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My Life Told in Machines

My Life Told in Machines

March 4, 2021

To many people, a note is a note, is a note. But there are footnotes. There are overtones and undertones, the heaven and hell of music, the music of the spheres which isn’t heard but which ties the universe together with frequencies.

Cover Photo by Erik Petersen
Engineered by Jim Ruberto
Written and narrated by Peter Halstead

Robert Schumann Romanze, Op. 28 No. 2 performed by Peter Halstead


00:14 PETER HALSTEAD: We each find our own machines. Science fiction starships that extend our dreams. That remove us from time and space, so that a concert, our souls, are both now and forever. If a tree falls in the forest, and you have a Nagra tape recorder, it falls forever. Machines let us preserve our souls in a way that wasn’t possible to our parents and our grandparents.

00:49 My first machine was the Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine. Victor was sold to RCA in 1929. The machine was the size of a hatbox, which played scratchy Strauss waltzes from heavy 78 rpm vinyl disks while my family ate dinner every night. We changed disks for every new waltz.

01:21 My second machine was a piano. My father was horrified that my grandfather had given me something as large as a car which I used to make noise: a Chickering grand piano, on which I pounded out octaves and scales and Beethoven Sonatas six hours a day. I can imagine this must have been a nightmare for a man like my father who had no love of loud sounds. But he actually put up with it, and with the Strauss waltzes.

01:55 My grandfather had also given me a Norelco tape recorder and a cheap microphone which I used to record my first composition, a piano concerto, which I played on the Chickering. My concerto sounded suspiciously like the Warsaw Concerto by Richard Addinsell. (The really bad parts were entirely by me.) The Norelco sounded tinny, but it opened up a new world for me.

02:26 My first car was a total lemon, as were all the cars I bought for many years. It’s only occurred to me now that that’s why they were such bargains: they came broken. When you get your first car, you basically live in it. I visited everyone I knew. I spent so much time in the car, I decided I needed to have a stereo in it. But my jalopies were too old to have car stereos, so I hooked up a cassette machine on the front seat to giant loudspeakers which I placed on the back seat. I mainly played the Beach Boys, Gene Pitney, and Roy Orbison. The speakers got soaked with dew during the night, and it took them three hours to thaw out each morning. I initially got the wiring wrong and the dashboard started to smoke and then burst into flames while I was driving. Some drag racers had flames pouring out of their mufflers. I had flames pouting out of my dashboard. It was a hot car. In a good way.

03:30 In 1969 I moved into my first apartment, which was in Boston. My friend Peter Van Etten told me about The Music Box in Wellesley, which was reputed to have been the first h-ifi store in the country. The very personable owner, Bill Bell, was big on Klipsch speakers; I still use the Klipsch Cornwall speakers I got from him, which used horns rather than cones to produce sound. Horns bring out the mid-range of notes, so pianos and voice and instruments all sound like they’re brought forward in the music.

04:09 Bill thought I should also have a tape recorder and a microphone. It was a Tandberg reel-to-reel and an inexpensive Sony condenser mic. With this primitive setup, I recorded Russell Sherman, who became my piano teacher, playing Bach in my aparetment. By that time I had bought a 1928 Steinway piano. I had friends at the New England Conservatory, pianists and violinists, who needed audition tapes to apply for jobs, so I would record them on the Tandberg and then hand them the tape. My Tandberg had two reels of skinny, fragile tape, a quarter of an inch wide, which ran around the spools at seven and a half inches a second. Something like that is just asking for trouble. When the tapes broke you just scotch-taped them back together. If you didn’t do it smoothly, you’d hear a click when you played the tape back. It wasn’t ideal.

05:08 When Cathy and I bought our first house, in Bedford, New York, near where both of us had grown up, we decided to build a barn and record my piano in it. This time I got a big recording console, which engineers call a “board,” and Neumann tube microphones. I never had time to record myself. Recording other people had turned into a full-time job. I recorded my teacher, Russell Sherman, and other pianists whom we knew.

