Early Glastonbury

We just had the Glastonbury festival here in the UK. A few years ago I would absolutely devour the BBC’s coverage of it (I was never foolhardy enough to actually go there…). In the Britpop years it was pretty good, I thought; obviously culminating in Radiohead’s fantastic set in 1997. People of a certain age may realise that it hasn’t been quite the same of late.

As a contrast to last weekend, here’s one of my favourite film clips in the world, ever. It’s from the second Glastonbury festival in 1971, featuring Terry Reid joined by Linda Lewis on – I think – the first incarnation of the now traditional Pyramid Stage.

 

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Audiophile Demo Music

 

lizardIn shops that sell televisions, they often play some sort of ‘showreel’ of spectacular scenes; you know the type of thing: ultra-detailed night time cityscapes, ultra-saturated lizards, ultra-contrasty arctic wildlife, and so on. You realise that it is impossible to see any real difference between the televisions with these scenes. They are ‘impressive’, but only at the most superficial level of what a television can display. Basically, any modern television can display them, with the only differentiators being size and absolute brightness. It always seems to me that the only way I can tell if a TV is any good is to watch a local news programme or something like that – not zero ‘production values’, but something that is relatable to everyday life.

Does something similar happen with audio?

When writing this post, I vowed to myself to search for a report of an audio show demo track, and to use the first track I came across as my example – of course I would have quietly forgotten that vow if it hadn’t illustrated my point fairly well, but as it happens, I think it does. The track is by Malia, and is called I Feel It Like You.

Absolutely no criticism is implied of the track, nor its production which is exemplary for this kind of music. But as an audio demo track?

Listening to it on my laptop, it seems to me to be an ‘in-your-face’ studio recording, built from a fairly sparse assemblage of pristine layers, each of which has been processed, compressed and equalised. The vocals are crystal clear and close up, mixed with a carefully-balanced amount of ‘Large Hall’ reverberation. The backing features plenty of detail, with lots of staccato, sampled(?) percussion rhythms and bass.

I think that this track would sound superficially impressive on any system – it even sounds good on my laptop.

What it is missing, if you ask me, is any connection with the organic, natural acoustics we encounter every day. It is like those uber-detailed images used for TV demos; the sound is highly-detailed and everything is at peak contrast and saturation. Such tracks are very common in audio demonstrations.

An alternative staple of audiophile demonstrations is ‘jazz’… I’m not sure what the appeal of this is (as a demonstration). I suspect it is because it often seems like an antidote to over-production – although jazz can still be over-produced. But again, as the potential customer, I don’t think it is telling me very much about the system’s capabilities. Old recordings of jazz are like grainy monochrome pictures, and modern recordings are still showing a ‘scene’ that is ‘smokey’ and sepia-toned (which I am sure is the intention). The style of music and the instrumental line-up (e.g. continuous brushed snare..?) means that I am often not hearing clear delineation between the instruments nor much in the way of transients and dynamics. (Or maybe I just don’t like jazz particularly and cannot engage with it, in which case ignore my objections…).

Just looking through some of the tracks that I might ‘demo’ my system with, one thing strikes me: they usually feature a bit of ‘messiness’. They may, or may not, have been put together in a studio using overdubbing, but the individual layers are a bit raw, organic, and recorded from a bit of a distance, so the room’s natural acoustics are audible. This possibly masks a bit of the pristine detail, but there’s enough there to verify that the system can do detail, anyway. When a short sound stops, and the reverberation remains, the contrast between the two can be particularly revealing. In photographic terms, the image covers all shades of grey and there’s still detail in the shadows; it’s not pushed into excessive contrast, nor selected or processed to be super-detailed. I am not even advocating massive ‘dynamics’ most of the time, which some people cite as proof of a system’s chops. As I will mention later, there are some specific classical tracks that might be played in order to put the system’s dynamic capabilities beyond doubt, anyway!

My favoured demo tracks are not just a single mic recording of a school concert, of course! They have been put together with some high ‘production values’.

It is worth perhaps listing the aspects of the system we might want to show off, or listen to if we are thinking of buying it.

