I had just recently watched a couple speeches and interviews by Neil Young because I wanted to understand exactly what he was doing. I heard a lot about PONO, but just hadn’t taken that time.
Short answer: I’m no fan of MP3s and I have to constantly struggle to remind clients that MP3 is not a master format! But as far as PONO goes, I am dissatisfied with Young’s argument, and his whole approach. His argument is not at all well constructed, and rests on a number of subjective qualities. He’s appealing to emotion much more than science, and using his position as a rock god to sell us just another box.
Young’s ability to discuss the technical aspects is limited, even though he seems to come off as knowledgable in certain places. He’s attempting to make the marketing of Pono understandable for “mom”, and says he’s not after the audiophile market. But he does such a poor job of translating the tech speak into street talk, so much so that he clouds the issues at hand with unnecessary terms and analogies.
The other thing that irritated me was that Neil Young is after “echo” from the 1960s and 1970s. OK, great… then use better echo chambers… don’t sidetrack the discussion about audio resolution with your pining for echo…
On the technical side, you and I both know that tapes from the earliest days of recording probably do sound great, but only if they are well maintained and the technology exists to play them back. But tapes deteriorate over time, and there’s not much we can do about that. If you don’t have a playback system that honors the quality of those original tapes, then it makes no sense to invest in hi-resolution transfers.
I see the argument for PONO on three fronts – pre-CD music, CD music of the 80s-90s, and then the hi-res capabilities we have today.
For pre-CD era music, all we have are the tapes. If those tapes are well conditioned, then can be recaptured at high resolutions. If the tapes aren’t available, then all we have is the best capture that was done (if it was done at all) during the entry into the CD era.
For CD-era music, if it was recorded on ADAT at 48khz or 44.1khz, then that is all we have. For those that continued to use analog tape, then the issue is the same as for pre-CD era music (see above).
For present day music, we’re sort of spoiled, but it still depends on the choices the artist and studio make, and whether they buy into the science of higher resolutions.
Science of Higher Resolutions
I’ve read dozens of arguments on this. Nyquist rates, theorems, psychoacoustics, etc. As a small studio owner, I have had to consider all of this. I’ve just decided more is not better. I record at 44.1khz, 24 bit for very specific reasons. I want the headroom that 24 bit offers (though I am still conservative when setting levels). I don’t want to do sample rate conversion back down to CD 44.1khz (to avoid artifacts). I’m also managing hard drive space and have a system that works for now. I can not justify the larger storage requirements for such little return.
And unfortunately, CD is inevitably what people want when they leave here (much to my dismay). I’d much rather give them a 44.1khz 24 bit master for direct upload and distribution online on Bandcamp. Clients here are often not that sophisticated and barely understand the leap it takes to mix music and put it on CD, let alone any of the underlying specs. Hi res 192khz and up is awesome for The Black Keys or Decemberists, which I see are PONO artists.
Bluetooth vs Wire
One of Neil Young’s arguments is that Bluetooth is no replacement for a wire. He makes several claims that you need to replace a wire with something at least as good. If all he is talking about is dusting off your old speakers from the garage, he can do that now without PONO. This is where the argument gets murky and the elements of the signal chain are not clearly defined in Young’s argument. Storage and file size (a function of the sample rate and bit depth) get confused with the pathway audio takes through a digital wireless connection.
Remember, radio is wireless too, and people really seem to like listening to the radio. Whatever we might say about the Loudness Wars and broadcasting compression, radio is still a wireless medium that carries a great deal of the artist’s recording. Confusing audio fidelity with transfer speed and computer processing speed (which is now extremely high) is not helping anyone.
In the PONO promo pieces I watched/heard, it seemed to me that Neil Young really just needed to spend some of his hard earned money on a good speaker system and not bother going into the tech business. I was even surprised when – in one segment – he admits that Pono sometimes has glitches, but they are OK glitches. Huh?!!?
One of the highlights of 2012 so far was our trip to New York to see Björk at the Roseland Ballroom on March 2.
I’ve been listening to Björk for years, as a sort of guilty pleasure that not many understand. Bjork has been on my stereo a lot more in the last couple of years as I’ve explored my electro side more seriously. Any Björk fan knows she’s an acquired taste, but a genius nonetheless. It’s just a matter of how far you want to buy into the experience – and I do mean that on a monetary level as well as a psychological one.
When Björk’s latest recording was released in October 2011, there were “four physical versions of the Biophilia album—on CD, vinyl, and two custom-made editions— which included the Biophilia Manual, which presents the music on two CDs in a 48-page cloth-bound, thread-sewn hardback book, and the Ultimate Edition, which includes the Manual along with 10 tuning forks, each representing the tone of a track on the album.”*
The Ultimate Edition was priced at just over $800 US, clearly meant for the diehard fan, which I must admit was a bit insane in my opinion. But we know someone must have purchased these. Is the music industry dead? Hardly.
