THE HIGH RESOLUTION BLUES

•October 9, 2019 • Leave a Comment

uhdtvOver the past 20 years or so home television technology has moved from standard NTSC/PAL with 480 lines of interlaced 4:3 picture to 8K (4320 vertical lines) in 16:9 format. From a 28” box that weighed as much as you did, to a hang on the wall OLED screen that wouldn’t be out of place in a boutique cinema. These televisions can access all kinds of content – from Satellite TV, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime etc. that is broadcast or streamed to you sitting room. Looks great? Yes. Sounds great? Rarely.  In addition, I have the feeling that it was easier to find movies that I wanted to watch by crossing the road to the local VHS shop or Blockbuster (or even mail order Netflix) than it is today. For example – my daughter wanted to watch Harry Potter movies – no problem – must be in one of our many streaming or satellite accounts: no dice. I bought the DVDs and Blu-Rays – but they are in a storage locker somewhere. I could pay to watch on Sky TV – but I have already bought them. Arrragh. Illegal download anyone? Luckily, one of my friends had the box set sitting in his car to bail me out. Why isn’t the whole world library of video available now on demand on all streaming services?

Conversely , if you like music – any of the streaming services will supply you with 10s of millions of tracks from most of the albums that you are ever likely to listen to – Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, Apple music, Amazon music: it is all there. Unfortunately, the quality on most of the platforms, (at best 320kbs) resembles the video quality of old VHS tapes – using 25 year old compression algorithms and psychoacoustics to deliver tiny files to your phone – listened to through poor quality Bluetooth earbuds or god awful Beats headsets. Where is the sound revolution? Also, what happened to surround sound?

For many years I have been accumulating high resolution (24 bit or DSD) files and albums – despite only occasionally being able to distinguish significant aural improvements over CD (the difference over mp3 is staggering). However, when Qobuz started to stream in 24/192 flac – those days ended. Suddenly my CD collection was obsolete – everything I already had was available in 16 bit streaming and everything that had been remastered to 24 bit could be streamed. There still remains an occasional reason for buying digital music, but not many. For example – last week I bought the Abbey Road box set: not because I wanted the CD or 24 bit audio – they are available to stream from Qobuz, but because I wanted the 5.1 surround version (not available for streaming) and the souvenir box, which I had to have.

Recently, I read Neil Young and Phil Bakers’ book – “To Feel the Music” which is about neil young bookNeil’s passion for high resolution music, the development and eventual failure of the Pono music player and music store and the establishment of the NYA website. Although it is 242 pages long, much of the content could be covered in a magazine article and the main gist can be read here. It was an interesting business book on the evolution of a startup and the positive decisions and mistakes made along the way. Eventually, poor management, a hostile and audiologically illiterate commentariat* and the failure to come up with a business partnership with Kardon – did the company in.

Pono was a high resolution portable music player developed in conjunction with Ayre acoustics, using an Android operating system. Considering it’s audiophile origins, construction quality and versatility – Pono was exceptionally good value at $400. The equivalent Astel & Kern product was at least $1000 more. Financed by kickstarter, built in China with premium components, packaged in a bamboo box – with special editions in limited quantity featuring many famous artists, it was a product that every audiophile should have owned – when it was released in 2014. Pono was not a unique product – Sony has just started to release HiRes audio Walkmans and A&K had a number of similar products. Pono has drawbacks – it was shaped like a Toblerone – not exactly jeans pocket friendly. The screen was small – this significantly reduced versatility. There was no wi-fi or Bluetooth – restricting its use for streaming and wireless speakers. In other words – Pono was an ideal audiophile player for 2009 – not 2015. Conversely, because it was made independently of the tech industry (although there was an early flirtation with Meridian), all Pono players can still be used for non protected audio files. No restrictions. No nonsense. I’d like to have one.

The Pono music store, in my view, was a bust from the beginning. Due to the avarice of the music industry, high res albums were (and continue to be) too expensive and, of course, record companies have been too stingy to pay for high res remastering of their back catalogue. Young, in the book, clearly recognizes the short sightedness of this – as analogue tapes are rapidly decaying in their boxes and need high res backup. Not to mention the Universal fire…. Eventually Apple bought the company that provided the platform for the Pono store and closed them down: that was the end of the Pono story.

