Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Stereophonic, also playable mono

I was able to listen to the inaugural broadcast of Stuck in the Psychedelic Era on WITH Sunday night. Well, technically it wasn’t the broadcast itself, since I am outside the WITH listening area; instead I went to the new WITH website (www.withradio.org) and hit the “listen live” button. I’m happy to say that the streaming sounds great, and, as an added bonus, it’s in stereo.

For those of you who are not aware of this, the live streaming at www.weos.org is, and has always been, in mono, playable through a standard media player such as Real or WMP. This is done to reduce the bandwidth so that even listeners with the poorest connectivity (e.g. dialup) can listen to WEOS broadcasts without the signal breaking up. WITH, on the other hand, is using the same built-in streaming system that WXXI uses, which offers a choice of high or low quality signal. What this means to online listeners of Stuck in the Psychedelic Era is that now you can either catch the show when it first airs at 9PM Saturday on weos in mono, or wait until Sunday night at 10 and hear the same show in glorious stereo (or you can do both. Works for me).

Of course, over-the-air listeners get the show in stereo either night, which in a way is kind of ironic, since almost half the music on any given show was recorded in mono anyway. Ah, but the cuts that are in stereo are a real treat, as they represent an era in which stereo was still being experimented with.

Some of the cuts sound a little strange now, such as most of the Beatles 1966 output with vocals sometimes isolated all the way in one speaker with instruments coming out of the other (which made for some truly bizarre listening when one of the speakers wasn’t working).

1967 brought the first true works of stereo genius, such as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar bouncing from side to side in time with his wah-wah pedal on “Up From the Skies,” and the psychedelic experiments in the studio being done by San Francisco bands Jefferson Airplane and of course, the Grateful Dead.

By 1968 the eight-track recorder was becoming the new standard for stereo recording, and groups like Cream took full advantage of the new technology to create, for the first time, true stereo drum mixes (with only four tracks, a true stereo drum mix would have left only two available tracks for all the other instruments and vocals combined, making overdubs virtually impossible).

In subsequent years, analog recording capabilities would increase first to 16 tracks, then eventually to 64 tracks before giving way to the new digital technology with (theoretically) an unlimited number of tracks to play with. Still, the years that four and eight-track machines were in use can now be seen as a kind of golden age of stereo recording. Lucky for us that golden age coincided with the Psychedelic Era.

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