Archive for January, 2012


The disappearing art of album sleeves

There was a time when artists gave almost as much attention to the covers of their albums as the music inside. Not any more, it seems. Take a look at the covers of most new albums (or in the case of digital downloads, the PDF files that come with them) and it’s usually a bland photo of the musician or band.

The cover of Queen's "Innuendo", inspired by the work of 19th century French caricaturist Grandville

If you want an indication of what I’m talking about, take a gander at the Itunes Store page for Michael Buble, a current rage for his covers of standards, and check out the covers of his albums – ALL but one of them feature nothing more than bland mug shots or boring photos of the artist.

Frank Sinatra's "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955)

Some say the art of the album sleeve was dealt a fatal blow with the advent of the CD – after all, the cover of those ubiquitous silver discs is only about 14 percent the size of an LP record. I don’t agree. There have been numerous CDs with terrific covers like Santana’s “Supernatural” or Queen’s “Innuendo”.

The music of some bands is indelibly linked to the artists who designed their album sleeves, like graphic designer Storm Thorgerson’s groundbreaking covers for Pink Floyd and Roger Dean’s spaced out artwork for prog rock veterans Yes. The continuity in the artwork, in some cases, helped identify the bands almost as much as their music.

Storm Thorgerson's iconic cover for Pink Floyd's "Dark Side Of The Moon"

Then there was the moody artwork of the jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s, with the smoke-filled black and white shots of the artists giving a taste of the music within even before you played the LP or CD. My personal favourites include the covers of Frank Sinatra’s albums from this period.

Another explosion in album artwork followed the emergence of concept and rock opera albums, prime examples being The Beatles “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and The Who’s “Tommy“.

With most of today’s kids only seeing album covers on the three or four-inch displays of their mobile phones or MP3 players (that too only when they bother to include the covers in the tags when they rip their music), do folks even care about the artwork?

Ah well, may be all is not lost yet. Folks are talking about the resurgence of vinyl. Maybe there’s hope yet for album artwork.

Do you have any favourite album covers? Chip in and do let me know. If you love album artwork as much as I do, you may want to visit Album Art Exchange and The World’s Greatest LP Album Covers.

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One of the first things I check when I’m buying a new mobile phone is its music player. My phone is usually used for Twitter, photography and making calls (of course) and sometimes for filing reports (given my day job is as a journalist). But I like having my favourite songs on the phone so that I have music when I’m on the road or whiling away the hours at places like airports.

When I traded in my trusty old Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (which had a pretty good music player), I decided to dip into the world of Android phones since I’m not really a big fan of all the i-gadgets (yeah, you know what I’m talking about).

Straight out of the box, my new Samsung Galaxy S2 was pretty impressive – very fast for surfing the net and updating Twitter even using 3G or Edge, a decent 8MP camera and lots of scope for tweaking thanks to scores of apps available on Android market.

For the first time, I didn’t even feel the need to swap the in-ear headphones that came with the S2 – unlike stock headphones supplied with most phones, they didn’t sound crappy. The stock music player in the S2, however, was another matter. Its performance was very ordinary and I kept feeling there was something missing. No amount of fooling around with the limited controls – just an equaliser and sound effects – seemed to have any effect.

The sound was thin and fatiguing after a while – too much treble and no slam, even though my phone was loaded only with MP3s ripped at 320 kbps. I knew the headphones weren’t the weak link as I had checked them with a stereo and they rocked.

So I decided to hit Google and look for players that I could install on the S2. And that’s where I ran into problems right away – there’s no dearth of websites that list 10 or 20 “best” music players for Android phones but the folks drawing up these lists seem to focus on all sorts of useless features instead of what should really count in a music player: audio quality.

Luckily, several music players for sale on the Android market have free trial versions that allow you to evaluate them for a limited period. Little more searching around and I zeroed in on the PowerAMP player because it seemed to have an impressive list of features and lots of scope for tweaking.

Within minutes of downloading the player and firing it up, I knew this was something special. Separate tone controls (with bass and treble), a 10-band equaliser with a pre-amp control and the ability to save custom presets, a mono switch (when
did you see that on a phone?), settings to pause the player when the headphones are disconnected and to resume playback when they’re plugged in again and tweaks to advance or rewind tracks by pressing the button on the headphone’s mic.

Heck, there’s even a control to display meta data like sample rate, bitrate and audio codec at the bottom of the screen. Of course, the player comes with stuff that’s standard on touch-screen phones, like changing tracks by swiping the album artwork. PowerAMP was clearly put together by someone who cared about audio quality and a practical set of usable controls.

Audio quality? PowerAMP blew me away with its sound even when the equaliser was disabled. I enabled just the tone controls, with both bass and treble set at the 12 o’clock position and was rewarded with a rich sound no matter what I threw at it – rock, jazz, country, dance or pop.

I mostly listen to classic rock and blues and most of these tracks sounded as if I was hearing them on a very good stereo set-up – the soundstage was clean and wide, with no distortion.

The highlight was a warm mid-range with nicely controlled but punchy bass on tracks like B B King’s “Hummingbird”, Bruce Springsteen’s “Lonesome Day” and “Gallows Pole” from Robert Plant and Jimmy Page’s “Unledded” album. The treble was nice and airy, with every hit on the cymbals coming through clearly without any of splashy sound that mars most MP3 players. Even when I turned up the volume to very high levels there wasn’t a hint of distortion.

Frank Sinatra’s “It Was A Very Good Year” is one of my favourite jazz songs and it felt like I was in the studio watching the Chairman of the Board laying down the track while Gordon Jenkins conducted the orchestra. From the oboe that opens the cut to the swelling strings, everything came across nice and clear, without ever being drowned out by that powerful voice.

Moby’s “Lift Me Up”, with its throbbing backbeat, made me feel like I was in a disco with a sound system with gazillion watts of power. Stereo separation was perfect when I played Eric Clapton’s live version of “Watch Yourself” – I had Robert Cray’s guitar in the right channel, Buddy Guy in the left channel and Clapton dead centre, with the licks from all three guitarists coming in loud and clear.

Not that everything’s perfect with PowerAMP though. It refused to display metadata from several MP3s even though all the tags registered perfectly with the Galaxy S2’s stock player. Even the album art on these files refused to register. PowerAMP has a feature to download missing album art from the art but this was only capable of grabbing some blurred images.

I was able to work around this by saving the needed album art in the phone’s image gallery and then selecting them via another PowerAMP feature.

Total cost for PowerAMP – a little more than five dollars. The quality of sound – priceless. Much recommended.

*Update: I’ve been playing around with the PowerAMP’s 10-band equaliser over the past few weeks and I think it allows greater control over the sound, especially when using your phone with different headphones. Besides, the headphone is better at controlling the bass, which can sometimes come across as exaggerated while using only the tone controls. Of course, if you opt to use to the equaliser, don’t forget to switch off the tone controls.

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