Never the man to give up, Young went ahead and jumped into streaming and created the Neil Young Archives website, various resolution (dynamically changing depending on bandwidth) streaming platform and mobile phone app. It is fantastic (if you are a hardcore Neil Young fan).

Reading the book, I felt a strong bond of brotherhood with Neil and his colleagues: he is absolutely correct that the music industry and tech companies have been selling us second rate sound for convenience for the past decade despite the dramatic reduction in the cost of bandwidth and storage. All of the worlds music should be available in high res – it was just a pity that he didn’t team up with a like minded hardware company like Bowers and Wilkins, for whom a portable music player like Pono would be a tremendous synergy to their speaker and headphone business.

amazon_music_hd_1-100811132-largePerhaps the story will have a happy ending: I don’t know if Jeff Bezos is an audiophile – but there are few people in the world powerful enough to frighten the music industry into the high res future. In mid September, Amazon announced that they would commence CD and high res quality streaming for a reasonable monthly price (discounted if you are already a Prime or music subscriber). This will almost certainly kill Tidal (who stream in the dubiously valued MQA rather than flac), Deezer and probably Qobuz. The survival of Qobuz and Tidal will likely be determined by whether or not Amazon music will be integrated into Roon and whether the music industry will keep them alive to avoid a monopoly. It is only a matter of time until Apple follow suit.

Twenty five years ago, when Amazon was founded few would have expected that it would become the worlds biggest retailer. Twenty years ago, when I was ordering CDs from the USA, I would never have envisaged a day that, for a modest subscription, I could listen to virtually every album available in CD or better than CD resolution on my mobile device – supplied by Amazon. The next question is whether we are about to get a HiRes Alexa device – and will Apple be able to force Sonos to support 24 bit audio?

All the world’s music at high resolution – are you watching TV industry?

*I hate the type of listening test conducted in the Yahoo review. There is a big difference listening to a few seconds of a music file in different resolution levels and sustained listening. There is no question that high resolution audio (particularly DSD) and vinyl are much less tiring to listen to than CD and mp3. The smoothness, dynamics and space that you hear, particularly through a proper hi fi system envelops you in a comfortable sonic space: you are forced to feel the music and listen. Compressed audio formats sound good for short duration listening (before the brittleness starts to grate), distracts attention and vanishes into the background. So, if you want to do a comparative test, listen, for example, to a favorite album at mp3 or 16/44 and then listen to it at 24/96 or DSD or audiophile (analogue sourced) vinyl and notice how the music affects you emotionally. It is not the crispness of the treble or the boom of the bass that makes music sound good – it is the soundstage and the emotional effect that it has on the listener.

 

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Albums of the Year (so far)

•September 12, 2019 • Leave a Comment

IMG_3179Another year of decay in the world of rock and pop (and not a lot of good new jazz either). I thought I would put up a post to remind myself of what new music I have been listening to so far this year. What is striking is that most of my listening has been to old favorites rather than new artists – for example Lucinda Williams & Charles Lloyd, Weezer, The Waterboys. It is not for want of looking for new sounds – I am just tired of urban music and smooth R&B. I seem to be the only person who liked “Lets Rock” by the Black Keys. The best thing to happen so far this year is the emergence of a genuine punk movement in Ireland – characterized by Fontaines DC and the Murder Capital.
What is strange is the lack of angry young men and women in the UK – reacting to the political craziness there – if ever there should be a repeat of 1976, you would think that now is the time…

Here is the list (click for diverse range of reviews):

Weyes Blood – Titanic Rising
Jesca Hoop – Stonechild
Steve Mason – About the Light
Tool – Inoculum*
The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger
The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
Fontaines DC – Dogrel
Sharon Van Etten – Remind Me Tomorrow
Iron and Wine & Calexico – Years to Burn
The Waterboys – Where the Action Is
Charles LLoyd & Lucinda Williams – Vanished Gardens
Foals – Everything not Saved will be Lost – Part 1
Jenny Lewis – On the Line
Biffy Clyro – Balance Not Symmetry
These New Puritans – Inside the Rose
Lana Del Rey – Norman Fucking Rockwell
Cass McCombs – Tip of the Sphere
Weezer – Black and Teal Albums

*I don’t own a physical copy of the Tool album, as it was only released in a gimmicky superdeluxe CD version for €80. I presume a vinyl version will come out at some stage.

