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2015

November

Vital Signs
Vital Signs

Anyone who lived through the consumer electronics revolution of the past fifty years will know that, whilst the road may be paved with good intentions, it doesn’t always get you there. Followers of developments in audio and video know all too well that there have been many ‘false starts’ along the way to nirvana, with countless – and often ultimately pointless – format wars which make life even more confusing for manufacturers and end users alike.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), like the British Phonographic Institute (BPI) in the United Kingdom, represents the interests of the copyright holders of the music that we know and love – so is an important mover and shaker in the great scheme of things. Indeed, fifteen years ago it tried and failed to get MP3 players banned in the United States, in a landmark case which had a direct effect on the way that the music industry has subsequently developed. Effectively it meant that the business had to embrace, rather than ban, music downloads and now streaming.

Now, the RIAA has announced a new logo to identify what is officially ‘high resolution music’. Cynics might think this to be another meaningless public relations campaign, but it could prove to be a highly astute move. From the BSI ‘Kitemark’ to ‘Ozone Friendly’ labelling, consumers respond positively to graphics which neatly encapsulate more complex concepts behind them. Indeed, there’s evidence that when people see such logos, they bother to find out what they actually mean. In the case of high resolution audio, this can only be a good thing for the hi-fi industry. read more…

October

Forever Changes
Forever Changes

The music industry is in a constant state of flux, but sometimes it’s hard to spot the change while it is happening. Rather like tectonic plates moving the Earth’s crust around, nothing appears on the surface for years, then tremors occur which invariably presage an earthquake. 2015 has seen some small but interesting developments in the way we consume music, ones that will be more apparent in a year or two’s time. read more…

September

Easy Does It
Easy Does It

Right now, all the talk is of a ‘vinyl revival’. Large numbers of music buyers, it seems, have remembered that there’s such a thing as the microgroove LP, and have started collecting it again. The reasons for this range from teenagers getting into the format because of its hipster image, to middle aged men trying to relive their youth…

There’s also a strong case to make on sound quality grounds, too. Given that the format has been around since 1958 in stereo form, there has been plenty of time for hardware manufacturers – makers of turntables, tonearms and cartridges – to perfect their art. Even the most committed fan of digital music would agree that an excellent quality vinyl pressing (not always an easy thing to find, admittedly) played on a serious turntable can sound very fine indeed. LP done properly can certainly remind us of the faults of lesser digital music sources, which tend to sound the exact opposite to the charming sound of black plastic.

When CD was launched in 1982, aside from the ‘sci-fi’ appeal of its laser optical pick-up, most people loved its convenience. There’s no denying that it is easier to use than vinyl, and whilst hobbyists may enjoy taking records out of their jacket and running a carbon fibre brush over them every time, many people just want the music to start. For this reason, despite its declining sales, it will take a long time for the ageing silver disc to reach its final curtain, and the much vaunted vinyl revival will never be a mainstream thing. read more…

August

Physical Attraction
Physical Attraction

With rumours that the new Apple Music streaming service has hit ten million subscribers in the first four weeks of its launch, this is probably the time to be celebrating the beginning of a new epoch in the way we buy and use recorded music. After all, Apple CEO Tim Cook recently told investors that “millions and millions” have signed up for the company’s three-month trial. Indeed, it is believed that the company envisages a dizzying 100 million paying subscribers, by the time the platform has matured.

Factor in the enduring success of Spotify, which boasts about 20 million paying subscribers and 75 million active users – not forgetting Pandora’s 80 million – and you have a clear trend. Yet even if Apple’s figure proves optimistic, one would still think the writing is on the wall for old fashioned physical media. After all, most manufacturers of Compact Disc players have long since popped the champagne corks. The overall trend is down, in almost every country in the developed world.

Does this spell the end of that lovely ritual of frequenting music shops, browsing through the racks and pondering which discs to buy? Will we soon miss that heady sense of anticipation break open the cellophane wrapper to the distinctive smell of the freshly printed inlay card? Are the days of dropping the CD into the disc tray and pressing ‘play’, nearly gone? read more…

May

Benjamin Zander – TED Talk
Benjamin Zander – TED Talk

Combining the mannerisms of the mad professor with the wisdom of the true professional, conductor Benjamin Zander explains how to understand and enjoy classical music in 20 minutes that are guaranteed to both inform and entertain.

April

Disc-ography
Disc-ography

If you ever needed any proof of how time flies, you only need to remember how dazzlingly ‘high tech’ it all seemed when Digital Versatile Disc was announced back in 1995. The public was amazed, the media was transfixed and it felt as if the whole world had taken one step closer to the future.

DVD came out of the need to store high quality video on a small optical disc. It was an amalgam of Multimedia Compact Disc (MMCD), backed by Philips and Sony, and Super Density (SD) disc, supported by Toshiba, Time Warner, Matsushita, Mitsubishi, Pioneer and JVC and others. But after much wrangling, the industry came together and conjoined the technologies with impressive results – the new disc was able to store high quality video with a 5.1 channel surround sound Dolby or DTS soundtrack.

