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Tales from the Golden Age, Chapter 1

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The memories of many past audio shows still ever so faintly echoing, “AXPONA” and the Dagogo presented “CA Audio Show” looming, this seems the perfect time for thoughtful reflection on who we are, what we’ve come from and were we might be heading and where we might alternately choose to be going, together!

And at the crux a rhetorical question, for reflection: Are all audiophiles in a constant state of dissatisfaction, and do we have a clear vision of who and what this industry/hobby is, and what it isn’t, and where our future takes us? Perhaps it’s of value for each of us to look back at the place where we began.

Viewing the landscape, and in the grand scheme of things I still consider myself an industry neophyte, as an audiophile, rapidly approaching old guard… from a family of audiophiles and progenitor of at least one additional generation of audiophile. My audio memory (such as it is) goes back to the halcyon days of the 60’s. And depending upon your point of reference, you may tend to think of that time as the “Golden Age of Audio”. Trust-me, having lived it, and I do not! It was fun, really big fun, but hardly golden!

But, back to echo’s in my head of local audio shows like our own Dagogo presented and sponsored, “CA Audio Show” which will be in Oakland this year. For those who have not been these large regional shows are in many ways the epitome of what one would wish for in a high-end consumer audio experience.

The show surroundings are always very pleasant! The venues are richly populated with recording artists, recording luminaries, software vendors, equipment makers, equipment sellers, our esteemed and congenial audio press and astute, discerning, knowledgeable and frequently very interesting end users. The barriers are down and it’s a vibrant firmament of uplifting dialog heralding a brilliant future for this hobby … or at least it should be!

A more common thread running through much of the early morning coffee shop, late night restaurant dialog is lament, bemoaning the passing of the “Golden Age of Audio”, the death of the recording arts, a decided lack of fresh talent,  the sameness of  all the new media, a dearth of tired re-releases, too many format changes and the corruption of the music industry in general.

When did this start, is this some fresh malaise or is this a chronic malingering fear? Within my sphere of friends, apparently chronic: symptomatically and reaching father back into antiquity than my memory allows. However, if I’m not mistaken the voices seem to have become more adamant and more focused on our demise with the passage of time.

So you, you curmudgeons go sit over there, give me my “safe-space”… go be miserable, I’m having fun! But just in case you are curious and want to join in …

Me, I’m laughing my way to a wicked case of tinnitus, and loving it … for this my friends is without a doubt the Most Golden Moment in the Golden Age of Audio. Look around you, open ears and mind and be amazed at the sights and sounds conveniently available to you. I don’t  aspire to sound like the bitter septuagenarian that I’m rapidly approaching (recalling my grandfather tell of walking 5 miles to school in the snow … up-hill all the while hungry, bare-foot and shivering!)

Seriously though if you came of age in the mid to late 60’s, early 70’s  you bled for information. Taking big bites, even modest bites out of the world took real focus and determination and big chunks of time and resources …. it wasn’t a simple matter of  saying “Hello-Google”. Discovery, it wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t instant.

Back in the day, in my tender years, our grail was the Schwann Record and Tape Guide. Starting from a 674 entry hand typed compendium in 1949, to slightly over 150,000 entries by the 1970’s, a fairly comprehensive listing of the word’s known body of recorded music. Now stop for a second and truly digest the force of that figure … In 1970 the western worlds totality of cataloged,  archived & potentially available body of recorded audio works was roughly 150,000 instances of product.

Of those 150,000 entries you typically had access to only those which were currently in vogue … the top 40 of only the most popular genre. World music didn’t exist (unless you count National Geogrpahic’s “The Music of Tonga”, “The Music of Mozambique”). If you were with reach of an urban FM radio market with diversity  your options might open up. If you were living 50 miles away (the average reach of an FM station) you’re opportunities shrunk exponentially.

Middle America was pretty homogenous and not nearly so diverse as the two coasts. McIntosh Labs used to publish their “Station Guide” it was a compendium that showcased cities on the two coasts of North America. If you were in  San Francisco, LA, Boston or NYC, as a music lover you had it made (in relative terms). From the Eastern Sierra’s in the West … across the plains to NYC in the East. with the exception of Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis  St Louis and a few other urban centers, usually not much to be heard and of the scant offerings not much in the way of alternative sounds.

For the majority of us perusing  the elusive 149,500 instances  of those 150,000 entries was a daunting and often fruitless  endeavor … sampling was a matter of imagination and perseverance; procurement was a long and arduous process that started and ended with trips to a distant department store over a period of many weeks … sometimes months. Followed by frequent disappointment at the listening. And after that tasting the cycle started afresh: the hunger to find and devour the next audio treasure!

