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Crazed women and the glory of good sound

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Desktop CD publishing, crazed women and the glory of good sound

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1991, The Syracuse Newspapers

The first compact disc I ever heard was something by Stravinsky. It was full of blaring horns and cymbals, and it sounded terrible. I had plenty of other versions of the same piece of music in my collection

I had four or five on LP records, two on open-reel tape, three on cassette. I even had the same performance as the compact disc on a regular record. When I realized, a few minutes into the CD, that the record sounded better, I began to wonder what the new digital revolution was all about. Weren't CDs supposed to be better than tapes or records?

I felt cheated, and a lot of other music fans felt the same way. Even before the first wave of CD players had left the shelves of American electronics stores, the compact disc took on a reputation that took years to shake. Hi-fi critics—at least the ones who weren't being paid by trade associations to promote compact discs—started to hear harsh sounds in many of the CDs they reviewed.

The technical reasons many of those early CDs sounded bad are not important here. What matters is that many of us who love recorded music ended up with a snack instead of a meal when we arrived at the feast of digital sound.

The meal is a lot tastier now. CDs have improved, as have CD players. They're also a lot cheaper, and that means we're able to buy a lot more of them. The relatively low price and the convenience of playing compact discs have practically killed off old-fashioned records.

But the advent of a cheap way of making ultra-high-quality recordings has had another benefit, too. Lower recording costs have encouraged small companies to take risks that they couldn't have taken otherwise.

If you were a record producer and knew that you had to sell 400,000 CDs to cover the immense costs of making a superstar album, you'd be tempted to do it the safe way. You'd probably make sure 14-year-olds would like it, for one thing.

But if you had a small company with smaller goals—and fewer expenses—you might measure success by a different scale. Selling only 5,000 CDs might be all you need to make money on a new album. And you might be able to find those 5,000 buyers among a more sophisticated audience than 14-year-olds.

And so it goes. The technology of digital sound has done something for the music business that cheap PCs have done for the printing trade. Just as a personal computer can turn the corner of any living room into a publishing office, inexpensive digital recording and playback equipment is able to turn small companies into desktop music publishers.

The latest evidence of this comes from an oddball CD issued by Reference Recordings. This tiny company, located in San Francisco, has ridden the wave of state-of-the-art audio for many years, and some of the records and compact discs that it has issued are the best money can buy.

But previous Reference Recordings CDs seemed reasonably normal. There was a woofer-smasher CD featuring a lot of drumming, and there have been a couple of discs of piano playing in which the performer sounded as if he were setting the keyboard on fire.

But they were nothing compared to the year's best all-out, greatest sounding, totally off-the-platter party CD, "Crazed Women."

As far as I can tell, it's the first recording of a group called the Blazing Redheads. After listening three times to this disc (catalog No. RR-41CD), I think I know why the Blazing Redheads hadn't been recorded before: Nobody who made decisions for a major record company could figure out what they were playing.

But Reference Recordings has taken a chance that some of you will figure it out. Some of "Crazed Women" sounds Latin—sort of. Some of it sounds funky—sort of. Some of it is just big-bandish, if you know what I mean.

And some of it is woolly-bear drummy and thumpy.

Does that make sense? Maybe not. But that's not something to worry about.

This thing is great fun, and the sound is outstanding. It's much better, by the way, than another CD I listened to on the same day. That CD was something by Stravinsky, and it was full of blaring horns and cymbals, and it even came from the same company that made the first CD I ever heard, which was also ….

Heck, some things are better left unsaid.

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