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 Tamara’s 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!
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!
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 Tom’s 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.
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!”
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?
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 Pepper’s 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 Country’s Sun (Rock Action Records), Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m 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!
Welcome to the future. Speak to music industry insiders and ask them for the big picture, and it all looks very different to ten years ago. The one thing that defines where we are now, compared to where we were then, is the change in people’s music buying habits. Most of the money made from music sales now comes from streaming. In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America reports that it now accounts for three quarters of industry revenues.
In the first half of 2018, total revenues from recorded music grew by 10% to $4.6 billion – and streaming accounts for most of that at $3.4 billion, a huge 28% year-on-year increase. This includes Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, TIDAL, along with internet radio services like Pandora, SiriusXM and ad-supported on-demand streaming services such as YouTube, Vevo, and ad-supported Spotify. The RIAA says that the most lucrative format for the music industry is paid subscriptions, with these growing by a third and bringing $2.5 billion into the industry coffers.
In other words, three quarters of recording industry revenue came from streaming, and three quarters of that from paid subscriptions. This is dramatically outperforming advertising-supported music streams, meaning that people want their own private world of music uninterrupted by commercial messages – even if it costs them money to get it. In other words, just as music buyers a generation ago would go to the music shop on the High Street to buy CDs, happy to pay money to get personal access to ‘their’ music, so the same thing is happening now online. It is interesting that this goes against the notion of free music that peer-to-peer sharing sites like Napster once promoted. The figures do show that advertising-supported services like YouTube, Vevo and the basic Spotify also grew, but nowhere near as fast as subscription services. Market research company Nielsen reports that the revenue from these made up only 11% of total streaming revenues.
Every time a new set of statistics comes out, people say “the writing is on the wall for Compact Disc”, and are then proved wrong. Yet in the United States at least, the venerable silver disc is now really taking a hit. The RIAA reports that shipments of physical products decreased by one quarter to $462 million in the first half of this year, which is a higher rate of decline than in recent years. Indeed revenues from CD specifically fell by 41% in this period, while vinyl LP sales crept up slightly by 13%. Physical music media made up just 10% of total industry sales. It’s hard to put a gloss on this, and shows that there’s a fundamental change in the way we consume music now taking place. Of course, CD still has a long life ahead of it, but it’s becoming more of a niche pursuit now – a status that it will have to get used to.
Further proof that streaming is now the only real game in town, is the decline of digital downloads – revenues fell 27% in the first half of this year to $562 million, which is the the lowest level in over a decade. The same pattern is apparent for individual track sales, down 28% year-over-year, and digital albums down 26%. This category now made up just 12% of total revenues for the first half of the year – nearly fifteen years or so later, the days of buying your favourite pop songs on iTunes Music Store are now fading away.
Although hi-fi buyers might feel more than a little nostalgic for the demise of Compact Disc, the US music industry doesn’t seem too saddened by it. Revenues were up strongly in the first half of the year and paid subscription streaming seems to be rebalancing the dynamics of the industry. Mitch Glazier, President of the RIAA, thinks this is a great opportunity, saying that record companies are helping to foster “a diverse streaming marketplace”, meaning there’s a good deal of choice for consumers in how they get their streamed music.
He points out that there is still work to do on music licensing legislation in the USA, but the basic picture is rosy. The challenge is of course to increase the number of artists available on streaming services, and to improve the breadth and depth of music – rather in the same way that even by the early nineteen nineties, there were still vast numbers of albums that had not yet gained a CD release. As streaming services improve, choice will get better and the take-up of streaming services should in turn increase even more.
We’ve saved a very special person for this months behind the product article. All our staff are special of course but this month our favourite Export Sales Manager Liam is getting married! It’s set to be the rock ‘n’ roll wedding of the year (in Cambridgeshire!) Congratulations to Liam and his beautiful wife-to-be Leanne. We can’t wait for your big day!
Liam Davison, dCS Export Sales Manager
“I have said this myself, and it might sound a bit glib, but I am genuinely proud of the product that we make. I know our position in the market, I know the quality, I know that everyone here feels exactly the same. I know how fantastic the product is, how amazing it sounds. That makes my job so much easier – but then again if I wasn’t good at it I’ve hardly got an excuse, have I?”
Liam Davison is a very avuncular sort of guy. He’s a bright and cheerful chap with a wry sense of humour and an enthusiasm for what he’s doing that radiates like heat from the summer sun. “Those that shout loudest always get heard,” he quips. “It’s a great job, and has taken me to so many places where I never thought I’d go. Everywhere from Las Vegas to Moscow and in-between. You don’t really get to do a lot of touristy stuff but there are times when you can. I am always a first point of call for my friends when they want to know a good place to go on holiday. Perhaps I should start a travel consultancy on the side!”
