New, in Mono!

There have recently been vinyl re-releases in mono, and there must be loads of mono LPs available at car boot sales and charity shops. Such is the strength of the new vinyl religion that there is now a marketing opportunity for the mono cartridge. In a review of such a cartridge, the reviewer says:

I feel that I am ‘going off’ stereo altogether. I am now determined to seek out more mono pressings on vinyl.

And here’s an article on portable vinyl players that eulogises the Dansette and other mono players that are only one step up from the Lego turntable. A worthwhile feature is the ability to play 78s too, apparently.

Within audiophilia there is without doubt a movement that is regressing to more primitive technology – but I don’t think the afflicted see it as a regression. They are too young to remember mono and 78s, and digital audio is pretty well perfect now, so this is the nearest thing to genuine progress that they can experience. Can it really be very long until they begin experimenting with purely-mechanical audio?

Update: another mono convert:

As I get deeper into black-disc connoisseurship, I’m more and more attracted to the gestalt of listening in mono… If I were a flush dude, I would have a dedicated mono system with a Miyajima Zero Mono ($1995) or a Miyabi Mono ($2800)

Update 06/05/17

Last night I was listening to a Kinks album that comes with mono and stereo mixes for various tracks. Give me the stereo every time! Stereo separates the individual voices and instruments, and whether the ‘effect’ is real or artificial, it allows you to follow the individual lines with ease. Grotty recording of the individual instrument/voice tracks adds up to a wall of grottiness in mono, but with stereo the individual grottiness clings only to its own track, making the recording sound far better. Individual tracks that are clean can be heard uncontaminated. Stereo works superbly!

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Lego turntable: ironic reaction

Someone has built a working turntable from Lego! “Amazing”. Everyone is raving about it. Why? Because the kids’ toy has been used to make the ultimate audio source. Some unenlightened people might see it as a rather primitive system: a platter being turned by a motor and a pivoted rod with a needle at the end of it, that could have been built out of Lego at any time during the last 50 years. But there’s much more to it than that… erm…

In 1974 it would have been seen for what it is: a platter being turned by a motor, with a pivoted rod and a needle at the end of it.

In 2014, it’s “Oh.My.God. You’ve used LEGO to… to build a TURNTABLE..? AMAZING!”

I think that what has happened is that a new generation has come along that takes digital miracles for granted. For them, a large, shiny physical thing that rotates is more miraculous than all the world’s music being available for free on a pocket-sized gadget. They cannot conceive of how it works. In parallel, a bunch of older nostalgists has convinced itself that digital audio can be dismissed as misguided electrickery, and having made that decision has worked itself up into a lather of religious fervour over the simple, elementary, primitive turntable. From that leaping-off point, the turntable can only be cleverer and more sophisticated than Sony and Philips combined.

For all of them, therefore, to make a working turntable from a toy is utterly, insanely crazily brilliant.

Vintage High End: RGD 750C

panel2front closed I have quite a few bits of vintage equipment. Here’s a piece of real high end from around 1950. It’s fully-restored and it works, but I like it as a piece of furniture anyway. When you open the lid, and find the polished wood, the precision tuning dial, the large bakelite knobs and that stylish logo, you get the feeling that this was once very expensive. In fact, in 1951 this model would have cost £112. In 1950 the average UK annual salary was just over £100 – there were crazy audiophiles around, even then…

Kyron Audio

kyronI saw this on the Ultimist web site. Kyron are another Australian company doing the DSP thing.

Vinyl-ophile Michael Fremer writes the following:

Kyron Audio’s Kronos system … is everything I can honestly say I hate about audio: the amplifiers are Class “D”, the system uses DEQX™ digital room correction and there’s enough processing going on here to befuddle a mainframe…

…what I heard from this system absolutely astonished me. There was nothing ‘digital’ about the presentation. Nothing. The top end was about as perfectly rendered as I’ve heard from all of these tracks as was the detail resolution…

…Instrumental textures and timbres were as accurate and realistically portrayed as I’ve ever heard them. The amount of true detail revealed in very familiar records was unprecedented. I swear I don’t usually blather like this as anyone who knows me can attest but there was no denying what I heard.

