Sunday, April 13, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: In Your Ear Records

I'll be DJing a set for Record Store Day at In Your Ear Records in Warren, RI from 1:00 PM to 2:00 PM next Saturday, April 19th. I've tried to put together a playlist that reflects the sense of excitement and discovery that I feel whenever I step into a really great record store. If you are local to the area stop in and say "hi."

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Could Pono Really (Really) Make Digital Music Sound Better?

In my last post about PonoMusic I expressed skepticism about whether their music files would actually sound significantly better, and criticized them for what I consider misleading advertising as it pertains to "high-resolution" digital recordings. I also promised to keep an open mind, and today I want to entertain the possibility that PonoMusic might end up being a good thing for sound quality despite my skepticism.

So far all of Pono's marketing as it pertains to the sound quality of the music they will be selling has focused on the sampling rate and bit depth of digital recordings. Again from their FAQ:

No.  We want to be very clear that PonoMusic is not a new audio file format or standard.  It is an end-to-end ecosystem for music lovers to get access to and enjoy their favorite music in the highest resolution possible for that song or album.  The music in the store is sold and downloaded in industry standard audio file formats.  

The PonoMusic Store uses FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) audio format as its standard, for compatibility, although the PonoPlayer can play most popular high-resolution music formats from other sources.  PonoMusic has a quality spectrum, ranging from really good to really great, depending on the quality of the available master recordings: 
•    CD lossless quality recordings: 1411 kbps (44.1 kHz/16 bit) FLAC files
•    High-resolution recordings: 2304 kbps (48 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
•    Higher-resolution recordings: 4608 kbps (96 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
•    Ultra-high resolution recordings: 9216 kbps (192 kHz/24 bit) FLAC files
In short, what this is telling us is that Pono will not be offering any kind of breakthrough in digital music technology. 192 kHZ/24bit PCM digital audio has been available in some form or another to consumers at least since the introduction of DVD-Audio nearly 15 years ago. There are already other digital music retailers that offer high-resolution digital music files for download. Likewise, the FLAC format is something of an industry standard for lossless compressed audio (although someone might want to alert Apple to that fact).

This is actually a good thing. The last thing we need at this juncture is a new digital format that isn't compatible with other players or current stereo equipment. Pono has not reinvented the wheel here, and there is no reason why they should. The music from their store will likely work with the equipment you already have (if you are an iTunes user you'll need to convert those FLAC files to something like AIFF or Apple Lossless files, but that is a topic for another day). In addition, their player will play the digital files you already own, as they have promised support for most varieties of PCM based audio files, including the kind Apple currently sells. In my view these are both sensible choices.

So if PonoMusic will not be offering anything new under the sun, why do I hold out hope that their product might actually lead to better sounding music for consumers? The answer, ironically, lies with the precedent set by Apple with their "Mastered for iTunes" program. Mastered for iTunes is a set of tools and best practice standards that Apple has made available to labels to create better sounding iTunes music files. I encourage you to read PDF Apple has made available on mastering music for iTunes, as it contains a set of common sense guidelines without excessive marketing hype. It suggests to me that Apple has a very good understanding of what some of the real problems with current digital music are: namely, excessive use of dynamic range compression and digital clipping. It has been my experience that the care that goes into making music sound its best at the mastering stage matters more (much more) than the eventual sample rate and bit depth delivered to the consumer.

It has long been my view that the mastering process is the critical phase in music production that really needs to be addressed and improved. By and large it is at the mastering stage where sound quality is really getting messed up these days. I applaud Apple for taking steps to address this problem.

If Pono were to issue a similar set of guidelines to labels on best practices for mastering audio for PonoMusic, I think there is a real possibility it could result in better sounding digital music releases. Were Pono to leverage its influence to urge labels to ease back on dynamic range compression, avoid digital clipping, and not apply excessive frequency equalization, it would result in audibly better sounding music and differences that really could easily be heard even at CD level (44.1kHZ/16bit) resolution. Perhaps they could create some catchy name like "PonoApproved" for digital albums that meet their sound quality standards.

