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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 25
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From Clark Johnsen's Diaries - Try, Try Triode Records
by Clark Johnsen

 

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Today we investigate a vital but seriously neglected subject in the annals of our craft—the sonic events put on record in the period 1925-1956: The Lost Era of High-End Audio.

The journey will not be easy, the resistance will be stiff, because false paradigms and a public conditioned against historic sound by bogus replicas have obscured this truth: With several musical instruments certain older records played over wide-range reproduc­ers excel in bringing us into the presence of the performer.

This peculiar fact was known to me already when one day almost a decade ago the entire back catalog of Sound Practices arrived (the first three issues devoured in one sitting) and I had to laugh! Everyone's going wacko over triode amps, but what do they use for evaluation software? Why, evil tetrode-, pentode- and transistor-made LPs and CDs. Geez Luiz!

Honestly, how many people are aware of, or have heard, or even thought of hearing, gen-U-wine Triode Records?

I love those old TRs, as we may call them. Besides containing an historic musical treasure-trove, they can sound more like the real thing than any other source, bar none except live feed—an extravagant claim, perhaps, but consider what TRs have going for themselves, besides those great old tubes. They have: high velocity, wide grooves, inert material, ribbon microphones, direct-master pressings—in short, a medley of superior engineer­ing attributes.

What's he talking about?

In case anyone hasn't surmised, TRs are better known as 78s. I don't mean those "scratchy old 78s" you see beaten up in print, but clean pressings that really strut their stuff over properly equipped high-end reproducers (and therein lies the trick). I must confess however to not employing triode amps yet in their reproduction, although my results so far are little short of miraculous. I can only imagine how the two streams will sound when finally recombined

Like every recording medium, Triode Records also display some inherent shortcomings. For instance, while individual voices sound utterly real—a Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald duet on a 10" Decca defies expectation—choral groups reproduce poorly, although the symphony orchestra can sound superb. At the other end of the loudness spectrum, harpsichords and solo violins often pale, but the piano... ah! the piano!... and the trombone! And then, the cello!

Dismayed readers must realize, you have never heard TRs directly, instead relying on the recording industry's own lame attempts to remarket these jewels by issuing them on some newfangled, relatively unrobust medium such as tinkly LPs or edgy CDs or anemic cassettes. Plus, because of this generation's rejection of noise on recordings—something of a joke given modern urban environments—not to mention those ubiquitous cell phones—none of them convey the muscle and blood of 78s owing to fierce noise-reduction routines that further etiolate the music. So from this tainted evidence you have drawn some very weird, fallacious conclusions. Well, shame! And do you ever have a surprise coming. Because 78s pack a wallop rarely heard otherwise.

How did this curious state of affairs arise? And what does it tell us about progress in audio over the long term? For one thing, while playback technology has steadily improved, revealing the riches of earlier eras, recording technology has leveled off, or rather gone in a separate direction. (Often I have said, if they had known how good they were making those old records, they never would have made them that good.) Moreover, were we granted easy access to state-of-the-art music reproducers that play all recorded forms, everyone by now would have heard God's own truth: No microgroove or digital transfer has adequately conveyed the 78s. Few come even close, so almost no one today can say how well those old records sound.

Come to think, who knows how well any record can sound?


The unnamed engineers who made those early electrical recordings did a far better job than the technology of their time allowed them to know and it has taken the better part of five decades for the home listener with a decent hi-fi system to really discover just how good original 78 sound is. I have never been satisfied with the transfer to long-playing disc of jazz recorded in the '20s and early '30s... [No dub] ever captured the true sound of the originals, and subsequent reissues in America, Europe and this country, have been progressively more disappointing.

Michael Bowen

University of Hull

(in Studio Sound)


Banish from your mind any thought of dim dynamics, restricted response, high peak distortion—or noise. Of that they do have some, but not nearly so much as alleged. The strategy is to locate clean pressings from the peak quality period—RCA Z-scrolls and Columbia Viva-Tonals, for instance. With mint and mint-minus copies the only audible background resembles the gentle whoosh of older tape. (That goes for American, German and Japanese pressings, anyway; the Brits were less successful in manufacturing, although British masters set the standard of the recording art.) With merely excellent copies, a rainstorm may drizzle lightly on the roof, but even that minor distraction disappears when you're engaged by Great Sound and Great Performance.


While one has to admire the advances that have been made in the world of electronics, many valueless devices are being marketed for pure profit. I still like to listen to recordings from the Thirties, which to me are often fresher and more satisfying than many of the recent releases.

