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2017

August

Golden Years

“Design,” said LeCorbusier, “is intelligence made visible”. If that is indeed the case, then hi-fi has not always done itself proud. Most products seem to follow fashion just a little too much, with designers playing catch-up in a bid to emulate the accepted style of the day. Many look very contemporary for a short period after launch, but then age faster than expected. This is understandable behaviour, because by not chasing what is fashionable, brands run the risk of never being ‘in vogue’ at all!

The question of how to style a hi-fi product is, therefore, not an easy problem to solve. If you’re a maker of mass market audio products – things that will be here today and gone tomorrow – then getting it wrong isn’t as disastrous as it is for specialists such as dCS, which have long model lives. Debussy, for example, is nearly a decade old yet still looks as fresh and crisp as it was on launch. Having just received a major new firmware update, it’s also as capable and as relevant as ever – something that cannot be said for practically every other DAC of its vintage. Getting the look right is an extremely difficult thing, as co-founder of Special Agent, Pete Cauwood, confirms. “When we’re doing design, we want to think how to reassure about the technical excellence without taking it right down to its nuts and bolts.”

Together with dCS, Special Agent is responsible for the look of the company’s products since Debussy – which has been widely acclaimed as crisp, distinctive yet purposeful, yet totally devoid of frills. His company works with a range of premium brands. With dCS, his mission was to underline the importance of the products visually, without – as he puts it – “communicating technology”, which is already taken as a given. Instead the dCS design has to be a bridge between the consumer’s faith in the technology and the sound itself. “We wanted to make something that feels like it has solidity, confidence and gravitas”, he says, but not as a static thing. Instead, “you’re creating that solidity, and then giving it some light and movement. We didn’t want anything that was about ‘styling’, we wanted it to be something natural.”

One key aspect of the dCS user experience is finish. The solid slabs of aluminium used in the casing of all products confer strength and rigidity, and also announce this visually too. There’s a “rock-solid” feel to the build, and this of course is simply form following function; extensively internally braced, the idea is to dissipate mechanical energy as soon as possible, without storing it as a kind of capacitor, yet still be highly resistant to the ingress of vibration in the first place. The traditional silver finish is clean and crisp, and allows the subtle contours of dCS fascias to be easily seen in most lights. For this reason, it has come as a surprise to many that dCS has offered a range of new finishes on the very special, limited edition, dCS Vivaldi One.

The gold plate option is the most striking. No dCS product has appeared in this finish before, so visually it’s a radical departure. The quality of the plating had to be flawless, to uphold dCS’s stellar standards. So FH Lambert was approached, a British company that is one of the world’s very best metal platers. The company has a wholly deserved worldwide reputation for work that is absolutely second-to-none.

“I can’t tell you who our clients are, because most are subject to non-disclosure agreements,” says managing director Jamie Lambert, “but we do low volume and much of it is for the super first-class suites of airlines. We also do quite a bit with the super yacht marine industry as well.” The company has occasionally worked for other hi-fi manufacturers in the past, “but I can tell you now – this is probably the most demanding that we have ever done. We had to get the large surface area dCS casings to an extremely high standard indeed.”

The beauty of gold is that it is one of the most unreactive metals, remarkably stable over a long period of time. “It is very, very good”, says Jamie. “NASA use it a lot on their spacecraft because it reflects heat and light very well. It’s a great element. There is a kind of natural selection in many applications, and gold is so popular because of its longevity. When dCS saw what we could do with this, they couldn’t believe how good it was.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate then, that the most expensive version of the new dCS Vivaldi One – a product built to commemorate the company’s thirtieth anniversary – comes in one of the most timeless and most age-resistant finishes. Diamonds may be forever, but so is gold.

June

Good times

The music industry is booming again. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), last year saw the largest year-on-year rise in music sales that it has ever recorded – up 6 percent over a twelve month period. The business is now worth in excess of $15.7 billion worldwide, and this has been driven by digital sales which are up 17.7 percent across the board. It’s the latest in a long line of milestones, the last of which was when digital media overtook physical in 2015. Now, downloads and streaming represent a cool $7.8 billion of business.

Contrast that to almost two decades of continually falling sales up to 2014, and things are all the more impressive. That long period of decline is why some still think the music industry’s glory days are over – yet this now appears to be reversing. During that time, revenues dropped by as much as 40 percent as the industry fought to hold on to a shrinking physical music media market. There was a limit to the amount of remastered CDs they could issue, but after a long period of head scratching the music business came back by embracing the change. Indeed, if you talk to some of the movers and shakers behind the scenes, they’re rather bullish. They say they’ve thrown away the old complacency and not just adapted to the digital age, but embraced it.

This shift comes after years of behind-the-scenes investment. They had to use a multi-pronged approach. Although there’s a small but significant LP revival going on right now, the overall trend has been from physical media to digital, and the latter has moved from downloads – which were all the rage a decade or so ago – to streaming now. It’s no longer about paying to own music, but to access it. In a world of 24/7 internet connectivity, there’s little need for people to store their own copies of music – unless it’s really niche material. Here, small specialists offer high resolution digital downloads that generally exceed the quality of streaming services quite significantly – so there’s some way to go.

