OGH Music

Feb 01
Bushman’s Revenge: Jitterbug

Do I understand this album? No. Was I meant to? Probably no. Do I understand Stereophile making it album of the month, September 2010, after their reviewer Stephan Mejias had grown to like it in May that year, saying “it kills, but it also builds, it soars, it uplifts”- ? Well, eventually, yes. He evidently got the rest of the editorial board convinced, and I mainly agree, re-listening some years later. This is borderline stuff. Not just Hendrix-like solo guitar but put into place also. A new place. Challenging, but well worth it.

Jan 27
In honour of Keith Reid

Keith Reid was the poet behind the loosely-assembled ensemble “Procol Harum”. His texts are among the ones that  helped me through the late 60s and early 70s. It never failed. When I was down, I grew more optimistic. Reid wrote texts showing the failures of the “revolution” at that time., and yet the need to go on. “I will blacken your Christmas”. For Procol Harum, Reid wrote for a larger meaning, trying to show the aftermath of the holocaust, cf http://www.procolharum.com/99/kr_holocaust.htm

Listening today, 2012, his rhymes on Home are still often good and his overall effect seems sublime. Allmusic.com presents some of the story behind the album, but misses a main influence – the words, the content, and therefore does not give it enough credit. Come on folks, this is one of the best post-holocaust reflections you will ever get. It is surely worthy of an album pick, at this site.

There is a quite unique – very open – picture enclosed with the original Home LP, showing the two main band influences, Keith and Gary, at each side – the band members in the middle. These include Robin Thrower (below, second left). Yet they all cringe, here, confronted with the two geniuses, Keith (left) and Gary (right), who have quite some distance between them, Gary (like always?) trying to tell the point, while Keith just seems to stand there, listening, hands in his pockets. Yet he was crucial to the whole Procol Harum event.  As Wikipedia says, “Although he did not sing or play an instrument, lyricist Reid was a pivotal element to the long-term success of Procol Harum”. # […]

Jan 06
Destroyer Kaputt – and the destruction of sound

As noted in my earlier blog post, “the loudness war” is a case of mismanagement – and a conflict over what consumers hear. Some examples:

Destroyer: Kaputt – 2 x LP – sounds quite good and undistorted / non-compressed. The improved sound – compared to many other new LPs – allows the more subtle and symphonic ambitions to shine through, contributing a lot to my enjoyment of the music. The good sound helped the album to win critic awards and a strong score on 2011 best album lists (second, on Pitchfork).

The latest King Crimson and Yes incarnations,  Jakszyk, Fripp and Collins: A scarcity of miracles (including improved ‘frippertronics’) and Yes: Fly from here, also pass in my sound testing, as do the recent Kate Bush albums, and others.

Yet many others, like the latest album by War against drugs: Slave ambient, sound so-so and only mediocre. I don’t know exactly, but this effect mainly seems to be caused by too low resolution combined with too much compression. Fleet Foxes’ first LP is another example.

When I get frustrated by this suboptimal rendering of new music, and turn back to well-recorded all-analog albums from the 1970s or early 80s, before digital came into the chain, I hear none of these problems, but then again, I hear other problems, like – usually – a more limited soundscape with less low bass and high treble. The mid-tone “ambience”, however, is usually better, and this often makes up for what is missing in the frequency extremes. There is more of a feeling that this music is actually created by musicans playing together. Instruments do not just make sounds “on their own”, but in combination with others. These combinations are more deeply and subtly reproduced, in the best analog recordings, before digital over-optimism took over.

However, this techno-optimist tendency did not start with the loudness and compression, or even with the CD and the soon-to-be-proven false idea of CD resolution as “perfect”. It started with transistors. We produced the Doors’ albums with gradually worse sound, the sound engineer has told in a recent interview (see http://musicangle.com/feat.php?id=144). At the time (1967-70), the Electra studio console was changed from a tube system to a solid state transistor system. Studios dropped their established tube gear in favour of new, and acclaimed better, transistor gear.  Even if, in hindsight, and by today’s listening criteria, there is no doubt that the sound changed mainly for the worse!

The Doors were among my favourite groups, I have many versions of their LPs including Mobile fidelity pressings and the recent box set, and my listening experience is the same as sound engineer Bruce Botnick’s. The sound got increasingly “transistor-like” brittle and hard, even if the frequency spectrum perhaps became a bit larger and flatter.

