Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Remember the days of vinyl record wear and inner groove distortion?

When I took piano starting in the early 1950s, the teacher had a Wednesday afternoon “class” where she taught ear training in her Arlington basement by playing records, many of which were old 78’s. I seem to remember one of a prelude from “La Traviata”.

One time we had a “high fidelity” and record care lesson, which was an introduction to LP records and some instruction on how they should be handled.

At home, I had an old RCA Victor LP record changer with a tone arm that tracked at 10 grams and we used sapphire needles until the summer after my graduation from high school. A high school buddy that summer mentioned the days of wood needles!

At William and Mary that lost fall semester of 1961, I met a freshman from California who claimed to have composed 57 symphonies, and at least one piano concerto in E-flat which he played in piano reduction for me one time in a practice room in Ewell Hall. I still could reconstruct it by ear now (maybe I will if I buy an electric piano).

He talked about record care and gave me some old records, including a brittle old Columbia of the Bach Schubler chorales, and Bruno Walter Mozart 25th (little G Minor) and 28th symphonies. He used to say no one should play Beethoven until 30, and considered the “real music” to end with Schubert. I remember a particular conversation about the Schubert B-flat sonata.

During my NIH “incarceration” in the fall of 1962, my parents “gave in” and bought me a Voice of Music Stereo. I remember the first music that I played on a home stereo was the opening movement of the Mahler 7th on Westminster (another gift from John). The effect was stunning. But on Christmas Day I would get Beethoven’s Ninth (Angel, Klemperer) and Mahler’s Fourth (also Angel and Klemperer). The first stereo record in the basement would be the sleighbell opening of the Mahler Fourth. (For the Mahler First and Ninth I “grew up” on Horenstein on Vox).

But once I had a VM stereo, I found that all the records with piano had been ruined as they got into the inner grooves. That included, for example, the wonderful climax at the end of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. The piano would completely break up. The stereo (.7 mil) stylus would get covered with black vinyl shavings. I tried replacing the other-side 78 stylus with a 1-mil stylus for mono records to reduce the effective tracking force. At the time, around 1963, the Girrard Changer tracking at 3 grams was considered advanced, but technology would improve quickly. Pretty soon elliptical styli were introduced, but they actually presented less surface area and could cause more wear.

In 1974, in New York City, I bartered away a Miracord turntable and tonearm for a piece of sculpture of a space alien by artist Stuart Lamle.

Record stores sold little magnifying glasses to check styli. I would wonder if a broken or chipped stylus could ruin an entire collection without being noticed until replacement.

When CD’s were introduced in 1983 (I started buying them in 1985; “Also Sprach Zarathustra” on London was the first), people said they would last forever, but that may not be true. Maybe a few decades. Temperature and humidity can damage them, as can the rubber foam on multiple sets, which should be discarded.

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