Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Sound of Music

Tom Lehrer once remarked, "I'd like to take you now on the wings of song and help you forget for a moment your drab, wretched lives". MIT was a contributor to the musical scene, and it's not just because Tom Scholz had a band or Charlie Bruno once dropped a piano off the Baker House roof. Despite our penchant for science, MIT had its own musical influences, from the radio station known as WTBS (that is, until Ted Turner bought the name for $25,000) to the Glee Club to the Chorallaries to the Musical Theatre Guild to the All-Tech Sing (where the student group with the best set of vocal chords was rewarded with the opportunity to carry home the heaviest object the MIT Student Center Committee could filch from the streets of Cambridge). Music was in the air, and it wasn't just because the Coffeehouse had brought in a folkie from off the streets of Cambridge to help the late-night studiers snooze the early morning away.
I went to a performing arts high school myself, so I had an appreciation for instrumental and non-instrumental music. In the '70s, music, particularly popular music, underwent a technological revolution. First came the first crude synthesizers, capable of playing a single note that sounded like it had been produced on a synthesizer (that meant a variation of a sine wave, or, getting creative, a square wave). Then followed quadrophonic stereo reproduction, which was based on the theory that if two speakers produced a sound twice as good as mono, then four speakers were twice as good as stereophonic. It was like a musical hologram, so lifelike, you could swear the musicians were in the same room with you (and if you played your AC/DC record loud enough, you could almost believe Angus Young was shredding on top of your bed). Soon would come revolutions in musical portability, from the boombox to the compact disc to the Walkman, eventually leading ear buds and iPods (though that happened much later). You could improve on the sound quality all you wanted, but the musical quality didn't always follow.
Incidentally, this strip got changed a couple of times as the musical fashions changed; this version featured a recognizable Van Halen lyric, while an earlier version had used the lyrics of a Parliament-Funkadelics song.

Being MIT students, we were always in a perpetual arms race regarding the size and power of our electronic stereo equipment. It was not enough to be able to throw the sound of your stereo system off the far wall of the building across the courtyard; being heard in Kendall Square from the confines of your modest dorm room on Ames Street was the objective. Some of my dorm mates had stereos with floor- mounted speakers that could faithfully reproduce the scratch in a record such that it could be heard at dinner in the Walker Dining Room. But try as we might, we could not get a reproduction clear enough to identify that curse word that got slipped into "Louie, Louie". (A note: some of you might not be familiar with the hissing, crackling and popping associated with vinyl records, having grown up with nothing but compact disks, or for the even younger among you, an iPod full of MP3 files. There are esoterics among us who will argue till the cows come home that long-playing vinyl produces a much richer, fuller sound than a compact disc, even if CD reproduction is clean, clear and accurate, and has none of the pops associated with scratched vinyl. I never got that far; I just know that it's a lot easier to produce that wikka-wikka sound that rules hip-hop by scratching a vinyl record than by trying to manipulate a sound file you filched off of SoundCloud.)
People know Bose for Wave Radios these days, but at one time, the House of Bose produced some of the most massive stereo speakers ever conceived. They ruled the roost until miniaturization made it possible to render ground-shaking sound out of little table-top units. This led to the consolidation of stereos from piece-together systems plugged together with jacks and speaker wire down to single piece boxes decoratively configured to look like they got pulled out of a Jedi warrior's fighter jet. Nowadays, you can create a decent clangor from a couple of speakers jacked into your desktop computer or from that docking port your iPod uses.

There was only one problem with stereos loud enough to wake the dead - they frequently did.
I had to redraw this strip, too. You see, the normal person (or one who does not live in Manhattan and attend the theatre regularly) would consider midnight to be way past their bedtime. The typical college student (and in this regard, MIT students were all too typical) would consider midnight to be the early evening. Later, I understood that 1:00 am was a good time to go out to a rave, but by then I was an old fogie of 35...

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