I…I don’t know what to say.
I just attended an audio event called Digital Living 2012 at Audio Advice in Raleigh last night (a fantastic little store…stop in if you’re ever in Raleigh or Charlotte and take a listen to what they have. You’ll be amazed, especially if you’ve never heard true hi-fi audio before). There were a number of vendors there showcasing products from whole home video/audio systems, speakers, headphones, and the latest and greatest in computer audio. Amongst the vendors was Peachtree Audio, makers of fine digital-to-analog converters (a.k.a. “DACs”) that can take the sound from a computer and output it (usually via USB) as high quality audio. At one point, one of the Peachtree representatives used different versions of the same Fleetwood Mac recording (“The Chain” from 1977′s Rumours) to draw attention to the so-called Loudness War. In layman’s terms, the Loudness War is a sad trend in the music industry where recordings are being made louder and louder in order to grab and hold the attention of listeners. Think about it. If you hear two pieces of music back-to-back, and the second one is significantly louder than the first, which one do you think will have the most impact? The louder one, of course. It’s not your fault, of course…it’s how we’re wired. Survival instinct, and all that jazz. In today’s digital world, that means that you’re much more likely to skip softer tracks in favor of the louder ones when you’re listening to your MP3 player. One solution is the simplest…TURN UP THE VOLUME! The knob (or slider, if you’re using a computer/digital device) is there for a reason, naturally. But record companies have decided that they’re going to make the decision for you. By engineering every track to be as loud as possible, they’re decreasing the chances that you’ll hit the skip button on your iPod whenever the quiet songs come on. Makes sense from a marketing standpoint, but what does that mean for audio quality?
Take a look at this YouTube video (don’t worry, it’s pretty short):
Scary, huh? Who needs dynamic range anyway? When the “soft” parts of a song are the exact same volume as the “louder” parts, that’s when you know there’s a problem. Not to mention that squashing the entire recording in such a way (resulting in a “brickwalled” appearance in spectral analysis programs like Audacity; see below) makes it sound like it was recorded underwater. Read More…
Introducing Review Relay, wherein I’ll give quick impressions of albums I’ve listened to recently.
Amanda Mair, Amanda Mair (2012)
The debut album of a 17-year-old (at the time) from Lidingö, Sweden, Amanda Mair is a soothing set of piano-based pop that approaches the tired topics of teenage love and angst with surprising vocal maturity. Though she possesses an obviously strong set of pipes, the young Ms. Mair never delves into the realm of oversinging and superfluous vocal gymnastics that is heard far too often in contemporary pop music. Neither does she hide behind a wall of Autotune…her voice is legit. I first listened to this album on MOG after reading a review in a Hi-Fi magazine which praised its atmospheric production and ear-pleasing sonics. Sadly though, the digital streaming version that I’ve heard is overly compressed. Where Mair’s voice should be gently rising above the broad aural soundscapes in songs like “Said and Done” and the leadoff single “House”, the vocals instead sound as if they’re drowning in a sea of sound at times. Here’s hoping the vinyl LP version sounds better.
Despite the sonic deficiencies of the album, the quality of the music far outweighs the negatives here. I’m a sucker for female singer/pianists (hello, Fiona Apple!), so this one’s right up my alley. Mair sings one mean piano ballad, with the sublime “Skinnarviksberget” already worming its way into my brain. Great debut from a young singer with promise.
Face Value, Phil Collins (1981)
“In the Air Tonight”. An absolute 80’s classic. The slow build, the weird lyrics. Did Phil Collins really witness a murder? Hmmm… Not to mention that I’ve always found the robotic “Well I REMEMBAH” part a bit creepy. Nevertheless, it all culminates in a flourish that can best be described as a favorite of air drummers everywhere. All told, a crowning achievement for the former Genesis frontman.
Sadly, the rest of the album doesn’t match up to its epic intro. Only the horn-laced “I Missed Again” and the surprisingly-not-inept cover of the Beatles’ classic “Tomorrow Never Knows” rise above the level of mediocrity. BTW, intriguing choice by Phil to go with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” during the album’s fadeout, contrasting nicely with the utter weirdness that is “TMK”.