Audiophiles watched quietly from the sidelines, then as the final specifications were published, champagne corks popped in hi-fi households as it became clear that DVD could carry PCM stereo at up to 24/96 resolution. This represented the biggest step change in recorded music for decades, although it was not reported as such. Those bored with 16/44.1 CD – launched in 1982 – at last had something to look forward to… read more…

March

Four On The Floor
Four On The Floor

When Peter Scheiber presented a paper to the Audio Engineering Society in 1969, on how to make two-channel recordings matrix to four-channel, surround sound became a reality. The hi-fi world was abuzz, as CBS Records snapped up the rights and launched SQ (Surround Quadraphonic) in 1972. Not wanting to pay royalties on this, arch rival RCA came up with a more complex non-matrixed system called CD-4 (Compatible-Discrete 4-channel). Sansui followed with its own matrix system called QS, which the Japanese audio industry bodies renamed RM (Regular Matrix).

In the space of a year, three brand new four-channel surround systems came out. The music industry, sensing the chance to make a dime or two, duly took a punt and released hundreds of vinyl albums in this format. You could buy everything from Hot Butter, Barry Manilow, Cat Stevens, The Temptations and Frank Zappa on CD4, to Billy Joel, John Lennon, Pink Floyd, Santana, Paul Simon, Sly and the Family Stone and Steely Dan on SQ. Even 45RPM singles got quad releases, the very first 7″ SQ release being Art Garfunkel’s Mary Was an Only Child on CBS.

Needless to say, the whole project fell flat on its face. Despite the vast engineering resources expended, all those acres of column inches in the magazines spent explaining the intricacies of the competing systems, and the publicity push from the music business, this ‘next new thing’ fast became yesterday’s news. Hi-fi buyers were perfectly happy with stereo, thank you very much. Lessons were learned, as audio industry leaders were forced to think about the confusion created. In hindsight this first journey into surround sound was a textbook example of how not to introduce a new consumer technology to the general public. read more…

February

High Culture
High Culture

The appreciation of life’s finer things isn’t always easy, and you need only look to high fidelity music reproduction to be reminded of this. You might think that equipment manufacturers and music software suppliers would do their level best to ensure that the appreciation of beautiful music was one of life’s simpler pleasures. Sadly however, this is all too often not the case.

There was a brief, fleeting moment in the early nineteen eighties when the stars seemed to align. For once we saw the consumer electronics giants of the time, Philips and Sony, join with the music industry to produce a new format that had universal appeal. Compact Disc was simple to use, sounded good and was robust enough to withstand at least a modicum of abuse. Sadly though, it now looks like CD’s success was more luck than judgement, because this is a trick that has never since been repeated. read more…

January

Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere
Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere

Another year over, and a new one just begun. January is a time when the music industry traditionally takes stock. Having recovered from its riotous Christmas celebrations, it pours itself a tall black coffee and starts going over the sales figures for the previous year. In days like these however, perhaps it should fix itself an altogether stiffer drink? read more…

2014

December

Selling Modern Music
Selling Modern Music

The notion that ‘modern music just isn’t as good as it used to be’ is as old as the hills, and has been held by every generation since music itself was invented. These days however, there’s increasing evidence that it is correct. Certainly, there’s been a fundamental change in the way that new music is sold, and many musicians think it isn’t necessarily for the better. Indeed, luminaries from Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and and pop chanteuse Sandie Shaw, to Squeeze’s Chris Difford and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien have got together to form the Featured Artists Coalition, in an attempt to roll back some of the changes that in their view make it harder now for talented musicians to break through that it has been for half a century.

read more…

November

Reimagining Digital
Reimagining Digital

Huffington Post

Article by David Julian Price, Technology Journalist

Some say the nineteen eighties only really started when Compact Disc was launched in 1982. This futuristic Philips and Sony-developed music format epitomised a decade of fast moving technological progress – its shiny lacquered aluminium discs read by a laser beam felt like the stuff of science fiction. Understandably it was snapped up by early adopters eager to embrace the shiny new technology, but as a way of actually listening to music it didn’t fare quite so well.

Many music lovers thought it a little sterile sounding. Although the world was wowed by its inky-black inter-track silences, some felt it was still processed and artificial. There were all sorts of explanations, from conventional hi-fi systems not being ‘digital-ready’ to the fact that most discs were analogue mastered, and thus couldn’t get the full benefit of the new technology. Most were wide of the mark; in truth the early CD players simply weren’t quite up to the job.

Indeed, it took over a decade to really get the sound of digital discs right, and it was left to specialist manufacturers to do this, not the format’s creators. Philips and Sony turned their corporate gaze to newer technologies, leaving the field open for specialist companies to wring the last ounce of fidelity from CD. The opportunity was seized by Data Conversion Systems of Cambridge, England. At the time this bleeding-edge technology company had only recently stopped making ultra high precision radar systems for the British military.

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Tidal Waves
Tidal Waves

History always repeats itself, but still humankind manages to regularly forget this fact – usually about once every generation. Take the music industry for example; several decades ago the booming record business was assaulted by a new and highly convenient music format that began to eke away at sales. In 1975 Compact Cassette was thought to be a lo-fi irrelevance, but by 1980 it was beginning to win music buyers’ affections on a vast scale…

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