Archive for May, 2010

For years now, I’ve been happy to rip all my CDs to MP3 at 320 Kbps using the CDex digital audio extractor, which is open source software and does an excellent job. Many people (i.e. not audiophiles) consider MP3 320 Kbps “CD quality”. It isn’t CD quality, but it’s generally good enough. I rip the CDs so I can put them in iTunes and copy them to my iPod, of course, and I use MP3 compression because it allows me to store about four tracks in the space that it would take me to store one WAV (CD) track.

I’ve recently realized that this one-size-fits-all approach isn’t always the best choice.

I purchased Animal Collective’s most recent album, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” through iTunes. I rarely purchase through iTunes because I’d rather buy the CD and rip my own. However, it was late, the shops were closed, I had a craving for some new music, and after a solid recommendation from All Songs Considered I decided I couldn’t wait.

Lossy Compression

iTunes supplies their music in 256 Kbps m4A file, which many say is on a par with a 320 Kbps MP3 file. Lossy compression is used to convert WAV files to each of these file types, which means information is lost during the conversion process, but at these high bit rates the theory is that most people’s ears won’t notice the difference.

The few iTunes albums I purchased previously sound decent enough. On this occasion I wasn’t satisfied. There was a dense, muddy quality to the recording, and I found the album increasingly unpleasant to listen to with each play.

To be fair, when I wrote to iTunes regarding my issues with “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, they replied with a letter saying that they take the quality of their music very seriously. They also gave me a full refund, even though I didn’t ask them to do that.

Wondering what this album really sounded like, I went off to HMV, where I was lucky to find it in the “2 for €12” rack. As usual, I ripped it to the aforementioned MP3 320 Kbps format…and it still sounded like crap! Hmmm, could it be that my ears were waking up from the induced coma caused by years of listening to compressed music, or was there something else going on here?

“Merriweather Post Pavilion” is a great and unusual album pop album. It sounds a bit like what might really have been going on in Brian Wilson’s head the first time he tried to record “Smile” with the Beach Boys – Lush harmonies and clever melodies overlaid with electronic loops, bleeps, synthesized arpegiators, and other subterfuge, This might not sound very appealing on paper, but it all makes sense when you hear the album. Consequently, it is chock full of sound, which means it is loaded with digital information.

Trying to put this simply, this type of compression works by removing information that isn’t being used, and by making compromises with information that is being used. The less information there is, the happier you are going to be with the results. The more information there is, the more compromises there are. Generally speaking, the differences between WAV and MP3 320 Kbps aren’t glaringly obvious. For example, you might notice a little less sizzle in a cymbal, or the guitars might not be as smooth as when they were captured. However, when there is an above average amount of information, as there is with “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, the compromises can be overwhelming, and MP3 simply isn’t good enough.

The obvious alternative might be to copy the Wav files into iTunes. That is, the files as they exist on the CD (which, by the way, was as sonically pleasing as I hoped when I finally listened to it in this format). In such a case there is no conversion, therefore there is no compression. iTunes and iPods play WAV files, although they do require more processing power, so they’ll run down the battery faster. There are also two other issues with WAV files:

  • Storage space overhead (1 WAV album = about 4 MP3 320 KPs albums).
  • Tagging is not supported (i.e.album information and artwork).

Apple Lossless Compression

Up until now I hadn’t tried any of the so called “lossless” compression formats, which provide some compression but render a file that can be converted back to a WAV file without losing any of the information. You can’t do that with an MP3 file. Also, a lossless file should sound more authentic because you’re retaining significantly more of the information.

In this case, I used the Apple lossless encoder, which I had seen referred to in the discussion boards. Even though I’ve used iTunes for years, I wasn’t aware I had this capability, or what it was, or where it was. It’s well hidden in the preferences (at least to me), and the help file is not particularly illuminating. To set iTunes to rip CDs using the lossless encoder:

  1. Select EditPreferences.
  2. On the General tab click the Import Settings button.
  3. Select Apple Lossless Encoder from the Import Using dropdown list.

