David Bowie: Welcome to the Blackout

The 21st April 2018 was Record Store Day, when the industry comes up with hundreds of special edition vinyl records which are offered for sale only through independent record shops. A helping hand for the independents, or a an attempt to con us into buying overpriced product via the old trick of artificial scarcity? Take your pick; but there’s no doubting that it gets thousands of people into record shops for at least one day in the year.

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For me, the highlight this year was a 3LP David Bowie live release, called Welcome to the Blackout. Not least because it was recorded at Earls Court London on the evenings of 30 June and 1 July 1978, and well, I was there, at least on one of the nights (I am not sure which). I remember it was an amazing experience, and that the the set visuals including the vertical bars backdrop were stunning – apologies for the poor quality of the picture below, which is taken from here.

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The Earls Court concerts were filmed by David Hemmings but the film was never released. However this might explain why the concerts were recorded by Tony Visconti and selected songs from the last two concerts were mixed by David Bowie and David Richards at Mountain Studios, Montreux between 17th and 23rd January 1979 (according to the sleevenotes). Two additional songs on Welcome to the Blackout, Sound and Vision and TVC 15, do not use Bowie/Richards mixes, perhaps because they were not selected at the time.

In 1978 David Bowie embarked on the ISOLAR II world tour, building on the release of Low and Heroes. The tour began in San Diego, March 1978, and ended in Tokyo, December 1978. Performances in Philadelphia in late April, and in Boston in early May, were recorded and formed the basis of the album Stage, first released in November 1978. Stage was originally just 17 songs, presented in a different order from that of the performance. In 2005 this was expanded to 20 songs, and the performance running order was restored, so that the opening track is the moody instrumental Warszawa. There was also a surround mix released on DVD Audio for a short time. Then in 2017 Stage was again reissued, now with 22 songs.

Since we already have Stage in so many guises, do we need Welcome to the Blackout? Having enjoyed this release for a couple of days, my answer is an emphatic yes. The Earls Court dates were at the end of the European leg of the tour, which did not resume until November in Australia. Bowie seems to be energised by this being in some sense the last concert of the tour and refers to this several times. He also performs two songs not on any version of Stage: Sound and Vision, and Rebel Rebel.

More important, the character of both the performance and the sound is different. There is simply more energy, and although the crowd noise is still mixed fairly low, it comes over as more of a live performance than the rather bland sound of Stage. We also get a longer Station to Station, under 9 minutes on Stage, and over 11 minutes here.

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The band, the same on as for Stage, is outstanding:

Carlos Alomar: Rhythm guitar
Adrian Belew: Lead guitar
Dennis Davis: Drums and percussion
Simon House: Electric violin
Sean Mayes: Piano, string ensemble
George Murray: Bass guitar
Roger Powell: Keyboards, Synthesizer

I’ve compared several songs on Stage and Welcome to the Blackout. For example, the song Blackout itself, which is decently performed on Stage, is introduced here by Bowie saying hoarsely “Welcome to the Blackout”; the instrumentation at the beginning of the song is more menacing and engaging on the new release; the vocal is more frenetic and desperate.

In TVC 15, the opening loony voiceovers is louder and more distinct on Welcome to the Blackout; it sounds like the band is having a great time and the song is more fun to listen to.

Jean Genie is stunning on this album; the guitar growls and grinds, Bowie’s vocal is full of drama; it makes the Stage performance (only on the 2017 edition) sound tame.

Despite the occasional flub, I can’t find any instances where I prefer the Stage recording.

Of course the album is meant to be heard as a piece, and seems to me to be an excellent capture of one of Bowie’s best performances.

Having said that, this concert lacks the intensity of Bowie in 1974 or 1976. Bowie is more at ease here.

I was fortunate to catch Bowie in performance in 1978. His next tour was not until 1983, when we got a different kind of performance to support the more mainstream Let’s Dance album; and after that in 1987 with the unsatisfactory Glass Spider tour.

