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2019

July

Walk This Way

It was forty years ago this month that hi-fi headphones went from a niche product to one of the most mainstream, mass market consumer durables in history. It didn’t happen overnight of course, but that’s when the process began – at the launch of the revolutionary Sony TPS-L2. The ‘Stowaway’, as Sony initially dubbed it, was a small portable cassette player – indeed to be more precise, it was the smallest tape deck ever, outside the world of miniaturised spying devices…

Fascinatingly, Sony had no great expectations for the product. In his book ‘Made In Japan’, the company’s co-founder Akio Morita describes how he instructed one of his top audio engineers, Nobutoshi Kihara, to make a small hi-fi stereo cassette player so that he could listen to operas on his international flights. The TPS-L2 duly hit the market one year later, and the reviews were mixed. Some couldn’t see the need for it, and others didn’t take it seriously as a music player – lest we forget, open reel machines were still viewed by many audiophiles as the only serious tape medium.

Many hi-fi magazines at the time either ignored it or gave it a lukewarm review. Instead, it was widely viewed as ‘just another one of those Japanese novelty products’, like digital watches with games in, or calculators that played tunes. What attracted attention from media watchers was Sony’s naming policy for different global markets – in the UK it was the ‘Stowaway’, in the USA the ‘Soundabout’ and in Japan it had the odd moniker of ‘Walkman’. Legend has it that Morita initially hated the Japanese-market name, but the marketing material had already been made and it was too expensive to change!

Those who looked beyond the marketing however, found hidden treasure. The most surprising thing about the first ever Walkman wasn’t its name, but its sound quality. It was spectacularly good compared to any portable consumer device the world had heard before, and this was all the more amazing because it wasn’t that much larger than a cassette box. There were two reasons for this; first was Sony’s excellent transport mechanism, decent head and playback electronics, and the second was the fine pair of headphones supplied. Fascinatingly though, these weren’t like the big, bulky hi-fi and pro audio designs of the day – enormous, heavy, closed-back designs – they were petite, ultra-light and folding. They looked like a toy, but sounded remarkable for their size.

In truth, the TPS-L2 headphones were the real story – for two reasons. First, the tape player part of the package wasn’t that new; that Walkman was basically just a repurposed Sony TCM-600 mono recorder made for reporters and businessmen, with the recording functionality removed. Second, its headphones offered a hitherto unseen combination of portability and sound quality – they were the spark that lit the fire of personal audio that has burned so brightly ever since. The Walkman concept – a small cassette player with foldable lightweight stereo headphones – went on to be a massive cultural phenomenon that transformed the lives of many around the world.

For the first time ever, it was possible to listen to your own favourite tunes – not somebody else’s on the radio – in high quality stereo sound while out and about. That first Sony Walkman pioneered the concept of music on the move. Life without personal audio is as hard to explain to anyone now used to it, as life without the internet. Yet it had a massive effect on the audio world – arguably greater even than Compact Disc – in the nineteen eighties. The concept of suddenly ‘owning’ your own personal space as you walk the city streets or sit on the train on the way to work was seen by many as personal liberation.

Of course, Apple’s iPod came along twenty years later and rebooted the concept of music on the move, this time with computer audio files instead of more fiddly and fragile cassettes. And now we have a generation of people who constantly use their smartphones to listen to podcasts, audiobooks and streams of their favourite music – all using small, high quality headphones as a critical part of the equation. Hi-fi enthusiasts now buy purpose-designed digital music players and high quality portable phones or in-ear buds, and play hi-res music out and about, just as eighties music lovers used their top spec Sony Walkmans.

Over the past few or so years, this movement towards personal music has accelerated and global sales of headphones have rocketed – from 286 million in 2013, to 400 million this year, according to market research firm Statista. In hi-fi, many people now use ‘cans’ as a substitute for a high end pair of loudspeakers – simply because more ‘sound per pound’ is possible if the right models are used. Last year, for the first time ever, a dCS DAC launched with the option – Bartók didn’t just have a headphone socket, but a specially-designed headphone amplifier stage that had to match the stellar standards of the rest of the product. It has proved a great success, garnering widespread critical acclaim for offering state-of-the-art sound from headphones, as well as through conventional hi-fi separates systems.

Forty years on from when Sony – perhaps inadvertently – created a revolution in the way we have come to use headphones, the personal audio story is far from over. Indeed, you might say it’s only just begun…

June

The dCS Mosaic 1.0.1 update

As part of our commitment to ongoing product improvement we have updated dCS Mosaic. This update contains minor fixes and improvements that did not make it into the first Mosaic release. All changes are detailed in release notes https://www.dcsltd.co.uk/support/mosaic-1-0-1-release-notes/

The updated Mosaic Control app is available in the App Store and Google Play.

We’ve received very positive feedback so far and we will continue to update Mosaic with new features and improved functionality. We encourage you to feedback via our community site (https://dcs.community/) so we can make meaningful improvements.

May

dCS launches Mosaic, a powerful new music streaming platform for all current dCS streaming products
dCS launches Mosaic, a powerful new music streaming platform for all current dCS streaming products

Data Conversion Systems Ltd (dCS), the leading manufacturer of high-performance digital audio playback systems for music lovers, will launch their new streaming audio platform at the annual HIGH-END show in Munich on 9th May 2019. Named dCS Mosaic, this new product brings greatly enhanced streaming audio functionality and an elegantly simple user experience to all owners of current dCS products.

dCS Mosaic is a bespoke collection of hardware and software modules which, when combined, provide listeners easy and intuitive access to their digital music. Streaming audio has been a core technology of dCS products since the release of Vivaldi, but Mosaic represents a leap forward in terms of functionality, performance, and user experience.

While the TIDAL streaming music service has long been available to dCS customers, dCS Mosaic will allow listeners to take advantage of the high-resolution offerings of Qobuz as well as the massive catalogue of CD-quality music offered by Deezer. The addition of a library of internet radio stations and podcasts from around the globe enhances the new service offerings with a wealth of content sure to please any listener.