“Merriweather Post Pavilion” sounded much better in the Apple Lossless format, but it still wasn’t right. There was obvious coloration so that the overall sound was “darker” and still somewhat compressed. In addition, the expected 40%-50% file size reduction from WAV looked to me more like 30% – definitely not worth it for an inferior version. I should point out that this is the only album I have converted to this format. I suspect that the encoder produces better results with most other albums.

AIFF files

At this point I decided to give up on compression for “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, but I wasn’t satisfied with using WAV files without tagging capability. Tagging is what allows you to include information like artist, album, album cover, genre, etc. When you’ve got ten thousand plus tunes on your box, you want to be able to sort them for easy access. However, there is a format that allows you to have the uncompressed music file with tagging – AIFF.

Even though you may never have heard of them, AIFF files have been around long enough to have wide support. In a nutshell, they place the WAV file information in a new container that can be tagged just like compressed audio formats, although placing that information in the file can require more manual labor than when ripping MP3s, depending on how your software is set up.

What did I learn?

Since having this experience I’ve started ripping new CDs to MP3 and AIFF. Most albums, even my Beatle’s remasters, aren’t as dense and complex as “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, so differences between MP3 320 kbps and AIFF files are far less noticeable, although there is no denying they are there.

MP3 320 Kbps is fine for the road 99% of the time. When you have an album like “Merriweather Post Pavilion”, you’re far better off using the extra space to have a version on your iPod you can stand to listen to. That’s easy for me to say, with a 160GB iPod Classic. But it is worth doing this for the few times it will be necessary.

When at home, why wouldn’t you want to hear the best version of the recording? Sure, this requires more storage space, but hard disk costs have been continually dropping for years. For example, I can now buy a 1 TB external hard drive for half of what it cost for a 300GB hard drive four years ago. There is also something to be said for having a back up copy of your CDs in the event they are lost or damaged.

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Sadly, another good thing comes to an end. Or should I say two, because as much as I will miss the program that spawned this enjoyable nonsense, I will equally miss listening to The Official Lost Audio Podcast to hear what hints, subterfuge and downright silliness would be improvised by writers/executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, AKA Darlton.

In the six seasons since “Lost” began, Damon (the one not wearing trousers) and Carlton (the one with the banjo) have put aside time between intensive writing, producing and editing to produce just slightly fewer podcast episodes per season than there were episodes of the show, each running about 20 – 30 minutes.

Ostensibly, each podcast supported the upcoming episode, which Darlton would “pre-hash” after rehashing the previous one. After dispensing with those topics in a few minutes, the remainder of the time was spent answering viewer’s questions. Or, to be more accurate, not answering them at great length, at least not in a way that would leave you feeling any more informed about the main issues than you were before you played the podcast, although you might have enough of a hint to form a theory that may or may not have any foundation in Lost canon. The closer viewers came to asking a real question (e.g. Who is the man in black? What is the smoke monster? Will Kate end up with Sawyer or Jack?), the more subterfuge was delivered, and the most you could hope for was something along the lines of “That is a good question”, which was an implied wink, maybe.

Viewers soon found it more rewarding to ask questions of less import. Each question provided the lads with a subject to riff on, which was the real raison d’etre of the podcast. Why doesn’t Sawyer know who Anakin Skywalker is? – Answer: He did not want to ruin his “StarWars” experience by watching the prequels. Questions were answered that no one asked. For example, did you know that the name of the shark with the Dharma tattoo is James Ezra Sharkington? Or how to play the Politburo game, by looking at a photograph of Russian politicians to see how far away they are standing from the premier, and then determining who would be executed next. (Damon: In our house we played Monopoly). Questions that Darlton assumed the program had already answered were also fair game. One viewer’s season five question about where the polar bears came from was answered by pointing out that Sawyer and Kate were imprisoned in bear cages in season three. Who brought the bears? Dharma brought the bears. Enough about the bears already.