05:40 One producer, Tony Faulkner, who was famous for his beautiful recordings of the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, came over from England and decided to leave because the room was too small to make a good recording in it. He was right, but we still made a lot of good recordings in it anyway which got awards from the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

06:05 Around 1980 the inventor of delta-sigma recording technology agreed to sell me his prototype machine down on Avenue A in New York, at the time a scary neighborhood riddled with bullet holes and covered with graffiti. It felt like one of the warehouses in the movie, Diva.

06:30 This machine turned audio wave formations into a special kind of digital wave which looked very much like audio waves but was digital. The technology was acquired by dCS in Cambridge, England, and later by Sony, and became what is now called DSD.

06:50 Despite using DSD for many decades, I prefer PCM, known as Pulse Code Modulation, developed by Denon in 1972, and picked up by RCA and Telarc. When Telarc went bankrupt, we stepped in to digitize about a third of their archive, mainly recordings of the Cleveland Orchestra made in the wonderful, acoustically perfect, Severance Hall in Cincinnati. PCM captures the attacks, the accents, the range of dynamics, while DSD tends to smooth out these signs of character in music.

07:31 I made the first DAD, or digital audio disc, with Bob Ludwig, who also remastered the Rolling Stones, not at the same time. A DAD was a DVD but with no video. Tower Records, the big record chain of the day, didn’t know where to put it, because it wasn’t a DVD and it wasn’t a CD. Needless to say, the format didn’t last. I still see it, here and there, listed as a collector’s item. This was part of my mission, apparently: to make records that no one else could play.

08:09 By 1987 I was using a Nakamichi Digital Audio Tape machine. This was a tiny thing which recorded on even thinner tape than reel-to-reel machines. It was called “DAT tape.” The tape recorded digital code on it. Microphone cables ran thirty feet or so into the control room, where they went into a machine that converted the sound waves to digital codes, zeroes and ones instead of notes, and then onto the DAT tape. Nakamichi swore the machine would be around forever; they’d upgrade it as changes happened. Six months later, they abandoned it, and everyone was stuck with these tiny little DAT tapes.

08:53 By 1990, when we moved out to Colorado, there was a software program called Sonic Solutions where you could record sounds onto a computer. Your screen showed you dials and needles that looked like the gauges on your tape recorder, except they were now just flat, one-dimensional images on a computer desktop of the real sliders, faders, and knobs.

09:27 There used to be giant floor-standing 124-track reel-to-reel machines made by companies like Mitsubishi, Studer, and Ampex. Bing Crosby had invested in Ampex machines to record his singing. He was the first American singer to record his radio shows. These machines were as big as refrigerators, too heavy to lift, and cost more than a house back in the 1950’s, when I was a kid.

09:56 As we all know, the original computers like Univac filled rooms and rooms. But in 1977, Apple made the Apple II as a small, user-friendly home computer. The Macintosh was invented in 1984. Apple was the only computer company to understand the potential of computers for recording. Lucasfilm developed the first digital audio workstation, the Sound Droid, between 1980 and 1987. It was never commercialized. Out of it came the technology for both Pixar and Sonic Solutions.

10:34 By 1987 Sonic Solutions and the Apple Macintosh allowed ordinary record producers to have a half-million dollar studio on a computer desktop. Sonic Solutions was later bought by Pro Tools.

10:51 By 1990, big floor-standing Apple computers had external floppy disc drives and, later, magnetic disks which could hold the information picked up by the microphones.

11:01 Hard drives were invented by IBM in 1956, and were enormous, fragile vacuum chambers the size of a safe. The original hard disk was two feet in diameter. If you’re my age, you remember Laser Disks, which were as big as 33 RPM vinyl records and held a movie, which could be played on special players and fed into a projector to see a movie.

11:30 Hard drives held up to 5 million bytes in the 1950’s. By the mid- 1990’s, they held up to a billion bytes. By 2020, you could have 24 trillion bytes, 24 terabytes, in a box the size of an old Sony Walkman - a little bit bigger than a cigarette pack.

11:59 It wasn’t until the 1990’s that disks had enough size and speed to be able to hold music as it was being recorded, and then play it back at the same speed without waiting for the machines to catch up with the billions of bits of information which had to be played out of cheap computer speakers.