…I’ve never before heard the drum sound so realistic and life-like and I mean never. But that was just the start of what I heard from the many tracks I played. …”Can’t You Hear My Knocking” just about made me faint.

Can we detect a similarity between this description, and reviews of other DSP-based systems such as this and this and this?

On the Kyron Audio web site it tells us that the DEQX is used for phase correction of the speakers.

Rather than being just an equaliser however, the DEQX engine is able to simultaneously repair the timing of every frequency so that the group delay is repaired. The effect is not subtle and is just not possible in the analogue domain.

And of course it also performs the basic crossover filtering prior to a dedicated amp for each driver.

The price of the whole system? To you, $100,000. Again, this is one of those systems where the significance of the DSP is disguised amongst the ‘high endness’ and eye-watering price. Fundamentally, the DSP aspect is basically free, comprising some well-established algorithms that (as in my system) can be run on any bit of processing power lying around, like an old PC – though obviously it is much nicer to have a dedicated box like the DEQX. It is ironic that this transformative, low cost technology seems only ever to appear with ‘high end’ hardware. The implication is that while DSP correction is useful for fine tuning already-top notch hardware, using it on lesser hardware would be like putting lipstick on a pig. If so, I don’t agree. This technology reduces the requirements on the amps and drivers, allowing lower cost hardware to be a viable substitute for ultra-hardware. I think that DSP should be the first thing the designer turns to, rather than the last.

Show Report: WAXFEST 2102

By the time we got to the Von Karp phonograph room, people were queuing down the corridor to hear the latest sweet sounds from the Michigan-based company. The night before, in what is now an annual ritual, several of us had been privileged to have dinner with the great man himself at Barney’s Clam Chowder House on Comme d’Habitude Street – that man loves his chowder! In between courses and beer he dropped quite a few hints about what we were going to see today, and as the evening wore on he took no prisoners, lambasting the manufacturers who are promoting discs rather than his highly-refined wax cylinders, and becoming positively animated when discussing the “dinosaurs” who want to take the industry back to the “electrical dark ages” as he put it. In an industry full of colourful characters, Doctor Von Karp is one of the most colourful; and so-compelling was his company that it must have been one o’clock in the morning by the time I staggered back to my hotel room and sank into blissful sleep in anticipation of what was to come.

The Von Karp room itself was one of the medium-sized ones; large enough for the equipment to breathe, but not so large that a purely mechanical reproduction system would struggle for volume. At the far end, Doctor Von Karp had set up a large horn made of what looked like some sort of dull green plastic. Von Karp caught my quizzical expression and smiled broadly. “Chitin.” he said. I looked even more puzzled. “We use four thousand five hundred crickets to create each one” he said, and patiently went on to explain that crickets (yes, the insect) have the ability to generate disproportionately loud chirps for their size, and also have exceptional hearing, and so it was natural that a resin produced by pulping an elite species of cricket would have fantastic acoustical properties. I have a basic grasp of physics, but Von Karp – in common with many other high end designers – is unaware of the magnitude of his own genius, and his explanation rather went over my head. The new Krikket horn may be cutting-edge technology, but Von Karp Research have lavished very traditional levels of craftsmanship on it and it is finished to a standard that would befit any fine home.

To the right of the horn, on the largest gimbal-mounted energy-absorbing rack I have ever seen, was a mouth-watering array of Von Karp’s latest cylinder players and pneumatic amplification equipment. This needed some serious air power, and so fifty feet of high-end semi-synthetic rubber tubing with silver-plated reinforcement mesh had been fed from a large compressor in the hotel basement, sufficiently distant to be almost inaudible. For the show, the compressor runs off mains electricity, but obviously for the ultimate audiophile refinement it should be steam, and Von Karp Research can supply high end fuels, water, and steam conditioners.

Doctor Von Karp took great delight in showing me the new titanium worm screws and miniature air turbines that have virtually-eliminated wow and flutter in his players. Complex and incredibly expensive, it is this attention to detail that sets Von Karp Research apart from some of their rivals.