As serious as these guys were about creating a unique television experience, they seemed to be just as eager to have some laughs at its expense. No one appreciated more that season’s two and three were bulked out with filler, the unavoidable cost of having a hit show in the states. The writers had a beginning, middle and end. What they didn’t have was a timetable, but they did have an undefined number of seasons to fill at 20+ episodes a season, an issue that was only resolved during contract renegotiations at the end of season 3. Darlton didn’t mind rubbing their own faces in the superfluous Nikki and Paulo, who they were still fielding questions about in season 6, or the fact that nobody gave a rat’s about how Jack got his tattoo, and how that may have been one of the worst Lost episodes of all time.

On the flip side of this protracted storytelling was the real possibility that “Lost” could be cancelled, especially with the ratings dipping in the second and third season. So the lads concocted a back-up plan where the world’s oldest orangutan, Joop, who could conveniently talk, revealed what the show was all about in the last scene if the show was cut short.

Of course, “Lost” wasn’t cancelled. Some people left after the first season or two, but a central legion of fans kept the momentum going. Darlton continually used their podcast to show gratitude to those fans. Even as the momentum picked up with the later seasons, and critical recognition and approval swung back their way, Darlton were more concerned with doing the best job they could for the people they worked for (i.e. the fans) than they were with critical approval or awards, as heard in the following example from early in season six:

Carlton: Damon, what would you have said to me if I had told you in season two that we were going to France to accept an award?

Damon: I would have turned to you and said, ‘OK Carlton, what happens if they don’t push the button?’

At the end of the last podcast, Darlton were asked what their favourite moment was. It was a difficult question – they came up with two answers. The runner up was the episode with both their mothers, each making their case for Sawyer to choose them over Kate. The one they went out on was an extended sound bite of Carlton and Damon laughing uncontrollably at an answer they had just given. Thanks guys. That is exactly how I want to remember you.

Don Was revisits “Exile on Main street” – Don spoke to NPR’s “All songs Considered” host Bob Boilen about the new deluxe release of this classic Rolling Stones album, and managed to make the recording sessions sound even more dark and mysterious than they seemed from listening to the record, before I knew any of the details. It was recorded in the dank, smoky basement of the French castle Keith Richards lived in when the Stones went into tax exile in the early 70s. Apparently, George Harrison wasn’t exaggerating in “Taxman” – British people in the Stone’s tax bracket were paying 93%.

Reportedly, “Exile” is mostly Keith’s baby, at least on a soul level. He was in his element surrounded by drugs, derelicts and fellow strung-out musicians such as Graham Parsons, who doesn’t appear on the album but coached Keith in countrified chord fingerings between takes. Bill and Charlie were an integral part of the daily sessions of course, but it sounded like they were a bit homesick, sending home for parcels of baked beans and brown sauce. Mick was there for all the vocal takes, but he was equally interested in hanging out with the “jet set” in Paris, so he wasn’t always around. And by now I imagine Mick Taylor was wishing he’d joined another band – ANY other band. The next album, “Goat’s Head Soup”, was his last.

Whatever the circumstances, “Exile” is surely the Stones most unique album – a dense, swampy mixture of blues, funk soul and rock. And now it’s been remastered, again, with “ten new tracks”. Well, no, actually it’s eight new tracks and two alternate takes.

Apparently there are a vast number of songs that were begun and recorded during that period, but never finished. Don listened to about 300 hours of the stuff before the glimmer twins came along to cite 30 or 40 tracks they specifically wanted him to look out for. Now you tell me. Don had to give the raw multi-track tapes their first mix. In many cases Jagger had to record entire vocal parts, or at least punch in vocals between the existing ones. Surprisingly, the old and the new blend together pretty seamlessly, and the small bit I heard has me interested in hearing the rest.

So here we go again – another album to buy multiple times. At least it will sound better than the CD version I bought in the early 90s, which is yet another victim of poor mastering in the early days of CD releases.

Who’s that knockin’ on my door? Why, it’s our old pal Rod. You know him: life of the party, cheeky and naughty but never vulgar, leading the sing-song, pulling birds as easily as he pulls faces. Completely harmless and, by today’s standards, quite tame.

