Living for the city

April 29, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

As long as we’re getting nostalgic, I am remembering the first truly audiophile disc I became enamored with. Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City from his album, Innervisions.

What a great piece of music. I remember cranking that tune up on our friend Norm Little’s tri-amped Audio Research system and being just blown away at how it sounded.

The bass was magnificent as reproduced through a pair of Cerwin Vega 18″ woofers.

It had never occurred to me how pumped up and inflated those woofers must have been.

The reason I mention that bass inflation was because today, that record (or CD) sounds anemic. On our finely tuned systems where we work hard at keeping everything flat, that track of Stevie Wonder’s music is wimpy: clearly rolled off in the bottom end by some well meaning recording/mastering engineer.

Going back through my list of favorite music tracks from the 70s and 80s it’s pretty clear none of them had any real deep bass (which makes sense because back then, it was assumed the best systems went down to maybe 40Hz and most rarely went below 60Hz). And since we always tuned the sub’s output by ear to accommodate the music we listened to, we could get perfection in the lower end.

In later decades the recording industry began using full-range recording and reproduction equipment. By the late 1990s and early 2000s recordings began having full extension bottom end. We adjusted our systems accordingly.

The end result, of course, is that modern recordings sound correct and older recordings sound defficient.

As eras and technology change so too do our reproduction systems.

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32 comments on “Living for the city”

  1. That’s why music lovers need adjustable systems and why audiophiles avoid a whole lot of great music, that’s quite unlistenable meanwhile on high end systems. And it’s why I have an audiophile, adjustable system.

    Otherwise I look forward to Bob Ohlsson‘s feedback today!

  2. I think the lack of deep bass in the olden days was primarily to provide LPs that had both reasonable playing times, adequate signal levels, and playability on even the cheapest players. In the CD era it was still true that very few systems could produce deep bass, but the CDs themselves had no such restrictions.

    1. scottsol,
      I agree…LP’s were not able to do proper deep bass due to physics.
      Unfortunately I have a few original CDs where the sound guy forgot to adjust the bass up & you end up with unnecessarily thin (virtually non-existent) bass that makes the whole album sound terrible…he was probably stoned out of his gourd, but it’s disappointing that no one else noticed the lack of bass before the stamping/burning started…that’s when remastering can come in handy…the non compressed type.

  3. I must be misunderstanding Paul’s post.

    Some of the best recordings I’ve heard are from the 60/70/80’s and, in my humble opinion, the recordings done this century are prone to things like the loudness wars which have much less dynamic range (Octave Records aside, of course) than older recordings. There is no doubt that the recording equipment is much better today, but the talent behind the board, is still just a human being that, in most cases, doesn’t seem to have evolved.

  4. Records have a very limited dynamic range and tracks that have a lot of deep bass are wider and take up more room. Say what you will about the sound qualities of analog records vs. CD, there are significant advantages to the digital medium.

    Back in 1979, I attended CES in Chicago. The Cerwin-Vega room had a rep there who was demonstrating their sub-woofer, which was an 18″ bass driver, mounted floor facing in a ported cabinet. He commented that it needed to be on a carpeted floor, because on a hardwood or other similar hard surface, it had “liftoff” and tended to move about the room.

    1. I knew Bud Fried of IMF and Fried speakers. And I recall why Bud got into transmission line speakers. I believe it was about 1962 and Bud was speaking with Arthur Haddy of Decca records. He told Bud he had to abandon his favored Quad speakers because Decca could now put 30 dB of dynamic range on a record and that was too much for the Quads. When Bud asked him what he should look for he told him transmission line speakers(I don’t know why he told him a rare style of speaker like that) which eventually led to the IMF monitor speaker and IMF speakers and later to Fried speakers when there was a dispute with the English IMF company.

      But 30 dB was a big deal back then.

  5. Records have a very limited dynamic range and tracks that have a lot of deep bass are wider and take up more room. Say what you will about the sound qualities of analog records vs. CD, there are significant advantages to the digital medium.

  6. I think what Paul meant here is not related to limitations of vinyl vs. CD and extremely deep and loud bass like sometimes in modern electronic music, it’s just an EQ decision and an overall bass lack due to different monitoring gear at the time as he described.