The loudness war, like the sugar war, are examples of market mechanisms working suboptimally – at least from a textbook liberal economic point of view. Why are they suboptimal? They typically start with a good idea, but over time, the new patten or idea turns into a kind of arthritis pattern, blocking the market distribution system from functioning in the ways it should do, the ways that market ideologists from Adam Smith onwards envisioned, with the market as a tool for improving society through increased wealth. So for example, through the “dirty” means of profit, the music market would create better music than earlier distribution forms.

This “increased wealth” part is obviously part of the problem. It turns sour, changing into over-eager profit-making. Turn it up, to sell better. But it is not the only part. There is an idealist element too, perhaps a kind of “engineer’s idealism”. This was what translated better sound in some ways (the CD, measuring better than it actually sounded to human ears), into some high-flying “perfect” heavenly attribute. So it would seem that belief and religion, “religious” ways of making market arguments, have an influence too.

Whatever the cause, market solutions are found that may be good then and there (e g the introduction of the CD), but not so good over time, developing into almost “feudal” hindrances to free market initiatives. They involve some short-term market development, and yet turn into a blocking of development and real change for the better. Not only was there no “perfect sound”, this very ideology and business rationale actively helped monopolize the market and keep innovations down (like, only a half-life for the better formats like SACD).

Similar twisted paths can probably be found in much consumer (and producer) industry, even in our “enlightened” world. Why such things happen, is an interesting task for research.

Jan 06
The loudness war

The loudness war is now discussed in Norway also (“lydstyrkekrigen”). It is not a war. The use of the term says something of our time. But it is a fairly bad case of mismanagement. Like the idea – perhaps not when it first formulated, but when it was later repeated – of the CD as “perfect sound forever”. This case of mismanagement is similar to using too much sugar when producing food.

Sugar is sweet, and cheap, why not use it to raise food business profits? This time, it is music business profits, with sound compression the equivalent of sugar. Same shit, new wrapping. Loudness functions as “ear candy”. The music sounds more engaging, especially in the beginning. It has a greater chance to catch the ear, over a lot of other noise. Compression means that the sound level is turned up, so it all sounds louder  -and initially more engaging.

The cost of this loudness turn-up and compression, is that it all sounds more tiresome after a while, like sugar not being so good for the body. Especially, the intense parts are limited or cut off. The sound is quite nasty especially during these parts, as a lot of internet users have complained. I just read a user complaining “it sounds like poo”. New terms are used to describe the problem, the music sounds “crushed”. The typical listener reaction, the first line of defense, is to turn the volume down. But then the music is no longer so engaging – which was the goal, in the first place.

The extra sugar, or loudness, is more easily heard, the better and more truthful the sound reproduction system. On a quality sound system, the same music sounds good on quiet to moderate or less dynamic passages, but turns hard and brittle on dynamic passages. Clearly something is not working very right. This now gets critique from vinyl record buyers especially, not just oldie audiofiles but the hip young crowd also, complaining that their new favourite today’s year group actually sounds worse than some post-punk LP from 1985 or so.

An example is the ambitious and often successful Danish band Mew. Their newest album No more stories is well pressed on two fairly thick vinyl LPs. The vinyl production is fine. The problem is the master used in the first place – it seems to be the same compressed master used for the CD, whatever the case, the sound is not right. It is fine when the group is quiet, ok when it is louder, but bad when it gets loud. How come? Such LPs should have a warning sticker “COMPRESSED SOUND”. Even better, the sticker should specify the digital or analog copy method used, and if digital, the resolution used, along with the amount of compression.

Buying new LPs, I tend to hear three typical detractors from enjoyment. The first, and worst by far, is the compression discussed above. The second is digital copying with too low resolution. The third is poor production, very common in the early 2000s when it looked like the LP was going to die, but improved and less common now. Some quality record labels –  Speaker’s corner comes to mind – very often give good sound, avoiding compression and minimizing digital problems. Some bands and artists are very keen on getting the best sound, not just the best music, like Tom Petty and Steven Wilson. Whenever I see the name “Bernie Grundman” and other good producers I tend to look once more at the title, this usually means good sound. The Grundman-produced Shelby Lynne: Give me some loving LP is great. ECM’s new vinyl, at least Nik Bartsch: Llyria are very good, no compression here and not much digitalis either (this is not so strange, since it seems that most or all of the recording is done in the analog domain in such cases). However, these are niche products.