  • frequency response: it is good if the track covers a wide spectrum of frequencies with equal weighting – not just bass and treble. A problem with many a system, would be fixed bumps and dips in the frequency response. These are almost impossible to hear against a recording that also has fixed bumps and dips in its ‘frequency response’. For example, a solo voice or a string quartet, or a piano. All of these are generated by resonant systems characterised by a formant, or a group of similar formants.  Some studio recordings are also augmented with fairly aggressive parametric equalisation of the individual layers in order to make them sound even more detailed. It is only when we hear many different natural musical sources playing in varying combinations that we assemble enough ‘simultaneous equations’ to work out whether the system is neutral or not.
  • bass: of course we want to demonstrate this! Deep organ notes, kick drums, symphony orchestras in natural acoustics are going to show this off well. The best bass does not have ‘one note’ quality; it engages somewhat with ‘room gain’ in order to extend all the way down to below audibility; it starts and stops quickly, hitting you in the chest (the kick drum will show this). In other words, sealed not bass reflex…
  • distortion: a sine wave would show up harmonic distortion, and several musical sources all playing at the same time would show up the resulting intermodulation distortion. A single voice will not really show it, nor percussive sounds. A choir would probably be a pretty good demonstration of low distortion, as would a symphony orchestra playing a varied selection. Less good would be girl-and-guitar, a string quartet, or a ‘world music’ drumming ensemble.
  • imaging: the really great demo, in my opinion, is when the stereo speakers produce a complete 3D audio ‘scene’. It may be an “illusion” as some people are very keen to point out, and not a perfect holographic reproduction especially if the recording was created with multiple mics and overdubs in a studio, but it is very compelling. Some classical recordings are made in purist fashion and do create a very convincing sense of 3D space – not just left-right imaging, but also a sense of distance. Imaging depends at least on low distortion and accurate correlation between left and right speakers, implying (I would say) a requirement for accurate reproduction of phase and timing. Some people would claim that absolute reproduction of phase isn’t important as long as both channels are well matched. I think this is special pleading based on the performance of traditional systems; I sometimes think that the people who are very keen to ‘dis’ imaging probably have very expensive systems based on valves, vinyl and passive crossovers…
  • power: achieving high volume isn’t usually a problem, but we want the system to behave uniformly well at all volumes. I suggest that the way this would be made obvious would be when a musical performer or ensemble plays continuously and naturally between quiet and loud – with minimal dynamic compression being applied. This is different from demonstrating a system playing a less dynamic recording with the volume control low and then high. As the Fletcher Munson curves show, there is only one volume at which we perceive a sound with the correct frequency response: its natural volume. If the system does something peculiar as the volume increases, it will be much more obvious if we are listening at a fixed volume that is closer to the ‘real’ volume at which it was recorded.

Of course, recommending tracks is a bit pointless, because the track’s ‘demo’ qualities are combined with musical taste – and I think you need to like the music in order to engage fully with what you are hearing and to know how it’s going to sound with ‘your’ music. Nevertheless, here’s a few tracks out of hundreds that I tentatively suggest would reveal a system’s attributes (no accounting for Youtube’s sound quality) and are the sort of thing I would want to listen to in order to get some idea of whether a system was any good.

Sufjan Stevens, Jacksonville – not a familiar act to me, but this track is ‘big’, has great bass and enough rawness to hear that the system sounds ‘natural’.

Elton John, Rocket Man – a beautiful, rounded studio recording with a great sense of space (so to speak).

Neil Young, Double E – very simple rock track that doesn’t sound over-produced.

Khachaturian Symphony Number 3 – a *massive* symphonic recording with huge pipe organ and 15 trumpets (apparently). If you play this loud, the end is very loud!

Arvo Part, Credo, for Piano Solo, Mixed Choir and Orchestra – possibly some of the most dynamic, contrasting classical music you will encounter.

(Maybe these classical performances are a bit too dynamic for everyday listening, but if you really want the demo to show what the system is capable of..!)

A less intense classical recording with some great imaging, space and some revealing bass is this one:

It’s An American in Paris by Gershwin, performed by the LA Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta – not sure if the Youtube version is the same as the CD version I listen to.

Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution

Image result for howard goodall sgt pepper

Did you see Howard Goodall’s BBC programme about Sgt. Pepper? I thought it was a fine tribute, emphasising how fortunate we are for the existence of the Beatles.

