Category: Music


Let’s face it, the V-Moda Crossfade M-100 is one of the coolest looking headphones that I’ve ever come across. But then I love uncluttered industrial designs.

This is a pair of cans that’s all metal and faux leather, and the matte black version Headphone Zone provided for this review is drop dead gorgeous. V-Moda was started by DJ Val Kolton – a fact that could potentially turn off some audiophiles because DJs dig bass – but the firm has sold more than 4 million cans since 2004, so it must be getting some things right.

The Crossfade M-100 is the top of the over-ear model offered by V-Moda in India and a lot has gone into its design. v-moda Military-grade durability seems to have been a priority for its designers – V-Moda says the M-100’s Kevlar cables can survive a million bends and the headband can retain its shape even after being bent flat more than 10 times. The headphones can survive more than 70 drops on concrete from a height of six feet and exposure to extreme temperatures and salt spray, meaning you can take them to the beach.

For sound, the M-100 depends on 50mm dual diaphragm drivers with separate inner and outer rings that prevent the bass from bleeding into the mids and highs.

And the special Cliqfold hinge developed specially by V-Moda for the M-100 allow the headphones to be folded up to fit into a handball-size zippered clamshell case that also holds a three-foot cable with mic and one-button controller for use with smartphones, a second 6.5-foot cable and 6.4mm gold-plated adapter for using the cans with amplifiers.

There are other design touches that make these cans stand out – the cables terminate in 45-degree angle 3.5mm plugs that provide better strain relief when used with smartphones or portable audio players and the cables can be connected to either the left or right ear cups.

But how does the M-100 sound? Straight up, these headphones have what is known as a “V-shaped” sound – oodles of tight bass and nice airy highs. Playing 320 kbps MP3s through Poweramp on my Sony Experia smartphone, the sound was nimble and sure-footed without any of the flabby bass that mars so many over-ears.

With everything from Bob Dylan to Queen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the sound was punchy and fun.

Things got even better when the M-100 was paired up with my rig at home, which has FLAC files playing on my laptop through a Geek Out DAC to a classic Denon amplifier. The sound quality went up a notch and everything sounded much better.

But the sound signature of the M-100 is so V-shaped that the mids do suffer – whether used with my smartphone or the home rig, the mids sounded recessed and veiled, making the overall soundstage seem smaller than that of several other over ears.

Another quibble is the price of the M-100 — at almost Rs. 25,000, it isn’t exactly cheap, especially when several other over-ears with similar or better specs can be had for much less. If you have the cash to spare, like the design and a pure V-shaped sound signature, it’d be hard to ignore the M-100.

(This review originally appeared at hindustantimes.com here)

Look ma – my foobar has VU meters!

Much as I love the music flowing from my laptop into my amplifier, I found it hard to bring myself to like the cold, sterile interface of my computer’s audio player. That is until I found a way to add analog VU meters to my foobar2000 music player.

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The meters do not in any way enhance the sonic qualities of the music files being played on the laptop but they certainly look cool and add a nice sort-of-analog touch.

As with everything related to tweaking foobar, adding the VU meters to the player isn’t very straightforward but this page on head-fi.org explains how you can do it. Above all, have patience. The greatest strength of foobar – the capability to tweak it so it looks and sounds exactly the way you want it – is also one of its most frustrating aspects for those like me who are noobs when it comes to tech.

This page on head-fi has additional ways to customise the look of your foobar player. Happy skinning.

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.

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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….

Rocker Neil Young’s latest harangues against MP3s and his revelations about working with the late Steve Jobs on higher-fidelity digital audio have brought into sharp focus how people these days are willing to settle for truly crappy ways of listening to music.

I love the dozens of MP3s loaded on my phone that I listen to when I’m out for a walk or I’m stuck in an airport lounge waiting for a flight. But when I REALLY want to listen to music, I always turn to my collection of CDs and LPs.

Music was always a big part of our lives in my hometown of Shillong in northeast India and many friends played in bands. I had my first music system – a National Panasonic boombox – soon after leaving school. Within months, I grew tired of its thin, tinny sound and graduated to an Indian-made amplifier with a built-in cassette deck and three-way speakers.

The whole rig cost me the then grand sum of Rs 4,000 (a little more $300 at the exchange rate for those days). I sold the amplifier for a profit after using it for nearly a decade and I still have the speakers because they sound great.

Since then I’ve had about half a dozen CD players, various amplifiers (including a NAD, an Akai, a Denon and a Philips), two A/V receivers and different speakers (including a Yamaha sub/satellite surround set-up and vintage Celestion and Wharfedale speakers).

The point I’m trying to make? One could put together a pretty decent music system with separate components till about the early 1990s without wiping out the bank balance, but since then separates have virtually become unaffordable for young kids.

Want to know what I’m talking about? Go to the website of popular audio publications like Stereophile, Home Theater and Sound & Vision, and check the prices of components they regularly review. Almost nothing costs less than $1,000 and there are audio cables (yup cables, not even components) that cost hundreds of dollar. In this era of a global economic recession, who buys such stuff?

