February 7: Musicians who are missing in action

The internet is an endlessly fascinating place. It has made finding new wonderful musicians easy and immensely satisfying. I could not begin to name all of the musicians who have crossed my path, quite by accident, over the last decade or so.

The odd thing is that occasionally one of them (or two in this case) will go missing, leaving only the music that led me to them in the first place.

The first is Brendan Campbell. He may have had another record at some point, but the only one I know of is Burgers & Murders. I’m listening to Pleiades right now. This guy is so gone that he doesn’t even have a licensing deal with iTunes anymore. I found that out when I realized that none of his songs were on my iPhone. Had they not been downloaded to my MacMini years back that music would have been gone, maybe forever.

Brendan Campbell

The other musician is even more obscure. All John Danley left behind are a handful of videos. He was (is?) a wonderful finger-style player. From what I’ve been able to find he’s totally done with the whole music deal. The last reference I saw about him mentioned that he’d turned to a career in psychotherapy.

John Danley

A handful of years ago, he had a working website. What must have happened for him to let both his website’s eponymous domain and the site itself slip below the electrons of the internet? I just don’t get it. It’s just too easy and inexpensive to keep a website online to let one slip away. I actually mentioned Danley’s name to Will Ackerman a couple years back, along with a link to one of his videos. I had a kind of fantasy that Will might have recognized Danley’s talent and would want to set about using his industry connections to get him discovered, but Danley’s anonymity remains frustratingly intact.

How many more wonderful musicians am I doomed to find and lose? To put a tiny spin of optimism I could say I’m fortunate to have found Danley & Campbell at all, and that’s true. It’s always hard to keep from wanting more, I suppose.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Had I been willing to let this post wait until tomorrow I would have done a better job. For some reason tonight the WordPress desktop app will let me do everything but write a post.

The optimist would say how lucky I am to be able write what I have on my phone.

February 7: Musicians who are missing in action

January 12: A fresh air

I’m writing early today for two reasons. One’s not so pleasant. I woke up with a bit of stomach upset. This has kept me indoors and forced me to move my hike to the late afternoon, or more likely tomorrow.

Annoying.

The other reason is a bittersweet one. I have brought a new computer into my small livery of Macs. It took me a while to decide on another MacBook Air. Part of the delay was caused by me not quite being able to face reality. You see, my previous MacBook Air, or what I have been calling my new computer is now 11 years old. The nice folks at Apple must have heard it was still running strong so they decided to force my hand by disallowing further upgrades of the Safari browser. That, among other things, made it difficult to access and use the WordPress UI and dodgy sites like Wikipedia.

Well, that’s a pisser.

My old new MacBook Air; not quite ready for retirement.

No, I don’t have any micro brewery stickers on my new Mac…yet. It’s Space Gray, fast, silent and seems just dandy so far. It and my other (can’t quite say old) MacBook Air have helped solidify an evolution of sorts when it comes to how I use computers. There was a time when I stuffed my Macs full of everything; photos, files, music. In fact, in my office is an even older MacMini with a 1TB SSD. It’s full of music and photos and pretty much everything you can imagine. But lately, really since I bought my old-new MacBook Air, I’ve reversed that process. I have a paid subscription to Flickr so most of my photos live there. The Word docs of my books exist on various computers and GoogleDrive and in a host of email accounts. Word files are neat since they’re so small. Storing them is really no problem.

Music presents the biggest challenge and you know I’m not done figuring it out. Every CD I own has been uploaded to the MacMini but how long will I have access to them? The Mini’s ancient OS is getting more hampered by the passage of time every day. It’s only a matter of time, but that’s a worry for another day. For now, it makes it impossible to bring myself to selling off my CDs, which I would really like to do.

So, I have no plans to activate and authorize my iTunes account on my new computer, let alone store any music on it. My iPhone is right here and so is much of my music and everything on the MacMini via Home Sharing is available so long as I’m on my home WiFi.

No, no access to my LPs but that, too, is a subject for another time.

If things follow the plan, there really won’t be much stored locally on my new MacBook Air but I still intend to get a lot of use out it, as I have all of my Macs going back so many years. Most have been great computers, though there were exceptions like a Graphite iMac that liked to power down whenever it wanted and its replacement, a G4 tower that decided powering up wasn’t all that important.

The Macs I’ve owned since have been universally good, but they, like their owner, get old, do less and eventually get put out to pasture. My worst Apple disappointment had to be my iPhone 8. What a great phone, until it unceremoniously failed to work one morning. It sits, still, on my CD shelf; now a very expensive paperweight, but let’s not focus on the negative.

My other MacBook Air is now renamed the Bedtime Surfer, since I anticipate it will spend most of the rest of its days under my bed, waiting for me to use it in those minutes before I put out the lights.

I only wish it had room for a few more beer stickers.