Great sound also needs a great stylus, and Von Karp have gradually refined the Kaktus Mk III that so-revolutionised phonograph reproduction at its launch in 2094. Von Karp Research has its own greenhouses where they grow genetically-modified cactus bushes that provide, as Doctor Von Karp modestly puts it, “the stylus of the gods”. Each thorn is laser-trimmed by automated equipment more advanced than that used in robot brain surgery, and it is capped with a beryllium plug that facilitates the industry’s slickest automated stylus replacement system – it is even possible to swap to a new stylus while the phonograph is playing! Von Karp phonographs are also compatible with the industry-standard diamond stylii that rarely require replacement, but Doctor Von Karp is adamant that the cellulose-based system is more musical.

But I know what you are thinking: how does it sound? You may feel you are familiar with the musicality of phonograph-based reproduction equipment, but I can assure you that Von Karp’s latest developments take it to a whole new level. Doctor Von Karp had brought a fine selection of audiophile-quality baroque chamber music cylinders that played to the system’s many strengths. But don’t run away with the idea that this is just a single-genre system: he also wowed the crowd with cylinders featuring acoustic guitar, solo voices and small vocal ensembles, light jazz and even unplugged rock music. The system can handle all audiophile music with aplomb.

Then Von Karp turned to us and generously asked “Any requests?”. This was my moment: from my briefcase I took out a compilation cylinder, created by my good friend Gary on his state-of-the-art 3D printer. But this was no ordinary compilation cylinder: Gary had made it at 100 TPI (threads-per-inch) in super-high res. Doctor Von Karp took the cylinder from me and examined it carefully. I think he was impressed. “I’ll have to change the worm gear, and we only have a couple of suitable stylii, so we can’t play it all”, he said. But it was enough. Twenty short minutes later, we were treated to some of the most exciting girl-and-guitar music ever heard at an audio show. The sound was coloured, gaseous, and above all, musical. We hardly even noticed the stylus-swap two minutes in, and when it was all over two minutes later, we felt certain we had witnessed a milestone on high end audio’s road to sonic perfection.

Sure, the electrical-revival boys have got bass and volume. Hell, they’ve even got stereo, low distortion, inaudible background noise and convenience, but to a trained audiophile’s ears, it just ain’t refined. Von Karp’s phonographs have got musicality and character in spades, and in answer to the system’s reputation for compatibility issues, they promise a complete turnkey solution from boiler to horn. A few years ago, many of us predicted the demise of the steam-powered phonograph industry when a Philadelphia audiophile’s cellar was blown to smithereens, but it turned out that he had been doing unauthorised modifications in the hope of increasing pressure. Audiophiles may rest assured that steam powered phonographs are safe and, from what we heard at WAXFEST this year, are set for a tremendous future. Light acoustic music in mono has never sounded so good!

Devialet SAM

Devialet SAM

I saw this new product reviewed on the HiFi+ web site.

We are getting closer to the ‘rational’ hi-fi system that I allude to in my About page, and yet are so far from it. I said

…Such systems could still give audiophiles what they crave, conceivably allowing them to mix and match amplifiers and high end speakers (or even speaker drivers in individual enclosures), and to install off-the-shelf calibration files or even create their own.

Well here’s a product that heads towards that, but doesn’t attempt to quite reach the full monty – for perfectly understandable reasons, probably. This is a stereo DSP/amplifier system that can be configured with ready-made calibration files for a large list of existing passive speakers via an SD card – with the possibility of adding more to the list if there is the demand. For me, the most significant step is the idea of ready-made calibration files, downloadable from the manufacturer’s web site, allowing the non-technical audiophile to play with the benefits of DSP without the hell of sine sweeps and microphones.

The DSP does the following (quoting the manufacturer’s web site):

  • Phase alignment over the full spectrum

  • Extension of the low frequency response (down to 25Hz)

  • Effective protection of the loudspeaker, helping to prevent any damage due to listening at high levels

But quoting their white paper (possibly out of date..?), it appears only to affect the bass and lower mid:

In its current implementation, SAM is effective on lower frequencies, up to 150Hz; yet its effects
can be heard throughout the audio range.

