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Too Many Records

February 12, 2012

The title of this post is also that of a regular feature in the International Record Review, an excellent magazine devoted to news of classical music recordings. In each ‘Too Many Records’, a guest writer tells of his or her experiences in classical music as a reviewer, composer, performer, or producer, and in some manner addresses the issue of having acquired a large number of 78s, LPs, or compact discs. The notion that an enthusiast can have ‘too many’ records is generally dispelled, though problems of space are acknowledged.

Christina CDsWe sympathize with these writers, of course, since we too have – or at least some would say so – ‘too many’ records as well as ‘too many’ books. Christina has a large collection of mainly opera and vocal recordings and videos, while Wayne’s focus in the classical arena is on orchestral and instrumental, as well as soundtracks and (to a much lesser degree) pop, rock, standards, and New Age. For the most part, we buy music as selectively as we buy books, acquiring ‘on spec’ only when a CD is heavily discounted, which usually means one from the used or overstock bin or from Berkshire Record Outlet in Lee, Massachusetts. Even so, over the years this has amounted to another collection which has to be split between rooms and floors of our home, and we laugh at advertisements for home audiovisual storage units meant to take only about thirty discs, which pales next to our banks of industrial shelving.

Recently Gramophone magazine published two articles on the subject of ‘too many records’ which we found of interest. One is ‘Shelving the Shellac’ by Jeremy Nicholas, who explores the question of storage space for a large collection of (especially) 78 rpm records. He writes about having acquired, in the 1960s, a collection of 78s from a friend of his parents, ‘a whole library of great and not-so-great classical works in recordings that reflected the listening tastes of a connoisseur’. Why this man should part with his collection is uncertain. Mr Nicholas suspects that ‘he may have been doing what many others did a couple of generations later when the compact disc arrived: he simply changed format, just as many people today are transferring their CD collections from discs to digital files.’ Now Mr Nicholas has reached the same stage: ‘I am pondering the fate of my remaining 78s, and rather more extensive collections of LPs and CDs. But I am in a quandary. You see, for me and many of my generation a collection of digital files isn’t the same thing as a collection of discs.’ Despite certain advantages of digital files,

whether you classify yourself as a collector or a hoarder, it is the artefact that counts. It is the holding of the disc in your hand, the reading of the printed booklet – or the extensive and sometimes beautifully illustrated sleevenotes that came with LPs. Transferring a disc . . . into a digital file doesn’t devalue the content but it does diminish it in some way. As a friend of mine said, ‘If you have a Penny Black [a rare British stamp] you can take as many photographs of it as you want, but it’s not the original.’

Now, this is what we may call the nostalgia or fetish argument, which some dismiss out of hand. Mr Nicholas writes of the conductor Norman del Mar, who grew up listening to Wagner on 78s in four and a half-minute chunks (the length of a side of the disc) and thought that that was how the music was written. Del Mar later knew better, naturally, but never got rid of his 78s. ‘How could he?’ writes Mr Nicholas. ‘They were his lifelong companions, friends with whom he had grown up, irreplaceable, part of his warp and weft.’ But with music even more so than the written word with reading, does the delivery mechanism really matter if the product we hear is of sufficient quality? With old 78 rpm recordings especially, which properly must be played back with a particular kind of needle, along with other equipment suited to a relatively heavy shellac, wide-grooved disc which due to age and wear may produce hisses, crackles, and pops, is an expertly engineered transfer to CD or digital file not to be preferred? Mr Nicholas admits the benefits of these newer technologies. But he also points out that listening to, say, a compilation of 78 rpm recordings on five CDs ‘is ipso facto a completely different experience to listening to the original’ with its more active engagement of the listener in the operation of the turntable. And, he notes, the playback of a 78 or analogue monaural recording can sometimes produce a ‘warmer, more comfortable sound’ than a modern recording with its ‘clinical sterility’.

