Grammys

I didn’t watch ’em, but was gratified to read the piece in Newsweek about the general growing consensus that A) the quality of available music (especially pop music) is at an all-time low, and B) the music industry is getting kicked on its ass. I’ve been moaning about #A for a very long time and it’s nice to see a pub like Newsweek come out and say it rather than pretending. I’d like to think that if lots of money is siphoned out of the music industry, it can only have a positive effect (music may become a meritocracy again, or at least something resembling it … people voting with their downloads rather than gagging on the spoon-fed banana brulee’).

And to have all these judges give awards to the O Brother soundtrack … was just too sweet for words. I had long since given up hope that the Grammys would ever reward talent again.

Poetic justice on me that Engelbert Humperdinck should be rolling through the itunes queue as I write this ;)

Los Platanos Machos Quattros

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been practicing guitar and playing a couple of times a week with a group of friends, preparing a song for our friend Roger’s surprise 40th birthday party. The party was last night and totally rocked. Amazing food, big circle of good friends, hooch to spare…

We played the song for him around halfway through the evening and he was floored (the intended effect). Amy got the whole thing on tape and I put up a low-fi version on the infernal interweb.

What a great evening. No matter how hard it is to find a place to live in the Bay Area, it would be almost impossible for us to leave our friends here. Just wish Will and Sage lived out here rather than NY.

Jackson Five

Christmas shopping with Amy yesterday.

She: “Why don’t we get a Jackson Five record?”

Me: “Yeah, why the hell not?”

It was such a good call. We both grew up with all those original J5 songs on the car radio. I had forgotten just how good this stuff is. Great wake up music. Great pop songs.

I feel so sorry for Michael Jackson, to have done all his best work before the age of 10.

Skronk

Last week I mentioned that I had just been turned on to Betty Davis, ex-wife of Miles Davis. Betty did a couple records of this incredible skronk/funk/badass deep soul that almost no one has ever heard. Doesn’t really fall on the jazz side, though one can imagine it going really well with some of Mile’s early 70s stuff (On the Corner, Agharta, etc.) Apparently Miles and Betty actually did do a recording together at some point, but Miles destroyed it in a fit of rage after one of their frequent arguments.

Anyway, I promised to put some up for folks to get a taste. I normally don’t do the MP3 trading thing, but in this case it’s rare stuff that people aren’t likely to go out and hear on their own, and it’s just a couple of tracks… so I’ll leave this up for a few days. An exception to the rule.

Betty Davis on birdhouse

“He was a BIG freak!”

Tramp

Amy has this old boyfriend, David, who has spent the last decade riding the rails and sleeping under bridges with hobos and tramps. He travels with a MiniDV camera and has shot 200 hours of footage of tramps in their natural habitat. He has spent enough time with them that he’s gained their trust and they’ve come to not even notice the camera, and are completely comfortable around him. The footage he has is amazing. He’s now in the process of editing this footage into a documentary called “Long Gone,” and has 15 indie film companies interested in the project. Tom Waits has given them the rights to use a bunch of unpublished train-related songs. Fantastic project. David passed through town yesterday and spent the day and night with us. Heard so many great stories… such a rich subject to work on. And so few film makers would have the kind of dedication and willingness to completely live that life that David has had. Awesome.

Went with David and Amy yesterday to SF MOMA, came home and ate pad thai and watched some of his rough cuts.

Dark Lantern

Went with to SF to an “artisan audio” a.k.a. “dark lantern” demo and lecture/get-together. This is a branch of high-end audio that has different assumptions and expectations from audio equipment. Rather than focus on benchmarks and graphs, and terms like “accuracy,” it’s all about music and musicality. The equipment they use is often different – they create low-wattage amplifiers with single-ended triode tubes, paired with highly efficient speakers, often with horn, rather than cone designs. What I didn’t expect was that most of these guys (yes, almost 100% guys) are balding (I’m one to talk ;), 40-60 year old electrical engineering dweebs. What a bunch of out-of-shape duck-footed geeks. As baald said, “This gathering is a good argument for a life-long workout routine.” Indeed. Anyway, lots of electrical schematics on chalkboards, etc., all of that stuff is outside my realm of exposure, thus over my head. But damn, some beautiful sounding equipment…



I think that part of what really appeals to me about Bjork is that she is at once so precise and so wild and unchained. I can’t think of another contemporary artist that can do both of those things at once so well, or so uniquely.

MP3 Fidelity Results

Spent a few hours last night at Mike’s house listening to the MP3 fidelity test discs I burned the other day. The discs included these tracks:

Coltrane – Resolution (the Michael Cuscuna – produced version of A Love Supreme)
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Ostinato (on RCA Living Presence)
Rob Wasserman – Angel Eyes (cello / vocal duet – superb recording)
Klip – Dyslexiana
Theresa Anderson – Summertime (my fave female vocals test and fave cover of this song)
Gerry Hemingway – Endpiece 1 (from Special Detail)
Tim Buckley – Hullucinations (from Live Dreamletter)

We did not get around to listening to all four versions of all seven pieces. The system we used was:

Audio Alchemy CD transport with DTI Pro jitter reduction
Audible Illusions Modulus 20 pre-amp (heavily modified)
Muse 100 amplifier
NHT 3.3 speakers

System value approximately $20,000

I’m still trying to figure out what we learned from all of this. First of all, I can unambiguously say that I have never heard MP3s sound this good in my life. Second, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to distinguish between 256kbps MP3 and the original source material. However, I also learned how much the mind plays tricks on you in tests like this, and hence why audio mags often avoid them. The only valid test is really to live with the material, doing what you do normally, whether that be sitting down and doing concentrated listening or playing it in the background while going about your business. In other words, if we listened to these tracks over and over again, and if we lived with them and subsumed their presence into the subconscious, we would be able to discern additional differences we didn’t notice yesterday.

