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The 78 Experience: Feeling the music instead of listening to the sound - a matter of the art & the heart!

10-23-2020 | By Jeff Day |

It might seem a bit odd to you that lately I've been talking about listening to and enjoying ancient 78rpm record transfers from the earliest recording eras on CD, rather than just playing 78s themselves.

I do have some 78 records in my record collection, but I haven't yet set up a system that's optimized for 78 playback, which is something I may explore at some point in the future.

However, in the mean time, I'm probably where most of you are, in that I don't currently have a system optimized around playing 78rpm records, but I can play back recordings from the early recording eras on a CD player or via streaming.

While I have enjoyed listening to a number of 78 transfers to CDs for years now of music that is important to me, like parts of the Bing Crosby box set in the photo above, and some others, what I am intrigued about is the increasing number of transfers of 78s to CD that are becoming available.

I believe this in an important developing trend, as it is opening up listening to a number of superb musical performances from bygone recording eras that aren't readily available in any other way that makes them easily accessible. 

Leopold Stokowski at Carnegie Hall 1947 (public domain photo)

I first started thinking about music from earlier recording eras while I was researching the background of conductor Leopold Stokowski for the Duelund-Altec Project article at Positive Feedback, which was focused on updating Leopold Stokowski's custom vintage Altec loudspeakers with the state-of-art Duelund CAST tinned-copper crossovers.

I feel really fortunate to have been able to obtain Dr. Stokowski's custom Altec loudspeakers for my home listening, which I usually refer to as the "Stokowski" Altecs to keep life simple, and to differentiate them from my other pairs of vintage Altecs in my audio writing.  

Music for All of Us, by Leopold Stokowski. This is a phenomenal book, with many insights related to music and audio.

I read everything I could find about Dr. Stokowski, including his own book, Music For All Of Us, which is outstanding, and I recommend it to you if you haven't already read it.

One of the things that I was most intrigued by was that Dr. Stokowski - aside from him being a great conductor, pianist, general celebrity, and that I had his personal loudspeakers in my home - was that early in his career he became interested in the technical aspects of the recording and playback of music, something that most conductors of the time eschewed.

Dr. Stokowski studied audio engineering via the University of Pennsylvania under the guidance of Professor Charles Weyl, and was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate for his accomplishments in music, audio engineering, and film.

To get more to the point, Leopold Stokowski worked closely with recording engineers during the acoustic horn recording era (1917-1924), the electrical recording era (1925-1940), and the "modern" analog recording era until his death (1941-1977), always striving for improved fidelity of recorded music.

Dr. Stokowski played and heard music through all of the recording eras, and he wanted you to hear all that music too, as he discussed in Music For All Of Us: "A great orchestral conductor presents the full scope of music as he sees it, and shows how the enjoyment of music is a birthright in which all can freely share."

Leopold Stokowski's custom Altec loudspeakers.

One thing I was particularly struck by with Dr. Stokowski's vintage Altecs - and Altec loudspeakers in general - was how well they played music from all recording eras and turned them into an engrossing musical experience.

Dr. Stokowski no doubt listened to music in every format that was available to him during his lifetime with his various home hifi systems, so he no doubt wanted a hifi that could accomodate the wide range of music from the different recording areas that his life and career spanned, and make it sound musically engaging - thus the Altecs.

Peter Qvortrup (Audio Note (UK)) in his home listening room.

The next step in my evolving awareness of how important those early recording eras are to our musical heritage was when visiting Peter Qvortrup.

Peter is a true music lover who wants to listen to the entire spectrum of music from the different recording eras and have it be musically compelling, and he first played some of his 78 transfers to CD for me in his home system. Those transfers were transcendent. 

Peter's AML transfers to CD.

Most of the time when you visit music and audio enthusiasts they bring out their best "audiophile approved" recordings to listen to, but not Peter, he played the music he loved, and in doing so did me a great favor.

Peter lavished that same loving care on his 78 transfers to CDs, that the best re-releases of music from Chad Kassem's Analogue Productions label does to his music genres, for example, and they are in a different league than my more generic 78 transfers to CD.

Peter's 78 transfers to CDs, as well as my own CDs with commercial 78 transfers, are somewhat of a different kind of listening experience than audiophile releases, a listening experience that has allowed me to realize a couple of important points.

Very generally speaking, listening to music engages my mind, intellect, emotions, and physical body, to varying degrees depending on the music, and the different media from different recording eras emphasizes those those responses to differing degrees.

For example, in the audiophile-style systems I have owned, my mind and intellect are strongly stimulated (e.g. with "super" recordings that emphasize visuospatial recording artifacts), and when the music is also really good, my emotions are engaged to varying degrees depending on the music.

However, in my listening I've realized that I now want to explore more of our recorded musical legacy, so I want to have a hifi system, or systems, that make exploring all music a rewarding listening experience.   

Think about how rich our recorded music canon is from all those eras, and much of what was recorded in a prior era - particularly the earliest eras - was never re-released in later eras, well until now, that is.

In the USA, the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center has archived our recorded music history so that the generations that come will be able to enjoy our recorded music heritage, and of course other countries have done the same.

Humanity’s entire recorded music canon is of enormous historic importance to the musical arts, and it can be immensely gratifying to become more familiar with all parts of our musical history and legacy, as a well-rounded person who appreciates music.

Recordings popular among audiophiles probably make up less than one percent of the music recorded since the beginning of the recording arts, so if that’s all you listen to, you are missing much of the important recorded musical legacy that is available to us, and are depriving yourself of some truly great music that will expand your listening horizons.

