Saturday, September 02, 2006

Vinyl memories

Old friend Tabula Rasa's recent post about antique music systems got me thinking. A lot of my early music collection came from his parents' collection of LPs. It was via that collection that I first heard -- at various times -- Bob Dylan, Tom Lehrer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and much else. Much of it I have since acquired myself, on CD. But much of it (like Menuhin's and Malcolm's performances of Bach's sonatas for violin and harpsichord) seems to be unavailable now.

(My parents too had a good collection of LPs, but it was mostly Indian classical and mostly still available. In fact, the collection of old Indian music available on the market now seems much better than it was in the LP days, thanks to releases from AIR archives and private collections.)

Recently I had an urge to hear Ellington's rousing live 1960s big-band performance of "Things ain't what they used to be" (after hearing a rousing solo piano performance by Madhav Chari, in a concert for Worldspace, which I may talk about later). I first heard it on TR's parents' LP, called "Greatest hits", and the tracks were later reissued as bonus tracks in the CD of "The great Paris concert", but the current release of that CD lacks them. Finally I tracked down the earlier release of the CD, on Amazon's German site.

Which is why this recent article in the NYT interested me, for a few moments. It's a device that converts LPs to CDs. Of course, you can do that with any turntable and a computer, but this automates the process: pop in blank CD, play LP, take out CD burned with LP's tracks, auto-split. Sounds good? Well, read the review.

The makers, Teac (once a respected name), won't allow you to plug in the machine to your drawing room system: you have to use the built-in speakers. Allegedly this is to prevent piracy -- how it achieves that aim, I can't tell. Well, fair enough, you may say: you'll burn the CD and play it on your main system.

Then, they won't let you use any generic recordable CD: you need specially-watermarked (and expensive) CDs, again allegedly to prevent piracy. I wish manufacturers would understand the obvious: if you can hear it, you can rip it. Copy protection will never work.

And even more absurd: the review points out that "there's practically no bass". However, you do get bass if you plug in an external tape deck: that sounds "terrific". The review blames it on the ceramic cartridge, but it's clear what's happening. The makers, Teac (once, as I said, a respected name) had no clue that LPs require very different equallisation from standard tapes or CDs: they boost the treble frequencies when recording, and reduce it in the output, which helps reduce noise. You simply don't use the same equallisation circuitry for LPs and tapes. (I suspect that Teac used a ceramic cartridge because they tried a magnetic cartridge with the "aux" circuitry and found the sound too faint.)

Teac came that close to making a useful device that could have helped many people convert their LP collections in a pain-free way... and they blew it. The sad thing is that the result will probably sound fine to today's MP3 generation.

1 comment:

Tabula Rasa said...

hmm, very interesting. quite a pity, really. totally agree with the last line.