In Norway, recording studios like Kirkelig kulturverksted often produce good music, but the sound is not high class, but only mid-level resolution, slightly higher than CD. When this is put to vinyl, the results are often only mediocre, as on Kari Bremnes: Reise, a live LP. The sound is clearly inferior to the better resolution and production on Kari Bremnes: Norwegian mood (which got some special EU audiofile attention). This seems typical.

One of last year’s most-favoured and most-sold albums, Adele: 21, has upset the discerning buying public by its compressed sound. I can hear it even on my PC, and can very well understand why those investing in the LP get mad about it. The internet is full of complaints.

So we will see, who wins the sugar war or the loudness war, who brings home the bacon, and who will fry.

Apr 19
Music: Tubes and transistors, once more

Question: will a high quality 2 x 80 watt mono block tube amplifier, based on 211 tubes, perform better with big difficult speakers like Dynaudio Consequence (a 5-way system), than the Krell FPB600 transistor amp?

Short answer: no.

I tested, borrowing a friend’s tube mono blocks, each weighing 50 kg or so, due to big oversize transformers. These were hardcore 80 watts, the amps should be able to drive difficult loads, or be much like a higher number of official transistor watts, say 150 to 200.

I noticed some interesting things on the way.

First, the tube amps would not get a decent volume in my ca 45 m2 room until I put the preamp volume at four o’clock – with the Krell, it reaches this level already at one o’clock. I first thought, well, this goes to show how power-hungry the Consequences are, but I also tested with a small Royd Sorcerer speaker, and the story was much the same there (or, to three o’clock). The amps need a stronger than usual input signal, which by itself should not influence the sound quality much. Possibly, my IO preamp sounds best cranked up, as long as it goes beyond 11 or 12 (with the Krell), it sounds fine.

I measured the decibel level in the listening position, music came alive around 75-85 decibel, much the same as with the Krell, although this required a higher than usual preamp volume.

Second, the tube amps are the first I have tried that seriously makes an attempt to make the Consequence speakers work. My small Ming Da 38 watts stereo tube amp does not work very well, making the speakers sound strange and thin.

However, even if “the hand” (amp) was now large enough to try out the “glove” (speaker), it was not a very good fit. The 80 watt tube amps did not “hold” the speakers in the way achieved by the Krell, not surprising, since the latter has perhaps x 2 or 3 in objective power level (hard to say exactly, many variables involved).

This was most noticeable on dynamic large scale music, but also on attacks, transients etc. The speakers sounded somewhat hollow, and the music somewhat strained.

In fact, after some hours of testing, my wife sat down to listen, and after an hour, concluded, “no, this does not work out, the sound is bad”. She used words like “hard, straining”; I would also say, “flat”.

Third, the experiment cast the Krell in a good light. Ken Kessler, reviewing the FPB 600 amp in Stereophile in 1997, was right when he said that the Krell was almost indistinguishable from good tube equipment in some key areas. The 2 x 80 tube monoblocs sounded remarkably “Krell-like” in suprising ways, for me, – quite analytical, much more frequency-linear and less “tubey” than my small Ming Da tube amp (less of a bell curve). The were less sweet than the Krell!

I have read reviewers writing of the convergence of transistor and tube, but have not experienced it for myself. The tubes sounded a bit harder and more analytical than the Krell – but this may be due to the fact that they were not quite powerful enough to drive the speakers properly, and perhaps also that the 211 tubes were not optimal. A main symptom was the hard, strained sound at high music volumes, and another that voices were not pronounced by the tube amps, as they should have been, but were instead more hollow, as if lost in the mix. A likely cause is power limitation, too few watts to drive the speakers properly, fill the “glove”.

One of my conclusions is, that the next time I suspect the Krell amp for adding transistor-related types of pollution to the sound, I should pause, and look for other factors instead.  The transistor hardness was not much notable in the test.

Why do I take the trouble of this kind of test? Heavy hifi is, well, heavy. Changing cables, carrying equipment, adjusting and listening takes time. This is by intention my hobby only. I have no work connection or commercial interests in the audio field.

One reason is that I often hear various kinds of noise and sound pollutions. I listen to music and play some, as a musician, and since my positioning in music is as participant, not just spectator, I can’t help looking for what to blame, or what could be set (more) right. This is “the audio bug”, but it has also helped me and my family to get much more out of music than we would otherwise have achieved.

