Music systems I have lived with: part 2

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Bush System Seven

Sometime in 1974, the new and interesting things people talked about included something called the "stereo system". This was fundamentally a different animal from old record players, because it had two speakers, and you could hear two different sounds from them at the same time. This allowed you to hear something called the "stereo effect". (I never knew words like "soundstaging" and "imaging" till the start of the new millenium.) I never thought to ask whether the "stereo effect" had any connection with music. Today, when I see "home theatre systems", I feel like asking whether it has any connection with the basic enjoyment of either music or motion pictures.

My maternal uncle, who was a Captain in the Army and was therefore considered a man about town, had just bought a small stereo system: the HMV Model 606. It was HMV's entry level model. Like the others being advertised at that time, it had a breathtakingly beautiful thing: a clear Perspex lid, through which you could actually see a small 7" record playing. It also had a sleek, wide chassis which looked space-age when compared to the earlier boxy record player bodies, and it had two speakers, separate from the body, with black cloth fronts and wood-finished sides.

We were considering whether to buy the Model 606, or the larger and more powerful Model 1212, or any other make and model. I still remember that the Model 1212 ads said it had a power output of "12 watts peak, or 6 watts RMS, per channel", and also offered the almost magical feature of an Auto Level Switch. If you pressed the switch, the system would automatically control the level of the music to ensure that no passages were too loud or too soft. (I am sure those early systems had nothing remotely like what we call dynamic range compression today, so I have grave doubts today what that Auto Level Switch actually did.)

Finally, after auditioning the affordable models on offer multiple times at multiple shops, and spending sleepless nights pleasantly dreaming about all of them, we bought something called the Bush System Seven, made by the Indian arm of the company called Bush. It had no Auto Level Switch, but it was deemed by my parents (and me) to be better sounding than the HMV systems, even though HMV was the market leader.

The price? Sixteen hundred and four rupees. I remember this figure exactly and with complete clarity. (At today's exchange rate, this would be about USD 35; at the rate of that time, probably a hundred dollars and change.) I asked my mom yesterday what my dad's salary was at the time. She says it must have been about three thousand rupees a month.

I remember Kaviraj Auntie, our next-door neighbour, coming to our place to listen to the new "stereo system", and then giving her considered verdict. "The sound is superb," she said. What is interesting is that she said the complete sentence in Bengali, but used the English word "sound" in it. This flipping to English for critical attribute gave the attribute a wholly more technical and sophisticated air, and thus ascribed a far greater weight to her considered opinion. Kaviraj Auntie was older than my mother, and her husband was a far more high-ranking officer than my dad. Hence, this extra import and impact of her assessment was wholly appropriate, and all of us in my family --- my kid brother excluded, he was too young --- felt gratified. Here was someone who had done what was expected of a senior neighbour --- she had bestowed on our new family member, the Bush System Seven, legitimacy and refinement.

In Feb 1975, my dad was transferred from Maithon to Panchet (can you find them on a map?), another colony perhaps fifteen kilometres away. We were to stay in Panchet for four years till 1979, after which my dad was transferred back to Maithon, to a new department. This Bush System Seven stayed with us right through all these transfers, and worked well.

The basic chassis was an all-in-one amplifier cum turntable, as before. Its tonearm was visibly lighter than the earlier record player, and my guess is that the tracking force would be between 5 and 8 grams. There was no counterweight at the end of the tonearm. It used a ceramic cartridge and a sapphire stylus, and supported all three rotation speeds. There were no new 78 RPM records coming out at that time; the only ones we had were old ones. The movement of the tonearm on and off the platter was totally manual, and needed a careful hand. By this time, I was old enough to be allowed to cue the tonearm onto a track. So my mother and I became avid users of the music system, and I began to develop a personal relationship with the activity of listening to music. And my mother used to play music on the system for a couple of hours every day, while she worked in the kitchen. When I think about it now, music was a very important and visible part of our lives at home.

The all-in-one chassis had an amplifier, and had four sliding pots on the front panel. These were for volume, bass, treble, and balance controls. I remember having read the specs of that amplifier; it had a power rating of 5 Watts RMS per channel. The speaker enclosures were made of 12mm particle board, if I have to guess now. The speakers were two-way sealed enclosures --- I am sure they did not have any ports. Each speaker enclosure was probably 12" to 14" tall. If I remember correctly, the speaker grille was not removable. And I am 100% certain that this system had solid-state electronics.

We used to manage the home finances carefully, and ration the money to be spent on buying music. We used to buy one LP per month. Each LP used to cost between thirty-five and forty-five rupees. There would be an eclectic mix of all kinds of music: I remember Hindi film albums ("Pakeezah" and "Hum Kisise Kum Nahin" are very clear memories from this period), Bengali songs (Rabindra Sangeet by Suchitra Mitra, Kanika Banerjee, and Debabrata Biswas), and a lot of instrumental music. I remember Hindi film tunes played by Sunil Ganguly and Batuk Nandy, and the new craze: Ananda Shankar. It is really sad that Ananda Shankar's genius has not been captured and subsequently re-released on CD. I also remember Western music being bought: Abba, BoneyM and The Ventures. I clearly remember "Honey Honey" and "Ring Ring, why don't you give me a call?"

I remember a neighbour lending my parents an "interesting" LP. (Lending records itself was an unusual activity; records were treated like family silver, and no one outside the family was trusted to handle them properly.) This "interesting" LP scandalised my parents, and when I heard it, I could see why. It was an LP by Donna Summers, and the first track was "Oooooohhhhh... love to love you, baaaaaby...." This LP was returned to its owner rather hastily. These memories are quite sharp, because they are all part of a larger picture of what was happening in my life. I was learning about the human reproductive system at school, and elsewhere too. My parents were reading dozens of books by an author named "James Hadley Chase" --- till date I do not know whether this is the name of a real person, and cannot guess his gender. In school, we were smuggling Nick Carter novels out during lunch break and reading the accounts of utter satiation which seemed to follow almost immediately after the hero began to work on the woman at hand. When not looking for insights into satiation and human reproductive systems, we were reading Alistair McLean by the gallon and tentatively exploring Frederick Forsythe and Desmond Bagley.

One thing we did not have at home was cassette tapes. Most of my friends had cassette tape recorders (mostly portable mono ones) at home. Some of them had radio-cassette recorders, all-in-one precursors to today's boomboxes. We used to believe, even at that time, that records produced clearer sound than cassettes, though cassettes were easier to handle. We also used to believe that records lasted longer than cassettes if handled carefully.

This system served us well till about 1982 or so, after which it began to behave erratically. The tonearm began to skid across the record surface, a phenomenon we used to refer to as "slipping". So this tonearm would suddenly "slip" half an inch in the middle of an LP, and would do so completely unpredictably. We failed to get it fixed properly, though we tried more than once. By that time the world of "stereo systems" had taken another jump forward, and we felt it might be time to replace our system. We were in the eighties, and I was about to enter college.

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