A daily dose of Hughes; Jimmy Hughes aka James Michael Hughes

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“You can’t possibly listen to that – it was recorded 10 years ago… “

There was a time when every major new technological breakthrough rendered the whole back catalogue of older recordings obsolete – or so it seemed. Once you’d heard stereo, mono seemed flat and lifeless, completely lacking in spatial clarity. At last, it was possible to tell if the conductor divided his first and second violins left and right, and to determine the placement of solo instruments.

For recordings of opera, stereo opened up a whole new world, allowing stage action to be portrayed as never before. Decca’s landmark recording of Wagner’s Das Rheingold in 1958 clinched matters. Producer John Culshaw shrewdly claimed that stereo allowed the Rheinmaidens’ voices to sound as though coming from beneath the stage, creating a sense of depth and height, as well as breadth and width.

He was being somewhat economical with the actualities. For while it did sound as through the Rheinmaidens were below stage, the effect was a complete accident – a stroke of luck. Even he didn’t know how the effect was created. However, everyone believed him. Decca’s Rheingold showcased the immense possibilities of stereo. And that was it. No going back. Everything had to be re-recorded in stereo!

Certainly, that’s how it struck people at the time. And now? Now, I think few listeners care about sound staging or positioning of voices. The immense care taken by Decca over the acoustic perspectives in Herbert von Karajan’s famous 1959 recording of Verdi’s Aida now seem pointless and contrived. Few listeners today sit, eyes closed, in front of their loudspeakers aurally visualising the sonic spectacle unfolding before their ears.

When I began collecting vinyl around 1970, the lure of improved sound was a powerful incentive to buy the latest recorded version of a piece of music. Especially if the music in question made huge demands in terms of wide dynamic range and extended frequency response. Works like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were always a barometer of recording excellence – a means of testing the capability of your hi-fi.

The change from mono to stereo in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, and the introduction of Compact Disc in 1983 were seismic events that totally changed the audio world. In each case, people quite literally replaced their entire music collections to take advantage of the new medium. This was great for record companies; it meant that many of us re-bought recordings we already had in the earlier format.

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