If I suspect the Krell, should I be more careful, perhaps the source is somewhere else? A possible broader conclusion has to do with – in audiophile terms – component matching and system synergy. If you drive speakers right, they will sound less hard, more dimensional, improving the imaging, and so on, everything will fall into place.  You should test a component in its optimal system setting.

Apr 19
Music: Wizz Jones: “Right now” (1972) remastered

The German record label Speaker’s Corner has remastered and rereleased Wizz Jones 1972 LP Right now.

Why is this a great event? One, because the LP is great. Two, because it sounds better than ever before.

The LP has been an almost unobtainable secret classic, but it is also quite variable. Listen to its best tracks, especially on side one, and ignore the fillers, especially on side two. The best tracks include “Which of them you love the best”, with outstanding ensemble playing, singing, and thoughtful lyrics from Alan Tunbridge; “One grain of sand”, a great song by Pete Seeger brought successfully into a humble, c0ntemplative form; and “City of the angels” (Tunbridge), with exceptionally excellent guitar work from John Renbourn and Wizz Jones, playing duo.

Overall, the guitar work on the album is outstanding, or at least very competent, on the throwaway filler tracks. And the mood on the best tracks is very worthwhile, even today – we are a bit after the “youth revolt”, the 1960s revolution, the music reflects on what happened, what could it be. It is tentative, limited, in the works – and sometimes works all the better because of it.

The album was mainly ignored when it was released in 1972. So much happened at the time, and not many people got to hear it. All the more honour to  Speaker’s Corner, rereleasing it today.

I don’t know how they do it, but this label has served me very well. No sense of digitalis here. For example, their remaster of Santana’s Caravanserai sounds much better than the MoFi remasters of the two first Santana LPs, which appeared around the same time, a couple of years ago. The MoFis are harder and flatter, the SC softer, more dimensional, deeper.  Some of my SC LPs (like Caravanserai, and another goodie, Supersession) are cut a bit below standard volume, but that is not the case with Right now. My friend Bjørn Moe has A-B tested the reissue and the original CBS LP, which he owns, and he confirms that the reissue in many ways sounds better. The sound is more “here”, it pops out, dynamics seems greater. This is the case also with Steely Dan: Cant buy a thrill, another excellent SC reissue.

Apr 07
Music: Resolution eats tweaks for breakfast

Stereophile had a comment to this effect, some months ago. It means: a step up in resolution will be more important than most tweaks to your sound system. Here is a new experiment, using my Cowon D2 small mobile music player.

1 Listening to Tom Petty: Mojo on LP on my main system, sound is quite good, ensemble playing enjoyable.

2 Downloading the hi-res (Flac) digital version of the same LP – will not play on the Cowon D2.

3 Downloading the mp3 version. Plays OK, but the sound is hard and digital. Turn it off, please.

4 Recording from the LP through the Korg MR1 DSD recorder, then downsampling to the best (standard CD) resolution the Cowon player can handle (using Korg’s Audiogate), and downloading to the Cowon. Result: much better. A much more embodied, relaxed but also lively sound, more like true music. More, thanks.

Conclusion: Considering how much mechanics and potential error that alternative 4 goes through, using a technology from a century ago, the result is in a sense quite amazing. However the resolution of the LP is even higher than that of today’s “hires” digital recordings, so the improvement shines through. Even downsampled down the chain, a higher upchain resolution makes a major difference.

Mar 08
Music: What is “pop”?

Arcade fire, The Suburbs, comes close. So does Arthur’s Landing, Yeasayer and others played a lot recently, including Amanda Palmer and John Grant. Pop is not about enhancing success, it is about raking the claws of life into the superficial face of the winner, the uproar under the song of success.  It sings from below as much as above. Good pop is social reportage and comment, combined with good music, by my reckoning.

I may be a dinosaur. My judgement is basically the same since I heard the first great pop songs of the Beatles, the Kinks, and others, in my youth. Yet I feel proud, not shamed. Like, Let England shake ( P J Harvey). This is a great way to judge music, as relevant as ever. Social reportage and comment meaning an extended sense of democracy, a core theme of good pop music.