Full track listing:

Warszawa
”Heroes”
What in the World
Be my Wife
The Jean Genie
Blackout
Sense of Doubt
Speed of Life
Sound and Vision
Breaking Glass
Fame
Beauty and the Beast
Five Years
Soul Love
Star
Hang on to yourself
Ziggy Stardust
Suffragette City
Art Decade
Alabama Song
Station to Station

Finally a shout out to Ray Staff who mastered the album. On first listen he did a great job. I love the dynamics and the overall balance of the sound.

Recommended; and if you find the album hard to find at a sensible price, or don’t have a record player, there is no need to panic as it will probably be out on CD and download/streaming in a few months.

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Review: Orbitsound Dock E30 one-box audio system with wireless charging aims to fix the problems of stereo

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It is simple but appealing: one small box instead of all the clutter of a conventional hi-fi system. Orbtisound’s Dock E30 is also designed for today’s audio ecosystem. It supports wireless playback with Apple AirPlay, Spotify Connect, Android audio streaming over Wi-Fi, and also Bluetooth aptX and wired input via analogue or optical digital signals. There is an app for iOS and Android, and you can even dock your phone either by sitting it in the groove provided, handy for seeing cover art. You can also charge a phone using the built-in Qi wireless charging (as used by Apple), or by connecting a cable (not supplied) to a USB-C charging support. For wireless charging though you should lay the phone flat on the charging plate rather than standing it up.

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Wireless charging aside, this is all what you expect from a modern audio system; but the Dock E30 has something distinctive. This is the technology called Airsound. Orbitsound says that the problem with conventional stereo is that you have to sit in a sweet spot dead centre between and in front of the speakers to get a true audio image. “We have managed to overcome this inherent limitation in stereo by doing away with the idea of left and right channels,” says Orbitsound. What they have come up with, explained to some extent here and here, is a three-speaker system, where the sound of the main front speaker is modified by two “spatial” side speakers to give, it is claimed, a stereo experience wherever you sit. There is said to be a particular advantage when you have more than one speaker connected.

Orbitsound’s explanation of Airsound is sketchy, to say the least, but it helped me to understand the results of my listening tests. I set up the Dock E30 in my living room and tried it using various types of connection from both iOS and Android. For the main listening test though I settled on wired input for maximum consistency. I compared the E30 with several other speaker systems, including the slightly more expensive Sony SRS-X9 (now replaced by the similar SRS-X99).

First impressions are good, with a powerful bass reinforced by the passive bass radiators on the back of the unit. The power output is not specified, but I got plenty enough volume for my smallish living room. I tried walking round the room and found a good consistency of sound, though frankly the SRS-X9 which uses conventional stereo speakers was also pretty good in this respect.

How does the sound compare to that from the Sony? I found my notes contradictory at first. I felt the sound, while decent, was smoother and better defined on the Sony than on the Dock E30. At the same time, I could sometimes hear details on the Dock E30 more clearly than on the Sony. One example was the delicate guitar in the background during the intro to Steely Dan’s song Peg (which is beautifully recorded). It was more prominent on the Dock E30, even though overall I felt that the Sony had more clarity.

Pondering Orbitsound’s claim of a true stereo image wherever you sit, I pulled out a handy test track, Paul Simon’s Cars. In the middle of the track there is a little stereo effect. “You can drive them on the left” comes out of the left speaker, then “you can drive them on the right” from the right. Then Simon resumes singing in a central position.

I have to say, the Dock E30 made a complete mess of this effect. Bizarrely, the “on the right” vocal projected to the left of the image. On the Sony, everything was as it should be, so no, I had not got the channels reversed anywhere. Bear in mind that the Dock E30 only has one front-facing speaker; the other drive front-facing driver is a passive bass radiator.

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Audio processing: pros and cons

In the end this is all about processing. Orbitsound is trying to get a sense of room-filling stereo from a small box. It does this by munging the stereo signal into a mono part on the main speaker, supplemented by two spatial effects speakers that fire outwards from the left and right ends of the Dock E30, using some kind of algorithm that is not really designed to give you a true stereo image, but rather to create an illusion of depth.

This I believe explains why I found the sound perplexing at times. Some details might be brought out more prominently, others not.

