Category Archives: general

Great sounding recordings

There was a discussion on a music form of which the best sounding recordings out there.

I am always amused by these discussions because I see stuff picked that is great music (at least to those who pick it) but cannot honestly be described as great-sounding in a technical sense.

Of course it is hard to separate; and maybe there are albums that sound deliberately “bad” as part of the artistic statement.

Conversely, if the music does not interest you, it is hard to appreciate the sonics.

Here were my picks though: six albums that I know will always sound good.

Kind of Blue by Miles Davis – great presence and realism, interesting bass lines to follow.

Carpenters by The Carpenters. Probably influenced by the great voice, but I find this a really natural sounding recording. CD you can get for pennies at any supermarket here in the UK.

New Blood by Peter Gabriel. Modern recording, just very nicely done. Probably helped by natural acoustic sound of orchestra etc.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. I like this for its simplicity and realism. If you want a recording where you can close your eyes and imagine a man there singing, this is excellent.

Electric Cafe by Kraftwerk. Great sounding electronica.

Stravinksky: Le sacre de Printemps/L’Oiseau de feu; Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Antal Dorati (Decca) No idea how this ranks in a list of fine-sounding classical recordings but I like it, beautifully conveys the drama of the music.

Always interested in hearing about other people’s favourites, from a sonic point of view.

The Beatles come to Apple iTunes

Apple made an extraordinary fuss about the arrival of Beatles music on its iTunes download store – even allowing the news to take over its home page for a day or two.


Why? I can think of a few reasons. Because Steve Jobs was born in 1955 and this is the music of his teen years. Because it is the finale in a long battle between Apple Computer and Apple Corps Ltd. And because the Beatles are arguably the pinnacle of popular music, regularly topping lists like the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In fact, Beatles albums occupy four of the top ten slots.


It follows that the Beatles coming to iTunes is a landmark moment for Apple (computer) and shows the extent to which it now dominates music delivery.

That said, some observers were bewildered. Beatles fans already have the music, and have ripped their CDs to music servers and iPods so that iTunes availability will make no difference to them; and people born from a decade or two later than Steve Jobs mostly do not revere the band in the same way.

Speaking personally, those four albums are not in my top ten all-time favourites, good though they are, and I am more likely to put on Lennon’s cathartic Plastic Ono Band album than Sergeant Pepper.

I also wonder how long iTunes can sustain its position. To my mind, the streaming model of Spotify, where you pay a subscription and can listen to anything you want, makes more sense than the download model of iTunes.

But you want to own the music? Well, you cannot; even a CD or LP only sells you a licence. An iTunes purchase is more ephemeral than a CD, because it is a personal licence with no resale value, and comes with no physical container that you can put on the shelf. It is also, in the case of the Beatles albums and many others,  more expensive to buy the iTunes download than the CD, so you are paying a premium for the convenience of near-instant digital delivery.

It follows that iTunes offers rather poor value in an absolute sense. It is best to think of it as a service; and Apple does a nice job of making music easy to find and enjoy.

Final note: even if you have no interest in buying, it is worth running up iTunes and playing the hitherto unavailable video Live at the Washington Coliseum, 1964, which you can stream for free for an introductory period.

Peter Gabriel’s high-res music bargain with scratch my back

Peter Gabriel’s Scratch my Back is an intriguing release – an album of cover versions of pop and rock songs, but with an orchestral backing. It actually works, once you set your expectations accordingly.

The thing I want to draw attention though is a remarkable offer that comes with the deluxe version of the CD (worth it anyway for Waterloo Sunset, otherwise unavailable). You get a code with it that buys a three month trial of membership at the Bower & Wilkins Society of Sound site. The details are here:

The stunning super-high quality version of Peter Gabriel’s new album ‘Scratch My Back’ is available now from Society of Sound as a 24-bit FLAC download.

If you have bought an enhanced CD you will have a voucher code entitling you to download the album from us as well as giving you three months full membership. If you don’t own the album you can subscribe for six or twelve months to access it.