Oh yeah, today’s writing soundtrack is Sometimes Just the Sky by Mary Chapin Carpenter. I’ve heard her name spoken for years but never really listened to her music until recently.

This record makes me realize I’ve been missing something special.

January 12: A fresh air

January 4: Storing (my) music

It used to be easy, kind of anyway.

In my life I’ve stored music on LP, CDs and cassettes. 8-track? Nope, I never went down that rabbit hole, not even in the bad old days of Madman Muntz. Cassettes are miserable. They suffer from nasty compression (though some like a more compressed sound) but, worse, even commercial cassettes were prone to stretching and print-through. I did have an early fondness for making my own cassettes from radio broadcasts of classical and jazz back in the 70s. Some of them sounded Ok, especially when they were new. I found a cache of them in the basement of my parents house when they died back in 2008. I thought, for a brief moment, about trying to play one of them but quickly thought better of it…another rabbit hole avoided.

Me? I choose bigger and better rabbits holes like LP, CD and now digital music. LPs used to rule my world like dinosaurs. It was very difficult to listen to CDs when you have easy access to a quality LP playback system and good LPs. But, CDs got better and at a fairly rapid rate. Digital music is hurtling forward in quality. Even everyday bluetooth (especially later versions). Technologies like Qualcomm’s aptX will just keep on coming. Now, just as a brief reality check even aptX taps out at the limits of commercial CD (16 bit / 44.1 kHz) which is good but even better is sure to follow. This reality causes my enthusiasm for LPs to hold steady if not lose a little steam. Hey, as luscious as LPs are to hold, play and listen to I don’t like the feeling of emphasizing the medium over the music.

Good LPs, those pressed from virgin vinyl are extremely durable. I have records from the 70s that have been played thousands of times that still sound fantastic. The records themselves will certainly last well over a century (absent another flood). Until recently I’m not sure the same could be said of CD. Some early CDs suffered from fatal de-lamination. I have no doubt that the materials will be stable for the same century plus. The encouraging recent development I referred to earlier was the sudden increase in the availability of new one-box CD players. For a while it was looking like buyers would have to settle for a DVD player (until those went the way of the dinosaur) or a more elaborate and expensive two-box (transport/DAC) solution. I haven’t heard any of the new CD players but I’m sure they’re all good to excellent. Everyone has access to superb chips today and that’s a win for everyone. My suspicion is that most two-box solutions from smaller companies use chip sets that are inferior to those used by the big boys. That’s just how it is when it is comes to digital. If you can’t buy in quantity you have to get by on less.

So, both CDs and LPs are archive quality. But both formats take up space and it’s starting to annoy me. Tomorrow I’ll tell you about where that annoyance is taking me.

By the way, it hit 64 today with 70 on tap for tomorrow. I like the sound (and feel) of that!

January 4: Storing (my) music

January 3: Come on, let’s all think about my music collection!

Yesterday, I laid out the raw numbers of my current music collection. There are a few hundred LPs and maybe 500-600 CDs. But wait, I’ve forgotten about the digital music from iTunes, Bandcamp and even a small smattering of music I bought from Amazon. Each purchase has one thing in common; it is as available and reliable as the company that has granted the me use rights to the music.

Like pretty much all rights, iTunes rights are beset by limitations. Hey, .99 cents (now $1.29) only buys you but so much. Let me tell you the story of a handful of songs I purchased by a fairly obscure singer named Brendan Campbell (from his 2008 record, Burgers and Murders). I bought the songs from iTunes quite a while back. But, earlier this year when I tried to play them I found that the songs were MIA (at least on my iPhone).

Well, that’s weird thought I…

Once I was back in my home office I checked my master iTunes library, which resides on the lovely if aged, 1TB drive of my elderly MacMini. There the missing songs were right where they were supposed to be, ready to play.

The cover of Campbell’s 2008 record…

WTF?

It took me and Mr. Google a couple minutes to solve this minor league tech puzzler. The answer resides not so much with iTunes but rather with the license granted to them by Mr. Campbell. It seems the two had a spat of some sort and the result is that iTunes can no longer sell (or allow access to) Campbell’s music even though I had previously purchased the songs.

The only reason I still have the songs is because a long time ago I downloaded (remember that 1TB drive?) the songs in question. If I had left them to float around the digital ether all this time the songs would be gone forever, or at least until Campbell’s work pops up somewhere else. Going forward who can say whether the rights granted by iTunes, et al are ephemeral or long standing?

I raise this issue because it serves to emphasize how important it is to have a downloaded, nailed-down (read residing on an actual hard drive you own) version of all the music you own. Sure, Campbell’s music comprises a financial investment of exactly $5.94 but the point is that I cannot find that music anywhere else, at least not as of this writing. The loss of those songs would go beyond the mere pittance I originally spent on them.

In the end, a valued music collection has to be archivable.