And when kids can’t afford such expensive stuff, they make do with what they can get. Which, in most cases, is an iPod or some other crappy portable music player hooked up to tiny speakers and a bunch of MP3s either downloaded off the internet or ripped from CDs with bit rates as low as 128 kbps. No one’s told them that MP3s with bit rates of 320 kbps sound better. When those same kids hear the same music on a system with separate components, they usually realise what they’re missing.

It’s actually pretty illuminating to go through what Neil Young says (here and here) about the latest trends in digital audio. “What everybody gets (on an MP3) is 5 percent of what we originally make in the studio…We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving it,” he said.

Young claims a CD offers only 15 percent of the information contained in master recordings and what he and Jobs had discussed was developing a new device for high-resolution audio. Not entirely impossible if one considers gear like the Hifiman HM-801.

But there’s still hope for cheaper but good audio. I currently listen to music mostly on a system that comprises a Playstation 1 as a CD player (if you haven’t heard of the merits of the PS1 as a CD-spinner, head here and here), a decent turntable scrounged from a flea market for about five dollars, a Realistic SA-150 amplifier and vintage Wharfedale Denton 2 speakers. The set-up sounds terrific, and all the gear cost me a little more than $40.

There are guys like Steve Guttenberg, who regularly reviews and writes about good gear that doesn’t cost a fortune at his The Audiophiliac blog. And then there’s a whole world of pretty exciting Chinese-made amplifiers and DACs that have opened up the world of better sound to lots of people. So maybe there’s hope after all.

And for all you folks making gear that’s sold for thousands of dollars? All due respect and I know you have to feed your families, but I can tell you about a place where you can stuff it.

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.

A group of ageing musicians from Lahore has pulled off the unlikely feat of racing up jazz charts in the US, thanks to an album of standards and bossa nova classics blended with Hindustani music recorded by a Pakistani philanthropist.

“Sachal Jazz: Interpretations of Jazz Standards & Bossa Nova” features musicians trained in classical Hindustani music who once worked for Lahore’s bustling film industry, popularly known as Lollywood. As the number of Pakistani films dwindled, many musicians hung up their instruments and took up other professions like running tea stalls.

Businessman Izzat Majeed and Mushtaq Soofi, the director of Majeed’s Sachal Studio, took on the task of tracking down these musicians and putting together an orchestra that could work on projects at their state-of-the-art studio built with advice from engineers at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, the home of the Beatles.

The Sachal Studio Orchestra

The album of jazz and bossa nova standards, which features unique reinterpretations of classics like Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Girl From Ipanema” and Errol Garner’s “Misty”, was released in May with little fanfare.

Following good word of mouth and a report by the BBC, the ensemble’s version of “Take Five” topped the iTunes jazz singles chart during the week that ended July 24 while the album was at No 1 on the iTunes jazz album charts for the US and Britain the following week.

Majeed, an Oxford-educated businessman whose father was a film producer who worked with the likes of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and music director Jaidev, and Soofi, a poet and writer, are basking in the glow of the Sachal Studio Orchestra’s unexpected success.

“This was not a commercial venture. If we had kept market constraints in mind, we would never have been able to experiment. The idea was to record good music that one can listen to,” Soofi said on phone from Lahore.

Majeed said it was a “great feeling” to have topped the iTunes jazz charts and to have given the musicians a fresh lease on life. “You have to remember these are people who worked with great ustads and belong to famous gharanas. They were respected and given patronage but almost overnight, things changed for them during the era of (late military dictator) Zia-ul-Haq,” he said.

Popular arts, including film and theatre, went into decline during the regime of Gen Zia-ul-Haq, who put in place strict laws based on Islamic precepts. During Haq’s culturally repressive regime, art forms like popular music almost disappeared from radio and television.

Sachal Studio Orchestra’s jazz album has received praise from unexpected quarters. Majeed sent a copy of the album to jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year. On hearing Sachal’s version of his classic 1959 track “Take Five”, Brubeck remarked: “This is the most interesting and different recording of ‘Take Five’ that I’ve ever heard.”

Majeed said his intention while recording Sachal’s version of “Take Five” was to replace Brubeck’s signature piano riff with the sound of the Hindustani orchestra. Despite having no formal training in music, Majeed did the arrangement for all the eight tracks on the jazz album.

Eight years after setting up Sachal Studio, Majeed has pulled off some impressive projects, including the album “Lahore Ke Rang Hari Ke Sang” featuring Indian signer Hariharan. Soofi said: “Hariharan came to Lahore in 2005 to record the project, which went off very well.”

Plans for the future include an album of jazz reinterpretations of ragas. “We want to make our classical heritage accessible to the world. The orchestra will play the ragas and raginis in a jazz structure,” said Soofi.

Gary Moore: A true guitar gunslinger

When I was growing up in a remote corner of India, the musicians with the greatest followings were usually the guitar players, those men who used the six strings on their instruments to punctuate their songs with blistering solos. And in this pantheon of rock gods, one man with a very devoted bunch of fans was Gary Moore.