Stan Getz at the Gate

•June 16, 2019 • 1 Comment

getz gateGreat news – Verve have recently released a professionally recorded Stan Getz concert in AAA format from Nov 26th 1961 – featuring Steve Kuhn (p), John Neves (b) and Roy Haynes (d). Of all the great tenors, and the 1960s was the era of great tenor saxophone players, I think that Getz had the best tone – and he kept recording mainstream jazz right until the 1990s (Anniversary and People Time are among my favorite live recordings). This comes fairly hot on the heels of the “lost” Getz/Bill Evans album, that I though a little disappointing.

The album comes as 3 x 180g slabs, packaged in cheap “sandpaper” inner sleeves. The outer cover looks like the kind of photo-processing that one would have done with an early copy of photopaint and windows 3.0. The liner notes, which give a good historical context, are on the inner gatefold. Verve should look to Resonance Records for advice vis-a-vis modern deluxe packaging. Sound quality is excellent- nicely mastered and a good live re-production for the era. The muffled introductions by Chip Monck at the start of side 1 are un-necessary. It is a worthwhile investment if you are a Getz fan: this is after “West Coast Jazz” after Europe but before “Jazz Samba“, and he very much appears the equal of Coltrane and Rollins in that era. Incidentally, of the 1960s Stan Getz records, for reasons that I cannot explain, “Sweet Rain” is my favorite. It is one of those rare albums that could be released today, and would not appear out of time.

What is reassuring about this 1961 live album is that it came from the Verve music archive – which must have survived the UMC fire. Hopefully, sometime soon, the February 21st 1961 session, part of which has been released in compilation, will be released in a nice package like this. The major reason for interest in this concert was the presence of Scott LaFaro on bass.

Stan Getz Quartet
February 21 1961, New York, Ny Unissued Concert Live
Stan Getz Quartet Stan Getz (Ts) Steve Kuhn (P) Scott Lafaro (B) Pete La Roca (D)

  • Baubles Bangles And Beads (Forrest-Wright)
  • Little Old Lady (Adams-Carmichael)
  • I Remember Clifford (Golson)
  • For You, For Me, For Evermore (Gershwin-Gershwin)
  • Speak Low (Nash-Weill)
  • Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most (Landesman-Wolf)

Incidentally, if I were to go to a desert island and was allowed to bring only a few live jazz box sets with me, People Time – with Kenny Barron would be one.

The others that I would bring:

I’m sure there are more – but all of these I would recommend without hesitation.

 

 

 

I am NOT an analogue zealot, however…..

•June 14, 2019 • 1 Comment

master tapeI was accused of being an analogue zealot, or equivalent, yesterday as I was extolling the sheer excellence of high quality vinyl. I get why one might think that streaming spotify into your phone and listening through (absolutely crap) Beats headphones, is the last word in audiophilia, if you have never heard better. There is nothing like listening to a well mastered nicely pressed record through an all analogue system. Well…… maybe a live performance.

In any case, I am both the most analogue and the most digital person I know. I was a very early adopter of CD (and have thousands of them), DVDA, SACD, Blu-Ray audio, surround sound and ran the gamut in the video sphere also from video 2000, to VHS to CD-I, to CD-V, to DVD to HD-DVD to Blu-Ray to UHD-Blu Ray. I ripped my entire CD collection to MP3 in 1999 – having to burn the files onto CD-R because there wasn’t a large enough external hard drive available then. I bought the first CD Walkman that supported MP3, then various MP3 flash players, the first windows iPod (and lots of its descendants), I rockboxed a Cowan-iAudio X3 to play flac bootlegs in 2007. I have a large collection of HiRes flac and DSD files that I can play through portable players and a high quality digital system at home. I bought Sonos in 2008. I use Roon. I love digital. I still prefer records.

