Wednesday, August 12, 2009

You Can't Do This in Most Homes Now, but It's Safe to Do If You Own Vinyl

Hello, friends. This summer has been a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous, the best of times and the worst of times, with little middle ground. I intended to keep blogging from the road as I traveled, but I was forced to spend far too much of my non-driving time doing work for an employer who doesn’t appreciate me enough to pay me for that work. I did get to do what I wanted to do, which was travel to as many Famous Dave’s barbeque restaurants as I could, and my efforts there seem to have earned me a year of free food. That’s the best/sublime part. The ridiculous/worst part—well, would you do two hundred extra hours of professional work, even if it’s spread over the course of an entire year, for nothing? That’s what I was supposed to do. And I was supposed to do a lot of it in the summer, when I am also expected to be gearing up for another year of teaching.

And so, the only things that could get me onto the blog this summer were the death of a pop icon and the arrival of Vinyl Record Day.

I want to talk about a feature of vinyl records that you simply can’t reproduce with a digital file, at least not without a bunch of software. In the days of record players, the act I’m going to describe was easy to undertake and loads of fun.

I’m talking about playing a song at the wrong speed.

I was very small when I acquired my first 78 rpm records, and I learned by accident that playing them at LP speed created deep rumbling sounds. To my young ears, the ponderous, roaring noises resembled what the world must have sounded like in the time of dinosaurs. Singing transformed itself into roars of rage, and drums became the earth-shaking thuds of huge dinosaur feet slamming into the earth.

Moving in the opposite direction, my 16 2/3 rpm talking-book records, played at 78, made sounds like very small, energetic animals. I’m glad I wasn’t using headphones when I was five, or I might have scrambled my brain.

I’m not sure I would have thought to talk about this aspect of vinyl if I hadn’t spoken recently with whiteray about something I did by accident a couple of years ago. At that time, I acquired a 45 of “Are You Ready?” by Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the late-night WLS hits from the summer of 1970, when I used music to distract me from the many issues I would otherwise have been pondering.

When I slapped that 45 on my turntable, it started playing at 33 1/3 rpm. I smiled to myself and let it run through the very slow intro. And then, when the song slid into its groove, magic occurred.

The backing track, played at normal speed, is pretty solid. But when it slowed to 74% of its regular speed, the guitar, bass and drums sounded like a raunchy slow blues that opened up the track to serve as the underpinning for any new melody and lyrics you might want to lay over it. Have a listen, and feel free to write a song around the riff.

And that, folks, is something you’ve never been able to do with a mere CD player and a shiny disc. When CD players first came out in 1983, someone, and I think it was Yamaha, made a CD player with a pitch control. That feature soon disappeared, though some players now offer pitch control again. However, I doubt that you can drop the pitch of a CD enough to create the effect of flipping the speed of a turntable from 45 to 33.

The song links below do what I described above. If you’re a product of the CD generation and you’ve never fiddled with the speed on a turntable, now you don’t have to—unless you want to. I hope you enjoy this glimpse at what five-year-old audio engineers used to do.

This is one of the many reasons why vinyl should never be allowed to disappear from the face of the earth.

It just occurred to me for the first time to wonder why my parents never asked me why I was playing my records at an ultra-slow speed. If I ever come up with an answer, I’ll let you know.

Diamonds, The Very Slow Stroll

Sterling Holloway, Mother Goose on Speed

Pacific Gas & Electric, Are You Ready to Use This Groove?

Dolly Parton, Here You Come Again, But More Slowly


Anonymous said...

A friend once insisted I call the local college radio station & make them play Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" at 45 instead of 33 1/3. So I did, & they did--& damn if it's not true: the Boss sounds exactly like Dolly Parton.

caithiseach said...

Anonymous, that's quite a revelation. Thanks. You made me wonder if the reverse might be true, so I took a Dolly hit and slowed it from 45 to 33 1/3. The result isn't Bruce Springsteen, but you get a nice country ballad by a guy I can't quite place. I added the song to the post so you can hear it.

One song that works equally well in its original form and in a somewhat faster version is "Until the Night" by Billy Joel, from 52nd Street. If you play the LP and turn the pitch control on the turntable up as far as it will go, the song sounds like an uptempo Billy Joel number. In fact, I tried that because I thought the speed of the LP cut might have been slowed after the recording, as the Beatles might have done. But no, he plays it slow on stage, and while the fast version sounds as if it could be the original speed, it's not. Give it a try.

whiteray said...

I once came across a website - the link long lost, sadly - where it was theorized that Robert Johnson's recordings were speeded up by Vocalion to make them more energetic. The website author/owner's argument was based on a fingering analysis of what would be required for a guitarist to replicate Johnson's recordings in the keys in which they were issued. I'm not persuaded, but it was an interesting idea.(It is true that I've always thought Johnson's voice to be incredibly high-pitched.) More interesting, at the time, was the fact that the website author/owner offered a CD of several of Johnson's recordings slowed down to what the author had calculated to be their original speed. How he accomplished that, I don't know. The CD is somewhere on my shelves, I'm sure.

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