When Rod Stewart takes the stage at Dublin’s O2 arena, where he also performed the night before, he looks tired, as you might expect for a man in his mid 60s. But a few songs into his first set, you begin to realize that the old locomotive is just building up steam, and once up to speed he plays the entertainer every moment he’s on stage. To facilitate that, he smartly paces himself with a break halfway through each set, during which time the band does its own number, and a ten minute interval at the halfway point, for a cup of tea and to soak the welts he now doubt has from smacking himself on the backside.

Ostensibly, this is the “Soulbook” tour, and there are a couple of songs from that album, such as “Love Train” and “Rainy Night in Georgia”, and the band fill it’s solo spots with “Keep Me Hanging On” and the instrumental “Soul Finger”. With a three piece horn section and three outstanding backup singers, this band seems designed for this material. However, this is primarily a best–of show, tracking the many phases of Rod down through the years. This band proves itself to be an extremely versatile and professional show band, equally at home faithfully reproducing the hits, regardless of genre, as they are with full-on Motown. They even manage to make the staged banter and set peices look loose and natural, if not spontaneous.

Meanwhile, the man up front is doing his best to energize this audience. And, at first, this audience needs some energy – half of them are middle age, and the other half are older, with an extra ten percent of twenty and thirty somethings thrown in just to balance out the room a bit.

Rod doesn’t just expect people to sing along with him. He demands it on nearly every song. This is not to cover up a faltering voice – the years have been kind to Rod’s pipes, and there is no noticeable hint of betrayal in that combination of velvet and sandpaper. No, he just wants to make sure everyone has a good time.

And of course the audience knows pretty much every song. It’s hard work getting this crowd going, and Rod occasionally chastises them for not showing as much enthusiasm as last nights crowd, especially in regards to the band, but eventually the effort pays off. During the last quarter of the show even the most inanimate of the sell-out crowd are at least mouthing the words, and by the time we arrive inevitably at “Maggie May” and “Sailing” most of us are singing at the top of our lungs.

Speaking for myself, it was a pleasant night that passed quickly, but it never really caught fire, with the possible exception of “Hot Legs”, during which Rod kicked so many autographed footballs to the crowd that I began to think there was one for everyone in the audience.

I suspect the ladies in the audience would be more enthusiastic with their praise. Quite a few took every opportunity to attract attention to themselves, even the motor mouth behind us, who seemed more interested in discussing her daughter’s exam grades and barbeque season, regularly cried out “I love you Rod” and “play Maggie May” starting with the second song through to when it was finally performed.

Rod tried his best to show all the ladies a little love. So of course this inspired some to try a little harder, and finally the knickers came flying onto the stage. No, wait, that’s a Celtic United scarf. Well, I did say it was a tame.

If you missed this knees up, you’ll get another chance on July 31st.

Before meandering further through whatever my attention is drawn towards, I thought it might be a good time to ground, center and describe the base of operations that is my computer/music studio/stereo.

A few years ago, I decided to spend some real money and buy a full version of Cubase, a high-spec computer that could run it easily, a professional sounding RME Fireface 400 (we blow our noses in the general direction of SoundBlaster), and a pair of Tannoy active monitor speakers on which to hear it all. If most of that washed over you, never mind. My point is that this is the best sounding (and most expensive) stereo I’ve ever had.

Along with the aforementioned gear, I have an old, beat up mixing desk that I picked up cheap when it was walking past the house one day, under the arm of two musicians looking to upgrade. I also have an assortment of musical instruments. We have five children between us. We live in a big house, but not so big that there is a spare room. But we do have a big kitchen. At least it was big until I annexed one side of it. I am lucky that Trish is a tolerant partner who doesn’t mind. I say “tolerant”. Perhaps she is simply resigned to it and suffering silently. I’m afraid to ask.

When I ordered all the computer-based recording gear, I neglected to order an unlimited supply of time. Also detracting from any serious music production is that this “studio” is located at the somewhat major intersection of living room, backyard, and refrigerator. Anyone with children can appreciate how congested this intersection can be. Now throw in the fact that this is the only computer in the house. So unless everyone is out of the house, or it is very late at night when everyone is in bed, and I’m very, very quiet, the music production just doesn’t happen.

