Editor's Note from 1992: This seminal J. Gordon Holt essay on how the art of recording natural sound became compromised in favor of unmusical artificiality for good commercial reasons was originally published in August 1964, in Vol.1 No.8. Though most people these days listen to classical music from CDs, not LPs, in the intervening decades, recording technology has not changed for the better as much as one might have hoped. Nevertheless, the days of wretched multimiking excess described by Gordon are past, and it's rare to find the music treated with the lack of respect typical of a mid-'60s Columbia session. Although some of the smaller companiesReference Recordings, Delos, Chesky, Mapleshade, Dorian, and Sheffield Lab in the US; Meridian, Nimbus, and Hyperion in the UKconsistently use honest, minimal miking, it is not unknown for the majors in the '90s to do likewise. And the use of time delay for spot microphones, pioneered by Denon in the mid-'80s, means that instruments that might tend to become obscured at orchestral climaxes can now be brought up in level without unnaturally time-smearing the sound. I still find it sad, however, that it is rare to hear the sheer dynamic range of a live ensemble successfully captured on a commercial recording.John Atkinson
The "Want to make an easy $1,000,000?" e-mail wasn't a scam from Nigeria but an alert from Paul DiComo, late of Polk Audio and now of Definitive Technology, about a double-blind cable-identification challenge made by The Annoying Randi, a magician and debunker of paranormal events who goes by the name of "The Amazing Randi."
Mary is a scientist living in a distant galaxy. She and her fellow humanoids are just like us, but their knowledge is highly advanced. It's so advanced, they've solved the most daunting problem in science—understanding the brain and mind. They know everything scientifically possible to know about the brain's neurons, its architecture, and how consciousness, ideas, feelings, and memories occur. Perception and sensation are understood, too. Mary knows exactly how light and sound waves become colorful visions and beautiful melodies. On her planet, aspiring neurobiologists are out of luck. There's nothing more to aspire to.
Two scientists are racing for the good of all mankind—both of them working side by side, so determined, locked in heated battle for the cure that is the prize. It's so dangerous, but they're driven—theirs is to win, if it kills them. They're just human, with wives and children.
"Digital is superior," proclaims Mr. Alberto Arebalos in February's "Letters." I'm glad that's settled. Still, I'm typing this ten feet from a wall lined with LPs, Don Patterson's Satisfaction! is spinning on the old Systemdek turntable, and my usually cold, drafty Chicago apartment seems like a summer night at the Green Mill Jazz Club. But I agree: digital is superior. What's wrong with me?
For all its excesses, high-quality audio is filled with purists. Some are committed to single-ended amplifiers, some to all-analog circuitry, to crossoverless speakers, or to recordings made with only two microphones. Purists seek simplicity in their quest for good sound. But how simple is it to scrub contacts, adjust tonearms, or meticulously clean discs before nearly every listening session? Maybe committed purists should just be committed.
John Atkinson, you were right the first time ("Letters," Stereophile, December 1997, p.17, footnote 1): Jeremy Bentham is, indeed, the famous English philosopher and legal theorist whose mummified remains are preserved at the University of London. Sitting in a large glass display case, Bentham has been holding court since his death in 1832. As you noted, Bentham looks deceptively like a waxwork. But this is because his head, in fact, is made of wax. The original, rumor has it, suffered through one very macabre rugby game played long ago by mischievous students.
Mojo Nixon sings, "Elvis is everywhere." My version is "Darwin is everywhere." Last Thanksgiving, as my extended family was gathered around the dinner table, my 11-year-old nephew abruptly reminded us that Darwin was there, too. Out of the blue, he broadcast the $64,000 question:
Everyone knows the story: Isaac Newton got hit on the head by an apple and suddenly discovered the physics of gravitation. Like the one about Archimedes discovering the basics of hydrostatics while taking a bath, this story turns up everywhere. Even Michael Stipe, in R.E.M.'s "Man in the Moon," sings "Newton got beaned by the apple good."
Here in Chicago the other day, I was on my way to an appliance store, so audio was the last thing on my mind. But, as if by some miraculous intervention (or just stupidity), I parked and went in the wrong store: "Why does this appliance store have bins and bins of CDs in it?" Realizing my mistake, I found the stoves and ranges I was looking for next door—but not before noticing bins and bins of used LPs behind all those CDs.
I'm starting to hate computers. They take up all my time. Whether I'm writing, preparing classes to teach, toying with computer-generated music, managing finances, or (too often) upgrading hardware, I'm spending too much time in the computer chair, not enough in the listening chair.
Have you seen that advertisement running on the Arts & Entertainment channel? A girl and her brother are arguing in front of their TV: "Are not." "Are so." "Are not." Etc., etc. Finally, she punts: "Mom! He's calling me a neo-fatalist again!" From off-screen: "Do I have to come in there and demonstrate your free will?"