Read All About It..
JOHN M. CONLY a former NewYark and Washington newspaperman who is now an associate editor of Pathfinder.“ They Shall Have Music" is a quarterly feature in the Atlantic.
by JOHN M. CONLY
SERGEANT GREENE wasn’t gruntled. Not that he was exactly disgruntled, he explains, but the weather in Saidor, New Guinea, didn’t lend itself to complete, wholehearted gruntlement; and besides, the Special Services Division had disappointed him sorely.
Perhaps they had done their best. To the isolated base, they had sent a vast batch of records. On them were grooved hours of fine stateside music, both popular and classical. There were transcripts of plays. There were radio programs, sonic of them uncensored and hilarious, featuring Jack Benny, Kate Smith, Fred Allen, and other celebrities.
To play these treasures, Special Services had furnished what Sergeant Greene described as a “plywood squawk-box” —a hand-wound acoustical phonograph. It was audible only a few yards away and, even worse, its massive, murderous, steelneedled head would (Sergeant Greene knew) grind the records into unintelligibility in next to no time.
It was really none of Sergeant Greene’s business. Still, he was a communications technician, he had had experience in the radio-parts business, and he knew perfectly well that acoustico-electronic engineering had progressed further than this. And on New Guinea, in 1943, a realistic touch of home, aural as well as visual, was something worth battling for.
So Sergeant Irving Greene went foraging. In his own words, he “traded the Red Cross out of” a couple of crystal phonograph cartridges — old, coffin-shaped Asiatic model-B’s, but electronic, not mechanical. From an undisclosed source, he acquired a 110-volt motor. He raided junked aircraft for reduction gears and, by means best known to himself, came into possession of an Army field-radio amplifier, a power transformer, and an assortment of earphones. Soon an electric phonograph, of sorts, was in action.
However, earphone listening was antisocial. Hence it small, mobile construction project developed on the base, accompanied by the steady disappearance of pie pans, wire, bolts, manila file-folders, and other unrelated supplies. When the project came to fruition, Sergeant Greene had an array of six loud-speakers. Each was powered by an earphone diaphragm, loaded by a manila cone, mounted in a pie-pan frame.
What came out was not what would be called high fidelity by today’s standards. But it was dramatically superior to what the wind-up gramophone had produced. In fact, Sergeant Greene’s comrades in arms were so beholden to him that later, in the Philippine invasion, when they liberated a pair of expensive U.S. commercial radio phonographs (somewhat the worse for Japanese usage) they refused to listen to them until Greene had “improved" them.
Greene was much impressed by this evidence of golden ears among the GIs. Once out of uniform and back home, he began vigorously preaching the cause of high-grade sound equipment for the home-hugging music lover. In short order he was (and still is) running a custom audio department for one of the nation’s largest radio-parts houses, Sun Radio and Electronics of New York.
Business was brisk, right from the start, but it only took fourteen hours a day, so Irving Greene began writing a book. In due time he acquired two collaborators, James R. Radcliffe and Robert Scharff, an industrial designer and a decorator.
At the 1951 Audio Fair in New York last November, Greene, standing at the entry to the Sun Radio exhibit, was able to greet all but a very few of the Fair’s 10,000 visitors with the news that the book would be ready in a month, and so it was. It is called Make Music Live (Medill McBride, $4.50) and it is a virtual encyclopedia of what the would-be assembler of a high-fidelity homemusic system ought to know. It tells why a single-cone loud-speaker “cries” over certain chords (the lowfrequency vibrations intermodulate mechanically with the high ones, causing the latter to break up) and how to mount a Garrard record changer in a bookshelf, which can be done. And it gives some very worthwhile buying secrets.
Armed with this opus, the hi-fi shopper will be like the medical patient who gluts secretly on the AMA Journal and can dispense with “Doctor, it hurts here and here,” and get right down to “Doctor, I display all the classical symptoms of cervical adenitis.”Doctors hate this, of course. Fortunately, audio equipment salesmen don’t seem to — for Irving Greene’s book is only the beginning. About the middle of April there will be published the second book on high fidelity for laymen: The Saturday Review Book of Recorded Music and Sound Reproduction, by Edward T. Can by, C. G. Bourke, and Irving Kolodin (Prentice-Hall, price unannounced). Apparently this work will supplement the other with some exactitude, dealing, for example, rather intensively with the technical side of records, which Greene’s book tucks into an appendix page.
Probably the main significance of these publications, however, is that they symbolize the maturity, the arrival, so to speak, of the “quality” home-music customer. He is no longer an apologetic intruder into the realm of the audio engineer, nor yet an “uncommercial” crackpot, unworthy of the businessman’s notice. He has now had two books written for him and he is the kingpin of a half billion dollars a year industry. He rates, businesswise, with the photography enthusiast, or he soon will.
Smart manufacturers are striving to anticipate his needs. One problem of recent vintage (LP is only in its fourth year) is how to store longplaying records at home. Standing in conventional record cabinets, they become anonymous envelope edges, indistinguishable one from another unless adorned with unsightly tabs. They can’t be put in standard albums without discarding their informative envelopes. To let them accumulate in piles is easiest — but dangerous. Vinylite is softer than shellac, and the bottommost of twenty records, if there is grit in its envelope, is likely to be seriously gouged. Solutions now are offered by H. Royer Smith (Philadelphia) and Aim Industries (New York). Both provide usable LP containers. The HRS items are album-shaped boxes ($2 or $3) which will hold 10 LPs apiece, with envelopes, and are big enough for lettering on the back. The Aim albums actually are albums, but their envelopes are big enough to hold LPs with their envelopes and are cut away for identification thereof. They are priced about the same as the HRS boxes. Both are likely to present a rather snug vertical fit in some record cabinets.
