Tag Archives: audio semiotics

Visual Culture part XIV: 1981

Toa_Mixer_1981Just stick a Porsche next to pretty much anything

PeaveyWorld_1981In Hartley Peavey’s imaginarium, everything is made of Peaveys.  Kinda like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, but with amps.

MesaBoogie_1981‘Hey Jim, how about Denim for the background?’  ‘Sounds good Mike.’

CerwinVega_1981Is she intended as *a simile for the speakers?  *a metaphor for the musical signal that will ‘exite’ these speakers?  *a metonym for the community of all nightclub-speaker users?  *a form of ‘impossible representation’ given that she seems quite unlikely to be a purchaser of this product, and the speakers are equally unlikely to be a ‘client’ of hers?   Please use the COMMENTS section to offer your own analysis of the precise ‘non-literal meaning’ being used here. 

Top to bottom: Toa, Peavey, Mesa-Boogie, Cerwin Vega, all circa 1981. 

This Stereo Establishes A Social Boundary That You Can Not Cross

SwissBankerAtHomeDownload the complete 36pp 1980 Studer REVOX catalog (presented in three parts due to file size):

DOWNLOAD PART 1: Revox_80_part1

DOWNLOAD PART 2: Revox_80_part2

DOWNLOAD PART 3: Revox_80_part3

Products covered, with intensely detailed text, specs, and photos, include: Revox B790 and B795 turntables; B750 integrated amp, B760 FM tuner, B780 receiver, B77 tape deck, BX4100, BX350, BR530, BR530, BR430, and BR320 speakers; the REVOX Triton sub/satellite speaker system; and a whole range of accessories.

REvox_speakers_1980REVOX was the consumer-products brand of the Swiss firm Studer; Studer being most noteable as maker of the finest multi-track analog audio tape machines in the world, machines that are still used in studios around the world everyday to make records for top artists.  OVER THIRTY YEARS after they were manufactured.  Think you’ll still be using those Lynx Convertors in thirty years?  NEways…  yeah so this is pretty solid kit.

REvox_B77Most audio-folk are familiar with the B77 tape deck, so it’s interesting to see that there was a whole line of amps, tuners and speakers arranged around it.    It’s interesting to note how the products are numbered sequentially across their ‘product-types,’ which certainly seems to encourage one to conceptualize them in unity rather than as tokens of a certain ‘kind’ of audio-hardware.

Studer_AccessoriesBut let’s talk about this catalog. Without a doubt, this is one of the most lavish and neatly designed pieces of audio ephemera I have ever come across, and y’all know I’ve seen a lot of this crap.

BustedBassWell I guess that explains it.  Let’s buy this one.

REvox_graphicWhat does this all mean?  What can we take from this layout, lighting, design, mise-en-scene… how does it all work together to create the overwhelming sense that I will never, ever, EVER be able to afford shit like this?

ScotchAndPipeThere’s a concept in semiotics called discourse.  Discourse can be understood as a social boundary that is learned through lived experience.  Discursive boundaries are established by all sorts of things, from spoken language to dress, gestures, the kind of food that one consumes, and the objects that one associates with their person.  Consider the King and his throne (above).  What does the throne say about the person who sits on it?  How do we conceptualize that relationship?  How do we describe that relationship?  I would suggest that the Revox hi-fi is a discursive marker of an extreme kind of wealth and privilege.  The way that this document reinforces this discourse through its various design and art-direction elements is fkkn masterful.  Well done, unnamed Swiss ad agency of old.  You would def get an A+ in my graphic design class (visual narratives assignment).

ShellyDONTTOUCHTHATAlright let’s get back to some pictures of old stereos.