At least that is the conclusion I have come to.

So that means a couple of things to me. First finding more music to explore from all the recording eras, and having the equipment that brings out the best of that music from all those recording eras.

For my audio writing here at Jeff's Place and at Positive Feedback that emphasis will become an increasing focus of mine, both with the music, and with the audio equipment I write about.

Peter's prototype Audio Note (UK) field-coil loudspeakers, and his source and amplification components in his home system.

Peter has realized the importance of listening to music from all recording eras for a long time, and as a result his Audio Note (UK) systems are all designed to get the most music out of any music one would care to play.

So Peter's home system - and those he sells to customers - are exceptional in terms of high-fidelity to the music - of any recording era - as well as to sounding superb in the usual audiophile sense.

So back to Peter playing those 78 transfers for me in his home system, and then later sending some to me to listen to in my system.

First of all, it was a real ear-opener to hear those 78 transfers in Peter's home system, and now in my own hifi systems. 

Those we listened to were some superb music from the acoustic recording era (1890s to 1924), with transfers from 78 rpm albums to CD made by Peter's friend, the great recording engineer, Anatoly Markovich Likhnitsky.

Peter Qvortrup gave me a number of CDs with 78 transfers remastered by his friend, Anatoly Markovich Likhnitsky, to listen to, and one CD-R with some select 78 rpm and LP recordings that span the history of the recording arts.

When acoustic recording sessions were conducted there were no microphones or recording electronics in existence yet, and the sound of instruments and vocals were directed into a recording horn, which vibrated a diaphragm and stylus that etched the sound waves of the music onto rotating wax discs. The whole recording chain was a couple of feet long, and there were no electronics or cables involved. A purely acoustic analog recording was the result.

So here's what's different about listening to these 78 transfers to CD compared to listening to more typical contemporary recordings and perfectionist re-releases of "super" albums: in me, they trigger a much stronger emotional response from the music. 

I find myself "feeling" the music more, in my emotions, as well as in my mind, intellect, and body. However, instead of going "Wow! That sounds great!", I'm noticing more the artistry of the musicians and music, and how listening to it makes me feel. 

While these discs have recording anomalies inherent to their recording era (i.e. some surface noise and frequency response limitations), they somehow transcend those recording anomalies to trigger an emotional response while listening that I find quite extraordinary, and greater in magnitude than many modern recordings.

However, there is a caveat here: to get the most out of the media you have to have a system that allows for that, and not many audiophile-style systems in my experience allow that to happen. 

Still, even if you are unsure about how your system might perform with these recordings from different eras, you should give them a try.

You'll hear at least part of what makes these recordings so remarkable, they will change you, and help steer you to getting your hifi dialed in to enjoy a much broader spectrum of our musical heritage.

At least that's what has happened to me.

The "Stokowski" Altec loudspeakers.

Duelund CAST tinned-copper crossovers in the "Stokowski" Altec loudspeakers.

Audio Note (UK) AN-S4/L step-up transformer, with Audio Note (UK) CD 2.1x/II Level Two Red Book CD player (left) with Audio Note (UK) Oto Phono SE Signature integrated amplifier.

My "Stokowski" Altecs with the Duelund crossovers do that, and Peter's Audio Note (UK) electronics do that, for example, and the combination is mind blowing from a musical perspective.

Case in point: yesterday my friend, jazz guitar instructor, and incredibly talented jazz guitarist, David Gitlen came over to give me a lesson, the first time we have seen each other since the coronavirus pandemic started. We played it safe with wearing masks and maintaining appropriate social distance.

I'm still early in the learning stages of playing jazz guitar, but I find it incredibly rewarding, and after we finished up with the lesson we sat down for a little music listening.

David is a musician, who also likes fine audio, and had vintage McIntosh equipment and JBL loudspeakers back in the day, so he knows good playback when he hears it.

While listening to the Altec & Audio Note (UK) combination of equipment David commented on how enjoyable it was to listen to, and how "real" and "authentic" it sounded while we were listening to some Joe Pass albums on CD and LP, who David heard many times play live back in the days that Joe was still with us.

There's just something different, more emotionally engaging, more "authentic", more "real", about this sort of presentation that is very rewarding - and addicting - to listen to music with, whether it be the recordings from the acoustic era, or contemporary perfectionist re-releases.

So in addition to writing more about audio equipment that performs well in that regard, I'm also going to write a series of posts over time about listening to 78 transfers to CD while I'm broadening my own exposure to our recorded musical heritage from the various recording eras.

My intent is to share my own journey with you, my discoveries, what I learn along the way from others, and I hope to whet your musical appetite in such a way to encourage the collective "us" to broaden our listening interests.

I want to hear about your musical discoveries along the ways as well, so let me know what gems you come across.

I have found all of this has really gotten me excited about music and hifi all over again, and I'm looking forward to sharing what I learn and experience with you all. 

As the title of this post says, the 78 experience is more about "feeling" the artistry of the musicians and music, "feeling" the emotional content of the music, instead of just listening to the sound of a good recording.

This is about making music a matter of the art & the heart, and I find it is really very satisfying on a deep emotional level. 

With a little luck - ok, maybe a lot of luck - this kind of listening focus might present an opportunity to get people in the industry more interested in making more of these amazing 78 recordings available on a broader basis as high-quality re-releases, which is something I think we would all benefit from.

Stay tuned for more!

As always, thanks for stopping by, and may the tone be with you!

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