Our new podcast series, produced in partnership with Decca Records, tells the fascinating story behind a treasured collection of classical recordings and the role that dCS converters played in their digital revival
In April 1951, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra gathered in the city’s Orchestra Hall to perform Pictures at an Exhibition: a suite of ten piano pieces written by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel. The performance was conducted by Rafael Kubelík – the orchestra’s youthful new Music Director – and recorded for LP by US record label Mercury.
Founded by Irving Green and partners in 1945, Mercury had already established itself as a formidable force in popular music, releasing hits by singers Patti Page, Tony Fontane and Frankie Laine, plus a string of R&B jukebox singles. In 1950, the label decided to expand its repertoire.
Under the direction of Wilma Cozart, an orchestra administrator who had worked with the Minneapolis Symphony and Dallas Symphony orchestras, Mercury decided to grow its classical division, with the aim of building a catalogue of symphonic recordings performed by US ensembles.
At the time, most American labels travelled abroad to record symphonic productions or leased masters from Europe and Russia. Wilma’s vision was to work with performers and conductors closer to home, providing a catalogue that would highlight the wealth of extraordinary classical talent within the US. The Chicago Symphony was without a recording contract in 1950, so Mercury’s ‘hometown’ orchestra was the logical first partner.
Pictures at an Exhibition was the first recording released under this new direction, and it was met with rapturous reviews. Writing for the New York Times, Howard Taubman, the paper’s chief music critic, praised its faithfulness to the original event, noting that it provided the effect of being “in the living presence of the orchestra.”
This faithfulness was achieved via a simple yet pioneering technique. Working in close collaboration with Wilma, sound engineer C. Robert ‘Bob’ Fine captured the performance using a single Telefunken/Neumann U47 tube condenser microphone positioned around 25 feet above the conductor’s podium.
While Bob had been recording with single mic setups since the late 1940s, Pictures at an Exhibition was one of the first full orchestra performance he had captured using this method, and the first location recording, in the orchestra’s home venue. Thanks to his innovative approach, and Wilma’s fastidiousness during the production process, Mercury was able to produce a lifelike and immersive record of the event – a release which the Chicago Tribune described as “second to none in atmosphere and excitement.”
Over the next two decades, Bob, Wilma and the MLP team travelled extensively across the US, Europe and Russia, producing over 200 classical recordings under the ‘Living Presence’ moniker. Their work helped propel the careers of many of the orchestras, musicians and conductors they collaborated with, including the Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit symphony orchestras, and set a new benchmark for clarity and accuracy in music production.
Bob and Wilma – who married in 1957 – proved to be a remarkable duo. Through their innovative use of technology, and deep musical sensitivity, they were able to capture not just the sound of a performance, but a sense of the space and atmosphere in which it took place. As audio production evolved, and stereo became the dominant mode of listening in homes across the US, Bob continued to experiment with new recording techniques and equipment, moving from a single mic technique to a three-channel approach using omni-directional mics and, for a time, 35mm magnetic film. Wilma, in turn, became incredibly skilled at judging a recording’s verisimilitude to the sound she heard when listening live, and was renowned for both her creative approach to production and her astute commercial sensibility.
In 1962, Mercury became the first US label to record in the Soviet Union, making historic albums with American pianist Byron Janis playing with Russian orchestras and conductors, and working with the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra to produce ‘Balalaika Favourites’, a collection of balalaika music recorded during a non-stop late-night session. (Their visit, which took place just months before the Cuban missile crisis came to a head, made headline news in the US.)
Throughout this continuous development and innovation, Bob, Wilma and the MLP team remained committed to achieving the highest possible standards of sound reproduction and providing an experience that brought listeners as close as possible to the feeling of watching a live performance unfold.Speaking to NPR in 1996, Wilma said the team strived to make listeners feel “part of an audience”. Their approach to recording and production was driven by their desire to capture the full dynamic range and nuance of a performance and provide an exact record of the event as they heard it. “We didn’t use any control of dynamic range, we didn’t have a mixing console – we just placed the microphones so that it would reproduce the music as truly as possible and then recorded it without any change from what the conductor and the musicians were doing during their performance,” she explained. This technique gave their recordings a distinctive character, which was immediately recognisable to fans of the catalogue. “The recordings have a very specific personality and sound,” said Wilma. “You can usually know when you’re listening to one.”
Wilma retired from the music industry in 1964 to focus on raising a family and three years later, the remaining members of the original Mercury Living Presence produced their last orchestral recording – a series of guitar concertos by Los Romeros and the San Antonio Symphony orchestra. Bob continued his work in audio engineering, developing a range of novel techniques for recording and capturing audio and sound for picture production. He passed away in 1982 aged 60, survived by Wilma and their four sons. Wilma then went on to build a successful career in real estate.
In 1989, Philips – which had taken over ownership of Mercury in the early 1960s – decided to remaster the MLP catalogue for CD and invited Wilma to oversee the project. Working in partnership with mastering engineer Dennis Drake, Wilma exercised the same meticulous attention to detail when working on the remasters as she did during the making of the original LPs. This attention to detail extended to both the remastering process and the tools that she and Dennis used. After trialling several popular A to D converters, she eschewed conventional equipment and opted instead for the brand new dCS 900.
The 900 was dCS’s first audio device. Founded by Oxford University graduate Mike Story in 1987, along with a team of engineers from Cambridge Consultants, dCS started out with a focus on avionics, designing radar systems and signal converters for aerospace companies and military agencies. In the late 1980s, however, the team began exploring how they could apply their novel technologies and expertise to the nascent digital audio sector. Released in 1989, the 900 was the first A to D converter capable of producing 24-bit files (a format that dCS pioneered). Thanks to its unique design, which centred around the use of an innovative circuit known as the Ring DAC (a system that remains at the heart of all dCS products), it was able to convert analogue signals with far greater precision than most converters available at the time, resulting in a more natural, detailed and higher-resolution sound.
With Wilma’s astute hearing, Dennis’s skilful remastering, and dCS’s groundbreaking technology, Philips was able to bring the Mercury Living Presence catalogue to new formats – and a new generation of listeners – while preserving the magic of the original LPs. The resulting CDs became coveted collector’s items and were beloved by classical music lovers and audiophiles alike for their astonishing sound quality.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Mercury Living Presence label. To celebrate, Decca Classics, a division of Universal Music Group, has launched a new programme to release the complete digital catalogue on all major streaming services, as well as re-releasing a number of titles on vinyl & CD.
Over the past few months, we’ve been working in partnership with Decca to document the MLP story and the role that dCS equipment played in transferring the catalogue from the analogue to the digital domain.
This remarkable story is told through a three-part podcast series featuring exclusive interviews with music critics, experts and custodians of MLP’s legacy. ‘Trust Your Ears’: The Mercury Living Presence Story includes commentary from Dennis Drake, Tom Fine, a mastering engineer and son of Bob and Wilma; music writer, historian, and MLP expert Michael Gray, classical critic and broadcaster Rob Cowan, dCS founder Mike Story and dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg.
Presented by Charlotte Gardner, a writer, broadcaster and author of our monthly Classical Choices series, and produced by journalist and editor Simon Barnett, the podcast charts the history of MLP, from its genesis to the making of the digital remasters and this year’s anniversary celebrations. Through interviews, archive footage and musical excerpts, it examines the enduring influence of Bob and Wilma’s work, the evolution of digital audio, and the innovations that were instrumental in allowing successive generations of listeners to experience the full depth and breadth of the MLP canon.
The first episode of the podcast will be available on May 12 and further instalments will be released at two-week intervals. We’ll be sharing each episode on our website and the dCS YouTube channel. You can also listen to the series via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify.
Alongside the podcast, we’ll be releasing articles and short films delving into some of the topics discussed in the series, from the evolution of MLP to dCS’s early innovations and its move from radar to audio. You can view the first of these films, which features interviews with Mike Gray, Tom Fine and Dennis Drake, below.
With ‘Trust Your Ears’: The Mercury Living Presence Story, we set out to uncover the remarkable stories behind an iconic body of music, and celebrate the skill, dedication and artistry of those involved in its production and preservation. The project reflects our ongoing commitment to celebrating artists, producers and engineers who are dedicated to providing an outstanding musical experience, and our continued efforts to support those artists by developing products and technologies that can faithfully serve their work.
