Friday, March 2, 2018

The Quadraphonic Reckoning and Open Reel Adventures

Quadraphonic records can be commonly discovered anywhere folks may go looking for used albums - flea markets, used record stores, thrift stores, yard sales. They are everywhere. Popular music titles can sometimes fetch premiums on the used market when it comes to quad LPs. Yet, when it comes to classical titles the opposite is almost always the rule. Can't practically give the darn things away. Reading vintage literature of the era one gets the impression that quadraphonic music was once considered where the cutting edge of music reproduction existed - particularly as the entryway to a bold and exciting world of enhanced enjoyment and discovery especially for the serious music listener. Indeed - so much music was being recorded with quadraphonic reproduction in mind (and from as early a time as the late 1960s) it seems like major companies were preparing a ready supply of master tapes all set for mass production when the opportunity finally arrived. The emergence of stereo sound reproduction followed a similar trajectory in the mid to late 1950s - companies were recording in stereo long before stereo discs were a viable reality in the marketplace.

Unlike stereo, quadraphonic reproduction would be complicated by a variety of competing formats and reproduction issues that would both confuse and frustrate consumers. It wouldn't be hard to get to the point where a typical music consumer would just throw in the proverbial towel and give up on multi-channel music for good. The results often fell short of the promises, at least from the earliest available gear. What is interesting from a classical listener's point of view is how most (if not all?) classical music LPs bought into the SQ matrix format for vinyl LPs. Although many different companies issued classical albums in quad - none that I know of bothered with the competing matrix format - QS. Columbia Masterworks, EMI Angel, Vanguard and all the other smaller companies in the US and abroad like Vox Turnabout and Supraphon stuck with the SQ matrix format. How did this happen? Why did so many companies buy into that particular matrix? Unfortunately, the critical listening reviews would dash the whole enterprise right into the ground - mostly because of how SQ sounded when reproduced in plain stereo. Without getting too technical - it can be obvious to even the casual listener when a recording is processed through the SQ matrix system since the process relies on sending certain elements of the recording into complicated sonic "phase shifts" which can be decoded to rear speaker channels. Complicated? Oh yeah! So complicated that most affordable SQ decoders sucked big time! The most successful decoding units didn't even arrive on the consumer market until the late 1970s and by that time most people decided to give up on quad LPs. (Tape formats fared better since they were ultimately discrete from the get-go. Open reels and 8 tracks never had to suffer with matrix encoding issues.)

What I discovered along my own path of research was how much better the competing matrix format - QS - was when both decoding to quad AND listening in regular stereo. No discernible "phasey" sound in stereo and the quad decoding units were FAR SUPERIOR than the SQ units. (It should be noted that RCA and the WEA group labels - Warners, Elektra and Atlantic - all stuck with the unique 3rd option for vinyl - CD4 / Quadradisc. This format did not require a phase shift and therefore the stereo sound was not impacted. The only labels that issued classical titles in this format were RCA and Elektra Nonesuch and they work wonderfully when decoded through the proper gear.)

All of this is explained in far better detail at other internet sites like the great QuadraphonicQuad forum. The sad reality for classical music is that it generally was not served well by the quad era because of the SQ format's phasey sound quality embedded into the LPs. Audiophiles quickly learned to shun classical quad LPs since the sound was so tampered with it could dramatically impact the intended balance and dynamics of what an orchestra sounded like naturally. Oh well!

Now, for the adventurous listener on a tight budget this whole situation is actually a benefit. Me being the case in point. With so many quad classical LPs available it can be a cheap way to hear different performances of well known pieces. And, if one also happens to be a quadraphonic enthusiast - the experimenting can lead to some interesting conclusions! My own quad adventures have expanded into other popular genres - rock, jazz, etc......yet the ubiquity of classical quad LPs was something that got me ready to listen beyond those realms. With popular titles, part of the quad fun is hearing things in the new mixes that are either buried or totally missing from the normal stereo (or mono) mixes. So, in order to fully appreciate a quad mix - the best thing to do is get familiar with a given piece of music in its mono or stereo form. THEN you will be able to spot stuff in the new surround mixes that should render the music fresh and exciting.

