Saturday, January 23, 2010

ETP001 – 7” Single 2006

7” vinyl pressing, double sided, edition of 250, 2006

Cut and pressed by GZ Vinyl, Czech Republic.

Music – Si Schroeder

Artwork Inserts – Isabel Nolan and Jo McGonigal

Pop, Tick, Wow and Echo – The Experience of the 7inch Single

Everything we do that is repeated is attached to a memory. What makes the experience of the new unique is it’s inability to attach itself to a memory. This is what makes it a kind of special experience. This is what we seek when we hear a record for the first time. This is after the experience of memory evoked from the action of putting the record on the turntable. A memory that is both fantastic and banal. Fantastic in that it links us back down the line to the unknown experiences lived vicariously of records buyers from decades past, banal in that it is an action we have performed before and will perform again and again.

This action has as long and fertile history. When Emile Berliner demonstrated the first flat 7inch disc with laterally cut grooves in 1888 he was probably unaware of the revolution that would unfold in popular culture from that point on. The disk, replicated for the first time in a hard rubber vulcanite (later shellac) from a zinc master disk, was played back on a hand-cranked machine. The thin, creaking sound that issued from the horn of that early record player was the accompaniment to one of the defining moment in the history of sound. Berliner’s invention though he was not able to benefit from it, was in response to the then popular cylinder recording device and would go on to become the dominant form of sound reproduction of the 20th Century. He had created a means by which the general populous could own sound, and gave birth to the music industry as we know it today.

One of the main features of this first 7 inch single was that I had been pressed from a “master” disk rather than directly mastered onto the surface of the playback format, which created then a technological distinction between recording and playback devices, thus an industry split into and developing along the two distinct paths. When direct mastering to both cylinder and disk recordings was first developed, the pitches, tones and volume of certain voices and instruments were better suited to the acoustic horn used in recording. One of the finest examples of this was Enrico Caruso – probably the first worldwide, million disk selling recording artist, and certainly the first “star” of the acoustic recording era. His popularity was as much to do with the fact that his voice would reproduce relatively well on the technology of the time as it was to do with his qualities as a live performer. There was none of the production techniques as we know them today applied to the recording, and his experience gives us a good example of how technology grooms the consumer to accept limitations as a phenomenon of its development and of its material qualities. Today vinyl disc reproduction comes with it’s own lexicon of extraneous noises caused by its limitations as a medium that we accept as part of the peculiarities of it as a form, so much so that some artists have exploited as a means of investigating that form. The sampling of vinyl noises, the crackle, hiss and pop of well worn records, is now a common device used to add value, warmth and texture to digital recordings, typically in the hip hop and dance music genres where historical significance and a respectful approach to authenticity play a significant role in the development of that micro-culture, but also amongst electronic artists immersed in the technological, physiological and performative elements of sound design such as Ryoji Ikdea and Christian Marclay. Despite the fact that these days the reproductive quality of early recordings would be unacceptable, except in an anachronistic and historical way, at the time (and indeed even now) it was still a remarkable experience. Across the globe in private chambers and in public venues, thanks to the particular cadences of his voice, Caruso fans would experience the vicarious nature of pre-recorded sound, again and again.

Format Wars

Recent news suggests the so-called format war between the Sony developed Blu-ray HD disc and the HDDVD disc has finally concluded with the victor the Blu-ray format coming out as winner. With Disney, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Columbia and Blockbuster behind the format it seems this is the case. The history of image and sound reproduction is littered with many of these so-called format wars – cylinder versus disk recording, 8 track versus compact cassette, Betamax versus VHS, vinyl versus CD, film versus digital, all with their own technical, commercial and sometimes spiritual champions. With high saturation ensuring global economic dominance, market forces invest huge amounts of time and money ensuring their product wins, consequently it is not always the technically best format that comes out on top of the commercial pile (VHS versus Betamax).