Whether you’re a long-standing fan of Mercury Living Presence, or someone who’s knew to the catalogue, we hope you enjoy listening to the podcast as much as we enjoyed making it and would like to thank Decca and everyone involved in the series for sharing their stories.
You can listen to the podcast trailer here.
And watch Part 1 of our documentary series here.
Expanse is a new software platform from dCS that reimagines how sound is optimised for headphones. Developed for our Bartók Headphone DAC, it uses a unique processing method to bring the headphone experience closer to the studio listening experience – providing a more natural and immersive soundscape when listening to a wide range of stereo recordings. Here, we take a look at the thinking behind it and how it was brought to life
While more people than ever now listen to music on headphones, most recordings are still monitored on loudspeakers. Artists, engineers and producers might use headphones to check certain aspects of a mix, but in most professional studios, loudspeaker monitoring is common practice.
Yet listening on headphones and speakers are two very different things. For headphone listeners, this can mean that our experience of a recording doesn’t always match up with what engineers or artists heard during the production process. With Expanse, we set out to address this imbalance and ensure that headphone listeners are able to hear music as the artist, producer or engineer intended.
Understanding headphone listening
To understand how Expanse works, it helps to understand the main differences between headphone and loudspeaker listening and the impact this can have on our experience of music. This topic is covered in much more depth in our technical paper but for now, here’s a brief overview.
When we listen on loudspeakers, sound is projected into the room around us, where it reflects off of various surfaces, including the floor, the walls and our bodies, before arriving at our ears. The signal from each speaker is heard by both of our ears, so the left audio signal arrives at our left ear first and our right a fraction of a second later (where it’s also a little quieter) and vice versa.
When we listen on headphones, sound is projected inside our head, where it forms a kind of arch between both ears. The sound from each signal is paired to the corresponding ear, so our left ear hears sounds from the left channel, and our right hears sounds from the right channel.
In a loudspeaker setup, the reverberation that is generated from sound bouncing around and reflecting off of surfaces plays a crucial part in helping us to identify where that sound is coming from. The difference in time between a sound arriving at our right and left ears provides another important clue, as does the difference in the levels of sound arriving at each ear.
When we listen on headphones, these all-important clues aren’t there, and – depending on how sound has been recorded or mixed – this can leave us struggling to pinpoint the location of sounds that we hear. Instead of music filling the space around us, we can end up with an experience where sound appears to come from inside our head, or right next to one ear. For some listeners, this can cause fatigue or even a physical headache when listening for extended periods of time.
Enhancing the headphone experience
Various technologies have been developed to address these issues over the past few decades, including a technique known as crossfeed, which involves blending sound from the left and right channels of a stereo recording in order to simulate the effect of both signals reaching each ear.
While this process can help to create a more natural soundscape – giving the effect of bringing sound out of a listener’s head and into the room, as it would appear when listening on speakers – it often leads to a loss of reverberation, which as we’ve discussed, is key to providing us with a sense of space and depth.
As a result, many technologies designed to enhance headphone listening have to use artificial reverberation to create a sense of space. This helps, to some extent, but as anyone who’s ever experienced the ‘reverb’ button on a 1980s hi-fi system will confirm, it can end up sounding a little unnatural, resulting in a soundscape that feels quite different to that heard when listening on speakers.
Defining a solution
With this in mind, we set out to develop a new approach to headphone processing – one that could optimise sound without the use of artificial reverberation. After extensive research and development and several rounds of testing, dCS Expanse was launched.
As dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg explains, the idea for Expanse was born out of development for our Bartók Headphone DAC. After developing a crosfeed function for the system’s launch, the dCS R&D team decided to build on their work and explore what else they could do to bridge the gap between headphone listening and loudspeaker monitoring.
“We launched with a pretty standard version of crossfeed, which was still quite a lot of work and after that had launched, we thought we’d see what else we could do,” says Andy.
Deciding what this new approach should look like required some careful consideration. While the team wanted to bring the headphone experience closer to the studio monitoring experience, they also wanted to avoid creating anything that might interfere with the sound of a listener’s chosen headphones.
“There are some companies that use things like head tracking to recreate the sound of speakers, so when you move your head, it’s like there’s a set of virtual speakers, and we thought that was quite clever … but we also know that if people wanted to listen on speakers, they probably could and actually, a lot of headphone listeners don’t.
“We thought about this and our decision was, ‘we want to make [the headphone experience] sound more natural, but we know that our customers have picked their favourite headphones, so whatever we do has to sound more natural and still sound like their headphones’” adds Andy.
Replicating studio listening
From research, Andy and the team discovered that maintaining reverberation would be key in helping achieve this. Their next challenge was to work out how to add crossfeed without damaging reverb. After extensive research, they discovered that widening incoming audio signals before crossfeed takes place would allow them to do just this and so, in a dCS first, the team developed a technique that allows us to introduce crossfeed and preserve the original reverberation in a recording.
After developing this process, the team also explored how they could further simulate the effects of studio monitoring, and developed an additional technique that allows us to delay the delivery of crossfeed signals by 300 microseconds, recreating the effect of left and right audio signals arriving at our ears at different times.
This technique, coupled with the process of widening audio signals, helped to bring us another step closer to replicating the studio listening experience. But there was another major factor we had to consider.
When we listen on loudspeakers, sound reflects not just off of surfaces, but off of our head, torso and inner ears. This means that how we experience sound depends not just on the acoustics of the room we are in, but our unique physical characteristics.
In order to mirror the studio listening experience, we had to somehow simulate the effects of sound interacting with both our bodies and the space around us. But as we discovered during our research, trying to emulate this process too precisely based on a particular listener’s profile, or a dummy head, could result in audio that sounds great for some and terrible for others. With this in mind, we developed a method of equalising audio that draws on a vast range of data to provide the best possible results for a wide range of listeners, without favouring one particular set of characteristics over another.
Building a prototype
Using the methods outlined above, we were able to develop a basic Expanse prototype on a PC. The team then had to work out how to run Expanse in the digital domain using FPGAs (the code-operated, programmable hardware that exists inside all dCS systems) and ensure the platform was compatible with the various formats that our systems support, from DSD and PCM through to MQA.
Running a platform like Expanse digitally is no easy feat, and requires some serious processing power, but it also allows us to exercise a greater degree of precision and optimise sound without introducing excess noise or distortion – something that would be difficult to achieve with analogue methods.
“Expanse only affects the things it’s meant to, so the noise floor doesn’t go up when you turn it on, distortion doesn’t go up. Those requirements – keeping distortion and noise to a minimum – remain,” adds Andy. It also allows us to ensure that Expanse can be easily updated and refined over time.
Once we had an initial version of the software up and running, we invited a select group of audio experts to help us test it. This involved several rounds of listening sessions at dCS HQ, with the R&D team gathering feedback and making further adjustments after each session.
“It was quite an iterative process,” explains Andy. “[After each round], we’d take the feedback, and we’d say, ‘OK, perhaps there’s a little too much of this here, or too much of that there’, and we’d go away and do some more work to get it right.”
While beta testing is a time-consuming process, it’s vital in helping us ensure that our software and products can cater to a diverse set of tastes and preference, and it’s something that forms a core part of the development process at dCS. As Andy points out, “If you’re going to go to the trouble of having people listen to something, you have to be prepared to listen to their feedback and make changes.”
The software was tested on a variety of headphones, with beta testers comparing results on over a dozen models. “Different headphones have different frequency responses and that can impact what you’re trying to do, so we had to make sure we had something that could work on most models,” adds Andy. It was also trialled on a variety of recordings, from live orchestral recordings to multitrack mixes.
The finished article
After over a year of research, design, development and testing, Expanse was launched on December 21 as part of Mosaic 1.1.1 – an updated version of our Mosaic control app.
The final software offers a choice of two settings: while both perform the same core function, Expanse 2 is a slightly gentler setting, which allows us to preserve the timbre of instruments.
“It’s extremely hard to make one cross feed setting that works for all source material and that’s not just down to whether [the source material] is jazz, or techno, or classical – it’s about how it was mixed and recorded,” Andy explains.