A key element of the product launch – and the one that will benefit every dCS customer – is the dCS Mosaic Control app. Conceived from the ground-up as a truly cross-platform solution, dCS Mosaic Control is a single, unified interface to any current dCS product using a mobile device running iOS or Android.

Complete with extensive array of features for music discovery and playback, dCS Mosaic Control also provides a completely re-imagined interface for dCS owners to manage the settings and configuration options of their dCS product(s) which allows them to tailor the sound of their systems to their preferences.

Customers will undoubtedly appreciate the enhanced functionality and ease-of-use of dCS Mosaic Control, and its cutting-edge technology enables absolute feature parity whether a customer chooses Android, iOS, phone or tablet as the preferred control device.

At launch dCS Mosaic consists of two components: the dCS Mosaic Control app (discussed above) and the dCS Mosaic Processor. The Mosaic Processor component utilises the same network hardware as all currently-shipping dCS streaming products and will be fully realised through a firmware update.

Managing Director David Steven commented, “We’re a small high-tech company and our products have long life-cycles but that doesn’t stop our engineers from innovating and improving our technology every day. As we make real improvements to our designs we strive to make these available to our customers at minimal or no cost. This is the promise we make when someone invests in dCS products.”

All owners of current dCS products (Vivaldi 2.0, Vivaldi One, Rossini, Bartók, and Network Bridge) can take advantage of the advancements of dCS Mosaic through a simple firmware update along with an app download from the App Store or the Google Play.

dCS Mosaic 1.0 is available today (9th May 2019) at 9:00am GMT at no cost to existing customers and will begin shipping with new products at the same time.

Attendees of the annual HIGH-END show in Munich (9th – 12th May) will have the opportunity to experience Mosaic first-hand in the dCS room (Atrium 4.2, room F209) and the dCS headphone listening stations (Hall 4, booth N09).

 

Key Points:

• dCS Mosaic is a new streaming audio platform from dCS available for all current dCS products.
• dCS Mosaic Control is a newly-conceived user interface available for both iOS and Android with absolute feature parity between the two.
• dCS Mosaic allows a customer to enjoy streaming music from a number of different services and sources including UPnP, Deezer, Qobuz, TIDAL, Roon, Spotify, Airplay, internet radio, podcasts, and locally-attached USB storage.
• dCS Mosaic delivers enhanced stability and performance.
• The dCS Mosaic architecture is flexible and extensible, allowing for significant future enhancements.
• dCS Mosaic is available at no-cost for all owners of current dCS products starting from 9:00am GMT on Thursday, 9th May 2019.
• The dCS Mosaic Control app is available for download from the App Store and Google Play.

 

websites:

https://www.dcsltd.co.uk

https://dcs30.com

 

About dCS:

Since 1987 dCS has been at the forefront of digital audio, creating world-beating, life- enhancing products that are a unique synthesis of exact science and creative imagination. Each of our award-winning product ranges sets the standard within its class for technical excellence and musical performance. As a result, dCS digital playback systems are unrivalled in their ability to make music.

All dCS products are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom using proprietary technology, and materials and components of the highest quality. A carefully judged balance of our unique heritage and world-class engineering ensures there is a rich history of ground- breaking innovation inside every dCS system.

Copyright © 2019 Data Conversion Systems Limited. All rights reserved. dCS, dCS logo, Ring DAC are trademarks or registered trademarks of Data Conversion Systems Limited. Data Conversion Systems Limited disclaims any proprietary interest in trademarks and trade names other than its own. All specifications are subject to change and, whilst they are checked for accuracy, no liabilities can be accepted for errors or omissions.

dCS DEDICATED HEAD-FI ROOM AT MUNICH HIGH END 2019 DEMONSTRATES THE NEW BARTÓK DAC HEADPHONE AMPLIFIER

dCS is excited to announce that it will be demonstrating the new Bartók network DAC with Class A headphone amplifier at the forthcoming Munich High End 2019 show between the 9th and 12th of May.

In addition to showing a range of dCS electronics – including Vivaldi and Rossini – in its usual room at Atrium 4 Room F209, the company for the first time ever has a dedicated head-fi room in Hall 4 Stand N09 for visitors to hear the new Bartók for themselves.

Headphone fans will be able to connect their own digital audio players and smartphones, choose tracks from the dCS library or stream their favourite music from TIDAL™. Listening to Bartók via a range of high end headphones will be possible including models from ABYSS, Audeze, Focal, HIFIMAN and Mr.Speakers among others. Four Bartóks will be on demonstration, to allow easy access for audition, with no appointment needed.

The special dCS head-fi room is enclosed to reduce the ambient noise of the show to a minimum, and dCS staff will be on hand to demonstrate the wide functionality of this new network DAC with headphone amplifier and to advise on headphone matters.

The cost of the headphone amplifier equipped version costs £11,999, and features a custom designed Class A headphone stage that works extremely well with both high and low impedance headphones and IEM’s in balanced or unbalanced formats. Bartók also comes with a crossfeed option as standard.

Bartók supports all major music codecs including high resolution PCM and DSD, with user- selectable upsampling. Great care has been taken to minimise jitter at all stages with the dCS ‘auto clocking’ architecture. The network streaming section currently runs at up to 24-bit, 384kS/s and DSD128, supporting all major lossless codecs, plus DSD in DoP format and native DSD.

Bartók plays music through an array of industry-standard USB, AES or S/PDIF digital inputs. It streams over Ethernet from a NAS drive or online music services, and from Apple devices via Airplay. Its network interface performs full MQA decoding and rendering. With its award-winning Ring DAC digital processing engine – shared with the flagship Vivaldi DAC – it offers unparalleled performance at its price.