Revox_B795 Revox_B790 revox_b750

These Dudes Get It

1347384267-hI know there’s not too much value in my ‘re-tweeting’ (it’s safe to use that verb as a generic descriptor now, right?) something that the Ole Gray Lady published, but the piece by Jon Caramanica in Friday’s NYT really got my attention.  The article concerns a hip hop reissue label in Mass that’s doing terrific business because they have realized that the consumer-value inherent in certain sound-recordings can by applied, via symbolic transference, to what are essentially display or decor items.  Even tho the sound-recordings THEMSELVES no longer have cash value due to ‘the internets,’ by packaging certain totemic items alongside those sound recording it is possible to imbue the totems with a value that far exceeds their manufacturing costs.  WELL DONE.  I worked for many many years on reissue campaigns at one of the last Major Labels, and while we occasionally had products that skirted this semiotic territory, we never really went all the way.  These folks, ‘Get On Down,’ made the realization that it does not matter HOW LITTLE cash value there is to be had in sound-recordings at this time in history, because the emotional value, the use-value of those recordings in the lives of consumers, is still as great as ever.   Click here to read the piece in the NYT.    And if yr into classic hip hop at all, you will probably be very tempted to purchase some of these objects/recordings here: Get On Down.

Hottt Pixxx (SFW)


Download the twelve-page ‘guide to STEREO’ from the July 1971 issue of the International Magazine For Men:


Items of apparent concern to readers of this publication (see image above): Nuclear power; package size; dangerous-computers; hegemonic reproduction via linguistic conventions; sports cars; converting to Quad.

In addition, the advertising content of the magazine seems to reveal other hot-button -issues of the day:

Broadly stated, these issues could be cataloged as: ‘Too Soon’; ‘Getting Everything That You Have Coming To You’;’Being Impressive’; waterbeds, wigs, and Satan (sexy version).

I bought a beautiful NAD 7020 receiver and Optonica tape deck the other day from a home that I am pretty sure once belonged to Ron Burgundy. The receiver and tape deck were part of a very nice system, one of the better circa 1980’s hifis I have come across lately.  The house was pretty much like a circa 1975 men’s magazine exploded inside a suburban raised ranch, spraying all the walls with sexy ‘art posters,’ mahogany paneling, and Rich Leather.  Behind the bar (full bar in the enormous den, natch) was this single, solitary issue of Bob Guccis famous mag.  You’ll have to take my word for this, but as my eyes fell upon this ‘book,’ the first thing that I thought was: I bet this is the ‘stereo issue.’  And guess what.

One final note: from the ‘credit-where-credit’s-due’ dep’t: as the cover promises, no less than Charles Berlitz presents a straightforward explanation of how linguistic systems and conventions at work throughout the world serve to reproduce and reinforce male hegemony.  The ideas in this two-page article are pretty much straight out of every semiotics, women’s studies, and queer studies class taught in the past 40 years and stand in complete opposition to the smug, complacent, and generally sexist discourse evident on the other 98 pages of this publication.  Proving nothing other than the fact the 1970s were a crazy fucking decade.

Genre-branded instruments

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On eBay: a circa 1990 Casio Rap-1 ‘Rapman’ synthesizer/child’s-toy.  In its original box with original accessory-microphone; click here and make it yours for $20 plus s+h.

The Rapman (see here for a detailed analysis of its feature-set and cultural positioning) is an early example of the trend to market synthesizers towards performers of specific genres of music.  Other notable examples (and there are many more…) include the E-Mu Planet Phatt and Orbit (hip hop and dance, respectively).

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Above, a recent attempt by an equipment-retailer to genre-fix some of their keyboard wares.  A quick scan of the current crop of widely-available synthesizers indicates that there are in fact no actual ‘chillwave-branded’ instruments but nice try anyhow.

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Genre-branded guitars are nothing new, of course; above we can see the ‘Gretsch Country-Roc’ circa 1976 and below it a recent ESP something-or-other.  Since the electric guitar is generally worn as apparel on-stage and in photographs, its presentational aspect offers ample opportunity for associating it with a specific set of aesthetic and cultural values.  On the other hand, how much of a musician’s keyboard (or synth-module) does an audience member ever see?  Only the narrow strip at the rear; any free-space there is generally used for overall manufacturer-branding.

