Archive for November, 2012


Upgrade blues

Having just acquired the deluxe remastered editions of all the albums by Queen, my favourite band of all time, at considerable expense and ripped them to the hard disc of my laptop, I was one happy camper. Little did I know that my happiness wouldn’t last very long. The reason for this has nothing to do with Queen or its music.

You see, just a few days after I had all the Queen albums on my laptop, I read about Jimmy Page’s plans to put out special editions of all the albums by Led Zeppelin (another all-time favourite band) sometime next year. Enough for me to feel like pulling my hair out as I had only recently begun acquiring Led Zeppelin’s albums after waiting for years for Mr Page to remaster and upgrade them.

Obviously, the new Led Zeppelin remasters will sound much better than the CDs currently available. And given the current trends, there could possibly be 24/96 or 24/192 downloads, which means we may have to buy the albums not one more time, but twice.

Putting out new versions of albums isn’t exactly a new trend – it happened even in the days of vinyl. But in that era, it usually happened because an album went OOP (out of print).

It’s only in the CD era and the decline of the album format in the age of downloads that record companies figured they could maximise their returns very easily by putting out remastered and remixed versions of fan favourites.

The first wave of remastered CDs were entirely justified – simply because the CD versions of albums issued in the 1980s were total crap – dull, lifeless and boring, especially when compared to their vinyl versions.

As digital remixing and remastering techniques improved, we got some special and deluxe editions in the 1990s and early 2000s that truly delivered. And then things became unstuck when the same old albums were put out again and again (think Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” – available on MFSL, SACD and several deluxe editions) to mark all sorts of anniversaries. Each new version included some unreleased tracks in the hope that fans would double or triple dip (even though some of the tracks were unreleased for a simple reason – they were really bad).

Pink Floyd box set

Pink Floyd immersion edition complete with marbles and scarf!

Some bands obviously do a better job than others in putting out special editions – U2, The Who and Queen are some that come to mind. With others I’m not so sure – I’d love to get the immersion editions of Pink Floyd’s albums but why on earth would I want to pay a fortune for marbles and a scarf (yup, those are part of the box sets though what they have to do with music, I have no clue).

Maybe it’s about time bands begin thinking of compensating fans who already have their albums when they put out the umpteenth remixed and remastered edition – for example, a discount for anyone who walks into the store with an older version of an album.

If someone had told me a computer would be part of my music set-up just two years ago, I’d probably have laughed out loud, told the person he was nuts and politely showed him the door.

For far too long, using a computer for music has meant putting up with the god-awful and lifeless sound of MP3s, a lossy compression format that just sucks the life out of music. Here’s the thing – I have a whole bunch of MP3s on my smartphone to listen to when I’m on the move, and they sound just fine through my headphones.

But play those MP3s through an amplifier and bigger speakers, and they sound like total and unadulterated crap. The treble sizzles, the midrange has no life and the sound just tires my ears after a while.

The change occurred when I got my new laptop (a HP ProBook 4530s), which has an HDMI output, loaded some FLAC files on the hard disc (a mixture of 16-bit/44.1KHz tracks ripped from CDs and high-resolution 24-bit/96KHz tracks) and then hooked up the computer to my Denon A/V receiver. All of a sudden, the laptop has become my favourite platform for playing back music.

The next few weeks were spent trawling through various forums and websites to acquaint myself with the best way of getting the music from my computer to the speakers – or as the technically minded would put it, bit perfect playback.

I finally settled on Foobar as my music player for several reasons. Foobar isn’t exactly user-friendly but it’s eminently suitable for tweaking and it’s available for free. (There are other highly recommended music players out there but I’m really not keen on spending a whole bunch of money on them till I’ve figured out how I intend to integrate a computer into my music set-up.)

The sound? I’m not going to get into a lot of gobbledygook about soundstages and rhapsodise about dynamics but I do know when I hear a good set-up. For some unfathomable reason, some albums ripped to FLACs sound better played back through the computer than the original CDs (though my main CD player is a rather long-in-the-tooth Pioneer DV-S757A universal player) while the 24/96 high-resolution tracks are as good or better than the best vinyl albums in my collection.

screen

And I can use my smartphone as a remote control with the “foobar2000 controller” app (available for free with pesky advertisements or you could buy the pro version for less than $2 on Google Play). Keep in mind that the app uses your home wireless network to interface with your computer but it’s darned cool to be able to browse through all the music on your computer by categories such as album, artists or genre while bringing up the artwork of the album or track that’s currently playing on your smartphone.

As with using a computer for other tasks, some fundamental rules apply. If you couldn’t be bothered about sound quality and just like the convenience of using your computer to play music, go ahead and fill your hard disc with MP3s and don’t bother to read any further. If you want the finest possible sound, remember the basic rule: Garbage in, garbage out.

Foobar controller on my phone

Foobar controller on my phone

Start by ripping your CDs or vinyl LPs to FLAC files, which take up more space but offer better sound as they’re lossless files. Then download software like MP3Tag (it’s free) so that you can properly tag your files and add album art work – this is important if you want speedy and accurate access to your music library.

If you want the best possible sound, think about investing in a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to squeeze the most out of those 1s and 0s. There’s a wide range of DACs out there, with prices ranging from less than $100 to several thousand dollars. Read the reviews available on the internet and choose according to your budget. However, it’s would help to get a DAC that accepts at least 24/96 through its USB input (even better if it can accept 24-bit/192KHz files – there are several websites that now offer 24/192 downloads).

Most important of all – backup, backup, backup. Computer files can get corrupted and believe me it’s no fun when that happens. I’m currently backing up all my music files on to blank DVDs and an external hard drive.

That’s brings us to the end of this first blog on integrating a computer into your music system but there will be more in the days to come.

Ever had one of those experiences where life seems to be puttering along just fine when something comes out of nowhere and knocks you completely off the tracks? Mine came a few months ago when a health problem took me to a (rather lousy) doctor, who said it could be a minor problem or possibly something very, very serious.

As I waited for the results of various tests, posting on this blog suddenly didn’t seem to be very important. All of a sudden, other things became much more important. It’s at times like this that you start thinking about all the things you wanted to do or should have done, but somehow never got around to doing.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, things turned out pretty good. I was able to get through a pretty bad patch with a lot of help from my wife. And I consulted a second (and far more professional) doctor who set up the right tests and gave me a clean bill of health.

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for some time but something or the other kept getting in the way. I’ve also been spending a lot of time indulging in my first love – music – and that too kept getting in the way of reviving the blog. In the coming days, I intend to devote equal time to blogging about music and movies. So here goes….

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