Summary:

  • dCS will have a bespoke headphone listening space at Munich High End 2019
  • Four Bartóks will be installed for walk-in demonstrations, with a multitude of high end headphones
  • Headphone fans can bring their own digital audio devices, choose tracks from the dCS library or stream from TIDAL
  • The cost headphone amplifier version of the dCS Bartók is £11,999
  • Location of the headphone listening space is at Hall 4 Stand N09; the main dCS room is at Atrium 4 Room F209
  • Munich High End Show details here: highendsociety.de/index.php/en/facts.html
  • Contact dCS press (khamilton@dcsltd.co.uk) for details

websites:
https://www.dcsltd.co.uk
https://dcs30.com

About dCS:
Since 1987 dCS has been at the forefront of digital audio, creating world-beating,
life-enhancing products that are a unique synthesis of exact science and creative
imagination. Each of our award-winning product ranges sets the standard within its
class for technical excellence and musical performance. As a result, dCS digital
playback systems are unrivalled in their ability to make music.

All dCS products are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom using proprietary
technology, and materials and components of the highest quality. A carefully judged
balance of our unique heritage and world-class engineering ensures there is a rich
history of ground-breaking innovation inside every dCS system.

Copyright © 2019 Data Conversion Systems Limited. All rights reserved. dCS, dCS logo, Ring DAC are trademarks
or registered trademarks of Data Conversion Systems Limited. Data Conversion Systems Limited disclaims any
proprietary interest in trademarks and trade names other than its own. All specifications are subject to change and, whilst they are checked for accuracy, no liabilities can be accepted for errors or omissions.

February

Music’s Way Forward

As the new year’s latest British Phonographic Industry data shows, the UK music industry continues to be in a good, healthy place. This is great news in itself – and all the more so because it’s steadily transitioning from selling its wares on physical media to a streaming-based income model. The internet is one of the most disruptive technologies – in a good and a bad way – and it has certainly changed the music industry’s life forever, all around the world…

However, amidst all this grandiose talk of the move from physical to streamed media, there’s a risk of forgetting what recording artists actually feel about things. They’re at the ‘coalface’ – a hit to their record company’s bottom-line is survivable but for recording artists, technological and demographic shifts are life-or-death issues, career-wise. That’s why it’s interesting to speak to Simon Toulson-Clarke – the key creative force behind the band Red Box. Famous for his nineteen eighties smash hits Lean on Me and For America – he’s a music industry veteran who has experienced life as an artist both before and after the ascent of the internet. He has worked both as a creator of music and in a backroom capacity in A&R, signing up new talent.

Simon says there’s no doubt that things are different to his formative years in the mid eighties, when he was delivering a string of hits for Warner Bros. “One thing that’s hugely better than before,” he proclaims, “is the fact that we artists can now make and distribute our music without a major label. This is particularly the case if you can connect directly with your fan-base through social media, as well as generating new fans.” So the idea that the music business of the eighties was some kind of golden era for artists is, he says, too simplistic.

He points out that an “old school record deal” would offer a band between 12% and 14% of net profit, “depending on how good your lawyer is… So before the band are paid their cut of sales, the label first recoups the advance, all studio recording bills including costs for producers and engineers, plus video production, promotion, marketing, all transport – that’s minicabs and limos for the band and label staff – radio plugging, artwork and advertising. And this doesn’t come from total sales income, but from the band’s 12% slice of the pie. The result is that many bands never recoup enough to make money, even though their label is making money out of them.”

That’s not the end of it. Simon points out that with a traditional deal, the record label also exercises – or at least tries to – a lot of control that cramps the style of the artist. “Majors know what they are doing in terms of getting music out to people, but with majority ownership comes majority decision-making, meaning this can leech into an artist’s creative decision-making process. That’s simply a step too far for many artists. Much as I love many of the people at Warner Music in the eighties who we worked with, we had a rocky creative relationship with the company, with real artistic differences.”

These days, as well as getting the vast majority of all sales income and attempting to take control of the creative process as much as they can, major labels also want to take a cut out of touring and merchandising too – as well as ownership of the master tapes. This is all the harder to bear for artists, as much of their income is now derived from this. “It’s called a 360 degree deal”, says Simon. “Sometimes a new artist can get favourable terms – up to a 50:50 split with the more enlightened labels – it may still make sense because they are going to need help making an album, but it’s by no means a simple decision because the label will own the master rights forever.”

So why did bands sign up to this sort of contract – one that has seen a number of artists over the years end up in court suing their record companies? He points out that it was once the only way to succeed, because few aspiring artists could afford to do it themselves. “A master-quality studio cost upwards of £3 million to set up and equip – but these days, with ever-improving digital hardware, you can get a good result in a studio for as little as £50,000. And if you can’t set that up yourself, it can be hired at a fraction of the cost of Abbey Road…”

That’s why these days, many artists are becoming their own record companies, with a do-it-yourself ethos that picks and chooses what’s best for them to get the job done. “This is now how Red Box are now doing it – we have a following, a few supporters in radio and are distributed worldwide by Right Track through Universal Music on far more generous terms than we would otherwise get if we had a conventional, all embracing deal from a record company. With our new album Chase the Setting Sun we’re using them for the bits we can’t do ourselves – the distribution – and we’re sorting the rest.”

Streaming platforms can be very helpful here, but not in the way you might think. The revenue is low, so in effect they become a way of spreading the band’s name and sound. They’re seen as a promotional tool as much as an income path. “They allow a more direct route for bands to access fans and casual listeners alike”, Simon says. “Artists now earn much of their revenue from touring, so streaming becomes a kind of marketing tool for the tour. In many ways, the likes of Spotify are providing the tools for people to be adventurous musically, with well-curated playlists and entry points to new music. Radio’s influence is waning, slowly but inevitably, but streaming is finally making up for it.”

