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.”
Dan Thomas, dCS Production Technician
“I didn’t enjoy school very much, I was in a hurry to learn by doing things,” says Dan Thomas. “I taught myself the practical way – everything from welding to playing the guitar. I’m not very good in a classroom, I much prefer real life! I loved music – and still do – but by the time I left school I was getting into marine tanks. It’s a pretty unusual hobby I admit, but I love building and running them. They’re a lot more delicate than a normal freshwater fish tank – there are more things that can go wrong very quickly. But there’s just nothing like having a piece of the ocean in your living room!”
Dan is originally from Swansea – which perhaps explains his interest in oceans and fish – but moved to Stevenage aged eleven. He commutes to dCS in Cam-bridge everyday, and after a hard day’s work there’s nothing he likes more than working on his very own barrier reef! “I have a pretty large tank, about eight feet by two-and-a-half feet by two-and-a-half – which translates to about 1500 litres – so it takes up the whole wall of my Dining Room. I try to be as environmentally friendly with it as I can, so instead of getting large corals out of the ocean I’ll get an aquacultured frag and put that in. It might only be an inch but within a few years you’ll have a football sized coral that you can then pass on frags to your friends.”
He has some very exotic fish, too. “I’ve got one called a Gold Flake Angel which is quite a rare and beautiful fish; my wife gave it to me for my thirtieth birthday. I’ve also got a Regal Angel which is also difficult to keep, and I also love Wrasse. They’re particularly interesting because they actually sleep under the sand. When the lights start dimming down they literally just shove their heads into the sand and then flip themselves underneath it to hide. Every so often you’ll walk past at night and they won’t have hid themselves so well! I have Yellow Tangs that go around eating the algae off the rocks, and crabs and snails that also keep the tank clean. My conches and starfish keep the sand bed turned over, so it’s partly self-maintaining if you get the balance of the sea creatures right. Still, I wouldn’t call it a peaceful pastime. It’s calming after being at dCS all day but I always end up working on it…”
Every man needs a hobby, but Dan has more than one – and there’s a pattern here as he takes them all really seriously. “Yes, you can tell I am quite OCD about everything. I love music so obviously I had to get a full four-box Vivaldi system”, he explains. “I was really lucky to be able to buy it, but it does sound fantastic. It’s not quite as good as what we’ve got in the dCS listening room, but it’s work in progress! I’ve managed to piece together things over the years. I’ve got Pass Labs amps and Audio Physic Tempo 2 speakers, which are pretty good. I’m fortunate with my job that I can borrow different bits and pieces from work, so I’m trying all kinds of exotic cables…”
Dan is one of the only people at dCS who owns the four-box Vivaldi, which betokens a certain seriousness in his nature. “I think most people have got Rossini Players, and some have Puccinis which they bought a while back. Actually I started off with one of these a good few years ago, and then I decided to upgrade the DAC, and it sort of escalated from there. You know, I thought I might as well go for it, if I am going to go for it. It just sounds incredible now.”
Dan “just kind of fell into” working for dCS, as he puts it. “I wanted to do something with my life. When I was about twenty years old, I wanted to get some skills because I wasn’t happy with my life. I had a friend who was working for the company and he said they were looking for someone, so I came for an interview and started when I was just twenty one as a trainee workshop technician, and I have been here for ten years now. Because it’s obviously an expensive product, everything has to be perfect. So I have been trained very well and have got a good eye for detail – which also helps with the fish tanks! I suppose I am pretty meticulous about everything, really. I like to think of every product we make as being mine. I want it to be as good as the one I’ve got at home – I don’t want to see anything that would upset me. I’d love to say that my one at home is put together extra specially, but they really are all the same. They have all got to be perfect, we won’t let anything go that isn’t.”
A keen guitarist, one of his favourite albums is Guns N’Roses Appetite For Destruction. “There’s some intense playing on that; everything on there is very difficult to play. It makes me feel a little bit sick that all the guys in the band were about seventeen when they wrote that. So, it’s crazy how good they are. That Slash had been playing guitar for maybe three or four years while it takes me months to learn one of their songs drives me crazy. I went to see them live last year when they played in London, and it was pretty spectacular. Best gig I have ever been to.”