    Some vinyl records from the 50‘ already contained more bass than most of the 70‘s-80‘s Pop recordings and CD‘s of that era were usually more compressed than LP‘s, as well as even more bass shy in my memory. By a look into the global Dynamic range database it gets obvious that during a long time, there has been more and more heavily used compression on the digital media and not only of a few recordings, the first uncompressed release at all was an audiophile LP. The better dynamic range of digital media and its mainly non-use lead to a lot of misinterpretations and theoretic arguments which don’t match the practical experience I’d say.

  7. The reason vinyl, especially pop, had little extreme low end was to avoid skipping. The only way around it was to lower the level. We had more than most at Motown, especially prior to 1967.

  8. Guys, My knees are acting up so I am in an irritable mode today. Please forgive my bluntness when I say that you do not what you are talking about when it comes to vinyl. Start by looking at this: This is what makes it possible to get both full bass and full treble onto the vinyl.

    I have a modern system that uses good MC cartridges, a good phono preamp, wide bandwidth amplifiers with plenty of power and full extension sealed speakers ( speakers that go down to 20 Hz ) and when I play some of my 50 year old vinyl they sound better than they did on any system I have had in the last 50 years and have lots of bass.

    What is true is that on some vinyl that was produced in the 60’s and 70’s, is the record was over crowded ( too many songs and very little dead wax at the label ). This results in inner groove distortion ( IGD ) especially if you have a short tonearm and some compression of dynamics ( although early Beatles songs had less than 10 dB dynamic range so you just had to crank it up a bit to hear the music ). Today there are re-releases of some of these records done as two disc albums with lots of dead wax and a restoration of the dynamic range.

    Sorry for being a bit rough this morning.

  9. Some of my favorite bands/tracks back in the day used the mighty Moog Taurus bass pedals (Genesis, Rush, Yes, etc) we got a sense of the instrument on lps, but nothing like hearing it in a live concert which was pretty breathtaking

    1. There is nothing better than a live performance with a knowledgeable sound engineer. I heard Stevie Wonder in 1975 and it sounded great (to me) but I know I was a nub at the time. Plus, my elbows were propped on the stage as I was one of the event photogs. Can you say, near field. LOL
      In the 80s, I bought a reference CD from an audiophile magazine. One of the comments in the liner notes referenced a sample of a high school band recorded on a football field. They stated that it shouldn’t sound good, it should sound like a marching band on a football field. Noted! It should be a faithful reproduction of the performance.
      I did notice some CDs that were anemic and I didn’t think about the engineer not familiar with the dynamic range capabilities of this new format.
      The reference and sample discs sounded great compared to the anemic releases.
      I became very familiar with this concept on the early 90s. I was upgrading sound systems for the new digital film formats {Dolby Digital, DTS, and SDDS (Sony Dynamic Digital Sound)}. People up the chain decided that the surround speakers from the 80s and all the amplifiers were not capable of reproducing the dynamics of these new formats. What a difference! The sound “popped” and sounded better than the THX systems with which I was familiar.
      I can see the same type of awareness needed by the recording engineers and consumers so everyone can enjoy these new format’s capabilities.
      It’s never too late to be reminded of these changes.
      Kudos, Paul! And thank you for sharing so much with all of us. I’m still looking forward to a tour of your new home.

    2. Sometime in the early 70’s we went to an outdoor concert to hear Jim Croce open for America ( sadly it was the last concert that Jim played ). America ( a pretty tame band ) had these speakers on stage that looked like the front of a Greyhound bus, they were huge. I was blown away be the sound.

      The next day I fired up my 100 W/ch receiver, put my copy of the America album on my TT and cranked it up as loud as I could go into my JBL L88 two-way speakers. I did not come close to the sound of America live ( although I did PO the neighbors who lived below us ). My opinion of my first real stereo system declined drastically that day.

      1. Ahh, Jim Croce, what a great songwriter, I love his music. Would have loved to have seen him in concert but I went to San Diego once and didn’t even get to his restaurant. I believe it’s permanently closed now. One of my favourites of his…..

        I’ve made similar comparisons Tony, live to home system, and there’s only ever going to be one winner. I think my systems sounding great but it doesn’t cut it compared to a GOOD live performance. The flip side of course is a poor live performance. I’ve been to gigs that were far too loud with the sound reverberating around the venue and it being impossible to discern lyrics, just a cacophony of noise. I’m only too happy to get back home and listen to my system. Good or bad that’s increasingly becoming the norm these days.