January

End to End Excellence: The People Behind the Product

Mat Taylor, dCS Product Manager

“I’ve always liked music,” says dCS Product Manager Mat Taylor, “because my Dad used to drag me along to see The Sisters of Mercy. That was quite an upbringing for someone who spent their childhood in the sleepy county of Buckinghamshire, around Aylesbury. “Yes, my Dad influenced me and directed me onto certain music I shouldn’t really have been listening to. But I was always fascinated by sound. For example I was involved in amateur dramatics as a kid and loved helping out with the sound effects – you know, creaky doors and that sort of thing! I liked lining up the cassettes and pressing play, and then one day I thought I could do it with my home computer. I started sampling sounds and allocating them a key on the keyboard. Suddenly I was writing industrial ambient music…”

At the tender age of fourteen, Mat joined his first Death Metal band, as you do. “It was quite cool, being that age and doing gigs. I used to take my computer with me; I didn’t have enough money for a keyboard stand so I used to borrow my mother’s ironing board! I was composing electronic music from around 1993, which was the golden age of all that trance and electro like The Orb and Orbital, that kind of stuff. I always believed I needed to do something related to my passion, which is electronic music. Then I saw B&W’s blue Pod loudspeakers, and they really inspired me. I got interested in the idea of doing speaker design, so I went to university and studied music technology. This was a combination of acoustics, electronics and other all-round things like composition and mathematics…”

At that time, Mat was playing many live gigs in Cambridge, and at Anglia university. “I got quite active in the local scene around the city and got playing at Strawberry Fair. Then when I graduated I worked for hi-fi multimedia company iMerge doing software tests on their music server. Then I moved to NXT, and stayed for eight years, including a three year stint as an acoustic engineer. It was great because I was working with some massive brands like Apple and Blackberry. One of the coolest things I did was designing a speaker system that went into a Terence Conran sofa; it was great to be able to hang out with Terence, working on that sofa with him and making it boom!”

When Matt went to Hong Kong to do some special projects, from iPod docks to putting a transducer into a Hallmark Christmas card. “I had to do some clever audio processing on that and as a direct result it arrived working perfectly on budget; the lady responsible for the managing the project duly got a massive promotion! They sold over ten million of these things, which is not to be sniffed at. After this, it was back to the UK to work at B&W for six years. I worked on the headphone and wireless speaker products, as the Product Marketing Manager. Then it was off to Cambridge. I wanted to try working for a small, ‘family feeling’ company, so in 2016 I joined dCS as Product Manager. It is totally different because of the size. Things are more direct and everyone knows each other. I love it…”

Although finding his time very precious, he does still have time for the love of his life – which is music. “These days I am a total modular synth addict. I have always loved synthesisers because when I got involved it was all about twiddling knobs and making noises. Back in the early days I bought some classic synthesisers like Moogs and Sequential Circuits, and I am fortunate enough to own a Roland TR909 drum machine and TB303 bass synth. These days I don’t release anything, but I make noise and dance around with my little boy, so it’s not just sitting in my loft! And now over the past three or four years I have been investing quite heavily in the Eurorack modular synth world. I love my modular synth stuff. You start off with an idea and you end up somewhere totally different. It is a proper TARDIS of time when you start playing around with stuff like that. You always ask yourself, where has the weekend gone?”

“The great thing,” says Mat, “is that modular synths are broken down into separate components. In a traditional synthesiser you have some oscillators, some envelopes, some filters, some kind of modulation LFO generators, but in a modular synth they’re all standalone components which you have to cable up to one another. It used to just be in an analogue world but now it has crossed over into the digital world as well. So, people have got really creative on the type of things you can do, and it is just bonkers. It is quite expensive and highly addictive. You end up buying new racks and filling them up with new modules…”

Synthesiser-mad Mat finds it hard to name his favourite band. It’s like asking him a deep, profound philosophical question that he cannot just answer off the top of his head. After much soul-searching however, he volunteers Wendy Carlos as a great inspiration. “She innovated so much. She was most famous for the soundtrack to the nineteen seventies cult classic Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, which was extremely cool at the time. These days I am massively into industrial music, so the likes of Skinny Puppy and Psychic TV are very important to me. I get so much enjoyment out of this music, which is so off-the-wall and creative.”

 

T

Rolling News

Every Christmas there’s a mini ‘silly season’ where stories that normally wouldn’t make it to the top of the news reports find themselves elevated to headline status. This festive period saw the plight of HMV being discussed at length on television and in the newspapers, as the company announced its intention to enter administration on 28 December 2018, after poor trading in the weeks leading up to Christmas. This is the second time in five years that HMV Group plc has entered administration, the first being in 2013. Needless to say, stories of doom and gloom about the state of the music industry abounded…

HMW blamed, “a dramatic change in consumer behaviour in the entertainment market.” Given that it sold 31% of all physical music in the UK in 2018, and 23% of all DVD and Blu-Ray, and the overall physical market is forecast to fall by 17% in 2019, the company concluded that it, “will not be possible to continue to trade the business.” It is sad news of course, because many will remember its glory days back in the nineteen eighties and nineties. Unhappily for HMV, this is not the way that music is being consumed anymore – and the writing is on the wall.

The other side to the story is unremittingly positive, however. While physical sales are dropping, the BPI reports that overall music consumption is up by 6% in the past year – this, it points out, is the fourth year of growth in a row. What we are now seeing is a wholesale move from Compact Disc to digital streaming. There has been vibrant growth in the latter, with 143 million albums or their equivalent being either streamed, purchased or downloaded in 2018. A whopping 91 billion audio streams were served – which is up 34% in one year – including 2 billion streams in a single week for the first time. The landmark of over 100 billion audio streams in a single year is expected to be passed in 2019.

New ERA figures show this in greater detail. UK recorded music sales have grown by 8.9% to £1.33 billion, with streaming subscriptions up by 37.7% in 2018 to £829.1 million – more than 62% of the total figure. Physical sales declined by 16.6% to £383.2 million, while music-downloads sales fell by 25.7% to £122.6 million. Physical formats are now just 28.7% of overall music spending in the UK. The one small glimmer of hope for old school music buyers is the continued rise of vinyl LP sales, which were up 1.6% in 2018. There is also a move, amongst CD sales, towards more expensive premium box sets – doubtless bought by collectors.

It’s interesting that the British music market is still quite format-specific; some music buyers strongly consume physical formats, others are largely committed to digital downloads and/or streaming. For example, the ERA data shows that some of the biggest UK albums of 2018 tended to be sold in physical format; George Ezra’s new album Staying At Tamaras was 70.5% physical, Take That’s was 92.9% and Michael Buble’s was 93.3% physical. By contrast, Post Malone’s Beerbongs & Bentleys was 91.9% digital and Drake’s Scorpion 93.1%. Just to confuse us all, the best selling British album of last year – The Greatest Showman Original Soundtrack was 48.7% digital and 51.3% physical in terms of total units sold.

