John Scholvin

still can't fit a half-stack in the trunk

author: jks
17 May 2020

slow-boiled ears

Friday I bought and downloaded the absolutely brilliant Reunions album by Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. A few singles have been out for a while, and I'd been eagerly awaiting this first full listen for months. And about halfway through it, I found myself thinking, “dammit, Jason is overusing that distorted, saturated vocal effect like everyone else is right now. What an awful trend. I wish he'd have been the one to break it.”

Now, I'm not an especially smart or insightful guy, especially as entropy continues its unrelenting assault on my brain. But just after I had that thought, another followed: “Wait a minute. What if that's not actually a trend? What if something is wrong with my gear?” It's like that old bit about how if everyone you meet is an asshole, the asshole is probably you. I pulled out my trusty studio headphones, a venerable old pair of Sony MDR-7506's, and plugged them straight into my audio interface, a relatively new Scarlett USB box. And damned if the distortion wasn't completely gone. The recording was pristine, clear as mountain water. I quickly listened to a couple other familiar recordings and came to the conclusion that either my speakers or my monitoring amp was the culprit. Listening further, the particular type of harsh distortion I was hearing implied that the fault was more likely in the amp than the speakers. Besides, barring physical damage, speakers more commonly just die altogether.

The amp was also the more likely culprit due to its age and use profile. It's an old Mackie warhorse which dates back to powering mains speakers for my bands in the early 90's. It saw some moderately hard life on the road before it settled into the role of driving my primary listening monitors. It sits in the basement below this room because it has a fairly noisy cooling fan, and it has been powered on continuously for nearly twenty years, stretching back to the house we lived in before this one. The poor thing has been breathing basement dust since the end of the Clinton adminstration. Of course it was begging to retire; it was basically screaming for help.

I ordered a new, convection-cooled (i.e., has no fan, so it won't have to live in the crufty basement) amp and it arrived late yesterday afternoon. Excited, I hooked it up, and went to my go-to song for evaluating audio equipment for over 30 years: “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. I could do a thousand-word discursive paean here on the genius of that song/album/artist , but I'll spare you that, and just stipulate that it's sonically breathtaking, with wide dynamic range, good stereo panning, and crystalline production. Between all that and the several hundred (thousand?) listens I have banked on that song, it's my reference when I'm listening critically.

Before the opening Fairchild shakuhachi line was complete, the hair stood up on the back of my neck. By the time the horns started, I began to tear up. It was at this point that I realized it was coming through in mono. The guitar is supposed to be panned right a little bit, and the keyboard hits to the left, but all was dead center. I checked the settings on the Scarlett, discovered it was set for mono, and fixed it. I probably hadn't noticed the lack of stereo field in anything because it was so damn distorted.

Then I cranked up the volume and restarted the track. And I cried. It's probably too strong a comparison to evoke the experience of colorblind people who try on those glasses and see purple for the first time, but the moment sat somewhere on that vector. There's a lot of emotion tied up in all of us right now and it just kind of poured out. Music—listening to it, playing it—is arguably the thing that most uniquely defines me, and here I have been consuming it for who knows how long with the equivalent of ears full of sand. Since I work in this room now, I probably spend 60+ hours a week listening to these speakers via that amplifier. I feel a sense of real loss. How long has it been bad like this? What did I hear during that time that I judged unfairly? 

I have to believe it failed gradually, since if it happened all at once, I'd have noticed, though there are some darker considerations there, too. Maybe I quit caring as much at some point? Maybe there is too much on my mind, and the brainspace to listen to music as anything other than background fill got crowded out? There are more questions than answers, and there are clear parallels to the larger issues surrounding us today. As I start to think my way out of those caverns, the first lesson here is a basic one that always applies. If I had been more directly engaged in the moment, more aware of all the beautiful (and distorted) things my senses provide me, and less involved debating the roommate in my head, I'd have been hearing the music more clearly all along.