Anachostic

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Tag Archives: music

Let It Be

In the early programming days, back when the language was called BASIC, there was a instruction that has since become deprecated.  That command is called LET.  Because language parsers were simpler back then, there needed to be a way to identify assignment of a value to a variable.  Nowadays, you just say x=1 and assignment is understood.  However, saying x=1 could imply comparison, resulting in a true or false value.  To avoid that ambiguity, in the past, you had to say LET x=1.

I started off with that little history lesson to say that I was listening to a recently purchased CD and a song title was “LET X=X”.  Since I was driving while the song was playing, I couldn’t really make out any of the lyrics, but the title gave me plenty to think about.

A programming statement like that is pretty useless.  It changes nothing.  And that thought is somewhat powerful.  Telling someone “LET X=X” could be saying “Leave things alone.” or “Don’t change a thing.”  Or you could be a bit more philosophical about it, applying a Que Sera Sera viewpoint to it – whatever happens, will happen.

So I looked up the lyrics and to me, they don’t make any sense.  But whatever, that artist rarely makes any sense to me.  But I got my own meaning out of the title, and I think that makes up for any confusion.

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He Who Controls The Spice

This weekend, I picked up a couple of other CDs from my prime musical era: the 80’s.  It would probably be interesting to poll people and find out what they consider the best music of their life.  Based on anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, it would be the era in which a person became an adult, about when they were 18-21.  But that’s not really the point of this post. 

The thing I have discovered is that although we have all these eras of music: 50’s/oldies, 60’s/hippy, 70’s/classic rock, 80’s/glam/pop, 90’s/depression, and onward, each era has so much more than those generalizations I just assigned to them.  And even when you explore those other genres, they are still consistent with other genres of that era and also different than the same genre in other eras.  For example, Jazz in the 70’s sounds different than Jazz in the 80’s.  But Jazz in the 80’s still has that production sound of pop music the 80’s.  So the point I’m trying to make is that you can explore many genres within your prime musical era.  The amount of music just within your preferred era is staggering.  Believe me, I’ve been getting more and more daring and buying artists I only had a faint memory of.  The best way to describe the result of that effort is like filling in a puzzle of the entire musical landscape of the 80’s.  You see (hear) each album all in context and relation to the others and the era as a whole becomes more defined.  But that’s not really the point of this post, either.

I had to put those thoughts out first because I am curious abut the future (and a little about the past).  The 80’s could be the premier music moment in recorded music history, all due to the creation of the CD.  Because of the mad rush to upgrade past recordings to CD, then because of the eventual low cost of CD production, there is an overwhelming amount of music physically available on CD, both past and present (present meaning 80’s).

However, as we know, streaming is becoming the new standard.  Proponents of this format claim that it will encompass everything, where any music ever made will be available at a moment’s notice.  But will it?  It’s been shown many times over that an artist can simply refuse their catalog to be offered on a streaming service.  Not only an artist, but maybe an entire label.  If a label goes bankrupt, where do the rights go?  The music is only available when everything is working perfectly – and I wasn’t even meaning the technical bits working perfectly.

With our massively analytical society and our ROI-driven corporate environment, what are the odds that a streaming service would look at some particular music and see it isn’t being accessed enough or isn’t generating enough revenue, so it is just removed from the service.  It’s no longer available.  It’s not lost, just unavailable, which is pretty much the same thing to an end user.  I have seen news that some albums are no longer being released on a physical medium, therefore there is no way to own a copy of the music.  If this pattern accelerates, then there will come a time in the future where music can be lost.

Of course, none of this matters to me, because I’m still filling in the gaps of my era, but future generations will end up having a very spotty image of what music was like in their prime.  That would be a shame.

Grow On…

A while ago, I had done a mega-run on thrift stores (28 of them!).  Last Saturday, I made another full day of shopping – 8+ hours.  Unlike my previous run with netted 4 CDs, I ended the day with, oh… 35.  Ok, wait.  Let me explain.  Of those, I really only wanted less than 10.  The majority of them were purchased for their cases.

The CD jewel case is, in my opinion, a wonder of industrial design.  The fact that its design has gone relatively unchanged in 30 years is testament to its perfection.  However, it has changed over the years.  The primary change has been to make it lighter by using thinner plastic.  A modern CD case is pathetically thin and brittle, which does little for the case of presenting a CD as a premier product.  The thin, cheap case instead affirms that CDs are cheap and disposable.

Early CD cases were heavier and instilled a sense of quality.  You can identify these cases because they have smooth sides instead of the ribbed sides of cases today.  Of course, you could also easily tell just by picking up a case.  It is a noticeable difference.