With this in mind, recording artists and what we used to call ‘record companies’ have to be very aware of who buys their music and in what format. It’s clear that CD is still holding out well for more mainstream acts, but in certain genres like hip-hop it’s more heavily streamed. According to ERA’s tracking study, 22% of Brits are buying CDs, compared to 20% who have a streaming subscription; who buys what in what format depends on the type of music it is. Nothing is ever new, and we have always had a diverse music industry; for example, in the early nineteen eighties young indie music fans would have been buying their Smiths singles on 7” vinyl, while their parents would be listening to The Carpenters on music cassette.

The problem for the music industry is drilling down into the detail, to get an exact picture of what is going on – rather than looking at the general trends. Life is made harder by the fact that many people simply don’t buy whole albums anymore – they can stream individual songs rather like the eighties ‘mixtape’ – yet this is not the same as ‘single’ buying. For this reason, the industry has a metric called Album Equivalent Sales (AES), and this is up by 5.7%. AES are in effect a cluster of ten single-track sales, which makes a ‘track-equivalent album’; 1,000 audio streams is considered to be a ‘streaming-equivalent album’. AES are up from 135.1m in 2017 to 142.9 million last year. Within this, streaming-equivalent albums are showing the strong rise up by 33.5% to 90.9m, accounting for 63.6% of all consumption. By way of comparison, ERA figures for 2014 were 12.6%.

It’s a dizzying welter of statistics, but the headline news is that music consumption is growing healthily, and streaming is now the big game in town. It’s quite genre-specific, tending to be more popular in particular niches while Compact Disc sales are declining overall but still holding up well in more mainstream, mass market pop music. In terms of digital, streaming is replacing downloads. In terms of physical formats, vinyl is growing slightly – but not as fast as all the ‘vinyl revival’ newspaper articles suggest. Overall – despite the troubles of HMV – 2018 was actually another rather good year for the British recording industry, and long may it continue!

Rossini’s Return

dCS announces its new Rossini 2.0 series – bringing a comprehensive package of sonic improvements to one of the best digital music sources in the audio world. dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg explains why the Rossini has just received a serious performance hike.

Although its launch only feels like yesterday, the Rossini is now two years old. Since then, the company has been busy with both the new Vivaldi One single box player – launched to mark the thirtieth anniversary of dCS – and more recently the new Bartók, which is the new entry level DAC/streamer and headphone amplifier. Now though attention has moved back to Rossini, with an important firmware upgrade which brings a host of improvements – primarily the new Ring DAC™ mapper which significantly improves its sound quality.

“We’re upgrading Rossini because it is the right time in its development cycle and the processing platform always had the capability to be enhanced in this way”, quips dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg.

“Our newest creation, Bartók, sounds superb because it has similar hardware to Rossini, albeit less one transformer and constructed a little more cost-effectively. The Rossini 2.0 release restates just how important Rossini is to us as a company, and we did that by implementing the new mappers as found in the latest Vivaldi, the new filter five option, plus the option to upsample to double-speed DSD, rather than just single speed. Basically, Rossini got turbo charged with this update”

The new mapping algorithm (mapper) was a milestone in the development of the dCS Ring DAC™, which forms the heart of the Vivaldi DAC and now Rossini DAC too. Taking over a year to model and implement in software the new mapper improves on the technology at the heart of what makes dCS unique. The 5-bit binary music data obtained after the oversampling and digital filtering stages is mapped on to forty eight latch outputs at the core of the Ring DAC.   These drive balanced currents which are mixed, filtered and amplified to produce the analogue output signal. “The new algorithm has been developed to run at higher speeds while better avoiding mismatches between the latches or resistors occurring as errors correlated with the signal. The results of the new mapper are superior linearity, even at very low signal levels” comments Andy.

This sophisticated mapper functionality is implemented in the dCS Ring DAC™ through dedicated FPGAs, offering dCS the power to improve and change these fundamental algorithms through software control. This unprecedented flexibility allows the user to choose their desired mapper from a simple menu item. Rossini Version 2.0 software allows for two new mappers together with the original for comparison. Subjectively, both new mappers bring more detailed, expressive and tonally full-bodied character over the original, but offer subtle differences in sound that users can choose between, depending on their preference and ancillary equipment.

The new, highly optimised DSD filter that comes with Rossini 2.0 was created to provide better impulse response than previous DSD filters and has virtually no ringing. High frequency noise has also been better suppressed outside the audio band to be more universally amplifier friendly by presenting the amplifier with a cleaner signal. This manifests itself in a more dynamic, dimensional sound across the entire audio band.

“We always thought we could make a few tweaks to the original mapper,” says Andy, “but actually ended up redesigning the whole thing for Vivaldi 2.0. The old mapper wasn’t ideal and we also knew we could run things faster now because the silicon had improved. There are various trade-offs when it comes to this type of development so as we enhanced and modified the mapper and behavior of the Ring DAC™ we put it through a series of listening tests. The result was that we reduced the mapper options down to two new settings, plus the original.”

“It’s fair to say that we always do the very best we can with what we have designed, trying to squeeze the last nth degree of performance out of it. Now Rossini 2.0 is there, users just need to check for a firmware update on the internet and it will upgrade itself.”

Thanks to built-in firmware upgradability – one of the most important facets of dCS products – Rossini now has extra functionality, improved measured performance and significantly improved sound. The new mapper delivers greater focus and grip, allied to superior detail, poise and dynamics. The result is a more tangible musical performance that brings even greater enjoyment. This is all free of charge to the customer, of course. At its price point, Rossini is now an even more accomplished performer, offering superlative sound quality – so don’t forget to update yours now!