“What you’re trying to do [with cross feed] is reproduce a soundscape, but that soundscape could be a natural one, like the soundscape produced by an orchestra, or it could be something that exists in Brian Eno’s head,” he adds. “By having two filters, we can provide a more extreme version and then a slightly more subtle one that might be better for things like orchestral music.”
With its unique processing method, Expanse is able to provide an enhanced sense of realism when listening to a wide range of stereo recordings. As its effects are dependent on how a track was recorded or mixed, it isn’t suitable for all music, but when engaged with the right track (such as those featured in our Expanse playlist, available on Qobuz and TIDAL), it provides a more natural soundscape and a heightened sense of space and depth.
Whether or not the feature should be left on comes down to your individual preferences and musical tastes. As Andy points out, “If someone is listening mostly to classical music, a lot of those recordings tend to be mixed in much the same way, so you might just set it up and leave it on”, while more experimental headphone users – such as those hopping between multiple genres, or between binaural and stereo recordings – might find it works best on a track-by-track basis. With this in mind, Andy recommends that listeners experiment with the platform during playback to find the setting that best suits your music.
Creating a platform like Expanse is an extensive undertaking, but the R&D team at dCS is well-versed in developing new technologies from scratch. In fact, it’s been a core part of our work for over 30 years, from our early days designing digital converters for professional recording studios, to our work creating playback systems for home listening.
By developing our own processes and platforms, we are able to resolve issues that can have a negative impact on playback and present listeners with an immersive experience that is faithful to the music, and the artist’s intention.
You can find out more about Expanse and how it works here.
Expanse is available to all Bartók Headphone DAC owners as part of Mosaic 1.1.1. More information on how to download and use Mosaic 1.1.1 can be found on the dCS forum
With live music set to return to the UK this summer, musicians can finally start preparing to get back on the road. But there are still a number of challenges facing the British music scene. Here, we explore what the government’s roadmap for ending lockdowns means for artists, and some of the wider debates that have played out in the industry over the past 12 months
If you think it’s been a tough year, spare a thought for professional touring musicians. Plenty of us have been able to take our work home, transferring our daily duties to a laptop computer, with a cup of tea to hand nearby. But many in the music industry have not been so lucky. They’ve seen the venues they used to play in closed, with no information from the government about when they would re-open.
Finally though, after 12 months of oscillating between locking the country down and trying to open it back up, the UK seems to have found a way out. The country was quick to begin its vaccination programme thanks to deft procurement last spring, and now the government has finally produced a roadmap for ending social restrictions.
This will come as a huge relief to many in the music industry who have traditionally received the bulk of their income from live performances. Yet there are a number of other challenges facing musicians anxious to get back on the road.
British pubs are scheduled to get indoors opening on May 17. This will effectively see the reappearance of live music in pubs, and the reboot of many musicians’ lives. Indoor events are likely to stay at half capacity with a maximum of 1,000 people at this stage, and outdoors with no more than 4,000 people – except at large venues of at least 40,000 size, where up to 10,000 people will be allowed to attend. Then, provided all goes to plan, all legal limits will be removed by June 21. These figures relate to England, but the UK’s devolved governments are very much on the same track.
This means that the UK could get a full summer of live music events, which is of course wonderful news. Although there may be some social distancing regulations and plenty of hand sanitising, it seems that summer 2021 will look much more like 2019 than 2020 – much to the relief of artists, fans and venues alike.
Before we all pop the champagne corks however, the UK music industry still needs to work through a number of problems. Whilst our primary focus has been on the lockdown, various issues have been gaining traction, from music streaming revenues to new red tape for European touring, performing rights levies on live streams and more. It’s almost as if the pandemic has been a smokescreen that disguises all manner of other worries for live performers.
Over the past month there has been a lot of talk – and a high-profile online petition – about new red tape that resulted from the UK’s free trade deal with the European Union, which was finally completed just days before the end of last year. In effect, touring in the EU has got a bit harder. The petition was set up by freelance camera director Tim Brennan, and supported by artists including Elton John and Ronan Keating. The new rules apparently make visa-free touring less easy, with one major gripe being a technicality regarding cabotage limits on the size of trucks, which “makes conventional touring impossible”, according to MP and composer David Warburton.
During a recent parliamentary debate, Culture Minister Caroline Dinenage said, “the government fully understands and recognises the importance of touring for UK musicians and other cultural professionals”, but that the EU was unwilling to do a deal on specifically this subject. “Our proposals involved capturing the work done by musicians … through the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors. This would have meant performers and artists could have worked and travelled in the EU more easily, with no requirements for work permits either… Quite simply, the EU rejected this.”
At the same time, the UK’s Performing Rights Society has just instituted a controversial licence fee for ticketed small-scale live-streamed performances involving its members. Paid-entry live streamed shows have become an essential source of income for many musicians over the past year, but now the PRS has set a tariff of between 8% and 17% gross revenues for live-streamed events, much more than the 4.2% levy on gross takings from live gigs. There’s also a flat fee for small-scale live streamed shows. The news comes as it is estimated that 400 small venues in the UK face permanent closure, and has angered many musicians due to the timing.
However, along with the end of the lockdown, there are some other rays of sunlight appearing. The Department of International Trade recently announced another funding round for the BPI-administered music Export Growth Scheme (MEGS), designed to boost British music exports by supporting smaller music companies as they grow artists in overseas markets. The scheme has now supported over 280 acts through more than £4 million investment in total, helping bands get over a hundred record or publishing deals, plus hundreds of live/festival appearances.
Further to this, there’s now talk of the UK government establishing an export agency to support the creative industries. Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is reportedly looking at plans for a UK creative industries export office to help support international touring plans. This would be along the lines of agencies in Australia and Canada, which provide similar advice on export logistics and strategy to help expansion into new markets – including help with visa arrangements, which would sooth EU touring woes for smaller bands, orchestras and acts.
BPI Chief Executive Geoff Taylor said: “(We are) making a strong case for a new partnership with government to realise the potential for recorded music exports to double within the decade to over £1 billion.” UK Music CEO Jamie Njoku-Goodwin added: “A new UK-wide export office for the music industry or the wider creative sector could play a crucial role in helping drive our post-pandemic recovery.”
While challenges remain, it seems there are various plans and debates underway to help address some of the issues that musicians have been facing, and provide support to an industry that has been severely affected by the pandemic (as well as the UK’s departure from the EU). Musicians aren’t out of the woods yet, but we hope 2021 will be a much more positive year for the industry.
Thank you to HiFi Group for their great review of the dCS Rossini.
“From the first notes, we feel that we are dealing with an exceptional source that will take us to the highest spheres of musicality and emotion.”
Whether you’re looking for in-depth interviews, critical analysis or commentary on the latest releases, there’s a wealth of great music podcasts to choose from online. Here, we take a look at some of our favourite shows to date – from revealing documentaries to series exploring artists’ creative process
For music fans, the rise of podcasts has provided a whole new way to discover new releases and learn more about the stories behind popular recordings. The number of music-related shows has exploded in the past few years, with labels, artists and journalists using the medium to discuss and reflect on a wide range of music and genres.
At dCS, we recently teamed up with journalist Simon Barnett to create our first podcast series, dCS Legends: The Other Side of the Glass. Launched as part of our dCS Legends programme, which celebrates outstanding work in music production, it features exclusive interviews with 11 of the world’s top recording, mixing and mastering engineers about their work, process and the making of GRAMMY-winning recordings.
Making the series was a fascinating process, and we’ve been delighted to see so many of our friends and partners tuning in to listen. You can find the full series over at dcslegends.com – and for more music stories, check out our selection of new and ongoing podcasts below.
Launched in 2014, Hrishikesh Hirway’s series has become one of the most popular music podcasts of all time. The show has built a devoted global following and its creator recently teamed up with Netflix to make a miniseries of the same name.
The format is simple: in each episode, a musician breaks down one of their tracks and tells the story of how it was made, charting its evolution and the thinking or ideas behind it. The result is a fascinating series that delves into artists’ creative process and the careful consideration that goes into making a hit track.
Featuring interviews with FKA twigs, Fleetwood Mac, The Cranberries, Billie Eilish, Tame Impala, Kelly Lee Owens and many more, it covers a wide range of music, and will give you a whole new perspective on songs you might have heard countless times.
