Archive for February, 2010

When a CD claims to be re-mastered, what does that mean? Generally speaking, mastering is the art of taking a mix and polishing it to make it sound as good as possible before release. So you would think that re-mastering implies starting that process again, maybe from a fresh mix, to restore the intended sound quality.

The truth is there is no definitive, generic definition of what re-mastering is in the context of digital CDs made from albums originally released in vinyl. To a large extent, it depends on the intentions of those responsible for the release, and what materials they have to work with.

I’ve discussed re-mastering in the context of the Beatle’s White Album, and how a spectacular re-mastering job made it sound pleasantly like the vinyl release. To me, that should be the definition of re-mastering, at least in the context of vinyl to digital conversion.

However, re-mastering can also imply making older recordings sound louder by compressing them, which also produces the adverse effect of flattening out the dynamic peaks and valleys, so that even the “quiet sections seem loud. Whether you’re aware of it, this is one of the ways in which the music industry has been dumbing down your ears over time.

Why are they doing this to our old records? Because that’s what they do to modern recordings. Dynamics used to be a significant tool that record producers would use to evoke feeling. Now, compression is used as a marketing tool to make sure that a track jumps out and grabs your attention while you’re driving 120 KPH down the motorway with the windows down, for example. The track is screaming “pay attention to me!” Problem is, most of the tracks are doing that these days, clamoring for your attention like bored and restless children in the backseat.

It’s exactly the same as when you’re watching TV, and there’s a soft, romantic part, and the man and the woman are whispering so that you can barely hear, and then the HARVEY NORMAN AD COMES ON AND IT BLOODY WELL SOUNDS LOUDER THAN THIS!!!!!! That is compression at work (and in this case, a loud, annoying announcer), and that is what modern pop is giving you on a daily basis. If you’ve been around as long as I have, you shouldn’t be surprised. 40 years ago, Pete Townshend was saying that you had to keep getting louder (i.e. upping the ante) to keep commanding people’s’ attention. Ha ha, remember when the Who were the upper extreme of loud.

If you want to prove this point to yourself, take out some CDs that you’ve had for 20 years and play them next to CDs that have come out in the last few years. I know this is a gross generalization, but in most cases the discrepancy should be obvious.

The best advice I can give you as a CD buyer is this: For a given “re-mastered” album, your best bet is to go online and see what comments or criticisms you can find from listeners, then add a few grains of salt.

Next time: Can’t they just leave the old CDs alone?

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I hate buying the same album twice. Three times is definitely too much. But that is exactly what I’ve done with the Beatles White Album.

Why would anyone do such a thing? To illuminate, let me first say that I purchased the vinyl version not long after it was released in the late 60s. As you can imagine, overuse and abuse wore down the grooves and scratched the surface, until it contained more snap, crackle and pop than a family-size cereal box.

When I finally acquired a CD player in the late 80s, I had little hesitation in replacing some of the better loved, but well worn, vinyl releases in my collection. CDs were hot items, as portable as cassettes but much better sounding. No matter how many times you played them, they would sound the same as the first time, they would last forever. There’s a topic for another day. My point is, I bought into CDs big time, and I replaced the White Album with a version that sounded fresh compared to the decrepit one I was replacing.

When the Beatles released the re-mastered versions of their albums last year, I was curious to know whether there would be a noticeable difference, and reluctant to spend any more money on the same album. But when I saw it at Tesco’s for half of what the pre-re-mastered version cost at HMV, my curiosity got the better of me.

I took it home and played it through my stereo/home recording system, which includes a Fireface 400 DA converter and a pair of Tannoy active speakers. Results may vary depending on your system, but my impression was that you would need to have damaged your hearing more than I have over the years not to appreciate the difference that re-mastering made. To me, it was as stark as the difference between 2D and 3D, leaving the older CD sounding rather flat and lifeless.

The first thing I noticed was that you can really hear, and easily distinguish the instruments, especially in the mid range. This is despite the fact that there is loads going on, and was already permanently bounced around a mere 8 tracks and mixed before the mastering came along. For example, the tinny piano that was fighting for attention in “Back in the U.S.S.R.” now has breathing space, and sounds much more natural. Each guitar part is distinct in “Dear Prudence”. On “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da”, the hand claps toward the beginning of the song nearly took my head off, not because they were over loud (which they weren’t) but because they were so clear and sharp. Each track brought similar revelations, and I felt like I was listening to the album for the first time.