2018

December

Free and Easy
Free and Easy

2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the MP3 format coming of age. Although every self-respecting audiophile will shiver at the thought of this mediocre sounding lossy digital music file, there’s no denying how important it has proved in the great scheme of things. It was the ‘enabler’ of computer audio, going on to become the common currency of today’s cloud-based music streaming. Yet this didn’t come to pass by accident, as the format had to battle a threat to its very existence two decades ago. Had things gone differently, the world might have become another place – and that’s why it’s interesting to reflect on this format’s past, present and future…

For many audiophiles, the certainties of the pre-MP3 world endure. Plenty of people still play digital audio discs, and the idea of using computers, network attached storage devices or internet music streaming still seem pretty alien. Yet others understand that we’re now in a changed world, one that would not be where it is today without the emergence of MP3 two decades back. The world is so different because this innocent little file format carved out a path that has permanently transformed the way we buy and listen to music.

“MP3” is a snappy way of saying Moving Picture Experts Group Audio, Layer I Part 3, or MPEG-1 Part 3. The format was first published in 1993, as an ‘open source’ way of coding music in a lossy way. The level of compression was variable, but the compression system was not – indeed it was the result of a protracted struggle between two competing systems during the nineteen nineties. It used so-called ‘perceptual coding’ that takes advantage of the phenomenon of auditory masking. Way back in 1894, American physicist Alfred M. Mayer first showed that tones could be made inaudible by the presence of others, and fifty five years later, an algorithm was finally created. From this a psychoacoustic masking codec was proposed in 1979 by Bell Labs. The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was formed in 1988 to create global standards for digital video and audio, and then exactly thirty years ago this month, MPEG called for an audio coding standard, and work began.

The codec was reputedly refined over and over again by listening to Suzanne Vega’s Toms Diner, a particularly well recorded American folk rock standard of the late eighties that developer Karlheinz Brandenburg loved. MP3 took on much of the technology already developed for MUSICAM – a professional audio broadcast codec – and finally, researchers were able to get the same sound quality from 128kbps MP3 as they could from MP2 at 192kbps. The final international standard was published in 1993 with scant public interest, but little did we know that five years later, things would be dramatically different. On 9th September 1995, the first real-time software player was launched; WinPlay3 made it possible to store a modest amount of music on the average 500MB hard disk drive of that time.

The internet revolution was in its infancy, but really beginning to heat up. By the late nineties, many tech-savvy people had access to it, and one of the star attractions was the large amount of ‘open source’ music in MP3 format. Nullsoft’s Winamp player was released in 1997, and this drove the underground ‘free music’ craze overground. Indeed, computer hardware sellers and internet service providers began to sell the idea of free music as an attraction for their wares, while record companies looked on nervously. In 1998, the first portable solid state digital audio player – the MPMan – was released, and then the Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 appeared. One year later, the Recording Industry Association of America took the makers of the Rio to court in a bid to get its sale prohibited – and failed.

Ironically the publicity that this generated drew ever more people’s attention to MP3, and the fall in price of solid-state memory meant the players became increasingly affordable. Launched in 1999, Napster became an overnight sensation; for several years it was able to hold off lawsuits by claiming itself to be a peer-to-peer website that held no pirated music. But it wasn’t until October 2001 that MP3 went truly mainstream. Although a number of ‘MP3 players’ had been on sale for a year or more, the first Apple iPod offered a seamless way of getting and playing music. It was a step change in convenience and took the geekery out of the format. In doing so, it catapulted the idea of ‘computer audio’ into the public’s imagination. The Jonathan Ive design sported a distinctive scroll wheel that made it very easy to use, and the stylish polycarbonate player came in a choice of 5GB and 10GB capacities, starting at just under £300.

In order to use the iPod, users could either download MP3 files from the iTunes Music Store or ‘rip’ their own Compact Discs using their computer’s CD-ROM drive and the iTunes app for Macs or PCs. Many people did the latter and never looked back – the die for using computers for the enjoyment of recorded music was cast. That’s how we get to where we are today; the past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the amount of storage available for a given price, and ever-faster broadband.

Cheaper memory and faster internet speeds opened the door first to hi-res music files, and then streaming. This venerable open source file format is still alive and kicking in 2019, now used as a ‘lowest common denominator’ music carrier in a world where hi-res PCM and DSD files are the choice of the cognoscenti. Without this iconic digital music file, we would surely not be where we are now – looking towards the forthcoming world of ultra-high resolution digital musical enjoyment, and the associated new formats that will surely follow. Because of the unique design of our products, you can be sure that dCS will be there too.

November

End to End Excellence: The People Behind the Product

Andy McHarg, dCS Technical Director

“My thinking time ranges from about forty nanoseconds to about three years”, says dCS Technical Director Andy McHarg. He’s referring to the sheer bandwidth of the projects he works on – on one hand he is custom coding the superfast microprocessors found in dCS DACs, and on the other he’s working years in advance looking at the company’s product development strategy. In other companies, people in his job would have less of a role in planning new products, but technology – and where it is going – is central to dCS, an indivisible part of what is done.

“I was actually born in Cambridge”, he explains. “I always wanted to be a footballer as a kid. I support Liverpool, I fell in love at an early age and now I’m stuck with them. I was a hard working kid at school – although by no means a model child. I did computing, maths, electronics and biology for my A Levels and then Applied Computing at the University of East Anglia, which is basically computing and electronics. It sort of set me up for my career here at dCS, lots of work with embedded microprocessors, and all that sort of stuff – although they were a lot slower back then. The first CPUs I started coding on were 8-bit Intel 8051s, those were the days! Considering the latest Vivaldi has three 32-bit CPUs with 64MB of RAM, we’ve come a long way…”

When Andy graduated, he had a very strong idea of his future career – whatever he would be, it would not be a software engineer, he says. “So I became a software engineer, oddly. The trouble with being a software engineer is that there are so many problems you have to fix to make everything work properly. For that reason I rather fancied being more of a hands-off analyst sort of person, but that didn’t happen! Instead, I came to dCS as my very first job from university – to help with some of the engineering capture tools. There were all these whacky tools that were put together in house to make different bits of software talk to other bits of software. Those were the days when we were still doing the Ministry of Defence contracts, and audio was very much a sideline.”