It’s not the intricacies of hotel mini bars that excites Liam however, it’s the culture. “You have to learn the way that different countries go about things, how they do business. Most of our partners overseas are a pretty good fit; naturally they have a shared love of music and high end audio with dCS and are very hospitable, so things go smoothly. The extra-curricular activities can be hard work at times, though. Croatia is probably the hardest partying country I have been to. In order to be sociable I have found myself ‘downwind’ of some pretty extreme Croatian whiskey, and then had to switch back into work mode. A TV crew once walked in on a Vivaldi demonstration and I found myself talking to the good people of Zagreb ever so slightly intoxicated. I’ve not played back the video yet, but I have been told that I got away with it!”
In a way, Liam’s sporting background has proved great training for his job at dCS. It’s hard work, pretty gruelling with lots of travel and socialising. You need to be fit, and have stamina. “School for me was always about sport,” he says. “I was very good at athletics, and used to sprint for Cambridgeshire. I did for East Anglia a couple of times, too. I used to play rugby at county level as well, at two age groups above my own. I used to do sprinting, relays, long jump, triple jump. Then in rugby I played anywhere from inside centre, outside centre to the wing because I was super-quick. Then age sixteen, I picked up a really bad knee injury during an athletics training session. I was doing a race and as I was going around a bend, my running shoe spike got stuck in the ground and my knee kind of decided to implode on itself…”
During his nine month-long recuperation period, Liam was stuck inside and unable to train – so he picked up a guitar. “My dad plays guitar and piano, and there have always been instruments around the house. Out of boredom, I started fiddling with a few chords and that was it – I was hooked. We always played music – The Beatles, Moody Blues, James Taylor and U2 – at home and in the car, so aged seventeen I found myself teaching myself how to play the guitar. I’ve never looked back. I am a pretty decent player, and love British rock like The Kinks and The Jam.”
At university, Liam studied Sports Management. “The idea was to have some kind of sport in my life. I did pretty well getting a 2:1, and then went to work at a gym just west of Cambridge, with the aim of getting into personal fitness training, that sort of thing. Still, I wasn’t so passionate about it; I tried but it didn’t really strike a chord with me. All the same, it opened up two fantastic things in my life. The first was that while I was there I met my fiancée, the other was that in a roundabout way I got my job at dCS. I got to know (Managing Director) David Steven’s wife Linzi and then David too – they were members of the gym. The management actually thought I was better at the sales and marketing side of my job, than the fitness stuff. I like to think that I get on with people really well, I am good at talking to people. I guess that is what David saw in me. I hope he’s not in his office listening!”
“I think David saw this raw ability in me, nearly seven years ago”, confides Liam. “I am still here now so I must be doing something right. I joined dCS as a Graduate Trainee Sales Manager in January 2012. They started me off in production, so I was working with the guys there building what are now legacy products like Puccini, Paganini and Scarlatti. Then it went crazy with the Vivaldi launch and I moved to the sales side of things. I was looking after the UK; at that time we had six or seven dealers, and even then I was constantly on the road.”
For Liam, working for dCS has been a “pretty easy fit”. He says he never forgets, “the calibre of client you are dealing with – when someone is paying this much money for your product then nothing less than perfect is acceptable. It takes time to get into that mindset when you’re starting here – but is a very strong part of our company’s culture.” At first he says that he was really worried about the electronics side of things, but remembers David saying, “don’t worry, you can learn that. What you can’t learn is having a good ear for music and caring about people (customers).”
Martin Reynolds, dCS Technical Support Specialist
Originally from North West London, Martin Reynolds proved a bit of a boffin at Harrow County Grammar School. He won the school chemistry prize, and took a great interest in science. “I loved electronics and hi-fi too,” he says. “Things were very tight in those days, back in the nineteen seventies. I used to buy Wireless World magazine and from the age of around fifteen began to cobble together enough money to buy parts for an amplifier. It sounded great, but only because I made it myself!”
