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The Ways We Listen

Our listening habits reveal deep beliefs about the purpose of music in our lives

The Ways We Listen
The Ways We Listen
By Andrew R. Chow, Crimson Staff Writer

I’ve picked the wrong time to be walking across the Yard. It’s 1 p.m., and students leaving class are clogging up all the walkways. I rush past one girl who is in the process of disentangling her headphones, and slide around a pair of men who are walking side by side but in silence, as one sends a text message on his phone. I spot someone I recognize and wave, but his headphones are in and his head is down.

The sight of the detached and plugged-in is all too common on Cambridge streets. First introduced by the Walkman and universalized by the MP3 player, portable music-playing devices have shifted the function of music for a new generation. A corresponding backlash has occurred against digital music, as music aesthetes have sought older listening media for higher sound quality and perceived authenticity. With most music players of the past now easily accessible, well-defined camps of listeners have emerged based on disagreements about the merits of each system and, by extension, about the purpose of music itself.

REVINYLIZATION

After passing many more tuned-in men and women in Harvard Square, I head down JFK St. to meet Planet Records owner John Damroth. Planet Records is packed with CDs, vinyl records, and concert DVDs, and jazz reverberates throughout the store. The Harvard Square Planet Records opened in 1997 as a second branch that would sell only CDs in an attempt to capitalize on the new industry. When the original Kenmore Square store burned down, Damroth was forced to move all of his vinyl to his new location.

Carrying records was a major drawback in the early 2000s. “In 2005, we were lucky to sell a couple of records a week,” Damroth says. “Records took up too much space, and if they weren’t being sold, there was no room to put new ones out.” It seemed like vinyl would stifle itself under its own weight. But much to Damrothe’s delight, record sales recovered about three years ago, to the point where they now make up a third of Planet Record’s total sales.

Damroth isn’t surprised by vinyl’s revitalization. “It’s a different listening experience, where you’re much more connected to the artist,” he says. For Damroth, listening to vinyl is a physical project. “You put on side one, and then you have to flip it over for side two. You have to actually touch it. You can look at the artwork, which is no small thing.” Since a record requires much more effort that a CD, the process has a way of making the listener more engaged in the music. He flips on Run-DMC’s eponymous debut, released on LP in 1984, and immediately starts nodding his head and singing along.

Record appreciation has created its own self-contained community at Audio Lab in The Garage. Most customers wander in and out, examining the frontline speaker equipment. A couple of men stay sitting in chairs, neither customers nor employees, but self-professed music lovers and friends of store manager Mike Volpe. Together, they reminisce about the fabled jazz musicians they’ve seen in concert over the years. Charles Ryan, a Medford resident who describes music as his “church,” has spun many memories out of the vibrations of a record. “Two or three people would come over, sit on the floor, and just listen to an album,” he recalls. “Music was the central thing. Now, there are so many gadgets that take over people’s attention.”

The sound quality of vinyl also played a large factor in sparking Volpe’s and Ryan’s enthusiasm. “Analog has more detail and warmth. It’s more musical,” says Volpe. Although he admits that digital music from quality speakers can compete with its analog counterpart, he still feels that something about digital sound is off.

“The fact that young people are going back to turntables is an indication that something is missing from the digital world,” says Ryan. “There has to be something that’s reaching inside on a personal level.” I exit the store, leaving them to continue an extensive conversation about Billie Holliday, Bill Evans, and Paul McCartney’s guitar player.

SOCIAL LISTENING

At the Audio Preservation Studio on Garden St., Dave Ackerman and his fellow sound engineers are in the process of trying to salvage rare and fragile recordings and convert them to digital for Harvard students and faculty. The studio’s equipment collection is nonpartisan in the technology war: turntables sit next to cassettes, CD players, eight-track reels, and computers. Ackerman is well-equipped to explain the sound quality differences between the various music players, and he is quick to repudiate the idea that vinyl has an inherently better sound. “Digital recordings are a very good approximation to the original,” he says. “Most people would be hard pressed to notice a difference.”

Ackerman explains that the bad reputation that digital music gets for its sound quality comes from a rushed shift to CD in the 1990s. Record labels, in an effort to jump ahead of the curve, remastered old recordings as quickly as they could. They often simply transferred the original master tracks to the CDs, not realizing that the resulting sound would be different. “The masters were tweaked to be as good as possible for a record. The CD doesn’t have the same physical characteristics,” says Ackerman. Early digital converters were especially poor, but Ackerman says that digital sound has mostly caught up with analog. While analog tapes wear out over time, the digital copies that the studio makes preserve historical recordings for future music enthusiasts.

But although he finds the sound quality argument less compelling than the denizens of Audio Lab, Ackerman still sees a unique value in vinyl. He, like Ryan and Volpe, would listen to music on vinyl as an activity in itself, which Ackerman believes fosters an enhanced social skill he calls “active listening.” “When you train yourself to pay attention on that level, it’s a different form of consciousness,” he speculates. “When people aren’t trained to do that, their social patterns and behaviors become more self-centered and a lot less engaged in the world around them.”

As I exit the studio, I suddenly feel a deep distaste for the headphones in my pocket. Each sighting of a pair of earbuds makes me more and more uncomfortable. Is appreciation for music diminishing because of how easily it can be procured? Could I possibly be contributing to the decline of social interaction?

DEMOCRATIZING SOUNDS

Talking to Mark D. Grozen-Smith ’15 is reassuring. Grozen-Smith, a singer for The Harvard Callbacks, is engaged and inspired by music just as much as the vinyl generation. He is a headphone wearer, but is clearly passionate about what he is listening to and treats music as a relaxant as well as a topic of conversation. He prizes his iPod and its enormous capacity, which allows him to survey new music effortlessly. “I have some music on my iPod, like musicals, that I’ve never listened to before,” says Grozen-Smith. “But it’s not really hurting me. I don’t have to hold a record. If I ever change my musical taste, it’s easy.”

