Perfect Sound That Lasts Forever

Perfect sound that lasts forever? Sadly, no. This somewhat rash statement – coined to launch compact discs back in the early 1980s – was soon taken to task by the hi-fi press.
Perhaps the biggest problem – certainly of the first batch of CD issues – was that the tapes used for mastering were those which had been optimised for vinyl and cassette.  And such mastering would have to reflect the necessary compromises required to produce an acceptable side of tape or vinyl. Reduced volume, seriously reduced bass levels, audio peaks smoothed off.  The transparency of the CD system made the earliest batch of discs sound boring and flat.  As a result, the hi-fi cognoscenti advised us to stick to discs that were pure digital recordings. Such albums proudly boasted the legend DDD on the cover. Except that this method of recording was largely confined to classical and jazz records. Old analogue recordings could only ever achieve the ADD status (analogue recording, digitally remastered). A proportion of an already confused record buying public filtered their buying habits to only purchasing DDD discs.

Another dilemma, seldom discussed, is that compact discs are in reality anything but. Your old record store had racks crammed with thousands of albums. Once converted to a CD only outlet, the range of titles would invariably decrease - and dramatically so. Ironically, CDs simply take up more space and considerably more retail footage. They require more elaborate home storage solutions - many more LPs can be stored in the same linear space as can CDs. Perhaps here was a reason why so many CD-only stores didn’t last that long – there was not the space to offer a good range of titles, whilst the old records shops, despite being shoebox sized, seemed to hold every record in the catalogue. 

(This somewhat bold statement might not as be as preposterous as one might think. In my formative years there were very few independent labels, precious little available on import and there were certainly no huge reissue programmes nor mining of back catalogues. Record companies – with the exception of Decca* – seemed determined to delete everything. Record company catalogues in the 70s were surprisingly slim).

Meanwhile, back in the early digital age, some classical CDs were returned to shops by perturbed customers because the range in playback volume was too great – never having visited a concert hall, listeners were not prepared for the audio extremes (from hush-hush to World War 3) that are characteristic of certain classical lollipops (i.e. Tchaikovsky’s 1812, Beethoven’s choral symphony). Vinyl had never been able to properly reproduce such extremes in volume required by certain music.  It still can’t.

The release of The Beatles’ catalogue on compact disc in 1987 effectively snatched the format away from hi-fi bores and handed it to the public at large. Although the discs remained expensive (£10 - £12) the players could now be bought for £100 (compared to the £800 - £1,000 launch price of a few years earlier). Although in-car players were still a rich man’s toy, the CD Walkman was making inroads. With the popularity of the in-car cassette machine, vinyl was suddenly on the wane.

The general public are definitely not audiophiles. Rather, they prefer accessibility and functionality than pure sound quality. They’ll accept the boom and tizz produced by cheap audio equipment as a substitute for genuine accuracy in sound.  But their audio format of choice must maintain functionality, first and foremost.  One of the biggest nails in vinyl’s coffin was that as the years passed, and with the acceptance of stereo as the dominant format, records were being cut louder and louder – and with far greater bass volume than before. Turntables attached to bottom of the market equipment were simply unable to play many contemporary records without the stylus jumping out of the grooves. The pronounced disco beats in albums such as ELO’s Discovery, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and even Paul McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace caused the cheap, plastic moulded tone arms in music centres and stack systems to skip merrily across the offending tracks.  Unhappy customers tried copy after copy of albums in vain attempts to find a one that played.  Particularly at fault were the original Metal Box triple 12" set by Public Image Ltd and the 12" remix of Armagideon Times by The Clash.  Neither record would play on cheap and awful turntables without the needle skipping across the grooves; it seemed that  practically every copy of each record was returned to the store.