“I tend to take everything that I do very seriously. For example, I’m really into fitness too. I started that off because I used to be overweight when I was in my late teens. I began to research a lot about nutrition, and started going to a gym. I’ve done lots of research and nowadays I actually weigh all my food – I record everything that I’m eating, and record my training. If it is something I am passionate about, then I go all out!”
Hi-fi has never had it so good. In 2018 we live in a multimedia, multi-format world with Compact Disc, SACD, low, medium and hi-res streaming and downloads, DVD and Blu-ray. It’s now possible to access staggeringly high quality recorded music. Yet still there’s a sense that the future is constantly being made and remade, with nothing having quite fallen into place. We shouldn’t be surprised however, because when you go back through the history of recorded music – the only thing that is constant is change itself. There has never been a time when things were not in a state of flux.
Right from the off, the quest to get music to the masses has been a Darwinian struggle, where only the fittest formats survive. 1877 was hi-fi’s year zero, when intrepid patent collector Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This was little more than a cylindrical drum covered in tinfoil, with a stylus tracking across. The first recorded words, “Mary had a little lamb”, would make him America’s greatest inventor of his day. Soon though, a Scot by the name of Alexander Graham Bell was refining his wax cylinder system, which was a more practical way of recording and playing back sound than Edison’s. At the same time, German-born Emil Berliner was hard at work developing a way of avoiding Edison’s patent on cylinders. The gramophone was developed between 1887 and 1893, with the stylus moving across the recording medium, and a disc being used instead of a cylinder.
The turn of the twentieth century was an even more exciting time for recorded music than one hundred years later. Developments in the mastering process meant that by 1901 the system was commercially viable, and soon performances by Caruso, Melba and Patti were on sale, on ten and then twelve inch discs. Electrical recording via the Westrex system made for better sound, and by the end of World War II 78RPM discs were actually quite decent sounding things. It’s fascinating to note that just like LP, Compact Cassette and Compact Disc that later followed, this new music carrier took a good twenty or so years to settle down.
The Long Playing microgroove record was introduced by Columbia in 1948, and offered significantly improved sound, playing time and longevity. It had the same profound effect that CD would thirty five years later – causing an explosion in the popularity of recorded music. The world soon entered a golden age, with practically every household in the West having access to it in some form. Ten years later, stereo LPs arrived and the hi-fi industry as we know it today really began to take off. Pop music became a cultural phenomenon in a way that simply could not have happened without the wide availability of cheap vinyl records.
Compact Disc saw the coming together of Sony and Philips, to bring the next great leap forward. It built on the achievements of LP to a higher level, being more robust and generally better sounding, with over an hour’s playing time on a single disc. From its birth in 1982 however, the race was on to do better. Fifteen or so years later, the format’s co-creators gave us Super Audio Compact Disc; this was a major sonic improvement, backwards compatible and offered multichannel sound too. Had DVD-Audio – a more versatile DVD-based system – not arrived at the same time, we might all be playing SACDs now. The requirement for music retailers to stock three types of disc, two of which were initially pretty obscure, effectively put an end to both new hi-res formats in all world markets except Japan.
The dCS Elgar DAC was arguably the first format-neutral consumer digital front end. No longer did audiophiles need to buy a digital music source that was tied to one particular technology. Its unique FPGA design meant that it could be programmed to work with practically any music codec from standard CD-quality to high resolution PCM and DSD – radical thinking back in 1996. Every time an interesting new format arrived, new firmware was installed to let Elgar play it. This architecture still underpins today’s dCS DACs, which are now being updated to play the new MQA format.