The second thing I noticed was how the album felt. What I mean is, there is a certain “ahhh” factor of smooth richness that analog (vinyl) recordings had naturally and digital (CD) does not, although there now seems to be the technology and experience to make the latter sound very much like the former. The re-mastered White Album puts the “Ahhh” back in the album. After all these years, Apple has finally released a digital version that sounds as good as the original. Maybe better, since I don’t recall the bass coming out quite that prominently in Helter Skelter, for example.

Verdict: If you’re wondering whether it’s worth upgrading to the re-mastered version, the answer is an emphatic yes. My ears are impressed, my wallet is not.

The downside of this exercise is that it has alerted my ears to the fact that I now own a great number of substandard sounding albums that need to be replaced…again, only this time in the same, if updated, format. The Beatles are only the latest in a long line of artists who have released re-mastered versions of their old vinyl albums on CD, a good few years after they were originally released on CD. I think I’ll be looking into the history of the vinyl to CD transition in the near future to try and understand how this happened.

Those of you who mostly listen to downloaded tracks are probably wondering why you should care about an old workhorse such as CD. Aren’t these being phased out someday soon? Hopefully not, because compared to most commercially available MP3 or MP4 files, CD is the new vinyl. That is, sonically superior. And there is no technical reason why this should be true. In fact, there are some web sites providing a much better download alternative to more popular and successful sites, and that is another topic I’ll get to soon. But for now, if you want a wide selection of good quality recordings, you’re better off with CDs than downloads.

€9.99 is usually a bit more than I like to pay for my bargain bin CDs, but having just moved office to the financial district, and after spending several zen-like hours waiting for the tech crowd to fix the network and my broken computer, I found myself riding the Eason’s escalator to the top floor, which is mostly taken up by one of the branches of Tower records and, among other things has the best selection of jazz that I’m aware of in this country (but more of that elsewhere). Once there, of course I had to buy something.

I’ve never considered myself a Dead Head. I probably saw them half a dozen times from the early to late 70s, mainly because that was what everybody else was doing that night. I liked them well enough, but I wasn’t really into the band the way some people were and I know I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have at the time. I’m not sure, but that may make me a bit unusual considering the time and place. The Dead seemed to be a band that you either loved or knew about in name only. Even at the peak of their commercial popularity in the mid 70s, when “Terrapin Station” and “Shakedown Street” were released (some of you may recall this as the “Disco Dead” era), the outsiders who went to see them didn’t really appreciate what they had signed on for. For example, The Grateful Dead were famous for their all-night music marathons that required no support act. Yet one morning after, I heard tell of a young woman who walked out of the concert when the support band came on to do a second set!

Their name probably did them no favors in attracting the uninitiated. Even now I meet people who think that The Grateful Dead must have been a heavy metal band or, more likely, some psychedelic, acid-ridden collective. Indeed, they did like to run to excess in that 60s sort of experimental way with extended solos, odd chord and time changes, and 20 minute two-man drum solos against guitar feedback. One listen to their 1969 album “Live Dead” (get it?) proves that.

But at their core, the Grateful Dead were really a band in the style of what has lately become known as Americana; electric country/rock/folk music (emphasis with this album on the country rock) that almost never fit comfortably on top 40 radio. Even to someone like me who, at that time, was more interested in a well-produced mainstream pop or rock tune, they had songs that stuck in the brain. Besides the album’s legendary status, it was on the strength of three such songs that I purchased this CD; the acoustic, country-picking, happy-go-lucky “Friend of the Devil”, the upbeat, easy-going “Sugar Magnolia”, and the boogie-shuffle road trip “Truckin”, arguably their biggest “hit”. If you’re not familiar with any of these tracks then you might want to consider plugging the gap in your musical knowledge base.

The surprise for me on listening to the entire CD was that all the songs stand up to those classic tracks. “American Beauty” is proably the most accessible album the Dead ever released, and perhaps their best. (For my money, “Workingman’s Dead” runs a close second, and “Terrapin Station” is also a strong contender.) You can rack this album comfortably between the The Eagles and The Band. If it’s not as polished as the former then it’s certainly smoother than the latter. It’s no fluke that “American Beauty” was featured on an episode of VH-1’s Classic Albums.

