No static at all

Rather a lot of us grew up in circumstances like these:

If you were born a few years before the era of Teen Death Songs, as I was, you might remember when AM radio stations played music. The greater fidelity of transmission and reception provided by FM radio put an end to that, of course. Yet some of the hits of the early Sixties don’t sound quite right in high fidelity. They seem to have been designed to be heard on tinny, staticky AM radios … specifically, the sort of radio that was built into the dashboard of a 1965 Chevy Caprice.

The result is a seeming loss of authenticity when those early AM radio hits are reproduced on modern equipment. The listening experience just isn’t the same. Why, to this day I can’t abide hearing “Walk Away, Renee” in remastered digital quality sound. My wife, that heretic, suggests that it might be because of the wear and tear fifty years of sitting in front of a computer monitor has put on my ears, but I know she and all my other friends are just trying to make me paranoid, and I’m not going to let them!

For what it’s worth, there is no known original stereo tape of the Left Banke’s third single, “Desiree”; all versions in release are the 45 single mix. That said, the “Renee” version linked seems a bit more heinous than usual.

And that said, rather a lot of Sixties records were cut specifically with auto audio in mind. For (one very big) instance:

In his still essential Motown history Where Did Our Love Go? Nelson George writes, “Motown chief engineer Mike McClain built a miniscule, tinny-sounding radio designed to approximate the sound of a car radio. The high-end bias of Motown’s recordings can be partially traced to the company’s reliance on this piece of equipment.” They knew people would be listening on their car stereos and on their transistor sets and they were going to do what it took to make their songs sound good and memorable. Even if you couldn’t put your finger on it, when a Motown song came on, you knew it.

I have a copy of “Dancing in the Street,” carefully de-noised, painstakingly remixed, and lovingly remastered. It has about one-sixth the impact of the mono single.

And I may as well admit here that our local Top 40 AM station had a simulcast on FM. The FM was a little cleaner, but not enormously so; more to the point, AM radio sets of the era were simply better than they are now. When seemingly all the music started moving to FM, receiver manufacturers found the idea of cheaping out on the AM sections irresistible. I have Bose audio in my car. CDs are great, FM is fair to good depending on station practice, and AM is not much better than an old Princess phone. Yet there are still some good AM sets to be had, if you look around.

More worrisome is the prospect of being stuck with remasters hereafter:

Last fall, we wrote about the record labels moving on from streaming companies to instead suing CBS over its terrestrial radio operations playing pre-1972 songs as well. CBS hit back with what we considered to be a fairly bizarre defense: claiming that it wasn’t actually playing any pre-1972 music, because all of the recordings it used had been remastered after 1972, and those recordings should have a new and distinct copyright from the original sound recording. As we noted at the time, an internet company called Bluebeat had tried a version of this argument years earlier only to have it shot down by the courts (though its argument ignored the whole derivative works issue).

Now, in a somewhat stunning ruling, the court has agreed with CBS that remastered works get new copyrights as derivative works of the original. You can read the full court order here [pdf]. The court, correctly, notes that for a work to get a new copyright, it must show originality beyond the initial work — and that originality “must be more than trivial.”

Will somebody at whoever the hell has the rights to the Mercury/Smash catalog now order a new version of “Desiree”? I’d bet on it.

(With thanks to Roger Green.)


  1. McG »

    4 June 2016 · 6:12 pm

    So, I’m listening to “Walk Away Renee” on my phone (no earbuds). What’s stopping recording producers from tailoring to these teeny, tinny speakers?

  2. CGHill »

    4 June 2016 · 6:33 pm

    They’re probably thinking you’re going to do any serious music listening on this device with the earbuds. (Then again, there are times when I wonder if they’re thinking at all.)

  3. Brett »

    4 June 2016 · 7:20 pm

    Cue Charlton Heston by the destroyed Statue of Liberty…

  4. McG »

    5 June 2016 · 8:13 am

    Oddly enough, my “serious” music listening — from my amassed music library, at least — is likely going to be Bluetoothed into my car stereo, especially on this summer’s road trip.

    In the last 20 years or so I’ve found lyrics easier to understand despite my aging ears, thanks to better quality sound equipment. While tinny little speakers may evoke nostalgic
    memories, I enjoy the actual music better when I can hear it better. Silly me.

  5. CGHill »

    5 June 2016 · 11:23 am

    As an experiment, I took “That Thing You Do,” from the motion picture of the same name, which purports to be a middle-60s single but which sounds like a product of the middle 90s, when it was actually recorded. I subjected the track to a couple of filters, mixed it down to mono, and overlaid some vinyl noise. The result sounded more like 1964, but I’m not about to claim it was more listenable because it sounded more like 1964.

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