Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Molten Rolled

A new tune, Molten Rolled, is up on the Parametric Monkey page.  You can also find it on Soundcloud.

Molten Rolled grew out of efforts to learn a new DAW (Cubase) and a new groovebox +MIDI interface (Maschine).  Both worked well and since at this point I’ve only dipped my toes into what each of them can do, I’m looking forward to more music making in the future.

The synth lead was built in Razor while the countervailing horns are a combination of a tenor sax and a pair of trombones playing in octaves.  The bass is a layered combination of basses from Razor and Halion.  The drums were played in Maschine using sampled hits from multiple sources.

08/01/2011 Posted by | music | Leave a comment

The dismal sound quality of some popular music and a simple solution

Most of the music we listen to on a daily basis falls under the general categories of electronic, classical or jazz.  The sound system in our main listening area is a fairly good one composed of 600 series Thiel speakers powered by a pair of Parasound JC1 monoblock amps.  The CD transport is a Sony XA5400ES and the digitial to audio conversion is handled by the DACS in an Anthem D2V processor.  This system is more than capable of letting the music recorded on standard redbook CDs shine and the music we typically listen to sounds terrific on it.  The sound is full, rich, expansive, excting and alive.

Lately we have been spending time listening to some music that is intended for a broader mass-market than most of the music we play.  The recording companies spend a lot more money producing this more popular music and promote and market it much more aggressively because they end up making much more profit from it.  In many cases – not all, but many – the music sounds terrible, especially in comparison with the other types of music we listen to.  The sound is thin, flat, limited, dull and lifeless.  The music is good, the sound of the music is dismal.  What’s going on?

One possibility is that the difference lies in our sound system.  It’s more sophisticated, refined and expensive than the sound systems many people have in their homes.  Maybe the differences we’re hearing are only discernible on very high-end “stereophile” systems.  This isn’t the problem.  The difference in sound quality is striking and although it might not be apparent on a $200 stereo-in-a-box from Best Buy, it would be easy to hear on a system that costs 5% or 10% of the price of the system we listen to.  The problem isn’t the gear, it’s how the music is produced for the consumer.

Music is mixed and mastered to appeal to the perceived tastes of the kind of listener that likes a particular kind of music.  Maybe the problem lies in the belief of the big record companies that people who listen to music marketed for mass appeal are less sophisticated, less discerning, and more easily satisfied by cheap, shitty sound production than people who listen to classical, jazz or electronic music.  This isn’t the problem either.  I don’t know what beliefs about different groups of listeners are prevalent within the large record companies but the idea that people who listen to music designed for mass appeal can’t hear the difference between well-produced and poorly produced sound is too idiotic to consider.

Music is also mixed and mastered to sound good on the playback technology on which it will typically be heard.  This is where the problem lies.  Music produced for the mass market is mixed and mastered to sound good when encoded as an MP3 and played through ear buds attached to an MP3 player because this is the preferred technology for many people who enjoy mass produced music.  Both the storage format (MP3) and the playback technology (earbuds) put severe limitations on sound quality.

MP3 is designed to reduce the amount of data used to capture music so that music files will use less bandwidth.  The general idea is analogous to decreasing the resolution of your computer monitor.  With lower resolutions there are less data to process and you can get by with less powerful graphics card in your computer.  You also get a crappier picture.  Think of the difference between current HDTV and the old-style standard TV as something like the difference between MP3 and redbook CD.  Or look at the difference between the image on your computer monitor set at 800 x 600 resolution and, say, 1900 x 1200 or 1600 x 1240.  MP3 reduces the resolution of a CD by removing about 90% of the information that is present on the CD.

That’s a lot of of information to get rid of.  What do they cut out?  This is where the limitations of earbuds come into the picture.  Earbuds can’t produce either the high frequencies that give music expansiveness and air or the low frequencies that give it weight and power.  Because of this, music that is mixed for MP3 playback through earbuds simply cuts off both the high and low frequencies at artificial levels to eliminate them from the recording.  This eliminates a lot of the original music but not enough to produce the 90% reduction that characterizes standard MP3 recordings.  To get down to keeping only 10% of the information on the original CD, MP3 thins the music it keeps by eliminating music that is claimed to be redundant or unhearable.

Dynamic range refers to the difference between the loudest and softest passages in a song.  Music produced for mass appeal has almost no dynamic range at all because everything is mixed to play back at very close to maximum loudness.  (The trend toward producing music this way is often referred to as the loudness war).  Dynamic range can make music exciting and emotionally arousing as, for example, the music builds to a powerful and overwhelming crescendo or a kick drum, horn fanfare or guitar chord leaps out of the mix to make an emotional statement.  This all gets lost when the music is mixed at maximum loudness.  Emotional highs and lows are replaced with a constant blaring drone.  However, it works very well for MP3 playback over earbuds where listening takes place in noisy environments in which the music has to drown out ambient noise, and the combined limitations of the MP3 format and earbud technology make it difficult or impossible to produce dynamic range effects anyway.

Cutting out the highs, cutting out the lows, thinning out what is left, and mixing everything at maximum loudness works well for MP3s and earbuds.  It also produces music that is thin, flat, dull and lifeless.  When you listen to music that has been mixed and mastered for MP3 and earbuds on equipment that allows you to hear everything that is present in the recording, you hear that there’s not very much there to hear.

Why doesn’t classical, jazz and a lot of electronic music have this problem?  The main audiences for classical and jazz are not listening to MP3s through earbuds.  They’re listening to CDs played over sound systems.  If classical and jazz were mixed and mastered with the same limitations as music intended for the MP3/earbud market, it would sound terrible and the audience wouldn’t buy it.  Much electronic music is dance or club oriented.  The dull and limited MP3 mixes would die a quick death when played through a club’s powerful sound system.  Another factor that probably contributes to electronic music being mixed well is that for electronic music the musician and the music producer is often one and the same person.  It’s hard to make a piece of music you think sounds great and then kill it by mixing it for MP3 and earbuds.