One of the most significant audio format war took place between RCA Victor and Columbia from 1948 to 1950, and came to be know as the “War of the Speeds”. It involved the Columbia developed LP format running at 33 1/3 rpm and the RCA Victor 45 rpm. Both aimed to replace the existing 78rpm format with higher quality reproduction. Besides being a battle of disc size (12 inch versus 7 inch) and record speed, there was also (typical of all format wars) a technical difference in the recording characteristics. RCA Victor was using "New Orthophonic" whereas Columbia was using the LP curve. Ultimately both formats found a niche, one in extended play “Long Players” holding up to 30 minutes of sound per side and one in “singles” holding typically 3 minutes each side. It was the accessibility, affordability and portability of the “single” that contributed to a large extent to it’s adoption by the burgeoning youth market during the boom in consumer culture of the 1950’s and 1960’s, an adoption that ensured its enduring success.

The 3-minute single remained the standard into the 1960s when improved cutting and mastering techniques enabled recording artists to increase the duration of their recordings (The Beatles 1968 single "Hey Jude", which ran for over seven minutes, was also a deliberate challenge to the 3-minute barrier for pop singles). As the spirit of experimentation spread through the decade, many artists began utilizing the peculiarities of the 7inch vinyl format. In 1966 Cork Marcheschi of California group the Ethix (and later of Fifty Foot Hose), issued an experimental single, "Bad Trip", which could be played at any speed, and later in 1981 Canadian musician Nash the Slash took advantage of this speed/tonal effect with his 12-inch disc Decomposing, which featured four instrumental tracks that were engineered to play at any speed – a process echoed in the 2001 Rip-Off Artist’s work “Why do birds sing?” 7 inch EP for Hot Air records that required 16, 33 1/3, 45 and 78 rpm playback (ironically when 16 and 78rpm turntable speeds had been unavailable for decades) and Janek Schaefer’s On/Off EP for the AUDIOH label which has two tracks on one side, both single tone recordings running at 8rpm, one pressed symmetrically to give a continuous “monotonous” tone and the other pressed asymmetrically to produce a wavering sine wave sound as the player arm sways from side to side.

There are too many examples of unusual, creative and artistic approaches to vinyl and tape recording to cite here, a substantial publication would be required to create a compendium of such diverse and curious works. Such a project could go a long way to giving the format it’s rightful place in the history of creative output, a history that would include the curious outputs of labels such as Matt Wand’s Hot Air Medical Milestones 7 inch editions with it’s Styrofoam compositions (Gino Robair), “Unruly Guts” (Stahlgren and Ferguson) and “Recorded Delivery” (Janek Schaefer), Touch label’s seven inch singles including Chris Watson’s Galapagos Island oceanic current recordings, Glen Gould’s cut and paste Canadian broadcast recordings form the 1950s to the 1970s that construct elaborate vignettes between disparate individuals through tape manipulation and Arthur Lipsett’s engaging sampladelic film soundtracks from the 1960’s amongst many others.

Blues in space and the search for difference

Since it’s inception the practice of collecting commercial releases of recorded sound has been fundamental to the success of it as a format. Collectors, archivists and the general public will go to elaborate lengths to procure rare or otherwise unusual recordings of popular (and not so popular) recording artists. The rarity, provenance or historical significance of a particular item will enable it to command prices in the tens of thousands from some interested parties. However probably the rarest record on the planet is in fact not on the planet at all – but 14 billion miles away and beyond our solar system. It is the Golden Record, an edition of two, each to be found on deep space probes Voyagers 1 and 2 and containing a selection of material from earth including songs, texts, images and technical data from Earth for the use by extra terrestrial intelligence. If collecting records has an endgame, then this must surely be the ultimate in unobtainable records. Of course the CD is now available from Amazon (under the title “Murmurs of Earth”).

Curated for NASA by Dr Karl Sagen and a panel from Cornell University, the sound recordings include what guitarist Ry Cooder described as “the most soulful, transcendent piece of American music recorded in the 20th Century - “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” by Blind Willie Johnson. Essentially a template for nearly all of Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas soundtrack, this song was originally recorded in 1927 and released as a Columbia 10 inch single. It is a soulful lyric less moaning accompanied by slide guitar intended to mimic the sound of a gospel congregation. What makes this record so enthralling is not the quality of the recording, or the historical context, or the value placed upon it by others, but the simple, extant integrity of the performance. It is a timeless eulogy to feelings of loss, hope and the bearing of burdens. As a simulation of a simulation it is both moving and removing. Moving firstly as the sound of a blind man vocalising a certain spiritual intensity as mediated through voice and guitar, removing in that it enables the listener to transport themselves away from their own time and space to a place of universal solitude and sufferance. It is this capacity that defines the blues, but it is this quality of transportation that is prevalent in all music, a quality that is simultaneously vicarious, personal and universal.