Andy remembers the founder of dCS, Mike Story. “He was quite scary, a really clever guy but seemed a bit intimidating to me at that age. He was, shall we say, very fast to work out when things weren’t entirely correct. He knew everyone’s job better than they did; anyone who has ever worked with Mike will tell you that he is one of the smartest guys you will ever meet. So I became a software guy, and when the audio team started on the first control board, I was drawn into that and never looked back!”

When asked if Andy thought this was more interesting than military radar work, his reply is an unequivocal, “God yeah!” When he joined dCS, the company was already making the 900 studio analogue-to-digital converter, and just about to make its first DAC. “Tony Doy headed the new audio division. He and Duncan MacLeod, Technical Director at the time, came up with the configurable processing board concept which had a microprocessor on it – basically a computer purposed for audio. We used FPGAs – Field Programmable Gate Arrays – which were pretty new at the time, new and exciting. It was a challenging project because the basic spec was to make the best DAC in the world. As with all these things, it took a bit longer than we expected – even with seven people working full time for around two years.”

Andy explains that, “everyone else in the industry was popping a Philips Bitstream DAC chip in a box with its matching digital filter chip, adding a few buttons and a controller chip and calling it a DAC. Ours was rather different to that. My friends in electronics thought it was a bit stupid – after all, what’s the point of doing all that work when you can buy a chip that does it all, basically? It was a struggle, but Mike used to walk around telling us to get on with it, and we did. He was an audiophile, and so was I. We were so happy with the result, and it won many awards – although he used to say that awards don’t pay the bills, whereas working products do!”

The resulting dCS950 DAC was rip-roaring success in the pro world. “But what happened then was something very fundamental to the history of the company”, adds Andy. “Our Japanese distributor started selling this stuff to Japanese audiophiles, who loved them. Yet we began to get complaints about how complicated they were, and how clunky. Basically they found it hard to live with pro gear, so we decided to do a more user-friendly version, and Elgar was the result. It was easier to use, better to look at and more housetrained, basically.”

As for his life at dCS, Andy explains that, “we had – and still have – a really tight-knit engineering team and we were – and are – always learning. This makes for an intellectually stimulating environment and made the job interesting for me then, and now. Even though we have our arguments, we’re all on the same page. Keeping up with developments in technology is always difficult but that’s why I like it. In other branches of electronics there’s often the attitude that audio is a solved problem, yet there is of course so much scope for improvement. What I like is that on a personal level, everybody here can point to something in a product that they have done – and it is them. It is nice, but it’s a double-edged sword because you’re responsible if it doesn’t work! You have to be big enough to stand up and say that was my fault. Some people can’t deal with that…”

Andy thinks that you have to be a certain type of personality to work at dCS. “We have the somewhat enviable position of being the best in the world, but that means you are there to be shot at and you really can’t let out a product that is not the best. When you start thinking about it like that, it becomes quite stressful. Being Technical Director since 2005, I would know!”

Art for Art’s Sake

Back in the nineteen forties, when music was sold on shellac discs, there was no such thing as album artwork. Your prized new purchase came in a paper slip cover that carried little but the logo of the record label. By the fifties however, the widespread move to vinyl LPs saw the adoption of cover art, and things would never be the same again. Admittedly, it was often pretty figurative – with just a posed photograph of the recording artist and their name – but it was a start. By the early sixties however, things finally began to change…

Most rock historians will tell you that The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band started it all. Not only was it a seminal piece of mature, well crafted pop music with a coherent interlinking theme, but the cover of its beautiful gatefold sleeve was a modern art masterpiece. A montage of a host of cultural icons of that era, it tells you so much about British society back then and gives a vivid backdrop to the music too. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the featured album covers in an exhibition celebrating seventy years of iconic album artwork. Launched as part of the UK’s first National Album Day celebrations, it spans seven decades of popular art, music and design.

In association with the Best Art Vinyl Awards, an expert panel of judges was enlisted to select the finest album artwork from 1949 to 2004. These form the backdrop to the current Best Art Vinyl Awards which has been running since 2005. Together, they’re a fascinating retrospective of British popular culture, one album at a time. Given that the LP was launched in 1948, it’s right to kick off with the year running up to 1949. The Alex Steinweiss design is the visual backdrop to a recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 in E Flat Major opus 55. At the time he explained that as the first art director of Columbia Records, he thought plain sleeves to be, “so drab, so unattractive… so I convinced the executives to let me design a few.” The recording industry never looked back.

Follow the link at: www.nationalalbumday.co.uk/news/most-iconic-70-album-artworks-of-all-time-revealed/ to get the full list; on the way you’ll see some beautiful artwork from albums such as the 1959 release of Billy Mure’s Supersonic Guitars Volume I, designed by Charles Earnes. This shows a military jet breaking the sound barrier, and must have looked so modern at the time. In 1962 The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari featured a group photograph of the band on a Malibu beach, pointing out to sea. Snapped by Ken Veeder, it captured the spirit of the age. The Blue Note jazz label had some great covers, and Reid Miles’ design work on Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective saw him behind the swooping modern bonnet of the then new Jaguar E-type sportscar. 1964 must have seemed like the future.

Scott Walker’s sultry, psychedelic sounding Scott 3 from 1969 was given a great look by the Linda Glover designed, John Kelly photographed cover. This sees him placed in the centre of model’s eye, looking suitably dreamy. Contrast that to the brutalist, functional design of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (UK Edition), inspired by a Ministry of Transport motorway sign by Margaret Calvert. 1974 must have seemed a very different place to the romance of Donald Byrd’s E-type cover shot a decade earlier. Three years later came the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, a striking Jamie Reid design that went on to become iconic of the punk movement with its cut-out ‘blackmail’ lettering.