Industry insiders aren’t taking anything for granted. Off the record, they’ll tell you that whilst they’re happy about the upturn and the obvious increase in revenues, things haven’t fully settled down. The issue of paying artists is a thorny one; many more niche music makers say that the major music companies are skimming a bit too much off the top, in their more frank moments. The music industry is well aware of this, with some senior figures talking in terms of, “establishing a truly robust environment” for their creative talent. In all honesty, the music industry has had to invest a lot to get these new streaming platforms going, and it’s only recently that the return on this has started coming through. Many lesser artists have seen very little recompense as a result, and now earn much of their money by playing live concerts, where they sell their own self-produced CDs and LPs for those wanting ‘hard copies’. There’s also merchandising, which has kept many an impoverished musician in plectrums and guitar strings…

Stu Bergen of Warner Music Group put it this way – “we must remain alert, resourceful and ambitious. We’re no longer running up a down escalator, but that doesn’t mean we can relax. Whatever growth we see in the future, we will always need to stay vigilant about every new opportunity. We’re not sitting back and waiting for streaming to do the heavy lifting.”

Seventy percent of internet users between the age of 16 and 64 buy CDs, vinyl, downloads and streaming services. Indeed, according to the IFPI, nearly half of all internet users have paid for music in some form in the last six months. That’s a huge number of people, so there’s a strong base from which to work. Four in ten internet users now stream music, and two in ten pay for it. Streaming is most popular with 16-to-24 year olds; 62 per cent stream audio and nearly a third of them pay for it. The countries where it is most popular are in Sweden, Mexico, and Spain – where four in ten pay.

Fascinatingly, 13-to-15 year olds say music is more important to them than even the 16-to-24 age group, and are more likely to think that artists should be rewarded for their music. Three quarters think this, and almost as many believe music piracy is wrong. This is a very healthy state of affairs, and a strong base from which to grow. Could it be that the Napster generation of ‘free MP3’ downloaders two decades ago was just a blip? However you spin it – more and more people are enjoying music and paying for the privilege, so the future looks good for music and, by extension, hi-fi too.

May

Thirty something

dCS has come a long way in its thirty year life. Unlike every other hi-fi manufacturer, it started out as a defence contractor – involved in state-of-the-art, cutting edge radar systems for the Ministry of Defence. Soon after its launch in 1987, the groundwork was being laid for technology that would appear in Harrier and Typhoon jets, years later. Founded in Castle Park, Cambridge back in 1987, Data Conversion Systems didn’t get into audio until a good few years subsequently.

The founder of dCS was Mike Story, a brainiac Oxford University Physics graduate who was an ardent audiophile, and that’s how his company ended up doing the thing that he was most passionate about. The first dCS digital converter, the 900, was an analogue-to-digital design for use in recording studios. The company soon produced the matching 950 DAC and it was greeted with rapturous praise; these products were the first 24-bit, 96kHz-capable devices and had a profound effect on the lives of many studio engineers. It’s fair to say that they were the spark that lit the fire that became today’s hi-res audio boom…
Both converters used bespoke dCS technology. Rather than simply being bought-in chips with power supplies and an analogue stage grafted on, they were effectively purpose-built digital audio processing computers, running bespoke dCS code. At the heart was the Ring DAC, a unique way of doing digital conversion that minimised unpleasant digital artefacts in the sound. This platform has gone on to form the heart of every dCS DAC ever since, being subtly refined and evolved over the years. It has appeared in the company’s first ever domestic hi-fi DAC, the Elgar, and all models subsequently. The Ring DAC found its highest expression in the Vivaldi DAC, launched in 2012.

It’s not often that hi-fi manufacturers turn thirty, especially in the notoriously cut-throat world of digital audio. dCS however is bigger and better than ever, with a diverse portfolio of products that provide world-beating performance. So it was only right that the company’s anniversary be commemorated with a special product – the Vivaldi One.

This new piece, limited to just 250 individually numbered units, blends together the key components from the flagship Vivaldi range. It marries the top-quality Esoteric VRDS Neo SACD-capable disc mechanism to the latest dCS Ring DAC 2.0 board. Inside, there are dual power transformers with isolated power supplies, and the same unsurpassed attention to detail is shown in the audio output section. It’s an extremely versatile bit of kit, with a suite of digital inputs including USB, and full network functionality – complete with app control with integration for Roon, TIDAL, Airplay and Spotify. As per all dCS digital converters, it is firmware-upgradable and therefore able to play tomorrow’s as yet uninvented digital audio formats.
Vivaldi One is surely the finest single-box silver disc player that money can buy, made all the more special by the unique finishes that it is being offered in. This unique thirtieth anniversary dCS design comes in a choice of Gloss White, Piano Black and 24-carat gold plate. The first two options are courtesy of the highly respected HQ Lacquer company, a family-owned British business of over three decades’ standing. After being expertly painted, Vivaldi One’s casework receives multiple coats of lacquer that are heat-cured for days. The third option is by FH Lambert Ltd., the world-renowned British specialist in surface coatings. This highest grade of gold plate confers a lavish, opulent feel and accentuates the fascia’s subtle curves. All look breathtaking, and form a fitting tribute to the company’s thirtieth anniversary.