“The Biophilia Manual presents the music of Biophilia in a 48-page, full-color, hardbound, cloth-covered, and thread-sewn book, tipped on lenticular panel to the front cover, with foil-blocked spine and back cover; the music, on CD—including a second disc of live performances from Manchester—is housed in black uncoated board wallets. The Manual is being made to order and fabricated only once.”*
The two-disc version was substantially less – something like $80. Still, that’s pretty steep. I love Björk, but I guess when it comes down to it, I just want the music. I opted for the singe disc version, which included hi-res download. Price: $12.
*Nonesuch label web site.
Björk’s Biophilia concept reaches beyond music and the album format into interactive iPhone/iPad applications and an educational curriculum that combines music theory and science. Part of the Biophilia tour includes residencies at schools and outreach to teachers.
On first listen, I can’t say Biophilia immediately struck me as Björk’s best work. It’s vocally stunning as always, but I am still not sure about it. On repeated listens it continues to grow on me, which is often the case with more edgy experimental work. And maybe that is a reflection of its organiz nature. It is very clear that the songs were generated from a different creative process, and Björk talks about this on her web site, during interviews and in her promo material.
Regardless of my opinion of the new album, when the Biophilia tour was announced I knew it was a unique opportunity, and one of the few concerts that I would go out of my way to attend. We didn’t get tickets right away, so by the time we ordered them, the $1000 VIP seats were gone – not that they would have been an option for us. Even the next tier down – between $100-200 – were sold out, and though that’s pretty pricy I would have considered it… for Björk. Ticketmaster gave us the best available seats, which at $75 amounted to standing room for the Roseland Ballroom. We were never there before, so I didn’t know what to expect. The point was we were going, and it was Björk!
We didn’t want to be pressed for time right before a concert, so we booked a hotel for a couple of nights so we could arrive, enjoy the city and then take our time getting to the concert. This was very wise. When we arrived at the Roseland Ballroom Friday night at 6:30 pm, ticket holders were already lined up around the block. And that’s a large NY block, not what we’re used to in Bloomsburg. Doors opened at 7pm, and we were in by probably 7:30, with nowhere to sit.
The running gag here at home is that Björk is “the other woman” and there are few mistresses that would warrant a three-hour drive, two-night stay in New York, and several hours of standing.
Figuring it was best to get the merchandise out of the way first, I got the $75(!) hardcover program because it had some good info about the stage setup and instruments being used. Against my better judgement, I bought the extremely overpriced – thin – obligatory Björk t-shirt. I need to remember to skip those next time.
It was at least another hour until Björk went on, but we were entertained by ambient generative music from a MIDI-operated pipe organ. The stage was set up in the round, and at first we considered standing near what could be considered the “front”. Later we opted to take advantage of a raised platform to give Audra a better viewing angle. This worked out OK, placing us also right above the digital audio/video mixing desks. So the geek in me was pretty happy.
In addition to the pipe organ, there were stations for the Gameleste (a combination of celest/gamelan), Gravity Harps, Sharpsichord and stations for programmer Matt Robertson (laptop, iPads, synth, Reactable) and percussionist Manu Delago (electro-acoustic drums, Hang drum, xylosynth). Also in attendance were Choir Graduale Nobili – 24 women from Iceland.
Sir David Attenbourough did the narration (prerecorded) through the evening, and with the first song – Thunderbolt – everything went crazy as a car-sized Tesla Coil descended from the ceiling, less than 30 feet from us.
The rest of the evening was an aural and visual onslaught, impossible to convey here. Each song had a video/visualization timed perfectly, playing overhead on the many projection screens. Photos were not allowed (which didn’t stop some people of course), but Björk has posted some professional images.
Björk didn’t sing many of my favorite songs from past albums, but I knew she would be showcasing the new album. I was OK with that. I know artists get tired of the same material. Björk was in full voice, and any fears of her not being able to carry this material – even at the end of the tour in NY – were unfounded. She must really take care of herself. The sonic challenge of keeping the choir mixed well with 24 live microphones on stage was impressive, and it was pulled off very well. In fact, given the open nature of the floor plan, I was concerned about how it would all sound. Most of the sound was fine, if a bit heavy on the sub-bass at times. The encore pieces had to be approaching pain threshold though, particularly “Declare Independence” – I have to say I was glad it was over by that point.
