On Relearning the Listening Thing

I have finally returned to my spinning roots of vinyl. For the past 13 years or so I’ve selected, sheltered and moved 4 boxes of what was once a 3000+ LP collection and kept the chosen few in humidity and temperature controlled storage along with other audio gear and material (including 1/4″ tape, digital audio and video tape, CD/DVD masters) in the oh so hostile-to-equipment Hawaii climate that over too little time literally destroys everything from aluminum/tin roofs to any plastic and paint finishes and metal on cars, to window frames and doors in houses to anything with organic traces or PCB electronics and beyond. Only PVC seems to survive untouched by erosion and decay, though can mold easily into bright or black colors.

Kilauea volcano Sulphur Banks...all albums in DE Bandcamp discography are $7 (50%+ discount through end of July)
Kilauea Volcano Sulfur Banks Hawaii Volcanoes Nat’l. Park – photo by David Elias

Still, everything is temporary anyway (one of Edie Brickell’s very best lines from a New Bohemian’s debut) so it was time to get on with it and begin bringing albums back to life in my listening room. And that’s exactly what happened. They came back to life.

Running through my discs which seemingly began collecting themselves in crates at the beginning of the 70’s I soon realized that my ears learned how to listen to music in this exact same way long before I even started buying my own albums. Forget about hi-res and sanitary listening conditions and even stereo. FM radio was just getting going late at night where I grew up with AOR DJ shows talking softly to you for a change and giving you new info on new sounds.

The listening happened from the instant the needle (no stylus then, just needles) hit the wax. We came to know each disc’s signature scrapes and pops and occasional skips. Like road workers or excavators grading a new line, some were a lot more quiet than others but all were fully immersive.

Discerning music from analog tape masters transferred to vinyl was a serious art and skill for the pop culture groomed through the 60’s onward. I figure I learned it well, beginning in memory at a ripe young age of 4 hearing it all through single speakers in any given room where I grew up, to acquiring my first Harmon Kardon (330B) receiver + Electro Voice speaker kit I mysteriously mail ordered from luxuriously beat Southern California to the mystical midwest, long before I could legally drive.

I’d already been steeped in many musical flavors which my parents owned ranging from Wes Montgomery to Robert Goulet, Bach, Sinatra, PPM, Mariam Makeba, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, 5th Dimension, Sergio Mendez, Doors, Anthony Newley, John Fahey, not to mention Dylan, Beatles and Simon & Garfunkle for posterity, and then began adding unruly beasts like Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, The Who, Uriah Heep (2nd or so concert attended with friends driving, opening act was Rush), Santana, Stones, Cream, James Gang with Joe Walsh (first rock concert attended at a local college ’71 or ’72).

Mauna Loa volcano at about 9000 feet, photo by David Elias, from artist's "Poor Polly" video on YouTube
Mauna Loa at about 9000 feet (volcano is largest mountain mass on Earth) – photo by David Elias

A huge difference between then and now is that the music community nationally seemed nearly 100% aware of what was new as far as bands releasing albums. This was a timeline managed collectively by all without a world wide web, email or text, nay, barely even Texas Instruments and HP (RPN) calculators. It all happened through LP’s on store shelves and in our collections, through radio and word of mouth. And letter writing. On paper. With pencils. It was an analog way of learning about an analog art form. Think about that for a minute because it came and went for a long time for most and then maybe came back again in new degrees.

Today I don’t think 0.01% of the music released each week is ever ever ever even known to those wondering about new music, let alone listened to. In those early vinyl days I knew, I think I heard nearly all of everything rock oriented (which then included rock, folk, folk rock, americana, newgrass, country, metal, acoustic, soul, funk, r&b, motown and probably 100 other easily forgettable genre labels on today’s music map) through friends’ albums, a few stores to browse through, radio, and the ones I bought with my brother.

So listen hard we did, and pay attention to who was writing and recording and performing, as well as how they were writing and recording and performing. Now when I put the vinyl back in my airwaves at home I am taken to those times and places of first learning how to listen.

Since then I have groomed my ears to listen to cassette (still viable and very healthy in the new world), 1/4″ tape, 8-track, CD, MP3, DSD, hi-res PCM to DXD, MQA, digital streaming (usually MP3 between 64 and 320kbps, then 16/44.1 and MQA on TIDAL) through endless wired and wireless arrangements of gear from elaborate golden Monitor Audio 5-way surround setups to the tiny AM radio-like speakers I still like to listen to (tilted at the best angle to one ear or under my chin) since buying the first iPhone in 2007.

Every one of these audio formats had their own signature sound characteristics. The differences between them are usually huge and obvious and easy to identify especially with the same source track playing as converted media formats to compare. I think I learned how to discern these kinds of differences by first learning how individual LP’s from the early years sounded compared to one another.

They all had a signature of their own to my ears. It took years of listening but by the time CD rolled around in the early 80’s I knew what I preferred to what I didn’t prefer. Saying it like that as a preference is by far more important to me than saying which is better in an altruistic suburban way.

Mono vinyl through a 60’s Lafayette tube amplifier into an unknown 2-way speaker buried in a wall at the top of the room still sounds good to me. Which brings me back to the point that it’s not about how good it sounds but how well I am listening.

Be Safe & Well, with Extra Aloha & Safety to Hawaii as Douglas passes through this weekend.

~ DE
https://davidelias.bandcamp.com (All albums are now just $7 through end of July with MQA)
Onomea Bay Jungle, Hilo, Hawaii – photo by David Elias

All  text and photos by David Elias
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