The first album cover to catch the nineteen eighties zeitgeist was Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing, designed and shot by Jean-Paul Goude in 1981. It looked brilliantly angular, showing a new androgynous look that became an icon of eighties style. Throughout that decade, British indie label 4AD released some of the most beautiful guitar music, and every new disc had its own Vaughn Oliver design. This Mortal Coil’s It’ll End In Tears from 1984 showcases his talent for dreamy, gothic imagery. In 1989, the standout debut of the year was the eponymous The Stone Roses, complete with John Squire’s Jackson Pollock-inspired painting entitled ‘Bye Bye Badman’ with its varnished lemon slices. By 1994 it was the turn of a former Stone Roses roadie – Noel Gallagher. His band Oasis had a huge hit with Definitely Maybe, the cover for which was designed by Brian Cannon, using a Michael Spencer Jones picture. The latter had just been to the Egyptology department at the Manchester Science Museum, which might explain why singer Liam Gallagher was lying still on the floor. The photograph was taken in the living room of guitarist Paul Arthur’s house.

In 1999, The White Stripes’ debut long player was all the rage, and its cover created a look that was even more direct than their music. The photomontage by Ko Melina Zydeco and Heather White is striking. By 2004, Kanye West was fed up with the violent ‘gangsta rap’ imagery of his genre of music and chose something completely different. College Dropout’s cover was an Eric Duvauchelle design that was irreverent and fun loving. Four years later, Fleet Foxes’ eponymous album featured a 1559 painting called Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, no less. The band’s guitarist said, “when you first see the painting it’s very bucolic, but when you look closer there’s all this really strange stuff going on like dudes defecating coins into the river and people on fire, people carving a live sheep, this weird dude who looks like a tree root sitting around with a dog.”

If you cannot attend the exhibition, then there’s a downloadable PDF on the National Album Day website so you can see every year’s award for yourself. Of course, your choices may be very different to the judging panel, so why not let us know your own nominations?

October

National Album Day

The United Kingdom is marking its first ever National Album Day. Held on Saturday 13th October, it’s said to be a celebration of, “all aspects of the UK’s love of the album.” There will be a host of events – including some live MQA streams – showcasing the joys of this time-honoured way of listening to music. Indeed, it is now seventy years since the first ever album was sold, with an estimated five billion albums thought to have been sold in Britain since the format’s advent in 1948, according to the British Phonographic Industry. Since then, it has proved amazingly resilient in a world of fast-changing fashions, but there are now concerns that it’s under threat. Although music sales are strong – increasingly so via streaming – there’s a sense that some recording artists are losing interest in the album format, while others only pay lip service to it. Some critics say that musicians are now releasing sequences of songs rather than a cohesive musical whole. Has the spirit of greats like The Beatles’ Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon finally passed?

National Album Day is backed by the British Phonographic Industry, with the BBC giving it extensive coverage. At 3.33pm on the Saturday, everyone in the UK is being asked to stop what they’re doing, sit back, relax and play their album of choice in full from start to finish. There is much to be happy about, with the format still selling in sizeable numbers. For example, there were 135 million albums either purchased, downloaded or streamed in 2017 – a rise of 9.5 per cent year-on-year. 4.1 million of these were on vinyl, which is the highest level since the start of the nineteen nineties, incidentally. Whether you’re a vinyl junkie or not, this is good news for the music industry and in turn for music fans, because it makes recorded music more visible to younger audiences, or older ones who have got out of the habit of buying music at all.

Some have criticised the event, describing it as gimmicky. Yet still many young artists have a great regard for albums, with some talking about wanting to make their Never Mind the Bollocks or London Calling. They don’t, it seems, want to see the album format relegated to pop music’s past. Although revenues are holding up, actual album sales in units are half those of 2010, down last year to 45.8 million physical objects purchased and 13.8 million digital sales. The revenue increase came from streaming, which has contributed to the charts since 2015. Unlike the old days, when one person walking into a record shop and buying a vinyl copy of Hotel California would constitute a sale, there is now a complex formula that defines streamed album sales. It down-weighs the two most popular songs from any album to the average of the next ten, then divides the total plays from the twelve tracks by 1,000. Who knew?

It’s hard to get too judgemental about the future of albums. Media pundits have been declaring it dead for several years now, with some pretentiously talking about streaming singles as the new ‘lingua franca’ of modern music. Yet the idea of just buying singles is nothing new; seven inch, twelve inch and then CD singles were all hugely popular in their day, as many people’s physical disc collections – be they analogue or digital – attest. Albums are beloved by so-called super fans, for whom endless remastered box sets are being released, seemingly every week. Indeed, this is what some believe to be the problem, as the mainstream music industry continues to mine the seam of classic music reissues. It’s certainly true that £80 box sets of ten or so CDs that cost pennies to produce, tries the patience of some loyal collectors.

The upside to streaming is that it is now possible to get very high quality sound, providing you have a serious digital front end and network streamer of course. For example, MQA is collaborating with Pitchblack Playback and The Association of Independent Music to hold an all-day, fully immersive listening event to celebrate National Album Day 2018. Six albums, released on independent labels, will be played back in MQA to deliver what Pitchblack Playback calls “the original studio performance”; it’s certainly going to be a great sounding event. It is being held between 11.30am and 6pm in The Sensorium at Aures, London. It’s a free-to-attend occasion that should be a unique listening experience; full details can be found at:  http://www.pitchblackplayback.com/national-album-day/, and tickets are on a first come, first served basis.

The albums being played include Mogwai’s Every Countrys Sun (Rock Action Records), Gil Scott-Heron’s Im New Here (XL), The Fall’s I Am Kurious Oranj (Beggars Banquet), Public Service Broadcasting’s The Race For Space (Test Card Recordings) and Young Fathers’ Cocoa Sugar (Ninja Tune). J. Willgoose Esq from Public Service Broadcasting said: “It is great to be a part of National Album Day. As a band we put a lot of thought and effort into producing albums rather than isolated songs, and trying to use our music to tell stories. Giving fans the opportunity to experience our album The Race For Space in the dark, focusing on nothing but the music, is a great idea and we hope people get something out of it.” MQA’s Mike Jbara added: “It’s inspiring to be involved in a project that puts artists and music fans at the centre of the experience. We’re proud to partner with AIM and Pitchblack Playback to deliver the ultimate listening event for National Album Day.”

Whichever direction album sales may go, many of us will treasure the format forever, as it is such an elegant way of packaging a diverse but interconnected range of moods and emotions from a band in a series of different but sequentially ordered songs. Long may albums play!