After enough years of listening to mostly the mono and stereo records I finally decided to start breaking into the quad LPs in a serious way. Of course it helps to have the excellent Surround Master decoding unit from Involve Audio to extract that snarly SQ-encoded data (which is, by the way, the most expensive piece of equipment in the whole gear chain but totally worth it). Now, much of this research is being conducted in the living room which I recently designed as the second vintage surround system in the house. This came about mostly because I was unhappy with the limits of the quad amp in the main vintage setup in my study / office space. Just not getting enough juice to the speakers when I had the chance to really crank it up! So I revised the main system with the Kenwood amp powering the KLH 38s in the fronts and the modern-ish Pioneer powering the Dynaco A25s in the rears. Hence the tower of power:
This provides enough juice to make those speakers sing in a way the little Pioneer quad amp couldn't. Note the Marantz CD-4 decoder on top for the playback of those LPs. This new arrangement gave me the opportunity to move the little Pioneer quad amp to the living room...........
The old console stereo cabinet is not functional enough to warrant use of the actual gear inside to be worth the bother, so it provides a nice function as "proper gear table" for now. Although I have a little Technics linear-tracking turntable hooked up, it is the Pioneer Elite DVD player on top (with sacd and DVD-A capabilities) that serves as the signal delivery unit to the Surround Master (via LP to CD-R transfers done in the study / office zone). So, I transfer the quad LPs to CD then bring them into the living room for the listening session. The Pioneer quad amp (with its 20 WPC) powers a smaller set of speakers - EPI M90s in the front and KLH 32s in the rears. In the case of both sets of speakers - they are 2-way jobs with only 8" woofers. Of course I had to do a little improvement with those things. The EPI tweeters were still sounding nice, but the old woofers had had it. Luckily there is a dealer on ebay advertising as the official EPI part source - now called Human Speakers. For just a bit above $100 I got new woofers for the M90s and WOW! Big improvement. I bet they would sound even better with a more powerful amp, but I'm not looking for big volume in this space. The little KLH woofers were fine, but in the case of those speakers the tweeters didn't quite match the EPI crispness. Luckily I decided to try replacing the old capacitors with new ones (that cost all of $10) before thinking about replacing the tweeters. Good move! The re-cap job did the trick and now the KLHs sing as they ought to. The Pioneer SX-646 and the 8" 2-way speakers are a nice match at low-ish volume. Plenty loud enough to hear what's coming off those old classical quad LPs.

So what's been playing? Here are the records I've transferred so far:

Mostly I've been transferring and listening to titles issued by Angel / EMI. And most of the time I am monitoring those transfers on headphones. This has led to an interesting discovery for me. In some instances the phase shifting of the sound can be a little distracting, yet in some cases the music is not at all rendered un-enjoyable even under the close scrutiny of headphone listening. I am sure serious audiophiles would never accept what these records sound like as a "natural" orchestral sound. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the music did sound on the average - listening to quad LP after quad LP night after night this way. The living room sessions have also revealed differences in mixing techniques - some titles are mixed in a more ambient manner. Others - like the Morton Subotnick album - feature a more adventurous surround mix. I remember listening to the Harry Partch quad record a few years ago - the listening environment was immersive in a "room" sound that quite suited the music. I must remember to do a transfer of that as well for increased future spins. Still, I have to admit I wish more classical music had been mixed to the QS format instead of the SQ. Yet, at least the Surround Master manages to reveal the original intentions of those recordings - many of which were done 40+ years ago.

Along with the recent quad adventures, I've been trying to re-connect with some open reel tapes lately. Open reel tape is just about as much of a pain in the rear as quad LP is (and my reel to reel machine is stereo only alas). Yet, it sure is interesting and fun to hear some vintage recordings via the open reel format - like some of those early stereo recordings..........
I was playing this Stokowski conducts Wagner tape today. I realize the controversy surrounding both conductor and composer here, but for me (the average listener) I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this music. I think for me Wagner's music works best when it is disconnected from the larger and more ambitious pieces. As a general Wagner sampler tape - this worked for me. I forgot about the yucky baggage and listened to the music alone which Stokowski seemed to present in a suitable way. Well, I'll never be a Wagner expert, but I was won over by this particular recording.
Inside the tape box I found this neat brochure listing all the available RCA open reel tapes (to that point - I think perhaps 1964 or 1965):
Interesting to note the emphasis on the 4 track tape format. Prior to this development, open reel tapes were originally one-sided 2 track affairs. I have a few of those from RCA (I got really lucky at a thrift store one day) and another from Westminster of the 1812 Overture:
I played this one today too - though on headphones the sound was kinda shrill-sounding (would have been better through the KLH 38s). Maybe there was a philosophy to the mastering of some of these early tapes to make them more forward-sounding than LPs were at the time. I could see the logic in that. Certainly Columbia open reels generally have that mastering quality to them, like this:
As much as I enjoyed the music, the sound was certainly a bit treble-enhanced, or so it seemed to me. Not in a detrimental way, but noticeable. Still, Bruno Walter is one of my favorite conductors of his era.
Pulled out this Haydn symphony tape also. Westminster certainly was doing its best to keep pace with stereo sound developments. I'm glad I get enjoyment from this music - it would be sad to be forced to pay hundreds of dollars for Beatles open reel tapes only to experience negligible sonic improvements in the sound. As much as I like messing around with reel to reel machines I sure as heck can't chase after some of those more expensive titles - not on purpose at least. I've gotten lucky enough to find some cool tapes - plenty to keep me entertained when I get the urge to fire up the old machine (a pretty robust TEAC that must have gotten a decent workout before it found me).