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Whatever special-value for use in any particular genre of music, therefore, is largely limited to the actual sonics of the keyboard instrument and not its appearance.  Attempts to buck this trend have resulted in limited success.

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The Keytar, for instance, presents no so much a particular genre-affiliation but rather a desire to celebrate the values of the 1980s.


If you’re curious about the sonic-possibilities of the Casio Rapman, you can gain access to its drum sounds by downloading a free sample-set offered at this website.  For the rest of its bounty, you’re just gonna have to drop the $40 or wait for the right yard-sale.

You’ll Want More Than One

US Marshall Amplifiers Print-ad circa 1979

An advertising executive told me a great story about Arm & Hammer Baking Soda once.  He was working on a new round of adverts and the client was frustrated with trying to figure our how to increase sales.  It seems that most folks were buying a box every year to ‘freshen’ their fridge but how could they be encouraged to buy more? At this point, someone had the idea to encourage consumers to buy one for the fridge, and one for the freezer.  If you have a useful products that consumers like, perhaps the next logical step is to convince those consumers that they need to buy More Than One.

Marshall JCM800 advert circa 1983

1953: What is High Fidelity?

Lee de Forest (L), the man who invented the voltage-amplifer tube, takes in the state-of-the-art in consumer audio reproduction c. 1953.

Download a two-page article on the subject of “What is High Fidelity” as-published right at the dawn of the hi-fi cultural phenomenon.

DOWNLOAD: IST-1953-09-Callen-What_Is_High_Fidelity

Audio.  From children’s toy to naval communication device to home entertainment to art, all within one lifetime.  What has changed significantly in our conception of the role of audio technology since 1953?  As this article makes clear, in 1953 ‘fidelity,’ or verisimilitude to some supposed acoustic event, was the ‘state of the art’ in audio, and contemporary technology such as the U47 mic and the Ampex tape machine was finally making this verisimilitude possible.  We now no longer have the expectation that a piece of audio ‘represents’ or ‘stand-in-for’ any actual acoustic event that ever happened in the physical world (Katy Perry track? Or Sgt Peppers?), but what have we gained?  What new expectations/demands do we have?


Today: some excerpts from a piece by C.W. Vadersen as published in the AES journal.  It’s a good thing to remember that early audio technology developed not out of the entertainment industry but from the communications industry: primarily, the telegraph.  As important to us as music and art maybe, the need to communicate is primary (or at least secondary only to the 4 F’s: Feed, Fight, Flight, Sex).

How to we use our senses, and in what proportion? (in Vadersen’s opinon…)

Our interpersonal connections grown exponentially with each new ‘cable’ that we run

The arc of communications technologies circa 1962.  It’s almost impossible to wrap the mind around the growth we’ve seen since then.  How far down on this list would ‘Blog’ appear?

Here’s those EQs and Compressors you asked for. Now go F’ yrself.

Above: 12×3 Audiofax mixing desk circa 1961.

I was reading a 1961 AES journal when I came across this piece by Phillip Erhorn of Audiofax associates in which he details “New trends in stereo recording consoles.”  Erhorn will let you have your channel EQs and compressors, but only very begrudgingly.

Here’s Erhorn describing how he feels the trend for extensive channel EQ developed:

I mean, yeah, I agree, many condenser mics are hyped in the high end.  But why the hostility, buddy?  Oh and about all those channel compressors?

Remember what I said a few posts back about The Pre Rock Era?  How long did it take for our culture to shake off the idea that ‘verisimilitude to an actual acoustic event is the fundamental function of audio’?   I’ll remind you that in only about 3 years’ time, EMI staff engineers would be pushing their modded’ Altec compressors hard to get the sounds that helped create the Beatles’ success.  Oh the times they are a’changing.