So, that’s what I was after.  The first stop was a pawn shop where I found a couple of CDs I would enjoy.  I asked how much they were. “25 cents.”  Well, that changes things.  I’ll take every smooth-sided CD there, including Willie Nelson and Ray Stevens.  That was all of $2.75.  At a later thrift store, I pulled out 10 smooth cases, mostly of classical music, for $1 each.  I was a little bummed because they offered 50% coupons on a mailing list and I didn’t have one.  Maybe next time?

The final stop to end my day was at a non-thrift store – my local used record store.  I treated myself to a collectible CD, a 24k gold disc for $20.  You usually can’t go wrong with these because they typically sell for $$$.  This CD has two current listings online for $94 and $133.  They haven’t sold for that amount (I’m not dumb), but still.

Sunday was spent cleaning cases and swapping out some of my more prized CDs into smooth cases.  My fingers are so sore from using my nails to pry apart cases.  Then the ripping and cataloging… My new CD tower from not too long ago is filling up at a dangerous pace.  Soon, I may need to bring the old one back into service.  And, I also need to start selling the CDs that have been replaced or upgraded to better editions.  I must have about 30 of those.

Not What I Wanted, But…

In my last similar post, I picked up a cheap “vintage” stereo system. It was going to just a holdover until I released the major funds for a new full stereo system.  That release is probably being held up by the future planned redo of the living room.  And that’s a few rooms later, where I’m currently stuck in the master bathroom.  But anyway…

The new cheapo stereo ($28 to buy and $30 to repair) gave me radio and cassette tape capabilities.  To get any use out of it, I had to start buying cassettes.  That’s not really something I wanted to get into, but there I was.  I really wanted a CD player and had been looking for one that would match the style.  It needed to have a silver face to match and ideally have plenty of buttons.

That search was not as fruitful as I’d hoped, so I compromised and said I’d pick out a stand-in player until I found what I really wanted.  Today, I finally made that purchase.  It was all of $10, the same price as the tape deck.  It was a brand that I’d heard was well respected in that era, but one I’d never experienced before.

This is my new-to-me Onkyo DX-701, circa 1992.

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I have to say, when I first powered on the CD player and the display panel lit up, I grinned like an idiot.  It had been so long since I’d seen old-school digital displays like that.

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That might have even exceeded my fascination of playing cassettes and staring at the level meters.

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But, back to the CD player, the thing is built solid.  I’m sure everyone is used to the CD tray in their computer, a flimsy piece of crap.  The CD tray on this device is smooth and wobble-free.  It’s substantial.  The whole player was a little dirty, but I cleaned the heck out of it.  I took the cover off and found the insides to be completely dust free.  This was not a neglected piece of equipment stuffed in a closet or garage and I’m glad to give it a new life.

One little thing of note is that all three of these devices have physical power buttons.  You know how everything now is a soft power button – push it and it toggles the power, no tactile difference between on and off?  These devices all physically move metal contacts in a switch to toggle power on and off.  You feel the detent when the button is on (it remains in) and you feel it spring back out when you power it off.  It’s a minor thing, but it’s also something you don’t experience anymore.  It feels like quality.

Sonically, it’s incredible.  If I plug into the headphone jack on the player itself, dead quiet.  My MCS amp has an audible noise floor, but to its credit, I can’t turn the volume past about 5% without serious discomfort.  With great power comes a great hissing noise floor, apparently.

So, at this point, I can relax and wait for the right silver-faced CD player to cross my path.  And, where can you get a full stereo for under $100?

Prognosis: Guarded

As I previously mentioned, I bought a vintage stereo and one channel in the receiver was dead, which made having a stereo that couldn’t play stereo pretty worthless.  But I had only spent $10 on the receiver, so what.

Well, I contacted my local vintage sound establishment, selling vinyl, CDs, 8-tracks, even reel-to-reel music, as well as old stereos and speakers.  They have a repair tech on staff, which is pretty awesome.  I explained my situation to him and what I had done so far.  He said if my initial diagnostics were correct, repairs of that sort usually ran $75-$125.  Hmmm.  There’s a bench fee of $25 whether or not I choose to fix it.  Hmmm.

So here I was in a position that could have me spending over 10x my purchase price to have a functional stereo receiver.  Hmmm.  I have a small problem with admitting defeat, especially if success is attainable.  I like the stereo quite a bit and admittedly, I have the funds I could spend on it.  But that’s exactly why there is a word called “spendthrift”.  Blah blah blah, ROI, foolhardy, 10x expenses.  But I like it, doesn’t that account for anything?  And what of waste and our disposable society?  Shouldn’t I make an effort to repair instead of replace?