There’s a very simple solution for this problem – create two mixes, one optimized for MP3 and earbuds and one optimized for redbook CD.  This would seem to be good for everyone.  It’s good for people who buy music because both consumers who prefer MP3 and earbuds and consumers who prefer CDs and home sound systems get music that is produced to sound as good as it can using the playback technology they prefer. It’s good for the record companies in several ways.  First, the record company’s cost for creating the second mix is negligible in comparison with the cost of producing, promoting and marketing a high profile group.  Second, there will be some segment of the market who will buy the music twice, one version to sound great on their MP3 player and another version to sound great through their home sound system.  Third, there will also be a segment of the market that will come to prefer the full, rich, high resolution sound that MP3s and earbuds can’t reproduce.  Those listeners will have a tendency to buy the better sounding mixes of the music they loved in their MP3 days.  The music industry thrives on repackaging the same music over and over again so they can sell it to people more than once.  Releasing dual mixes optimized for different playback technologies fits right into that strategy.  Finally, the music industry has been having fits about their loss of revenue as a significant segment of their market moved from CDs to MP3s.  One solution to that problem seems so obvious that it’s surprising it hasn’t become commonplace.  Give people something on CDs that they can’t get on MP3s.  If you’ve read this far, you know what that something is – the much higher quality sound that is possible with music mixed and mastered to make full use of the sound reproduction possibilities inherent in the redbook CD format.  The music companies get an expanded market for a very small additional cost.  The music listener gets music that sounds great on whatever technology they prefer.  Everybody wins.

01/11/2011 Posted by | music, music business, Music production, Opinion | 2 Comments

Review: Little Big Town, The Road to Here

Like most everybody, I love it when my basic beliefs are confirmed by experience.  I love it even more when confirming those beliefs show up my biases and prejudices as just what they are – worthless biases and prejudices.  I don’t much care for country music, in fact I’ve been known to get up and leave to avoid having to listen to it.  But I also believe that having an open mind and open ears is fundamentally important.  So, periodically I pick up a well-thought-of album in a genre I don’t typically enjoy and try and listen to it with open ears.  I heard a song by Little Big Town, liked it, looked into the band, found out they are marketed as a county band, and decided to test my open ears practice with their first album, The Road to Here.  Smart move.  Open ears are good, bias is not.

Little Big Town are four singer-songwriters Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild, Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook who do two things exceptionally well – write songs and sing them.

The first thing that will strike you when you hear The Road to Here are the vocals.  Each member of the group can sing, their voices work beautifully together, and The Road to Here is built from the ground up on their ensemble singing.  Little Big Town is vocal group first and a collection of individual singers second.  Moreover, they emphasize harmony vocal charts rather than unison singing (everybody sings the same note).  It’s hard to write a good song with a strong vocal lead.  It’s a lot harder to write a song with four intertwining vocal parts.  Little Big Town hit it time and time again.  “Boondocks” has the kind of lyrics that embarrass sophisticates who turn their nose up at this kind of music but the vocal harmonies are so exquisite and the hooks are so strong that the song is irresistible.  And if that isn’t enough they sing a break down and then launch into a four way round for the out choruses.  “A Little More You” has what first appears to be a standard lead vocal playing off a choral background until the chorus turns the word “you” into an eight note riff every fourth measure.  It’s a jaw-dropper.

Little Big Town’s exceptional vocal skills are matched by their songwriting.  Not only can they write killer quartet vocal charts they have a pronounced ability to fit the words to the rhythm and melody lines.  They know when to stretch a word and when to hit it short and sharp so that melody, rhythm and lyrics come across as a smooth and seamless whole.  When this is done well the result sounds effortlessly natural and deceptively simple.  It’s not.

If I have one complaint about The Road to Here it lies in the way the album was mixed.  With one exception, the vocals on all of the tracks on the album are mixed tight.  This strategy works because the voices are so tightly meshed.  However one track, “Bones”, was mixed by a different engineer and he used closer miking and gave each individual vocal more space in the mix.  The exceptional communication these four singers have with each other isn’t lost but the individual harmony parts are sharpened.  It’s a small thing but I would have enjoyed hearing more of the album mixed this way.

Before the internet allowed bands with little experience actually playing together to become overnight sensations, first albums were often career highlights because the band had perfected the songs through long practice and many live performances.  The Road to Here has this sound of songs that have been refined and buffed to perfection.  If you like vocal harmony, listen to this album.  It’s terrific.  Recommended.

“Bones”

“A Little More You”

“Boondocks”

10/18/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Todd Terje, Remaster of the Universe

The Norwegian trio of Todd Terje, Prins Thomas and Hans-Peter Lindstrom spearheaded the Nu-Disco, Space Disco or Nu-Balearic (the music went by lots of names) movement.  Remaster of the Universe is Terje’s summation of his work in that genre.  It’s a two disc collection that includes a 17-track mix by Terje on the first disc and an unmixed compilation of 9 of his remixes on the second disc.

The press release for Remaster of the Universe indicated that the collection is intended as Terje’s farewell to the world of remixing and that now he is going to “heal the world with proper self-composed music”.  Wow.  “Heal the world”?  “Remaster of the universe”?  Sounds like Terje has an immensely inflated opinion of himself that’s out of all proportion with his actual abilities.  He’s good, but he’s not anywhere near as good as he apparently thinks he is.

Terje’s mix on CD 1 is composed almost entirely of his own remixes.  It’s a decent mix that’s certainly worth a listen or four but it isn’t in the same league as the DJs who do this kind of thing for a living.  The meat of Remaster of the Universe is the compilation of Terje’s remixes on the second disc.  On the basis of what he gives us here, Terje doesn’t have the musical depth of Lindstrom nor the timbral breadth of Prins Thomas but within his narrower range of ability he produces first-rate remixes.  Almost every track on the disc is a winner and more than a few are recognized as classics of the genre.