I don’t know how much control Björk can assert over volume levels, though she seems to have a lot of creative control otherwise. The technical aspects of this tour were considerable, and the seamless execution was admirable. It just goes to show what can be done when technology is harnessed well, and that takes great people and artists who understand each other.
The Hang drum was a highlight for me, though I have seen them before. We could see the Gravity Harps from a distance, but it wasn’t until I saw a video online afterward that I figured out how it worked. The Reactable has been around a while. One of Björk’s previous tours used a larger version.
Exhausted, we found the closest Russian restaurant and had a great meal. Our ears did not get a break from the live entertainment, but it was all a good time – except for hailing a cab in the pouring rain back to the hotel.
The following day, I purchased a used 20” Chinese gong at Olde Good Things, an antique dealer near our hotel. I came across the gong in the basement, without a stand, where it looked like it had been tied up for years. After a bit of haggling, we landed on a fair price (with a special discount for PA residents). As I checked out, the clerk asked me what type of music I was into. I described my blues/roots side, and my electronic side. She didn’t know exactly what electronic music meant,
“Oh, so you are working with fake sounds.”
Fake sounds?! Is any sound fake? Not any more than any color is fake, or any taste.
I cautioned the attribution of “fake” to electronic music and explained what I might do with the gong is sample it (a real sound?) and then manipulate it in various ways. Maybe she meant naturally occurring? But then, even a violin is not naturally occurring because violins do not grow on trees or can be mined from the ground.
I wondered what Björk would have thought of the “fake” comment. I just laughed inside, knowing that there is no such thing as a “fake” sound. Synthesized, or not occurring in nature… sure. But fake? Wow, that’s the perception of electronic music even still? Even now with our 64-bit hoopla processing and super-fine digital hoosiwhatsits?
Once we got out of NY, we were off to the Harry Partch Institute at Montclair State University to see the Harry Partch collection of instruments there. According to the web site harrypartch.com, no reservations were needed and it appeared to be open to the public. They even provide very detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to get to the studio. We got to the door to the studio, only to be stopped by a student. We were very disappointed to find out that the collection isn’t open to the public. The web site was very misleading and made it sound like people could visit.
Dean Drummond, the curator, was not available and no one else could authorize access. All we wanted to do was look around for a few minutes since we were already there – not even take any pictures. But it was a no go. We sent Dean an email and took some time out for lunch.
Just as we were about to leave town, Dean got back to me via email and explained the collection is not a museum, and apologized that there was no chance to see anything unless there was a performance being held.
Dean has since updated the web site to reflect their practices so other people don’t make the same mistake. It’s really discouraging when academia takes the roll of “protecting” something from the very people who want to study it. I understand that these items must be preserved. It’s just particularly frustrating when we’re talking about something so obscure and rare as Harry Partch… how many people in their right mind would go out of their way for this stuff? Not many. And you’d think we’d be welcome as fellow artists and in appreciation of the musical legacy Partch left behind. All we wanted to do was look! So I also found myself wondering what Björk would have thought about this.
Indeed, Björk is an expensive mistress, but I came away from my triste very inspired to continue on my path of musical experimentation knowing that there are people out there who *do* appreciate all sorts of music. Maybe I’m a long way off from $800 box sets, and $1000 concert seats, but I am still part of the universe of *real* sound that people are making with (and without) technology.
Over the years I’ve had a strange relationship with percussion. From home-made shakers to drum machines, to a variety of live performers and friends – the language of rhythm has played a large part in my work. I don’t really consider myself a percussionist, yet my collection has grown quite nicely. I enjoy experimenting with them, and they always add something special to my music.
Here’s a brief look at some of my favorite percussion instruments…
The Wasabi Acorn Shaker is my own invention. The acorns are not real – they are the kind you find at Target for decorative purposes. I got them during my squirrel phase and the Wasabi Peas can just screamed to be made into an instrument. The can has a ribbed texture so it can also be used like a guero.
The spring thing is an attempt to make a larger version of something I bought from a store. These are typically made of a bamboo tube with a thin membrane of plastic on one end into which is inserted a spring.Finding the right combination of materials to scale this up has been a challenge. After trying a number of PVC solutions, I discovered the plastic container for some pretzels was perfectly designed. In addition to the “thunder” sounds of a spring thing, it has some other sound properties.
Goya… oh boya!! Shakers made using different kinds of beans in different quantities inside cans.
Middle Eastern and East Asian percussion remains my favorite in terms of percussion sounds. This is a handmade darbuka from Turkey. This one is aluminum with a plastic head (Istanbul Mehmet). Purchased at Guitar Center as a floor model (ie cheap).