This offers a combination of high resolution sound alongside compact file sizes – and a carefully authenticated transmission path so any MQA file is guaranteed to be delivered in the way that the original recording engineer intended. That’s the beauty of the dCS approach. No longer do people have to junk their equipment when new ways of storing or carrying music come along – our customers get to decide for themselves if they like it. As the history of recorded music teaches us, ultimately the market decides.
dCS products are purchased by music lovers, audio aficionados and people simply wanting the best that money can buy. All three types of buyer go through a process of selection that leads them to arrive at the same conclusion; they may apply slightly different criteria, but all end up being proud dCS owners. Any dCS owner knows that they are not inexpensive; even the Network Bridge or Debussy DAC costs more than most would ever contemplate spending on hi-fi. So to get to the point of considering such a purchase requires prospective purchasers to have been on a journey of sorts. Given that you won’t see a Vivaldi four-box stack system in your local electrical discount shop front window, the marque needs a degree of seeking out. The premium price and limited availability of dCS products means – in effect – that people who discover the brand are actively seeking something very special.
Often customers ‘find’ dCS by personal recommendation; friends enthuse about their new purchase to others. Others discover the brand by visiting a high end hi-fi dealer, or by attending live events or hi-fi shows. Some read about dCS in magazines or periodicals, and/or arrive at the dCS website and want to know more. In all cases, at this point anyone who’s even curious about this enigmatic brand, needs to know why dCS products are different, and what it is that justifies the price.
Listening is the only true litmus test. It’s hard to explain in words just what the feeling of hearing right into a recording is like – the eerie sense of being there at the studio desk as the final multi-track is mixed down to stereo. Many people have the confidence to trust their ears; reading hi-fi magazine reviews is a good way to get people to listen to dCS equipment, but ultimately it isn’t other people’s opinions that count, but your own…
That’s not to say that technical performance isn’t key. People often talk about things in terms of, ‘which is more important – measurements or listening?’ To dCS, this is a false opposition. The company ethos is that technical correctness is essential; there’s no getting around the fact that if a product scores poorly in terms of distortion, signal-to-noise ratio, stereo separation and so on, then it simply cannot deliver the musical goods. Yet that’s just the start; dCS products are carefully – and repeatedly – auditioned during the development process. The senior design engineers know how technical measurements correlate to subjective sound quality; there’s a very complex relationship there and it requires great skill and experience to get the balance right.
Understandably, there’s a lot of confusion over this. Many hi-fi magazines don’t measure products they review, arguing that technical measurements are at best partial and don’t tell the whole story. Others might agree with the latter part of that statement, but still do and often find measurements instructive in understanding how a product performs. Historically, fashion has veered from one extreme to the other over the years. Five or so decades ago – long before dCS started – British hi-fi magazines were totally preoccupied with measurements. It was possible to read reviews where four fifths of the text discussed the product’s relative merits in terms of signal-to-noise ratio or stereo separation, with just a perfunctory summary of the subjective sound quality at the end.
By the late nineteen eighties however, the UK hi-fi press tended to do long essays about the subjective sound of products, with many omitting technical specifications completely. It was as if there was a backlash against how those earlier reviews had been written, with some people actively deriding anyone who took measured performance seriously. It was fashionable to draw attention to hi-fi products that measured well but sounded bad. Compact Disc itself was used as an example of something that had startling technical performance for its time, yet could often sound very mediocre indeed.
The starting point for dCS products is technical performance. Be it in the digital or analogue circuitry, distortion, noise and other characteristics are carefully analysed on the company’s state-of-the-art test equipment so problems can be designed out wherever possible. The sound is then fine tuned by a combination of listening and measurement; this ensures that improvements are not ‘happy accidents’; every change is repeatable and demonstrable to the development team. After the design phase, dCS products have to be made the same every time, so rigorous testing is essential here too. A highly sophisticated, custom-made, automated test facility is used to ensure that each individual product comes out right. Done this way, prospective purchasers can both hear the difference and be reassured that they will own something with exemplary technical performance that delivers consistently high performance for decades to come.
