Records as Time Machines

Written by Jeremy Kipnis


After years of experience as a producer and engineer, I’ve come to expect the unexpected—even with something as familiar as the sound of my own  grandfather’s voice. Astute listeners can easily tell the difference between good and bad sounding recordings; great artists are immediately evident, compared to mediocre ones, even many decades after stardom and notoriety have faded.

Likewise, styles of music and their associated performance affectations tend to come and go within the era in which they were first invented or embraced. In that way, classical music was replaced by Jazz, then supplanted by Rock and Pop, Metal, Fusion, Rap…. Over the last century and a half, an entire legion of music-making trends has come and gone with people’s fancies, year in and year out. And yet: artists like Enrico Caruso, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and (as it turns out) Alexander Kipnis live on, as their performance careers were captured on the commercial picture and sound media of their times, and are now distributed through YouTube, Vimeo, and other streaming media sites.


Alexander Kipnis (from 1946)

When I was growing up, Stereo LPs (along with Open Reel and cassette tapes) were the media of the day, and as a family we were fortunate to hear a wide range of music as my father, Igor Kipnis,  was a keyboardist and was also a reviewer at Stereo Review magazine for nearly 30 years. We also still listened to 78s: the heavy and fragile 12” disks were the state of the art until 1948 or so, when the long playing (LP) record first made its debut. So monumental was the sonic improvement, even in the Mono discs that were all that were then available, that critics and amateur listeners alike hailed the LP as a sonic revolution. Yet today, mainstream  thinking is that 78s, LPs, and analog tapes are vintage formats, incapable of living up to today’s best efforts. Digital or otherwise, the assumption is that newer technology must provide better fidelity—and the evidence would mostly seem to support that contention. Mostly. 

As it happens,  my grandfather Alexander Kipnis was quite a famous musician, a bass at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC (during the end of his long career), and a soloist who toured the world music scene for over four decades. His recorded legacy is profound and amazing for two reasons:

1) His career spanned the early part of 78’s – known as the Acoustical Era (all analog – no electricity in the signal path) but also the later part – the Electrical Era (with microphones and amplification); two very distinctive sounding eras in our  recorded history.

2) He was a performer of immense presence and stature, subtle in delivery and inflection but also quite emotional and often humorous – a true emoter of feelings in his work. Quite simply, he was as famous as Caruso or Sinatra in his day, and was featured on numerous recordings, like them, distributed all over the world on many different labels.

Enrico Caruso (from 1906)

It is possible, therefore, to use these historic formats as an acoustical time machine, capable of transforming our present into the past in which these musicians lived and worked. Of course, many would say, “these historic formats sound restricted in frequency and dynamics, and often have ridiculous amounts of surface noise, clicks, pops, swish, and other distortion in addition to being monaural (one channel).”

Growing up, I personally realized the contrary: when properly played back, older formats like 78s can offer just as much of a sonic illusion of reality as anything we’ve had for the last 50 years. Only later, when I heard Ambiophonics (a specialized stereo delivery process) at inventor Ralph Glasgal’s house, did I truly understand the full capabilities of the Acoustical 78 RPM Disks, and appreciate the majesty of  my grandfather’s talents.

Ralph had a genuine Victrola from the mid-1920’s in his living room, which was a tall, wide space with plenty of furniture and a few carpets amidst the artwork adorning the walls. The phonographs of this period were either tabletop models (such as most have seen, with a fluted horn) or larger standalone credenzas, like Ralph’s. This particular, massive unit contained the turntable on top, with a hand operated arm and stylus of cactus or steel needles, and a large radiator horn which passed beneath the turntable, and vented out the front between twin doors which folded open to reveal the mouth of the horn and a library of 50-60 disks.

From this library, Ralph selected and played some amazing examples of my grand papa singing at his very best! To say I was charmed by this demonstration would be putting  it mildly: hearing my grandfather’s recording played back on a music system of the same era made all the difference. The tone, authority, dynamics, and brilliance of his performances were easily and clearly on display, with a total absence of any audible surface noise, pops, clicks, or swish. In fact, the presentation verged on being real, with a level of  fidelity and volume we hardly, if ever, hear from recordings, today— regardless of when they were made, or the equipment and engineers involved.

