The slippery lure of nostalgia-listening

Driving up to southern France from the middle of Spain takes about six or seven hours. It’s mostly motorway, with a heavy concentration of trucks and the kind of impatient tailgating maniacs that make up the mainstay of the drivers in Spain. What you need for a drive like that is some loud wake-up music. Nothing too dark – you don’t want to accentuate the killing rage that comes upon you when you have to move into the fast lane to get past an articulated truck, but are then flashed by a manic Spaniard who is trying to mount your car from behind. They get very irate when you go less than thirty over the speed limit. So no Queens of the Stone Age, that’ll just end badly. We tried a couple of genres – Hot chip worked well with the strobe effect of the lights flashing by, but tended to strengthen the catatonia induced by straight-line driving. We tried my wife’s All About Eve cd, which though dramatic, had a dreaminess to it that threatened to lead to us a sticky end. It was not so much that our minds were drifting off, but the swirling textures of the music was luring us into the dangerous belief that if we’d swerved into oncoming traffic it would all have seemed an artistic lovelorn martyrdom rather than a burning flameball of twisted steel and bodyparts.

We ended up blasting up through the Burgos plain and well into the Spanish Basque Country to an unexpected heavy rotation of Love, by the Cult. Nothing embarassing about that – I’m well past the point in my life where I care about the concept of ‘cheesy’ or ‘guilty pleasures’ in music. I last restricted myself to the tribal approach to music sometime back in the days when that Cult album was new. There’s just too much stress involved in deciding whether or not the album you wish to listen to is considered to have cred or not. So we cranked up the volume, cranked it a little more, and found ourselves sneaking the volume up as we went along every time a new track started. There are a few duffers on there, but it’s all good ‘booted-foot-up-on-amp’ hair-tossing stuff. By the time we got to ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ (try saying that fast), it looked like the Bohemian Rhapsdy scene from Wayne’s World. What it did make quite clear was, once again, how intertwined and contrived an idea an album is. It takes the likes of Pink Floyd taking EMI to court to bring this to the public’s attention, but there is an organic movement to an album’s unfolding that is not conducive to being turned into a track-by-track pick ‘n’ mix. If you can cast your mind back to the time when ‘Love’ was released, you might remember that it came out on vinyl. That meant turning it over mid-way through and listening to side two. The funny thing is that the strongest tracks – ‘Rain’, ‘She Sells Sanctuary’ are on side two – the whole album builds up to them. It’s not a tactic that survives to the present day. Albums tend to be ‘frontloaded’ now, with the most likely singles placed at the start of the tracklist in the hopes that they will be heard before the attention economy’s equivalent of penny-pinching causes the listener to forget that they were listening to some music, and start texting.

Another aspect that stood out about listening to the album, and perhaps any album of the era – was the mix. The guitar seemed to be pushed further forward into the soundscape than I’ve heard in decades. Pop/rock guitar bands right now seem to hide the guitar behind the vocals and a barrage of percussion. When you do notice the guitar sound, it tends to be distorted and reverbed to the point where it no longer sounds like a stringed instrument. Most of all – the guitar on the Cult album sounded intensely bright. Perhaps it was due to the mix, perhaps the mastering. Whilst most albums destined for digital release do get mastered, it’s easier to get away with a shoddy end product when the music is going to end up as endless lists of binary code, than it is to produce a quality recording that depends upon a physical interface between needle and groove. Mastering engineers are essential to the vinyl-pressing process, before and after the vinyl is pressed. I simplify this out of necessity, because I really don’t know how exactly they do so, but a mastering engineer does something akin to polishing the sound of a record. Or perhaps more accurate would be to draw an analogy to an art-restorer who takes an oil painting that’s been hanging over a smoky fireplace for six hundred years and finds a vibrant, colourful painting below all the grime. The difference between a recording before mastering and afterwards is similar to the new way you hear things when you’ve had water stuck in your ears for a while, then it finally drains out. If you have some really good hi-fi gear, you can probably listen to an unmastered record without noticing too much dullness, but if you tried to listen to the same record through a radio speaker, or in your car, or in a bar with a bit of conversation going on, it would disappear into a blunt and flaccid background noise. MAstering engineers are the watchmakers of sound, they can hear things that are supposed only to be audible to dogs or whales. Sometimes a vocalist will be recorded with one microphone close up to catch the lower frequencies of her voice, but with another mic further away to catch the higher consonant sounds, such as the sibilant ‘s’ and ‘c’ sounds. These hissy sounds can overload a microphone placed too closely, to the detriment of the sound quality. However, compared to the mind-bending speed of light, sound moves pretty slowly, somewhere in the region of 720mph, if I recall correctly. The sound that arrives at the closer mic does so before it gets to the second mic. There might only be a yard or two’s difference, which translates into a timelag in the microseconds, but when that recording is played back to a mastering engineer, the engineer will notice it and will correct it. There are lots of tricks and techniques to the art, but the most important one can’t be learned – you have to have really, really good ears.

