Composer, author, lecturer, guitar teacher

Back to mono? / Carl Nielsen

I recently had a conversation with a 20-year-old on the subject of explaining what an SACD was, and also what was a 5.1 mix. To do this you have to start from an understanding of stereo in order to grasp how a 5.1 mix pushes sound at you from five different directions rather than two. Like many young people, this person had an iPod and often listened to mp3s through ear-buds. To my horror, it became apparent that there seems to be a generation of music listeners who have always used iPods and similar devices, who think that the reason you have two ear-buds is because you have two ears and music needs to go into both of them! Furthermore, if you take one out you can hear what a friend / bus-driver / barista is saying to you and still have the music.

In other words, these listeners have apparently no conception of stereo! They don’t understand that the left signal is different to the right, and that both are required to create a stereo musical image whose centre is right in the middle of your head. I suspect that most have never owned a proper hi-fi system with a balance on the amp which lets you turn the left or right channel off –  a trick which can be revealing on 60s tracks which were mixed oddly or were originally intended to be mono. (What happens in these cases is that whole chunks of instruments disappear or are muted, leaving you with a partial backing track you can sing over or play guitar over.) If you have tried to transcribe music for yourself you learn to use this balance alteration as a way of isolating the instrument(s) you are trying to hear.

They might as well be listening to mono, where everything comes from a single direction. In the early 1970s record producer Phil Spector led a brief campaign extolling the virtues of the mono recordings which dominated popular music until the late 1960s. I never understood the appeal of mono, because our ears naturally function in stereo, integrating sound from a wide range of left and right. I’m always disappointed to find on a remastered box-set of 60s material that a mono mix has been used instead of a stereo one. Give me stereo any day.

So the upshot was a feeling that as music technology develops (SACD, 5.1, etc) so people’s interest in really hearing music is, in some quarters, diminishing.

Aside from this I’ve been taking some initial steps toward putting some guitar-related videos on youtube. I’ll announce them when they’re done. I stumbled across the website bandcamp recently and thought that might be somewhere I can place some of my songs.

I’m getting music inspiration from the Danish composer Carl Nielsen at present. I’ve always loved his fourth symphony (‘the Inextinguishable’), but heard a Prom performance of the 5th which impressed me, and for the past week I’ve been starting most days in semi-darkness listening to his quirky sixth – the Sinfonia Semplice – which is quite a controversial work. It is only comparatively recently that criticism has started to appreciate this strange work. It is such a tragedy that he did not live to write another, because I’m sure he would have found a way to re-integrate his musical language after breaking it down in no.5 and no.6.


3 responses

  1. One of the Beatles, I think it was George, said that he preferred their mono recordings. I grew up with stereo and never wanted to go back. I also lived through the tedious LP vs. CD fight of the 80’s and I still buy and play both. SACD never seems to have taken hold in the US, though I do have a player and a few discs.
    I’ve never paid attention to Carl Nielsen, but now I will.

    September 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    • Hello Farron, Thanks for your comment. The situation with SACD is currently that it seems to have established itself in the classical field with a steady number of new releases each month. In the rock field it was tried in the late 90s with a small number of high profile back catalogues and then abandoned. But I think a hi-resolution format for historic back catalogue could come again. Secondhand rock SACDs are very expensive and sought after.

      As for Nielsen, if you’re used to listening to classical music I would start with symphony 4 and then 3 before tackling 5 and 6. If you’re not used to classical I would suggest trying the beautiful ‘Saga Dream’ tone-poem which is about 9 minutes. It has very clear repetition of its main musical ideas.

      September 5, 2012 at 8:03 am

      • Farron Brougher

        Hello RIkky,
        I didn’t know that SACD was still thriving in classical music. I am used to listening to classical music, starting at about age 15. I’ll look for the Nielsen on SACD.

        September 5, 2012 at 8:21 pm

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