Right on the Edge of Disaster

Written by Seth Godin

Here’s a simple question: which is more fun to drive down a winding country road at 30 miles an hour? A new Bentley or a 1969 Jaguar?

Most car fans would pick the Jaguar every time. After all, you can hear it, feel the road, and most of all, it might blow up at any time. Every downshift is an exercise in hope over good judgment.

It’s possible to buy an amp that’s powered with dilithium crystals, that has three hundred extra watts to spare, with a power cord that could power Tesla’s lab. And you can use that amp to power speakers that are made of corbomite and platinum and are capable of playing loud enough to melt your house.

[An aside: Did you know the loudest sound on Earth comes from the blue whale? I, for one, have never been in a stereo store where someone came in hoping to get a stereo loud enough to be able to hear the blue whale the way it was supposed to sound… but I digress.]

Why, then, am I drawn to my four watt per channel amplifier, powering high-efficiency speakers that appear, at any moment, like they might just drop dead from exhaustion?

I think that’s precisely why.

“It might not work” is of great attraction to humans.

At the jazz club, I’m well aware that Marcus Roberts’ crack band (13 people crammed into Birdland!) can easily handle the charts they’re reading from. Sure, it sounds good, the music is what it’s supposed to be, check the box. Sort of boring, actually.

But, and it’s a thrilling but, when someone stands up and starts wailing (which is different from whaling, for those keeping score at home) on the trumpet, things change. Marcus doesn’t know what’s going to happen, they might not have rehearsed this. The player might not even know what’s going to happen on the next bar or two. Will he get boxed in? How can he possibly top that last riff? What if it all falls apart?

This brings us to Just Roll Tape, a fifty (!) year old lost recording done by Stephen Stills (the full story is here). A young Stills was doing backup vocals for his girlfriend Judy Collins. At the end of her session, he slipped the engineer a few bucks and recorded for two hours after everyone had left. Just Stills and the engineer.

This album cost a million dollars less to produce than some of the singular albums of the 1970s. How come, then, it’s so much better?

When we say, “just roll tape,” we’re inviting disaster. There are no overdubs, no chances to fix it in the mix, no retakes. It’s naked, and thus alive. It might not work.

This is the thrill of live music, of the low-powered system teetering on the edge, of the stereo that surprises us instead of merely keeping its well-engineered promise.

So, we have the paradox of modern stereo equipment. The scientific method, combined with the persistence of professional engineering, has gotten us ever closer to the perfect stereo. The stereo that reliably and consistently does exactly what it’s supposed to do. A stereo that measures well, that needs little or no care or tweaking, that’s correct.

For some of us, that’s same as a stereo that’s boring.

Give me tubes that burst into flames, speaker wires that need a wiggle now and then, a turntable that can’t possibly be as good as a CD player…

Even better, a stereo that has a sweet spot (which, by definition, means that there need to be sour spots as well).

Stuff that might not work.

Because when it works, it’s a miracle.

Miracles are a good reason for a hobby.

(Originally published in Copper #5. Painting by Klaus Wagger.)

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