Earl Wild

(in Reflections from the Keyboard)


The question ever arises, where does one prefer to be, when recorded music unfolds? Transported to the concert hall, or seated in your music room with the performers there before you? That's the quandary, the basic dichotomy in audio. Once recognized, however, all recording schemes fall into line, situating us in one or the other locale. In the 1920s and '30s, RCA, Columbia and Edison (!) were all touting artists-in-your-residence. Recordings from back then convey that concept like few others. Played on wide-range systems with all due high-end finesse, they bring an eerily convincing image of real musicians into the home. And in mono yet!

Maybe even outside the home. The first time I fully grasped this fact, some thirty years ago, was when playing a Koussevitzky Victor of the triumphant finale to Tchaikovsky's Fourth as loud as I could (less than the very loudest, having once already blown 12" drivers with 78s, the poor dears couldn't take it). Afterwards came a knock at the door and there stood Gail Luce, a frequent visitor. "Clark!" she said. "So often I have walked up to your house and heard the hi-fi playing from out here, but I have never heard anything sound so real before! What have you done to your system?"


I think that 78s often give a more accurate picture of what an orchestra sounds like than many of the recordings I hear that are brought out now. I like the clean, clear, honest sound of 78s.

Sir Simon Rattle

(in Fanfare)


And do not ever disregard that most salient feature of the phonograph: its unique ability to render a plausible representation of how performers of a previous era played and sounded. Audio systems be most fitly utilized to convey those musicians no longer among us; those still living should be heard in live venue.

And just think whom we can invite to join us in our parlors on élan-vital Triode Records (to name but a few): Pablo Casals, Artur Schnabel, Lauritz Melchior, the Lener Quartet and the late, great London Philharmonic; the Count and the Duke, the Dorsey Brothers, Hank Williams, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Fats Waller; even Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and The King (up through 1959), although one suspects some tetrode/pentode and mag-oxide intrusion into those later productions.

How now?

My own unique contribution to the audio craft has been to mate Triode Records to High-End Audio. While myriad details of fine tuning (a.k.a. tweaking) apply to TRs, loudspeakers with bass extension and mid-range power-handling capability are essential to achieving the ultimate sound. That's where so-called "transfer engineers" misstep: they have no concept of how much physical sonority resides in those old grooves. With their relatively lightweight reproducers, they miss the boat. Nor do they seem particularly aware of improvements in playback wrought by modern high-end practice; nor do they much avail themselves of the tube-type gear over which these records were originally fashioned—mostly they employ solid-state, and rather crude solid-state at that.

The signal once transferred to tape or hard drive falls next into the hands of so-called "restorationists", those gents who apply the parametric equalizer, the Packburn, the No Noise and the Sonic Solutions and the (who knows?) the MP3 and other compression. All such procedures that reduce noise and save bandwidth serve also to abort the sound of the music.

Technologically these men number among the most parochial and recalcitrant individuals in audio; while like myself totally smitten by the medium, their work betrays little of the power inherent in old grooves. How could it be otherwise, when most of them think that high-end audio, particularly the recent tube renaissance, is a crock? And that wire, and vibration isolation, and cleaned-up power make no sonic difference? Hence no one besides myself, it seems (and I read widely), has hit upon the winning combination of 78s and high-end playback methodology.


Why is it that using a simple equalizer I was able—from a slightly worn 78rpm set—to produce sound with far more richness and impact than RCA offers [on this disc]?

Mortimer Frank

(in Fanfare)


A story. I had learned that an assistant producer of the Boston Symphony radio broadcasts was undertaking a CD release of historic BSO recordings, 1917-1936. I wrote him and explained some of the above particulars, offering free access to my expertise, such as it be, also to my Mint++ copies of several early BSO discs. Perhaps I overstated my case, although I think not; but did I ever hear back from him? Even a short telephone call? Heck, he had Sonic Solutions.

He also had famed digital engineer Toby Mountain, a man who once visually compared about a million 1's and 0's printed-out, to prove that outlandish devices such as special cables or green ink on CDs make no possible sonic difference, QED. Interviewed in the June, 1995, New England Performer, Dr. Mountain elaborated, albeit somewhat equivocally, in response to the query, "Do you personally prefer the sound of analog or digital?" TM: "I don't have any preference. I think for sheer fidelity you've got to offer digital. There's no question that digital will capture what's there more accurately." Later, regarding the BSO project: "They just started a new label which is CDs of the very earliest BSO recordings, and I think we finished just a month ago the first one of those. Of course the sound quality is not terrific but we were involved in the mastering of that. We didn't actually do the transfers but I believe they were some sort of cylinder recording." Huh!


Recently a friend played me a 1930s HMV of Kipnis... The sheer sound of the voice—never mind Kipnis' artistry—was far more beautiful and natural than anything I've heard from a comparably pitched voice on a recent digital record. Can any reader offer an explanation of why this should be so?