Listeners who like space disco/nu Balearic/nu disco or the music of Lindstrom or Prins Thomas will almost certainly enjoy Remaster of the Universe.  If you’re unfamilair with these names or genre labels but like music that rides a compelling groove into laid-back bliss, check Remaster of the Universe out.

Terje’s remix of Rogue Cat’s “Magic Journey”

09/01/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Walter Gibbons, Jungle Music

In the world of dance music, Walter Gibbons’ reputation is an all or none kind of thing:  People either revere him as an immensely talented and creative pioneer of both live turntable-based mixing and studio remixing or they’ve never heard of him.  I’m guessing most people fall into the latter group which is a shame because the people in the former group have it right.  Walter Gibbons was a monster.

Gibbons became widely known in the very early days of the underground dance scene in New York when he became one of the regular DJs at Galaxy 21.  He was exceptional at extending breaks and beat matching records and could handle the turntables with a precision that rivaled Grandmaster Flash.  Galaxy 21 was an after-hours joint and Gibbons became the DJ the other DJs went to see when their gigs ended.

Ken Cayre, one of the owners of the foundational disco label Salsoul Records, heard Gibbons mix two recordings of Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” during one of Gibbons’ sets and asked him if he could do the same thing in the studio.  Gibbins said no problem and Cayre asked him to make a remix for Salsoul.  Cayre gave Gibbons three hours in the studio to do it.  In those three hours Gibbons extended the album version of the song by almost three minutes and gave Salsoul a remix that outsold the original by two to one and was widely seen as opening record company eyes to the fact that remixes could provide a lucrative revenue stream.

As Gibbons’ life as a studio remixer grew, his career as a live DJ waned.  His career in the studio would soon follow.  A good deal of his professional downslide was due to Gibbons’ personality and his approach to music.  Gibbons was a creative and original artist who focused on the quality of the music he was making to the exclusion of what anyone else wanted to hear.  As a result, he was often way out in front of the curve making music that many in the dance audience weren’t ready to listen to.  “Set it Off”, the first release from a label Gibbons partially owned, is a good example.  It combined elements of early hip-hop and contemporary dance music in ways neither audience was prepared for.  When first played in clubs it would clear the dance floor.  However, DJs who heard the value of the track made it a regular part of their mix and audiences came to demand it once they became familiar with it.

Gibbons was an intensely focused man and when his interest in the Bible and Christianity turned to zealotry, he became very difficult to work with in the studio.  He refused to work on songs that contained lyrics that he didn’t find uplifting or that celebrated what he saw as the degrading and promiscuous side of homosexuality.  He was intolerant of other’s views and given to delivering sermons in the studio.  Working with him became more trouble than it was worth.  Gibbons spent the last weeks of his life living in a YMCA in New York.  He died of complications from AIDS in 1994.  He was 38.

The core of Gibbons’ musical talent lay in his exquisite understanding of and appreciation for rhythm and percussion.  That talent is on display throughout the 14 tracks on Jungle Music‘s 2 discs.  The first disc focuses on his early mixes for labels like Salsoul and includes remixes of tracks by Gladys Knight, the Salsoul Orchestra and Bettiye Lavette among others.  Some of this material may sound like standard disco remix fare until you realize that when Gibbons built these tracks, there was no standard disco fare.  He was making the mold that so many others would use.

The second disc focuses on his later remixes and it is easy to hear how unique Gibbons was and how far beyond most of his contemporaries he had moved.  It’s no accident that two of the remixes on disc two were done for Arthur Russell, another recently rediscovered giant of the early underground music scene.  Some of  Gibbons’ remixes wouldn’t sound out of place today.

Gibbons has been criminally neglected in terms of making his music available for current audiences.  Jungle Music stands as the exception.  The collection includes two discs of high-quality remixes coupled with a booklet with an extensive essay about Gibbons written by Tim Lawrence the author of the superb Love Saves the Day.  Jungle Music may be hard to find but if you like highly creative, rhythmic dance music or if you have an interest in the pioneers of underground dance music or DJ studio remixing, grab a copy while you can.  There is some exceptionally good music here.

Gibbons’ 12″ mix of Strafe’s “Set It Off”

08/30/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Various Artists, Ministry of Sound The Annual 2010

Like many other label/club/brands Ministry of Sound puts out a yearly compilation of dance music.  Unlike other dance music conglomerates they put out different versions of the Annual in different countries.  I’ve seen UK, US, Australian and German versions. I’m guessing they are attempting to pitch each collection at what they perceive to be the differing tastes of  dance music fans in each country.  With that thought in mind I picked up the German version because I thought Germany’s preeminence in the world of electronic dance music ought to result in a compilation aimed at a knowledgeable and discerning audience.  In other words, I expected the German Annual to be the most interesting of the three.  It is also three CDs while the others I saw are two.

The discs are mixed but little real thought or effort has gone into sequencing.  It’s basically just one beat-matched song after another without a break between tracks.  If you know someone who thinks big-name DJ mix CDs are just some guy playing a bunch of songs, play your favorite DJ mix CD for them and then any of the three discs in the German Annual.  The contribution of a good DJ should be obvious pretty quickly.

If this is Ministry of Sound’s idea of the kind of music their most sophisticated audience is tuned in to, I think I’d best avoid the compilations from other countries.  The German version of the Annual is basically three discs of bangin’ club music with a fairly strong emphasis on vocal content.  Much of it is cliche-ridden and fairly unimaginative.  One the one hand, with three discs there’s a lot of music here.  On the other hand, it gets old fast and you’ve still got the rest of disc 1 plus all of discs 2 and 3 to go.