Feb 22
Hugg’s Neon Dream – and a sound check

As many, eventually, have noticed, Mike Hugg’s Neon Dream (1975) is a remarkable and overlooked record. Cf http://prognotfrog.blogspot.com/2010/04/mike-hugg-hug-neon-dream-1975.html

Broadly speaking it sums up a substantial part of the 1960s pop revolution experience, centred on the Mannfred Mann band case, and perhaps more intelligently, or at least as interestingly, reworked in Hugg’s case as in the case of Mannfred’s Earth Band. Hugg was more jazz-oriented, but perhaps also more true to the band’s prog roots. As on his two first albums, the cuts are often long and involved, yet less bleak, they often rock seriously, and deliver their pop message too.

I am in the unique position of having a master tape copy of this record, copied directly to tape.  I got this copy tape in the late 1970s, often enjoying it played back on my Revox A77.  What does a digital version of the analog master tape sound like, compared to digital version of vinyl records?

The  object of this test is a digital SDS recording from the analog copy played back on the (possibly somewhat rusty) Revox analog tape recorder, using the Korg Mr-1 recorder, compared to vinyl digital recordings.

Not to surprise you – it sounds glorious. The limitations are interesting too. It sounds great within a more narrow soundscape than the one attempted by later technology. I have to overlook a certain amount of missing bass, and tune in on the middle tone. Some treble is missing too, but this is not as noticeable, since the sound coherence on the mid level is so good that it mainly makes up for it. The sound is more free and natural than what I often associate with digital and even SACD sound, more dimensional, even if it is in a limited sound envelope.

On my test player (Cowon D2) I have Passport: Looking Through (1974) after Hugg. It is a better but also more slick recording. It is hard to evaluate sound differences across recordings, but my main impression is, as many times before, that the “going through vinyl” method works remarkably well – considering that it should not work so well. It should clearly detract from the sound, but it doesn’t. Instead it creates a somewhat different kind of sound, not clearly inferior to the master tape copy, in my case. Some of it may be “being used to it”. The vinyl sort of “prolongs the case”, while the master tape has it “right there”. With a somewhat inferior master tape case, and a good vinyl reproducer, it is hard to decide, but this remains an impression.

Feb 15
Haba haba – beyond racism

Babel Fish Depend on me did not make it to the final Norway Melody Grand Prix, but it should be said that it lost gracefully and indirectly perhaps helped pave the way, for a song like Stella Mwangi’s Haba haba to win. The winner can perhaps send out an even stronger signal about a new cultural message, a Kenyan face and a Norwegianized persona, as the media focus the event. The final, this year, was more than usually interesting, with quite different Norwegian traditions including variants of Norway (noway?) Americana. Some good independent Norwegians were squeezed out in the first round already, and subversive music was probably a bit downplayed in the final people’s choice round too, yet on the whole the MGP has emerged as a more democratic arrangement, no mistaking the team spirit as well as the competition in NRK’s handling. The people’s choice for the crosscultural message of Stella was, in one Norwegian newspaper’s words, a “knockout”.

Haba haba is an appeal about what to do, while the fathering in Babel Fish’s Depend on me is a more vague appeal what to be, what it consists of is less clear. True, in Haba haba, the doing is fairly basic, it is a about dancing, and social orientation and relations are far less pronounced, but everyone can do it, appealing to a basic element of pop music as a democratizing (and gender etc conflict resolving) force. Babel Fish has portrayed fathering as practice in other songs, eg. beautiful rendering of lullabyes – but not with the same dance and do it now factor. In the broader view, I agree with Blood Sweat and Tears, The Child is Father to the Man (or in modern words, children to their parents). The idea beyond the musical form is to capture a sense of a better society, a better future for young people, which is – in the sidelines – what the MGP and similar contests are all about.

Whatever the cause, the people’s judgement selecting Haba haba with several hundred thousand votes, is a calming note for “ethnic fear”.  It is a slap in the face of racism in Norway and everywhere. It is perhaps a sign of people power, as in Egypt, so also in Norway, we shall see. Norwegians have some fire too.

One year in the early 1970s I  helped create an alternative to the  commercialization of MGP, an alternative and well visited music event in Oslo, arranged by the music organization Samspill. I was coeditor of the organization’s music magazine, that was critical of the MGP arrangement for failing to show what actually went on, advancing music, including new pop music. In later years, I must admit, I followed MGP at a more critical distance, with half-closed senses, sometimes just shutting off the TV in exasperation. This, also, is why it is interesting to notice the greater social dimensionality in 2011 and the more fair “doable” competition. Haba haba. All together now.