 

It’s a unique product for a most special occasion – but sometimes you’ve just got to spoil yourself, right?

April

Sound Bytes

Thirty years ago, the nineteen eighties was at its height. Lethal Weapon and Dirty Dancing were packing cinemas across the western world, Michael Jackson was soaring up the album charts with BAD, and U2 was wowing the rock world with The Joshua Tree. The Simpsons appeared on TV for the first time, and Prozac made its world debut. Reagan, Gorbachev and Thatcher were the world’s leading statespeople, with the latter signing the Single European Act, bring about the formation of the European Union. Many Brits will remember ‘black Monday’ – when billions of Pounds were wiped off the value of stocks – and the ‘great storm’ which laid waste to much of southern England, too.

In the midst of this tumultuous year, a tiny tech start-up appeared in Castle Park, Cambridge. Data Conversion Systems Ltd. was set up to do electronics engineering consultancy work, starting with Ferranti, Marconi Avionics and British Aerospace, developing RAF Harrier and Typhoon radar systems. Since then, dCS has come a very long way – emerging to become one of the formative forces in high end hi-fi, all around the world. No other company can accurately claim to have played such a pivotal role in this development of digital audio as dCS.

Like many great organisations, it was a single individual who stamped his personality and his genius on this one. dCS founder Mike Story was described by those who worked for him as something a firebrand, and a maverick design engineer of the very highest order. Right from the start, dCS worked on advanced mathematical and scientific challenges. It became a key defence contractor with ultra-specialised digital signal processing know-how. “In his technical field,” remembers former dCS Executive Chairman Derek Fuller, “Mike was world class, truly ‘A-star’ material…”

Wanting to study electronics at Oxford, Story was disappointed to find there was no such course offered and so instead chose physics. After a short stint doing a PhD in electrochemistry at Imperial, he decided that electronics was for him, formed a team and got venture capital backing to start dCS. “We were primarily a consultancy, and people would come to us with interesting and challenging problems, and we would attempt to fix them”, explains dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg.

At this time, the prime mover on the world digital audio scene was Philips. The Dutch consumer electronics giant invested hugely in a series of DAC chips and digital filters, not only to fit to its own highly successful CD players, but also for a great many OEM designs for other manufacturers too. These sixteen bit, four times oversampling machines sounded very respectable considering their modest price points, doing much to win over a sceptical hi-fi world to the digital audio cause. At the same time, Japanese manufacturers like Sony did much to improve Compact Disc with a series of high end CD players, transports and DACs – paving the way for the high end digital audiophile scene.

At this time, dCS was not involved with audio professionally. Many employees were interested, and indeed some were gifted musicians, but the move to music making didn’t come until the end of the Cold War, and the so-called ‘peace dividend’. The spectacular yet unforeseen collapse of the Soviet Union led to the West no longer needing to spend quite such huge sums of money on defence, and dCS found British government contracts drying up. Soon however, the BBC came to the Cambridge-based company for consultancy work on their DAT machines, and slowly more audio-related work was completed. “In 1988,” McHarg remembers, “there was a shift when we started designing the first dCS 900, applying a lot of what we had done for the military in it. With radar you need extremely high signal to noise ratio, and we’d got that with our analogue-to-digital converters we had in the Harrier and Typhoon.”

1989’s 900 was the first fully rounded dCS audio product, an ultra high quality analogue-to-digital converter. Indeed, it was the world’s first 24-bit design, and used the now-legendary Ring DAC circuit. From this point on, there was no going back. Recording studio legends such as Bob Ludwig from Gateway Mastering, Bert van der Wolf at Northstar Recording and arranger/composer Tony Faulkner soon swore by this product. The 950 followed in 1993 – the partnering DAC to the 900 – and it fast became a worldwide sensation, offering professionals and audiophiles alike the chance to experience a state-of-the-art digital-to-analogue converter, capable of superlative quality playback.

Since then, dCS has never stayed out of hi-fi headlines. With a string of innovations to its name – from the first hi-res DAC, the first upsampler, pioneering work in clocking and the first asynchronous USB digital input – the Cambridge brand has gone from strength to strength. Now in its thirtieth year, the company isn’t resting on its laurels, as the world shall soon see…

March

Play for today

For the best part of fifty years, the music industry sold physical products – 45RPM singles, LP records, cassettes and Compact Discs – in vast quantities to people who went to shops to buy them and take them home. Massive amounts of music were moved from manufacturing plants to distribution depots and then a network of retailers, most of which were on the high street of your local town. At the same time, it ran music charts – compiled by market research companies such as Gallup – which broadcasters closely relied on. What was hot, and what was not, informed record shops what to buy (to sell to their customers), and told radio stations what to play. It was a complex web, but it worked seamlessly and generated vast amounts of money for many people in the loop.