So we have a hybrid of DSP correction at line level and 1930s technology in the form of the existing passive crossover –  and unfortunately there are many aspects of passive crossovers that cannot be corrected by DSP. Clearly, as a purist, this offends me – but I’ll get over it. I would rather have this than no DSP correction at all. Maybe this is as close to the fully active DSP speaker that the typical audiophile can allow himself to get at the present time, and allows his faith in a particular speaker manufacturer’s ‘house sound’ to remain relatively unchallenged.

Clearly, I would like to see the system extended to four, six or eight channels with DSP implementation of the crossovers themselves and correction over the full spectrum, which would then open up the possibility of fully-active systems, bypassing the passive crossovers. Unfortunately Devialet are in the ultra-engineering camp, so building it using their current product line-up (even if it were possible) might prevent them from selling it for less than many thousands of pounds. Of course by removing the passive crossover the total power requirement of a speaker is drastically reduced, and individual drivers only have very modest power requirements. Maybe a future product could capitalise on these mitigating factors for a reasonable cost.

It’s something new, and I will follow this product’s progress with interest.

(Another review of the system that suggests, contrary to my implication above, that this is a budget product. It’s all relative, I suppose!)

What’s the problem with streaming?

spotify logoAnother artist has withdrawn their work from Spotify: Taylor Swift witheld her latest album from the streaming service and has then decided to remove her entire back catalogue. Something I was not aware of is that her latest album has been breaking sales records i.e. in absolute terms she is selling more albums more quickly than anyone has before, even in the supposed heyday of the LP.

But anyway, the readers’ comments following the Guardian article contain some bitter complaints about how Spotify is devaluing music and destroying the music industry. But is it? Or would the music industry be in decline regardless of the existence of streaming services?

The Perfect Arrangment?
Before audio recording was invented, musicians could only play to live audiences of a few hundred, maximum. Then not much more than a century ago, the artists’ audiences multiplied a thousand-fold through the introduction of recordings, and radio. A system evolved whereby the public could hear an artist on the radio for free, but if they wanted to listen to the music on-demand, they had to buy the record for real money. It was the perfect arrangement for the recording industry and a select group of artists and, many would have us believe, for the public. Huge sums of money were concentrated on a relatively small number of privileged artists, and they and their record companies were able to develop their art to an extraordinarily high level. In Iggy Pop’s recent John Peel lecture he spoke of the purchasing of a record as being the “anointing” of the artist by the purchaser, suggesting that the listener’s enjoyment of the music was actually enhanced by the financial sacrifice.

The internet disrupted that cosy arrangement. Illegal file sharing is thought by many to have started the process of killing the music industry, and maybe it is true. While home taping was superficially similar to illegal file sharing, maybe Iggy Pop’s point is correct and without some form of sacrifice like spending an evening cueing-up LPs, putting fresh tapes in the machine, setting the levels and pressing REC-PLAY, the listener loses their imaginary connection with the artist, and the music loses its meaning. And its value.

We all have recording studios now
The digital revolution does not apply only to listeners; the recording of music has also been democratised. In the previous era, only certain people had access to ‘the means of production’. Now, any bunch of kids can commit their efforts to 24 bit 192 kHz quality and can even release them on Spotify in a form that looks and sounds just like the major labels’ releases. Smaller labels have proliferated. This means that the listener’s attention – and money – is now spread far more thinly and this must surely be the most significant factor in reducing the major recording artists’ income, rather than the streaming services cynically ripping them off.

The streaming services have been criticised by Thom Yorke et al for doing special deals with the major labels, paying more per play to some artists more than others. Is this a problem? Not necessarily. If anything, it may be a way of restoring something like the previous regime where bona fide artists made a viable living.

The genie is out of the bottle
So in the digital age we have paid-for downloading, and streaming. I have never bought a download, as far as I can remember, but I have been a streaming subscriber for many years; first Napster and now Spotify. In my case, I think the average amount I pay into the industry for recorded music is pretty much the same as it would have been without streaming, but of course the breadth of the music I now listen to is much wider. I spend a large amount of my listening time on minor artists that I would otherwise never have heard of, and I have developed more of a taste for classical music. I still have quite a large collection of CDs, but the temptation to play them is diminished. An irony is that I am continuing to channel money to those artists if I play the same tracks on Spotify, even though my on-going contribution to their coffers would have been zero in the previous era.