Music aisle February 2012We ourselves have had generally good listening experiences with compact discs. We don’t have all of the LPs we once did, but have kept most of them for one reason or another – because of the album cover art, or the large libretto included in the package (so much easier to read than the tiny type of a CD booklet), or because the LP contains material not transferred to CD – not so much for the quality of the playback. But we sympathize with Mr Nicholas about being able to have and handle a physical disc: as with books, it satisfies an inherent human need to be able to touch something, and to possess an object. Digital files, just ones and zeros in a computer code, are something else altogether. Mr Nicholas praises digital files for their ‘space saving, the convenience, the aural fidelity, the indestructibility’; but we would differ in regard to the latter two, and especially the last. A compact disc may become corrupted through wear or mishandling, but is not subject to any of the strange and often inexplicable damage which can occur to a computer file, or the catastrophic loss caused by a hard drive crash.

This brings us to a complementary article in Gramophone, ‘Digital Discoveries’ by Jed Distler. Mr Distler is an evangelist for MP3 recordings:

Operating iTunes on my Macintosh PowerBook enables me to locate, play, and go back and forth between selections (or specific sections within selections) with great speed and efficiency. It makes comparative listening easier than ever, which is crucial for reviewing. . . . I also compare multiple transfers of historic recordings this way.

His method is wearying even to think about:

When I review a CD, I usually rip the disc to my computer, store the digital files on various external, portable hard drives: one for classical, one for jazz and world music, one for pop, one for lossless, one for spoken and podcasts, and one for my own projects. Eventually I enter relevant title information in a spreadsheet database document that I create with Microsoft Excel. . . . Most of my collection’s out-of-print CDs are backed up as lossless FLAC files. I should add that my music collection and my database are backed up in triplicate.

That said, he admits that he still acquires ‘high quality CDs and SACDs. . . . Excellent audio quality and package presentation via graphics and annotations are as important to me now as they were in the vinyl era.’ He also misses record shops, and praises the smaller new and secondhand outlets that have remained after the larger chain shops have disappeared. And he writes that ‘the sound of breaking shrink wrap [on a new LP] always gave me a momentary rush that I’ve never experienced when the computer beeps “Your download is complete”.’

As with our books, our CDs (and LPs, 78s, 45s, and DVDs) are neatly housed, organized, and listed. We may have kept recordings that we’ll never listen to again – only time will tell – but we do occasionally discard CDs, usually to local library sales, if we’ve bought them on spec and find we don’t like them, or if we find a better version. So, do we have ‘too many’ records? No; at least, not yet.

Images, from top: Part of Christina’s compact disc collection, in archival boxes with temporary labels; a view of our basement ‘music aisle’, with a taller bookcase (compare this earlier view; we moved the shorter bookcase elsewhere) and a book truck temporarily holding runs of International Record Review and Opera News and which also provides space for placing a box to remove or add a CD.

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2 Comments
  1. David Demers permalink
    February 12, 2012 1:45 pm

    I sympathize of course but let me try to entice you further into the digital music ecosystem. Apple has done wonderful things but the dark side is that they have focused on the low end portable music experience. The hifi end of the market has emerged too and my own jaded ears have become rejuvenated with the new high definition digital downloads necoming available (see Linn records site, or HDtracks, or Qobuz) Yes you need to become a network geek to pull it together. But abandon mp3, get a high end player (I am a Linn DS fan), an iPad, a NAS and then listen to what ever you like with new ears. I won’t say you will never buy another CD but at least my experience is that you will touch it only once – when it is ripped to the NAS – and a new CD will be purchased only if its impossible to download a lossless copy, or better yet a high definition remaster.

    And I must say its a worry to see you suggest that the annotation and commentary potential in the music database software is too much work to contemplate. You are correct but I suspect for the wrong reasons. The potential is endless and the immediate value is obvious in daily use. Alas I spend far more time indexing and annotating music these days than I do on the book side. Since I depend on you to keep the Tolkien completist side informed, I hope this comment doesn’t infect you with a too compelling new distraction…

  2. David Doerr permalink
    February 17, 2012 8:15 pm

    Regarding Wayne’s interest in New Age music, I have some early recordings of Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel, with David Lanz on keyboards. My wife and I have most of David Lanz’ recordings, and experienced an awesome performance of his at the Old Church (an actual old church) in Portland, Oregon. NO ONE plays chopsticks like David Lanz. Seriously, he is a very great composer/performer. If you are not familiar with these artists, you would want to be.

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