The ‘underbelly’ of the system was so-called ‘plugging’. Record companies employed people to go around radio stations and persuade them to play their new releases. Pluggers charmed station programmers, to get their wares on air. At the same time, the market research companies that compiled the music charts ran a network of designated ‘chart return’ record shops. In effect, if you bought your Adam and The Ants single in a particular store, it would count as a sale whereas in some other shops in didn’t. For nearly half a century, the music industry ran a tight ship – an ever repeating cycle of speculatively signing new artists up, recording and releasing their records, plugging them, getting them radio play, and then waiting for the sales – and hoping for a high chart position which would guarantee even more. Now though, in the past five or so years, that has all changed because of streaming.

In 2017, playlists are the order of the day – they have become the default mechanism by which vast numbers of people listen to their favourite music, and discover new material too. Instead of pluggers and radio station programme managers, music recommendation algorithms are being used to introduce us to new sounds; the idea being that if you like, say, Porcupine Tree, you may well discover a soft spot for Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. In other words, these clever bits of computer code number crunch vast amounts of people’s choices which are similar to your own in some key ways, and then recommend artists and albums you may not yet have heard of. In the old days, you either had to stand in a crowded record shop on Saturday afternoon for a few hours and chat to the owner, or have a big brother who didn’t mind sharing his own voyage of musical discovery with you.

Although computer-generated advice sounds like a great idea, there has been a strong movement against it. Music is such a personal thing, and is tied in with people’s view of themselves and their world. For example, although there are superficial similarities, many Genesis fans might not be happy to be recommended a Marillion LP. For that reason, a trend for ‘curated’ playlists has emerged, when real human experts carefully manage what they think fans of particular types of music will like. The likes of Beats Music (now Apple Music) have been very vocal about the importance of this. Other players such as Spotify have stayed with more advanced algorithms, with Discover Weekly and Release Radar. These are important for driving streams within the Spotify ecosystem, but curated playlists still remain key. To this end, we’re now seeing a business of pitching playlist owners – a sort of twenty first century music plugging…

Instead of the record companies trying to sniff out chart return stores for better sales, these days people concern themselves with ‘skip rates’. A company may be able to convince a streaming curator to include their track, but if too many people then skip it, it’s unlikely to go on other playlists. There’s also the importance of ranking order on a playlist; if a song is fairly low down, it may be played less but is less likely to be skipped, because many listeners will be running the stream as background music and in a more laid-back mood. By contrast, if the record companies pitch a new artist to the playlist curator and he puts it towards the top of the playlist, it’s likely to have a far higher skip-rate because people often want familiar hits to get them going. The secret for record labels pitching tracks to playlist curators is to find the right balance between audience size, number of streams, and skip rates.

Welcome then to the music industry, twenty first century-style. Fifty years ago, it was about pushing your new single on the radio and getting it into the shops on time. Now it’s about getting attention on the internet – using a successful online strategy that is able to grab and hold people’s attention via playlists on increasingly popular streaming services. The world is a different place.

February

DAT’s Entertainment

When Sony introduced Digital Audio Tape thirty years ago, many people genuinely thought it to be the future of music. Looked at now though, DAT is an irrelevance – a long gone and largely forgotten curio from those awkward early days of consumer digital audio.

The year after its launch – 1988 – saw Compact Cassette replace the vinyl LP as Britain’s best selling music format. So the idea of another serial-access tape system, wasn’t necessarily a turn off back then. Indeed, many people thought DAT to be the very height of sophistication – its tape was fully enclosed from the outside world, less than half the size of cassette and able to carry up to 180 minutes of music. Better still, it was digital – which was of course the future of everything, as far as eighties punters were concerned. Digital fuel injection, digital watches, digital climate control, Digital Audio Tape; what was not to like?

Indeed the hi-fi magazines of the day were intrigued, many seeing it as an exciting new technology. Okay, so it may have been a traditional magnetic tape-based format in an increasingly random-access laser disc world, but it did promise superior sound to CD. As we all know, silver discs of the day only allowed 16-bit, 44.1kHz resolution, but new-fangled DAT ran at a sampling frequency of 48kHz – and therefore represented the state of the art. No consumer digital audio system bettered it. Only in the pro sphere was it surpassed, when a decade or so later dCS analogue-to-digital converters worked with the Nagra D recorder to make the first 24/96 hi-res recordings possible.
Although DAT’s 48kHz sampling rate doesn’t seem much these days, Compact Disc’s  was so low that the sound-degrading phase effects from its filtering got worryingly close to the audio band. DAT on the other hand lifted these up just a touch, to where they were far less consequential to the sound. The result was a larger improvement in sonics than you might expect; that extra headroom made one hell of a difference. Early demonstrations of DAT showed a substantially sweeter and crisper sound; the later machines could be switched to record at Compact Disc’s lower resolution, and when you did this the difference was clear to hear. The hi-fi press was certainly charmed; one specialist magazine even went so far as to claim, “DAT wipes out CD”, on its front cover.

