Splicing Together a Few Thoughts

March 22, 2018
 

It’s not exactly the stuff of great detective or mystery stories. But it is an intriguing puzzle of sorts.

A CD just came into the Friends of WILL Library, It’s re-issue of a recording of the string sonatas (Sonate a quattro) by Gioachino Rossini featuring the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields led by Sir Neville Marriner (Praga 250 385) . According to the information provided, it originally was released in 1967. But if you pay close attention to the details, you’ll notice that 2 of the 6 sonatas were recorded in 1968. So how do you explain that?

Now I want you to know that usually when it comes to solving mysteries like those in books or films, forget it. I think it’s much more amusing just to see how outlandishly wrong I tend to guess.

I hesitated for a moment. But this looked like one I could handle. A little online search confirmed my suspicion. The original release (which was on an LP, since there were no CDs back then) included only 4 of the 6 sonatas. I guessed that from knowing other old recordings of the Rossini sonatas which we’ve had over the years in the Friends of WILL Library.

Simply said, there wasn’t enough room to include all 6 of the sonatas on 2 sides of an LP back in 1967. And given the lengths of the 2 remaining sonatas, it wouldn’t have been enough to merit a double LP set, unless they added other works. LPs (“long-playing” records) contained a total of about 45 minutes' worth of music. (It’s funny that many of those became “no-longer playing” records, as music listeners switched to compact discs.)

The recording with Sir Neville and the Academy began to suggest all sorts of numbers that had gathered a bit of dust over the years, but which were a part of everyday speech not too long ago. Bear with me as I “re-issue” just a handful of them.

Though we called them “LPs” or the simple generic word for phonograph recordings: “records,” we also called them “33s” because they played on a rotating turntable at a speed of 33 1/3 revolutions per minute (rpm). Smaller records that played at a speed of 45 rpm were known as “45s” or “singles,” since they had one song on each side of the record. Usually featuring popular music, they were the records loaded into the older generation of jukeboxes. I’m reminded of them from time to time when some CDs are made to look like mini-45s on the label side. “78s” spun at a speed of 78 rpm, which made their labels blur, well beyond the point that you could still read them while they were rotating.  “78s” were the more recent ancestors of LPs and singles.

In the not too distant past, the original or master recordings of “records” were on reels of magnetic tape, as were most productions at WILL. Some of the tape recording and playback equipment is still around, but only to assist in the digitization of the tape library for the archives.

As was the case with records, reels of tape had a variety of recording/playback speeds, though they never acquired any fun nicknames. And instead of counting the number of reel revolutions per minute, tape recorder speed was measured by the number of inches of tape that passed over the recording or playback head per second. Standard speeds were 1 7/8, 3 3/4 and 7 1/2  inches per second (ips). Mutli-track studio equipment had even faster speeds, which resulted in a better reproduction of the original sound.

It’s ironic that cassette tapes, which many listened to as their prime source of recorded music for years, ran at the slow speed of 1 7/8 ips. Cassette recorders were used here at WILL to gather the sounds and voices of news events and to conduct interviews outside of our facility. The tapes had their own identifying numbers too. C-60, C-90 and C-120 referred to the total number of minutes that you could record onto a cassette, using both sides. C-60s had thicker and stronger tape than C-90s. C-120s had very thin tape. And I always thought that they were coated with flavorings, making them appetizing to tape players, which tended to gobble them up.

I really didn’t intend for this to be a nostalgic look back to the analog era. For one thing, I’m not sure I’m nostalgic about some of the technical peculiarities of that era. And I’ve only scratched the surface of the subject – though I hate to use that expression, simply because it suggests damaging not only a phonograph record, but a compact disc as well.

It’s all a part of the fascinating history of listening to recorded music.  And throughout that history, radio has been a key player, you could say. The Friends of WILL Library is stocked with everything from LPs to digital audio files. That’s the stuff of our classical music programs. And there’s no mystery about where it all came from. As I often say on the air: Thank you for your support, recently and over the years!

Stay tuned! And be sure to let your mind wander wherever it will while you’re listening – or whenever you glance at the fine print on the back of a record jacket, a CD booklet or a PDF.


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