Martin continues, “I took my ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels a year early, then found I was too young to go straight on to university. I spent most of 1975 with the Post Office Research Department, where I was put in charge of an experimental facility making lasers for telecommunications applications. It was interesting stuff, and involved a mix of chemistry and electronics, which suited me down to the ground. Then I went to the University of Kent, and studied electronics. I graduated about third in my class, so knew my way around a circuit diagram better than many…”
“I dived in with both feet”, says Martin. “I loved my specialist subjects, and spent the summer vacations at GEC Research Centre in Wembley. They had some interesting things to throw at me – I was hand-wiring experimental computer boards using the old 8086 processors. It was absolutely cutting-edge stuff at the time, but incredibly slow by today’s standards, of course. Although they were only 8-bit, when you had to wire every bus by hand it took some time. These days you’d put a circuit on an auto-router and it would route the board for you by magic. Then in 1976, I was tasked with prototyping one of the world’s first digital closed circuit television cameras, which had a staggering 9 kilopixel resolution!”
.It was only a matter of time before Martin joined the hi-fi industry. “An opportunity came my way, and I was roped in by Bill Beard of Beard Audio Systems. He started up as a cottage industry producing premium tube power amplifiers which sounded really, really good. Compared to anything I could afford to make at the time, they were amazing. Of course, they were quite easy to design, with standard tubes such as KT88s, ECC83s ECC81s and so on. We got some great reviews at the time, but they were too big for my digs in Clapham so I never owned any, sadly. It was the first incarnation of the valve revival – even in the late seventies they were considered antique, and most people had abandoned them. But some great tube amps came out back then and blew the market’s ears off. A large part of this was their Class A operation…”
It was fun working with Bill Beard, remembers Martin. “Being a so-called cottage industry you had to do pretty much everything yourself. Initially there were two of us and it grew up to about five. I loved it, but after five years I decided it was time to move on. I got married, got a new job and found myself at Neve Electronics designing high end studio mixing consoles. Like dCS now, this was a highly prestigious company to work for. Although I joined as a design engineer, they discovered my talent for taking things that weren’t working properly and modifying them so they did. So I found myself in charge of the Product Support department, in addition to designing new consoles from scratch, eventually to lead the analogue R&D department. I was there for a decade, leaving not long after we had won The Queen’s Award for Industry.”
Martin joined dCS in 1996, managing the development of the company’s first hi-fi product – the Elgar DAC, which itself was a ‘domestic’ version of the pro market 952. “We kept the pro-business going as that was one iron in the fire and then developed the consumer audio business. We got great reviews for Elgar and then started developing products to go around it. We discovered the upsampling effect because one of the next projects I managed was the 972 digital-to-digital converter, which was sort of digital audio Swiss army knife. It allowed studios to convert almost anything into almost anything else. There was just nothing like it at the time.”
“The basic design of the Ring DAC was very sound, and every generation sounds quite noticeably better than the last. I was surprised by how much better the Scarlatti sounded than the classic stack, and the Vivaldi just blew me away. That’s the way it works, you make the design as clean and as sanitary as you can and it responds with sonic improvements. Digital technology keeps on moving in leaps and bounds and you get the knock-on effect of processing power that is available in mobile phones. Every time we get more power, we have more scope for adding new features. The classic range ended up with an awful lot of extra functionality compared to the initial release. We are doing our level best with the new capacity, keeping the design as streamlined as possible. Rossini is a perfect example with just one huge FPGA that does nearly everything, with the DSP and micro controller piled into that huge chip.”
These days Martin concentrates on technical customer support. “Well, I have been writing the user manuals for the last twenty odd years so I’m probably the one person in the company who knows the whole product range best,” he confesses. “Most folk I deal with are lovely, and make me feel like I have made the world a better place. What I love most is when people I’ve advised end up even happier about the product than they were before – especially if you show them something that they weren’t even aware that it could do.”
Ben Ashcroft, dCS Service Technician
“I am massively grateful for my opportunity”, says Ben Ashcroft. “Some people say that they hate their job, but I just wouldn’t know what that feels like. I’m genuinely content at dCS. I joined as a Production Technician, putting units together, getting it out of the door, learning the new products inside out as I did my apprenticeship. But from the start of this year I am now a Service Technician. I’m working with another technician and learning from him the ins and outs of the products themselves. If faults do occur then I fix them, which is a great learning process for me.”
Ben admits that he “fell on his feet” with his job at dCS – something he hopes and intends to make a career of. He says that he was in the right place at the right time to get hired by the Cambridge company, and isn’t looking that gift horse in the mouth. “I don’t take it for granted. That’s why, when I go to college on day release from the company, I don’t just settle for passes – I do my absolute best. I fully appreciate the extent of the opportunity I’ve got here, and because it’s a relatively small company everything that you do is noticed. I really like that. If I had a job elsewhere then I would be more of a number than a person; I might have just settled for passes because no one would really notice. But at dCS I get a lot of encouragement from my peers, and that’s great.”