12:21 It wasn’t until the year before Steve Jobs died (2010) that he decided to make Apple computers fast enough to play all of the massive amount of data stored on a hard drive, and also in high-fidelity. This made it possible to listen to 288,000 bytes each second, or 17 megabytes a minute, or one gigabyte an hour.

12:51 The mics were still tube mics, but now they had more sophisticated, smoother-sounding preamps they plugged into, and often analog sound into digital formats right inside the mic.
And there were more sophisticated reverberation machines. The old Telefunken ones were iron plates that made pianos and guitars sound like they were recorded inside a drum. You can hear this sound on early Beatles albums, and people now buy special German plate reverbs to create this nostalgic effect.

13:31 I had learned that the lowest note on a piano had a wavelength that was 44-feet long, so you needed a 44-foot-long room to hear the whole note, and it should be around 27 feet high to have the right bounce. It shouldn’t have straight walls, or frequencies bounced back on the same path and canceled each other out. The walls should have heavy plaster, more like adobe. So we built a living room like that and recorded many albums in it.

14:11 By this time I had a lot of gadgets which I ran sound through which made it sound better. Reverberation units, or reverbs made the sound bounce as though it’d been recorded in a cathedral or a concert hall. It could make the sound metallic like the Beatles or deep and wooden, like old concert halls. As everything was getting to be digital, there were special tube units which made digital notes sound as if they’d been recorded with tube equipment. There were all-tube Neve control boards with a hundred faders or more which made notes sound more human, because tubes are defective, like human ears, and so make high notes sound less bright, because they don’t hear a lot of the high frequencies.

15:13 If mics hear perfectly, while our human hearing drops off, the sound seems harsh, or brittle. So early digital sound on compact disks, CDs, was too bright. The secret to making notes sound as warm as human hearing was to use deficient tube mics and to sample faster, so you got more information from those defective tube mics. Instead of sampling 44,000 times a second, the way CD sound does, you could now sample three million times a second. It’s like a RAW file for a photograph, where you capture so much light on your memory card that you can change the camera settings for a photograph even after you’ve taken it.

15:47 Suddenly there was so much information from a note that you could shape it any way you wanted, weeks after the musician had left the studio. The problem was that only hard drives and computers could hold that much information. You needed to hear music directly from the computers. Ironically, sound has come a long way, and a decent pair of headphones plugged into an Apple computer already produces an incredible sound.

16:25 During this time when all of our concerts are in the home, Cathy and I hope with Monte and with everyone at Tippet Rise that you can add on headphones and maybe converters to have the kind of sound experience that I’ve spent most of my life trying to produce.

16:44 To many people, a note is a note, is a note. But there are footnotes. There are overtones and undertones, the heaven and hell of music, the music of the spheres which isn’t heard but which ties the universe together with frequencies.

17:08 It’s the way life swirls around a sentence like fog around a lamp. When I was in London in the 1960s, the pollution had been cleaned up just a few years before, but there were still atmospheric mists and the smell of diesel everywhere, which to me was the smell of Shakespeare, of theater, of recordings by Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier which you could only get in London at the time.

17:38 In Nepal, there’s the smell of burning wood everywhere: the smell of life without electricity, of camping in high meadows, of mountains, of adventure.

17:48 It’s the pollution surrounding the mountains, the theaters in London, which adds in a lot of the character, the way the overtones we can’t hear make music sound better.

18:03 With higher resolutions the notes sound almost the same, but the space around them carries the indefinable nuances of the mood, which bleed into the notes. It’s like adding adjectives to a sentence that only had nouns. The sense is the same, but the mood has changed imperceptibly.

18:32 In a way, modern literature was started by Goethe with his novel, Elective Affinities, where he removed all the adjectives and kept only the facts. That created a kind of minimalism which you find in Marguerite Duras, in many of the more trendy novels of our time. In fact, it might be good to add back in the enormous scope of Prust.

19:04 Algorithms that reproduce sounds translate them into something sanitized, when really sounds, like lives, are big and messy. So digital bandwidth is shorthand for the vast unspeakable Wonderland of our lives, the bioluminescence of the surf in Vieques or the San Juans, the fireflies of the sea, the glow that surrounds not only waves but notes, the Northern Lights that flesh out the hidden structure of the sky.