Just as I now don’t like reading printed newspapers because they seem instantly-obsolete and disconnected from the rest of the world, I don’t like the dead ended-ness of a CD. There are no ‘Related Artists’ to browse, and if it is an old CD, there is some question of the quality – it may have been cobbled together off a fifth-generation tape copy running at 3.75 ips. With Spotify I may have access to several versions of the same track, and can choose the one I think sounds best. Do I prefer the original, or the 2012 re-master? With CD I would be stuck with whatever I had got, and could never justify spending money on buying several CDs in order to find the best version of one track – the thought of it makes me shudder.

How many CDs did I buy for £15 (because that’s what they used to cost) and then found that I hated them on the first play and never played them again? The Iggy Pop argument is that this helped me to value the ones I did like all the more; that the thrill of gambling (because that’s what buying music used to be) would enhance the listening experience. He may be right.

And then there’s the physical inconvenience of LPs and CDs which influenced our listening directly. To play music involved physical effort as well as the initial monetary sacrifice. We had to play whole albums, one side a time. Maybe we would replay an album side because we couldn’t be bothered to turn it over. By being forced to listen to what I might have dismissed initially as “filler”, I might have discovered slow burn tracks that I came to love.
The common theme is that maybe we cannot experience real pleasure without pain.

The free market

But surely these are all very touchy-feely and hand-wavey arguments. The bottom line is that no one forces artists to release their music via Spotify, paying only 0.00000000001p per play. As a society we supposedly believe in the power of the free market to innovate in a way that is beneficial to us all, so shouldn’t we just embrace whatever comes along? It’ll be good for us all in the long run (might go the argument).

Taylor Swift’s withdrawal of her albums from Spotify seems to be the free market at work. If I were a successful artist’s manager, I would of course weigh up the pros and cons of putting her work on Spotify versus selling albums. If I controlled the rights to the back catalogue of a once-respected artist from the 1960s I might also think about this. At face value, it might make more sense to hold out in the hope of selling even one album per month rather than making 50p from a few Spotify plays. But on the other hand, in doing so the artist is absented from the ‘zeitgeist’ and fails to benefit from the free advertising that Spotify provides.

Kids in a sweetshop
For people like me, I can’t help but think that Spotify and its ilk are the high point in our music-listening lives. We grew up in the era of LPs, and if Iggy Pop’s argument is correct, the enforced scarcity of music when we were kids taught us to be deeply passionate and enthusiastic about it. Then, approximately ten years ago we discovered that someone had taken our fantasy of a huge home jukebox, and made it a reality, but much better than we could have dreamed of. So we both cherish the music, and have it endlessly available on tap. A well-kept secret in the audiophile world is that the audio quality of Spotify Premium (and presumably some of the other services) is just fine*.

I would still subscribe to Spotify even if it was just classical music and artists’ complete back catalogues. What would kill it for me would be artists and their labels using Spotify as a ‘sampler’ in the hope of persuading me to buy whole albums. Spotify subscribers are already aware of the curse of the ‘greyed-out’ track, and in the online forums this clearly irritates people a lot. Competition is such that I would guess the average subscriber doesn’t go out and buy the album, but simply switches their allegiance to other artists instead.

I know people who buy albums and tracks on iTunes even though they are fully aware of Spotify. My eyes glaze over at the thought of spending real money on a limited selection of digital downloads that, as far as I am aware, are inferior in quality to Spotify Premium. Their eyes glaze over at the thought of spending real money on ‘renting’ music. Never the twain shall meet, or so it seems.

So I see streaming as the best thing since sliced bread for people like me. I also see it as a mystery in that I can’t quite work out the economics of it, nor why artists should allow their work on there while at the same time complaining about it (I realise that because of contractual arrangements this may not be as simple as it appears). I can also see the argument that streaming breaks the perceived connection between financial sacrifice and the music, and may help to reinforce the perception that recorded music should be ‘free’ – surely we could educate ourselves to transcend this perception..?