Many albums were re-cut to ease off the pronounced bass notes, aggressive percussion and pounding drum patterns that were causing the needle to skip.  On original pressings of Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing, track 2, side 1 (Luka) was anathema to Amstrads everywhere. Meanwhile, as far back as 1969, original (American) copies of Led Zeppelin II were recalled because many turntables couldn’t handle the sheer audio wallop of Whole Lotta Love. Such original pressings are now highly prized amongst collectors and audiophiles. In 1979, CBS issued the now-cult status album Oasis by Jimmy Messina.  Hardly any turntables could play track 1 (New And Different Way) without skipping. The record was withdrawn and did not reappear in the UK, not even as a CD. (Years later, the album caught the ears of soul and jazz fans for its gentle and appealing mix of funk, jazz and west coast rock. But there are barely any UK pressings to be found).   In 1984, Telarc issued The Cincinnati Philharmonic’s all-digital version of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. No turntable (no matter how expensive and properly set up) could get past the cannons at the end of side 1. The record was withdrawn, hastily reissued in a new cut that still, only some tone arms could manage. Meanwhile, the CD version carried a hi-fi health warning, in that speaker damage might occur if the disc was played at anything approaching realistic volume.

Enter the midi system. Except in a few cases, there was no room for a turntable on such audio kit. But inevitably there would be a twin tape cassette machine, an AM/FM tuner and a CD player. By 1990, the unthinkable happened – best selling titles in record company vinyl catalogues started appearing on deletion lists. WEA deleted the entire Led Zeppelin vinyl catalogue. Ace records announced in 1991 that once existing vinyl titles were exhausted, they would not be replaced. CD and tapes were King. For much of the 90s, record stores either carried little or no vinyl. Many titles that did make it onto vinyl as new releases were issued as limited editions only, a few thousand copies at most to satisfy collectors and to award kudos/credibility to the respective artists.  This same practice continues to this day.

With the arrival of the in-car CD player as standard equipment, and later on in the 90s recordable and rewritable compact discs, cassette sales dropped off to nothing. Electronics giant Sony launched a second tangible audio format (MiniDisc) and Philips’ introduced digital compact cassettes (DCC). Sony had tried a few years earlier with digital audio tape (DAT) which although a failure with consumers, soon became accepted as a professional recording and broadcast tool. Mini Disc lasted a few years on the fringes of market penetration but soon disappeared once the domestic PC could process mp3 recordings, coupled with the emergence of high capacity players such as Apple’s iPod. (Mini Disc was an excellent broadcast tool in its day and despite its compressed audio format, the fidelity was excellent and the discs were versatile, durable and easily editable. Not forgetting that they loaded and cued up in seconds).

Cynics observed that the repeated attempts to launch more audio carrier systems were as much aimed at generating repeat sales of back catalogue titles (I.e. selling the same album several times across many formats). But with the overall failure of Mini Disc, DCC and DAT – and in the 1970s, Elcaset, 8-Track and quadraphonic vinyl (fragmented across at least 3 incompatible systems) invariably one dominant format always remained – until 1987, the long playing record, and ever since then our friend The Compact Disc.  Of late, SACD, DVD audio, HD CD and of course digital downloads (once again, in several formats, not all of them compatible) still cannot shake the dominance of the CD. Surely, recorded music deserves some form of tangibility. Downloads have no collectability, no resale value, no desirous artwork. Downloads make rotten presents (containing about as much thought value as, say, a gift token). Gee, thanks – an album you got for free from The Pirate Bay? You shouldn’t have.  No, really.  It’s the thought that counts, and you didn’t use any. Oh, you got it from The Apple Store? That’s OK then. 

The disappearance of vinyl from the high street in the late 80s/early 90s actually created a golden age for record buyers. With budget priced turntables still in abundance (notably the Dual CS 503, coupled with Ortofon OM pickup) it was a great time to enjoy LP records. Joe Public seemed determined to purge his record collection in favour of CDs – second hand shops, car boot sales and charity stores were full of otherwise unwanted vinyl, much of it selling for £1 or less.