Described as “a collection of the greatest music stories never told”, public radio station KCRW’s documentary series brings together an intriguing collection of tales from music’s past.
Season 1 features episodes on Captain Beefheart, cult rock band The Shaggs and WBAD (a pirate radio station which earned a devoted following among New York hip-hop fans in the mid 90s), while season 2’s highlights include a look at the work of pioneering sound designer and synth composer Suzanne Ciani and all-female punk group Fanny, which faded into obscurity after a promising start in the music world.
The podcast’s latest series is more akin to a collection of oral essays than a documentary, with critic Hanif Abdurraqib examining a single year (1980) through the lens of albums by the likes of Grace Jones and The Sugarhill Gang. If you’re looking for lesser-told stories from the archives, or an in-depth look at key moments in a significant year in pop culture, then Lost Notes is a great place to start.
Created by New York classical radio station WQXR in partnership with the Metropolitan Opera, Aria Code brings together musicians, writers and academics to discuss some of opera’s most popular arias. Each instalment is focused on a single work, with host Rhiannon Giddens delving into the stories behind them and their lasting influence before playing an excerpt from the Metropolitan Opera’s archives. Season 1 includes a look at Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Donizetti’s Le fille du regiment and Verdi’s La traviata, among others, while season 2 examines arias by Puccini, The Gershwins, Offenbach and more. Combining friendly discussion with some powerful performances, it’s an engaging series with guest appearances from some of opera’s leading talents.
Also from WQXR, Meet the Composer is an immersive show that explores the work of contemporary classical composers, from Henry Threadgill and John Adams to Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. The series was created by Nadia Sirota, a classical violist who has worked with David Bowie, Bjork, Arcade Fire and The National, as well as various orchestras around the world. Blending musical performances with interviews, commentary and evocative sound design, it abandons the traditional interview format in favour of a more experimental approach – one that paints a rich picture of each composer’s work and what makes it unique. With its artful production and detailed analysis, it provides an illuminating look at some of the most innovative composers of recent times.
One of the most talked-about podcasts to emerge in 2020, this eight-part series asks whether one of the biggest selling singles of all time – Wind of Change by German rock group Scorpions – was in fact written by the CIA. Hosted by journalist Patrick Radden Keefe, it investigates a rumour that America’s intelligence agency came up with the song as part of a covert Cold War-era operation to influence people through music and pop culture.
Over the course of the series, Keefe speaks with musicians, academic and ex-CIA staff in a bid to uncover the truth behind the record. The show is as much about espionage as it is about music, but it’s an interesting look at the legend behind a seemingly innocuous power ballad and the role of music and culture in driving political agendas. The show is now being adapted for TV, with Hulu currently developing a miniseries based on Keefe’s investigation.
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell teamed up with music producer Rick Rubin and Bruce Headlam, former Media Desk Editor at The New York Times, to create this eclectic podcast, which features some in-depth and thought-provoking conversations with some of the biggest names in music. Described by Gladwell as “a musical variety show”, the series combines wide-ranging interviews with live performances and excerpts from guests’ greatest hits. Guests range from David Byrne to Tyler the Creator, James Taylor and Run the Jewels, with conversations covering everything from politics to personal relationships – and of course, making records.
The Lost Art Of Conversation was created to promote the release of Pink Floyd’s The Later Years box set, which brings together music created from 1987 to 2019. Through interviews with BBC 6 music journalist Matt Everitt, band member David Gilmour reflects on four aspects of the band’s creative output during this period, from studio recordings to live shows, artwork and unreleased material.
In the debut episode, Gilmour discusses the making of A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and the band’s desire to embrace new technologies during the making of the album. Later instalments delve into the making of their ambitious live tours and the challenges involved in bringing their creative vision to life, as well as the stories behind their now iconic album covers. For fans of Pink Floyd – or anyone interested in the group’s work – it offers an intimate and in-depth look at a significant era in their history.
One for cinemaphiles, Art of the Score offers a deep dive into a collection of memorable and noteworthy film scores, including John Williams’ work for Jurassic Park and the Empire Strikes Back, Jonny Greenwood’s music for Paul Thomas Anderson’s dark drama, There Will Be Blood and John Powell’s soundtrack for family favourite How To Train Your Dragon. In each episode, hosts Andrew Pogson, Dan Golding and Nicholas Buc dissect the composition and key themes in a particular score and what makes it so powerful. Episodes are long – with some clocking in at around 90 minutes – but each one offers some insightful analysis of some poignant, uplifting, eerie and unforgettable soundtracks.
From both a commercial and scientific perspective, 2020 proved a strange and fascinating experiment – an unexpected global study of what happens when our usual routines are upended and replaced with long stretches of time spent at home.
Shopping and consumption habits changed dramatically throughout the year, in both predictable and unexpected ways, and recent market research studies have revealed some interesting shifts in the ways that people are buying and consuming music.
The headline news is that there’s been a significant rise in people’s use of streamed media. According to research commissioned by Dolby Labs, people are now focused on getting their entertainment experiences via the internet. This isn’t surprising in itself, but Dolby’s research reveals another interesting fact. Not only are people taking their music and movie consumption online, they’re also seeking qualitative improvements in the way they experience it.
Dolby’s study polled 5,000 respondents from China, France, India, and the United States. That’s quite a large sample size and a wider than average sample base, too. Of those 5,000 respondents, 77% said they’d be happy to pay more for superior sound quality, and 64% said they had upgraded at least one streaming service to a premium subscription in the past six months. The increased spend on digital content has been led by Generation Z and Millennials, with the latter spending an extra 38% in the past half-year. Break down the spending increase by country, and you find it’s gone up by 55% in France, 72% in the US, 94% in China, and 97% in India.
A surprisingly high 64% of people said they were planning to upgrade their existing audio-visual kit – i.e. new TVs, soundbars, speakers, amplifiers or streaming devices – including 73% of Millennials. A dramatic 81% of people who have upgraded their streaming services also plan to upgrade their audio or visual systems, with 62% doing so because it provides an opportunity to relax. Essentially then, the past year has seen more people take home entertainment more seriously than ever before.
This tallies with new findings from the Recording Industry Association of America – the US music industry body – on consumer behaviour in the first half of 2020. In the US, streamed music made up 85% of total revenue, generating $4.8 billion, compared with $4.3 billion in the same period last year, when its share was 80%. This is yet more evidence of the meteoric rise of streaming, but again shows that people are spending more on it, too. The RIAA says that US music fans are increasingly willing to pay for premium services to listen to music ad-free, up from 58.2 million in the first half of 2019 to 72.1 million in the same period this year – a significant uptick.
Alongside this, it seems more people have been turning to high-resolution streaming to upgrade their listening experience. In the US, Qobuz has seen an increase in the number of people signing up to its Hi-Res subscription service for the first time over the past 12 months, with many of them switching to Qobuz from platforms that use compressed audio streams.
“We continue to grow in the audiophile community; however a big change [in 2020] has been more people trying out Hi-Res for the first time,” David Solomon, Chief Hi-Res Music Evangelist at Qobuz, tells dCS.
In November 2019, Qobuz dropped its monthly subscription fee to $14.99. Since then, Solomon says the company has seen “droves of people” moving from compressed services to Qobuz Hi-Res. Over the past 12 months, Qobuz has also received an increasing number of queries from customers who are new to Hi-Res audio and keen to find out how they can enhance their listening setup.
“We have people contacting us every day with basic high-end audio questions: What’s a DAC or how will it improve my system? What’s a good music streamer that plays Hi-Res? What would you consider high-end speakers?” explains Solomon.
All this would suggest it’s not just seasoned audiophiles who are looking to invest in great sound. Hi-Res streaming is still in its infancy, but Qobuz’s success over the past year points to a growing interest in high-quality audio – one that Solomon believes will continue for years to come. And it’s not just music lovers who are embracing the format. Solomon has also noticed an increasing number of recordings being released in Hi-Res over the past few years, which suggests that more labels and artists are investing in it, too.
“What has been surprising, and even thrilling as a music lover, is that recordings coming out are far superior to the digital recordings of the last decade. And a good 70-80% of albums are all being released in Hi-Res,” Solomon adds.