08/17/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Review: Crowded House, Intriguer

It’s interesting to watch what happens with popular musicians as they age.  Some disappear after their time of stardom and then reappear and do dinosaur tours when their demographic hits the nostalgia stage (any number of hair metal bands).  Some stay in the spotlight ridiculously pretending they’re still 20 years old (Mick Jagger).  Some come out of retirement and humiliate themselves with embarrassing Super Bowl shows that are all about the money-grab (The Who).  And some, like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and many jazz musicians, continue to make vibrant music that grows increasingly rich and deep with age.  Neil Finn and Crowded House fall into this last group.

At one time it didn’t look like it would turn out this way.  Crowded House officially ended their career with an extraordinary live concert at Sydney’s Opera House in 1996 which is captured on the terrific live album Farewell to the World which was also separately released as a DVD.  Nine years later Paul Hester, the band’s drummer,  took his own life after years of battling depression.  In 2007 a new album, Time on Earth, was released under the Crowded House name.  The newly formulated group combined original members Neil Finn (guitars, piano, vocals), Mark Hart (guitars, keyboards, vocals), and Nick Seymour (bass, vocals) with Matt Sherrod (drums, vocals).  Most of the tracks on Time on Earth were originally intended for a Neil Finn solo CD and the album was drenched in Finn and the surviving band members coming to grips with the loss of Hester.  It could easily have been the final goodbye.

But it wasn’t.  Intriguer is a full blown Crowded House album made by a complete band making their own music and it’s very, very good.  Crowded House were always known for Finn’s exceptional song-writing skills.  The good news is that he hasn’t lost any of it.  The better news is that his personal maturity has produced lyrical maturity rather than desperate grasping for youth.  Finn’s songs are matched every step of the way by the band’s musicianship and elegant vocal work.  As a quartet, Crowded House play and sing together like the consummate professionals they are.  No grand standing, no ego trips, just well-crafted songs beautifully played and sang.

Intriguer comes with a DVD that contains a video for “Saturday Sun”, 8 tracks recorded more or less live (it looks like different takes were expertly combined) at the band’s studio in New Zealand, and two tracks recorded live at the Auckland Townhall which contains an amazing pipe organ.  The version of “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at the Townhall is not to be missed.

When I saw that Crowded House had a new release scheduled for July I was both excited and worried.  Excited because I really like the band; worried because so many bands come back with shitty albums hoping to suck cash out of the accounts of fans who want to pretend they’re still as cool as they think they were back in the day.  When I first heard Intriguer it sounded good but first impressions of CDs can, and often do, change.  They changed for Intriguer - after many listens I like it more than I did at the start.  It’s a grower.  If you’re new to Crowded House, Intriguer is as good a place to start as any. Long time fans of the band are going to thoroughly enjoy this album.  The band they loved is back and just as good, if not better, than ever.  Crowded House isn’t trying to recapture the past, they’re playing music that lives and breathes right here, right now.

Picking a couple of songs from Intriguer is impossible.  Here are two, it could have easily been any one of a half-dozed others.

“Twice if You’re Lucky”

“Elephants”


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08/15/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: A-Trak, Infinity+1

The next time somebody says “Young people nowadays are just a bunch of self-entitled do-nothings that think they don’t have to work at anything while everything should be given to them” point them toward A-Trak.  Born in 1982, the kid won an international DJ competition at 15.  He’s the only person to have won 5 DJ World Championships.  While still a teenager he developed a notation system for scratching.  At age 22 he joined Kanye West as West’s live performance DJ.  He has done production work for Lupe Fiasco among others.  In the spring of this year he released two DJ mix CDs, both different and both good.

One of those mixes, Fabriclive 45, was so hot it took over my computer while I was trying to write a review.  Infinity+1 isn’t as hot as Fabriclive 45 but it’s still good.  Both mixes illustrate  A-Trak’s familiarity with the worlds of hip-hop and club-oriented dance music.  Of the two, Infinity+1 is the more hip-hop influenced while Fabriclive 45 is more of a straight-up club mix.  The generally more sedate tempos of hip-hop may be the reason why Infinity+1 comes across as the less driving of the two mixes. Infinity+1 is also the more consistent mix as it lacks the buzz-kill track that brings Fabriclive 45 to its knees part way through the set.

The only point of connection between the two mixes is A-Traks inclusion of his own “Say Whoa” on both sets.  ZZ opens with A-Trak’s version while Infinity+1 includes a remix by DJ Spinna.  It takes a good degree of confidence to take the chance that somebody might show you up with a remix of one of your own tracks.  Especially somebody who can bring it like DJ Spinna.  No worries.  Both versions work on their own terms.

The closely timed releases of Infinity+1 and Fabriclive 45 highlight how well A-Trak operates with both hip-hop and house music.  Very few DJs could have pulled this off as well as A-Trak has.  The two sets also illustrate how adept he is at drawing smooth connections between the two types of music.  A-Trak also shows a remarkable subtlety of touch in bridging to dance music from a predominantly hip-hop base on Infinity+1 while doing precisely the opposite on Fabriclive 45.

Both Fabriclive 45 and Infinity+1 are more than worth a listen.  If you tend more toward dance music, start with Fabriclive 45; more toward hip-hop, start with Infinity+1.  In either case each mix can open the ears of listeners who enjoy one kind of music to the pleasures of a different kind of music and that is a noteworthy achievement in and of itself.

DJ Spinna’s remix of A-Trak’s “Say Whoa”, compare with A-Trak’s own version from Fabriclive 45

A-Trak’s remix of MSTRCRFT (Feat. N.O.R.E.)’s “Bounce”

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08/08/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Speaking in Code

Suppose you were married and one of you was a documentary filmmaker while the other was really into electronic dance music. You decided to combine your interests and make a documentary about the music. You then lined up an impressive list of people who agreed to participate in the film including DJs and producers Modeselektor and the Wighnomy Brothers, DJ, producer and founder and owner of the BPitch record label Ellen Allien, producer, co-founder and owner of the highly respected Kompakt record label Wolfgang Voigt, and Robert Henke aka Monolake, co-founder of Ableton, and co-designer of the original Ableton Live.