This means you get not only the high-res version of Scratch my Back (without Waterloo Sunset, unfortunately), but also “any past albums of the month” on Society of Sound, many of which are also in 24-bit FLAC. I counted 19 albums in all, with artists including David Rhodes, Ennio Morricone, Speed Caravan, Brett Anderson, Charlie Winston, Gwyneth Herbert, Tom Kerstens, Skip McDonald, and the Portico Quartet.

I’ve been working through them and enjoying what I hear.

This still begs the question, of course, of whether hi-res is audibly any different from standard CD quality. If this is a question that interests you, as it does me, then you get plenty of material to experiment with. In addition, the overall standard of the recording quality found here seems excellent.

CDs to downloads: the noose tightens

I’ve just received my copy of David Bowie’s A Reality Tour, a double CD for which I paid £11.98 from – though if I’d waited a few days, I would have been able to buy a US import for £8.59 including shipping, at today’s prices.

For my money I get a tri-fold package with photos from the tour, and a 12-page booklet with more photos and credits.

The CDs between them have 33 tracks – not bad value.

Still, I could have downloaded from Apple iTunes for £9.99 – which is a little less, or a little more, than the CD price depending whether you compare with what I paid or the best current deal.

What is annoying though is that the iTunes download has two additional tracks:

  • 5.15 the Angels Have Gone
  • Days

They are probably nothing special; but it is irritating.

On the other hand, iTunes has its annoyances too. The tracks are lossy-compressed; and even if you don’t think the difference is audible, that is still a disadvantage if you want to convert to some other format, as generational loss creeps in. I miss out on the packaging (though there may be some digital booklet, I’m not sure). In addition, the rights I purchase are non-transferable, so if I decide I don’t like the album, I can’t stick it on eBay to reduce my loss.

The end result of each purchase is similar, as I rip the CD for streaming anyway.

On balance, I think the CD is a better buy; but I can see where this is going.

BRIAN ENO LIKES ABBA, thinks music business is a passing phase

I enjoyed this interview with Brian Eno, partly because it echoes some of my own musical journey – as a listener, I must emphasise:

I like Abba. I did then and I didn’t admit it. The snobbery of the time wouldn’t allow it.

Quite. Which is why a couple of years ago I bought the 4CD set Thank you for the Music, and not only do I love it, I admire what they did, the technique, the melody and the emotion.

I may have been foolish to buy it. It sounds like Eno doubts we will have to for much longer:

I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going.

Kudos to Eno for portraying this not as some evil thing, but just something of our time. I love Spotify; millions of songs on demand and for free. I’m not sure how long Spotify itself will last, but clearly the era of the record shop is over and there are many reasons to be glad about that – even if one cannot help a little nostalgia for the fun of browsing the racks and the excitement of setting the needle onto a groove for the first time, or the CD equivalent.

The Beatles, iTunes, and 09 09 09

Apple (computer) held a press event yesterday, one that had been buzzed extensively ahead of time. The date was 9th September 2009, or 09/09/09, and the same date as the worldwide release of the Beatles remasters. The date ties in with a song on Let it Be, One after 909, and a song on the White Album called Revolution 9.

Despite the enduring popularity of the band, the Beatles music is not available on iTunes … yet. Naturally, the pundits foresaw a Beatlish announcement.

It seemed obvious; but doubts were raised when the official invitations went out. The invitations bore a lyric not from Lennon and/or McCartney, but rather from the Rolling Stones: It’s only rock and roll, but we like it.

As it turned out, Apple (computer) announced new iPods and an update to iTunes, but there was nothing about the Beatles.

What goes on? It’s now clear that the remastered Beatles were headed for iTunes – and probably still are – but whatever deal was in place fell through. The first evidence was a rapidly withdrawn comment from Yoko Ono shortly before the press event. Now we have confirmation from Bob Smeaton, who created mini-documentaries that are included with the new CDs:

Originally what happened was, the albums were going to be released on iTunes but that deal, you know, fell through for whatever reason. Some sort of political reason. So we actually set about creating a mini-documentary for each of the albums, so that when you bought the albums on iTunes, if you bought the whole album, because on iTunes you can pick like one song, right, if you bought the whole album, as an incentive to buy the whole album rather than just to cherry-pick songs, you would get this mini-documentary.