In later years, news items regularly herald the return of vinyl – some even going so far as to suggest that the good old LP is outselling the compact disc (it isn’t, and has not done so since 1987). Invariably, such news items are propped up with what has become a fashionable opinion, nay, bald statement of fact – that vinyl sounds better than CD (loads more on this hot topic elsewhere on this site). These reports mostly seem to overlook that the purchase price of a new slice of vinyl is spiralling upwards – minimum outlay £15 each, whilst a CD of the same title can be had for around a fiver. Not forgetting that vinyl releases are limited to a few thousand copies at best.  Record sales are however on the up, which can only be seen as a good thing.  Collecting vinyl records inseparable from loving music.

The best reasons to pursue and preserve the practice of listening to music produced by a profiled diamond stylus, tracing a concentric groove in a 300mm black vinyl disc are straightforward and unpretentious: -

  • There are millions – billions - of records in circulation still
  • Records that don’t get played are every bit as tragic as unread books or letters never sent
  • Records can sound amazing
  • Dirty and scratched records can easily be restored.

Even worn records – those played to death via a blunt stylus on a cheap turntable – are not beyond rescue. Best of all, such audio recovery is probably within your capability, financial and otherwise.  You'll get the hang. No multi-thousand pound record cleaning devices are required, nor expensive audio recovery software necessary. You will need a good turntable, agreed. But that’s already a given if you’re going to listen to these confounded things in the first place.

Not forgetting that: -

  • Thousands of titles will never receive a CD reissue. Go out and get some.
  • Playing records is dead cool.

Redcord collecting over CDs? Hmmm…

All those in favour

  • Records sound great
  • Turntables look dead cool, especially whilst doing what they oughtta should
  • Reading sleeve notes whilst listening is part of the deal
  • So is dreaming of owning all of the other albums listed on the inner sleeve
  • Crate digging is the best fun

It Ain’t Necessarily So

  • The frankly bizarre misconception that vinyl is the best way of storing and retrieving recorded sound
  • The sheer expense of buying 180g reissues (especially those remastered from digital tapes)

* Until 1979, Decca seemed reluctant to delete anything. They were then bought out by Polygram – and their inches-thick catalogue was reduced to what was in reality a pamphlet. The deletions list that resulted from this savage cull resembled a telephone directory. One other label that displayed reluctance to pruning their catalogue was EMI – but that was mostly limited to records by The Beatles. As of 1979, seemingly not one Beatles record (or solo outing) had been deleted in any format. All of the solo albums and singles, all the mono LPs, even the quadrophonic version of John Lennon’s Imagine were held in stock. Plus, amazingly, the 5” open reel tapes of the original Beatles albums were still listed.  

Now, stay with me here. The exception to this rule was records released on the Apple or Zapple labels. For contractual reasons, all of the Apple releases – Wonderwall Music, Two Virgins, Life With The Lions, James Taylor’s debut album at al – all disappeared in the mid to late 70s.

Confusingly, Beatles albums issued with Apple labels (Abbey Road, Let It Be etc.) remained on catalogue.  Collectors have long known that late period Beatles albums were actually released on Parlophone with standard EMI catalogue numbers but with the custom Apple label and graphics on the record.

There were a few actual Apple records that escaped this contractual cull: -

  • Lennon’s Live Peace In Toronto, which remained in catalogue
  • George Harrison’s Wonderwall reappeared in the 80s as a European EMI Electrola reissue
  • John & Yoko’s Wedding Album and Life With The Lions were treated to the briefest of reissues in Japan in 1980

Apple records (i.e. those with SAPCOR catalogue numbers) remained unavailable until a CD reissue programme began in 1995.

Some years earlier, large quantities of unsold and surviving stocks of Apple records were discovered at EMI’s warehouses. Plans were made to redistribute these records to retailers, or even to sell them directly to the collectors market, but these never materialised. I’m guessing that the lawyers put the brakes on that.