Howard did his usual thing of analysing the finer points of the music and how it relates to classical and other forms, playing the piano and singing to illustrate his points. He showed that twelve of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper contain “modulations”, where the songs shift from one key to another – revealing very advanced compositional skills needless to say. But I don’t think that the Beatles ever really knew or cared that music is ‘supposed’ to be composed in one key and one time signature – they were just instinctive and brilliant. To me, it suggested that formal training might have stifled their creativity, in fact.

He supplemented his survey of the tracks with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane which although not on the album, were the first tracks produced from the Sgt. Peppers recording sessions.

The technical stuff about studio trickery and how George Martin and his team worked around the limitations of four track tape was interesting (as always), and we listened in on some of the chat in the studio in-between takes.


Obviously, I checked out what versions of the album are available on Spotify, and found that there’s the 2009 remaster and, I think, the new 50th anniversary remixed version..! (Isn’t streaming great?)

Clearly the remixed version has moved some of the previous hard-panned left and right towards the middle, and the sound has more ‘body’ – but I am sure there is a lot more to it than that. The orchestral crescendos and final chord in A Day in the Life are particularly striking.

At the end of the day, however, I actually prefer a couple of more stripped back versions of tracks that appeared on the Beatles Anthology CDs from 1995. These, to me, sound even cleaner and fresher.


But what is this? Archimago has recently analysed some of the new remix and found that it has been processed into heavy clipping i.e. just like any typical modern recording that wants to sound ‘loud’. Archimago also shows that the 1987 CD version doesn’t have any such clipping in it; I won’t be throwing away my original Beatles CDs just yet…

The Sound of a Symphony Orchestra

Last night I went to a symphony concert: Shostakovich’s 10th, preceded by Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge.

west roadWe were sitting in the second row from the front – so quite close to the piano. I wish I had taken a photograph, but I was so paranoid about my phone ringing mid performance that I left it turned off! The image above shows the empty venue.

We really enjoyed the concert. Chiyan Wong is an amazing piano soloist, and CCSO were spectacular. The sound was formidable from a large orchestra, and we got to hear the fairly new Steinway grand in great detail – the piano was removed during the interval, for the Shostakovich that followed.

Now, I do often listen to this sort of music with my system, but this was the first time I had been to a concert to hear this specific Russian ‘genre’. Of course I couldn’t help but make a mental comparison of the sound of the real thing versus the hi-fi facsimile that I am used to, as I was listening. And you know what? I have to say that a good hi-fi gives a pretty good rendition of the real sound.

The real thing was very loud, but also very rich – I have observed that ‘painfully loud’ is more a function of quality than volume; you need good bass to balance the rest of the spectrum. So this was very loud, but at no time painful. Bass from the orchestra was wonderful, but didn’t take me by surprise – I sometimes hear such bass from my system. (It did take me by surprise the first time I heard it from a hi-fi system, however!).

Some people cite piano as being the most difficult thing for a hi-fi system to reproduce. I don’t know where they get that from: I loved the sound of the piano, and I think a good system can reproduce it fairly easily.

I was struck by the homogeneity within the different sections of the orchestra. Listening to a recording of just a piano, or just the violins, would not tell you very much about an audio system. It is only when you hear a combination of the piano, the violins and the brass, say, that any ‘formant’ (i.e. fixed frequency response signature) within your system would show up.

As discussed previously, ‘imaging’ of the orchestra was not as pin sharp as you get in some recordings, but many purist recordings portray the true effect quite accurately. The width of the ‘soundstage’ of a stereo system is more-or-less right, and the room you are listening in enhances the recording’s ‘ambience’ around and behind you.

Of course the concert is a very special experience. The stereo version isn’t always as deep, open and spacious, nor is the envelopment as complete but, all in all, I think if you sit down in the right frame of mind to listen to a fine orchestral recording using a good hi-fi system, you are getting a very reasonable impression of the sound, excitement and visceral quality of the real thing. And that really is quite an amazing idea.

The Secret Science of Pop

secret-science-of-pop

In The Secret Science of Pop, evolutionary biologist Professor Armand Leroi tells us that he sees pop music as a direct analogy for natural selection. And he salivates at the prospect of a huge, complete, historical data set that can be analysed in order to test his theories.