Now, to be clear, I don't have any special reason to think this will happen, and given Pono's exclusive focus to date on sampling rates and bit depth as the drivers for better sound quality, I am not particularly encouraged. But some precedent for this kind of thing does exist. Also, if PonoMusic is successful, it could push other digital music retailers like iTunes to offer higher quality, lossless, downloads as an option for consumers. All these things would be very welcome developments, and I'm happy to wait and see how things shake out before issuing any final judgement on Pono. I remain skeptical, but I wish Neil Young and Pono luck in their stated goal of making digital music sound better. If they are serious about it they must take steps to demand better sounding masters from record labels, and if they succeed in doing so we all stand to benefit.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Zombies

Varèse Sarabande will reissue two LPs by one of my favorite British Invasion bands, The Zombies, this Record Store Day. The first, I Love You, is a compilation LP that was originally issued only in Europe and Japan and earns its first U.S. release this Record Store Day. Most interestingly, it will be issued in mono. Personally, I tend to prefer mono mixes from this era as stereo mixing was still largely a hit or miss affair for pop music in those days. The second release is a stereo reissue of their final LP, Odessey And Oracle. I rarely see copies of this much beloved title on vinyl, so this is sure to be a popular choice. 

Varèse Sarabande has a good reputation with its Record Store Day vinyl, and if the quoted prices I'm seeing at sites like Bull Moose Music are accurate, these also look to be relatively affordable. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: Mudhoney - On Top!

This is one Record Store Day release that I can guarantee you I am going to get by any means necessary, up to (and possibly including) felony offenses. Back in July Mudhoney played live on top of the Seattle's famed Space Needle to celebrate legendary indie-label Sub-Pop's 25th anniversary. KEXP recorded it, and now Sub-Pop is making the audio available via a limited edition LP.

You may have questions about this release: "Was the LP cut from an analog source? Did the mastering engineer maintain a 100% pure analog signal throughout the cutting process? Is the LP pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl?" Fortunately, I have an answer for all those questions and more: "Shut up! This is Mudhoney. Live. On the Space Needle. Buy it!"

Mudhoney live on the Space Needle photo by Morgen Schuler.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: OFF! - Learn To Obey

Another fantastic looking release for Record Store Day 2014, hardcore punk rock supergroup OFF! teams up with artist Shepard Fairey for a limited edition 7"single, "Learn To Obey." More than just a case of an artist providing cover art for a release, the artwork and music are said to be "thematically intertwined influenced by one another."

Record Store Day 2014: Grant Hart - Every Everything

Here's another Record Store Day release that caught my eye, it's a DVD/LP package that includes the documentary Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Gorman Bechard, along with a solo career spanning compilation LP entitled Some Something that includes several rare and unreleased tracks.
Vinyl and DVD packaged together exclusively for RSD. The DVD is a brand new, bold documentary of Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart soberly analyzing the 1980s while rummaging around in its soul. It all comes out with rare archival and new footage, told by an articulate, alienated and ill-tempered chronicler. The vinyl includes a collection of Grant's finest, with several rare and unreleased tracks. 
TRACK LISTING: Now That You Know Me, Roller Rink, Wheels, California Zephyr, Ballad #19, Charles Hollis Jones, Khalid, Little Nemo, Nobody Rides For Free.
Despite his sporadic (but brilliant) solo output, Hart remains a singularly fascinating and important figure in the rock music world. Bechard received excellent notices for his previous film Color Me Obsessed, a documentary about the Replacements that notably lacked any interviews with (or even footage of) the band. By contrast, it sounds like Every Everything gets up close and personal with its subject (perhaps too close for comfort sometimes). It nevertheless sounds fascinating, and I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Additionally, Rhino will reissue Hüsker Dü's major label debut, Candy Apple Grey, on grey vinyl. I'm not sure I need to replace my 80s vintage vinyl of this title, but it's essential listening for anyone interested in the way what is known as "alternative rock" sprung from the 80s hardcore punk rock movement. For that matter, it's essential to anyone who enjoys loud, melodic music made by a group of brilliant, iconoclastic and influential artists.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Record Store Day 2014: The Everly Brothers

Record Store Day is just under a month away and I wanted to share what I think look like some of the more interesting upcoming releases. Two of the first things that struck my eye were these Everly Brothers reissues, 1958's Songs Our Daddy Taught Us from Varese Sarabande, and 1968's Roots from Rhino. 

These are two thematically similar records in which brothers Phil and Don explore their influences, recorded ten years apart at opposite ends of their career together (Roots was in fact the final Everly Brothers album). These albums were "roots" music long before anybody else understood we needed such a thing. These albums are a timely reminder of how great, and simultaneously forward and backward looking, the Everly's could be.