And even with all the quad and reel stuff happening - there's always the standard LP and CD spinning going on - like this Liszt LP by Edith Farnadi:
And this interesting record of orchestral music from the 1976 Olympic Games held in Montreal:
As usual, the material runs the gamut from the earliest stuff to the more recent and experimental (and sometimes kitchy). It's all in good fun. Until next time and with more reflections on the vibrations....KEEP 'EM SPINNING!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Trilogy of the Time-Flow and (another?) Resurrection

My low-budget tribute to Storm Thorgerson! Ha!
This is a trilogy of sorts – snapshots of a reluctant modern-life participant, family-preoccupied humanoid and erstwhile classical music listener. I make no apologies for the stream-of-cheese-whiz philosophy contained herein. It’s everything and nothing to do with classical music, as usual………….

The Technology Challenge:

In a fit of supreme irony, I am finding myself exiled from my usual technologically-dependent downtime by the very technology I have come to depend on! A few weeks ago I had another desktop computer meltdown and after several attempts to revive the hard drive I opted to buy a replacement laptop instead. (Of course I was anticipating the meltdown for awhile and backed up all the important files, thank goodness!) Up ‘til now I would describe myself as a reluctant laptop user – never cared for them. Yet I took the plunge to shift gears for a variety of reasons – not the least of which is seeing the computer towers of yore piling up reflective of the general trend towards obsolescence.  Maybe the laptop will leave a smaller “footprint” ? Yet, when I finally make the decision to compose another (long overdue) entry here – the new laptop goes into hyper “update” mode. For the better part of the evening I’ve been watching this nifty little image on my screen while I sketched out this entry on blank paper:
Fun! You know it’s bad when windows tells you “it’s going to be awhile”. Usually the messages are upbeat and overly optimistic. Pessimism does not bode well coming from Microsoft. So, though I am now typing away – last night this part of the entry began life as handwritten notes. How crude! Well, when the ideas hit after months of NOTHING – time to go medieval. It was not Gregorian Chant that prompted the brain-flow, however. Yesterday I found a nice copy of this well-regarded 2CD set of Bartok’s string quartets:
In fact, I’ve had this sitting in my wish list pile on amazon for the longest time – just never “bit” so it all works out (got mine for only $2 yesterday!). Another reason for the wait was the knowledge that:   A)  I’d gone off Bartok for a while – not ready to wrestle with the challenge of listening to more yet   and   B)  I’d reached the conclusion that string quartet music is not my first choice of listening for “serious” music. The latter reason was reached not without a certain amount of reflection. I mean – in theory I ought to like string quartets if only because of the ensemble arrangement. Four musicians can whip up a lot of interest – in blues, rock, folk – all kinds of music. Yet, when it comes to four string instruments – what comes across often sounds kinda samey, if that makes any sense. Not a lot of diversity in the timbre category. Even piano trio music sounds better to me. One different instrument provides enough of a contrast to get me interested. So, string quartets have been relegated to the B-list for me, alas.

Well, being a determined listener – I snagged this set anyway and, while handwriting the notes to this entry, I listened to Bartok’s string quartet #1. Now this is probably not what experts would suggest to do. Though I will say, there have been other examples of challenging music I’ve cracked the code of via casual initial exposure. Ornette Coleman started out for me like that. Yet, by the time I hit the 3rd movement of Bartok’s 1st string quartet I had to stop writing. That’s when my dedicated listening kicked in (right about the 6 minute mark actually). So my first dip into Bartok’s string quartets was successful and, more importantly, enjoyable. There was a lot of cool stuff going on during that 3rd movement – I need to hear it again soon. Yet, I want to move on to the others – maybe one at a time. Perhaps a good approach.