To convince myself… actually, I was already convinced.  To make myself feel better, I thought up an analogy to my situation.  What if you found a kitten and took it to the vet.  The vet charges you a bench fee to look at this kitten, then says it looks like your kitten has worms.  If it does, you’ll need to spend about $100 in meds to get it back to health.  What are you going to do, put the kitten down?  Throw it away?  It’s perfectly repairable and would provide years of happiness.

Yesterday, I took my kitten to the shop and today I got the diagnosis.  It was just a blown fuse – a cheap fix.  Totaling about $30, nearly all of which is covered by the bench fee.  The doctor offered a warning, though.  Fuses usually don’t blow without a reason, but being a 30-yr old device could play a part.  Fuses guard electronics against larger damage.  So a blown fuse may indicate a bigger problem, which may manifest in the coming months of regular use.  If that’s the case, it will require further troubleshooting.  Or, I can just keep changing out fuses until I get sick of doing that.

So, hooray for me.  Now I begin the hunt for an aesthetically compatible CD player.  I have a couple options, one of which I just saw yesterday.  If it’s still there, I’ll snag it until I get a better one.  The other, better-looking choice is much less common.  I’ve seen it on Ebay for $100, but I can hold out for a cheaper opportunity if I have a workable system for the near-term.

What I Wanted, Not What I Expected

On a thrift store run, I had a disappointing experience searching for CDs – nothing of interest at all.  On the way out, I dropped in to the electronics section of the store.  I scanned the shelves for nothing in particular until a cassette deck caught my eye.  It was totally vintage, probably from the 1980’s.  It had buttons and switches and analog level meters.  Very cool.

I’ve planned to get a stereo for a while and I have picked out the stereo components I want already.  But for a while, I had considered going the vintage route.  Not so much for the sound quality, which could be hit or miss for its age, but for the aesthetics.  It’s an early era of “wow! technology!” that originally morphed into visual insanity before being left behind in favor of minimalistic design (thanks, Apple).

While I was ogling this vintage tape deck, I realized, I didn’t have anything to plug it into.  And, I only had one cassette tape in my house.  So, why bother.  I put it out of my mind and kept on scanning the shelves until my eyes bumped into a stereo receiver – the matching component of the tape deck.  That device was even more vintage looking, with rows of buttons and sliders.  This receiver solved the problem of having nothing to plug the tape deck into.  Soooo, after verifying I could afford all this equipment, I bundled up both pieces, paid for my treasures (a wallet-busting $18), and cheerfully packed them up in the car.

Before I made the purchase, I did a cursory check as to whether the components were even worthy of owning.  The brand is MCS, an acronym for Modular Component Systems, which is a house brand of JC Penney.  The internet indicated a small appreciation for MCS because the components were manufactured by reputable Japanese brands of the era like NEC and Technics.

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The receiver I picked up is an MCS 3237, which seems to be made in 1986 or after.  It’s got a digital AM/FM tuner with 16 presets, seek, and scan. There’s a good number of inputs: phonograph, tape, video, and auxiliary.  It’s got buttons for High filter, Low filter and Loudness, and sliders for Bass, Treble, and Balance.  It can drive two selectable sets of speakers, which is neat.  This supposedly is a 35W amplifier, which sounds weak when you hear about 800W home theater systems now, but owners report a very good sound from those watts.

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The tape deck is an MCS 683-3543.  It doesn’t have any fancy features like auto-reverse and only has Dolby B noise reduction.  But it does support Chrome and Metal tapes, which I would think elevates it above the lowest consumer decks.  However, more research shows that it suffers from poor speed accuracy.  Entry level specs at best.  Luckily it’s not meant to be the centerpiece.  I’m still sticking with CDs.

Without any speakers, this stereo will be used with headphones, which should be a pleasant experience.  I should be able to find a silver-faced vintage CD player to mate up with the system to complete the setup.  I won’t be getting into vinyl, so I have no need for the phonograph input.  With a planned budget of a little under $1000 for my future stereo system (that doesn’t include speakers), it’s kind of ridiculous that I can get some sort of satisfaction for under $20.

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I get the devices home and do a thorough cleaning on them.  They’re in pretty good shape.  I plug them all in and grab a set of headphones.  It took me a while to find the only cassette tape I had for testing.  All systems go!  Wait, no.  One of the channels is dead.  No sound from the left side.  Output meter is indicating nothing.  Also, it seems the tape deck is dropping signal on one channel randomly.  Ugh.

I don’t have electronic contact cleaner, so I grab a can of CRC Mass Airflow Sensor Cleaner and shoot all the switches and dials and buttons.  (MAF cleaner is pretty much the same thing)  The volume knob is amazingly smooth now, but it made no difference to my output problem.  I’m not a person who can troubleshoot electronics, so my choices at this point are pay to have it fixed, or pitch it.

