Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Tuesday 5 January 2016

The Wonders of Music part ii

Yesterday, I waxed lyrical about the wonders of classical music as given to me by a primary school teacher, the rather wonderful Mr Clay.

Today, I’m going to talk some more about music.

Things have changed so much since I was a kid that I hardly know myself where music is concerned. It all used to be so simple. We listened to the radio, then. We listened to Radio One and Luxembourg and Capital and Caroline. If we wanted to buy music, we bought vinyl records, but they were expensive. A seven inch single (one song on either side, but we almost never played the B-side) cost about the same as an hour’s pay. If you wanted to buy a top ten charting album in Woolworths in 1982 it would have cost you £9.49, in 1998 it was £17.49 and in 2008 an equivalent album cost £9.99. In 1982, I was earning 98p per hour. The minimum wage is now £6.70 and the cost of a single tune from Adele’s latest chart topping album 25 on iTunes is 99p. It literally costs the same amount of money to buy a single now as it did in 1982, but wages have increased almost sevenfold. In 1982, an album would have cost me more than a day’s pay, and more than I regularly paid for a dress or a pair of jeans.

It sounds crazy when I put it like that, but it’s still true.

The only free access we had to music was the radio, and we used it. As kids, we also shared music. We shared it within the family, not least because most families had one record player and it lived in the sitting room. We also shared it with friends, mostly by taping our music.

Tape recorders were expensive, but we all, eventually, got our own as Christmas or birthday presents. Some plugged in, some took batteries. My sister’s first car didn’t have a radio, so we used to travel with a tape recorder and a glove box full of batteries.

We bought budget tapes in multi-packs, and we reused them. Sometimes we taped entire albums; more often we made mix-tapes, and we regularly taped the chart shows on the radio, which meant we also got the whole show, including everything that the DJ said, and usually stuff that came before and after the show, too. Our machines were manual; you couldn't just set them up and expect them to record when the show started. We had to simultaneously press the record and play buttons. 

It all worked fine if the tape deck was integral to the radio, but some of us actually had to position our tape deck so that the microphone was in proximity to the speaker on the radio, or even the television before pressing the buttons. Sound reproduction was diabolical as the mic would pick up all the background noise in the room, as well as the music we wanted to listen to over and over again. Tape quality was often poor because we could only afford the cheapest tapes, and we taped over and over them.

We didn’t care. It was the music that mattered, not the sound reproduction. I loved music, but by the end of my teens, my tastes had developed, and I no longer want to listen to the stuff my siblings were listening to. I only owned a handful of records, mostly bought as gifts, but I did build up a bit of a tape collection. The husband, who was the boyfriend then, made me lots of tapes, and it was those that I took to university with me.

After university, music was, essentially, free, for me at least. I could have whatever I wanted and as much of it as I wanted. What’s more, I had access to a damned fine music system to play it on.

After university, I worked for a hi-fi magazine, which included a record review section. I learned a lot about the hardware, and, most importantly, I learned the kind of sound that I wanted out of the system. My tastes in music also broadened quite dramatically. 

That’s about the time that CDs happened. In the beginning, I could hear that the CD format wasn’t great. Vinyl just sounded better, even on cheap music systems.

Time moved on. I stopped work, lost access to the music and the technology, and I forgot all about it. CDs became the easy go-to, and then, of course, MP3 players.

I don’t know when the husband and I started talking about real music again, but it was probably a couple of years ago. We realised that we weren’t listening to music in the way that we used to, and that we weren’t buying as much music, or listening to it as often as we once had. We weren’t enjoying music in the same way and we weren’t getting enthusiastic about new finds, new bands, new stuff coming along.

The same thing had happened to us with photography, and we’d rectified it by switching cameras. I’d bought the husband a great little digital, and I’d found some lovely old film cameras for myself. We started taking photos again. We started to enjoy doing it, and we started to get results.

A couple of months ago, the CD player in the drawing room started playing up. I had to meddle with it to get it to play CDs, and I knew I’d have to replace it some time soon. On Christmas Day, we noticed an odd smell in the drawing room and quickly realised that the amp had burned out. It was a blessing in disguise. We decided to ditch the old separates, and we went out and bought a little mini system. We still had access to a CD player and we still had an iPod dock, but we also decided to take the opportunity to add a turntable.

To begin with, we bought a cheap, off the shelf turntable that we could just plug in and not worry about. We weren’t even sure that we’d use the thing, or what it would sound like after not playing vinyl for twenty-five years. That day, we also took a trip to a local second hand record shop and to HMV, and bought some records, mostly for their nostalgia value.

An hour later, we were playing tunes.

It was a revelation!

Even on a cheap deck plugged into a mini-system, vinyl sounds very different from any other format. Analogue recordings on old vinyl sound even better. It’s the stuff that I remember, and I like it. Of course, part of the experience was the nostalgia of the albums that we’d chosen to buy, but there were other things, too. I love the rituals of vinyl. I love slipping a record out of its sleeve and putting it on the deck. I love the slight crackle as the stylus hits the groove, and I love the hisses and cracks and pops that no other format has... And did I mention that analogue recordings on vinyl simply sound better?

Of course, some of the records aren’t great, but that's because we bought some modern pressings of digital recordings; I’ll be reverting to digital formats of those tunes, for now. Modern, digital recordings on cheap vinyl aren't great purchases, but we all live and learn.

Right now, I suspect the husband and I are going to become regular visitors to our local second hand record shops, and, who knows, eBay might become a good source for our scavenging. I suspect there might also be a decent music system in our futures.

A bit of Hi-Fi Porn for the enthusiast.
the Linn Sondek LP12, arguably the best and most beautiful
turntable in the World
I still maintain that it’s the music that really matters, though. I’ve known hi-fi enthusiasts who spent fortunes on hardware and spent more time tweaking it than listening to music on it. I’ve known hi-fi enthusiasts listen to music sitting still and silent in a perfectly positioned chair. I’m not one of those people. When I listen to music, I still want to talk and even sing, and, if the mood takes me, I want to turn the volume up and rock some moves. I used to have access to some of the best hi-fi in the World, made by Linn and Naim, and it’s wonderful stuff for those of you with deep pockets, big vinyl collections and serious time to listen to records. 

In the end, though, the music’s the thing.

1 comment:

  1. I remember the joys of recording from the radio. If you didn't want the whole show, you listened frantically to what the DJ said was coming up, and when the song was mentioned you stood by the radio with the recorder in one hand and the other on the buttons hoping the DJ would announce it before playing it so you didn't miss the first seconds.

    I still have a few of my old mix tapes; complete with missing intros and DJs talking over the bridge.