After Bartok, I decided to troll the CD stacks to see what discs I’d forgotten I’d had – to see if there was anything interesting to check out since I was doing the CD thing that night. I pulled off the shelf a Dorati Living Presence disc of Scheherezade by the Minneapolis Symphony.
  I have to say the sonics were quite enjoyable, though there was a pretty obvious tape splice during the first movement (maybe not so evident when listening through speakers but I had headphones on – oh well). Aside from that I quite liked the reading from Dorati, though the fourth movement was about the fastest I’ve ever heard it played! Not sure I liked that tempo, ultimately – but it was an interesting reading. What also sealed the deal to play that CD was the inclusion of “The Moldau” as a separate featured piece. I really love that music – from Smetana’s  Ma Vlast. I actually have a good CD of that whole work (and a few LPs as well) – the entire deal is worth hearing, really. It had been awhile since I listened to that – so good!

By this point I’d written about three pages of notes to get me rolling on what you are reading now, but I was pretty tired. I scrounged around for another CD and found one of those Naxos historic CDs sourced from 78s – in this case early performances by Erich Kleiber conducting the Berlin State Opera Orchestra with none other than a recording of “The Moldau” from 1928. Cool!
 As I was playing this and the rest of the disc – an early recording of Dvorak’s New World Symphony - I must have fallen asleep and was roused by the final movement. I don’t do that often when it comes to listening to any music, but it isn’t a reaction to classical music necessarily. I have fallen asleep listening to Hawkwind too – go figure! It’s the exception for sure.

The Vinyl Thing:
Shostakovich – Quintet for Piano & Strings. Here’s a good example of what I was saying before – add one extra instrument to a string quartet and I’m IN! The quintet format works well for this piece. Lots of variety – shade and light – here. Although there is a Stravinsky section of this LP, the majority of the listening time is taken up by the Shostakovich piece. As it happens, the pressing quality of the disc is better than average when it comes to the Capitol records imprint “Angel”. So many other quality recordings can be found on Angel / Capitol – yet it takes trial and error to find these. As for Shostakovich, he tends to be in the category of composers I feel the need to set time aside for periodically. I’ve been in possession of a couple of well-regarded symphony cycles on CD for awhile now, yet I haven’t made it through all of those pieces. And there’s so much more beyond the symphonies! Even though he is held up as the pre-eminent example of an artist tortured by crappy totalitarian government, he simultaneously represents the resiliency of the human spirit under such barbaric conditions. He managed to transform the reality of his (quite tortured) life into enduring and uplifting art. And beyond all that it’s just good music! So I can’t help getting all excited when I see the odd Shostakovich record out in the wild – especially one with offbeat compositions like this. Usually turns into one of those “can’t press the money into the seller’s hands fast enough” moments. At least for me.

Speaking of Bartok – earlier in the summer I chanced on a nice Westminster LP of piano works performed by Edith Farnadi. I mainly was attracted to the LP cover because it was so cool, but I was blown away by the music too!
 Farnadi seemed to approach the music with a sense of authority I wasn’t used to hearing. Other Bartok piano records sounded kind of tentative by comparison. So I kept my eyes peeled for more from her and I didn’t have to wait too long……….

Late in the summer I hit on a pretty good vinyl cache of early 50s LPs at a thrift store I’ve been cruising for the past few years. It was one of those moments where – there was so MUCH available I couldn’t think straight. There was no way I could bring it all home – so I went for the most unique-looking records with stuff that might appeal to me. In the record cover department, it is hard to beat the early 50s sleeve designs. Just look at these great album covers:

Musically speaking, there were a lot of piano-based records. Fine by me – and as it turns out a number of LPs by Edith Farnadi. Wow! Of course all of those were part of the “to go” order. And some others I hadn’t seen or heard of before – like this Remington LP:
Aside from the low-budget nature of the release and slightly primitive recording – the performances on this record knocked my socks off. This is the kind of experience that keeps me snapping up the odd Remington LP – as long as it isn’t trashed. And there are some worth money though I have no idea really which ones those are. Someday I might have all that sorted out, but I’m mainly trying to hear more of the music.