The way I would like to see streaming develop would be that the amount going to most artists increases such that they stop complaining and don’t have an incentive to withdraw their work from it. Streaming (and paid-for downloads) means that all the costs of manufacturing and distributing physical media disappear, so profits should remain healthy even though the subscription costs are low.

Do we need new recorded music?
The idea that recorded music may have no future is actually being discussed. But despite all the gnashing of teeth about the state of the recording industry, perhaps the ultimate question is: do we actually need any new recorded music at all? Maybe we need new records because we are bored with all previous music, having heard it all before and are so sophisticated and jaded that we crave brand new musical vistas. Or maybe music should be a reflection of contemporary life – and vice versa – and therefore music from the past is often irrelevant.

If I thought that there was anyone out there creating fabulous new musical forms I might just sympathise with the first argument, but the reality is that today’s youngsters seem to have few moulds left to break. Synthesisers can make any sound imaginable, but we rarely now hear ‘a new sound’, because most of the useful ones have been done already. And guitars still proliferate in popular music, just as they did fifty years ago. A youngster could spend their entire life just listening to the existing music on Spotify, and much of it would be more varied, sophisticated and interesting than anything being recorded today. I am not sure where I stand on the second argument. The purist in me thinks that good art is still good whenever it is ‘consumed’, but I can also see how art influencing life and vice versa gives it a whole other dimension.

A little-mentioned possibility could be that effectively all the best tunes and sounds have been done, anyway. I know that this is regarded as naive nonsense by people who like to think that 12 semitones can be permuted infinitely, but I suspect that, just like Peak Oil, we reached Peak Music some time ago.

Conclusion
I cannot say that streaming is here to stay, because I am not entirely convinced that it is, in its current form. As a ‘consumer’ I am a big fan, but I note the backlash against it. I really hope that it continues in its current form, rather than becoming a mere ‘sampler’ for promoting paid downloads. I believe that the fundamental problem for (some) musicians is that increased consumer choice is spreading the same amount of money more thinly than before. If that means the end of recorded music as a golden goose for a lucky few, then that is just a reversion to the situation before music recording was invented, and is a result of ‘progress’ and the market in operation. Maybe it’s just fortunate that we already have the extraordinary recordings from the 1960s thru 90s which, although we oldsters are familiar with many of them, youngsters can discover as though brand new.

*Spotify settings: ensure that the option for high quality streaming is selected and that ‘play all tracks at same volume’ is de-selected.

Beatles Covers

beatleproject3coverIt is well known that the Beatles aren’t on Spotify, and I find that I listen to them much less than I used to. But a marvellous thing about Spotify is that it has many brilliant cover versions, many of which I find I enjoy almost as much as the originals. For example, there has been a charity project called The Minnesota Beatles Project that has produced five albums-worth of covers performed by local bands – they obviously have a lot of great bands in Minnesota.

Some of my favourites from the MBP and others:

  • Something by Romantica – MBP Vol 1
  • I am the Walrus by Pert Near Sandstone – MBP Vol 2
  • Strawberry Fields Forever by Ice Palace – MBP Vol 1
  • Good Morning Good Morning by Soul Asylum – MBP Vol 2
  • Hey Bulldog by White Light Riot – MBP Vol 3
  • Cry Baby Cry by Caroline Smith & The Good night Sleeps – MBP Vol 4
  • Day Tripper by Sonny Knight and the Lakers – MBP Vol 5
  • Mother Nature’s Son by The Okee Dokee Brothers – MBP Vol 5
  • Taxman by Music Machine – (Turn On) the Music machine
  • Only a Northern Song by The Blue Meanis – Harrisongs Vol 1
  • Helter Skelter by Michael Davis – Songs the Beatles Wrote
  • I am the Walrus by Buddha Lounge Ensemble – Beatles Go Electro
  • Come Together by Tok Tok Tok – Revolution 69
  • I am the Walrus by Affinity – 70s Box