With internet connections becoming faster and more stable, more consumers than ever now have access to a service that can support the demands of playing large files. Solomon also credits innovations in playback with helping to bring Hi-Res music to a wider audience. “I’ve been using a [dCS] Bartok for the last few weeks and have been astonished at the detail and performance. Companies such as dCS not only take full advantage of Hi-Res content; the music is actually elevated to another level. Huge improvements are taking place on both sides: recording and playback.”
The type of music people are listening to on Qobuz hasn’t changed much over the past year – rock, jazz and classical remain the three most popular genres, with The Beatles, Norah Jones, the Rolling Stones, Diana Krall and Pink Floyd occupying the most streamed artist slots – but Solomon says customers have been streaming music more often and for longer periods of time. They have also been seeking out a wider range of music within their preferred genres.
While 2020 was an incredibly challenging year for the music industry, it also offered a powerful reminder of the importance of music in our daily lives. For millions of people around the world, it provided a much-needed escape from the confines of our homes and the chaos of the past 12 months. The fact that people have been spending more time listening and seeking out new artists, as well as investing in new equipment through which to do so, is encouraging news for both artists and the wider music and audio world – and something that could have an impact on how we listen well after lockdowns and social distancing measures have eased.
To our friends and partners
As 2020 draws to a close, we’re taking some time to reflect on the past 12 months. It’s been a challenging year professionally and personally for all of us here at dCS – and, I’m sure, all of you too – but before we wrap up for the festive break, we’d like to share some of the things that we’ve been working on and extend our thanks to everyone who’s helped us along the way.
First, thank you to our customers. We’re incredibly grateful for your support, this year and always, and hope our systems bring you many happy hours of listening. The dCS community is hugely important to us and we hope it won’t be too long before we can get out to meet with you in person.
Thanks to our partners – the retailers and distributors who’ve gone above and beyond to deliver, install and support our systems in the toughest of circumstances. We can’t wait until it is safe to travel, and we can get back to sharing music and laughter with you at shows and events across the world.
Thanks also to all the creatives involved in making music – the artists, producers, engineers and the many people working behind the scenes to bring us something to listen to. The absence of live music events has left a massive hole in our lives, but we’ve found comfort, joy and inspiration in discovering new music and revisiting old favourites during the weeks and months we’ve spent at home. We know this has been a difficult year for the music industry, but we hope there are brighter times ahead.
And so, on to 2020…
It’s been a busy year for the team here and, like most businesses, we’ve found ourselves facing some strange and unexpected challenges. Our offices were closed for most of April due to national lockdowns, but we’ve since reconfigured our workspace and processes to allow some of our staff to return safely and others to collaborate and work remotely. Our production team are back at the factory and have done an incredible job in making up for lost time, building record numbers of products in 2020. And while most of our R&D and marketing staff are still mainly working from home, we have been able to make the occasional trip back to dCS HQ.
Sadly, we haven’t been able to host any visitors to our factory this year, but we’re hoping to welcome many more customers and partners for tours and training in the not too distant future. In the meantime, our listening room has provided a much-needed space for our staff to relax and escape – thanks to our friends at Nordost, Transparent, Wilson Audio, D’Agostino, Constellation and Rockport for providing some fantastic equipment.
New starters and fond farewells
We’ve welcomed several new members to the dCS team this year: John Giolas, Ady Man and Rachael Steven in sales and marketing, James Cook in technical support, Deya Sanchez and Jane Simpkins in R&D, Theresa Townsend and Mark Weedon in production, and Gerry Spencer in service. Between them, they bring a wealth of expertise, insight and new energy.
We also waved a fond farewell to Ray Wing, who retired this summer after almost 20 years at dCS. Ray wore many hats at dCS – during his time here, he was involved in Purchasing, Design, Quality Management and Health and Safety and he’ll be greatly missed by all of us. His half full mug of tea still sits on the kitchen worktop, and we’ll miss hearing about his guitars and his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, but we wish him all the best for the future and hope he enjoys some downtime.
dCS at CanJam
While we’ve been missing our usual trips to audio events, we had a great time meeting headphone listeners and fellow music lovers at CanJam Global in New York back in January, and have been delighted to see so many HeadFi enthusiasts enjoying our Bartók Headphone DAC. We’ll be taking part in lots more CanJam gatherings once shows are back up and running in 2021 – follow our social media pages for details and updates.
Playlists and podcasts
In other news, this year saw the launch of dCS Legends – a programme celebrating the outstanding efforts of an elite group of recording, mixing and mastering engineers who have strived throughout their career to deliver the finest listening experience possible.
As part of the Legends programme, we launched our first podcast series, The Other Side of the Glass, which features interviews with each Legend about their creative process and the making of GRAMMY-winning albums. It’s been humbling and inspiring to hear from the people who have worked on some of our favourite albums of all time, and we hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast and playlists of their work as much as we have. If you haven’t tuned in yet, you can find the full series over at dcslegends.com.
We’ve also enjoyed bringing you an even bigger range of music recommendations. In addition to our Classical Choices series, curated by Charlotte Gardner, and our Album of the Month feature (both of which you can find here), we’ve been delving into the world of film scores and videogame soundtracks, and sharing a monthly selection of new and classic tracks selected by the dCS team. We’ll be sharing lots more great music with you next year but for now, you can find all of our playlists on Qobuz and TIDAL, or follow the dCS Facebook page for news of our latest picks.
News and reviews
Thanks also to Hi-Fi+, What Hi-Fi?, Sound Stage Ultra, Audiophile Fr, Stereonet Australia & New Zealand, Part-Time Audiophile, Hi-Fi Corner, Positive Feedback, Yellowbox, Headfonics and AudioStream for their fantastic reviews of the Bartók, and to Soundstage! Network for awarding the Bartók DAC with your Outstanding Performance Award – Product of the Year 2020. It’s inspiring to see people from all corners of the world enjoying our products, both in the press and on the dCS forum, and we’ve really enjoyed reading your feedback, observations and music recommendations.
The dCS forum
The dCS forum has gone from strength to strength this year and we’ve been delighted to see so many of our customers using it to share advice, tips and music. Thanks to our support team James Cook, Ben Ashcroft and Andrew Papanikolas for being on hand to answer questions, and thanks to everyone who’s taken part in discussions so far. If you haven’t signed up yet, you can do so at dcs.community.
Introducing dCS Expanse
Our R&D team rounded off this year with the release of Mosaic 1.1.1 – an updated version of our Mosaic platform – and an exciting new feature, dCS Expanse, available to owners of our Bartók Headphone DAC.
With Expanse, we set out to reimagine how sound is optimised for headphone listening and bring the headphone experience closer to the sound that artists and engineers hear when listening to a performance in the studio. After studying existing methods of headphone optimisation (most of which focus on using cross feed to move a perceived sound source out of a listener’s head and into the room in front of them, mirroring the effects of stereo listening), we found that none were able to optimise sound while also preserving the original reverberation in a recording. Most instead relied on using artificial reverberation – a tool we didn’t feel was appropriate for use in dCS products.
After extensive research, our R&D team used their expertise to develop an alternative approach that allows us to externalise sound without loss or damage to reverberation. This unique method means we are able to capture not just the fine details in a performance, but the overall sense of space and depth (something that is often lost when sound is translated for headphones) – providing a more immersive experience that remains faithful to the music.
Expanse is available now as part of Mosaic 1.1.1. You can find more information here, or see our technical paper for an in-depth look at Expanse. We’ve also put together a playlist with some recommended reference tracks to help you get started with Expanse, which you can find here.
dCS and DOSOCO
In addition to our work at dCS, we’ve been collaborating with the DOSOCO foundation, a Cambridge-based social enterprise that supports community projects using music for social good.
Alongside providing grants and technical support to DOSOCO, we teamed up with their partner organisation, We Are Sound, to support a virtual concert in aid of musicians and crews who’ve found themselves out of work due to Covid-19. The event was broadcast live on December 13 from a barn in the Suffolk countryside, and provided some welcome festive cheer, with winter-themed performances from some of the talented members of the We Are Sound band.
A final request
That’s almost it from us, but before we sign off for the holidays, we have one last request. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that, thanks to the support of our partners and friends, we’ve been able to continue manufacturing products, but there are thousands of people within the music industry who have seen their livelihoods put at risk by Covid-19 and ongoing restrictions around live events.