He starts off by bringing in experts in data analysis from some prestigious universities, and has them crunch the numbers on the past 50 years of chart music, analysing the audio data for numerous characteristics including “rhythmic intensity” and “agressiveness”. He plots a line on a giant computer monitor showing the rate of musical change based on an aggregate of these values. The line shows that the 60s were a time of revolution – although he claims that the Beatles were pretty average and “sat out” the revolution. Disco, and to a lesser extent punk, made the 70s a time of revolution but the 80s were not.

He is convinced that he is going to be able to use his findings to influence the production of new pop music. The results are not encouraging: no matter how he formulates his data he finds he cannot predict a song’s chart success with much better than random accuracy. The best correlation seems to be that a song’s closeness to a particular period’s “average” predicts high chart success. It is, he says, “statistically significant”.

Armed with this insight he takes on the role of producer and attempts to make a song (a ballad) being recorded at Trevor Horn’s studio as average as possible by, amongst other things, adjusting its tempo and adding some rap. It doesn’t really work, and when he measures the results with his computer, he finds that he has manoeuvred the song away from average with this manual intervention.

He then shifts his attention to trying to find the stars of tomorrow by picking out the most average song from 1200 tracks that have been sent into BBC Radio 1 Introducing. The computer picks out a particular band who seem to have a very danceable track, and in the world’s least scientific experiment ever, he demonstrates that a BBC Radio 1 producer thinks it’s OK, too.

His final conclusion: “We failed spectacularly this time, but I am sure the answer is somewhere in the data if we can just find it”.

My immediate thoughts on this programme:

-An entertaining, interesting programme.

-The rule still holds: science is not valid in the field of aesthetic judgement.

-If your system cannot predict the future stars of the past, it is very unlikely to be able to predict the stars of the future.

-The choice of which aspects of songs to measure is purely subjective, based on the scientist’s own assumptions about what humans like about music. The chances of the scientist not tweaking the algorithms in order to reflect their own intuitions are very remote. To claim that “The computer picked the song with no human intervention” is stretching it! (This applies to any ‘science’ whose main output is based on computer modelling).

-The lure of data is irresistible to scientists but, as anyone who has ever experimented with anything but the simplest, most controlled, pattern recognition will tell you, there is always too much, and at the same time never enough, training data. It slowly dawns on you that although theoretically there may be multidimensional functions that really could spot what you are looking for, you are never going to present the training data in such a way that you find a function with 100%, or at least ‘human’ levels of, reliability.

-Add to that the myriad paradoxes of human consciousness, and of humans modifying their tastes temporarily in response to novelty and fashion – even to the data itself (the charts) – and the reality is that it is a wild goose chase.

(very relevant to a post from a few months ago)

Tasseomancy

Here’s a bit of a discovery (for me, anyway – and as yet they have only a few thousand listens on Spotify). They’re a Canadian duo (twin sisters) called Tasseomancy, a name that refers to the art of tea making…

I imagine that fans of Kate Bush will love this. I really like Dead Can Dance & Neil Young, the opening track from their latest album Do Easy. The track Missoula is beautiful:

Jobriath

jobriath

How often do you stumble across an album by an artist you were completely unaware of, and find that it’s as good as anything you’ve heard in your life? It’s nice when it happens!

Ever heard of Jobriath? I hadn’t. It seems he was going to be the next big thing in 1973 but the world wasn’t quite ready for him. Anyway, I just listened to the album Jobriath which I have somehow managed to miss until now. Fantastic music with unusual arrangements and unexpected twists and turns – check out the piano part on Inside. Beautiful, fresh recording. Surely this is as good as David Bowie or Elton John. The highlight of the album for me is I’m a Man which, among its many virtues, uses a harpsichord to great effect.

Vinyl in Space

jack white

Jack White aims to play the first vinyl record in space.

From The Guardian:

With the aid of a ‘space-proof’ turntable and high-altitude balloon, the singer’s Third Man Records will try to beam Carl Sagan’s A Glorious Dawn from orbit…

The Guardian link writers came up with

The Vinyl Frontier

Now that’s quite good…!