Our limitations make us unique

A personal reflection on perception, pre- and post knowledge in the age of vicarious experience:

There follows a list of the technical limitations or “Shortcomings” of the vinyl format and a (highly personal) attempt to put a positive spin on these specific qualities.

The stereo image was not made up of fully discrete Left and Right channels; each channel's signal coming out of the magnetic cartridge contained approximately 20% of the signal from the other channel. The lack of pure channel separation made for a sense of diminished sound stage.

The pleasure principal in listening to sound is not entirely dependant on sound quality, but an interface between personal space and the listening event. Otherwise tinny speakers, compression formats such as Mpeg3 and AAC, and listening to distant radio broadcasts on low wattage receivers would never have engaged the populous. Additionally research shows us that the brain has a very highly developed ability to filter unwanted or ambient sounds such as room and traffic noise, clock mechanisms and other non-specific environmental noise. When ambient sound is absent, such as in an anechoic chamber (a room designed to “hide” sound), the ear can pick up the minutiae of sounds usually hidden because it has a natural need to hear. Witness to this was the incident of pioneering 20th century composer John Cage in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Upon entering the chamber he had expected to hear no sound but instead " heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation." This auditory feedback or superfluous multiplication of a signal in vinyl recording could either be filtered out by the brain, or embraced as a texture that adds a vital multiplicity to the signal rather than diminishing the soundstage.

Thin, closely-spaced spiral groove walls that allowed for increased playing time on a 33 rpm microgroove LP led to a tinny pre-echo warning of upcoming loud sounds. The hot tip of the cutting lathe unintentionally transferred some of the subsequent groove wall's impulse signal into the previous groove wall. It was discernable by some listeners throughout certain recordings but a quiet passage followed by a loud sound would allow anyone to hear a faint pre-echo of the loud sound occurring 1.8 seconds ahead of time. This problem could also appear as "post"-echo, with a tinny ghost of the sound arriving 1.8 seconds after its main impulse.

There is a certain mysticism surrounding the perception of pre-knowledge (or pre-echo) and post knowledge (or echo) that is referenced in publishing – with some suggesting that with the printed word it is possible for the brain to unconsciously and simultaneously “read” the following and re-read the preceding pages while on a current page. This has the consequence of giving the reader a sense of deja-vu or pre-knowledge that augments the experience of reading. It is easy to see this transferable to the experience of listening to vinyl.

Fidelity steadily dropped as the recording progressed; there was more vinyl per second available for fine reproduction of high frequencies at the large-diameter beginning of the music groove than on the smaller diameter inner grooves closer to the center. The beginning of the music groove on an LP gave 510 mm of vinyl per second traveling past the stylus while the ending of the music groove gave 200–210 mm of vinyl per second—less than half the linear resolution.

This entropic acceleration makes vinyl a format that reflects natural inclinations. Other effects that accelerate towards a conclusion include the physical decline of bodily functions as the body ages, the effects of narcotic ingestion on the body, the development of an orgasm, the acceleration of physical anomalies such as cancer on a body and of viral maladies on a host or network. Sex, drugs and rock and roll, the clarion call of the 50’s and 60’s (although the phrase was really only popularized by Ian Dury in 1977 – and could be argued to be a late 20th century adaptation of the much tamer and more gender specific “Wine, women and song”), is an inherent element of the experience of listening to vinyl recordings.

Factory problems involving incomplete hot vinyl flow within the stamper could fail to accurately recreate a small section of one side of the groove, a problem called non-fill. It usually appeared on the first song of a side if it was present at all. Non-fill made itself known as a tearing, grating or ripping sound.

An off-center stamping applied a slow 0.56 Hz modulation to the playback, affecting pitch due to a greater amount of vinyl per second on one side of the record than the other. It also affected tonality because the stylus is pressed alternately into one groove wall and then the other, making the frequency response change in each channel. This problem is often called "wow", though turntable and motor problems can also cause pitch-only "wow".