The band is loose and in top form here with their three lead singers; Gerry Garcia, Bob Weir, lead and rhythm guitarists respectively, and keyboardist Pigpen (Ron Mckernan) all taking their turns at singing and songwriting. They are aided lyrically (as usual) by Robert Hunter. The arrangements sound deceptively spontaneous yet obviously well rehearsed. The harmonies will set your spine a-tingling. Phil Lesh shows why he’s held in such high regard as a bass guitarist.

I probably sound like some old 60s geezer reminiscing about the past, but it might interest you to know that I’ve met any number of people young enough to be my children who are more familiar with this band than I am. It’s time for you to dispense with your preconceptions and buy this album. Now!

It was 1969 when a band called Chicago Transit Authority hung out their wood shingle via the cover artwork for their first album. I was 14 at the time and up until then, for me anyway, “good” pop music mainly consisted of guitar-based bands with a bit of keyboards thrown in – the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash. And of course, all that was great but this was something completely different.

It was pop music by virtue of the fact that there were no fewer than four songs from this double album that were in regular radio rotation. It was also serious Music with a capital ‘M’, and not in the arty-farty sense, like some of the technically astute but soulless jazz-rock outfits of the era. Although CTA could arguably be labelled jazz/rock/blues fusion, it built on the best elements of all those traditions in a way that made their work sound authentic, not compromised as happened with so many other attempts at fusion. Chicago gave the impression that they could play whatever they wanted, and play it well.

Without being told, we knew that these guys were trained musicians, that their music was arranged in the classic sense of the word, and that those arrangements were “composed” and played from charts onto which the lads had placed all those dots on staffs themselves. Songs had definite beginnings, middles and ends, often changing mood, direction and time signature while working their way from start to finish. Until then it was convenient to be able to read music. Chicago made it cool. This was music you could take home and play for your parents. What’s that dad? Yeah, I guess the guitar is a little loud. But mom, the horns are supposed to sound a little dissonant there. It doesn’t sound “off”, it’s in 5/4! Yes! I know that’s a recording of demonstrators chanting at the 1968 National Democratic Convention in Chicago! Oh…nevermind!!!

CTA was a septet with a three-piece horn section: Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on woodwinds. In Terry Kath they had a guitarist who could hold his own with the better known guitar heroes of the day. Producer James William Guercio went so far as to claim that Hendrix “idolized” Kath. At this time the band featured two lead singers with distinct musical personalities, a fact that contributed greatly to their versatility. Robert Lamm (keyboards) lent his clear vocal tones to the songs, most of which he wrote at the time, while Kath handled the raw, gritty, blues and rock material (It was on subsequent albums that bass guitarist Peter Cetera started to take the lead vocal spot). Holding it together rhythmically was drummer Danny Seraphine. Yet Chicago wasn’t so much a band of talented individuals as much as it was a singular working collective with a unified face.

The first track on the album, simply entitled “Introduction” serves as a microcosm of everything that comes after. It begins as full tilt R&B with a classic horn riff leading into Terry Kath’s raw vocal welcoming you to the band while admitting that they’re “just a little nervous”, the track suddenly changes time signature, twice, to let the horns jazz it up a bit, downshifts into a slow groove with another time change and a melodic trumpet solo, builds back towards the beginning to give Kath a turn at some aggressive guitar work then, after a brief horn section interlude, comes full circle to the third verse – all in 6:35.

Then Robert Lamm takes over for three hits in a row. “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” was their first big hit despite the fact that it begins with free form solo piano that leads smoothly into a 4/4, 5/4 intro before bopping along melodically to an existential lyric. This is followed by “Beginnings”, a moderate-tempo love song that has the legs to go for nearly 8 minutes. Of course, this was 1969, so if you wanted to hear more than the three minute radio edit of either of these songs you just had to buy the album. After that comes “Questions 67 and 68”, a classical-tinged love song despite its somewhat unique title, and at 3:21 the shortest track on the album.

A fourth single release comes in the album’s second half on what, with the vinyl release, I came to think of as the Terry Kath side. It’s a blistering rendition of “I’m a Man” that, for me, outdoes the original by The Spencer Davis group to become the definitive version of the song.

The only bum track here is “Free Form Guitar”, where Terry Kath plays exactly what it says on the label (hey, even The Beatles’ White Album had Revolution #9). But the consistent quality of the rest of the album makes up for this blemish, and on CD it’s easy to skip over.