I also have to say that Mike has a lifetime of intensive experience and training in audiophile listening environments, and in building hifi audio equipment. I care a lot about fidelity, but don’t have ears as well trained as his. He was able to discern more differences than I was.

Mike also pointed out some problems with the methodology of my experiment. Because each track can last 5-10 minutes, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to make meaningful comparison notes without a standard of reference. IOW, I wanted for us to try and pick out the reference track blind, while he felt it would be more meaningful to know in advance which one was the uncompressed WAV, so we could compare the other bitrates to it. His point made more sense after we listened blind for a while – your mind really does play tricks on you. For example, you might hear more air in a cymbal splash in one track, but you could be unsure whether that “air” is in the reference (a good thing) or an artifact of the encoding process (a bad thing). So in the end we did most of our listening with knowledge of which track was the WAV reference.

Neither of us had any difficulty picking out the 160kbps tracks, which was disappointing knowledge for me, as I’ve encoded tons of music at 160kbps. From here on in, I’ll use 160 only for crappy old recordings, 192kbps for average stuff, 256kbps for stuff I really love or that’s really well recorded, and 320kbps for those amazing gems that are stellar both as music and as recordings.

Mike is going even higher. His argument is that disk space is just so cheap now, there’s no point in compressing at all. Why risk it? It’s interesting because this is the same argument I made in the intro to my MP3 book – that the only reason we even talk about compression is because storage is too expensive and the internet is slow. But think about it – 40GB drives are under $100. It’s possible to fit around 60-70 albums on a 40GB drive in uncompressed WAV format. That’s about $1.50 per album in storage space. If you care enough about your music to have a system like his but you still want the flexibility of soft storage for your collection, why compress at all? Then you just build an array of 10 or so IDE drives to house your collection, which would be like spending a grand on an important new stereo component – worth it.

I counter that by saying that the difference b/w 256kbps and WAV is so incredibly subtle, and 320kbps would be virtually indistinguishable in every important way. You still get around 4x compression at 320kbps, and you have the advantage of ID3 tags. Why not take advantage of it?

I could tell there was a difference between the 256 and the WAV in the Wasserman duet/vocal, but had trouble putting my finger on the difference. Mike nailed it down, and had me focus on the spatial relationship or distance between the vocalist near the middle of the room and the cello in the rear left of the room. At 256kbps, there is a sort of “veil” that enshrouds the vocals, and ties it spatially to the cellist in the rear left. It’s subtle, but he’s right – the spatial distinction between them is just not as pronounced at 256kbps as it is with the WAV. But the fact that it had to be pointed out to me, and that I had to concentrate to find the difference even then, tells me that this is a difference I can live with, even if he feels he can’t.

However, the same effect at 160kbps is atrocious. It sounds like there’s a blanket thrown over the whole production – like you’re listening through a thin layer of gauze that sort of erases or diminishes the space between musicians. However, it requires a system better than most people own or have even heard in their lives to reveal some of these differences. On a standard Japanese consumer stereo, 160 might be adequate for most people.

My problem is that I haven’t followed my own advice. I have professed that people’s MP3 collections would eventually migrate to their home stereos, and have warned that they shouldn’t trust their computer sound systems to tell the whole story. Nevertheless, I’ve encoded almost everything at 160kbps, and now have a collection that will translate to the home stereo with less than stellar results. Hrmmm…

Jackson Pollock Was an Alcoholic

Went to see Pollock with Amy, Mike, Gina, Andrew on Solano Ave. Ed Harris did an amazing job as Pollock — his painting was totally convincing. But what a tortured life, what a severe drink head. I hadn’t realized his whole life was so dependent on the strength and will of Lee Krasner. The film did a good job of not letting us love him too much (he wasn’t particularly likeable), and it didn’t pander to an audience with little background in art, either. He was a genius. And he was an asshole. Felt good to think about something other than launching personalStudio for a while.

Death of Jazz

I’m so disappointed in the way this whole Ken Burns film ended, so dismissive of everything that happened after the 70s. True, jazz lost its direction in the 70s and no longer counted for more than a fraction of total record sales — it wasn’t driving the heart of the nation. But it took off into so many exciting realms, so much exploration, so much inspiration, and they characterized it like it just petered out into nothingness. Sun Ra never even got mentioned. It was oddly respectful, even if it was dismissive and missed the mark so widely. Ugh. Makes me depressed on two counts — that people forgot how to listen to great music, and that the most important historical document ever made on the music got its final conclusions so wrong.

I blame Wynton Marsalis, both for embodying that “worship the retro, nevermind what’s happening today” atmosphere, and for being given too much creative control over the direction this film took. It would have been so much better if it had had more voices contributing perspectives.