As much as I’ve had my imagination stimulated by Sir Edward Elgar over the past few years, I’d have to say I prefer the music of another English composer Vaughan Williams a bit more. I have a handful of LPs of his music and a few new ones have come in the door lately, such as these:

My ears tell me Williams’ approach is a bit more adventurous than Elgar’s. One of these days I ought to undertake a bit more study of his output. The most I know is – I have yet to dislike any of Williams music upon first listen. And before I’m done with English composers, I have to mention two new-to-me LPs of Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” I’ve listened to lately:
The Stokowski reading is enjoyable enough – and the record itself is in beautiful shape! The Boult reading with the BBC Symphony is a whole other matter!
 This record looked to be clean enough, but upon first listening it was clear the signal was cut quite low to the disc since the groove noise tended to drown out the music! So, I sent it through the wood-glue cleaning method in hopes of improvement. Amazingly, much of the noise got sucked away with the glue-peel, yet the murk of the recording remained. Hmmm. Why on earth would a prominent company bother to release such a sketchy sounding product in the first place? Turns out this recording was made by the BBC Symphony during the latter days of WWII in a makeshift shed (out of bomb range). However crude the sound, the performance has stood the test of time with various reissues having seen the light of day. Historic recordings like this blow my mind. What is especially odd is the connection between the “Nipper” logo – “His Master’s Voice” – and the RCA pressing in the US (pictured here).
Technically, this logo has its roots in Britain where it was mainly used for classical albums produced by EMI. In the US, the logo has long been associated with the RCA record label. The whole confusing history is explained clearly enough in this wiki entry:  
To round off this segment, here is some nice footage of the inaugural opening of Abbey Road Studios (then called HMV Studio) in 1931 featuring none other than Sir Edward Elgar conducting his most famous composition. Notice the prominent display of the Nipper logo on the wall:

The Unapologetic Truth:

The simple fact of what motivates my continued toe-dipping into the classical realm goes something like this:  Sometimes classical music is better than silence – sometimes not! Nearly a decade ago I started noticing how comfortable I was getting spending long stretches of my downtime not listening to any of the music I normally would listen to – the great rock, jazz, blues and folk stuff. And, quite literally, I decided to at least take up some of the silence with some OTHER kind of music that I’d never spent much time with before. Since classical was one of the genres I’d not quite gotten a better grasp of, I just dove in. So, the majority of my listening has been perhaps more informal than what most serious listeners would advocate. Yet, it is all in the name of exposure – hearing the darned stuff first! As the past few years have flown by – my dedicated listening time has been impacted by family stuff – mostly good, but certainly time-consuming. I figure it this way – I may not always be sitting attentively in front of the stereo speakers with a notebook in hand to jot down the minute details of every platter I spin, but I am at least playing the records and giving the music a good hearing. I also reckon, this is good groundwork to do in preparation of a (possible) retirement downtime exit-strategy. I am figuring there will not be much room for being bored if I can latch onto the classical thing a bit more because – I will never live long enough to attain fluency in any one direction of this music. And who cares if I don’t? I’m enjoying myself thoroughly – I’m not hurting anybody and the whole exercise is relatively sane in the grand scheme of things. There are far more destructive ways of spending my time for sure. And as I keep advancing in years the notion of living how I want to live –as best possible – is a recurring theme. My desires are relatively small. My enjoyment from listening to this music and having the chance to write about it is a pretty low-budget way to spend my time. To the point where I would openly advocate similar adventures for the like-minded. In an era of intense interactions and blowhard rhetoric – the world of classical music is like a beautiful refuge of sanity amidst the garbage. Of course I consider myself lucky enough to have these moments in the first place. Yet, I also see it as a healthy alternative to the current habit of mind – reacting to every hideous stimulus laid out like one more current-events version of a coke-line for the bad-news addict. Better to sharpen that BS detector from a safe distance – instead of getting sucked up into the malevolent maelstrom of crapola. Music by itself cannot make the world a better place, but it sure can remind us all of what good to stand up for and what bad to take courage against. As I was finalizing this latest entry, I listened to Mahler's Second Symphony - the Resurrection Symphony - for the first time in a LONG time - on HEADPHONES!! Quite amazing music indeed!

For this inspiration – handed down from mind to ear, generation to generation  - I am thankful. Along with your continued interest in my philosophical adventures here. As always – thanks for stopping by and keep those records spinning in the proper direction.