Vinyl sales overtake digital

vinyl

It seems that a milestone was passed last week when UK vinyl sales hit £2.5m versus digital’s £2.1m. Vinyl has enjoyed eight straight years of growth.

It’s no skin off my nose, except where new recordings begin to be produced primarily with the vinyl release in mind. This is where dynamics are reduced, bass and treble attenuated, and stereo effects restricted while the recording is being made, rather than a special post-processed master being made for vinyl. We digital listeners are then forced to listen to the less dynamic version as well.

I just had a quick look to see if I could find an actual ‘Top Tips for Mastering Vinyl’ example for the above. The first site I looked at contained this:

Mastering for Vinyl

…For minimalist recordings, you want to try and minimize large phase differences between channels… This means that spaced omnis are really not such a good idea if you can avoid them.

If you can’t avoid them, try and put loud bass sources in the center of the soundstage, as close to the center mic as possible. Even if you are using coincident miking, this is a good idea.

In other words, once vinyl becomes a major consideration, actual recording techniques are dictated by the medium. In the example above, it is not crazy studio effects that are being limited, but the microphone placement used in minimalist recordings that you might have thought were not a problem.

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The Man in the White Suit

man-in-the-white-suit

There’s a brilliant film from the 1950s called The Man in the White Suit. It’s a satire on capitalism, the power of the unions, and the story of how the two sides find themselves working together to oppose a new invention that threatens to make several industries redundant.

I wonder if there’s a tenuous resemblance between the film’s new wonder-fabric and the invention of digital audio? I hesitate to say that it’s exactly the same, because someone will point out that in the end, the wonder-fabric isn’t all it seems and falls apart, but I think they do have these similarities:

  1. The new invention is, for all practical purposes, ‘perfect’, and is immediately superior to everything that has gone before.
  2. It is cheap – very cheap – and can be mass-produced in large quantities.
  3. It has the properties of infinite lifespan, zero maintenance and non-obsolescence
  4. It threatens the profits not only of the industry that invented it, but other related industries.

In the film it all turns a bit dark, with mobs on the streets and violence imminent. Only the invention’s catastrophic failure saves the day.

In the smaller worlds of audio and music, things are a little different. Digital audio shows no signs of failing, and it has taken quite a few years for someone to finally come up with a comprehensive, feasible strategy for monopolising the invention while also shutting the Pandora’s box that was opened when it was initially released without restrictions.

The new strategy is this:

  1. Spread rumours that the original invention was flawed
  2. Re-package the invention as something brand new, with a vagueness that allows people to believe whatever they want about it
  3. Deviate from the rigid mathematical conditions of the original invention, opening up possibilities for future innovations in filtering and “de-blurring”. The audiophile imagination is a potent force, so this may not be the last time you can persuade them to re-purchase their record collections, after all.
  4. Offer to protect the other, affected industries – for a fee
  5. Appear to maintain compatibility with the original invention – for now – while substituting a more inconvenient version with inferior quality for unlicensed users
  6. Through positive enticements, nudge users into voluntarily phasing out the original invention over several years.
  7. Introduce stronger protection once the window has been closed.

It’s a very clever strategy, I think. Point (2) is the master stroke.

Digital cables: a lack of understanding

eyediabinary cropped

There’s a new article about digital cables which is directly relevant to my post a couple of weeks back – it even features the “eye diagram” I referred to.

It purports to ‘debunk’ the idea that “bits are bits”, but in reality it does nothing of the sort. It starts off with a question that it fails to answer and doesn’t come back to again:

Asynchronous USB audio to the rescue?

The remainder of the article is about isochronous USB and seeks to suggest that it is not just about getting all the data through intact, but that there are issues with timing, jitter and noise. Judging by the comments that follow, the readership is entirely unaware that it is a non sequitur they have been reading.

There is a strange little “Note” placed halfway down in tiny lettering that says

Do not confuse ‘asynchronous USB’ with ‘Isochronous,’ an asynchronous USB system still uses Isochronous mode to transfer audio.

I am not quite sure what that is supposed to mean, but again it seems to be an appeal to the false idea that it is beyond the wit of man to deliver digital audio data without it being corrupted, or affected by timing. As I have said before, if this were true, then systems such as TIDAL could not work: the data has come through thousands of miles of cheap cable not even made of silver or raised from the floor on little ceramic pots, through hundreds of utilitarian digital switches, and eventually into your home via the cheapest connector that your telecoms company could provide. And yet it works perfectly; all the electrical noise of the world’s internet, and all the jitter that comes from being re-routed dynamically hundreds of times every second, is completely absent.