With all the marketing muscle of the giant Sony Corporation behind it, this new format could hardly fail, could it? Well, exactly one decade earlier, the Japanese giant had just discontinued its short-lived Elcaset format – a kind of reel-to-reel tape inside a VHS-sized cassette. This gave excellent analogue sound, but no one cared because it was too big for consumers already used to the far smaller Compact Cassette. Surely then, the dinky DAT format could succeed? Sony certainly thought so, and began releasing albums in its native Japan, from avant-garde artists such as New Order and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Yet it was not to be. Despite having a host of clever features that Compact Cassette lacked, such as real time tape counting and track numbering, DAT did not prevail. Even its superior sound to CD couldn’t compensate, and sales barely got off the ground. People realised it was too expensive, fiddly and sometimes quite unreliable too. It certainly wasn’t the sort of object that you could throw into your car’s glovebox, next to a bag of melted Werther’s Originals.

Then suddenly the format took off in recording studios. Just when we least expected it, a generation of small-to-medium sized studios began using DAT as a mastering medium. This happened to coincide with a surge in new music-making technology; hard disk recording was becoming affordable, and songs were now being crafted on computers with Cubase. MIDI synthesisers and sequencers were getting cheaper, and whole dance music records could be laid down digitally then mastered for posterity on – of all things – DAT. As is so often the case with audio formats, it ended up being used for a different purpose than was originally intended. Oddly, DAT became cool amongst a generation of small studio-based nineties musicians.

Plug a classic Sony DAT player into a modern dCS DAC now, and it’s surprising how good it sounds. A well fettled DAT machine is still capable of working as a fine digital transport, and the developments in DAC technology that dCS has brought in the intervening years have done nothing but good to the old format’s sound. Even though the Bitstream DACs fitted to most DAT recorders were very highly regarded at the time, they are miles behind a Debussy, for example. So farewell to an ill-fated format that meant something to some people for some time; it joins the ranks of Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) and MiniDisc (MD) in the story of doomed digital audio. Despite this, never forget that for a short period in the late eighties, it really did look like the future.

January

Ch-ch-changes…

When Truman Capote died in 1984, fellow writer Gore Vidal waggishly suggested that he had made a great career move. The phrase caught on, and has been used in the music industry ever since –  cynically wheeled out immediately after the passing of stars like Michael Jackson. Sadly, 2016 saw it back again – in a miserable year for fans of David Bowie, Motorhead, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Status Quo, George Michael, and many more. It has however kept the music industry in the style to which it is accustomed, with sales up by 1.5% to 123 million albums in a period of rapid technological change…

Remarkably, the vinyl LP enjoyed its best year in a generation, with over 3.2 million sold – according to the just-released British Phonographic Industry Official UK Recorded Music Market Report, 2016. Hitting a high not seen since Simply Red’s Stars topped the album charts in 1998, sales rose by a whopping 53%. It’s a sobering thought that a decade ago, just 200,000 pieces of black plastic were sold; after this sales began rising year-on-year. The BPI reports that over thirty titles sold over 10,000 copies last year, compared to just ten the year before. Vinyl LPs now account for nearly five per cent of the album market. Without doubt, this has been driven by the recent spate of rock superstar deaths; the biggest-selling vinyl artist was David Bowie with five albums posthumously featuring in the top-thirty best-sellers, including last album Blackstar. This was 2016’s best selling LP, and shifted twice as many copies as 2015’s chart-topper, Adele’s 25.

Fascinatingly, vinyl seems to be part of a new phenomenon in the way that people are now buying music. The business calls it ‘multi-channel’, but this isn’t meant as a synonym for ‘surround sound’; rather it means ‘multi-format’ because it appears that many fans are now streaming music and then buying a ‘physical copy’ of it on LP, simply to own the artefact. So the boom in vinyl sales is actually accompanying, and complementing, a boom in streaming – this has increased over two-thirds (68%) to 45 billion audio streams served in 2016. Indeed, December was the first ever 1 billion stream month in the UK. Putting this into context, weekly streams totalled less than 200 million at the start of 2014. Audio streaming now accounts for well over a third (36.4 per cent) of all UK music consumption, according to the BPI. The demand for streaming services such as Spotify, Apple, Deezer and Tidal means that on average, 1,500 songs were streamed for each of the UK’s 27 million households last year, and the BPI cheerfully points out that this does not include the huge number of unofficial streams on video platforms such as YouTube…

The demand for vinyl illustrates the enduring appeal of music on physical formats then, particularly in a ‘multi-channel’ world where consumers like discovering new music through streaming, but also want to buy, own and collect the recordings they love on LP. Indeed, the phenomenon seems to be happening to an extent with Compact Disc too – UK sales in 2016 actually held out better than expected, with a decline of just 11.7%. Combined with vinyl LPs, CDs and other physical formats still account for around 41% of British music buying, which is not to be sneezed at!

