection that allows us to take pleasure in the peculiarities of old recording formats, to savor the observation that technologies are not transparent, but leave their particular imprint on the experience they convey. Etching, screen printing, and lithography have all been replaced by more efficient printing methods, but visual artists continue to use them; maybe the music has reached that point too.
A process such as engraving, cutting an image from a plate and then printing it affects what can be represented and how we see it. Likewise, recording formats shape the way musicians work and how we listen. Pop songs are short and sharp because in the days of analog recording, a song could not last longer than the time it took for the gramophone needle to pass through the narrow space between the edge of the record. and the manufacturer’s label in the middle. Whether it was a 10-inch shellac record spinning at 78 rpm, or a simple seven-inch spin at 45 rpm, the musical discipline was the same: there was time for variety – introduction, verse, chorus, middle eight, instrumental – but there had to be a beginning, a middle and an end too.
The way the music was recorded was also important. During the first 50 years of the recording age, the cylinder or record made was a copy of a live performance. As the musicians played, the disturbances they created in the air were picked up by a horn, later a microphone, and etched into a groove. But with the advent of magnetic tape, it became possible to combine layers of time, recording different performances side by side on the same length of tape. As tape technology developed in the 1950s and 1960s, the number of tracks multiplied and musicians’ imaginations could wander through a maze of takes, covers, overdubs and patches. With more and more leads available, nothing needed to be thrown away; recording has become a sort of musical hoarding. Unsure of the bass line? Don’t delete it, just cut this track and add another version.
Several options can lead to indecision, otherwise known as remixing. The history of pop music in the 1970s is full of stories of postponed release dates as artists wondered how to create a definitive version of all that accumulated studio time, stacked, track upon track, on the main tape. . In the 1980s, indecision became a marketing strategy: release one mix, then another, then another. In the internet age, indecision was even touted as a kind of shared creativity – don’t decide, just put everything you have online and let fans do the work.
But these are the recording formats that matter most to listeners, and now that the LP is with us again, it’s easy to see why we missed it. There is enough room for one kind of music – a Brahms symphony, Kind of blue – but not too much. There is a necessary rupture which, especially in pop music, imposes a series of useful creative questions: is side 2 a variation of side 1 or does each new side have to offer a new style, a new energy? Above all, analog formats remind us that when recording and listening we don’t need to be passive. In an age when we can wallpaper our lives with a random mix of MP3s, there is something beautifully wanted about choosing to put a record on a turntable. It is a choice that requires more choice. CDs end in silence, but the scratch and click of an LP’s central groove is a haunting call to action: stand up, turn me around, or choose something else. There is also a hint of willful destruction, knowing that each play spins the record one step closer to its ultimate ruin.
My involvement in the recording industry started just as the last LPs were coming off the shelves, so I only made CDs. But a year ago I started making plans for a music LP I wrote for the cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. Since we only had enough music for one side of an LP, I needed to write a new song for the other side and decided that the music should, in a way, be about the LP. ‘recording itself. The result is called replay and begins with the cellist making a series of recordings of himself; as he listens to what he recorded and then tries to play the same music again, the recordings provide audible proof that, despite his best efforts, he cannot recover what he originally played. To make it even clearer, each recording is made with a different technology, and in the version we made for BBC Radio 3 last month we used a Dictaphone, Studer tape recorder, and an Edison wax cylinder phonograph. .
The first two were easy to find. The Studer was the workhorse of BBC radio studios until the digital age, and the dictaphone has been the favorite of experimental musicians for many years; it’s battery-powered, fits in the palm of one hand, and distorts any sound it records. Edison’s machine, on the other hand, is a true antique and came with its own curator, Aleks Kolkowski, who carefully attached a large conical horn to the hand-cranked recorder and warmed a cylinder of wax with a hair dryer to soften the wax. The hair dryer might not have been genuine, but everything else was, and when the recording played it sounded like my music had been transported back in time to the early 1900s.
After the session, I spoke to Kolkowski, a violinist who works mainly in free improvisation, about the appeal of the phonograph. “I saw my colleagues playing with laptops,” he told me, “and I wanted to do something else. In particular, he wanted to make music “influenced by post-1945 electronic music but using pre-electric technology”. He also told me about his most recent project, an installation called The exponential horn: in search of the perfect sound, which will open at the Science Museum on May 20 and has at its heart an “audio dinosaur,” a 27-foot horn speaker.
The horn opens from an initial opening of 4cm² to a mouth of 2.15m² and is a recreation of one of the most popular exhibits at the Science Museum in the 1930s. The original was commissioned in 1929 by Roderick Denman, then Curator of Telecommunications at the Science Museum, and was designed to reproduce the widest range of sound frequencies possible. Once a week, this has been demonstrated with broadcasts from the BBC’s London Regional Service and in the Kolkowski facility, the audio demonstrations will include sound art, new poetry and archival radio footage, with BBC broadcasts and FM resonance as well as new work.
Sound nostalgia? Maybe, but, like me, Kolkowski is interested in how technology affects the recording and listening processes. He is, he says, “very ambivalent about recording” and, because he wants to make “recordings that sound like recordings”, he chooses to work with technologies which obviously impose themselves on what is. recorded and how it is heard. For him, the fascination of the giant loudspeaker of the Science Museum is not only its power and its fidelity, but also its limits; there is, he says, an “incredible sound presence in front of the horn, almost in three dimensions” but as soon as you move away from it “the sound changes radically”.
In 1972, in Ways to see John Berger described how, “for the very first time, fine art images have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, inconsistent, available, worthless, free”. Over the past decade, innovations in recording and distribution have reduced music to a similar state, but it may be that installations such as The exponential horn and the boom in vinyl record sales will restore some of that lost tangibility and substance, music to be valued rather than thrown away.