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For Christmas: A Carol to Judy

01-01-2022 | By Editors at Positive Feedback | Issue 119

This article, as written by Clark Johnsen originally ran in Issue 4, December/January 2003, so while we call this section "New Old Stock - Articles from Our Days in Print" you are also going to see some articles from our early days of going online.

In keeping with the present holiday season I recollect an unusual, very merry Christmas Eve experienced through audio. What a story! The year was 1985 and I was under the thrall of Professor Judith Reilly, whom Neil Levenson, the otherwise sober audio editor of Fanfare, had toasted repeatedly for her exertions against the new digital menace.

In fact he had gotten quite drunk on her.

Those were the early days of CD and anyone with ears to hear knew that something was rotten in Perfect-Sound-Forever Land. Two years earlier I myself had led a troop of braves to dump CDs into Boston Harbor: We called it the Boston D Party. Down Congress Street we marched with placards, straight to the waterfront. DUNK THE JUNK! SINK THE TELARC! PROCESSED SOUND = PROCESSED CHEESE! NO DIGITIZATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION! UP YER AES WITH DIGITAL! I made a funny speech, we shouted our slogans and dunked the junk, then returned to The Listening Studio nearby to watch the video rushes and guzzle mulled wine on that cool December Sixteenth, 210th anniversary of the actual Boston Tea Party.

To everyone in our early-Eighties counter-revolutionary movement, nothing digital could be any good, although I myself always added that the jury, strictly speaking, was still out—that the case hadn’t in fact even been tried. Not that I entertained any real hope, but I did maintain some scientific detachment however much the sonics offended. But then along came Dr. Judy to woo me with a thesis so glamorous, so bold and so perverse, how could any boy resist? Plus it arrived with her full academic credentials.

To wit: Playing digital records debilitated turntables and Professor Reilly had the proof.

Without at all comprehending what precise mechanism was involved, but taking it on face value, I was convinced by her reams of data. She had traversed New England, measuring turntables before-and-after playing digitally-recorded LPs, and the visible results were not pleasant to behold. Such records apparently inoculated turntables with a virus that caused permanent damage to the bearing, manifested as higher flutter. Statistical analysis proved it!

So persuasive was this erudite, good-looking, well-dressed lady (whose motives to this day I do not understand), I succumbed. As she gradually gained respectability in the audio community, I accompanied her on sorties to gather further data. Just as eagerly I offered suggestions for improvement to her rather primitive experimental apparatus, all of which were ignored. Oh, well. Then she mentioned to me an article submitted to The Absolute Sound, which they had rejected, but she refused to let me see it. Hmm!

We continued on our heroic quest to disparage digital, but something was amiss. I drew her attention to some anomalies, but again was rebuffed. Patiently I explained that while the data did seem to indicate degradations, no one had actually heard any such. She protested, but not too much. Our frequent telephone conversations began to grow wearisome, however, at least on my end.

Through all that time I stayed in touch with editor Levenson, who assured me she was completely on the up-and-up. But who is Neil Levenson? I began to consider the conundrum. Here was a writer I highly respected, whom I had never met, who was promoting Professor Reilly, whom he had never met, although I had, and now I was beginning not to trust her! And those phone calls were getting ever longer and more exhortative.

In an uncommon flash of insight I asked myself: Clark, could this all be wishful thinking? Destruction of turntables by digital records? Or even, outright fraud? Good Lord!

At that juncture I received, from a source inside TAS, a galley proof of the rejected article (about which I breathed not a hint to her). And therein I learned how playing digital records also apparently destroyed (her word) cartridges and loudspeakers! Not only that, but Professor Reilly had further asserted that digital music coming over one loudspeaker could impair another one standing silently nearby! Why hadn’t she told me this?

Well, bravo TAS! For rejecting such lunacy. This threw a whole new light on Judith. Much to my chagrin, I had probably been hoodwinked by a clever con lady. I summoned an impartial scientist-friend, Tony Lauck, to do our own independent turntable experiments; with a calibrated stroboscope and elementary PC routine, we obtained nil results. Reilly’s own "results" were, just as I had tried to tell her, simply aliasing artifacts from an unsteady apparatus and a questionable procedure that she refused (aha!) to modify.

I did not immediately speak of this, either to her or to Neil, but our relationship had already become strained before I fully investigated the folly. Consequently the farce played on well into 1986, with repercussions to be felt at many distant locations. J. Gordon Holt himself, and Stereophile, were drawn into the fray by this powerful lady, and Fanfare printed several adamant letters; but the ultimate refutation of her loony thesis (I must admit, in retrospect) came from yours truly and finally got published in Stereophile, December 1986, Neil Levenson’s Fanfare having brusquely declined it. Nothing since has been heard from Professor Reilly.

But this be a seasonal, therefore upbeat story, remember? So let the earlier narrative resume!

On Christmas Eve, my most cherished holiday, I was detained at work just before 4:00 PM closing time by another lengthy call from Judith promoting her latest angle. Calmly, politely I humored her, the better to extract further evidence. But our lopsided conversation grated on my spirit, so abruptly I said good-bye, packed up and left.

In those days I was carless and rode the "T", which operates cheaply and efficiently; heading home, I could choose among two Trains, two Trolleys and one T-bus. On that fateful dark late afternoon I took the usually quickest route, the Harvard Line to Park Street. One minute down the tunnel from South Station the train halted, the lights flickered and dimmed, and us riders regarded each other quizzically or slumped further down into our newspapers.

And there we sat under emergency lights as the minutes passed, no announcement forthcoming. It was five-fifteen PM, Christmas Eve, 1985.

Three young swains had boarded the train behind me—ruddy faced, convivial, reeking of (alcoholic) good cheer. I had paid them scant attention then. Now, without power in our stranded capsule eighty feet below the surface, these Irish sires fired tipsy glances and grins at each other... and started singing, then conducting us, the rapid transit public, in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. O Come! All Ye Faithful. Good King Wencelas. I, normally a silent member of the congregation, joined in, raising my voice high. Most of our fellow passengers too, submitted to that spiritual, lusty, Godly power in music. O Holy Night! Delivered here by forces beyond ken or control, each of us experienced Christmas epiphany on the subway.

Travel soon resumed, but had it not been for that darn professor I might never have heard myself sing so loudly and clearly, led by those three sweet guys. Thank you, Judy, and thank you, Lord, for that crazy precise timing. Now to all a Merry Christmas and a Happy Two Thousand Three!