So please, do whatever you can to support artists, crews, venues and everyone in the industry who is struggling – whether it’s buying music or merchandise, attending a virtual gig, or making a donation to one of the many organisations working to help people and businesses affected by the pandemic. We’ve included a list of some UK organisations and fundraising campaigns below, but there are many others too that would be grateful for your support.
For now, we hope you have a restful break over the holidays and wish you all the very best for 2021.
Music organisations you can support
On December 21, we’re releasing an update for dCS Mosaic – our custom platform which allows dCS customers to access a wide range of digital music and control the settings on their dCS device.
Mosaic 1.1.1 will include a host of improvements and new features available to all dCS owners, as well as a new innovation, dCS Expanse, designed specifically for owners of our Bartók Headphone DAC.
Expanse is a custom-built processing platform, designed to deliver an enhanced headphone experience on the Bartók Headphone DAC.
Developed by dCS, it was created to address a growing imbalance in the way that sound is monitored during the recording process and how it’s experienced during playback. With most recordings still monitored on loudspeakers, and more people than ever now listening to music on headphones, we felt there was a need for a platform that could bring the headphone experience closer to the sound that artists and engineers hear when listening to a performance or mix in the studio.
Various technologies have been developed to address this imbalance over the past few decades – most of which focus on using cross feed to move a perceived sound source out of a listener’s head and into the room in front of them, mirroring the effect of listening to music on loudspeakers.
Yet after studying existing methods of cross feed and headphone optimisation, we discovered that none of them were able to optimise sound while also preserving the original reverberation in a recording. Most instead relied on adding artificial reverberation – a technique we didn’t feel was appropriate for dCS products.
So, after extensive research, our R&D team used their expertise to develop an alternative approach that allows us to externalise sound, without loss or damage to the original reverberation.
This unique method allows us to deliver a more immersive experience – one that captures not just the fine details in a musical performance, but the overall sense of space and depth, something that is often lost when sound is translated for headphone listening.
With Expanse, listeners can enjoy all of the hallmarks of dCS playback – clarity, precision and an engaging sound – and a unique experience that remains faithful to the music.
You can find out more about Expanse here.
We’ve also put together a playlist featuring some featuring some recommended reference tracks to help you discover the platform’s potential, which you can access here.
What else is new?
Expanse is just one of several new features and updated included in Mosaic 1.1.1
Other additions include TIDAL My Mix, which provides added support for TIDAL’s autogenerated playlists, an update to our play queue feature, which allows listeners to add more tracks to a play queue or playlist, and improvements to media browsing, playback and control functions.
Mosaic 1.1.1. is available to download from 10am GMT on Monday, December 21. Further information will be shared via our website and social media pages, and on our forum,dcs.community.
If you have any questions regarding Expanse or Mosaic 1.1.1, please do not hesitate to contact me.
If you require an offline update, please contact us and provide your unit serial number. We will provide you with an update image that will only install on that unit, so it is critical that the serial number be correct. Installation instructions will be provided with the update image. This service will be available from 4th January 2021.
Founded by musician Andrea Cockerton, DIUO is a new platform that hopes to support musicians and live crews by providing high quality live streams for audiences at home. We talk to Andrea about the project, and reimagining the concert format for TV
Coronavirus has played havoc with the delicate musical ecosystems of many countries around the world, as artists and venues have had to cancel or reschedule their live performances. Early hopes that lockdowns would be quickly eased have been dashed, as governments continue to limit social interaction in hopes of suppressing the spread of Covid-19.
In the UK, this has had a devastating effect on the live music industry – a sector that contributes £5.2 billion to the British economy each year and sustains almost 200,000 jobs, according to Let The Music Play. The industry stands to lose at least £900 million if it remains closed for the rest of 2020, with up to a half of its workforce likely facing unemployment. British venues are set to lose five million visitors, while many music festivals – a staple of the UK’s music scene, which support 85,000 jobs – are expected to be lost.
While the forecast is bleak, people have been finding ways to adapt to the new normal. Along with virtual gigs and online events, we’ve seen new systems emerge to help feed money back to the creators and producers who have seen their livelihoods assaulted during the pandemic.
Cambridge-based musician Andrea Cockerton’s #LOCKJAM project was a particularly interesting response, providing an online platform for musicians to broadcast virtual performances to audiences stuck at home, and generate some much-needed revenue through a ‘pay-what-you-can’ ticket model. Launched in April, the plaform broadcast a wide range of performances during UK lockdowns, from events commemorating Pride month, to family-friendly sets from local acts.
Andrea has considerable experience putting on live events. As the founder of We Are Sound (a charity which dCS supports), she has organised various gigs in Cambridgeshire and London, including ‘In the Dark’ – an event series that allowed visitors to experience musical performances in complete darkness. As she explains to dCS, her #LOCKJAM initiative was motivated by a desire to help behind-the-scenes workers in the British music industry.
“I know small local production companies – freelance crews – that are stacking shelves in Tescos,” she says. “I can’t quite fathom why really established musicians aren’t doing more to help these people. It may be because record labels can be slow to move and are understandably risk-averse, but it feels like they’ve pulled up the ladder to the live industry. It doesn’t take much to be proactive, I think we can do better.”
Six months on, Andrea is hoping to build on the success of the project and provide a longer-term solution to the problems facing the UK’s live music scene. “[#LOCKJAM] was a bunch of talented but unknown musicians trying to help others and now the concept needs to grow up,” she explains.
“The problem hasn’t gone away and isn’t likely to in the short-to-medium term at least – the music and the theatre industries are stuffed until we get a vaccine, because the way they do things makes them unviable at the moment, so the only way is to innovate and do things differently, and I think that there’s huge potential to create revenue within the music industry, while supporting the industry.”
Her solution is a new streaming platform called DIUO, which she describes as “somewhere between Spotify, Amazon Prime and Netflix” in its user experience and payment model. The idea is to create a means by which smart TV viewers can access high quality live concerts, either directly streamed to watch as the event is happening, or to stream later on demand. “DI means Direct Input to musicians,” adds Andrea.
The end user will be able to pay to view streams searchable by categories including genre, venue and song. “There’s already a strong group of smart TV technology platforms such as Amazon Fire, Roku, Android, Apple TV, etc,” says Andrea. “DIUO will translate across these different smart TV apps, starting with Apple & Android, and also be accessible online via tablets and laptops.”
Her hope is that the platform will offer an engaging experience for music fans who are missing the sense of connection that comes with attending a live event, while also helping to provide some much-needed income to musicians and live crews. “If you think about music, it’s a shared experience. Most people don’t like watching music on their laptop because it’s insular and alone – most like watching on their TVs, like you would live coverage of Glastonbury, as if it were BBC coverage of a music festival and a shared experience. The difference is that with this system, there will be a charitable ‘kick’ at the end. People pay and the money goes to the artist, but also a share would go to the wider music industry, to musical good causes.”
Curation will play an important role on DIUO: “It can’t be just another YouTube with someone singing in his bathroom,” says Andrea. “Initially we’ll be targeting independent labels & artists, cherry-picking who we would love to have on. The technical quality has to be high, both sound and vision. I think it needs to be done because there’s no place to go for brilliant live gigs. It’s like planting seeds that will help regrow the British music industry; it’s a circular thing.”
DIUO is now looking for 100 artists to sign up to the platform in return for a 10% equity stake – an initiative that Andrea hopes will help get the project off the ground. Over 60 bands have applied so far, including acts from Romania, Ireland and California as well as the UK, and applicants span a wide range of genres, from metal to folk and world music. “There are two reasons for launching it this way – the first is that it fits with our whole ethos, and the second is that we hope it will help publicise the platform by doing it like this”, Andrea explains.
“For the past few months we’ve been intensively talking to the market and now have three world-class and proven tech partners who will be providing DIUO’s backbone,” she adds. “We’re not trying to be all things to all people. Our focus is hosting live art streams and replays, and our value lies in the drawing together and hosting of what we hope will be a growing collection of live material. We’re also partnering with both local and global production companies to provide first class sound and video, should the bands not have their own preferred crews.”
Indeed, Andrea knows the technical side must be spot on – which is why DIUO will be offering specialist production support to performers on the platform.