More on that tomorrow. By the way, it actually warmed up fairly well in the valley today. The mercury made it all the way to 64 today.

Not bad!

January 3: Come on, let’s all think about my music collection!

January 2: Quality, music & nostalgia

2020 was a year that I started to try to get a handle on my music collection. Years ago I lost over 2,000 treasured LPs in a flood. The insurance company first offered me $1 per record and ended up paying me $3 each. Still, that pretty much took out my collection save for the few hundred that escaped the hot, ravaging waters of the broken pipe.

A few of the survivors and my beloved Per Madsen Rack.

I would include a photo of my CDs, but they’re just so boring looking. Yesterday I wrote about Paul Simon’s disdain for contemporary music and I alluded to my music collection. I find that the more I write the more music I listen to. The listening is different, for the most part, than when I worked in and wrote about the high end audio industry. It is more of an accompaniment or a soundtrack. I no longer have a system, though I can still play LPs and CDs and hear them in free space. When the music or my brain demands it I listen on headphones, either wired or bluetooth. This is all heading toward how I intend to manage and grow my collection without as much physical mass to manage. The idea of using FLAC and dumping what’s left of my LPs onto a bunch of really big (an well backed up) hard drive is appealing. So is buying most (but not all of my music digitally through either iTunes or Bandcamp. I can’t quite wrest myself from the appeal of the physical so when I bought Deep Sea Diver’s new record I bought the LP from Bandcamp and it arrived signed by Jessica Dobson herself. Plus, Bandcamp tends to pay musicians a high percentage than iTunes.

C’mon, Jessica sent me Xs and Os…How do you pass that up?

It’s cool, but it’s also pretty damn physical. There may come a day where my enjoyment of buying and listening to records goes away altogether but I am not quite there yet. Digital and digital storage is just so convenient and it usually sounds fairly good. There’s a good chance one of the few benefits of aging will be the fact that my ability to discern good sound from bad sound will continue to decline. If I end up being happy to listen to a portable radio that’ll be just fine. My hearing already rolls off above 14kHz so I’m on my way!

Enough preamble. The word of the day is nostalgia. And my question is this: If you like something that happens to be old is your appreciation inherently possessed with nostalgia? What do we say when what’s old is really good let alone possible better than what’s new? Say we’re talking about Van Halen’s 1978 eponymously titled record or Steely Dan’s Katy Lied from 1975. Yup, I grew up with both. Still, each record is still fantastic by any measure. Do I have to admit that some of my appreciation for either work is dripping in nostalgia? Think about it and let me know. More tomorrow. I’m trying to keep the daily posts between 300-400 words. Wish me luck…

January 2: Quality, music & nostalgia

Is the Apple HomePod a genuine threat to high end audio?

Yes, it is.

No, it’s not a real high end product.

No, you won’t be replacing your real system, assuming you still have one, with a HomePod.

Yes, you will be impressed by how fundamentally musical it is.

HomePod

The Apple HomePod is the first mass-market product, designed by a company with real engineering wallop, that was actually designed by people who wanted it to sound good and that fact should put existential fear into every high end company that’s still on the right side of the grass.

Let’s talk about setup. It’s OK, but like all new Apple products it entails a few more steps than it should and Apple’s Home app is kludgy. Bummer, that, but once you’re done with it you’re done with it, or so it seems so far.

On the operational front I’ve observed that Pandora skips momentarily about every ten to fifteen minutes. The funny thing is that it never skips on my iPhone or when I’m using my Air Pods.

What the?

That problem gave me the chance to test Spotify.

Odd, no skipping whatsoever.

Who knows what’s up there but I’m willing to blame Pandora until and unless it starts to happen with other sources. Not surprisingly, playback from iTunes / Music is just dandy.

What the folks at Apple have done here is to swing a big, heavy hammer at what should be an easy target, and for them it was. The HomePod is a technically and acoustically complex product. They’ve crammed a bunch of drivers into that little pod. If a high end company, or a lesser tech company, tried to do what Apple has done the result would have been a sonic or functional mess and probably both.

The HomePod sounds remarkable coherent from top to bottom. Even though I’m using it as what would be regarded as a monophonic speaker the result is quite natural from a spatial perspective. Remember, stereo is a trick. This kind of mono is simply another kind of trick, and it works because Apple figured out how to make it work.

But wait, let me talk about why I felt I needed a better speaker in my office than my beloved Soundfreaq Sound Spot Wood + White. There are two reasons, really. The first is that I need a speaker in my bedroom, and the Sound Spot is perfect for that. The second and more important reason flows from the damn book I’m writing. This whole book-writing thing entails seemingly endless hours of ass sitting, which I already hate. I’m actually thinking of hiring a personal trainer so that all this extra time sitting doesn’t knock too much time off my life expectancy.