Occasionally there were moments of sheer magic, so rare that the sweetness of the moment lingers 45 years on. I was a late night FM radio junkie … station groupie, a tolerated and occasionally useful pest. One of my haunts was the mighty KSAN, one of the pioneering free-form Rock and Roll stations in Northern CA. I could stack play-lists, fetch coffee, repair a cable, clear the debris … and more to the point, was practiced in the art of  “don’t ask, don’t tell!”

And the voice on the other-end of the telephone says: “Dude, 10 pm sharp Sunday night I’m gonna play that LP I was telling you about … the one by that old French dude.  Check it out, OK!”

Ten  O’Clock sharp the needle drops on L’enfant et Les Sortileges … and Ravel goes out across the airwaves. A week later a well worn LP arrives media mail, I’ve shared that same worn LP  with a few of you at audio shows, but mostly a Sunday night guilty pleasure, when I’m feeling nostalgic.

The nostalgia is at best a fleeting moment, when I recall how damn difficult it was for a teenage kid to even access the recorded works of Maurice Ravel. And if like me you did stumble upon something in your parents record collection (next to “Victory at Sea” or God help you  “The Astounding 12 String Guitar of Glenn Campbell“) you would have thought the man a “one hit wonder” …. something called “Pavane”. And you’d wonder “What the hell is a “Pavane?” (No offense to Richard Rogers or Glenn Campbell.)

The Schwann Catalog naturally cataloged only physical medium … so in all fairness and for the sake of comparison, lets do the same. However in lieu of the one distant department store and 200 of the 150,000 titles you can go seeking over 2 million record titles in print, and on-line. Many of the vendors let you sample before you buy … amazing, amazing stuff and instant gratification.

And a side note on the Schwann catalog. In the 1980’s it was acquired by the publishers of Stereophile and later by Valley Media … by 2002 the Schwann catalogs  had lost all relevance and readership, it’s remnants scattered in bankruptcy auction. And by then the Golden Era Redux was in full swing … we had the world at out fingertips, and few of us realized how far we had come and how quickly. Storefronts and an unimaginable plethora of musical selections choices could be in the shopping basket with a few keystrokes.

A few of my favorite online vendors of physcal media (Who update their listing in real time as opposed to  “The Schwann” which was a semi-annual and never truly accurate!)

Music Direct

Acoustic Sounds

Audiophile International

Amazon

Vinyl Me Please

Urban Outfitters

Insound

Discogs

Amoeba

 

And as a direct result my LP collection is in constant flux … every day a new advert from sellers awaits electronically.  In 1970, not even a graspable concept. I no longer have to wait for a DJ buddy to blow something past his Program Director, we have instant gratification options and the ability to send things of interest back and forth in a twinkling. And in spite of this many among us are bemoaning the passing of the local record store, the lack of good material. The wasteland of the airwaves. Well,  I’ve been in that ditch, and I know the way out!

Make you way down the local musicians emporium, the place where they sell “wooden boxes what make noise” and find the coolest looking kid there and ask him/her to show you their favorite pieces of  music … that one special thing that speaks to their soul. If you like what your shown and what you hear you just found your new personal shopper and the beginnings of a great symbiotic relationship.

Your newly minted doppelganger will show you new delights and you, my audiophile friends, are tasked with letting them experience “their-music” perhaps for the first time, ever.

It’s the drug culture model….. we all want cohorts; it’s up to you to go cultivate a few, and share with the rest of us what you find. To a lesser or greater degree, we’re all junkies. Music simply being a healthier form of addiction. And for your amusement a photograph from 1973 … the system that put me on this path  and a very warm thank you to my Cousin William Wayne Fears, for passing on the high-end addiction!

And to his sons  Lynn and Jeff: Your dad was COOL!

Go get your own copy of  “Rare Earth” you’ll be pulling your Dads original copy from my cold dead hands, if my kids don’t scuttle off with it first!

Teac R2R
Soundcraftsman EQ
DBX “Dynamic Range Expander”
Transcriptors Hydraulic Reference TT
SME 3009 Arm
Empire 1000 Zex cartridge
McIntosh MX 112 Tuner / Pre
The ability to make cassettes for the car
&
a less than mint + copy of L’Enfant et les Sortileges  (DGG 136-675)

– – To be continued.

 

Kent English is the North American Sales/Worldwide Technical Support of Pass Labs.

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