For a brief time through the early 70s Chicago took their auspicious beginning and kept running from strength to strength, releasing two more double albums (“Chicago II” and “Chicago III”) that increased their critical standing while broadening their musical range. For example, Chicago II contains “Colour My World”, arguably the most snogtastic slow dance number of the 70s, and also “25 or 6 To 4″, featuring Lamm’s indecipherable, psychedelic lyrics along with wall-to-wall jet-fuelled guitar mayhem from Kath having more creative ideas in one song than most guitar bands do on an entire album. Then they did it all again, Live at Carnegie Hall, for what was released as a four record set entitled…”Chicago IV” (what else?).

I lost interest in the band when “Chicago V” was released. They were as good as they ever were but I was disappointed with the album for two reasons, which in retrospect are quite daft. (Give me a break. I was in high school.)

  1. After three double albums and one quadruple album, they downsized by releasing their first single album. This gave me the false impression that they were running out of gas. Never mind that it was their 11th piece of vinyl in four years.
  2. “Saturday In The Park” – their most sugar-coated pop single at that time (and certainly not their last!). If releasing a single album lowered expectations regarding the quantity of their output, this track lowered them regarding street cred. Compared to what they had done up until then, it was Chicago-lite, pure pop with little or no sense of adventure. Of course, the rest of the album was full of great sounds, but this is the song that was played over and over again on the radio, thereby giving a lopsided impression about the entertainment commodity that Chicago seemed to be turning into. Yet one more example of why radio can’t be trusted.

Although it might not be so apparent on this side of the Atlantic, Chicago is still going strong with original members Lamm, Loughnane, Pankow and Parazaider. They released “Chicago XXX” in March 2006. Terry Kath was a member until he died as the result of an accidental gunshot wound, shortly after Chicago XI was released. Cetera left after “Chicago XVII” to pursue a successful solo career. Seraphine left after “Chicago XIX” and now runs a production company called Street Sense.

Last night I did something in a secondary school (US translation – High School) that I haven’t done for over 35 years, and is surely illegal, unless you’re with the Principal, the head of the PTA, and, most importantly, the Juvenile Liaison Officer (JLO) from the area Garda Station (US – Police station), which I was.

A drug awareness evening was held at the school last night. Between us, Trish and I have three teenage sons in the school, and a daughter due to start next year. Statistically speaking, we thought it imperative that one of us make the effort. Trish stayed home with Ryan and I went over to the school.

If I’m being generous, there were parents representing as much as 5% of the student population. So it was an average turn out. I’m sure some parents think they already know it all. To some degree, I was tempted to stay home too. And as it turns out not much that much has changed since I was in high school at the turn of the 70s, except inflation of course. Still, it’s always good to keep up with current events, as any hypothetical, direct knowledge I might have allegedly ever had belonged to a time and place far, far away.

I took a seat on the aisle in the second row, and a few moments later the local JLO began. He was a genial sort of character who looked more like he belonged behind the bar of a country pub or on a farm than in a Garda station. He was a talker, and he began to try to cram what was probably a three and a half hour session into one hour, at the request of the principal who probably did not want to overtax, and lose, what little audience he had. In fact, they split the time difference to somewhere in the middle.

The JLO began the night with a couple of anecdotes and scare stories, then proceeded to run through a list of controlled substances. He had a sample of each substance to display while he spoke. Then, when he finished that topic, he allowed the sample to be passed through the crowd for closer observation. Because he was racing through the presentation, he quickly got to a point where the substance he was discussing was four or five topics ahead of the sample being passed to me. So there were a number of samples being passed around the auditorium at any one time, while people were also trying to focus on the speaker. Bags began arriving like busses. You wouldn’t see anything for three topics then four samples would come by at once.

This might sound a bit haphazard, but the JLO seemed to know exactly where everything was at any given time while he spoke. He’s been doing this for a long time, and he knows full well what and how much of it should be coming back to him at the end of the night. No one was going home with free samples. Anyway, everything was much sealed in plastic bags, except for a small, tin box that actually contained the same cannabis content, loose and rolled, that it did when the JLO took it from some young man outside of the Ambassador in Dublin. But even with this item, everyone was on good behaviour. By the end of the discussion, everything is back on the table next to him.