Indeed, this idea of bonus non-musical content that you get when purchasing an entire album from iTunes was announced yesterday. The concept is imaginatively called the iTunes LP – but only a few examples are available so far, just six according to Cult of Mac – Dylan’s Highway 61, The Doors 40th anniversary hits, American Beauty by the Grateful Dead, and albums by the Dave Matthews Band, Tyrese Gibson and Norah Jones. Pretty unexciting, especially when compared to a might-have-been announcement of all the Beatles albums appearing on iTunes for the first time and in the snazzy new format.

Of course you can have the Beatles in iTunes if you want to. Just buy the CDs and import them; and I’ve heard tell of other methods that fall foul of copyright.

Still, it seems Apple (computer) vs Apple (corps) is not quite over yet. No wonder Steve Jobs chose a lyric from that other Sixties band to launch the iTunes LP.

On Quadrophenia, rock classics, tribute shows, and aging

The Who’s Quadrophenia is currently on tour in the UK – but it is not performed by The Who. No, this is the Quadrophenia Rock Show, Music Lyrics & Concept by Pete Townshed – stage adaption by Jeff Young, John O’Hara and Tom Critchley.

Quadrophenia is among my favourite albums – not for the daft story, but because the music and lyrics speak to me of the frustration and glory of being human, or something. But do I want to see it performed by musicians other than The Who? At one time I’d have said, no way. Why settle for an imitation when you can have the real thing?

The trouble is, you can’t any more. Keith Moon died in 1978; John Entwistle in 2002. Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend still tour and no doubt put on a good show from time to time – I saw The Who in January 2002, at which time Entwistle was still around, and enjoyed it tremendously. Still, at best with these aging bands there is always an element of “it’s amazing how good they are considering”, and at worst it can be embarrassing. I saw Jethro Tull in Derby in 2007, and while the musicianship was generally impressive, my memory is dominated by the failings of Ian Anderson’s voice, which spoilt most of the songs through no fault of his.

It is also rather strange to see bands whose music is laden with the sexual tension of youth performing the same songs at a later stage of life. What is “Hope I die before I get old” meant to mean, sung by a 65-year old Daltrey?

The bottom line is that I have mixed feelings about seeing performances like these. I still go to see Bob Dylan, who is even older, but that’s partly because I see it as a pilgrimage to see one of the greats, and partly because Dylan is more able to be his age, thanks to the songs he writes and continues to write, and the fact the he’s been fixin’ to die since his very first album in 1962.

So when I saw that the Quadrophenia show is on locally, I thought twice about it. Is it possible that tribute show of younger performers could put more energy into it than the current Who? Well, yes, it is possible. And once old rockers like The Who and The Rolling Stones hang up their touring boots for the last time, it will be this or nothing.

I’m also encouraged by knowing that Pete Townshend is involved to some degree in the show. He talks about it – or actually writes, since it’s an email interview, in an illuminating piece in The Times. He includes a comment pertinent to this post:

Have you ever been to see a rock musical based on a back-catalogue?

I live inside one. Musicals based on back-catalogues are becoming a saturated market. How can rock musicals avoid being watered-down exercises in asset-stripping?

Let me ask another question. When all those nostalgic for the music of their youth have moved on, will today’s revered rock classics ever be performed live? In most cases, I’m guessing the answer is no. In a few cases though, maybe an evening out to hear a performance of Blonde on Blonde or The Dark Side of the Moon or Quadrophenia will be accepted in the same way as we treat other music from composers long gone, who knows?

I’m booking to see Quadrophenia.

A few jottings on hi-fi and misleading science

My interest in hi-fi began a few decades ago  when I was out looking for a new cassette deck. At that time I had the view that all amplifiers sounded the same, pretty much, because I was aware that the frequency response of an amp was flat and its distortion low across the audible range.