You can adjust the Airsound effect by holding down mute for three seconds on the remote, then spinning the volume dial. If you adjust it for minimum Airsound, you get something close to mono. This is not a bad thing; I love my mono Squeezebox Radio. If you adjust for maximum Airsound, the sound become echoey and phasey, something which is not to my taste but might be an effect you enjoy.

Setting Airsound to minimum is close, but I would like to see an option to disable it completely and simply have mono, though that would be rather a waste of three speakers.

Don’t worry, just listen?

Listening to the stereo effects in Cars is an edge case. I found the Dock E30 enjoyable to listen to with music from classical to jazz to pop and rock. It has good bass extension, which can be excessive at times, but is easily controlled using the tone controls on the remote. Most people are not going to worry about the processing and can just listen.

Personally though I am more purist. I favour a less processed sound and prefer the clean, honest clarity of a system like the Sony XRS X9.

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A good buy?

Leaving aside the Airsound debate, the Dock E30 offers good sound quality with exceptional bass for its size.

The design is subjective of course, but while it is not objectionable, there are better-looking speaker systems in my opinion. The groove on top may trap dust, and the controls on the front are not beautiful.

On the other hand, I am very happy with the flexibility of the unit. It has a generous range of inputs, both wired and wireless. The remote with its tone controls and mute button is excellent.

The ability to charge your phone is a nice bonus.

Unfortunately I am not convinced by Airsound or that this is the best use of three speaker drivers; but at the same time it is good to see some innovative thinking. I recommend that you audition before purchase.

Specifications

Frequency response: 70Hz-17.5kHz +/- 3dB

Tone controls: Bass and treble, +/- 8dB

Drivers: 3 x 48mm neodymium drivers, 3 x 90x60mm passive bass radiators

Optional subwoofer

Removable magnetic grille

Remote

Dimensions: 291x150z114mm

Weight: 4kg

Colour: Black, Bamboo or White

What is Azure Sphere?

Microsoft has announced Azure Sphere, and in a manner which I’m guessing many will find confusing.

It is obviously something to do with IoT (Internet of Things) and intended to make your IoT solutions more secure. It is obviously something to do with Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform. But what is a “crossover class of MCU”? What is an “HLOS small enough for MCUs”? Where does the “Azure Sphere OS”, which is Microsoft’s new Linux, actually run?

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Let’s start with MCU (Microcontroller Unit). The most informative description of what Azure Sphere is all about is this research paper [PDF]. The target of Azure Sphere is devices powered by microcontrollers – in other words, IoT devices that are more than just sensors and have their own processors, though with less capability than a full SoC (System on a Chip). It is obvious that such devices, if compromised, have considerable risks. A fire in your oven? A radiotherapy machine that kills rather than heals? Toys that spy on children? Not good.

Microsoft’s solution is to have those devices run on a new processor designed in partnership with MediaTek (a large Taiwanese system-on-chip manufacturer) and running the tiny Azure Sphere OS. Built-in features include hardware-based security (private keys in a hardware-protected vault), hardware-enforced compartmentalization, certificate-based authentication and failure reporting. The new processor is called Sopris in Microsoft’s paper.

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The Sopris Microprocessor

These Azure Sphere devices communicate with Microsoft’s Azure Sphere service to receive both OS and application updates, and to process failure reports.

Azure Sphere does not determine how the production data from your IoT device is handled. You can deal with this as you like, using Azure, another cloud provider, or on-premises infrastructure.

A point of interest is that the Azure Sphere OS runs Microsoft’s own customised version of Linux. Why Linux? Microsoft must have concluded that there was insufficient advantage, and more friction, in using a version of Windows (though Windows IoT Core exists). Use of Linux in Microsoft can only increase; and remember, Linux is now built into Windows.

Why Subsystem for Linux in Windows 10 and Windows Server? And what are the implications?

Microsoft is busy improving Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), the compatibility layer that lets you run Linux on Windows. WSL is not an emulator. It accesses the same file system and you can launch Windows applications from WSL, and vice versa. It also runs actual Linux binaries.