Then, the JLO looks to the principal. “Will I light this up?” he asks. The principal nods. He is sitting directly in front of me, so I can’t see whether he’s smiling. The `this’ in question is an ashtray containing three or four sizable chunks of hash. The JLO’s plan (remember, he’s done this many times before) is to light the hash so that we can all become familiar with how it smells. That way, we will recognize it if we notice an unusual odor coming from one of our children.

This is surreal. The JLO hands the ashtray to four middle-aged women sitting in the front row, one of whom produces a lighter. Apparently, it isn’t easy to light four big chunks of hash in an ashtray, and the result is a bit disappointing – barely a whiff of smoke before it fizzles out.

The ladies pass the ashtray to the right along the front row, in my general direction. These people are having even worse luck. So, the head of the PTA, who may or may not have known what he was doing, grabs the largest chunk, and holds it over his lighter for at least 20-30 seconds, as though he is trying to light a charcoal briquette for a barbeque. Finally, half the outer edge is turning red, seemingly about to erupt in flame, and a small, steady stream of smoke is rising. This sucker ain’t going out this time! He hands it to the woman in front of me. It’s been a long time, but I begin to detect an unmistakable scent. The woman in front takes a quick sniff and passes the hash back to me. At that very moment the last of the red embers die and another cloud of smoke erupts from the hash, right in my face, not unlike it might from a bong (so I have heard), so I pull my head back and pass it along.

And then it’s over, and I’m more interested in how many messages I might have in my pocket from Trish, who wasn’t expecting this meeting to go on more than an hour. I certainly don’t notice any after effect. I mean, it’s not like we were smoking it.

The evening wraps up shortly after that, and I go home. I walk into the living room and start animatedly describing the evening, gesticulating for emphasis. Trish takes one look at me and says, “You look like Montgomery Burns after the injections. `I come in peeeeeacee’.” I’m not sure whether she’s more disappointed that she missed it or more irritated that they sent me home in this condition. She wants to ring the school and complain, but I assure her that the JLO promised another demonstration next term. I’ll bet there will be more parents for that one.

Nobody strangles a Les Paul like Neil Young. I mean that in a good way. It’s tempting to say that this is the sole raison d’etre for his 1990 album “Ragged Glory”, because it’s what you take away from a first listening. Almost every song on this album is a vehicle for guitar playing that sounds like it’s wrenched from the depths of the soul with the Bigsby tremolo bar working overtime and a sustained feedback coda more often than not. And there’s no more suitable band to aid and abet him in this than Crazy Horse bashing away behind. Though firmly rooted in that fringe country/rock landscape where he dwells, this album is a prime example of why Mr. Young became known as the grandfather…er, godfather of grunge in the 90s.

It’s getting hard to remember if there even was a time when old Mr. Young didn’t sound like a crusty geezer with a heart of gold. True to form, the lyrics here are direct and pragmatic. There are no “hits” and there are times when several minutes elapse before the next verse comes along, but most of them are worth waiting for. Throughout the album we get observations about break ups, friends selling out, driving down the road alone and why does he keep f-!#in’ up. We also get love, hope, revelation and the sense that there are still some things that make life worth living, even pleasurable.

For example the first track, “Country Home”, which might have sounded like a benignly pleasant country ditty in someone else’s band, attests to how he’s not too put out by other environments but is happier living on the outskirts, thank you very much. “Love to Burn”, clocking in with two verses at ten minutes flat, captures painful details of marital dissolution and how if we want love we need to find it within ourselves. Overall it’s a hard-edged, life-affirming journey; rough magic for people of a certain age who may still like to play a bit of air guitar when no one is looking.

Those who are of the opinion that Neil Young is better represented by his more acoustic, Harvest/Moon side need not enter here. But if, like me, you also like him loud and live (though in the studio this time) this is the album for you.

True Stories From The Big Smoke #1

Posted: February 16, 2010 in Humour
Tags: , , , ,

On the Luas coming out of town one afternoon, as we approached the Blackhorse stop the driver made the following announcement: Ladies & Gents there are two plain clothes ticket inspectors getting on at this stop so could you please have your tickets at hand for convenience thank you.

When we pulled up to the stop two people got on and about 50 got off and stood on the platform, clearly waiting on the next train.

When we pulled away the driver got back on the intercom, laughing, and said: I was only joking, there’s no such thing as a plain clothes ticket inspector, I just wanted to see how many people got on without paying!!