Dr. William Youngren

(in Fanfare)


For nearly thirty years I have belonged to the Association of Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), who put out a regular and excellent journal. I've published there and have attended several conven­tions, presented a paper once and met "leaders" in the field of transfer and restoration. My ideas, along with my name and number are known, although to date I have received no response or support. Not that any is needed, but it does seem odd that information from a free source such as myself remains unsought.

Although it must be conceded, listeners today do seem to want only a smoothly-segued, no-noise thing that goes on and on, no inconve­nient jumping up from couches to change sides, no rocking the sonic envelope. Given the current media environment, how could it be otherwise? To most persons of contemporary temperament, my views must represent a comical amalgam of Neanderthalic Luddite and maniacal tweaker. So it goes.

Also, since 1967, with one significant boycott break, I have belonged to the Audio Engineering Society. You can imagine their views on my views.

The sound on many 78s is far better than many present listeners realize. Date of recording is not a reliable guide to the merits of what lies in the grooves... There are some 78s whose sonic quality is considerably superior to that of a great many LPs currently tagged "high fidelity."

Editorial

High Fidelity

November, 1956


Then in 1988 my little red book The Wood Effect: Unaccounted Contributor to Error and Confusion in Acoustics and Audio appeared, a treatise on a basic but widely ignored principle of physics. One reviewer (John Atkinson) called it "fascinating reading... highly recommended''; another (John Cockroft) exclaimed, "I have become a disciple of Mr. Johnsen's dissertation." Three thousand copies were sold, but neither its many fans nor several detractors ever mentioned the piggybacked 16-page section on 78s and their miraculous monaural purity. And yes, absolute polarity applies to them as well.

Regrettably, no place exists in today's audio forums to discourse freely upon how to make 78s sound best—a great pity and a woeful lack, for the ancients were on to something wonderful. Thus a Golden Age of Recorded History has fallen through our fingers, although still preserved for posterity on what may be called the Grecian urns of audio.


There are those who feel, and I am one of them, that a mint, original 78rpm of any given music is the best way that that music is ever going to sound.

Jack "Stereo Jack" Woker

Boston Globe


II. NIGHT OF THE LIVING '78s

(With his kind permission I turned my space back in Positive Feedback, Vol. 6 #6, over to Andrew Quint, now music editor of The Absolute Sound, for an earwitness review originally submitted to the Philadelphia Audio Society but never published there.)

"Whaat? 78s?.' You must be joking!"

Believe me, I can understand anyone's skepticism here. I'd heard those old recordings before too, generally over the radio, sounding noisy, dim and compressed. The performance was there, all right, but, boy, was it hard work listening through the apparently insurmountable sonic limitations to get to the music. Those people making the transfers must know what they're doing, though, to present these ancient specimens in their best possible light, right?

Wrong. This well-kept secret of the audiophile world—that performances preserved on shellacs made 50 or 60 (or more) years ago can be made to sound remarkably good when carefully played on modern high-end gear—was one 1 learned just recently. I owe this discovery to one Clark Johnsen of Boston, Mass. I'd met Clark in Santa Fe when, as exalted winners of Stereophile's record review contest, we'd been weekend guests of the magazine. We shared a bungalow in their compound for two nights and afterwards kept up a friendly correspondence.

Clark, an optical physicist by training who worked for years in the space program, has been an avid audio enthusiast since the 1950s. He may be best known for his little red book The Wood Effect, an involving, eminently readable and far-ranging discussion of the importance of Absolute Polarity in sound reproduction. In the course of this treatise, Clark makes a number of tantalizing refer­ences to the wondrous sounds of old 78s. So when I spoke to him before our trip to New Mexico, he asked whether there was anything I thought we should ask of our hosts, I suggested a 78s demonstra­tion.

"Nope," he replied, "they couldn't do them justice. You must come to Boston."

Finally I got my chance. I had a conference there with evenings free, so we arranged to meet at his place of business, The Listening Studio. This establishment sprawls through several rooms on the second floor of a warehouse on a... ah... not yet gentrified (but safe) section of downtown Boston, near the harbor and the Boston Tea Party Ship. The main space is an enormous room, 50' x 24' x 14'. The only audio components in sight are a pair of large VMPS towers, the FF-ls. About fifteen feet in front of them, in single file, begins a line of listening chairs. Further back are tables and shelves full of books, periodicals, propaganda, and an impressive reference collection of vintage stereo LPs—RCAs, Mercurys, Deccas, EMIs, etc.

The speaker cables lead through the wall back to another room behind, where the electronics and front ends reside. Here also is the largest collection of 78s I'd ever seen. Tens of thousands of them: Classical, jazz, pop, rock, Clark uses a "nothing special" Thorens/SME and home-modified Dynaco PAS-3 to play them. Everything else is strictly high-end and "tweaky."