“The thing about live streaming is you can’t just do a bog-standard gig that works on stage when you have an audience. When you put that on to a screen, it falls dead because there is no audience, so you have to think really carefully about how do you engage through the screen? How do you reach people in their homes and make them feel like they’re part of something? We’re recruiting musicians and crews to do that. Many live streams are static unless they’ve got mega budgets, but your average sort of touring band may not have that expertise [in putting on a great live show]. So we offer that. My background is in performing, so I know what works and what falls flat, and we’ve got a production partner who is based in Cambridgeshire, but covering events all over the country, as well as a global production partner. We’ll work with a lot of freelancers as well.”
Alongside recruiting freelance crews to help with production, DIUO will be employing out of work musicians to compere gigs. Andrea is also keen to introduce interactive elements to performances, such as live ‘question and answer’ sessions or features allowing audiences to go backstage with the band. “There’s much more potential for interactivity than meets the eye,” she says. “The users could even vote for what track bands should play as their encore, or choose the camera they see the performance through.”
Andrea’s experts will also be mixing audio while the performance takes place, rather than just broadcasting a live feed. “We want this app to be first class and nothing less, so that’s another reason for high quality production values. It’s not only got to look good, but sound the part too. This will be achieved by getting the right people in to record it and mix it. Some bands have asked if we can just take a feed from the room, but we don’t do that. We mix for streaming. If you go into the room during a performance, the band sounds really quiet because the only thing you’ll hear is the drum kit, plus the vocalists and any acoustic instruments. Everything else goes straight into the desk, so anything that goes out on the stream has been mastered for that purpose.”
dCS wishes Andrea well. There’s a large demographic of people who want to experience high quality live music in their homes, and DIUO caters for this, while also giving money back to the artists and crew to keep music sustainable. If you’d like to get involved, or know of musicians who might benefit from being part of this project, you can find more information at diuo.io
Recorded sound reproduction is now in its 160th year, and still going strong. It’s been a long struggle though, to raise the bar from Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph – which used paper or glass to mechanically describe a sound waveform – to where it is now, where music is held digitally on cloud servers and beamed around the world via satellites or undersea cables.
The year zero for modern music media was 1982 – the moment when Compact Disc was launched in Japan, while the rest of the world got it six to twelve months later. CD was hugely important for a number of reasons. First, it was the first commercially available domestic digital music format, using a Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) system that’s become the default for how we’ve subsequently done digital. Direct Stream Digital (DSD) devotees may be hissing and booing, but without PCM, digital music reproduction wouldn’t have evolved in the way it did.
It also introduced the idea of random access. Of course, the vinyl LP record was a random access format too – the problem was that it was a little too random. But with Compact Disc, each release came with its own Table of Contents (TOC), telling the disc transport mechanism where to look for the track being selected. Previously, music lovers had to rely on hand cueing vinyl, or on the clunky ‘track search’ mechanisms built into cassette decks, which physically fast wound the tape past the record head in order to find a gap. This worked up to a point, but was slow and trouble-prone, often wearing out the cassette deck’s heads after a year or two of use. By comparison, CD was a godsend.
Compact Disc effectively moved the goalposts. It offered high quality digital audio – the 16-bit, 44kHz Red Book standard is still the one most people use today, surprisingly – and random access, making it the world’s first truly convenient music carrier. It was only then that people began to realise its potential, and companies such as Philips, Sony and Panasonic pushed to make portables and in-car players. This brought another benefit – portability – and by the end of the 1980s, the idea of having easy to use, high quality music was no longer enough. People also wanted to have it wherever they went.
This was one battle that the novel CD format just couldn’t win. It’s fascinating to think that in the UK, the bestselling year for the Compact Cassette wasn’t some time in the 1970s – which is when everyone seemed to be going cassette-crazy – but 1988. This was the high watermark of so-called ‘music cassette’ sales; people were buying a 25-year-old Philips-designed ‘dictaphone’ format in droves, in order to listen to their favourite tunes in their Walkman portables or in-car cassette stereos. Portable ‘Discman’ type CD players were on sale by then, but they never eclipsed the humble cassette Walkman in this role.
This proved something of a sore point. Sony knew that CD just wasn’t portable enough for a generation who’d grown up owning a Walkman, and MiniDisc was its response. Looking at it through today’s eyes, it seems quite an odd contraption – basically a miniature CD enclosed in a cartridge that’s hard to damage. The latter is good news, but because this 16/44 format has less data storage capacity, the music itself had to be shrunk down in order to fit on the disc. MiniDisc brought us compressed digital audio for the first time, and set a rather worrying precedent as far as audiophiles were concerned.
One year later in 1993, the MP3 format was born. Few realised it at the time, but this was a huge game changer. It was the missing link that enabled digital audio to attain true portability and compactness, bettering – at least – the by then wonderfully sleek and slim cassette Walkmans on sale. It took a long fight for supremacy though, and the US music industry association – alarmed at the rise in pirate downloads and poor quality files being shared online – even tried to litigate it out of existence in a famous court case filed against Napster in 1999. Nasty as MP3 sounded, it got people used to the concept of music as computer file that you could store in RAM or on a hard drive. Once MP3 arrived, music was no longer dependent on a format designed by a large consumer electronics company.
One little thing that slipped by without much fuss during this period of innovation was the official invention of the WAV file in 1988. a year after dCS was founded. This, along with 1999’s FLAC format, made high resolution digital music possible and ushered in the contemporary era. Today’s world is as it is because of these two music carriers, and dCS has arguably done more than any other hi-fi manufacturer to legitimise and popularise these two file formats, among others.
When it comes to recorded sound reproduction, the future is an open book, and we’re now looking ahead to ever higher resolution digital music. DSD has migrated off SACD discs and come along for the ride as a file format too. It’s been a long journey, but perhaps it’s only just begun?
Thank you to What HiFi? for their review of the Bartók,
“Transparency is the word we keep coming back to. The Bartók produces a deeply analytical sound, one that’s brimming with detail and presented in an unvarnished way. If the source material is poor, you’ll know all about it because there’s no embellishment going on here.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been one of the strangest events in recent human history, as we have witnessed a completely new and – initially at least, very poorly understood – virus spread around the world with alarming speed. Like many pandemics before it, it spread via trade routes, moving from China’s Wuhan province to the world’s top western travel hubs like New York, London and Paris for example – then beyond. Although it is now receding in the West, South America is currently under siege and there’s even been a minor resurgence in Beijing. It’s clear that the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.
The human effects of this pandemic have been terrible of course, but its impact on world trade have been no less significant. Given that ‘the wheels of industry’ must keep turning to pay for the world’s healthcare systems – in one way or another – it’s impossible to estimate how many more people have or will be indirectly affected by the coronavirus. This isn’t just because large parts of the global manufacturing sector had to shut down for several months, but also because the customers who normally buy its wares were ‘locked down’ – socially distancing themselves at home – and therefore not out consuming. In the UK for example, GDP in April 2020 was around twenty percent down on 2019, which is a staggering figure – and not an outlier from other advanced economies.
Most Western countries are now cautiously moving beyond this and business is returning to normal, with governments fully aware that the measures now being taken will have a major impact on the wider recovery. New consumer data from the US is encouraging, with retail sales for May 2020 up by over seventeen percent, for example. Here in the UK, the first retail sectors allowed to re-open last month were garden centres and car dealers. This is because it’s widely believed that the virus best spreads in confined spaces, rather than outdoors. The scientific consensus is that at least fifteen minutes exposure to an infected person indoors is needed to catch Covid-19, and they need to be less than one metre away. This naturally makes conventional hi-fi retailing a particularly difficult proposition.
During the lockdown, many hi-fi dealers have shifted their business model towards online sales, or mail order via the telephone. That’s meant plenty of long, in-depth phone, FaceTime or Skype consultations with prospective purchasers, with customers buying on the strength of dealer recommendations and/or magazine reviews. It’s meant careful attention to detail ensuring that safety is maintained regarding courier deliveries and fulfilment parters, following all the government guidelines. All this has been done whilst implementing social distancing in the workplace, often with staggered start and finish times and working remotely when possible. Many dealers have offered free drop-offs of products, too.