Why do I make this point? After the horrific revelations about the UMC archive in 2008, I realize that we have really taken analogue recordings for granted for too long. I believe that recordings are best heard in the medium that they were first recorded – either analogue or digital. Yes I buy many new recordings on vinyl, but I don’t believe for one second that the record is better than the 24 bit digital master. But here is the rub: I bought the new Bruce Springsteen album today (by the way it is really good). I presume that this was recorded in a modern studio using a digital console and mixed in Pro-Tools, from which the digital master was constructed in 24/96 or 24/192 resolution. You can buy the album from HD Tracks or Qobuz at 24/96 and it will sound exactly like the studio master. The album can be obtained on downgraded 16 bit – as a CD or MP3 for €15 or you can pay up to €30 for the 3 sided vinyl album (limited edition on blue vinyl). There is no conceivable way that the record can outperform the digital version. One buys the record for the experience, to impress yourself and your friends by your collection, because you like to own music (and CD no longer feels like a quality product) and as a souvenir.

Analogue recordings are like paintings – in the master there are multiple layers of physical data that builds the soundstage. The best version of the recording is the original master tape. Every copy, irrespective of the quality, must be inferior. Mastering engineers, such as Kevin Gray, Steve Hoffman, Bernie Grundman etc. take the master tape and, using a lathe, cut a vinyl acetate that mirrors the master tape. Then there is a couple of generations of sound loss to construct the stamper (I know the mofi one step gets rid of this and improves the sound). Irrespective, a high quality vinyl pressing reconstructs the analogue master and brings with it the texture, colour and soundstage. The master tapes can be copied into a series of digital files, either in PCM or DSD format – but this is like making a photocopy of the original. Something always gets lost. The best transfers and the best mastering engineers may produce a digital copy very close to the master – and these often sound great, but not always. However, it makes NO SENSE whatsoever to take that digital album and use it to cut an acetate – for pressing into vinyl. This is analogous to photocopying a photocopy. It is so inferior to an all analogue (AAA) copy that it is scary.

Bizarrely, people, including and in particular me, will walk into a record shop and pick up a newly pressed digitally sourced 180g version of an album, while ignoring the vintage AAA version sitting in the second hand bin. Why would one do this? First – people like new stuff and new records look and feel good. Secondly, they may actually be better: I have piles of 1980s records that aren’t much thicker than flexidiscs – and sound hollow due to mass pressing. Also, for the best records in the best condition, second hand copies are unbelievably expensive. It is highly likely that the new copy of Dark Side of the Moon that your recently bought (and it is, in any given year, one of the top 5 selling vinyl titles), sounds better than your original version: pressed on flat virgin vinyl from a high quality source. Indeed, for most rock records from the 70s and 80s, the chance of picking up a really good sounding used product is quite low: Tom Port’s Better Records makes a business of buying lots of albums, identifying “hot stampers” and then charging $100s/$1000s for them. In my opinion, modern vinyl is of a much more consistent quality than the product I grew up listening to.

Finally, vinyl has now become very expensive. Vinyl box sets are typically twice the price of the equivalent version on CD; the CD box set drops in price over time, vinyl does not. But here is the crux: are they the same product? I recently bought the Traffic studio albums box set. I already had a couple of the records on vinyl (new pressings), and they are all easily availably from second had outlets as AAA (but first pressings are very expensive). The only Traffic album available for download on high res is “John Barleycorn Must Die” – which makes me think that the box set is sourced from 16 bit wav files. Considering that UMC is charging €25 per album in the box, the least they could do was source the records from the original analogue masters; if they still exist. Suckers? Probably.

This was OUR Notre Dame

•June 13, 2019 • 1 Comment

AP Studio Fire“I was driving home one evening – then I saw it – black smoke billowing in the distance – could it be – no please no – my home on fire. Worse, my record collection flaming and smouldering and melting and disappearing; forever. All of those days, weeks, months, years of crate digging, swapping, retrieving from dumpsters, ordering from ebay or discogs. That first edition…..”

