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The shock of the old

The shock of the old

If you love music and the sound it makes, you need to play that music on good equipment. This becomes all the more important as you explore the wider repertoire of classical and jazz, with all the diversity of sounds and textures to explore. Good equipment can express the scale, dynamism, and sheer variety of timbres and tones available, making musical exploration all the more exciting and rewarding in the process. Good audio is important to get the best out of all kinds of music, but the significance of the audio equipment is often best realised when playing orchestral or jazz pieces: the old ‘absolute sound’ maxim holds as true today as it ever did, and unamplified instruments playing in a natural acoustic still represent a gold standard of sound, both in terms of recording and replay are the toughest arbiter of performance one can use.

However, in recent years, we seem to have moved in lock-step with the pace of technologies outside of the audio world. We now consider products – and even recordings – in mobile phone time. In other words, “either it’s brand new, or it’s not worth touching.” This is, frankly, ridiculous. Audio is a mature branch of consumer electronics (indeed, when the term ‘consumer electronics’ was first coined, it was synonymous with domestic audio). Although there are improvements and developments in audio components down the years, radical revolutions in performance are mostly in the past, and – with a few notable exceptions – cutting-edge equipment of a quarter of a century or more ago still represents a pinnacle of performance that is hard to improve upon. Things change, of course (the best CD player of 1991 isn’t going to be able to replay DSD or 24/192 digital files, and improvements in materials science have seen significant improvements to loudspeaker technology across the board) and things also wear out (if you haven’t retubed your Audio Research SP11 since you first bought it in the 1980s, you are in for a treat when you finally get around to it), but what was ‘good’ back in the day is still ‘good’ now.

What’s happened in the intervening years is an increase in the bandwidth of ‘good’. Inexpensive equipment made today is significantly better made and better sounding than its low-cost counterparts of a generation ago, and the super-high-end audio equipment adds greater headroom for those seeking the best of the best without cost considerations. In short, audio manufacturers have added a ‘better’ and ‘best’ to the equation, and made ‘good’ more affordable.

The fact remains, however, that the good of 10, 20, even 50 years ago is still very good. Some needs TLC to bring it back to full working order, in the same way a classic car needs periodic restoration. But somewhere in the move from Boomers to Millennials, the idea that classic components can sound ‘good’ and not just ‘sound like classics’ seems to have been lost to all bar a few hipsters.


The same seems to have happened with music, and recording techniques. I’ve been working through the back catalogue of Decca’s finest moments on a series of double-disc and box sets recently. Some of the best of these moments come from the late 1950s, from a time when studio engineers wore white coats and were experimenting with stereo sound as a new venture. Rather than multi-miking a venue, creating a too close sound of instruments where every valve press, finger squeak, or key stroke is heard with absolute clarity, these recordings often used a spaced pair of microphones with a single ambience microphone laid out in Decca’s distinctive ‘tree’ pattern, high up in a concert hall with natural ambience.

Many of these recordings represent the best in orchestra, conductor, and tonmeister working in true harmony. They are to the classical world what Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited are to jazz and rock. And yet, they often lie forgotten and ignored, and more current recordings (often featuring a young blonde musician in a little black dress on the cover) are preferred.

Music needs not to be played only in retrospect. Just because Ruggiero Ricci essentially ‘owned’ the music of Pablo de Sarasate in the 1950s doesn’t mean that no one else will ever match these remarkable recordings. And just because Julia Fischer is quite easy on the eye doesn’t make her recordings made in 2014 of the same any less powerful (Fischer’s mastery of both violin and piano makes her something of a force to be reckoned with, in fact). I find both versions are worth owning, because both have equal – yet different – merit.

I don’t like the ‘what have you done for me lately’ take on audio or music. I used the same system without significant change for more than 15 years, and have only recently explored ‘refreshing’ the equipment to keep up with the streaming world. And my music is a mix of the old, and the new. We need both, otherwise music descends into the shallow popularity contests seen every year on TV shows like The X Factor.

And that’s just terrible!


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