The HomePod’s fundamental listenability and (comparatively) full range presentation brings just enough music into my office that I’m not constantly driven to get up and change the record or put in another CD or whatever. I can turn it up to annoyingly high levels when the music or mood calls for it or turn it down to the edge of silence when I’m trying desperately to think and it stays musically convincing.

The Pod simply sounds good. Yes, it takes some liberties and creates a sould-warming upper-bass hump so you won’t notice the lack of mid and lower bass. And, yes, all those drivers lead to an occasional if surprisingly minor megaphone effect that’s especially noticeable on female vocals.

But then, something will come on that will catch your attention. Right now that’s Telegraph Road from Dire Straits. The cut has a lot of electronically generated space and a fairly high dynamic range for a rock recording. But, the Pod pulls it off. Somehow, especially at rational volumes, the musical presentation holds together is the exact way you need to draw your attention into the music.

Wow.

$250?

I cannot think of a $500 pair of stereo speakers from any high end manufacturer of any era that can match the Apple HomePod’s essential musicality.

That fact, all by itself, is why I regard the HomePod and all of the amazing stuff that will surely come after it such a threat to what’s left of the high end.

In closing, I’m trying to imagine what would be involved in streaming to the HomePod from an analog turntable. Obviously, a really good phono preamp (got one) and a really good DAC (ditto). Then, all I have to do is trick AirPlay2 into streaming the resulting data at full resolution to the HomePod.

Hmmm…

Who knows? Maybe this will be possible by the time I’m working on the sequel to the sequel.

All you high end audio folks should have heard this kind of product coming and from this kind of company because it’s already too late for you to get out of the way.

The Apple HomePod is simply good.

 

Is the Apple HomePod a genuine threat to high end audio?

Bowers & Wilkins A5 review

Back in the old days high end audio products had funny little niggles. Preamps would pop when you changed inputs. Volume potentiometers often miss-tracked until they hit their sweet spot somewhere around of after noon. When I was young and foolish I asked a designer why this was true. He told me that high end products were designed to sound good. Then, once a design sounded good a little grudging attention could be paid to getting rid of niggles, at least those niggles that could be corrected without affecting the sound.
This 20th century preamble is needed to discuss the 21st century Bowers & Wilkins A5 AirPlay speaker. The A5 is quite small (a little larger than a toaster) and very stylish looking. Once out of the box I found it looking quite at home perched on a shelf that is just a little higher than ear level when I’m seated on the sofa. Bowers & Wilkins has a set-up app that got the A5 integrated into my wireless system without delay.
The Good: The good thing about the A5 is how it sounds. It is nothing short of amazing in terms of its ability to generate significant and relatively effortless sounding SPLs. I’m sure matching drivers and enclosures to amplifiers has proven to be a genuine boon to the designers at Bowers & Wilkins. Vocals are especially good, significantly better than other Wi-Fi speakers I have used of similar size. Anyone who expects more fundamental musicality than the A5 can create has unreasonable expectations. The A5 sounds superb with all kinds of music.
The Not Quite as Good: Using the A5 ties you to AirPlay and that’s being tied to a work in progress that may never get much better. AirPlay is designed to allow disparate playback systems (TVs, speakers, etc.) to function with iTunes. Now, iTunes is the 800 pound gorilla and even though I have all of my music cataloged there, as a playback manager, iTunes is lacking. 
For example, if I start a track playing on my MacBook Pro and decide to play the selection through the Bowers & Wilkins A5 I need to be very careful. Why? Because AirPlay may decide to ramp up the volume to maximum when I select the A5 for playback. Interestingly, when I use AirPlay on an isomething  (iPod? iPhone? iPad?) it always wisely reduces the volume when it connects to the A5. Worse, and everyone is free to blame this on my Wi-Fi system, the system momentarily cuts out when the MacBook or the iPhone is engaged in any other processor-intense activity (like checking my email). Lastly, and this should be taken as evidence of AirPlay’s work in progress status, when my phone rings the music stops (whether I want it to or not) and does not resume at the end of the call.
When I first learned Bowers & Wilkins was going to be making products like the A5 I was excited. I knew B&W would be willing to do the engineering heavy lifting needed to make a product that brought high end sound to 21st century expectations of convenience and interconnection. I expected Bowers & Wilkins to build something that would go head to head with Sonos and do them one better. But, while the A5 betters Sonos in musical fidelity it is significantly less advanced than Sonos when it comes to control and convenience. That’s a problem because by its nature the A5 is a convenience product. I’m sure designing and executing a Sonos-like interface would have been a huge undertaking for Bowers & Wilkins. Then again, they are a company with a unique capacity (among high end companies) for such an effort.
That’s my challenge to Bowers & Wilkins: Keep everything that’s great about the A5 but develop your own interface and do it better than Sonos.
The A5 is worth the effort.
Bowers & Wilkins A5 review