I don't know if the two labels coordinated these releases, but they are perfect counterparts to one another, and an excellent place to start an Everly Brothers collection after moving on from greatest hits collections. Both Rhino and Varese Sarabande have excellent reputations when it comes to pressing vinyl, so these are both heartily recommended. 

The full list of Record Store Day releases is available here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Will PonoMusic Really Sound That Much Better?

I pulled this image from PonoMusic's (Neil Young's long gestating digital music service) kickstarter page. It appears to compare the difference in sound quality between various digital music options, from lossy compressed downloads and streaming music to 192kHz/24bit PCM digital files.

It sure looks like the files Pono's music store will offer are going to sound a lot better than what we're used to. Young describes the difference between ordinary digital files and hi-rez digital files as "surprising and dramatic," he claims they will restore the "soul" to digital music files. From Pono's FAQ:

Yes. We are confident that you will hear the difference. We're even more confident you will feel it. Everyone who’s ever heard PonoMusic will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic. Especially when they listen to music that they know well – their favorite music. They're amazed by how much better the music sounds – and astonished at how much detail they didn’t realize was missing compared to the original. They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul. 
Unfortunately, the above chart is more than a little misleading. There's no tidy way to show subjective differences in sound quality (i.e. what we actually hear as a music listener). What this chart actually shows is closer to the difference in file size between various digital music options.

There is really no argument that 192kHz/24bit music files will take up more space on your hard drive, and thus have more information in them, than CD quality (44.1kHz/16bit) files. It is likewise true that the CD quality files, even when losslessly compressed, will take up more space than MP3 or other lossy compressed files. If what you want is music files that are really large, the 192kHz/24bit FLAC files that Pono will be selling are definitely a good option.

Whether these files actually sound better than CD resolution files, or even higher bit rate encoded MP3s, is a subject of much more debate. Some listeners swear by so called "hi-rez" digital music, others say they can't hear a difference. Others go further and claim that it is not possible for humans to hear a difference between properly encoded CD quality digital and hi-rez digital, and say they have the science to back them up (I am not going to touch that one).

I never want to be in a position of telling people what they can or cannot hear, but I was curious if I could hear a difference between hi-rez digital files and CD quality files. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to do an apples to apples comparison. Comparing a CD against a hi-rez digital file that was mastered differently does not tell us anything definitive about the virtues of higher sampling rates and greater bit depth.

In order to do a fair comparison, I downloaded the "Audiophile 96kHz/24bit" AIFF version of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions from HDTracks (this corresponds to the resolution of the middle yellow block on the chart above). This is music that I love and know very well, having listened to it in various music formats since the 1970s. I then made a CD resolution copy of my favorite track from the album, "Living For The City," using a high quality resampling program. I dropped both the "hi-rez" and CD quality files into a program called "ABXer" that allows you to do blind ABX comparisons between different music files. To make a long story short, despite my best efforts, I was unable to hear a difference between the two file resolutions. My final results were 5 correct identifications and 5 misidentifications, exactly the results one would expect if the test subject was guessing (which I was).

Despite being a dedicated music lover and someone who cares deeply about the quality of recorded sound (if not an "audiophile"), I don't think Pono is for me. Either my equipment (see details in comments) or my ears are not good enough to hear the difference. I'm not personally sold on the benefits of high-resolution music files for music listeners. I'm willing to keep an open mind about that, what I'm not willing to do is re-buy a lot of music I already own on the basis of misleading charts, nebulous promises about improved sound quality, and marketing hype.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings - Soul Love

I want to believe. Really, I do. But these soul covers of tracks from David Bowie's The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars, by a previously unknown outfit called Milky Edwards & the Chamberlings are just too perfect.

These three videos were uploaded to youtube about a year ago, and have gone more or less unnoticed until now (David Bowie's official facebook page posted an item about this today):

So I don't believe this is authentic, but that doesn't mean I don't love it. Anybody want to venture a guess as to who is behind this? I'm looking in the general direction of Gabriel Roth and the Daptone Records crew, as they are about the only folks I can think of capable of pulling off such authentic sounding and looking 70s soul music.

Whoever did it, I hope they get around to recording the rest of the album and actually release it.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Dan Hersch On Mastering Love's Long Lost Black Beauty

Love's Black Beauty lineup. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

As I mentioned previously, I was extremely impressed with the recent High Moon Records issue of Love's Black Beauty, a previously unreleased Love album recorded for Buffalo Records in 1973. It's a strong set of songs from Arthur Lee, a great artist whose 70s output was frustratingly uneven, that remained officially unreleased until earlier this year.

