A Sound Story

Thinking about those moments and times when one is genuinely arrested – stopped in motion – one confesses their rarity. They stand out in memory because they were at once unique (or nearly so) and physically material.

Twenty-year-olds are well-known for knowing everything and are beyond surprise. It’s rather amazing just how much they know, despite the brevity of their experience. Nonetheless, this is the way things are and there’s little to be done about it. It’s as though they come packaged with the slogan: “Can’t surprise me.”

But, of course, they can.

Ushered into an enormous sound studio masquerading as an insane asylum, the walls are padded and what appear to be egg crates likewise form the ceiling. Gathered there are especially-know-it-all college radio kids.

The location was New York City and the place RCA Records. At once home to media-savvy fast mouths and that dog, Nipper, always attentively turned to his master’s voice emanating from a giant horn that had been released from an undertaker’s set.

But once the needle dropped – in fact, it was probably once the 7-inch plastic wheel began to spin – all we Can’t-Surprise-Us 20-year-olds shut up and paid attention.

Corny by (then) contemporary standards, the Elvis Presley song was unbelievable in its aural power. The record’s sound quality immediately ripped away its otherwise dated, this-is-some-has-been-singer-who-was-once-important-but-no-longer-is veneer.

Quadraphonic. Sound separation in four and not the two we were accustomed to.

That got our attention. The RCA engineers drove it home with David Bowie’s “The Jean Genie.” The vocal track whipped from one corner of the room to the next. Listeners each turned their head, cranking this way and then that, following Bowie’s command.

Popular enough to inspire a Who rock opera, the surround sound system never caught on the way its predecessor, stereo, did. But, man, it was a powerful experience.

A decade later, it happened again. A colleague’s phone call initially seemed weird: “You’ve gotta hear this – come right over.” The foreign-looking device and the itty-bity “record” with neither a tiny center hole for a spindle or a quarter-sized one for one of those odd-looking plastic inserts wasn’t comprehensible.

Shoving the disc into the device and pushing a button labeled only with a right-facing arrow: Pow! Sound so clear and sharp it seemed antiseptically artificial. It was the aural analogy to the visual difference between film and videotape.

CDs. Digital sound. Never heard of it. Had never heard of it. And there it was. Albeit sterile for its lack of hisses and pops that we were so used to that it was the distortion and distraction that made it seem “real.” But the purity of sound, as is true in other contexts, was its own selling point.

Now who wants to return to days of vinyl?


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