I picked a 1988 German pressing of this CD while I was in Barcelona a few weeks ago. Though 80’s German pressings typically sound a bit better than their American counterparts for reasons unknown (Germany efficiency?), a quick look at the volume levels and waveforms in Audacity indicate that this copy is sonically near-identical to the early 90’s Atlantic US release, widely thought to have been mastered by respected engineer Barry Diament. Dynamics are intact, with soft parts sounding soft and loud parts hitting like a sledgehammer (which works exceptionally well for “In the Air Tonight”, as you would imagine). A fine-sounding disc.
Rhythm and Repose, Glen Hansard (2012)
Like many others, I first heard of Glen Hansard from the movie Once. The charming indie movie about a Guy and a Girl making music and (kinda) falling in love doubled as a showcase for the exceptional talents of Hansard and his Swell Season partner, Markéta Irglová. Frontman of the Irish rock group The Frames, the 42-year-old Hansard is capable of slipping between tender, hushed tones and a loud busker’s wail without batting an eyelash. In fact, he does so with such frequency that it’s become a bit of a trademark for him. On his latest solo record, Rhythm and Repose, Hansard has decided to forego his boisterous rocking half and lean entirely on his quiet, mellow side. The result is a bland, plodding record that fails to distinguish itself from the slew of low-fi Nick Drake wannabes that emerged in the indie rock scene in the past decade. Glen understands heartbreak, and there’s a lot of it here. The recording sounds quite good, as do many acoustic recordings of this type. There’s just not much to dig into, I’m afraid. Despite the quality of the vocals and the solid guitar work, songs just pass by without leaving an indelible mark. I’m generally fine when artists decide to shake things up a bit and go against the styles that made them famous, just don’t put me to sleep in the process!
Albums reviewed in this post:
Amanda Mair, Amanda Mair, Labrador, 2012
AudioPhD Verdict: Recommended
Phil Collins, Face Value, Atlantic/WEA, 1981
AudioPhD Verdict: Worth a listen
Glen Hansard, Rhythm and Repose, ANTI-, 2012
AudioPhD Verdict: Mediocre
This is it. This is THE album that singlehandedly changed the way I listen to, discover and collect music. Not to mention the artist, who as I said in a previous post has become my absolute favorite artist ever.
First, a little background.
The year was 1997. I had heard of David Bowie previously, but I confess I didn’t really know that much about him. I didn’t know what his hit songs were; I didn’t really hear him on the radio here in the States, and his videos weren’t in regular rotation on MTV (back when they used to actually feature music now and then…ancient times indeed). I knew he sang on “Under Pressure”, the duet with Queen that completely ripped off Vanilla Ice’s seminal “Ice Ice Baby”. I also vaguely remember his appearing with some band called Tin Machine as the musical guests on an early 90’s episode of Saturday Night Live, sporting a mid-life crisis goatee. Other than that, I was clueless.
For some crazy reason my Dad thought that Bowie would be the kind of artist that my brother and I might enjoy, so he bought us a copy of the greatest hits compilation ChangesBowie (Rykodisc, 1990) on CD at the local music store. I remember listening to it and recognizing some of the songs, especially the 80’s classics “Let’s Dance”, “China Girl” and “Modern Love”. “Space Oddity”, “Changes” and “Rebel Rebel” were good. The rest of it I thought was merely OK. There was enough to intrigue me to the point that I wanted to delve a bit deeper into Mr. Bowie’s catalogue, so we picked up his latest release, Earthling, as well as arguably the most famous Bowie album, the self-indulgently titled The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (Rykodisc, 1990). This was well before the days of my listening to music as a full-on activity, so Ziggy was instead relegated to being the background soundtrack to video gaming. My brother and I had just rented 2 Xtreme for the original Playstation, an entertaining little game where you can bike, skateboard, snowboard or rollerblade on courses around the world, with a little punching and kicking thrown in for good measure. As I traversed the vast (digital) savannahs of Africa and the snowy mountains of Japan, slowly but surely the world of Ziggy crept its way into my mind.
There seemed to be some sort of loose narrative to the album. There were aliens, such as Ziggy Stardust and Lady Stardust (who was apparently a man). Ziggy came a long way from home in order to save rock ‘n’ roll on Earth, and he only had five years to do it. Along the way, he invited us to freak out in a Moonage Daydream, fulfilled his dream as a rock ‘n’ roll Star, and finally became just another Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. Read More…
Getting this blog started out right by stealing from the man himself (that’s David Bowie, my all-time favorite artist, in case you didn’t know). I’m currently mulling over where to start with this whole blogging thing.