Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Quadraphonic Dreams and Reality

    My obsession with music and records started pretty early on when I was a wee lad. As a kid I had the opportunity to frequent a pretty thriving flea market held on Sundays a few towns over from mine. It remained for many years a great place to score vinyl. There were even some near misses with greatness at this flea market – at various points I passed up a paste-over Butcher Cover, the torso-cover original pressing of The Velvet Underground and Nico and an opportunity to have about five more still sealed original copies of the first NRBQ album (dude had a bunch and I only bought one – for a dollar!). Mostly I went to this flea market because I was not exactly rolling in bucks. I was looking for the best way to stretch my vinyl habit on a limited budget.

    Every so often I would find old Quadraphonic records that I bought because they were the only copies of those titles I might find that Sunday (and within my budget of 1 or 2 dollars an LP). Here are three that I found at this particular flea market in those days:

 All were in good shape and ended up being my only copies for many years. Before I had these records I was only aware of mono or stereo records. Nobody I knew had a quad system. So it was with general amazement that I read the famous Columbia / Epic inner sleeve advert that came with the Jeff Beck “Rough and Ready” album:
   On one side there was a semi-scientific explanation of how 4 channel sound could be embedded into a typical vinyl album. The other side illustrated the possible hardware choices consumers could use to decode the quad info from those special records. All of this read like science fiction to me. For many years I would play those records and dream about what instruments could be heard in the rear speakers if only I could get the right audio components to extract that information………my young mind boggled at the notion.

    The very idea of hearing great records with instruments popping up around you was, to say the least, quite an exciting proposition. Not knowing anybody who had this equipment coupled with the reality that I’d never seen any of it for sale – new – in the stores pretty much fueled my frustration. As I got older I just kind of shrugged it off and got interested in other things. Yet, the notion haunted me as I periodically bumped into other quadraphonic records in my travels.

    With the advent of the internet and the launch of ebay I was able to finally see examples of quadraphonic hardware for sale, yet it was all pretty mysterious and expensive if the idea was to experiment. Not to worry – the enthusiasts were alive and well and founded a fantastic website dedicated to everything quad – see QuadraphonicQuad here:

     Anything a person could ever want to know about multi-channel music can be found there (or linked to from there). Multi-channel music made a comeback with the emergence of DVD technology in the early 2000s. New encoding formats were devised to play multi-channel music – SACD, DVD-A, DTS, Dual-Disc and more recently Blu-Ray. Plenty of great albums were released on these formats and the list continues to grow. That’s where I finally heard what surround-sound music could be like. The equipment was reasonably priced and plenty of new titles came out (and even some old quadraphonic mixes were resurrected).

    Through the QuadraphonicQuad site, I learned about quad 8-tracks and got a nice little bunch of those as well. There were other places in cyberspace for enthusiasts to sample rare quad titles that were converted from the old formats to the new. This kind of hobbyist activity led me to the next step toward hearing the old quad vinyl LPs as they were intended...........

    Without getting into a big history of quad here, suffice to say there were three main types of quad records – each with their own decoding method (probably why consumers balked at these things in the first place). Different record companies used these formats to compete with each other.
      For example, Warner Brothers / Elektra artists had titles released on QuadraDiscs – otherwise known as CD-4 format. The decoding process for this format necessitated having just the right stylus for the turntable and the right decoding box. As luck would have it, I already had an appropriate needle on my turntable – the venerable Audio-Technica Mla 440 ML.
Why was this necessary? The rear channel information embedded in the grooves of a CD-4 disc are transmitted through a “carrier signal” to the box. If your needle is run-of-the-mill, the signal won’t carry. If you get this process all right – the sound can be amazing! However, your LP needs to be as clean as possible for best results – dirt and dust get amplified pretty wildly with this system. The nice thing about these LPs is that if you don’t have the equipment for decoding them, they still sound good as stereo discs. For years, Elektra kept this Doors collection in print – long after most folks would have given a hoot about quad. As a result, there are tons of these records in the marketplace (and I believe it was my first QuadraDisc).
    More popular than CD-4, however, were two formats known as “matrix-quad”. This is a little trickier to decode. Columbia / Epic releases were treated with the SQ matrix system. ABC / Impulse artists albums were treated with (I’m not making this up, folks) the QS matrix system. What they had in common (besides the letters, however arranged) was a way that the rear channel information was embedded into the grooves not with a carrier signal, but with phase-shift information. If you play these records on a regular stereo, they sound ok if a little odd. That’s because certain portions of the music were shifted out of phase so they could be placed properly in the soundfield through decoder systems. Yes, each format had separate decoders. Of the two, QS actually had better decoding possibilities if you found the right box to do the job (I never did). SQ was a whole other matter.
     Most of the quad vinyl out there is SQ-encoded. Columbia / Epic / CBS really went all-out to press up scads of these LPs. In every genre imaginable – classical, rock, country, jazz. The problem is – none of the decoders really worked very well. The best unit – The Tate Fosgate II – wasn’t even on the market until the late 70s. Before that the best decoder (for reasonable money) could be found in Lafayette (remember them?) receivers. I found one of those and still use it for my main amp – hey, 4 channels is 4 channels y’know. However, even with the SQ chip engaged – the rear channels managed to get separated from the fronts, yet the rears mostly summed to mono. Poop.
    Through the QuadraphonicQuad site I learned that some folks figured out how to use modern home-recording software to create “scripts” to process old SQ-encoded music which could be further processed into home-made DTS surround discs playable in DVD players and the like. Remember those enthusiasts? I became one. Processing a whole album in such a program tied up my computer for an overnight session of number crunching – literally. The results were the best I’d heard up to that point, but some sounds still seemed a little out of phase here and there. But it was still pretty exciting. So much so that I stocked up on old quad albums and generally figured that would be the last word on getting what you could out of the 70s SQ vinyl.

    Over the last winter, I’d checked back at QQ headquarters to catch up on new info and everybody (well, almost) was speaking in tongues about a NEW DECODER BOX – that handles both SQ and QS matrix encoded LPs. I eluded to it in one of my posts back in the winter and, after saving some extra dough – I jumped in. Behold – the Surround Master SQ edition:

    This is it! Finally – SQ and QS albums decoded in real time – really discrete and my quad dreams are now a reality! I can finally – after over 20 years – hear what’s in those grooves separated properly into 4 channels. At the moment I’m listening to this Mike Oldfield album for the first time – in quad! Amazing.
     So, if there are any other quad-obsessed record freaks out there I have news for you…….YOUR SEARCH IS OVER! Get one of these amazing boxes and you are set for SQ and QS. So now I can also offer quad LP reviews here along with everything else. I look forward to lots more listening and discovery courtesy of the good folks at  Involve Audio. Thanks for bringing my quad dreams to reality! You folks ROCK!!!