It was 9:50 PM and very quiet in this semi-deserted neighbor­hood, excellent for listening. Clark sat me in the front chair, padded into the back room and began the audition. And perhaps the best indication of how remarkable an experience it was, was that I can still clearly recall all of the twenty or so sides he played. It was that good.

The first disc happened to be a bourée from a Bach solo cello suite, recorded by Pablo Casals in the 1930s. The sound of the instrument was astoundingly rich and palpable, with a sense of body I experience only occasionally with "modem" recordings. The intensity of Casals' playing was conveyed absolutely by the record. I was enthralled.

The medium proved nearly as convincing for larger musical forms as well: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Tchaikovsky chamber music, concertos and symphonies were all well served. Those were monaural recordings, of course, but they had a sense of depth and space nonetheless. I'd heard this before on my own mono LPs, but with the 78s—at least on Clark's setup—there was something more: A richness and ease of reproduction that can only be described as totally natural.

Then we listened to vocals. With Wagner opera, the massive orchestra did overload the technology at times, but never to the detriment of the musical experience. The voices never screeched or screamed; Kirstin Flagstad's soulful, powerful declaiming in Götterdämmerung floated effortlessly across the decades, off those old shellacs.

Also surprising was how quiet most of the discs were, not so different, in terms of surface noise, from more recent non-audiophile LP pressings, and as on tapes the constant low-level "hiss" was quickly ignored or forgotten.

Another big surprise was the popular recordings. I'd not realized that throughout the Fifties, most pop singles were issued in both 78 and 45rpm. Evidently a lot of jukeboxes continued to use 78s. Clark played some Elvis Presley and Tennessee Ernie Ford ("Sixteen Tons") that turned my head around about the estate of pop music recording before stereo and multi-track. It was even better than I had imagined! Vocals, in particular, were detailed and characteristic. And I'll never, ever forget one Ella and Louis duet with a ringing trumpet sound unapproached in my experience on LP or CD.

So what's the point of all this? Am I going to start collecting 78s? No way! Although my listening still involves vinyl, I'm not much of a tweak with my record player; I can live happily ever after without ever changing VTA. I sense you have to be really capable in this regard to play 78s successfully. And I admit I'm not thrilled at the idea of jumping up every 3 or 4 minutes to change sides. Plus, you may have noticed they no longer carry 78s at Tower.

No, the point is that I hope some other people with an abiding interest in audio get to experience this unique phenomenon of very old records played with first-rate electronics and transducers. We read so much about what's being sacrificed with the shift from analog (meaning LP) to digital (meaning CD). Recently we've heard dire predictions of other significant compromises with yet newer delivery systems. But for all the obvious advances that the stereo LP represented, perhaps some magic of an even earlier era was lost.

I'd love to have contemporary "audio authorities'' and writers, of both the Stanley Lipshitz and Enid Lumley stripes, hear 78s played at Clark's and offer some explanations as to why they sound so great. Maybe something there can be retrofitted to current recording and playback technology.

Did they who made the 78s so many years ago have any idea just how well the musical event had been captured? I wonder... My experience anyway was enough to strike fear, or at least apprehen­sion, into the hearts of CD and LP adherents alike.


I auditioned a number of 78rpm records to see whether, despite the absence of tone controls on my amplifier, they would provide an interesting musical experience. I played a wide range of discs... and was stunned by the quality obtained. There was a tremendous solidity and dynamism to some jazz records, which proved to have superb bass power... Voice was pure and tonally rich, though choral passages rapidly became muddled... The most startling thing I heard on these recordings was a clear sense of depth.

Paul Crook

HiFi News/Record Review


Why should anyone have to put up with poor sound, especially since long-playing transfers don't do anything near full justice to the vitality, the warmth, the spaciousness, the naturalness of the sound of the original 78rpm discs? Those old records were technologically far ahead of the equipment once used to play them, and the remarkably wide frequency range I can hear even when I play my most ancient records on good modern equipment is going to be diminished, cramped, squashed in the record manufacturers' misguided attempt to reduce the noise of the original shellac surfaces. My own comparisons have taught me that some of my favorite "historical" records on my windup Victrola actually sound more lifelike than any LP transfer of them heard on the best modem machines. No wonder the younger generation has such contempt for the musical past... the standards of comparison become lost and forgotten.

Dr. Lloyd Schwartz

(in Atlantic Monthly)


The Wood Effect is still available from the publisher, with the remaining few copies going for $21 post-paid. Please contact this writer through Positive Feedback Online email mail (go to http://www.positive-feedback.com/masthead.htm). Or, go to Amazon.com and pay $98.

 "Try, Try Triode Records" Copyright Clark Johnsen, 2006

 

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