But I can listen to music, a lot of music. Mine, Trish’s, the kids’ – Dad rock, modern pop, rock, country, jazz, hip hop heavy metal – ABBA to Zappa and back again from Zutons to Animal Collective. Don’t think there are any Gregorian chants in the house, but I could be wrong.

Several years ago, every CD in the house was digitized and put on an external hard drive. As a matter of course, all new CDs are ripped to the box the moment they come in the door. In part, I do this because the DVD drive just refuses to play CDs – within a minute the sound speeds up or warbles beyond all recognition. This happens only on the home PC side of the dual-boot computer. On the music production side CDs play just fine, but you can’t do any of the things you might normally do while listening to them, such as check your email, log on to Facebook, or type lengthy, rambling essays. Despite all my tinkering, I haven’t made any impact on this problem.

Having said that, the most important reason I rip is so that I can fulfill my childhood dream of having my own big honking jukebox, which I can use to skip easily between albums or tracks ad nausuem. A little too easily perhaps. For example, if I’m listening to Miles Davis and decide to take out the trash, I may find that when I return a half minute later I’m listening to AC/DC, which was selected by either Not Me or I Didn’t Do It, depending on who you want to believe.

But late at night the house goes quiet and I have the jukebox to myself. One song reminds me of another. I play that, and it leads to the next, and so on. Then suddenly it’s two AM. It’s not my fault. I was abducted by iTunes.

So you see, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Good thing I can cook.

Anything can wash up on “Plastic Beach” – ballads, ethereal soul, rock, R&B. There’s even a hip hop sea shanty that sounds like it could have been co-written by Gilbert and Sullivan. Gorillaz’ turn the flotsam and jetsam of musical styles into a label-defying whole that is, at its core, a pop album.

After the miniature overture, the album starts with a moderate-tempo, 60-ish R&B number built around what sounds like a Hammond organ that’s been run through a forward-moving time machine. Snoop Dogg shows you where this album’s center is by rapping the line, “The revolution will be televised”, giving it just the right phrasing and inflection to make it clear that it’s a quote and not a coincidence. With that one line he invokes social consciousness a la Gil Scott Heron. But there is no war or racial protest here. “Plastic Beach” deals with the more unifying themes of ecology and economics.

This is usually where the alarm bells start to ring, mainly because when music and social politics collide, the result is too often lyrically inane or musically boring, or both. That is so not the case here. The music is infectious, with a trawler full of hooks. The lyrics are, by turns, clear, clever, and sometimes enigmatic. And with an ensemble cast rivalling that of “Lost”, there are many diverse songs to sing.

Some of the teenagers in my house like this album as much as I do, which makes me smile and wonder whether Gorillaz pulled a fast one, a group of cartoon characters acting as the public face of an album on which the young people are middle aged and the elders are, well, pretty darn old. I mean, Lou Reed, half the Clash, Mark E Smith from the Fall… I have to refer my son to the opening credit sequence of Tarentino’s “Jackie Brown” to explain who Bobby Womack is.

Unlike many albums, the singles give you a good idea of what you can expect. “Stylo”, the first single, is a perfect example of the style mashing that goes on in this album, going from Mos Def’s rhymes to a Damon Albarn pop verse to Bobby Womack’s stream-of consciousness soul raving, and back around again, all to a beat you can dance to. Lyrically, it seems to have something to do with electricity.

On the other hand, “Superfast Jellyfish”, the next single, is a light-hearted, well-realized ensemble send up of commercially available breakfast choices which may or may not be actually edible. “On melancholy Hill”, is a straight-up pop song that would sound at home on a Blur album, if there were ever a new one.

Even more than its predecessors, “Plastic Beach” sounds like it was made by experienced artists who are relaxed and confident in their abilities. This album lets the music work on you slowly. At first listen it seems pleasant, if simple. With repeated listening it becomes “Plastic Beach” reveals itself to be Gorillaz best album yet. Maybe even Albarn’s. Despite being cartoons, Gorillaz have grown up.