“Back in the early nineteen seventies,” says Chris Hales, “electronics was very much the future – and that proved to be strangely prophetic. It was really exciting, because back then not so many people were taking an interest in the subject. When I was a teenager I used to tinker about at home and was also an aspiring musician at the time. I loved playing with effects units, making strange noises. I went to the grammar school in Grantham, Lincolnshire, where I was born, and did fairly well in science and mathematics, though not as well as the school’s most famous pupil, Isaac Newton, who was a couple of years above me…”
Speak to Chris about music and he radiates energy. “I loved progressive rock at that time. Pink Floyd was one of the first bands that I really started listening to, and then Genesis and their contemporaries. Then I began to develop an interest in jazz fusion – being a bass guitar player it was very interesting what was going on. My hero is Jeff Berlin, an American electric bass player who is just phenomenal. He played with Bill Bruford – a founder member of Yes, who was a great, very musical, drummer. He released a few albums out on his own. To my ears, even now, that is the pinnacle of sophisticated fusion music.”
Chris suddenly gets very animated. “My favourite album of his is Feels Good To Me, which has got pretty some weird stuff on it. It has Annette Peacock on vocals, Dave Stewart on keyboards and synths, the great Allan Holdsworth on guitar and Kenny Wheeler on the flugelhorn. It’s a bit odd in places but unlike a lot of fusion music it never disappears up its own… It always seems to have a kind of structure to it and a purpose beyond clever soloing. That really got me at the time. I ended up listening to a lot of jazz for quite a few years after…”
He’s also a fan of Brand X, which was his first foray into this genre of music. “Their bass player Percy Jones was one of the first guys to play fretless. For someone who is learning an instrument and trying to make an impression, you tend to gravitate towards those people. In actual fact, I went to see Brand X on tour but it was Bill Bruford’s band, who were supporting, that really won me over. His band had much more focus and – in a way – a pop sensibility. All their songs had tune and structure, a start, middle and an end. That music was so innovative to my ears back then, and it didn’t suffer the somewhat aimless noodling Brand X’s tunes sometimes suffered from”
When Chris wasn’t playing fretless bass guitar, he managed to work hard enough to win a place at York University reading Electronic Engineering. “I studied drinking” he confesses, “and proved myself to be pretty good at it! I did also learn some electronics, but in a way a university education is as much about learning how to approach problems – particularly in an engineering subject. I learned some techniques that I still use today, but equally the attitude of not being daunted by a problem and just figuring out what is going on and sorting it, was the real thing I took from it. Even though I spent too much time in the pub and not enough hours in the lecture theatre, it was still hugely beneficial for me.”
His first proper job was HH Electronics, a large musical instrument amplification manufacturer. “I joined them as a junior design engineer and this lasted nine months, then moved to another company designing power amps and PA systems. I was learning on the job and it was very interesting. Then I went to Neve as an analogue designer, and this was one of the best companies I have ever worked for – they do excellent engineering and it’s very professional. Getting things right is important to me, so that suited me well. I did quite a lot of work on their big recording console at the time. I suppose that was my first exposure to proper, disciplined engineering. Until then I’d made it up as I went along when I was calling the shots, but here was a company with structure and procedures, and it was great to work in an environment like that. Interestingly, several dCS staff are ex-Neve…”
Chris then moved to C Audio, doing big power amplifiers for sound reinforcement. “They had a strong client base in the UK with touring companies – I think U2’s Adam Clayton used our power amps”, he recalls. “After that, I joined dCS as a Test and Verification Engineer. My job was to get things running smoothly; I spent an awful lot of time in my early years testing software, thinking up systems and regimes for testing both hardware and software. This was my first exposure to digital audio so I had no idea about S/PDIFs or similar, so it proved quite a challenge at first! I loved working with some of the great brains of the industry, such as dCS founder Mike Story – he’s a tremendously talented guy, and it was a privilege to work with him. Mike has a highly idiosyncratic approach to things, and his single-mindedness when it comes to observing an issue and doggedly fixing it, is quite inspirational.”
“These days, my primary role at dCS is circuit design, and that includes digital. Because my background has been so varied and multi-disciplinary, I have an interest in everything – still very much with the focus on the test and measurement side. Being able to manufacture something consistently is very important, as is the ability to understand exactly why you’re making it the same every time! Sometimes I think my job needs someone who is just a little bit ‘OCD’ about these things. As an engineer I intuitively know when something is wrong – and thanks to years of embarrassments in my earlier professional life, now realise how important it is to put it right as soon as one can.”