Vanessa Higgins, CEO Regent Street and Gold Bar Records, and an independent label member of the BPI Council, said that, “fans are listening to music in so many ways now – we’ve definitely entered a multi-channel era. Millennials, who’ve grown up digital, are increasingly choosing to experience both current and heritage artists on vinyl also. Meanwhile older baby-boomers are embracing streaming alongside their record collections. And, impressively, in between all that, there is still more than enough space for the CD, which remains popular both with upcoming artists, who need an attractive physical product, and consumers, who still like to gift, collect and own the recordings they love.”

Geoff Taylor, the BPI’s Chief Executive notes that audio streaming has increased by 500 per cent since 2013, and yet – led by sales of David Bowie – demand for vinyl is at levels not seen since the nineties. “This is indicative of the promise of a new era for music, where recorded music’s investments in a digital future fuel compelling benefits for fans, artists and the entire music ecosystem”, he says.

All of which is jolly good news for the British music industry, which was further bolstered by the fact that seven out of the ten best selling albums of 2016 were UK artists. The likes of Adele, Coldplay, Little Mix, The 1975, Rick Astley, Calvin Harris, Jess Glynne and The Rolling Stones all prized cash from music fans’ pockets last year. Here’s hoping that in 2017, the industry will go from strength to strength, but preferably without the same attrition rate of musical greats!

2016

December

Music’s Smart Future

Time rushes on, waiting for no one. The music industry, which owes its very existence to changing fashions and tastes, is well aware of this. From eight-track cartridges to MiniDisc, there are plenty of examples throughout history where consumer electronics giants working together with record companies have tried and failed to give the public what it thinks we want. This technology-driven business is too faddish and impermanent, and history shows there’s plenty of scope for getting things wrong when companies don’t really know their customers.

Now though, there is another way. The British Phonographic Industry report, Musics Smart Future: How will Artificial Intelligence impact the music industry?, asks searching questions about the process of getting music to people in the decades ahead. Penned by industry analysts Music Ally, it points out that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now transforming how music is created, discovered, shared and enjoyed. It’s all done by clever algorithms that find correspondences between consumption patterns; these then go on to produce tailored playlists using contextual data. AI is also used to engage fans in marketing campaigns via chatbots, and is even now beginning to take part in the creative process of songwriting, helping to tailor the music to the customer. We’ve come a very long way from writing guitar chords on the back of a fag packet, down the pub!

The ‘data science’ movement is now reaching into every aspect of our lives, from online shopping to political campaigning. For example, one UK-based data analytics company recently provided precise voter targeting information to British EU referendum campaigners, and to one of the presidential contenders in the United States of America. These same analytical models are used to recommend consumer goods to people based on their previous purchasing history, social media profiles, age, location and income. As Geoff Taylor (Chief Executive BPI & BRIT Awards) puts it, “Music’s DNA is closely entwined with technology, and record labels are already exploring how AI can help to bring artists and fans closer together…”

There has a been a huge increase in investment and experimentation, with new tech-start-ups eager to redefine how we live our lives. The BPI report explains how technology is being used in the recording studio to mimic human voices or even convert images into songs. For example, Brian Eno’s recent release, The Ship, got a computer-composed music video, and software is now available to create symphonies from simple scores to be played by human orchestras. Algorithms are now being used to compose music outright, and we’re seeing this in some computer games.

At the same time, AI is being used to energise fan bases, with chatbots communicating with music fans via Twitter, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and other platforms. MTV recently deployed chatbots to engage with European Music Awards viewers, while music ticket selling services are using the same technology to tell fans of forthcoming gigs they might like to visit. Right now this is largely all text-based, but voice synthesis is surely the way forward – with Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant all making early strides towards a sophisticated computer interface that can maximise people’s access to – and enjoyment of – new music. As the BPI observes, “these smart assistants are likely to evolve into our de facto musical concierges around the home and in the car…”

Streaming is at the heart of all this – accounting for nearly a quarter of all UK music consumption last year. Sophisticated algorithms are being used to curate people’s purchasing patterns using the power of ‘big data’. Artificial Intelligence is now working to ‘ultra-personalise’ streaming services, giving suggestions closely tailored to users’ own tastes – with Spotify, Apple Music and Deezer all employing AI to analyse their behaviour to offer context-dependent playlist suggestions. Even variables like the listener’s location and weather now play a part in Google Play’s offerings, it seems. The BPI adds that, “we believe that gut instinct, passion for the music and human experience remain fundamental qualities, but as a sector we should not ignore new tools that allow us to reach fans in innovative new ways.”

Of course, the end result of all this still isn’t at all clear. The positive view is that technology is simply an enabler, helping to put us in touch with all the music we didn’t know that we loved but will. The negative spin is that we are headed for a dystopian future where ‘muzak’ will be piped around our houses all day and night, scientifically chosen not to offend – and at the same time we’ll be trapped in this AI-created bubble, unable to break out from what our smart devices think we want to listen to. It’s still early days however – some Motorhead fans may go on to develop a taste for Mozart for example, proving that humans beings will always be too unpredictable for even the cleverest computer.