I know of several young kids who spent many sleepless nights after the break-up of a teenage romance with Gary Moore’s “Empty Rooms” providing the soundtrack. Then there were others who thrilled to hard rocking tracks like “Victims Of The Future” and “Out In The Fields”. Connecting the rockers and the ballads was that big, wet guitar sound laced with soul and blues.

My first reaction on hearing of Gary Moore’s death over the weekend was that he had gone too early. The man was just 58 and, after all, this is an age when many rockers are still around and playing well into their sixties. More importantly, Gary Moore had not degenerated into some sort of nostalgia act, surviving on past glories.

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Eric Bell, whom Gary Moore once replaced as guitarist in the band Thin Lizzy, said he couldn’t believe the news of his death. “He was so robust, he wasn’t a rock casualty, he was a healthy guy,” Eric Bell said.

I followed Gary Moore’s career pretty closely in the 1980s, when he put a nice run of albums that included “Corridors Of Power”, “Victims Of The Future”, “Run For Cover” and “Wild Frontier”. Another strong album was “BBM”, which Gary Moore recorded in 1994 with former Cream members Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, and had several stand-out cuts like “Waiting In The Wings”.

I sort of lost touch after he veered off into the blues after the huge success of his track “Still Got The Blues (For You)” – a nice track but not what I usually associated with Gary Moore.

Gary Moore was probably one of the most under-rated and under-appreciated guitarists in recent decades. He retained his soulfulness and fiery intensity even when he stretched beyond rock to make forays into the blues and jazz, and could hold his own during collaborations with legends like George Harrison and Albert King, as this video of a live performance of “Stormy Monday” proves.

The good part is that we still have Gary Moore’s many wonderful studio and live albums, through which he and his music will live on.

(You may also want to read this great tribute to Gary Moore by The Guardian, which inspired the title for this post.)

Another old interview

This is an interview with Engelbert Humperdinck done when he toured India in 2005.

As he prepares for his first ever concert in India, evergreen singer Engelbert Humperdinck says he cherishes the memories of his childhood in Chennai, the city where he was born and lived for a decade.

“I”m looking forward to the concerts in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore and wish I could have performed in Chennai as well. I have many memories of Chennai where I grew up,” the smooth-voiced Engelbert, now 69, said in an email interview.

“I remember our large bungalow, all those wonderful monsoon smells and the harbor with its ships and fishing boats. I almost drowned when I was six years old when I fell off a bunch of logs floating on an inlet near the harbour.

“My younger brother saved my life,” Engelbert said ahead of his tour of India next month for a series of concerts to raise funds for Bangalore-based NGO ACTS Trust that is working to rehabilitate victims of the Dec 26 tsunami.

And at an age when most people would be content to retire to a life of comfort, Engelbert — born Arnold George Dorsey on May 2, 1936 as the son of a British soldier posted in India — said he planned to do “more albums, more concerts, more television appearances, more travel”.

“More is the catch word,” he quipped, looking back at a chequered career that has included sales of 130 million copies of albums across the globe and earned him awards like a Golden Globe for entertainer of the year.

He attributed his long career of over four decades to “the grace of god and the fact that I still love to get up there on stage, looking my audience in the eye and give them my very best”.

Engelbert described his latest album “Let There Be Love” as “a bouquet of love songs with classics from Nat King Cole and more contemporary songs from Ronan Keating and Bryan Adams”.

“My executive producer Nick Battle and producer Simon Franglen spent many hours listening to my past albums to work out the feel of the new one. They all have a slight jazz feel and I am happy with the result,” he said.

At the same time, Engelbert was happy that his old hits like “Quando Quando Quando” and “Release Me” had been remixed to dance beats for a younger audience. “It makes me feel relevant and wanted. Most of all, it gives my big hits another dimension altogether,” he remarked.

When Engelbert was 10, his family moved from India to Leicester where he learnt to play the saxophone.
Young Arnold Dorsey discovered his vocal talent at a contest in a pub. He realized he could do impersonations, especially of the comedian Jerry Lewis, and these were so good that he became known as “Gerry Dorsey”.

It was as Gerry Dorsey that he became a hit on the British music circuit until he came down with a severe attack of tuberculosis. He recovered and his manager gave him the name Engelbert Humperdinck after the German composer who wrote the opera “Hansel and Gretel”.

The odd tongue twister of a name caught the people’s fancy and radio jockeys shortened it to “The Humper” when his songs began to climb the charts. Greats like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, Tom Jones and Dean Martin have accompanied Engelbert on stage and there was a time when The Carpenters were the opening act for his sell-out concerts.

Engelbert has many colorful tales about those and once quipped that Elvis had “stolen” the long sideburns and flashy jumpsuits from him.

“Those were the days, my friend. Elvis once wanted to steal some of my musicians. Actually he thought they were working for me part-time and since he liked their work, he wanted to take them on his tour.
“When he realized his mistake, he apologized,” said Engelbert, who has performed before Queen Elizabeth, several presidents and many heads of state.

“As for Tom Jones, it was his manager who gave me my stage name and signed me on. For many years people compared and contrasted our styles. But in the end I suppose we both did very well.

“And as for me, I am still kicking, still singing, still wanting to travel around the world. For singing is the only think I do well,” Engelbert said.

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