Music aside, I was impressed by how good the record sounds, especially after learning the audio had been sourced from an acetate. I have heard releases transcribed from acetates before and typically it is not hard to tell the audio came from a less than ideal source. Curious to know more, I had a conversation with mastering engineer Dan Hersch of d2 mastering on the restoration process that went into the album's release.

Dan is one of the most respected mastering engineers in the music business. If, like me, you have a sizable CD collection, you will likely find Dan's name in the credits of hundreds of your favorite CDs. He is particularly known for the work he did in conjunction with Bill Inglot on many of the high-quality Rhino Records CD reissues in the 80s and 90s.

Me: What is an acetate?
Dan: I started out mastering in a vinyl disc cutting studio. We would cut an acetate, or a reference lacquer, which is the same cellulose nitrate material that, ultimately, the  master would be cut upon. The difference is that the reference lacquer would be a twelve inch disc (the master is larger) for an LP, so that the artist or producer could take it home, put it on their turntable, give it a listen, and then make the changes they wanted or  just give it the thumbs up. We'd then cut the master lacquer which would then go to the pressing plant where they would make the metal parts and then ultimately stamp out the records for the consumer.
So the reference acetate was the original reference medium for artists and producers. The acetate that came to Diane Lee, Arthur Lee's widow, was one that belonged to Arthur,  that he had come back from the mastering studio with back in the day and then had found its way onto a record shelf in someone's apartment, and had been played repeatedly.
The rule of thumb used to be after a period of time, because this lacquer material was soft, the sound would change a bit over time. Obviously being played repeatedly would not be good, and dirt and dust could get embedded in it.  I own some lightly played reference lacquers that were cut 30 years ago that still sound pretty darned good to me, but generally speaking, acetates aren't usually as hardy as an actual pressing.
Unfortunately the tapes [for Black Beauty] have gone missing, whether they're with someone or unrecoverable, or whatever. The only thing left from the Black Beauty assembled album was this acetate or reference lacquer.
Album cover for Black Beauty. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: From what I understand there were actually three acetates that were located. Did you handle them yourself or did someone else do the analog-to-digital conversion?

Dan: I don't know if you're familiar with Bill Inglot, he's a reissue producer who worked at Rhino for a long time. Bill has a very good record cleaner in his production studio, and he did the initial transfer of the acetate to digital files. Originally all I received was a reference audio CD-R of that transfer that sounded to me like someone  had tried to do a quick and dirty denoising. I think the original intent was just for Diane Lee to listen to the acetate and  try to find a label that would be interested in releasing it.

So I got that reference CD. It sounded kind of swirly, it just sounded a little weird, so I asked them to send me over the original files. I got the original files of the acetate, and, in comparing the raw transfer and the first CDR I heard, I could sort of hear the process of what they had done in an attempt to minimize the noise and to make it a better listening experience. But they had totally changed the stereo image, and had done a few things that I felt were inaccurate and unrealistic sonically.
Arthur Lee. Photo by Herbert Worthington III.
Me: When you take noise out, it's easy to take music with it, isn't it?

Dan: Absolutely, but I think in this case, there was some damage in the left channel of the acetate, and rather than attempt to deal with the damage, they just took the right channel and then put the mono signal through some stereo effect device to bring the stereo back. So in my mind it was not how I would do it, and it wasn't something I wanted to perpetuate. And again, I don't believe the person who originally worked on this had the intention of releasing it like that. I think it was just a quick and dirty job to get Diane a reference disc. So I thought it best to get back to the original transfer and figure out another way to present the material.

Me: Was the original file hi-res digital? ["Hi-res" denotes digital audio with greater bit depth and higher sampling frequency than the 16 bit/44.1 kHz CD standard.]

Dan: I can’t recall. Probably 24 bit, maybe 48khz or 96khz. The source was obviously pretty low-fi.
Me: What did those raw files sound like? How noisy were they?

Dan: There were some scrapes that were kind of bad. Ticks and pops are pretty easy to deal with, but when you have long duration scraping noises, those cause the most noticeable effect when you try to process them because you have to deal with a larger sample. Ticks and pops are usually fine. It's inner groove distortion, scraping, things that take a few frames of information that are hard to process. But I'm never sure what the de-noising and de-crackling software is going to do. Sometimes I'll send a sample through and I'll think it's going to be a problem, and it will come back totally clean. And then sometimes something I think will be simple doesn’t work out. Then it’s back to the drawing board with a different approach to the problem.

