Monday, February 07, 2005
Snap, Crackle, and Pop
Stately Dave Manor: that snap, crackle, and pop. What's with that
Well, that's easy: it's the sound of the vintage recordings I often play on my sound system. Part of my setup is very high-tech--the XMMS media player running under the Fedora Core 2 Linux distribution, playing MP3 and OGG format audio files--but much of the music I enjoy was recorded before 1960. Until magnetic tape recording became common in the late 1940s, pretty much all commercial records were recorded "direct to disk" and pressed onto 78 RPM shellac records. The snap, crackle, and pop comes from the unique qualities of the compounds used to make the records, and the limited fidelity is on account of the relatively primitive recording technology that was used before magnetic tape.
But, don't let the low fidelity and the background noise throw you, because what matters here is the music, and the music that's in the grooves of the best of these old records is very, very fine indeed. Countless performers made their best recordings in the 78 RPM era.
In future posts, I hope to single some of them out for special attention, but for now, I'd like to mention some of the qualities that makes the best vintage recordings so special:
- Many of the records aren't as lo-fi as you might think. In fact, I've heard many records as early as 1925 that sound very fine indeed. High frequencies are usually lacking, but good recordings often have very good bass response.
- The high 78 RPM recording speed causes more of the groove to be dedicated to a portion of the song than was the case with the later 33 1/3 RPM LPs, so within the
limited frequency bandwidth, the potential existed for more accurate reproduction. Although I usually listen to 78s via CD reissues, some of the actual 78 RPMs I've heard give an uncanny sense of presence, a feeling that the performer was present in the room with me.
- Until the advent of magnetic tape, records were made "live in the studio", with overdubs and other trickery being used very rarely. In almost every case, what you hear when you listen to a 78 RPM record is a real-time reproduction of the performance. For instance, when you listen to "Potato Head Blues", you're hearing Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven actually performing together "live" in the same studio.
- In the early days of recorded music, a new kind of propogation of musical artists and styles took place, resulting in a rapid evolution of many musical genres: jazz, blues, pop, country and western, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, etc.. Many pioneers made their best recordings during this era: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, and many more. Although many fine recordings have been made in more recent years, the best of these old records were made by the artists that influenced the later artists, while the given style was still new and fresh.
Having said all that in favor of this old music and old technology, one thing I must say in favor of the new technology is the way I can create playlists of a few or many songs and ask the music player software to play the songs in random order. The result is a custom mix of songs, played one after another, with each new song being a surprise. I find this is especially enjoyable when I create a playlist that mixes songs from many different genres. It's a lot of fun to jump between a pop crooner, a hot jazz band, and a mournful country ballad. To add icing to the cake, I've got a low-power FM transmitter that lets me beam the music to all of the FM radios in my house. The result is I have my own radio station that plays only the music I enjoy. Who could ask for anything more?