Ben remembers his first interview. “I went in and openly said that I have no experience in engineering, and that all I can tell you is that I’m a blank page, I’ve got a good work ethic and I am willing to learn and to grow into any role you desire of me. They must have believed in me and trusted me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I explained that I was massively into music, and everyone who works here is too – I think they could see that I would fit in. It’s a pretty tight knit group of people here with – at the very least – one shared interest!”
Unlike some staff who have travelled from far and wide to work at dCS, Ben is a local guy. He followed a pretty typical path through school, although did very well. “My first full time job was at Sainsburys, something I continued with for a few years while I grew up. I’ve always been very academic, but also very sporty. I used to play football a lot, but got increasingly into music and technology. I started off liking indie bands but started getting into techno around the age of eighteen. It was initially stuff like dubstep and drum’n’bass, but nowadays it’s broadened to the whole spectrum. So, I do DJ-ing and create music myself too. I am so picky, I am very clued up on a lot of it.”
With his love of electronic music, he’s almost in a gang of one at dCS. “No one here shares my music taste I’m afraid, so trying to explain why I love it so much is hard because no one ever really agrees with me. Some people say it’s really repetitive and there is nothing to it. Perhaps I listen differently – I have got an ear for rhythm – it’s hard to describe. When you listen to electronic music it is little tiny details and the intricate things that people put in that just sound incredible, there’s a lot more to it than many think. It’s really layered, and introspective. Still, I am open to music like jazz and enjoy it.”
Don’t ask him to name his favourite artist, for there are so many. He was quite uncomfortable giving just one example because he’s so intense about it. “Well – Floating Points, Four Tet, Bicep – but there’s so much more”, he says. “Many of the people who buy dCS equipment probably won’t listen to the same things as me. But I guess it adds an extra dimension, and this type of music does sound great on our products! I also love making it, and going out to listen in clubs in the early hours at weekends. My friends and I know the DJs we’re going to listen to, we know the music to expect, we’re always on Shazam trying to recognise tracks, things like that. It is all just part of the culture, so to speak…”
Back on to the subject of his career, and Ben elaborates. “I had a good time at Sainsburys, and got recognised for my work ethic. But then it dawned on me that it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever, so I searched for engineering jobs. When dCS offered me my position here I did a three-year apprenticeship in electronic engineering, and passed with the best grade. I’m now doing my Level 4 HNC on day release, which is another two years. I’ve not dropped any marks, I’m smashing it basically! When I was at Sainsburys I enjoyed the customer-facing side and going forward that’s something I hope to be doing at dCS. I went to Norway at the end of last year to perform an upgrade for one of our customers, and it went really well – the job was done perfectly and the guy was really happy. It was incredibly satisfying.”
Ben’s definitely a ‘glass half full’ kind of person, with an irrepressible optimism about life and his future in a company he loves. It seems to have reflected back on him, because dCS Managing Director David Steven has been very supportive and given him a lot of freedom to go his own way. “They are never going to hold me back in that respect, I am always grateful for that”, he adds. Meanwhile, he’s just taking in everything he can from his colleagues. “Just because I get good grades doesn’t mean I’m actually good at anything. Actually I’m lucky because I work with so many experienced people, learn a lot from everyone and am always respectful to them. It’s a great place to get trained up – a kind of masterclass, really!”
The Munich High End Show is the hi-fi show that all the others want to be. In the space of thirty seven years, it has grown from a group of hobbyists – Germany’s High End Society – to a large scale international event. For the past fifteen years it has been held in Munich at the large, spacious and very congenial M.O.C. exhibition centre. The HIGH END 2018 show took place from the 10th to the 13th of May – and of course, dCS was there…
The great attraction of this show is that – unlike so many other hi-fi events around the world – it is not held in a crowded, crammed hotel. Instead, the M.O.C. is a proper, purpose-designed exhibition space. Also, it takes place in the beautiful city of Munich – the jewel in Bavaria’s crown. It’s a picture-postcard German city – a tasteful mixture of classical and modern architecture, it is clean, orderly, efficient and polite. There’s great shopping, superb dining and the hotels range from good to excellent. What’s not to like?
The M.O.C. building is large, spacious and easily accessible, with a lovely outside courtyard food and beer garden at its heart. The show gets more crowded every year – with a large contingent of visitors now coming from the Far East. Yet still it’s possible to walk around and see what you want without endless queueing or the feeling of being crammed into rooms like sardines in a tin. The dCS room is traditionally up in one of the atriums – large by hi-fi show standards, it’s able to accommodate a serious sound system with which visitors can hear what a dCS front end is really capable of.