The latest announcements cover copy/paste between Linux and Windows, and a tabbed console. Both enhancements are in the skip-ahead insider version of Windows 10, which means they are unlikely to be in the one about to be released, currently known as Spring Creators Update (but rumoured to be getting a name change). In other words, you may have to wait around six months for this to be generally available.

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These are not huge changes, but overall WSL is a big deal. Why is Microsoft doing it? One Betanews commenter says:

I still can’t figure out who this whole "Linux-on-Windows" thing is meant for. Developers who work on both platforms maybe? I guess it would be handy for people who just want to try out Linux before migrating to it, but that’s the last thing Microsoft would want to promote.

Microsoft has in fact stated the primary purpose of WSL:

This is primarily a tool for developers — especially web developers and those who work on or with open source projects. This allows those who want/need to use Bash, common Linux tools (sed, awk, etc.) and many Linux-first tools (Ruby, Python, etc.) to use their toolchain on Windows.

There is a bit more to it. Developers are small in number relative to general users, but disproportionately influential, since they make the applications the rest of us run, and if the applications are not there or are inferior, the ecosystem starts to fail and the operating system declines.

I am not sure when it was that developers started to prefer Macs, but I noticed this trend many years ago, perhaps from the time that OS X moved to x86 (2006). This was not just about preferring the Mac user interface. In 2008 Apple opened up iOS, its mobile OS, to third-party applications, and a Mac was required for iOS development (this is still the case). It has long been relatively easy to run a Windows emulator on a Mac, but not vice versa, so for developers who want to support multiple target platforms from one computer, the Mac makes sense.

OS X / macOS is a Unix-like operating system, based on BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution). This means that moving between Linux and Mac is relatively smooth, from a developer perspective. The same tools are generally available. The internet runs mostly on Linux so the Mac has an advantage there as well.

In some cases this is more than just inconvenience. Windows has a long-standing issue with path lengths. MAX_PATH is defined as 260 characters. This limitation can be mostly removed if you have Windows 10 build 1607 or higher. Nevertheless, path issues have made Windows awkward for developing with Java, Node.js, and other languages or frameworks which typically use deeply nested directories. Open source developers perhaps did not care as much about these issues because they were mostly using Mac or Linux.

Microsoft has responded by improving Windows as a platform on which to develop applications. Visual Studio now targets Mac, iOS and Android as well as Windows. MAX_PATH has been alleviated as far as possible. WSL however goes much further. You can install and run Linux development tools and utilities such as gcc, perl, sed, awk, grep, wget, openssl, perl and more. There is no MAX_PATH issue. You can run the Linux build of Apache, PHP, MySQL and more. I used WSL to debug a PHP application and explained how here.

WSL is not perfect. Not everything is implemented. You can check the current issues here. Still, it is genuinely useful and mitigates the advantages of Mac or Linux for developers.

Microsoft has also added WSL to Windows Server. Why? The main focus here seems to be on administrators. There are times when it is handy to run a Linux command or script on Windows Server. It is not intended for production use as a server, though there is now support for background tasks; however it is still per-session so you would need to keep a user logged on in order to run, for example, a web server. More important, Microsoft has not designed WSL for production use as a server platform so it might not be as optimized or reliable as you require.

Implications of WSL

Where is this going? This is where it gets speculative. I will argue though that WSL is in part an admission of defeat. Windows remains an important development platform, but is now greatly outweighed by Unix-like platforms:

  • Web/Internet applications
  • iOS applications
  • Android applications

Where Windows support is needed, developers have many cross-platform options to choose from, a popular choice today being Electron, based on Chromium (the open source foundation of Google Chrome) and Node.js.

Today there seems little chance of Windows winning back market share as a mobile operating system, and the importance of desktop applications looks destined for long slow decline.

Windows Server remains a significant application platform, but Microsoft is focused more on driving developers to Azure cloud services than on Windows Server itself. SQL Server now runs on Linux, ASP.NET Core is cross-platform, and Azure has excellent support for Linux.

