Vintage stereo

Vintage stereo

The thing is… Today, music comes to most people as streaming; digital content fed to a handy device carried along by the listener. Smartphone + Spotify + earbuds seem to be a popular combination. However, music acquired this way comes with a number of side effects you should at least think about before you just accept their influence on your experience.

Streaming music is easy. Because you have the world at your fingertips, you tend to skip around a lot. Next hit. Move on. Bigger, better, faster. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but it leaves little time to contemplate and take in other material by a given artist than just the most popular stuff. Maybe – just maybe – there’s more to the artist you’ve just left. Maybe, if you just sat back and took in the next number from the album, you’d find it caused an interesting emotion or had you tapping your foot to a different rhythm. Maybe there’s a reason the artist arranged numbers on the album in this particular way. Maybe you’re missing out on something by skipping around.

Streaming music is capitalistic. Sounds corny, but given that the one who gets the highest number of listens, gets the highest amount of money, there’s an incentive to be heard, not necessarily stemming from artistic reasoning. Money makes the world go round. So how does one get more exposure? There are many ways to do that. One is to simply SHOUT LOUDER than anyone else. Actually, there’s a thing called “The loudness wars”. It’s the phenomenon that came out of some TV-commercials having been recorded slightly louder than other commercials. They got noticed a bit more, eventually selling more products. So other commercial-makers responded by upping their volume a bit more, eventually ending up companding + cranking the sound level up to clipping levels – all in the interest of ‘most exposure’. That was TV-commercials. Now, let’s talk about modern day music production… I hope you get my point. Today, producers and music companies alike will actively engage in ruining the essential dynamics of the product they market – to the point of reducing dynamic range to less than 10 dB, while taking the volume level to actual clipping level. All in the interest of making money. For further reading, I urge you to visit eg. Returning to streaming format, the market mechanism is still in full effect. The streaming service who can produce the ‘nicest sound’ on any given elCheapo iPhone blasting away on its internal speaker will have an edge. And how do you make such a puny little transducer shout the loudest? Enter ‘digital domain sound trickery’ like eg companding. Present in almost all of the little battery-driven bluetooth speakers on today’s market. Present in your phone? Present in your favourite streaming service’s delivery chain?

Streaming music is for loan only. You don’t own anything physical that holds the music. Once your subscription runs out, you’re left with nothing. Not even empty covers.

Streaming music is magical. It just happens without you being able to fully comprehend the mechanics involved. Fileformats, wireless technologies, user interfaces, compression and bandwidth parameters and quality considerations. It’s all so remote. Electronics and abstract concepts rather than tangible and readily understandable mechanics.

Which brings us to Vintage stereo.

Vintage stereo is difficult. Positioning the tape or cartridge needle correctly requires some level of effort. You have to get up from your favourite reclining chair, move to your device, operate the controls and in most cases hope for the best. Which makes you inclined to not do that, but listen to the next number instead. Tadaaa; you just got fed some possibly interesting new information, not just the next known good bit.

Vintage stereo is democratic. Yes, I’m stretching the term a bit, but think of it as being ‘correct’ or ‘fair’ or whatever; it is what it is because there’s no digital trickery possible, meaning WYHIWYG applies. Some of the best recordings ever made were done back in the fifties using cleverly chosen surroundings, proper microphone placement and hard-earned expertise selection of recording gear.

Vintage stereo is yours. You bought the record or tape. Nobody can nullify it or make it stop working. You own it.

Vintage stereo is understandable. Maybe not to all, but the technology is still based on yesteryear’s knowledge, meaning it’s more mechanical and analogue electrical. Vibrations, positions, voltages fluctuating, magnetic fields changing in coils and in general a lot closer to principles discovered by scientists of yore. Oersted, Newton, Maxwell and such. It tends to be explainable by drawing parallels to water in plumbing, stones falling off of rooftops and the everpresent car-analogy.

Example: Explain how you go to ‘next number’ on an LP: This involves raising the stylus from its position halfway through the currently playing number, moving it to the next shinier division on the record surface and lowering it back down. The music is physically positioned and if we go to a different position, we get different sound. If we go back to previous position, we go back to previous music. Dead-easy. Explaining the function of the cartridge and the stylus is similarly tied to motion, magnetism and little fluctuating voltages. Right… Now try to explain what happens when you click ‘Next’ on a Spotify playlist.

Nobody forbids you to be a consumer of streaming music AND the oldskool way of distributing sound as you see fit. You’re obviously free to mix and match. When doing so, why not use the different methods to your own advantage?

Streaming brings you almost infinite choice. Jump right in and explore; there’s more material than you can wave a stick at! Assemble playlists to fit moods, situations or whatever else you think fits in a list. Go nuts with lists – it’s free. Enjoy your access everywhere, not just from the recliner. Eg add sound to beautiful landscape views – as you are taking them in.

Vintage stereo brings other facilities to the table. To me, the important ones (this is a ‘living list’!) would be what I’d call ‘event-listening’ and another one I’d call ‘multisensory experience’.

Event-listening because I have to sit down in front of the stereo and spend time to take in the music. Much alike going to a classic concert; sit down, shut up and listen. Skipping around is definitely possible, but I tend to not do that a lot as it disrupts the listening seance, constantly having to get up and walk over to the turntable/record-vault. Much like when fellow audience at the concert pushes past you to go pee – right in the middle of a good passage. Bloody annoying.

Multisensory experience because records are physical. Old covers smell different from new covers. They can have nicks and scratches left there at events you come to remember when you see them. There’s pictures and text to look at on covers – and sometimes the records themselves. Bringing 30 albums to an event requires a rucksack. Estimating remaining playing time is done by gauging the tonearm’s position. Even the electronics are a part of the experience. Loudspeakers have their given size because they’re obeying physical laws to attain a set design goal. You can see the volume level by looking at a dial, determining its position. Buttons have state and are reserved for discrete function choices; it’s for all to see if tone bypass is active and which input is currently selected. In general, devices do one thing only – much unlike smartphones that tend to do everything under the sun. Another thing i particularly enjoy is the absence of startup-time. Vintage stereo is either on or off, never im-just-starting-up-so-please-hold-on. With the notable exception of tube amps, of course. I don’t own any tube gear, likely because of this fact.

In a sense, vintage stereo is simple. So I take away a sense of confidence from operating vintage stereo. Sounds corny, but it appeals to me to understand how it all works. It makes me relax – especially when everything works as intended.