Or do you? Well, to get the recording to the point where it’s ready to put onto a piece of vinyl, the mastering engineer does a lot of preparation. After that though, there is an interesting section to the process. When your recording is sent to a cutting machine, which engraves the sound recording onto metal plate, a test pressing is made onto a soft acetate disc. This is examined and listened to in order to check that there are no mistakes, warbles, glitches, etc. However, acetate is soft and stylus needles are hard. Every play destroys the plate a little. If you look really closely at the grooves of a vinyl record, you can see that they oscillate in waves radiating to and from the centre of the record. The lower the frequency, or deeper the note, the higher the wave. But the waves are packed on top of each other in concentric spirals, so theoretically, the grooves on a really bassy piece of music could end up cutting such widely veering tracks that they’ll cut into each other. This is why twelve-inch singles sound better than seven-inch – more space for the grooves to move. So does a mastering engineer need to hear the record yet? No, the quality of the recording on an acetate can actually be seen, through a low-magnification microscope. How sharp the cuts are; if they are uniformly deep (this only affects the strength of the record, vertical movement has no audible effect on the stylus), how much clear space there is between each groove; and if the heavy basslines cause the cut to enter the space occupied by the groove further in our out from the centre. The more of this that can be done visually, the better will be the quality of the acetate when it goes to be pressed.

A lot of this is irrelevant when music is being made to go out on digital formats. Digital recording creates soundwaves by assigning a value to each microsecond of music. It’s good, not half so bad a method of sound recording as the vinyl purists will claim, but on vinyl, those oscillations that appear to the mastering engineer’s eye on the grooves of a record are fluid and undulating – like the waves on the ocean. A digital approximation of the same wave will always look more like a starircase than a hill. Low frequencies, which are conveyed on vinyl by big, sweeping waves, have a much more ‘stepped’ effect on digital, because the jump in data between the adjacent microseconds is bigger. This comes across to the listener as a bass sound that is somehow ‘crystalline’. The reason why the underground club scene which is fuelling the dubstep movement is so dependent on vinyl is because the big wide vinyl grooves of a twelve-inch vinyl single allow the low, low (sub 32 cycles per second) bass sounds that are ot actually audible, but thump through the dancers’ ribcages like a sumo wrestler. (Incientally, a low ‘C’ note of 4 cycles per second, at volume, is enough to destroy internal organs and kill. Fo rthis reason the USSR spent a great deal of the Cold War working on speakers which could use the soundwave as a weapon. Murder on the dancefloor…)

Anyway, enough of this. I actually started out wanting to talk about the mix on a Cult record, and ended up blathering on about mastering vinyl. BlancoMusic is lucky enough to be able to call on the services of a mastering engineer (Bruce Wood), who’s been doing this since the vinyl era and who has the kind of ears that would have gotten him conscripted into the submarine fleet if he’d been born a couple of decades earlier. We’re not putting anythig out on vinyl until he’s given it the nod, but we’ll strive to get a couple of vinyl EPs on your shelves before the summer kicks off. All this text is just another symptom of my own frustration with a music market who seem largely not to care about things like crystalline bass sounds or unwanted pseudo-stereo effects on vocals. Running Lady GaGa’s largely digitised music through the speakers on your Nokia whilst sitting at the back of a bus is a valid way to pass a boring journey, but it really shouldn’t be typical of the way you listen to music. There are many for whom that’s adequate, just as there are many for whom microwave pizza and a bottle of WKD constitutes a tasty meal. Sod them, we don’t want them to own our records anyway.

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