With these people on board, think of the documentary you could make about electronic dance music! You could focus on the music itself, or the technology used to make the music, or the business of making, playing and selling the music. Amy Grill, the film maker who made Speaking in Code, didn’t do any of these things. You first get an idea that Speaking in Code might turn out to be a great opportunity wasted very early in the film when Grill’s voice over tells you that she decided not to focus on the music but on the people. Okay, so you make a documentary that focuses on what life in the electronic dance world is like for the people who produce and play the music. Grill didn’t really make that film either. Instead she made a documentary that is largely about . . . Amy Grill and her then-husband David Day.

Speaking in Code is almost literally a pointless film. There’s no unifying idea that structures the documentary. It’s as if they had the idea to make a documentary about electronic dance music and that’s as far as they got. They spent a lot of money (Speaking in Code has many, many segments of Day (the husband) whining about the state of their finances), shot a lot of aimless film, and ended up with, well, a lot of aimless film. With no coherent ideas about the music, the production of the music or the business of the music to give their footage some structure they decided to make it about “the people” and the people they decided to make it about was themselves.

All of the people mentioned in the first paragraph above do appear in Speaking in Code but very little of interest is done with them. For example, in addition to interviews with Wolfgang Voigt it looks like the film makers were given fairly good access to the people and the business of at Kompakt Records. What we get in the film is someone leading Day through the Kompakt record store saying “This is the section devoted to X type of music and that is the section devoted to Y type of music” while Day looking awestruck says things like “Wow! This is the greatest record store in the world!”   That’s about as deep as the insight and analysis of the subject matter gets.

As far as what life in the electronic dance music world is like we get the camera following someone around who is saying things like “This is the room where I made this track” and “This is the new urinal we have in the bathroom” (I’m not making this up). We get a lot of “we’re all one big happy family” accompanied by film of the big happy family eating together. And so on.  It’s almost as if for all that they’ve immersed themselves in the world of dance music, the film makers really don’t know, or don’t want to know, very much about it.  It’s all “here we are with this famous DJ”, and “here we are in this famous DJs toilet” and “here we are in this really cool record store”, and “here I am on the plane flying to Europe to go clubbing (again . . and again . . . and . . .).

The film includes a segment of Robert Henke opening what appears to be a version of Henke’s Monodeck, a sophisticated midi-controller for live performance that looks like it might have been a prototype of Akai’s APC40 controller for Ableton Live. Henke is clearly excited about the arrival of the Monodeck yet Grill doesn’t ask him what it is, what it does or why he’s excited about it. She basically ignores it. A bonus feature extended interview with Wolfgang Voigt has him happy and interested to talk about electronic dance music in general, how it has developed over time, and how he sees Kompakt fitting into the larger electronic music picture. From this short segment you can see that you could have made an interesting documentary built around Voigt and Kompakt alone. Grill didn’t even include it in the film. One of the things Voigt talks about is the limitation on roles for women in the electronic dance music business. Grill conducts several interviews with one of those women, Ellen Allien, but doesn’t ask her anything about this.

Instead of anything that might be of interest to people who are interested in electronic dance music we get more and more focus on Grill and Day as the film goes on. More interview time is given to Day than to anyone else in the film – or maybe it just seems that way because his role in Speaking in Code is more about relationship drama than about music.  Even when other people are allowed to speak, Grill’s documentary voice over tends to be about what it all means for her and for her deteriorating relationship with her husband. Okay, if the film is going to be fundamentally about Grill and Day’s relationship, is there something especially interesting about the end of their marriage as documented in Speaking in Code? Not really. From what we see in the film it looks like they went through what very commonly happens when people get involved in a serious relationship when they are fairly young and fairly inexperienced in making a life with another, grow apart, find themselves unable or unwilling to make the adjustments and commitments necessary to come back together and deepen the relationship to a new level, and split up. While these events are of profound importance for the two people involved, they are also a common and unexceptional learning experience that many people have undergone for themselves.  Perhaps a suitable subject for a scripted film but this is supposed to be a documentary about electronic dance music.

Speaking in Code comes across as the kind of film you get when a Facebook-addicted, it’s-all-about-me kind of person makes a documentary. If you get a voyeuristic thrill out of watching the sad decline and dissolution of a marriage, Speaking in Code might get you off. If you’re interested in electronic dance music, be forewarned.  If Speaking in Code had been made with an idea about some aspect of  electronic dance music that could have given the film structure and coherence, it could have been a very interesting documentary.  But it wasn’t, and it isn’t.
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08/06/2010 Posted by | DVD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: James Holden, DJ-Kicks

James Holden insists that his recent entry in the DJ-Kicks series is dance music.  That it may be, but it doesn’t sound like a typical DJ mix designed for club play.  In fact, it doesn’t sound very much like anything else in the common genres of dance music.  Holden appears to be thinking well outside the club on his DJ-Kicks.  He’s on the path of realizing some of the immense potential of rhythmically-oriented electronic music but I wouldn’t be surprised if hard-core dance fans don’t care for the album.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is propulsively rhythmic although he’s working with a pulse more than with a beat.  The rhythms are straightforward but it’s not the simple 4/4 that drives most House music.  He also makes frequent use of atonality, discord and occasional noise elements in his mix.  However, Holden does this in an exquisitely musical way.  This is not at all easy to do and Holden pulls it off both consistently and well.

