As a kid, I will never forget my dad doing this amazing thing: He bought a high-fidelity stereo, a tube amp/tuner all encased in a beautiful walnut cabinet. The year was 1966, and my life was forever changed. I went from hearing music on a small, portable transistor radio to hearing it on an amazing sound system. Long before I'd ever hear music at a live concert, Dad's hi-fi was the only way I could hear a piano sound like a piano, or a drum have thump, a guitar have bite. And the harmonies on Meet the Beatles sounded like John, Paul and George were in fact standing there.
I'm reminded of my dad's stereo for two reasons: Sitting on my desk right now is a reissue of the first Emerson, Lake & Palmer record — the band's self-titled release that originally came out in 1970 — and today I'm in Asheville, N.C., for Moogfest, the annual electronic music festival held here.
Both of these things have sparked a memory of the day I destroyed my dad's speakers by playing "The Barbarian." It's a piece written by Bela Bartok and reinterpreted by Emerson, Lake & Palmer on the band's debut record, using synths like the Moog. I was in college at the time but still living at home. Everyone was out for the day and that's often when I could really crank up my music. I can remember that moment when those opening notes of Greg Lake's heavily processed bass, perhaps re-enforced by a Moog synthesizer, came on. I'm sure those tubes glowed a bit extra bright and worked a bit harder when I cranked up the volume even more. Then it all came to a violent end. That big, visceral bottom end turned into a sound not too different from a whoopee cushion. I felt awful. I had ruined my dad's prized possession and now I had to tell him what his irresponsible teen had done.
I'm sure I'm not the first kid to blow up some speakers, but think about what the Moog and it's counterparts were doing not just to speakers around the world but to our sonic soundscape. It was the start of a revolution in sound. As I hear and feel sounds coming from computers (even brand-new Moog synths manufactured just blocks away in Asheville) this weekend, I wonder what's next. I couldn't have imagined the intense visceral nature of today's bass sounds all those years ago. How will gear get any better, and how will sound be delivered in the future?
The odd thing is that when I go to the homes of 20-year-olds these days, there's rarely a decent pair of speakers, let alone a good amp. It's astonishing, really, at a time when we have the ability to reproduce sound so bone-shakingly. We are a headphone culture, a culture of convenience over quality, for the most part. But surely that's not our destiny. Can you imagine what your sonic future will be? And how will it be different from the way you listen to music today?
Oh, by the way, my dad was totally cool about me blowing out his speakers. We took them to Howard's Speaker Repair in Kensington, Md., and they lasted a good many years more.