Let’s get back to those swell-looking Audifax consoles tho…

Above, the same 12×3 desk, inside and out.  What a work of art this thing is! Someday. I . Will. Build. My. Own. Console.

Another Audiofax console. 




I am going to take a bit of a left turn here. Not exactly like Jung’s Left Hand Path but…  Let’s get back to the hostility towards this new idea of audio-as-sound-modification-technology (as opposed to documentation-technology) that we read in the passages above.  Erhorn was/is obvs a very talented man who cared deeply about music or he would not have gained the skills/drive to construct the intricate pieces we see above.  So his views can’t just be written off.  Which begs the question:  If Erhorn’s views as an accomplished audio professional were, in 1961, slated for imminent obsolescence, then which of our current paradigms are headed for the dustbin? I don’t think the answer has anything to do with fidelity or even any particular kind of recording technology, necessarily.  In 1961, the history of audio trends was simply an upward vector.  Higher fidelity was ‘better.’  Frequency response and distortion % was always getting ‘better.’  Progress towards increased fidelity was the paradigm, and any deviation from this progress (such as the need to ‘EQ’ a mic to achieve a supposed marketing prerogative or the need to compress a loud, ‘music-less’ but sale-able band of youths) was bad, right?

Well, the ‘fidelity problem’ was pretty much solved by the late 1970s… the high-end of professional and consumer equipment available at that time is as close-to-perfect, in terms of sheer audio performance, as any user is likely to need.  Which is why the manufacturers turned towards the convenience problem instead.   This brought us the Walkman, the CD, and ultimately, the MP3.   So with the ‘fidelity problem’ solved, and all of our attention now collectively focused on the ‘convenience problem,’ we abandonded the paradigm of the upward vector of fidelity and instead enter an age of fidelity-trends.  High-fidelity sounds are in vogue for a while; and them low-fi and distorted sounds become popular.  We then tire of the low-fi and artists start making slick-sounding records again.  Etc., etc.  Now, there are real moments in the culture that precipitate each of these shifts, but the pattern seems likely to keep repeating.  The point is: neither hi-fi nor low-fi are going anywhere.  We now have a plurality of acceptable approaches to the generation of recorded musical performances.  So what’s to obselecse then?  Which viewpoint is about to become hopelessly outdated?

It’s my current feeling that the answer has something to do with copyright, ownership, and fair use.  Not fidelity, not any particular recording technology, but copyright and the idea of what kind of ‘use’ of existing recorded materials constitutes a valid new work.  I really get the sense from younger artists, as well as my students, that existing recordings — audio-masters made and paid for by other people — are fair game for use in their own productions: no credit or compensation necessary. Of course ‘sampling’ occurred in hip hop for ten years before rap artists had to start paying fees to use recognizable samples in their tracks, but I am more talking about the newer trend of simply lifting an obscure existing song, performing some tweaks on it, and calling it your own production.  And maybe it is!  Who is to say, really.  And that’s kind of the point I am trying to make.  If you are a young contemporary musician, what is the material that you work with?  What are the compositional elements that you are concerned with?  It is the notes E2 – E6 on an electric guitar?  Or is anything and everything that you can download for free from the internet?  If you want some concrete examples of the kind of music that I am talking about, check out this thread on Hipster Runoff.   If you are unfamiliar with HRO, the tone might take a little getting used-to, but the musical examples that the author presents are very valid.  Listen to the tracks.  Be aware that these are some of the most popular, most relevant rock-music acts in the world today.  And ask yrself:  how do you feel about this?  Can you accept the paradigm shift that is emerging?  Can you appreciate that this paradigm shift is taking place at the precise moment that the economic base of the century-old Recording Industry is almost fully collapsed?  And while you are pondering that, recall the Marxist relation between base and superstructure, this idea that economic conditions necessarily construct cultural conditions?

Here’s those free music-production apps you asked for.  Now go… make some music.