Me: What was your approach to dealing with that noise?

Dan: A little bit of background…in the remastering business you run into all types of labels and all types of budgets, and the budget dictates how much work you can do. Some labels aren't willing to spend the money or the time to do that. And then you have to budget your time and say "we'll do the best we can." But High Moon was very interested in trying to do the best they could. They didn't mind spending a little money on this. They never said to me "can you do this for x amount of dollars." So that allowed me to do a lot of hand de-clicking and really get in and spend some time with each song. That's really what it takes. It takes time.  As an engineer there's only so much you can do when you're on a tight budget. But High Moon allowed me to do whatever was necessary to do the best job possible. The song that starts the second side, "Beep Beep," has a lot of dead air and little quiet parts in the arrangement which can really expose the noise of the storage medium. It was quite a battle. I think when you listen to "Beep Beep" maybe you can still hear that it was an acetate source, but you're not totally smacked in the face with it.

The nosier more raucous tracks, it's easier for the noise to be masked. But it's always better to go in and manually deal with that stuff rather than just hitting a button that says "de-crackle." Not to overly toot their horn, but High Moon was really willing to spend the time and money to really do a high quality job. They've shown that with their vinyl pressing and by having Doug Sax cut it. They also went with the heavier vinyl. I know they did a lot of test pressings, they even switched pressing plants a couple times so that they could really put out a high quality product.

Me: You can see and hear the care that went into this on every level, the stock of paper they used for the cover, all the photographs from the period they included in the booklet, it's clear they didn't hold anything back.

Dan: Hopefully consumers will respond positively and encourage High Moon to continue doing things in this manner. Hopefully, more labels will follow suit.

Me: It helps to do research. You can't assume a newly remastered title is going to sound better than previous issues.

Dan: That’s true. Sometimes you are buying a copy of something previously released with a bonus track added or something. Perhaps knowing whether the remastering was done from the original tapes would be helpful to the consumer.  I've seen labels do releases on the same artist over and over again. When I first started doing CDs in the early 80s, we would receive an EQ'd copy of the (vinyl) master to use as our source for the CD. That  vinyl EQ really didn't hold up with the new possibilities of CD. But they (the labels) really didn't want to go back to the original master tape. The fear was somehow the original “mastering” was being undone: "this is what the artist had approved, this is what the producer had approved, this is what we're putting out." I think that's what really hurt early CDs, the consumer was getting vinyl cutting EQ'd copies, just digitized. We hadn’t had the opportunity to go back to the master tape and really take advantage of what they did in the recording studio.

A lot of times the first time an album got reissued on CD it was from a copy like that. And then the second time around, maybe they got the original master tapes and hopefully they got a guy like Bill Inglot or Andrew Sandoval, someone who really understands the recording process and really understands the original intent of the artist, who would get the original vinyl pressing vinyl to compare, make sure speeds are right, make sure levels are right, make sure the sound is in the spirit of the original vinyl. And then the reissues were done correctly.

As the same albums are released again and again with new marketing gimmicks, consumers really need to look sharp before buying. As is true with any product, “new and improved” isn’t always the case.

So when you have a label like High Moon that comes to me and says "sorry all we have is an acetate, can you make something good from it?" And you tell them, "it's gonna take me a week, and maybe I can," and they don't blink and say, "Fine, do it,” then the consumer is going to benefit. That allowed me to make something listenable.

Unfortunately, sometimes tapes go missing. Sometimes someone gets sticky fingers, or things get thrown away. There are some very famous bands where, once stuff got digitized in the 80s, they discarded all their original analog tapes. It's hard to imagine, but at the time a lot of people thought "now it's perfect" we don't need this old, crappy analog tape anymore.

I know George [High Moon owner] searched high and low for where those Black Beauty tapes might be, but unfortunately they couldn't be located.
Photo by Herbert Worthington III.

If you haven't picked it up already, Black Beauty is an essential purchase for any Love or Arthur Lee fan. Dan's observations about High Moon are spot on. It is obvious that a lot of love [no pun intended] and care went into this release. For those of you who don't have a turntable, there is a CD release coming from High Moon, although no release date has been announced as of yet.