As I said in my earlier post, we need to understand the system at a higher level. Asynchronous USB and other on-demand packet-based systems are immune to cable quality once it is beyond some minimum standard, and electrical isolation removes the possibility of noise being injected into your audio system – even enabling you to listen to music off the WWW without all the electrical noise of the global internet spoiling your listening pleasure. Really, getting data from a file/CD/stream into your DAC and reading it out at a precise rate is a simple engineering problem, rendered trivial and cheap for the consumer by some very clever people who actually understand the problem, and have solved it.

The Beatles re-mastered

Since they finally made it onto Spotify and other streaming services, I have begun listening to the Beatles again, following a gap of a few years. The reason for the gap was that it was often too tempting to explore Spotify rather than getting up to place CDs in the drive or getting around to “ripping” them. Also, my Beatles CDs are fairly old, so not in the ‘re-mastered’ category, and this knowledge would no doubt have spoiled the experience of listening to them while not being a strong enough reason to buy new ones.

The experience of listening to the re-mastered Beatles on my über-system has been “interesting” rather than the unalloyed pleasure I was expecting. In years gone by, I very much enjoyed my Beatles CDs on lesser systems, listening to the music without worrying too much about ‘quality’ – although I always marvelled at the freshness of the recordings that had made it across the decades intact. I had built up such expectations of the re-mastered versions playing on a real hi-fi system that I was bound to be disappointed, I suppose.

What I am finding is that, for the first time, I am hearing how the tracks were put together, and I can ‘hear through’ to the space behind them. With the latest re-masters on my system, you can clearly hear the individual tracks cleanly separated, and the various studio techniques being employed – you can’t mistake them for ‘live’ recordings – and they are rather ‘dry’.

With the Beatles I think that we are hearing music and recordings that were brilliantly, painstakingly created in the studio to an exceptional level of quality, that still sounded great when ‘munged’ through the typical record players, TV, radio and hi-fi equipment of the day – mainly in mono. It is now fascinating to hear the individual ingredients so cleanly separated, but I wonder whether the records wouldn’t have been produced slightly differently with modern high quality playback equipment in mind; after all, we are probably hearing the recordings more cleanly than was even possible in the studio at the time. Maybe it really is the case that The Beatles sound best on the equipment they were first heard on. Other musical groups of the time weren’t produced with such a high level of studio creativity and in such quality and so, with their recordings already ‘pre-munged’ to some extent, are not laid bare to the same degree on a modern system.

For the first time, perhaps I am beginning to see the reason for the re-release of the mono versions. They are a way of producing a more ‘cohesive’ mix without resorting to artificial distortion and effects that were not on the original recordings.

 

Radiohead’s Bond Theme That Never Was

Always interesting to hear a new Bond theme. Radiohead produced one for the film Spectre, apparently, but for whatever reason it wasn’t used.

I know Bond themes are always designed to tick certain boxes, but is a certain something now being over-used? I’m thinking of the orchestral chords such as the one at the end of the Radiohead track at 3.05, having been used throughout much of the track. If I were a musical expert I’d be able to tell you exactly what type of chord it is (a particular inversion?) but it seems to me that that they’ve hacked a core element out of John Barry’s compositions, changed the orchestration to the most simplistic heavy-handed shorthand, added some ‘swell’ and are now using it like a ‘Bond preset’ in inappropriate ways. John Barry’s music was usually restrained or ironic in some way, while these chords are now being splashed about in irony-free grandiose fashion on many of the most recent Bond themes.

Beatles on Spotify!

As of today the Beatles are available on Spotify. It could be seen as a huge affirmation of the whole streaming thing, I suppose – a blow against Taylor Swift, Thom Yorke, Adele et al.

Or is it just a label bowing to the inevitable? The Beatles had a tremendous run, remaining a premium price best seller on LP then CD then LP for over 50 years. An EU directive designed to retrospectively extend recording copyright from 50 to 70 years will protect all their albums with the exception of Please Please Me for another 20 years. But by holding out against the latest ‘delivery platforms’ for as long as they did, the ‘brand’ began to fade from the zeitgeist. We oldies had already bought the CDs and it would have been difficult to persuade many of us to buy them yet again on a higher resolution format or vinyl. Maybe sales were dropping anyway, and without streaming it was clear that they would be cutting the ‘brand’ off forever from the upcoming generations.

I must stress that I don’t see the Beatles as just a ‘brand’, but I don’t think today’s youngsters view them as the peerless phenomenon that we (or at least I) did, and still do.

roon

It seems that there is a new smart interface for your music collection, mentioned here and here.

roon

I’ll bet it is good if you like that sort of thing – but worth $119 a year? You decide.

Many’s the time with Spotify I have wished that it could simply display a full screen image of the album art while playing – not much to ask, but seemingly too difficult to arrange. Not to mention being able to sort search results, a useful facility that seemed to disappear with an update some time ago and is bitterly regretted by the users – but bizarrely lives on in the Linux version (I have been trying to work out the story behind why they thought it was a good idea to remove it, but can’t!). Clearly, it must be possible to do something better in the non-Spotify world, and I have every confidence in roon.