Of all the DJ mixes I’ve reviewed here in the past several months (along with the ones we’ve listened to at home that haven’t gotten reviewed) I can’t think of one that holds together as a single coherent body of music as well as Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  Its rolling rhythms give it a beating heart, its steady underlying pulse gives it breath, and its atonality and discord give it emotion felt but not fully understood.  It’s like some great beast whose life you share for a time.

Needless to say, I like this album very much.  However, my enjoyment may be affected by the other kinds of music I listen to.  I’ve spent a lot of time listening to, learning about, and developing an enjoyment of adventuresome forms of jazz – the kind of music that caused Wynton Marsalis and Stanley Crouch to piss themselves in outrage and panic back in the day.  Some of this music can be highly atonal, discordant and arrhythmic.  Taken in that context, the discord and atonality of Holden’s DJ-Kicks sound tame.  Listeners who are less familiar with this type of music may find it less enjoyable.

Holden’s DJ-Kicks is not a typical club-oriented dance mix and if that’s what you’re looking for, this isn’t the album you want.  If you’re looking for something different in the world of rhythmic electronic music, DJ-Kicks might be just the thing.  Holden’s deeply musical use of atonality and discord greatly enrich his mix as well as providing a excellent means of entry into a different musical world for listeners who are looking to expand their horizons.

A segment from James Holden’s DJ-Kicks.  The fade at the end does not appear in the original.

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08/05/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Moby Grape, Live

If you’re reading this review, I expect you already know about Moby Grape.  To make a long story short, the Grape, one of the most promising bands to emerge from San Francisco in the mid to late 1960s were beset from the git-go by extraordinary bad luck and poor management choices and they fell into obscurity even though their self-titled debut album is one of the most extraordinary first (or second or third or . . .) albums ever released.  In 2006 they won a decades long legal fight with their original manager which allowed them to use and release recordings under their own name.  Sundazed records immediately began releasing Moby Grape material.  Live is the first “official” live album from the band – released 44 years after they formed in 1966.

If Moby Grape is a new band for you, their first album, Moby Grape, would be a much better place to start.  Fans of the band will almost certainly enjoy Live as long as they understand what they are getting.  The album collects 7 tracks recorded at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom in 1967, another track recorded at an unspecified location in SF in ’67, the band’s complete performance at the ’67 Monterey Pop Festival (none of which was included in the film), a 5-song Dutch radio broadcast from 1969, and “Dark Magic” a 17+ minute psychedelic jam recorded at the Avalon in 1966.  With the exception of the ’67 Avalon tracks, everything is in mono.  Skip Spence had fallen prey to mental illness and was no longer with the group at the time of the radio broadcast.

Recording quality varies from not-so-good to pretty-good.  Overall it’s better than you might expect.  At times you have to listen carefully to pull some of the instruments out of the murk but the effort is worth it.  You’re getting this album for the music, not the recording quality, and the music is there.

Live makes it abundantly clear that Moby Grape were the real deal.  Everything promised in that superb first album – the guitar interplay, the intricate vocals, the superior songwriting, all of it – was there in their live shows.  Fans who are very familiar with the songs on the first album will be delighted with the riffs played on well-known musical and vocal passages and it becomes apparent that the versions of these songs immortalized on the album were just the versions they happened to play that day in the studio.

Moby Grape were introduced as a band that played carefully crafted and intensively practiced songs.  Their guitars and vocals would have been outstanding on their own but it was the use of those elements in their markedly original songs that made Moby Grape a legend.  The Grape were a band that worked the short form in a time and place where their contemporaries were given to extended jamming.  Seen in this context, the 17+ minute “Dark Magic” is a revelation.  The Grape were also highly accomplished as a jamming band.

Oh, what might have been.  “Monterey Pop”, the film that introduced Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Otis Redding to a much wider audience, might have done the same thing for Moby Grape.  Instead, the manager they fought (and continue to fight) in court for almost 50 years demanded ridiculous amounts of money for the Grape’s performance and film rights.   The band were stuck with this guy but the festival organizers and the film’s producers were not.  Moby Grape was originally scheduled to go on stage right before Otis Redding on Saturday night.  Thanks to their manager they were slotted in as the opening act on Friday night when the venue was half empty and left completely out of the film.  What should have been a story of widespread recognition and professional success became a story of lost opportunities, sadness and despair.  Now, thanks to Sundazed Records and a court system that finally figured it ouy, we have the chance to hear what we should have heard decades ago and the music is just as thrilling now as it was then.

“Omaha” recorded live at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival

“Murder in My Heart for the Judge” (sans Skip Spence) recorded for a Dutch radio broadcast in 1969


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07/30/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Widespread Panic, Driving Songs Vol. 2

While listening to Widespread Panic’s most recent album, Dirty Side Down, I was exploring the web to see what the band was up to and found an interesting add-on to their website.  Throughout their history the Panic have encouraged fans to record their shows and share them any way they wanted.  No restrictions, no demands that they get paid.  Like any professional band, Widespread Panic records their own shows from the main sound board and now they are making their own recordings available for purchase.

The band has set up a website where you can buy recordings of their shows.  It looks like they have every show they’ve done since 2005 up on the site.  There are also selected older shows, package deals that combine several shows performed on successive nights at one venue, multi-CD sets of selected songs from a particular tour, and various other kinds of packages and combinations.  The shows and packages are available in MP3 and FLAC for download, or you can buy them on CDs.  There is also a CD + MP3 option.

There are hundreds of shows and/or packages and combos available on the site.  Unless you want to buy a show you were at or are an obsessive fan fixated on the band who has to have all of their shows, there are too many choices.  How do you decide which show to pick when there are hundreds available?  There is a recommended shows feature on the site but it looks like it’s fed randomly from a pool of shows and you have no idea why any given show is recommended.  There are also fan comments on each show but these are generally useless because they tend to be ecstatic in one way or another.