November

Sail On

Ever since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the way we listen to music has never stopped changing. We’ve seen all manner of ingenious devices – mechanical, electric, electronic and now solid-state – offer themselves up for this noble cause. Of course, the two big hitters so far have been analogue microgroove stereo LP (1958) and Compact Disc digital audio (1982), but networked digital audio streaming is surely the third.

The jury is out on precisely which year the streaming ball started rolling. One could argue that it was 2003, when Slim Devices launched the SliMP3 – an MP3-only device that morphed into the Logitech Squeezebox, and got early adopters into the idea of playing music via computers. Another milestone was when the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) protocol came of age, laid down as one item in a 73-part international standard (ISO/IEC 29341) in December 2008. Eight years later, here we are in world of network-attached devices which do a vast range of things – including playing music off PC hard drives, or from vast music libraries held on remote disc drives.

Hi-fi designers weren’t slow to understand the potential of network music playback. The dream of a ‘universal music jukebox’ has been a long held one, with every technology doing its best to provide some such functionality. Whether it was a nineteen sixties Garrard auto-changing record player or a Sony multi-disc carousel CD player, two decades later, designers have always pushed towards it. When streamed content arrived a decade or so ago, it was very buggy and hard to use. Now though, it’s beginning to integrate into people’s music listening experience in a relatively straightforward and seamless way. Things are finally taking shape.

The music industry has never been quick to respond to new developments in the way people listen to music – even if it’s good at micromanaging the type of music we’re able to buy. For example, it was slow to realise the potential of Compact Cassette as a prerecorded music medium, taking two decades after the format’s introduction in 1963 to get its act together. Then in 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America tried to litigate the world’s first portable MP3 player – the Diamond Multimedia Rio – out of the way. As recently as April 2003, the launch of iTunes Music Store revolutionised the way we buy music – ending the reign of physical media like CDs – and needless to say, the many industry players were initially reluctant to play ball…

Happily, since then we’ve seen a whole number of factors come together to make streaming work. First, young people are now used to paying for music again – don’t forget that for five years from the late nineties, Napster tempted a generation of music-starved teens into illegally file-sharing their favourite tunes via peer-to-peer networks. It took a while for those same people to get used to paying to download the same product from iTunes. Second, the range of music that’s now online is dramatically wider than it has ever been before. Many great songs that were previously hard-to-find rarities on LP or CD, have finally reached streaming services and up on in ‘the cloud’. Third, the quality has risen from the dire compressed audio of MP3 via Napster right up to CD and latterly hi-res, if you’re prepared to pay. The fact that it’s possible to stream uncompressed 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital is finally persuading some audiophiles to take their silver disc collections down to the charity shop.
Hi-res streaming and downloads will soon be abundant for those who wish to pay for them. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the likes of Tidal and Qobuz will soon make much of their revenue from this so-called ‘value-added’, higher quality way of distributing music. Fifteen years ago, major record labels were preaching to us how great DVD-Audio and SACD sounded, only to find that music retailers didn’t want to stock them – because they could make a better return from their shelf space by selling Celine Dion and Simply Red CDs. With streaming however, those economics simply don’t apply anymore. Suddenly, we’re staring a truly multi-format world in the face…

While our top-end products now have streaming functionality built-in, the new dCS Network Bridge has been designed to offer genuinely high quality uPnP streaming to dCS (plus Tidal, Airplay, Spotify Connect and Roon Ready) customers who want to be part of this new musical movement. Whilst we treasure silver discs, we realise that network playback will be part of many people’s music mix in future, and that’s why we have launched this carefully focused niche product. As ever with dCS, the aim has been to deliver superlative sound quality, excellent connectivity and firmware upgradeability for future formats – preparing people for a bright musical future of choice and quality.

October

Real or Imagined?

What’s the point of hi-fi? Surely, the goal is the closest reproduction of the original sound – but why? And whose ‘original sound’ is it anyway? Indeed many professional musicians don’t see originality as being something to strive for at all, and a good percentage of them simply aren’t interested in high quality sound in their homes. To us audiophiles, this seems bizarre. After all, would Pablo Picasso not enjoy perusing paintings, or Enzo Ferrari not relish watching motorsport?

The solution to this riddle lies in the different way that musicians interact with music, compared to lesser mortals who merely consume it. The listening experience is passive, an attempt to immerse ourselves into the magic made at the time of the performance – to connect emotionally with what’s going on. For the player however, other concerns hold sway. The music is inside them, and their job is to get it out as correctly as they can – alongside many other players all doing the same thing separately, but together. Playing in an orchestra is a sensory challenge on a number of levels. For example, clarinettists sit in the middle of the orchestra – which can stretch sixty feet across the width of the platform, and thirty feet front to back – and it’s essential for them to play in time. Their first duty is to get their cue from those around them, and not a fraction of a second too late. Here, performers really don’t want stereo imaging, and many report they can only function well when everything seems to come from a point source just above the music desk.