But something caught my eye in the various mentions around the web: people are enquiring about roon’s sound quality, and no one knows, or wants to give them a straight answer.

Well let me do it: the sound quality will be exactly what you can get / are getting right now. There is no mystery. Digital audio is not mysterious. It is just numbers. A new user interface is not going to change the numbers. And unless something is very wrong, it is not going to change how the numbers are sent to your DAC. OK?

The Power of Ideas… to enrage audiophiles

I just had a somewhat abrasive online encounter. I had the temerity to comment on some blog articles about digital cables and found that what I was saying seemed to send people apoplectic with rage.

treknorman

Basically, I asked: if digital cables are responsible for changing the sound in any way, then how could high quality online streaming services work at all? The signals are sent over long distances of dubious cable, non-audiophile optical fibres and satellites not even made of silver, and yet, supposedly (and actually), the signals emerge in real time, utterly perfect – except, that is, for the deleterious effects of that pesky final cable…

As always with this sort of idea or thought-experiment, I was told I was “missing the point” – the articles were primarily about cables’ effects on noise injection, hum loops, jitter and so on, so such “philosophical” arguments were irrelevant, they blustered.

But if we accept the notion that high quality online streaming is possible (audiophiles have no trouble accepting that TIDAL is “CD quality”), and that it is independent of the types of cables in the global internet (changing dynamically from moment to moment), and indeed is indistinguishable at the DAC from a network-based CD drive (for example) on our local network, then the implication of the ‘noise’ agenda must be that all the ‘noise’ from the thousands of miles of bog-standard cable and bog-standard digital gubbins along the way can be removed before it even reaches our network. So why can the DAC not incorporate this 100% noise blocking function itself? If it can (and it can) then the final cable in the chain takes on only the same significance as any other of the myriad cheap, long cables in the chain i.e. demonstrably none whatsoever. And, indeed, that was the whole idea of digital audio in the first place – an idea that has somehow become forgotten along the way.

Of course I accept that some digital audio implementations are poorly-designed and could, indeed, be susceptible to noise injection, hum loops and so on. Some may even suffer from power supply noise related to the digital signal and “how hard the chips have to work”. But if so, then messing around with cables is a red herring; trying to fix a fundamental problem with a sticking plaster. But even this overstates the case: at least a sticking plaster is designed by clever people who understand the problem. It is effective at what it does and doesn’t pretend to work simply because it is made of a certain material or incorporates an ancient Celtic weave. A common mistake is to believe that audiophile hardware is ‘higher quality’ than standard, but that rationalists don’t believe it is worth using. No. The truth is that rationalists don’t even believe that it is ‘higher quality’. Probably the opposite. It may be more expensive. It may use materials that are sacred to audiophiles. But it is just a manifestation of ignorance and magical thinking, and is worthless or worse. A more expensive cable can/will not fix the problems with your defective DAC. The only way to fix the problem for real is to design the electronics competently, and to design the last digital node to block ‘noise’ in the same way as earlier nodes can, apparently, block all the noise of the entire internet.

The unpalatable truth is that if you hear differences in your system when you change your digital cables you are either:

  1. imagining it, or
  2. the owner of hardware that is defective (by design).

I would bet that (1) is the more common. Given a suitable measurement setup whose resolution equalled or exceeded the resolution of your audio DAC, you could verify your system’s immunity by feeding in known digital test waveforms and checking that what came out of the DAC was always the same regardless of cable and any other upstream hardware. This idea, too, was met with seething fury!

Maybe I have realised something: many people simply cannot process “philosophical” ideas. The only way they can get a handle on them is for someone first to ‘downsample’ them into a form they are comfortable with:

  • brand names and products
  • industry gossip and hero-worship
  • low level engineering trivialities as a substitute and/or smokescreen for genuine ideas
  • shop-floor nuts and bolts

But this is a lossy process. It is impossible to ‘upsample’ the low level tittle tattle back into the world of ideas. Any attempt to do so, or a refusal to ‘downsample’ in the first place, causes panic, abuse, then meltdown.

An amazing piece of music – are your speakers good enough?

khachaturian

This recording of Khachaturian’s Symphony Number 3 is incredible – I first heard it on Radio 3 a few weeks back. Heavy brass, manic solo cathedral organ, and a very thrilling, loud ending. For me, as a piece it is let down by just one 20 second section of gooey sentimental film score-ishness at 10:08.

Does the bit where the solo organ hands over to strings at 6:14 remind you of the music you used to get in Gerry Anderson programmes e.g. Thunderbirds?

Great music to demonstrate the capabilities of speakers with – if they’re up to it.

You can hear it on Spotify:  Aram Khachaturian – Symphony No. 3, “Simfoniya-poema”