The darbuka is used heavily in dance music throughout the Middle East, providing a sharp, bright “pop” when played with the fingers. Currently my favorite drum because it is light, portable and doesn’t react to the elements.
22″ Frame Drum with beater
This is currently the largest drum in my collection in terms of the size of the head. I love to play this with brushes, which is what I did on many songs of Catch the Squirrel.
18″ Tar (aka Def) Middle Eastern Drum
Another drum that I enjoy playing with brushes.
Audra brought this back from the Moroccan section of Epcot at Walt Disney World. There is a snare inside, so this drum produces a raspy sound along with the frame drum sound. While it was labelled as a Fish Bendir, it is not made of fish skin – it’s probably goat or cow hide. Unlike my other frame drums, this one is tanned a brown color.
Small Frame Drum
This is a two-membrane drum, so it can be struck on both sides. Much smaller than my other frame drums, this doesn’t get a lot of use because the skin is very dried out and overstretched, so there isn’t much tension to create a tone.
The Udu is one of the most unusual percussion instruments. Usually made out of clay and featuring at least one hole for creating tones, the Udu drum comes in a variety of shapes and sizes all across Africa. It is played with bare hands and can be very painful until you get used to it. Sometimes membranes of skin (or in modern times, rubber/plastic) are added for additional tonal possibilities.
4.5″ Ritual Bowl Gong
Creates resonant tones heard in ancient Buddhist shrines and Chinese rituals. Typically made of bronze and/or copper.
Bodhran (Irish Frame Drum)
This is Audra’s, but she won’t mind if I borrow it.
These are from a shop in New Orleans that specialized in items from Tibet and Nepal. This particular set of bells is from Nepal. These create a loud, clear tone.
One of two different styles of West African drum that I have, this drum came to me from my friend Jim Nowak in Harrisburg. One of his clients at his hobby shop just left it there, and he didn’t have a use for it. This drum has a very low, deep resonance. I’ve seen drums with other names that look like this as well, so if anyone knows the correct name, let me know.
Zills (finger cymbals)
I got these hand made, cast brass zills (finger cymbals) from a dealer on Ebay who is based in Canada but specializes in items from Syria. I was inspired to get these after watching a belly dancer at a Lebanese restaurant in Harrisburg – not because I wanted to belly dance, but rather becaue the sound is just so unique. I’m told these are better quality than ones made of brass sheet imported from Egypt or made in USA.
An Egyptian drum, this one has a goat skin head and the body is made out of clay.
West-African drum played with hands, sticks or brushes.
I’m not sure about this one. An ex-girlfriend gave it to me a long time ago, and I’m not sure what it is called. The body is clay, and the head may be goat, but not sure.
Still my very favorite drum to listen to and record. This ancient East Indian drum set is usually played in pairs. Most of my tabla experience has involved work with Bulu Rahman on our CD Bloomsburg to Bangladesh. I’ve also had the opportunity to perform with Topan Modak. (A better picture is on the way.)
Bones (cow), Castanets, Cow Bell, Claves
Eggz, shakers, home-made gourd maraca, rainstick.
Uyot Seed Palm Fiber Hand Rattle
This Nigerian hand rattle made from uyot seeds and palm fiber is a staple of the Ibo tribe’s percussion ensemble. These currently reside within my Drum Tree.
Lots of recording since I last posted. Tried GarageBand for one experiment, though the many pre-composed elements that come with GarageBand are a real turnoff for me. I still have a tentative relationship with loops to begin with, especially when they are not simply percussion or drums. Anything melodic is a cop-out from my standpoint, though occasionally they will spawn something interesting.
For all of the minor technical problems that I’ve had (which I think are universal for any computer), I need to step back and comment on some of the many positives of writing/recording with the MacBook Pro. These observations fall into two categories: Software (in this case Garageband) and Hardware (the combined touch/click pad with multi-finger interface).
Native Instruments’ free VST synth platform Kore is a nice tool. It comes with many great patches, and works well on PC, but the Mac version appeared to have lots of trouble recognizing a MIDI input from a Triton… or so I thought. Read about my wild goose chase…
One day when I sat down to our HP laptop (Audra’s main machine), I had a moment of confusion when the touch pad would not “click”. I’ve gotten used to this feature on the MacBook. Also, since I have not been using a mouse on the MacBook, it felt slightly strange using one again on the HP. This was my first real transition experience back to a PC laptop from the MacBook, and it felt odd. Not bad, just odd.
OK, so how long will this journal go on? I think my initial goal of documenting the first week of the Mac experience is sufficient. I’ll probably post some more experiences as I get deeper into using some of the programs I’ve installed, and after I use the machine to perform specific tasks.