The band provides a solution to this problem with collections called Driving Songs.  Each volume of Driving Songs contains a selection of songs from one tour chosen and mixed by the Front of the House engineer Chris Rabold.  There are seven volumes covering tours from summer 2007 to spring 2010.  Choosing from seven is a lot easier than choosing from hundreds.  I picked Vol. 2 from Fall 2007 mainly because it looked like the largest of the Driving Songs sets – it comes on four CDs –  and downloaded it in FLAC format.

Is it any good?  Are you kidding?  The sound engineer’s pick of tracks from a jam band that makes it’s living based on its live shows?  Driving Songs Vol 2 ought to come with a warning label.  When Widespread Panic catch fire – and they catch fire on almost every track in the compilation – they can burn your house down if you’re not careful.  Singing in  key can be a struggle at times and if off-key vocals are a special problem for you, approach with care.  There’s no problem with the playing, however, and more often than not Panic tears the place up.  Jam bands are infamous for aimless noodling while they try and find someplace to go or something to do but Panic largely avoids this problem on Driving Songs Vol 2.  The guitar work is usually intense and focused with structured solos and some mind-blowing interplay.  The band is also capable of playing in a variety of styles, not only by playing different types of songs but in the style of guitar playing chosen for a track.  For example, the guitar lead on “Machine” sounds like it came straight out of the Frank Zappa Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar songbook.  Good stuff.

Widespread Panic are known for the amazing covers they do in their live shows and there is a fine selection on Driving Songs Vol 2.  The compilation opens with Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”.  Other covers include Traffic’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”.  Although it will probably be taken as sacrilege by rabid Mettalica fans, the Panic also do a killer version of “Enter Sandman”.  This band has no fear when it comes to taking on anything at all that strikes their fancy and more often than not they pull it off.

If you’re a big fan of Widespread Panic and haven’t yet discovered the area of their website where they sell the recordings of their shows, you’re going to feel like you just died and went to heaven.  If you enjoy world-class jam band guitar rave ups Driving Songs Vol 2 is right up your alley.  Four CDs of this type of music is too much for me to listen to at one time; it all starts to sound the same after awhile.  But the quality across this compilation is so high you can pick it up anywhere, listen as long as you like, and be guaranteed to hear terrific music.  I expect it will take awhile to wear Driving Songs Vol 2 out but when we do, I’ll pick up another in the Driving Songs series without any hesitation whatsoever.

“Road to Damascus”

“Werewolves of London”


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07/29/2010 Posted by | music, music reviews | , , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Francois K, Choice – A Collection of Classics

For its Choice series, the Azuli label asked well-known DJs to put together a two disc set of tracks that are their personal favorites.  François K is a great choice for a series like this because he had one of the longest and most influential careers in music of any of the legendary DJs from the New York underground dance scene of the 1970’s and ’80s that gave birth to disco, was the foundation on which house was built, and provided the original models for the European mega-dance clubs of today.

His long career in the music industry notwithstanding, François K has chosen a collection of tracks drawn almost exclusively from the 1970s and ’80s.  There’s disco such as Shalimar’s “Right in the Socket” and Donald Byrd’s classic “Love Has Come Around”, soul crooners like Teddy Pendergast (“Only You”) and Colonel Abrams (“I’m Not Gonna Let You (Get the Best of Me)”), tribal rhythms from No Smoke (“Koro Koro”) and more.  Larry Levan fans will be interested in David Joseph’s “You Can’t Hide (Your Love From Me)” which was mixed by Levan along with his remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”.  The Joseph track is also available on Journey Into Paradise, The Larry Levan Story but François K’s Choice is the only place I’ve seen Levan’s remix of the Guthrie track.

One track on François K’s Choice deserves special mention.  “Baby Wants to Ride” was written and produced by Frankie Knuckles and Knuckles “with” James Principle are listed as the artists.  As many will know, Frankie Knuckles and Larry Levan acquired the basis of their DJ skills when they were both boy toys living in New York’s notorious Continental Baths.  Influenced by what Levan was doing at the Paradise Garage, Knuckles moved to Chicago and became the resident DJ and motivating force behind The Warehouse which is often cited as the source for the term “house music”.  “Baby Wants to Ride” is 8+ minutes of Frankie Knuckles pretending to get laid.  It is so excruciatingly bad that you wonder if François K holds a long-standing grudge against his fellow New York DJ and is using this opportunity for payback.  The track is beyond dreadful.

In comparison with the Choice collection by Danny Howells, François K’s Choice comes off as a missed opportunity.  Howells mixed his set which gives each of his discs a sense of coherence.  François K doesn’t provide a mix but simply gives us a collection of tracks.  In addition, the booklet that comes with the Howells set includes a brief entry on each track by Howells that tells you a bit about why the track is important to him.  The François K booklet has an essay summarizing his career with nothing from François K himself about why he choose these tracks.  The result is that François K’s Choice feels like someone else’s mix tape.  Meaningful to François K perhaps, but just a random collection of tunes for everyone else.

Larry Levan’s remix of Gwen Guthrie’s “(They Long To Be) Close to You”

07/28/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Music Tech: Music in the car

Ford Fusion Hybrid with a trunk mounted bike rack

We recently found ourselves in need of a new car and the one we purchased is a 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.  A number of Ford models, including the Fusion, come with Sync which is an integrated voice-control system.  Basically, you can talk to your car and it talks back and does what you tell it to do – at least most of the time.

Sync  is a Microsoft product and Ford and Microsoft appear to be heavily invested in developing and improving the system.  In it’s current form, Sync combines phone, navigation, climate control, music, and several other functions into its suite of applications.  These systems can be controlled with buttons on the steering wheel, a touch screen monitor that’s embedded in the front console, or by voice.  For example, the voice-activated phone system allows you to make or answer calls in a hands-free manner as long as your phone is with you and bluetooth synced to the car.  If you’re on the phone when you enter or leave the car, Sync transfers the call back and forth between your mobile phone and the car automatically.  Another pretty cool feature is that you can do a “business search” for either a type of business or a specific store based on your current location.  Sync finds the business and gives you the option to either call the place or get directions from your current location.  All of this is done through voice commands.