Another pair of points has also been achieved by customers, judging by evidence at the Fair. One is that some customers want record changers, and intend to have them, even though the experts insist that precision single-play turntables are better. The other is that some customers don’t want changers;— having almost nothing but LPs in their collections but also can’t afford to pay $50 or more for individually machined turntables by Rek-O-Kut or Presto.
Credit must go to Oarrard, of Britain, for deciding that, if people must have changers, they might as well have good ones. Since July, trouble complaints (after sales) on Garrard RC80 throe-speed changers have gone below 1 per cent, an almost incredible development in a traditionally trouble-fraught field. Garrard hits taken care also of the non-changer folk, by means of a $24 three-speed record player, identical with the RC 80 as to arm, turntable, and motor but minus a changing mechanism. A very similar job (with a flip-over magnetic cartridge thrown in) is produced by Goldring, a newcomer in the trade. For some time, of course, General Industries (Elyria, Ohio) has been making $12 singleand multispeed turntables, as good as those; in most changers, but for some reason few stores stock them.
There has been fairly stubborn strife, too, over the question of how big speaker cabinets must be. The experts have insisted on size. In a box cabinet, they pointed out, the o jective was to kill off the vagrant sound generated by a loudspeaker’s rear surface. The best way to do so was to seal the cabinet. Yet this gave the speaker cone a stiffer air load behind than in front, the cabinet being much smaller than the room, and caused distortion, mostly at the expense of bass tones. Solution: keep the cabinet big. (One at the Fair, mounting four Bozak speakers, contained 16 cubic feet of air!)
Customers argued, not unreasonably. that they hadn’t enough space for such monsters in their living rooms, much as they craved the sounds they made.
This was the reason for ihe crowds around the Audio Fair exhibit marked “R-J Company.”Messrs. R. and J. (Frank Robbins and William Joseph, a cartoonist and a radio salesman) had made a valiant effort to find a middle ground. Their cabinets (literally “ under wraps” — burlap) were cubic and only a few inches bigger than the speakers they housed. A speaker in an R-J cabinet is sealed behind by a very small box but, to equalize this, it is front-loaded, too. The frontal air chamber is closed off but fora slot through which the sound comes. A slot distributes sound rather well. Organ-pipe makers found this out long ago. An English engineering firm applied it to loud-speakers in the 1940s but, for some reason, didn’t stay with it. Critics of the R-J system at once pointed out that, though it equalized the speaker’s front and rear burdens, it also gave it a very stiff air cushion against which to fight, lowering its efficiency and necessitating more power to make it work.
This is true, and it is silly to contend that an R-J is a substitute for a good big cabinet. Nevertheless, it does economize on space, and some very canny custom-installation men lost no time in applying for licenses to manufacture it.
In the small-size, big-bass category, the R-Js had only one rival, a pilot model of the Electro-Voice “Baronet.”This is a miniature variation on the now familiar folded corner horn theme. Placed an inch out from a room’s corner, it feeds the bass emitted from the speaker’s rear backward, whence it is repropagated out of the corner by the room walls, reinforcing the frontal low notes. What made the “Baronet” notable was its size — two feet high and a foot wide, just big enough for an eight-inch speaker.
There were other notes of moderation at the Fair, too, indications that the exhibitors realized they had a non-hobbyist public to deal with. The noise level went down. Maximilian Weil, of the Audak Company, could turn off his loud-speaker and invite people to listen for “needle talk” from his improved “Chromatic” Audax phono-cartridge with some confidence that they could hear whether it had any — which it virtually hasn’t.
Some exhibitors actually used voice records and tapes to demonstrate their equipment, rather than the bass drums and piccolos of yore. This was a great concession. Voice reproduction is a good criterion of balance and naturalness, but hardly of wide range; even Yma Sumac’s avian soprano rarely sends an oscillograph indicator to more than 8000 cycles per second. Some treasonable souls had looked up the reports of experiments conducted in the 1930s and 40s by Bell Laboratories and RCA engineers, wherein the characteristics of musical sounds in auditoriums were analyzed. The RCA engineers had gone so far as to say that no musical sounds of importance were found in the area above 10,000 c.p.s., a range with which no true audiomaniac would be satisfied.
Probably the RCA men had overstated somewhat. It is true that high (and very low) tones “decay” with distance. At a symphony concert, the resinous squeak of the violins and the hiss of the flutist’s breath are lost before they get to the average listener. He hears a filtered, purified tone. Not so the recording microphone, which is usually placed close to the orchestra in a recording session, and with the hall empty and unabsorbent. The result, played brick to the music lover, doesn’t sound natural.
On the other hand, a violin sonata recorded under the same circumstances may sound completely natural —because the chances are the listener has heard a solo violin this intinnately before. In a violin solo or a string quartet the resin noises are part of the music. This problem properly falls to the recording engineer. not to the maker of amplifiers or loud-speakers. Which is not to say that an amplifier with flexible tone controls (like the new H. H. Scott, which actually can make a symphony orchestra sound “live” at low volume) cannot often make up for the bad judgment of an overenl husiastic. recording director. It can.
The Fair did yield one ingenious example of combining wide-range recording and startling reality. This was a set of records made by Emory Cook, a leading experimenter in diskcutting techniques. Cook’s records, titled Sounds of Our Times, were not music, but simply noises. One of them admirably reproduced the close-up chirp of a cricket and the distant roll of summer thunder. Another put forth, horrifically, the noise of trains passing through a tunnel at Peekskill, New York. A third dealt fondly with the tinkling charm of a collection of old music boxes Cook says he hopes the series will never end, and asks people to suggest noises they want to hear. This column hereby suggests that he try reI cording the sounds of an Audio Fair. It’s too bad he couldn’t have got the 1950 one, though. Even the locomotives couldn’t bent that.