All of this leads me to think that WSL will continue to improve, perhaps to the point where production loads are supported on Windows Server, for example. Further, the ability to run Windows applications on Linux (which is more or less what happens in SQL Server for Linux) may become equally as important as the reverse.

Sandy Denny: 5 Classic Albums

These last days of the CD have delivered some amazing bargains for those who still like CDs – and I count myself as one, even if they are more often played through a music server than in an actual CD player.

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One such is the 5 Classic Albums collection of Sandy Denny (6 January 1947 – 21 April 1978), a singer with an amazing voice who was a member of the band Fairport Convention in the sixties.

In 1969 Denny left Fairport to form her own short-lived band, Fotheringay. After just one album, the band folded and Denny embarked on a solo career.

This set covers those solo years, during which she released four albums. The fifth album is a recording of her last concert, released in 1998.

The North Star Grassman and the Ravens (1971) opens with Late November, a song originally written for Fotheringay. It’s a fine album, firmly in the folk tradition but also highly individual, almost jazz-like at times with its interesting rhythms and tonalities. The band includes the amazing Richard Thompson (also ex-Fairport) on guitar and several other instruments.

Sandy (1972) is perhaps her most celebrated album. The haunting It’s take a long time, The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood, which starts a cappella, the gorgeous Listen Listen, and more.

Like an old fashioned Waltz (1974) is a more lush album thanks to strings, brass and piano accompaniments and would be better without them, though it is still very enjoyable. The opening song Solo is great and features the immortal words “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune”.

Rendezvous (1977) is again over-produced and poignant to hear now, knowing it was her last album. It opens with Richard Thompson’s I Wish I Was a Fool For You (For Shame of Doing Wrong) which almost sounds like a rock song, as Denny seeks a new audience. The cover of Candle in the Wind is not Denny’s finest hour but still seems prophetic: “your candle burned out long before your legend ever did”. Her voice is huskier thanks to smoking but she remains a strong singer.  I’m a Dreamer is a lovely song, as is the closing number, No More Sad Refrains.

Gold Dust (Live at the Royalty) (1998) is Denny’s last concert and well worth hearing. The concert was recorded and always intended for release as a live album, but there were some problems with the tapes, and some guitar and backing vocals were overdubbed for the eventual production in 1998. The song Solo is a highlight.

Overall, although it is wrong to describe all these albums as “classic”, what you do get is immersion into the music of a very fine singer and songwriter. Recommended.

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A Windows 10 annoyance: controlling autoplay

I installed Cyberlink PowerDVD on a new  Windows 10 PC (Fall Creators Update) and was annoyed to find that it opened whenever I put a CD into the computer drive.

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PowerDVD is a good DVD and Blu-Ray player though the company’s products are among the most annoying in terms of pressing you to upgrade or buy additional products. I was not surprised that it had grabbed an autoplay association even though I did not recall getting any options on installation. Windows 10 is meant to give the user more control in this respect.

I typed AutoPlay into the Start menu and up came the Windows 10 settings. Autoplay is on, but there is no setting for CDs.

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This dialog also has a link for Default App Settings so I clicked that.

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No setting for CDs here, though there is a default music player, and it is not PowerDVD. I clicked the link in this dialog for Set defaults by app and selected PowerDVD. Perhaps this would show me what it has hooked into.

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So apparently Power Media Player has grabbed the file association for files ending dot (no further extension) but it did not show how it was picking up CD autoplay. In fact, .CDA files are set to VLC. Further, if you don’t like an association here, you can’t easily change it. I clicked the dot link and got this:

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No, there is no option for “Do nothing”; and if you have ever clicked that “Look for an app in the Store” thing, you will know how unrewarding it is.

Hmm, I wonder if the old Control Panel can help? I opened Control Panel and typed Autoplay:

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So there it is. A nice logical dialog, and I dropped down the list for Audio CD and Enhanced Audio CD and selected Take no action.

I’ve posted this for two reasons. First, in case anyone else struggles to find this setting. And second, because it shows how far Microsoft has to go before Windows 10 settings are coherent and logical for users.