The Hidden Effect Of Hi-Fi
Today For a long time, silence was my thing. Actually, no. Let me rephrase that. For a long time, non-musical sound was my thing. And that may seem weird for me to admit, considering I'm a recording artist, composer, and performer. But that's just it. That's exactly why silence and the non-musical sound was "my thing" for so long.
I grew up in recording studios. From two-inch tape to ADAT, to DAT, to CDs to the advent of ProTools and everything else (I was using Digital Performer when it was just "Performer" and goodness, I remember when the VST in Cubase didn't exist), I was either tracking it or being tracked on it. And that meant countless hours of takes, more emotion, less emotion, more flourish, and having various producers saying things to me like, "can you make it sound more.... album-y?" And after ten- to twelve-hour days of tracking, the editing would begin.
Sitting down to edit meant grueling hours of exaction, perfection. Everything needed to be "just so" and if we were editing tape, well, that was a whole different beast to be revered. With the exacting practices of editing and mixing came something I call micro-listening. It was sitting at the desk listening to the same tiny clip of music over and over again, "getting it right" until my brain was replaced with a sort of gooey porridge and the English language had lost all meaning.
I remember walking home after sessions in the middle of the night in New York City, from the West 40s to the East Side where I lived at the time. And every night I had a sense of relief when I would leave the studio to know I would hear city noise. Busses, cabs honking, the drunks around Port Authority talking to themselves, the moon, and anyone in between, the gritty random soundtrack that was Manhattan. To everyone else, this was intrusive cacophony but to me, it was utterly harmonious!
When working on an album, the band, the production crew, and I lived in a sort of suspended animation. The same tracks day in, day out, adding layers and parts, toiling and sculpting to bring to life the songs I wrote. In large part (okay, completely and totally) this meant listening only to those songs that were on deck.
Friends would ask me to go see bands at clubs or get tickets to the theater or the Garden. I found myself declining. They would ask me out to dinner and I found myself asking which restaurant in advance for fear there would be loud music there. Ultimately, I became a person who, because of my profession, coveted whatever silence I could get. My apartment was silent, except for my cats. For a long time, if I wore headphones while out walking, it was just for appearances so people wouldn't talk to me on the street. There was no music playing.
And then one day, I found myself on a stretch of snow-covered highway outside of Boise Idaho. The boys and I were back on the road and I remember how one bandmate loved listening to Dream Theater and telling stories over the tracks. But I asked for silence. He was visibly taken aback by my abrupt request but once I clarified that I didn't mean for him to stop talking; I just wanted the music off, he went from being taken aback to being downright confused.
"Why?" He asked me incredulously. And then it all came out. Signing to a major publisher as a writer (I won't say who, but let's just say it rhymes with 'Tony') and cranking out songs on a factory timed schedule, being in the studio with such exacting expectations (there's that word again) had sucked the soul out of me. I told him, "All I hear in my head when I write, when we record, when we edit is ‘radio, radio, three minutes thirty, gotta make radio, gotta make radio.'" Even as I write this, I can still hear my A&R director's voice in my head.
So silence was my comfort. It was a way for me to regain my humanness. But it took a toll. My friends and I didn't share the love of music anymore. If I was dating someone and he wanted to share a favorite band or artist with me, I just wasn't interested. I saw people's eyes light up when their favorite songs would come on the radio or in a bar. And all I could do was think about how the track was mixed or what the recording process was.
It became clear I was working in an industry that was dangerously close to killing off the very thing I loved – my love of music. Now, if you're with me here and you think this entire piece is going to take a dive as a Negative Nancy, let me assure you, it's not.
It's true that this deliberate need – nay, this addiction I had to silence went on for years. But then, I got my first pair of Tannoys. They were modest desktop speakers, a maroon–burgundy–wine colored pair. And that changed everything. My apartment was filled with music again. And when my photographer gifted me a pair of vintage floor–standing speakers from the 1970s (we think), my poor neighbors were subjected to my rekindled love of music round the clock.
To that point, everything in my apartment had been varying iterations of pro-audio gear I had either taken home or purchased so I could match my work in the studio. But, literally, overnight with the arrival of those Tannoy speaker, I realized that having a separate system to listen to – for pleasure – not for "work" had given me back my love of music.
I didn't go from zero to sixty right away, of course. For years, I had hybrid pro and hi-fi components that made up some of my favorite Frankenstein systems (and for those of you readers who live in New York City, specifically Manhattan, you know space and square footage play a big role in deciding what kind of system you have).
Now that I'm settled in Los Angeles, my hi–fi system and my studio system are completely separate. I'm thrilled to have a dedicated listening space to share and discover music with my friends and family. I've got my custom purple Egglestonworks Oso Loudspeakers, my turntable, and streamer (yes, I run both digital and analog) in a social space with comfy couches, a small bar area, and of course my dog Victoria is always sleeping in the sweet spot. I've also got my 1914 Victrola and two reel–to–reel tape machines (although those need to be spruced up a bit) so music through the ages can come to life at any moment.
I find myself turning to my system to process emotional moments. If I'm sad or stressed, I grab some records and mellow out. If I'm excited, I grab some records and celebrate (usually this involves jumping on the couch). If friends or family come over, there's always music spinning in the background during dinner and drinks. And Victoria is into it just as much as I am. If she hears the crackle of the vinyl, she's constantly beating me to our favorite spot on the couch.
The idea of listening to music for enjoyment seems like a fairly obvious thing. It is perhaps not really article-worthy until you've been in a position where you prefer silence to songs. The silence is deafening. Thank goodness, and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, THANK GOODNESS for hi-fi!