Provenance: the Foundation of Musical Pleasure

Regency TR-1 transistor radio, the first commercial transistor radio, which debuted October 18, 1954. Designed by Texas Instruments and IDEA, the TR-1 had a superheterodyne circuit with only 4 transistors: a combined local oscillator/mixer, two IF amplifiers, and one audio amplifier. Within one year of release, TR-1 sales approached 100,000. The transistor radio was the most popular communications device in history, with billions manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy of Steve Kushman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_radio.

Regency TR-1 transistor radio, the first commercial transistor radio, which debuted October 18, 1954. Designed by Texas Instruments and IDEA, the TR-1 had a superheterodyne circuit with only 4 transistors: a combined local oscillator/mixer, two IF amplifiers, and one audio amplifier. Within one year of release, TR-1 sales approached 100,000. The transistor radio was the most popular communications device in history, with billions manufactured during the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy of Steve Kushman. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transistor_radio.

What does it take to make fabulous-sounding music flow through your life? That is a fundamental question if you're a music lover who wants a preferred sound track for your daily story. The answer is not so simple any more because there are so many possible approaches that could work, whatever genres you prefer to listen to.

Narrowing things down gets far easier when you leverage the powerful concept of provenance -- how something originates and becomes developed. The provenance of a radish, for a random example, includes everything that happens to it, starting from ancestry. Its DNA comes together long before the moment the seed sprouts and then continues onward until that fateful first chomp on that spicy, round, red root. Understanding the provenance that shapes music as it flows from its sources leads to insights for a best-possible music solution that's tailored to your preferences.

Consider the steps and states that a piece of music goes through before it lands on your plate. These factors are subject to your control through your choices:

  1. Composition -- how artfully was the music conceived and written?
  2. Performance -- how skillful were the performers and how acoustically excellent the venue?
  3. Recording -- how well was the performance captured?
  4. Production -- how well did the sound engineers craft the version that was distributed?
  5. Distribution -- what media were chosen and how did that limit sonic accuracy?
  6. Playback -- do the recording's quality and realism satisfy you in the listening?

Provenance may be the single most important concept an audio lover could use to filter the field of possibilities. The path a musical note takes on its way to your eardrums is a long and winding road with many possible pitfalls. Each of the main steps also have sub-factors. For example, playback breaks down into data being reconverted into sound waves and all that entails. The music quality you hear is necessarily the sum of its provenance's influences including everything in the room where it's played.

The shortest, simplest path may have the least chance of corruption and may likely lead to the best-sounding music. I once inherited a copy of John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" that had literally traveled around the world via bootleg mix tapes, being re-recorded repeatedly along the way. You could make out the song if you knew what you were hearing but it sounded worse than an original transistor radio -- comically smeared, noisy, and distorted. All that remained recognizable were basic melody and rhythm.

On the other hand, modern digital technologies contribute greatly to a pure provenance by avoiding corruption of the musical data regardless of how long the path may be in either distance or time. I was in Korea in 1970 when I heard that John Denver tape. If that music had reached me via internet transfer of even a 16/44.1 digital file yesterday -- what I hear today could sound stellar on my present test system and indistinguishable from the source recording.

A streamed Ogg Vorbis MP3 from Spotify would sound slightly less realistic. If it was on a vinyl LP, it could be filled with cracks, pops, and skips unless that LP had been meticulously protected, stored and handled through the years. On analog tape, CD, or other physical medium, the format could impart characteristic faults. Though not totally immune, digital music is far more impervious.

Digital music is based on data capture, storage, and readout that perform close to the inherent quality limits of a well-selected and properly set up, high quality audio system. The medium is no longer a weak link. Digital formats, media, distribution, and playback  hold promise of the best practical provenance through steps 3 to 6 above. If you want a gigantic selection of fresh and natural-sounding music that's new to you, go digital to stoke the soundtrack for your life.

This is not to say that, if you get a kick out of collecting old vinyl LPs, or CDs, or even cassette tapes, you "shouldn't" listen to those media. I hope you listen to whatever excites you. The other day I came upon a perfectly preserved, two-tone 1954 Dodge Royal Sport Coupe in a parking lot. It was fascinating and wonderful to see. I ached to drive it around for a bit. Then I climbed back into a 300 HP, 1998 Lexus GS 400 and drove off. Before I left the lot, I got over the historic Dodge. Such is the influence of technology through its powerful and positive effect on musical provenance.

What is the best-sounding high performance audio stream you can muster given your budget and any other limiting factors or circumstances? I suspect the answer pivots on digital technology as the vehicle on its path to your ears. These days, most music is recorded and mastered digitally. You only need a miniscule 2 or 3-component audio system to bring it to life playing media that stores in a space that's microscopic by comparison to past libraries of physical media.

Musically speaking, we live in interesting times. The previous 3 posts in this blog provide a way for your own, select sound track to come together easily and more affordably than at any previous time in history.

Enjoy Your Music

-- Joseph Riden

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