Judy Garland (from 1942 in Stereo)

Why should this be? It turns out that the state-of-the-art back in the mid-1920’s was pretty good: in fact, with no electrical amplification in the signal path all the way from the original performer(s) through to the playback horn in this Victrola, the fidelity was stunning. The way the producers and engineers of the day balanced the sound of an entire orchestra against my grandfather’s voice so they both are easily heard together was really quite simple and functional: the orchestra was located farther away from the recording horn (not a microphone but an acoustical lens), while my grandfather was physically much closer in the same room. The inherent limitations and strengths of the 78-rpm shellac disk were well known and (apparently) well considered and compensated for in the recording and playback chain of the day. Thus, when the needle hit the groove, and the first notes emanated from the Victrola’s horn, my grandfather sounded magnificently alive, transparent, immediate, and scintillating…like he and the orchestra were in the room with us!

Now, I understand if most of you reading this are thinking something like, “Poppycock! There is no way a 78-rpm disk is going to sound like real life, better in some ways than anything recorded and played back in the last 60 years in Stereo— and it’s  just plain ridiculous if you think  anyone is going to buy any version of this tale.” But I reiterate that this playback scenario (1920’s recording played on 1920’s Victrola Turntable) is unusual and that most astute listeners will give some credibility to Ralph’s commitment for historic sound recreation. I already thought I knew the sound of my grandfather’s voice, from the study of his career and recordings—but here I was, ear to horn and slack jawed at the apparent effectiveness of a 1920’s aural illusion of my grandfather performing Brahms, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Mozart (with orchestra) like I had never heard them or him, ever before.

As a professional Tonmeister, I’m fascinated with the way in which certain technology–even that which doesn’t use any electricity— can effectively record and play back sound like it was a sonic time machine. In fact, it IS a time machine, of sorts; offering the remote listener a chance to hear both people and performances that have long since passed through time and space into obscurity. All at once, using the right combination of a state-of-the-art analog phonograph from almost 100 years ago to play 78 records of that same period produces an entirely new level of musical and emotional understanding; one that is only rarely hinted at in most people’s daily listening to digital audio these days. Having first been issued in 1889, cylinder and 78 phonograph records (competing formats just like VHS vs. Beta or Apple vs. Microsoft) had by the mid-1920’s been commercially available for nearly 35 years, and had become quite refined.

Frank Sinatra (from 1946)

What this ultimately boils down to is a very specific level of emotional communication that, with the help of a higher temporal transcription speed (reading and writing at a 78-rpm speed), and careful understanding and compensating for frequency and dynamic limitations of the sound coming from many pre-electrical (1926) albums, offers simply stunning audio recreations when heard through optimal playback equipment of the period. The degree to which the hairs on the back of my neck, arms, and back rise up in response to my recognition of the music and performance and its level of personal connection to me is really unbelievable. That is, I get MORE human connection to the music and performers through an all acoustic, all analog, not electrically transformed recording and playback process than I do most any other type, short of hearing the very best of the best recordings played back under obscenely expensive and carefully produced conditions…or live (assuming one can find a good sounding and affordable seat).

In my opinion, we were actually ahead of the sonic game in so many ways using the more ancient recording and playback technology. The most important aspect was the emotional connection to the music, your music and by your artists, whenever you wanted (and wherever, too) to hear them. And while stereo and multi-channel recordings, with many microphones and speakers used to capture and replay (in the home environment), are supposed to get us all transported more INTO the performance and the space where it took place…taken by the ear (if you will) to the venue and time of the performance and placed within a song or album to luxuriate… few are willing to devote the full attention this approach actually demands. So, people’s attention wanders while they get used to listening to worse and worse-sounding excuses for music and its delivered sound quality. Whereas— and again, based on my long experience of nearly 50 years as an astute listener and then as a professional producer and audiophile engineer— the older technologies from almost 100 years ago were all about conveying the music and the performance to the remote listener. When reduced to its most important aspects, the 78-rpm acoustical record may have provided the closest experience to listening live that we may ever get because everything was recorded live and intended to recreate that very same experience at home.

I think my grandfather would be proud knowing his legacy survives in such resplendent quality to this day, allowing people he could never have known to enjoy music and performances in a way that is all but lost to time and entropy. And if you are strolling through a tag or yard sale (or even at the Goodwill or Salvation Army stores) you might take a gander through the used records — now ancient media that was recorded and distributed to benefit all of mankind. Well, amongst those ancient formats like LPs, cassettes, and even 8-track tapes, you may well find an album or two of 78s; shellac records made so many generations ago that they seem extremely distant to our own lives, today; even to be almost totally foreign.

But you know…it all comes down to liking the music and the performances, and sitting down and really listening to them, exclusively. And if you listen closely, even if it is through streaming sources instead of playing an actual record or 78 disk, please remember that you are experiencing a time machine, an historical window of sound that can transport one to times and places that don’t exist anymore. Just try to imagine another form of communication that can tell you as much about what Caruso, Garland, Sinatra, and Kipnis actually sounded like…when they were household names!

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