Of course, this is totally at odds with the needs of classical music loving hi-fi enthusiasts, who regard the accurate recreation of the recorded acoustic as sacrosanct. Indeed, some musicians who are also audiophiles tend to chose loudspeakers according to their perspective as a player, much to the amusement of their dealers. They’ve been known to stand between the speakers in the dem room with their backs to the wall, so they can get a feel for how the system reproduces the performance from their point of view as a musician in the orchestra. One retailer identified a customer – who played under some of the best batons in the business, from Baird and Beecham, to Giulini, Klemperer and Schwarzkopf – because he did precisely this.
For a classical musician, feedback is what it’s all about – the human intuition that drives great musicians and orchestras. An accomplished soloist once said, “a player has to rely on this for judgement of what and how he is doing. That is how some halls get their reputations for good acoustics, even when the audience fails to get the benefit. Feedback in the Royal Festival Hall used to be poor: it was impossible to know how loud or quiet to be. The Usher Hall in Edinburgh was marvellous in this respect. Doing Gerontius, after minimal rehearsal, in Canterbury Cathedral was a curiously remote and not yet mystic, experience. In that vast echo chamber one could not rely on one’s ears. The conductor had to be watched with ferocious concentration, otherwise one was simply lost in space.”

Some concert halls sound great for the players, but not the audience. So how can a serious hi-fi system reflect this? It gives a window onto the world from a place in space that musicians sometimes don’t want to be. “The City Hall in Birmingham was ballyhooed to the skies by the musicians who first performed there, but the sound for the audience was jumbled in all but a few seats, and even there the steel railings that stopped us falling out of the circle into the stalls resonated furiously. I found one ringing a true B natural, others off a bit. As a rule I try in most halls for a seat in the front row of the circle, and at all costs avoid seats under it, where there is no bass to be heard.”

Not all professional musicians are quite as curmudgeonly though – and many happily invest in top-flight audio equipment for their own homes. Some report that it’s the fine detail and natural attack that pleases them, giving “the honest revelation of phrasing.” The sound doesn’t have to be exciting, it must be correct. As we listen to music, we all make inferences, and one musician reports that for him the point of great hi-fi is that, “at least you know what to infer.” Therein lies the rub – they use hi-fi is a tool to help bring the score to life, rather than delivering an audience-centred view of the proceedings. Alternatively, as one wag of a clarinettist once observed, perhaps the reason that so many classical musicians aren’t interested in hi-fi is that they have been deafened by the rest of the orchestra. “You’ve never heard such a racket unless you have been on the inside!”

June

The Write Stuff

Seventy years ago, Peter Goldmark and Howard H. Scott were putting the finishing touches to the Long Playing record, the new music storage format that was to be unveiled by Columbia records in 1948. Hi-fi was in its infancy, but this heralded the start of its golden age – one that stretched right up to the late nineteen eighties, propelled by Compact Disc launched in 1982. Of course, the industry is still going great guns, but is a more globalised and diverse one now, and less in the media spotlight as the world’s press obsesses on smartphones and associated gadgets – none of which were available when consumer audio reigned supreme.

As with all history, the danger is that we take it for granted. The twenty first century world – although still highly imperfect – is a far safer and nicer place than the one of a hundred years ago for example, thanks to massive advances in science and medicine. Hi-fi too didn’t just magically arrive in this place, it too was the result of great struggles over many decades. It is now cheaper and more accessible than ever, and to all intents and purposes, so much better too. Developments in analogue audio, and then digital, have brought sources to ever higher planes, amplifiers have improved and loudspeakers have used high tech materials and powerful computer design packages to raise their game also. read more…

May

Life of surprises
Life of surprises

According to a study from Queen Mary University of London, listeners can hear a difference between standard audio and better-than-CD quality, high resolution audio. The report compared data from over 12,000 different trials from eighteen studies, where participants were asked to discriminate between samples of music in different formats. Dr Joshua Reiss of QMUL’s Centre for Digital Music in the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science said, “Audio purists and the audio industry should welcome these findings – our study finds high resolution audio has a small but important advantage in its quality of reproduction over standard audio content.”

Of course, this will not come as a complete surprise to the audiophiles reading this – in other news, the Pope is a Catholic and British summers are a wash-out! But it’s interesting that people thought there was a need for such a study in the first place, and secondly the results have been reported with a degree of surprise. Most audiophiles will be well aware that you don’t need to own a dCS digital front end to tell the difference – even a £500 DAC on the end of a PC will show an improvement, providing the source files are true hi-res ones. Yet the perception in the wider public is often that actually, hi-res audio is a bit of a gimmick, and they themselves can’t really hear the difference. Ironically of course, the very same people who say this may happily discard a perfectly good three year-old fifty inch flatscreen television, because it doesn’t have the latest high definition picture capability. read more…