        P.S. Hope your knees are feeling better 🙂

        1. (so I got a little carried away here, but what I write is what I think about a lot when reading about hi-fi and the goals of audiophiles, myself, modestly, included)
          The best systems I have heard, and admittedly I have had fairly limited experience, don’t come close to the dynamic range and timbre of live music. To hear the close-up texture of brushes on the skin of a snare drum and the wood-on-metal tap of the sticks on the rim, or the shimmer of metal when the brushes brush and tap on cymbals and then to the explosive bursts of well-tuned toms and a bass drum…all in the space of a minutes music, well no stereo I’ve heard comes close to those sonic dynamics, tones in a real space at realistic volume–I mean, sitting 30 feet away from an amplified bass allows me to absorb a full low-frequency wave or two, no?
          For me, recordings are hi-def pictures with holographic touches at best. And they’re great for the luxury of having hi-res sound in my home. But I was just at a trio concert of T. Monk’s music last night: Scott Amendola on Drums (miked this time), Ben Goldberg on Clarinet, and Todd Sickafoose, double bass (both also miked), and the sound in that not-designed-for-music venue was fantastic.
          My entry-level system is good enough for my simple life, but is small and squished compared with live sound.
          And I think the vinyl record to full-range digital comparison would be better with something like Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love on vinyl versus the same remastered to 24bit high res. They both sound good, but the vinyl presents an openness and seems somehow better balanced with better delicate detail. I don’t know…I think the same thing about the 96/24 The Wall versus the early vinyl edition. But maybe I just prefer a slightly smaller sound presentation of those familiar recordings.

  10. I was running a pair of 15” woofers in a folded horn enclosures in the 80s. In the room corners. And a subharmonic bass restoration processor. Anemia compensation if you may. Acreage is a music lover’s best friend. Bass is meant to be experienced right square in the chest. It should be as if that kick drum pedal controlled hinged white fuzzed mallet is repeatedly pounding directly on to your chest.

  11. Anemic low frequency playback certainly a lot had to do with the limitations of consumer playback equipment. Still does.
    There was probably very little demand for full range recording therefore not much experience nor the equipment to do it.
    A lot of emphasis up to the early/mid 70s was still on woodworking.
    Most people did not have an idea what hi-fi was – But they had no problem recognizing well-built furniture.
    A generation earlier people like my dad grew up in the great depression. They were thrifty from growing up with nothing (i.e. tight wads). Having growing up in an environment of mono AM, If the cabinet looked good they had something to be proud of. It seems this idea carried on for a long time.
    Dad was very proud of his efficient circuits. He had 29 patents emphasizing on how much could you get for your money.
    He and his generation were flabbergasted at my generations excesses. I had 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner that was in continual modification to see how much power it could generate. Next to it was a 70 Cuda, 70 Charger, 67 GTX, and a 69 Dart 340 GTS. I had more cars than my mom and dad ever owned.
    Guitars and stereos made them think my generation was going to be the end of civilization. LOL

    1. Tim, All of us boomers went through the same thing. I never told my parents how much we spent on all kinds of things. In 1926 my dad at age 13 dropped out of school after the 7th grade and started driving a horse drawn ice wagon to earn money for his family. After struggling to survive the great depression his reward was being drafted and serving in a bomber squadron during WWII. His life compared to my life as a Ph.D. physicist is like we lived on two different planets.

    2. It would appear that the excesses are greater with each younger generation;
      to the point where the majority now live on credit…buy now, default later.

  12. Since buying a great, revealing system a lot of my CDs now sound pretty bad but the great ones sound fantastic. I love the Carpenters. Richard has spent almost 40 years remixing their albums and some are too loud and peaky and I sit here waiting for the spikey sound. Then I bought the Remastered Classics. All original versions, warm, relaxing and beautifully mastered and produced. Almost as good as vinyl.

  13. I understand Paul’s comments regarding the bass end of the spectrum, but struggle to see how that applies to the HF in older recordings. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album has beautifully clear and musical treble to my 59 year old ears, but many modern recordings sound like someone’s pulled blackout curtains over the tweeters!

    1. Agreed, in many of our older recordings they sound so much better in other areas than they do today due to artistic sound engineering and the quality of the music that we can forgive the minor shortcomings.

      1. I’m not going to listen to any music just because it was recorded great. I need to like the music too. Though I would use the recording as a reference to judge or show off my system.

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