I was in a store comparing a bank of cassette decks with a tape of my own that I’d brought along and a pair of headphones. There were a couple of amplifiers and two switchbox comparators, so I could listen to several decks through one amplifier, then several other decks through the second amp.

I began to suspect that the comparison was unfair, because all the decks going through the first amp sounded better – more musical and enjoyable – than those going through the second amp. I realised that contrary to my expectation the amplifiers were contributing to the sound, and that the first one sounded better. It was a Cambridge A&R A60. So I bought that instead, and loved it.

I realised therefore that the frequency response and distortion specs were not telling the whole story. It was better to buy what sounded best.

Unfortunately subjectivism has problems too. In particular, once people have been trained to distrust specs they become vulnerable to exploitation. Listening alone is not enough, for all sorts of reasons: what we hear is influenced by expectations, small variations in volume that we mis-interpret as quality differences, changes in multiple variables that make it impossible to know what we are really comparing, and so on. We need science to keep the industry honest.

Another factor is that advances in technology have made it harder for the hi-fi industry. Digital music eliminates things like wow and flutter, rumble and surface noise, and audio quality that is good enough for most people is now available for pennies. In search of margin, hi-fi retailers settled on selling expensive cables or equipment supports with ever-diminishing scientific rationale. Beautiful, chunky, elegant, gold-plated interconnects look like they should sound better, so like jackdaws attracted by shiny buttons we may think they do, even when common sense tells us that the audio signal has already passed though many very ordinary cables before it reaches us, so why should the particular stretch covered by this interconnect make any difference?

My respect for the power of the mind in this regard was increased by an incident during the Peter Belt years. Peter Belt was an audio eccentric who marketed a number of bizarre theories and products in the UK, mainly in the eighties, and attracted some support from the hi-fi press. See here for an enthusiast view of his work; and here for a woman convinced that she can improve the sound of her CDs by putting them in the deep freezer for 24 hours:

Freezing The Downward Spiral made it far more engaging than it has ever been. For instance, the layers at the end of the song "Closer" are more in evidence. Little bits of sound present themselves that I have never heard before. NIN’s sound is close to industrial, with what at times sounds like machinery droning in the background. After freezing this disc, these sounds became more easily discernible. The overall NIN experience increased tenfold for me after freezing the disc.

Another of Belt’s theories is or was that you could improve the sound of any hi-fi equipment with four supports (such as small rubber feet) by placing a triangular sheet of paper under one of them, to make it in some mystical sense three-legged.

I tried this with a friend. He had a high-end turntable and knew nothing of Peter Belt or his theories. I told him I knew of a madcap theory that I wanted to disprove. We played a record, and then I said I would make a change that would make no difference to the sound. I took a small thin triangular piece of paper and placed it under one of the four feet of the turntable. It did not affect its stability. We played the record again. He said it definitely sounded better. What is more, I thought it sounded better too – or at least, that was my subjective impression. My rational mind told me it sounded just the same. Still, he left the bit of paper there.

I don’t doubt that we have more to learn about sound reproduction; that we measure what we can, but we may measure the wrong things or in the wrong way. That does not mean that every wild theory about how to improve hi-fi has equal validity. There is one simple technique that helps to assess whether some particular thing is worth spending money on, and that is blind testing. Listen to A, then to B, and see if you can tell which is which. If the differences you hear when you know which is which disappear, then you know that the feature you are testing does not affect the audible sound quality. It might still be worth having; there is no law against liking beautiful cables or shiny amplifiers that cost more than a house.

I suspect that few or none of Peter Belt’s improvements would survive such trials.

Blind testing is not perfect. Even if you can hear a difference, that does not tell you which sounds more accurate to the source, or which is more enjoyable. Ironically, very poor equipment has nothing to fear from blind testing, in that it will most likely sound different; though there is merit in scoring your preferences blind as well.

Sometimes blind testing yields surprising results, like the trials which show that high-resolution audio like SACD and DVDA can pass through a conversion to CD quality and back and still sound the same. I’ve written more on this subject here.