Similar to the genetic flaws that appear in multiple reproduction of a species, this is an anomalous condition any replicating event has to deal with, and such factory-based faults should really be filtered out before reaching the consumer.

Poor vinyl quality control could put bits of foreign material in the path of the stylus, creating a permanent 'pop' or 'tick'.

Motor problems or belt slippage could cause momentary pitch changes. If these repeated regularly, they could be called "flutter"; if they happened slowly they could be called "wow".

Turntable surface slickness, or the slickness of a stack of LPs could allow the top record to slip, causing momentary lowering of pitch in the playback.

Tracking force of the stylus was not always the same from beginning to end of the groove. Stereo balance could shift as the recording progressed.

Outside electrical interference could be amplified by the magnetic cartridge. Common household wallplate SCR dimmers sharing AC lines could put noise into the playback, as could poorly shielded electronics and strong radio transmitters.

Loud sounds in the environment could be transmitted mechanically from the turntable's sympathetic vibration into the stylus. Heavy footfalls could bounce the needle out of the groove.

Heat could warp the disk, causing pitch and tone problems if minor; tracking problems if major. Badly warped records would be rendered unplayable.

Reproduction technology, to the audiophile, is as fetishised as the collection of vinyl itself, and such limitations would generally be unacceptable for playback. However for the general music listener there is a much wider spectrum of tolerance for these problems, the key to listening pleasure being contingent on the listening event as much as on the quality of playback.

Additionally, atmospheric conditions form part of our day to day lives and our audio filtration systems are highly sophisticated. True silence is a practical and biological impossibility (CF John Cage above), yet the pursuit of it seems as intact as ever.

The user setting the stylus down in the middle of a recording could cut into the groove and create a permanent 'pop' or 'tick'. Dust or foreign matter collected on the record, making for multiple 'pops' and 'ticks' if not carefully cleaned.

The LP was delicate. Any accidental fumbling with the stylus or dropping of the record onto a hard surface or corner could scratch the record permanently, create a series of “ticks” and “pops” heard at subsequent playback.

Human interaction leaves traces of personal events like a physical memory. Scars of past events can illuminate the playing experience, rather than reduce it. The emphasis here should be that the user interacts with the material, is engaged with it with all the risks of failure that entails.

The “special experience” of a listener, from the moment the first recorded sound was heard to our current expanded realm of audio experience has never been entirely dependant on the mechanical and electronic recording and reproduction techniques available. As I have tried to point out, the experience of these limitations not only drove the industry to develop, but also brought texture and added value to the listening event, adding subtleties to its uniqueness as a personal event. In part this personalizing of the experience has led to some those “limitations” appearing as a kind of lexicon of sampled sound that adds historical value, texture and authenticity to a recording.

In the age of digital, rather than mechanical, reproduction it seems that we may be even pining for a gritty reality that has been lost in the smooth gradients of digital sound creation. As recorded sound becomes more ubiquitous, accessible and ultimately disposable, we may indeed also be pining for the loss of the listening event.

On a positive note, a significant upsurge in vinyl single sales, the continued growth of the live music industry and the burgeoning popularity of live instrumentation focused “bands” seems to suggest a groundswell of activity away from a culture based entirely on disposable digital reproduction and the reborn interest in the “noise” of real life.

Conversely there is also, like the other side of the coin, a growth industry in noise free spaces. Technological developments blank or mask room noise in modern sophisticated headphones, whilst “Zones of Silence” have become modern pilgrimage sites for those seeking unusual auditory experiences. These include the area surrounding the Chernobyl disaster area, and the attraction of Mexico's Zone of Silence –a radio wave black spot and geophysical anomaly frequented by artists and researches who seek to investigate the absence of the invisible noise of radio wave transmissions that engulf the planet.

As the ubiquity of digital sound portability develops we are in danger of reducing the encounter with music and sound to a constant texture rather than an actual experience. Now that every waking moment can be filled with pre-recorded sound we risk moving beyond even qualitive evaluations of recording techniques, beyond listening events and beyond the experience of the new to a place where, in the near future, it may be possible that our brains will decide that the pure texture music is no longer necessary and will close it out for us forever. Until that day, keep listening!

Roger McKinley, 2008.