Customer loyalty has helped good dealers. If buyers have got sound advice from them in the past, they’re likely to trust them with purchasing recommendations now – and that has helped top-tier hi-fi retailers all around the world. Such trust extends to letting people have products on approval to audition at home in many cases, too. A strong customer base has proved invaluable to long-established and highly respected dealers – precisely the sort that sell dCS products. Certainly at the upper end of the market, there’s a really important bond of trust, built up over years of good relations with customers, that pays dividends in a time like this.
This pandemic has forced hi-fi retailers to adapt, and those with expertise and passion for customer service during the good times, have been better able to respond in the bad times. If anything, recent events have simply underlined the fundamental importance of great service. In these trying times, we have been attempting to replicate the traditional model of retailing as much as possible – whilst obeying social distancing. Trusted and knowledgeable dealers have continued to dispense old fashioned advice, but are no longer standing next to the customer in a dem room. If anything, this whole experience reinforces the need for expert guidance, something that simply isn’t there when people click ‘Buy it now’ online.
Overall then, the coronavirus crisis has underlined the basic need for high quality service. Yet there is still a large question mark over how quickly things will get back to normal. We’re now seeing effective new treatments for Covid-19 such as Dexamethasone – with successful clinical trials just completed by Oxford University – but until a successful vaccine is found, we just don’t know the answer to that. Indeed, it’s even possible that we may never get such a thing. Meanwhile, some audiophiles may be reluctant to visit hi-fi showrooms for the foreseeable future, and so-called ‘bricks and mortar’ shops in general. The in-store experience of a top-flight dealer demonstration is a truly special one, and – as this terrible pandemic teaches us – is hard to replicate in any other way.
The advent of Covid-19 – officially declared a global pandemic on March 11th, 2020 – is already having effects that run far beyond the tragic fatalities that the media is currently focusing on. The mass social isolation needed to suppress its spread is beginning to cause problems for most sectors of the world’s economy, as it becomes apparent that it could take years and not months, for normality to be restored…
Although the coronavirus outbreak is affecting different parts of the global economy in different ways, it’s now becoming clear that the music industry has already been hit hard. In the UK for example, we know from several sources that CD sales have dropped by around a half in the past month. In recent years we have witnessed a clear move towards music streaming, and the coronavirus pandemic will surely have accelerated this. Yet the music business still gets much of its revenue stream from physical media sales – which are now drying up.
This is down to both the traditional high street music retailers being closed due to the lockdown, and their online equivalents being unable to get discs delivered due to logistical reasons. For example, Amazon – which sells around fifty percent of all Compact Discs in the UK – reportedly hasn’t restocked many titles, having perfectly understandably chosen to concentrate on delivering home essentials instead.
If you sympathise with the major music retail chains struggling to cope with the lockdown, spare a thought for the smaller independent music shops. Arguably, these are more grounded in their local community – so the prospect of being shut down will have come as a terrible surprise. Historically, they’ve played an important role in the British music scene, with many great band members whiling their younger lives away in iconic shops like Rough Trade and Honest Jon’s. As such, it would be a tragedy to lose them, not least because they’ve been a social and creative hub for so many great recording artists over the years.
Geoff Taylor of the British Phonographic Industry recently said that, “the BPI is determined to help protect the sector as much as it can, but revenues will obviously decline in the short term, and we are concerned that the crisis may threaten the ongoing viability of some physical music retailers.” It’s becoming clear that the government may have to look at innovative solutions to get people back into shops such as these, once the lockdown is over. The BPI suggests a temporary freeze on VAT for physical music once stores reopen, to help the sector get back on its feet.
There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, as some good comes out of this terrible pandemic. For example, Sony Music’s parent company has just announced a $100m global relief fund to bring help to those impacted by Covid-19. The One World: Together at Home Special event – held in association with the World Health Organisation – saw The Rolling Stones perform a socially distanced rendition of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, with each member of the band playing together from a separate location (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7pZgQepXfA). Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Lang Lang, Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Sam Smith also took part, among many others.
The hope is that the lockdown will begin to be eased in mid-May in the UK, but other countries that have already begun to do this are staging it in a way that large concert gatherings are pretty much at the bottom of the list. Major music venues may be able to weather the storm, but it’s less certain that small independent ones – effectively the grassroots of the industry – will be able to survive this seismic shock. The Music Venues Trust, which represents 670 grassroots live spaces across the UK, has said that over three quarters face imminent closure, due to not being able to pay their rent. Some types of government help may be available, but again the worry is that many venues will fall down between the cracks, so to speak.
The only small crumb of comfort is that before the pandemic struck, the UK’s music industry was actually in very good health; this country was the second biggest music exporter in the world after the USA, and revenues climbed by 7.3% per cent last year – which was the fourth successive year of growth. Because the fundamentals are basically good, the hope is that the 72% of British musicians who are self-employed can start performing and recording again in some capacity, soon.
By John Darko
Thank you to P.L Audio www.plaudio.com for sharing this review with us and being kind enough to translate the toplines!
“In a class of its own!”
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Very good sound
High performance Headphone Amplifier
– Except the price ? No!
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directly connected to the Power amplifier! None of the Pre-Amps we
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our Burmester 956 MkII. Bartok must be heard – with or without
“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans”, John Lennon famously said. In the past few weeks, the world has changed in a way that no one has experienced since 2008’s sudden credit crunch – and that’s possibly a conservative estimate. The human race now finds itself in the eye of a perfect storm – a global pandemic for which there is no known cure, and the resultant seismic economic shockwaves that are now battering the world.
The Covid-19 crisis pretty much came from nowhere, to grab at the throat of the world economy. It started back in November as a cluster of five hundred or so cases in one of China’s many vast provinces, only to spread all around the globe. It’s now overrunning the health services of western countries, and understandably the world’s economy has taken fright – causing stock market collapses all around the globe. The fact that such dramatic events on the international markets have gone relatively unreported by the media, is a testament to the terrible human toll the coronavirus is taking. Within the space of just weeks, governments have introduced stern social distancing measures, home working initiatives and emergency medical packages, the like of which we have never before seen in peace time. On top of this, the finance ministers of economically stable and prosperous countries – the USA, UK, France and Germany, for example – have announced huge financial aid packages to businesses and citizens. The problems which manifested themselves in 2007 and 2008 leading up to the credit crunch have taken place in the course of less than two weeks, this time round. Governments have been forced to come up with immediate policy responses as stocks plummet faster than during the dotcom bust and Lehman crisis. In less than a month, major indices have fallen almost thirty percent, with stocks in sectors such as oil and travel down by eighty percent. By any measure, March 2020 has been a remarkable month. Until a vaccine can be found, the only way to deal with the threat from Covid-19 is suppression – which is to say social distancing and home-working. This amounts to partial, self-imposed quarantine at home, so much of the world is now effectively hibernating, keeping their distance from other people. Unsurprisingly we have seen the Geneva Motor Show, London Marathon and Euro 2020 cancelled – to list just a few. There’s no understating just how disruptive this pandemic has been, on so many levels. Effectively then, the coronavirus has produced a dramatic and near instantaneous change in people’s behaviour, and we’re already seeing the results.
Of course, the hi-fi industry has not gone unscathed. The Munich High End Show – traditionally an international rallying point where new products are launched to press and public alike, from all around the world – was cancelled at the end of February. Manufacturers who rely on global parts supply lines are having to rearrange them, and shortages of some components are beginning to appear due to China having to shut down parts of its economy. More important even than this is the threat to consumer confidence, which may cause people to postpone purchasing decisions.
There’s no doubt we’re entering an unusual period for a while at least, where people will be more home-focused – but perhaps this isn’t necessarily a bad thing? The music industry may have lost its big set-piece events this like Glastonbury Music Festival, South By Southwest, Coachella and Record Store Day this year, but there are signs of individual artists already responding to ‘the lockdown’ in innovative ways. Rock artists like Coldplay and Kodaline for example, are stepping into the void by streaming live music direct from their studios. Instagram is playing an important role in the pop world, with Charli XCX, Christine And The Queens, Diplo, Kim Petras and Clairo all live-streaming content. Rita Ora’s latest single, How To Be Lonely, is perfectly timed!
Of course, any global pandemic is a terrible thing – but it isn’t so much shutting down human activity, as moving it online. There are early signs of this as broadband providers report a major upswing in demand. Music is of course perfect for this moment, being one of the greatest ways to keep people calm and emotionally fulfilled during such a challenging period. Stay safe!