Zune player screen

What we’re interested in here is music and the options Sync gives you for listening to music in the Fusion make driving anywhere a hoot.  The basic sources you have for listening to music are AM and FM radio, CD, Sirius satellite radio, or an MP3 player.  The one we have been having a blast with is the MP3 player. The Fusion has a USB port in the center console that can be used to connect the MP3 player.  The Sync system reportedly works with a wide variety of MP3 players.  Figuring we would have the smoothest interaction, we bought a Zune for the car because Microsoft makes both Sync and Zune.  When the Zune is plugged in to the USB port, Sync detects it’s presence, accesses the content on the player, and streams music directly from the player without having to download it to the car’s hard drive.  You can control the player with voice commands including basic playback functions like volume up or down, play all, shuffle play etc., as well as commands to play specific artists, albums, tracks or playlists.  In our experience thus far, it works flawlessly.

People seem to have very strong opinions about factory installed vs. after market sound systems in cars.  I have never understood the reasoning that leads people to sink a lot of money into a sound system for their car given that the sound environment in a car is so bad that nothing is really going to sound very good no matter how much money you spend on it.  Having said that, we have Ford’s upgraded Sony sound system in the Fusion because it was part of an options package that included things we wanted to have.  Given that we’re listening in a car, it works fine – ymmv.

Home screen with Zune player info

Sync will handle a variety of audio codecs including MP3, WAV and WMA.  The Zune, however, won’t process WAV files so I convert ripped or downloaded WAV files into WMA for listening in the car.  I did some listening tests comparing lossless WMA with several high bit rate 44.1 kHz stereo WMA formats.  In all cases the lossless format sounded better than the lossy formats in the car.  I did the listening tests while the car was stationary and all of my attention was focused on listening.  Whether the decline in sound quality with the lossy formats would make a difference in a moving vehicle when my attention is focused on driving is unknown.  Nevertheless, we’re using lossless WMA for listening in the car.  The 32 GB Zune we use for the car will hold somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 tracks in lossless format which should be more than enough given how easy it is to change what the Zune has on its internal drive.

Changing the selection of tracks available to you in the car couldn’t be easier.  Download the Zune software to your desktop or laptop and set up a folder for the Zune player’s contents on the main systems’s hard drive.  You can then go into settings in the Zune software and configure the system to automatically sync the contents of the folder with the Zune player.  If you want to add a track to the Zune player, drop it in the Zune folder on the hard drive.  Tired of listening to a track in the car?  Delete it from the Zune folder.  When you connect the Zune to the main system (I use a dedicated USB line for this because I do it often) the Zune software detects the player and automatically implements any additions or deletions you’ve made since the last time you synced the player and the folder.  Connect the updated player to the car and the in-car Sync automatically registers the changes.  All you do is add and delete tracks from your Zune folder and the rest is taken care of for you.  Fast, effortless, sweet.

In a couple of years voice communication with cars, appliances and gadgets won’t be as novel as it is today.  In the meantime, having a car that gives you voice control over music streaming from a dedicated MP3 player makes driving anywhere a lot more fun.

07/26/2010 Posted by | music, music tech, Music technology | , , , | 3 Comments

Review: Widespread Panic, Dirty Side Down

The Widespread Panic album that did it for me was ‘Til the Medicine Takes.  We wore that CD out and “Climb to Safety” still raises goosebumps.  We’ve bought a lot of their albums and always found something to enjoy but over the past few years we kind of lost rack of the band and what they were doing.  Then a guy I know reported that he’d caught their set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this past spring and they rocked.

Well, you know, Panic are a jam band and they’ve always been known for putting on great shows and great shows don’t always translate into great – or even good – albums so I didn’t run right out and pick up Dirty Side Down.  But I hadn’t listened to the band in a while so I finally decided to give it a try.  When a new CD comes into the house we often put it on for the first time as we sit down to dinner and check it out while we eat.  Almost always, dinner and conversation trump the music and serious listening doesn’t happen until later.  Not this time.

Dirty Side Down opens with “Saint Ex” and it blew us away. Eating went on very quietly and conversation stopped as the song took over.  The track opens with a bit of guitar drone, like 10 zillion other songs, and then breaks into a couple of bars of what sounds like a picked electrified steel string guitar that shifts into a lead guitar segment that instantly grabs attention with a wide screen western sound that I find irresistible.  The vocal comes in and we’re in familiar Widespread Panic mode, ok, back to dinner.  Then a heavy descending rhythm guitar break hits at about 1:30 into the song and this is beginning to sound like Panic has grown in new and exciting ways.  “Saint Ex” is a terrific song that kicks off a fine album.

When a band has been playing together as long as Widespread Panic and, moreover, has been placing a heavy emphasis on improvisation throughout that time, moments of magic can happen.  There’s a refinement and sophistication in the interplay among the musicians that is hard to achieve in any other way.  This produces studio recordings that are studded with moments, sometimes small and sometimes loud, that can take your breath away.  Whether it’s Dave Schools extraordinary bass playing or episodes of subtle, intricate vocal interplay (which are just two of the things that struck me while I’m writing this review) repeated listening of Dirty Side Down is a highly rewarding experience.

If you’re a Panic fan you already have Dirty Side Down.  If, like me, you know the band but have been away for a bit, now’s a good time to come back.  And if Widespread Panic are a new band for you, Dirty Side Down is a great place to start.

For a great source for more live recordings of Widespread Panic than you could ever listen to, see our review of Driving Songs Vol. 2.

“Saint Ex”

“North”

07/25/2010 Posted by | CD reviews, music, music reviews | , , , | 1 Comment

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