I think we should learn from such tests and not fear them. They help us to focus on the things that yield less contentious improvements, like using the best available sources, and maintaining excellence all the way through from initial recording to final mastering. In the strange world of hi-fidelity neither specs, nor price, nor casual listening, nor even science will tell us everything about how to get the best sound; but some combination of all of these will enable us to spend our money and time wisely, and do more of what really counts: enjoying the music.

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the charts they are not a’changing

Dylan is at number one with Together Through Life, reports the BBC, showing his enduring appeal:

Dylan now holds a record, previously held by Tom Jones, for the longest gap between solo number one albums.

No denying Dylan’s long-term appeal (and he deserves it), but I’m guessing it shows something else, too: that the age profile reflected in the charts is older than it has ever been, and album charts are no longer a reliable measure of musical taste.

Music Magpie review

Rupert Jones in today’s Guardian has a note about Music Magpie, a site where you can sell old CDs, games, and now DVDs. The site calls itself an “online CD recycling service.” I like CDs, so I took a look.

The service is a commercial operation and as far as I can tell isn’t any different in principle from any other online secondhand retailer – I guess they all ought to get some green cred by calling themselves recycling services.

So how does Music Magpie compare to others like, say, Amazon or eBay? Let’s look at it first as a buyer. I love the Cowboy Junkies, so I did a search. I can get their great CD The Trinity Session for £3.99. Amazon has this new from £5.98, or used from £3.91. What about postage costs? At Amazon it is currently £1.21. I can’t so far discover what Music Magpie charges, or whether it is included. The terms and conditions say:

9.2. These prices include VAT but exclude delivery costs, which are detailed on the website.

However I can’t find them detailed anywhere. Maybe it is included after all, but you would have thought this would be flagged as a selling point. So it could be more than Amazon, or less, depending on this point; it appears to be in the same ball park. However, Amazon has a vastly greater stock available and nice features like customer reviews.

OK, how about as the seller? If I decide to sell my Cowboy Junkies CD, Music Magpie will currently offer me 98p (the price varies according to the CD, and can be as low as 25p). There’s no postage cost to the seller; the company sends out a freepost envelope.

There are some alarming terms and conditions. If Music Magpie decides one of your CDs needs refurbishment (polishing), it deducts up to 50p. If it decides it is unacceptable, it neither buys nor returns it. There is no appeal.

Now Amazon. If I sell Trinity Session for the current lowest price of £3.91, Amazon will grab £1.82 in fees (including VAT) but contribute £1.21 for postage. That means I get £3.30. If the postage actually costs that much (it could well work out less), I still get £2.09 net, more than double what Music Magpie offers.

Listing an item on Amazon is not much more difficult than selling to Music Magpie – just type in the barcode and go. The big difference is that with Amazon you have to sit back and wait for a buyer. With Music Magpie I get the money instantly. Another difference is that with Music Magpie I can parcel a bunch of CDs once and send them off. With Amazon, you have to deal with each customer individually.

My immediate impression is that Music Magpie scores well on convenience, but if you need the money and have a little patience you would be much better off with Amazon.

Now, here’s an interesting remark on the Music Magpie site:

We originally launched musicmagpie as an easy way for everyone to turn their old CDs into cash so that they did not have to be thrown away if they had decided to go digital. This proved to be a massive success with thousands of people using musicmagpie as a fast and efficient way to turn CDs into money.

Well, CDs are digital; but I’m guessing that Music Magpie is referring to people who have ripped their CDs to a computer for streaming, or for an iPod, or another MP3 player. Here’s a can of worms though. I’ve heard it argued that even ripping your own CDs is illegal, though it seems a reasonable thing to do. Ripping your CDs and then selling them though – intuitively that seems wrong. Arguably, Music Magpie by its own admission is dealing in stolen music.

Still, I do see the other side of this too. You’ve ripped all your CDs, you no longer need them, you are short of space: isn’t it better to move them on?

When people moved from vinyl to CD they had no choice but to purchase again. In the case of CD to music files though, you can migrate without re-buying. That’s a headache for the music industry.

Personally I hang on to them anyway, as a kind of license and physical backup, and just in case I might want to read the sleeve notes again one day.

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