Ave Atque Vale, CD!

Ave Atque Vale, CD!
Mike Silverton
April 1999

Clem Perry asks for a wee spurt of prose to help launch his webzine. Back at Apex Greeting, where I do the verse for condolance cards, I get $8.75 the word. For an old pal like Clem, it’s barter. My handle and that of my Doppelgänger, Signor Scardanelli, appears in Clem’s masthead as an exercise of what the Internet does best: a hyperlink to our music commentary in my own webzine, La Folia. Disclosure: Madrigal Audio Laboratories sponsors La Folia. Demurrer: my relationship to Madrigal in no way affects Clem’s operation. Truth be told, he’s not especially hot for Madrigal’s Mark Levinson gear. Clem and I have discussed these matters at length and with some heat. As a generality, unless the designer of a given audio object obtained his degree in electronics in a distant galaxy, or if the piece isn’t hand-assembled out back in the garage or in a moonlit, mountaintop temple by Aquarian consumptives, it fails to attract my buddy’s interest. He’s a fair-minded fellow withal as witness the rant I’ll soon be submitting about the Mark Levinson one-click-under-reference No.33H mono amps.

When writers pontificate about recording, we know what they listen to. If they presume to comment on a recording’s sound quality, it’s equally important to know what they listen with. Further disclosure: we begin with the Mark Levinson No.39 CD player and move right along (close, indeed, to the speed of light) to the Levinson No.33H mono power amplifiers, thence to Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 5.1 speaker systems. Cabling: Nordost Quattro Fil balanced interconnects, Nordost SPM speaker cables. Tweaks: for the CD player only, an Audio Power Industries’ 112 Ultra Power Wedge line conditioner and API PL 311 and 313 Power Link line cords. Under the player, a Bright Star Audio air-cushion platform. A pair of Siltech jumpers Scot Markwell made for me replaces the W/P’s Puppy Tails. I play CDs only, and the player’s analog level control does for a preamp. There you have it: CD player, amps, speakers, tweaks. If the listener proposes to get as close as he can to the recording rather than adrift in a sea of ersatz liquidity, musicality, whatever, less is more, always, amen.

On, then, to the much maligned compact disc. I am so very grateful to Clem for allowing me this opportunity to set up my little soap box here at the end of the line. For it does appear that the 16-bit CD will soon defer to a disc embracing an expanded word-length and, who knows, additional channels. Sooner than later, the CD joins the LP in history. But not, I think, in fond regard. Why, I wonder.

From the compact disc’s inception, we’ve had examples of good-sounding productions along, of course, with rubbish. Yet if the digital playback medium were capable of but one sonically splendid exemplar, why isn’t it clear to the format’s loud and persistent critics that their disdain is misdirected? I am listening at the moment to a much-loved four-disc set on Philips, Mozart / The Great Sonatas for Piano and Violin / Arthur Grumiaux, violin; Walter Klien, piano [412 141-2]. The digital sessions took place in ’81 through ’83 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. The box does not state the set’s release date but it does tell us the catalog numbers of the five-LP and three-microcassette versions, a marketing practice long since abandoned. Victor, Count Goldstein recommended these gorgeous performances ages ago, and it’s become one of the things I delight in after a day of critical listening to what a colleague has characterized as cats-in-a-clothes-dryer music. Were these Mozart discs issued last week, I’d not question their verisimilitude to live music. Is the production perfect? I detect on my present system a mild, not unattractive veil. But certainly none of these irritants the CD’s critics trot out time and again as ample reason to mourn the LP’s demise.

It’s important to mention that I write about classical music, primarily recent, and a little jazz because, unlike a good deal of pop, classical is for the most part recorded as a simultaneity in an effort to replicate the way in which we hear it live. (Live jazz is almost always amplified, generally terribly, as something to bemoan for another time.) The old engineers we revere — Lewis Layton, David Jones, Bob Fine, Kenneth Wilkinson, Marc Aubort — did their work by minimal means, and some do still. Aubort, for example, is active. But setup was always a painstaking, time-hungry affair. When budget-conscious producers got their hands on multi-track recorders, multi-miking soon followed, and so, beginning, I believe, in the middle Sixties, the recording of acoustic (unlayered) events took a downward turn. Witness the unenviable reputation Columbia Records earned among audiophiles. As a generality, many of the majors shared in critical pejoration. On the one hand, poor productions, on the other, inferior pressings…. I oversimplify, of course. Economies weren’t the only factor. Willful celebs like Bernstein and Karajan presided, post-session, over the mixing board to achieve the balances they sought — bring up the cellos, less trombone — never quite understanding that their technology-heavy legacy sounds, as sound, not very good. But even through this bleak period, competent producer-engineer teams turned out quality recordings which have always sounded right, on vinyl and on silver.

One would be foolish to deny inferior CD reissues. John Culshaw’s landmark production, the Decca / London Solti Ring, is an ameliorative case in point: earlier digitized disinterments were poor. Similarly, EMI’s new ART (Abbey Road Technology) provides us with accurate — read: analog-like — reissues of historically significant releases. One would be no less foolish to deny that digital playback gear has improved over the years. Comparisons will prove it to all but the comatose. And yet, in the face of these necessary admissions — one cannot say this too often — I’ve any number of CDs on my shelves, original productions issued from the early Eighties on, that I play today with pleasure. Thus one’s impatience with the digiphobic claque for the widespread mischief it’s wrought. Wherefore mischief? The expression “filter-down economics” (as a refashioning, I suppose, of “What’s good for GM is good for the country”) perhaps defines a fact of civilized life. Attitudes also filter down, as another fact of civilized life. I wish I’d kept a log of the comments I’ve seen in the general-interest press about how much better vinyl is. One especially truculent speciment has made a good living carrying on thus. Were it not for my disquietude at the prospect of a letter bomb, I’d identify him to you. Look, if this ditzy mindset operates merely as an aspect of the nostalgia besetting postmodern society, let’s let it go with the rest of the foolishness. If, however, it parrots the claque, more’s the pity.

Higher-resolution digital? Come, dearest, to our loving bosoms! Yet this condition of secularized agape reminds me of the anecdote about a woman trying on shoes. “I wear size seven, but eight feels so good, I think I’ll take a nine.” In other words, fellow music lovers, 16-bit technology, properly utilized, has given us some remarkably good recordings. The better I make my sound system, a statement of opinion more and more resembles a fact.

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