This year, a Dan D’Agostino Momentum stereo power amplifier and a pair of Wilson Audio Alexia 2 loudspeakers were pressed into service. This was driven by a dCS Rossini DAC and Rossini Clock, fed by the new Rossini SACD/CD transport. A range of music was played throughout the show, including recordings made by Wilson Audio’s Peter McGrath. Some of these had been Master Quality Authenticated-encoded, and visitors were able to make direct A-B comparisons of the original recordings and their MQA equivalents. dCS also took part in an MQA livestream of six-piece London-based band Misha Mullov-Abbado, streamed direct to Munich from Miloco Studios in the UK’s capital city.
This is the great thing about hi-fi shows. Of course they’re relatively noisy environments, and no manufacturer is ever truly happy with the sound they achieve with the imperfect acoustics of their show space. Yet it’s possible to walk into a room and hear something that no amount of words on a page can describe. The dCS room gave one of the clearest and most immersive sounds of the show. Of course, given the calibre of both the equipment and source materials, anything less would have been a disappointment!
The muscular D’Agostino amplifier served up vast amounts of clean power, which in turn produced great results from Wilson’s big Alexia 2 loudspeakers; they delivered a strong central image with excellent stage depth. The system was able to reproduce the three dimensional recorded acoustic of an original musical event faithfully, and the room was large enough to let the speakers supply extended bass. Although the varying number of people present in the room actually changed the tonal balance slightly, the system always sounded highly realistic. The dCS Rossini is an excellent DAC, offering much of the flagship Vivaldi’s performance despite being dramatically less expensive. Although it doesn’t have the forensic clarity of the top dCS digital front end, it is still extremely revealing and one of the finest ways to make meaningful comparisons between recordings.
It was an exhilarating week for dCS. The logistics of setting up one of the finest sounding rooms – and indeed systems – of the show were formidable. Yet there was a profound feeling of satisfaction when all was said and done. The MQA livestream was a great crowd puller, while the MQA file comparisons fascinated many visitors who heard them. Yet the Rossini’s sheer breadth of capabilities meant that it also wowed people with its superb silver disc sound, as well as its ability to stream a wide variety of music via its built-in Tidal functionality, and play hi-res music from USB memory sticks. If you ever get the chance to visit Munich one May, make your way to this seriously special show and hear the difference for yourself.
Listen to our top tracks played in our room at Munich this year: https://listen.tidal.com/playlist/25c6f933-975f-4216-b308-bfd424cd00c6
It wasn’t hi-fi that interested Michael Evans from an early age, but mechanical design. “I have always loved taking things apart to find out how they fit together and work”, he says. “From a young age I was fascinated by bikes and cars, so it wasn’t a complete surprise that I ended up at Brunel University reading Product Design, for which I got a BSc for my troubles! It was a four-year course, a really interesting one that covered all things from graphics and branding right up to CAD. We did engineering and the fundamentals of structures and electronics and mechatronics – it was a very good overview of the entire design process.”
Suffolk born Michael found himself on a six month placement in Winchester at a design consultancy. “It was very varied and we worked on everything from recycling units, household appliances to a small swimming aid for children. Then I spent the next six months at IDentity Consulting in East Sussex, who tended to work more in the automotive sector. I actually went back after graduating, and I was there for three years or more. We completed projects for Porsche and Dunlop in the UK, among others. Then I decided I wanted to work for a company that did all its design and manufacturing in-house, so I could gain an in-depth knowledge of manufacturing processes as a whole. I was designing parts and accessories for Evotech Performance – they’ve got dealers worldwide and grew quite considerably in the few years that I was there.”
Michael was there for three or so years, after which he came to dCS. “That wasn’t before I took a bit of a break, because I wanted to spend a month in Australia and another in Canada, snowboarding. Making the move to this company was as simple as reading a job ad and thinking it sounded really interesting. It was different to what I’d been doing but was about applying very similar design principles. The main change was that – coming from the motorbike side of things – everyone wanted parts to be as stripped back and as lightweight as possible, whereas dCS is almost the opposite, as weight is a sign of quality. Put a unit in front of someone and if it weighs next to nothing, they’re going to question what’s inside. It’s a very different sort of functionality, but again it’s all based on the same sort of design principals just reapplied.”
When not living in a virtual world, Michael does the exact opposite and enjoys material challenges. “I do a lot of cycling – these days more on the road than off – and also running short to mid-distance races. I recently completed the Cambridge Half Marathon, and love snowboarding in the Alps, plus scuba diving and other outdoorsy stuff.”