Grozen-Smith rejects the values of music that vinyl supporters cherish. He is puzzled by the idea of buying expensive headphones: Skullcandy gets the job done. He doesn’t listen to complete albums, but cycles through artists every couple of weeks. He listens to music while doing homework, traveling, and working out. And when I ask him about the negative social effects that worried me, he sweeps them aside. “I’m not going to stop and talk to someone randomly on the street,” he says. “Music helps me focus and shut out distractions. I listen to music to enhance everything else I’m doing.”

Alec V. Guzov ’13 shares many of Grozen-Smith’s sentiments. Guzov is a pianist, violinist, and guitarist who DJs for Harvard Radio Broadcasting (WHRB) and mixes and samples for fun. His range of talents is boosted by his easy access to a variety of musical influences. Moreover, his computer allows him to mix easily and wherever he wants. “The MP3 democratizes sound,” he says. “Before, DJs had to lug around crates of records. Now more people can have access to music.” Although Guzov is more of an audiophile than Grozen-Smith, he is not put off by digital sound. “As processing power improves, the difference becomes negligible. Overall, the benefits of digital are a lot greater than anything you’d lose from it.”

From this standpoint, the MP3 allows greater exploration and increases the pubic musical vocabulary. The availability of music online has created new listeners to thousands of artists across genres among every generations People can still choose to listen to full albums on their iPods, or they can assemble smorgasbords of favorites and avoid the filler so common on pop albums.

45S AND FRIENDS

One explanation of these diverging viewpoints is simply a generational divide. For the people who grew up with vinyl, part of the ideal music is a certain physicality. That, and the crackle in the record evokes an easy nostalgia. Meanwhile, the children of the digital era view vinyl as bulky and archaic; they wonder why anyone wouldn’t use a system that requires no more than a push of a button. Is it then the case that vinyl supporters are motivated more by nostalgia than substantive differences in taste? If so, digital music will only increase its dominance until it, too, is outmoded. 50 years from now, a small set of crabby old people will be reminiscing about the good old days of first generation iPods.

Dan C. Cole ’14 doesn’t fit into this generational theory. A WHRB DJ, Cole is as much of a turntable enthusiast as some of the hangers-on who grew up with the technology in its heyday. I’m in Cole’s dorm room, where he is lugging around a crate filled to the brim with full-length albums and 45s. A turntable, connected to a Bose speaker, sits near his doorway. He begins rummaging through his albums and finds a 45 he wants to show to me. “If you look closely, you can see an engraved message in the center of the vinyl,” he tells me excitedly, holding it up in the light. “You can’t get this kind of thing with a CD or MP3 player.” He places the record carefully onto his turntable and guides the needle on with a pop.

Cole, though a member of Generation Y, collects records and appreciates the tangible aspect of vinyl. He backs Ackerman’s active listening theory, and, like Damroth and Ryan, views vinyl as promoting music as a bonding experience. “Headphones are a less communal way of listening to music,” he says. “If you can get a few people in a room listening to an album, there’s an energy there that doesn’t exist when you’re listening alone.”

Students like Cole are an important source of support for Planet Records and other record stores that have managed to stay afloat. While many teenagers embraced taking music as a daily supplement, Cole’s community believes in a connoisseurship approach.

NO MIDDLE GROUND

Rare are the hybrids: people who fully embrace both the proactive, tangible aspects of the vinyl and the accessibility of the MP3. The CD seems a logical choice for those stuck in between. The form looks and acts like a record, but is far more durable and easy to carry around. Professor of History Peter E. Gordon is an connoisseur of classical music who appreciates the CD’s versatility. He listens to music in his office, where a turntable would be impractical; on the other hand, he feels the MP3 can compromise the artistic intentions of the composer. “My iPhone seems to have a mind of its own for multi-movement pieces,” he says as we listen to the tiptoeing cello and piano of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in F Major. “CDs do a better job of preserving the integrity of musical pieces.”

Gordon is a exception. The CD, a revolutionary piece of technology only 15 years ago, is quietly slipping into obscurity. To some, it is the worst, not the best, of both worlds. It reaches neither the intimate, tactile experience you get with a record nor the capacity and convenience of an MP3 player.

Does that mean there is no middle ground? The last authority that I turn to is Damon Krukowski. An expos teacher and indie rocker of bands Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi, Krukowski is in the unique position of having released records during the peak of all three listening media. When Galaxy 500 released its first record in 1988, it was engineered exclusively for vinyl. The switch to the CD necessitated a new outlook on process of making a record – there were less points of orientation to work with, and the increased volume range changed the way they approached mixing. Now, Krukowski often listens to his band’s mixes on MP3 and headphones before releasing them, to get a sense of how it will sound to a large population of his listeners.

“Things were made for different formats,” he says. “It’s a great experience to go back to the original formats. But there’ s lot of hip-hop, pop, and dance which was made for the MP3, and should not be heard on the LP.”

MUDDY AND FINE

The debate between the merits of vinyl and digital will rage on. Different music was made for different time periods, and different music players were made for different sorts of people. There will always be music lovers for as long as modern culture exists, and they will appreciate music in different manners and with different pieces of equipment. “It’s all about how music fits into your life,” says Grozen-Smith. Walking back from the Barker Center, I throw in my headphones and listen the insistent acoustic strumming that introduces Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. The bass is very hard to hear, and the harmonies are muddy, but the music sounds just fine.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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