I’m sure that every serious record collector has this nightmare, recurrently. A couple of years ago I dropped a CD and a big chunk broke out of it. The CD was old, difficult to replace, but – then I remembered – I had a back up (ripped losslessly to flac) on my server. The history of the world’s digital recording can be stored in a cloud or on infinite hard drives. But analogue, that’s a different story.

You are in a band. You record an album that sells a lot of copies on vinyl. Then it is re-issued on CD and sells loads more. Many years later, it is time for the 25th anniversary deluxe edition box set. Steven Wilson has been brought on board to do a 5.1 surround mix for the Blu-Ray. He also wants to remix the original and do a flat transfer of the master tapes. The multi-track masters cannot be found. This seems to have happened with XTCs “English Settlement.”

Remember that the “master” tape is a mix down of the multi-tracks, in stereo for mastering to vinyl, CD or cassette. The “original” master tapes are valuable. The multi-track masters are the real gold. An example of this is Sgt. Pepper. Several years ago, as part of the Mono box set, the original mono masters were used to cut new vinyl copies of the record. It sounded great. However, 2 years ago, for the 50th anniversary, Giles Martin went back to the original multi-track masters, redigitalized everything in multi-track and remixed the album to 21st Century standards. I though it sounded spectacular.

Imagine if we suddenly lost the multi-track tapes and original masters of a large number of classic albums? Up in a puff of flames. For example – imagine if all of John Coltrane’s fantastic Impulse! albums’ master tapes were suddenly lost in a fire. That would be it: no more remasters, no more “original master recordings” no more remixes; nothing. Imagine if we lost all of Chuck Berry’s masters, or Buddy Holly’s. Gone. Stop imagining – it has happened and they didn’t tell us.

In 2008 a fire broke out in a warehouse on a backlot of Universal Studios. Everything was destroyed – but, we were told, it was only just film stock – advertisements, short flix nothing important. They lied. The warehouse had been sublet to Universal Music Group and it contained a large amount of original master recordings belonging to the behemoth music company. And everything was destroyed. I read about this in an article published this week in the New York Times. Reading the article gave me the same feeling as watching, in horror, as the great cathedral of Notre Dame (in Paris) burned down. They can rebuild, but it will never be the same.

“But don’t they have digital backups (like my CD-flac)?” – you might ask. This is analogous to hanging a photograph of the Mona Lisa in its place, because the original is destroyed. If you have ever watched the “Classic Albums” series – usually the artist and the engineer are seated at a large analogue console- the multi-track masters are loaded – faders are moved up and down – detail is revealed and then buried back down in the mix. The “master” tape or the digital copy of it is merely a reproduction of what the mastering engineer believed, at the time, the listener wanted to hear, taking into account the limitations of the equipment. In the 1950s and 60s, that equipment was likely a Dansette record player. In the 00s it was an iPod, later a smartphone or a car stereo – mastered for maximal loudness. Lose, for example, the multi-track masters (and remember that these may be digital, and stored on tape/hard drive/zip drive etc), of Californication, and you are stuck in loudness hell forever.

I would have thought that the master tapes of Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry or BB King or Billie Holliday or Aretha Franklin or John Coltrane or Bing Crosby would be American National Treasures – these are amongst the greatest artefacts of American culture in the 20th Century – no less important than Caravaggio paintings or Degas sketches. Keeping them stored in a tinderstick shed in a sunny location with huge amounts of traffic is not just negligent – it is tragic.

My heart goes out to all of those artists whose master tapes were being held (?Hostge) by Universal, whose cupboard is now bare – where even to obtain some copy of the master the company has to go to Japan, or Germany (for x generation master), where the multi-tracks are gone. And then there are all those, lesser, recordings that were never copied, never digitalized – lost forever.

Finally, if most of John Coltrane’s Atlantic and Impulse! masters were destroyed – can UMG inform us of the providence of the High Res downloads that have only been available in the past few years? Was 24/192 used for archiving prior to June 1st 2008 (I suspect not – as most recorders in those days were 24/96 or DSD)?

Fortunately, in view of the fact that Kevin Gray has been working away on them for years, one must presume that the Blue Note (another UMG company, but then part of EMI/Capitol) masters were located somewhere else.

Enormous Selling Albums that NOBODY listens to

•June 13, 2019 • 3 Comments

One of the most striking passages in David Hepworth’s recent book involved Hootie and the Blowfish. Who you might ask (unless you are of a certain age – and you will nod in vague recollection)? Their album “Cracked Rear View” has sold 21 million copies – 21 times platinum. “Kind of Blue”, by far the best selling jazz album ever, released 60 years ago, is only 4x platinum. Brubeck’s “Time Out” is platinum (1 million). Blue Train sold about the same. The remainder of the platinum awarded jazz albums are all fusion – Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunters” and “Future Shock,” Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather”.

Other alumni of the 20 million plus album sales include Linkin Park, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys (2 albums) and a couple of Shania Twains’. All on heavy rotation in your living room, I don’t suspect. Susan Boyle sold over 8 million copies of her debut album (“I dreamed a dream”).

Oasis’ “Be Here Now” – one of the greatest abominations ever recorded – has sold over 8 million copies and there are 9 million in bargain bins around the world. At least there is some vague possibility that I might, one day listen to “Be Here Now” – particularly if they “deloudnessed”, remixed and remastered it. No chance would I ever contemplate – MC Hammer’s ‘Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (10m), Linkin Park’s ‘Hybrid Theory’ (10m) and of course Creed’s ‘Human Clay’ (11m).

You would think that the music industry was being kept alive by Beyonce, Jay-Z, Katy Perry etc. based on the amount of press that they receive. In fact, the saviours of the music industry are Adele (50 million albums – including a lot of CDs) and Ed Sheeran (some staggering number). Adele and Sheeran fans listen to their albums – a lot!

One last thought: Norah Jones has sold 50 million albums. It is likely that she has sold more albums that every other artist that has recorded for Blue Note put together in the 1950s (and possibly the 60s – and possibly ever). When did you last listen to “Feels like home” (12 million).

 

So Long iTunes (downloads) – you sucked!

•June 5, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The iTunes download store is closing down. I am delighted to announce that, despite being an early adopter of the iPod (first windows version), I never bought a single track from iTunes and the only album in my library was the free U2 one.

I never understood iTunes – you had to pay $10 for an album of copy protected compressed files that you never really owned (you could not sell them on “second hand”) that were stuck in the Apple universe. Buy the CD and rip it bozo! I know, I know, it was all about the “tracks” – I remember Bruce Willis asking what would happen to his iTunes library when he died (it dies with you). iTunes was dead the moment that Rhapsody started a streaming service – about 10 years ago. Subsequently Spotify came to dominate the market and music broke “free”.

Whenever I look at the pile of tapes, videocassettes, CDs, DVDs, BluRays and Records that I have accumulated over the years – realizing that all of this is available now with online subscriptions that I pay for, I take comfort that, at least, I didn’t waste money on iTunes. What is remarkable, in hindsight, was the big fight that Steve Jobs had with the music industry – he wanted MP3 downloads – they insisted on copy protection (hence AAC). Amazon started making MP3 files available for download later, and still include autorip for CDs that you have bought. These days I stream Flac files from Qobuz – in both CD and 24 bit resolution – as part of my subscription. I think Apple and the music industry should do the right thing now – make everybody’s iTunes libraries available to them to download in 16 bit flac.

One last comment: as a music ripper, iTunes is ok but not great – but I always seem to end up using it. iTunes has always lacked the precision, but not the flakiness, of dbpoweramp – and of course forces you to use apple lossless rather than flac. Albums are listed as compilations if there is a track “featuring” somebody other than the primary artist – not infrequently resulting in two albums appearing in the library. It’s handling of album art is terrible (“get art” does not add artwork to the meta-tags). Nevertheless, once you tidy up the meta-tags, folder organization is fantastic and I have never found a better programe for sorting out albums into artists folders. Also, its CDDB is really good – freedb on foobar is close to useless, I gave up on music match in 2009 and media monkey in 2012 and, did I mention that dbpoweramp is flakey as hell. So, hopefully, the iTunes ripping software will be around for a few years to come. Disclaimer – I ripped approximately 5000 CD with iTunes in 2008-2009.