I ran the tape deck through my mixer in my office (I guess I did have something to plug it into) and got no channel drops for the entire duration of my test cassette.  Very odd.  When I was listening though headphones, the output dropped and the VU meter fell, too.

I guess I’ll start with the amp.  At least get a quote and see how much more than $10 I’ll need to have a working system.

Being The Best You Want To Be

On a forum I frequent, a question came up wondering why there are people who do not aspire to find and appreciate the best sound quality possible.  The answer is probably obvious on the surface – it’s just not something that interests them.  Like some people don’t have a care for paintings or photographs, or interior design, or anything else a person could be passionate about.

But on another level, on my level, what about people who do like music, but don’t like crappy sounding audio systems?  There’s a few sub-questions in there, like: Why don’t you have the best-sounding stereo possible?  Why don’t you own the highest-rated-in-terms-of-sound-quality CD for each of the albums you own? Why aren’t you into vinyl?  Why aren’t you also up in arms about people settling for MP3 and earbuds or playing music through their phone’s speaker?

Because I used to own a dedicated stereo system and because I plan to own one in the coming future, I felt that I needed to consider this question.  There is a certain “floor” of quality I insist on, but as far as a “ceiling”, I can’t be sure.

Regarding playback systems, I am not compelled to buy $3k speakers or $6k amplifiers to get the sound quality I require.  At the same time, I can’t really tolerate a $100 sound system either.  I swap out the stereo in each car I get, always to an improvement.  Despite having sound systems at the house, none of them are really satisfying.  My home theater system is a booming, bass beast – not good for music.  I have a couple small speaker docks that are ok for background music, but not for listening.  My best sound system is my computer running through my Event studio monitors.  Next year, I’ll get my listening system for the living room.

When I do buy my stereo, I’ll be buying what my budget allows from a quality brand.  For a true audiophile, this wouldn’t be satisfactory.  Consumer brands have lots of quality problems, and they would be able to identify what they are.  I wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t be able to tell by listening either.  After all, I don’t have any opportunity to compare systems, since I don’t have any friends (with stereo systems). Neither do I have the money to swap out components to try and make small to moderate improvements that I may not even notice.  So, what I have is what I hear and what I will enjoy.

As far as listening goes, I’m not sure I have the ear to be an audiophile.  I can identify obviously bad sound (like my theater system), but after a certain point, I can’t identify differences.  I can say that I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t be able to explain why.  More discerning people could say it was because of compression or eq or “presence” and some of the best could say it was because of speaker placement or wiring or the amp’s power supply.  I can’t do that.

The last piece of the loaded question is why not take the time to evaluate different masterings of albums to have the “best”?  My current stance is to own a version as close to the original as possible.  Before, I didn’t really have a position.  I’d just buy whatever was available.  I’ve decided that the original mix/mastering is the authority.  That’s what people liked.  A remaster is not a re-release.  It’s not like an album from 1986 is going to re-enter the charts because it was remastered.  All remastering is for existing fans.  It’s like version upgrades of software.

More Space; Going Vertical

Well, as I last mentioned, it’s time to grow the CD storage.  It cost just as much to buy a new storage tower as to build one, so I went the pre-built route.

After the new tower arrived, the first step was to clear out the old tower.  Surprisingly for me, I gave some thought as to the stacking of the CDs so I would be able to put them all back into the new tower in order.  Unload from Z to A, then reload from A to Z.

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The new tower has shelves that are pretty much the same width as the old tower, but there are two additional shelves to work with.  Those, times four sides, gives me 8 more shelves worth of space.  Compared to the old tower, the new one is quite impressive.

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Replacing the CDs, I was able to leave space on every single shelf, and even with that, I had almost two free shelves at the end.

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In all, quite a nice upgrade.  And if I manage to fill that, I have the old tower I can start using again.

How Cute.

In my random browsing about CD collecting and storing, I came across a website for “CD collectors”.  Some people were posting pictures of their collections and some would post pictures of their finds at stores.  It was kind of cute, and I mean that in a patronizing way.

Post titles like “Started 2 weeks ago, full collection so far” and “After 6 months, this is my collection”.  And then there’s a picture of a dozen CDs, or maybe two dozen.  And when I think about my 800+ collection, I snicker a little inside.  And when I see that the CDs are mostly new releases, I snicker a little more.

And boy, isn’t that pompous of me?  It is, I admit it, and I accept that.  I mean, I could make a post saying, “After 30 years – my collection” and there would be people snickering at me.  “30 years and only 800?  I bought that much in the last 2 years!  My collection of 3,000 laughs at you.”

Despite the holier-than-thou ranking and hierarchy of collectors in which I probably place in the 70th percentile (The curve is exponential.  Once you break a certain level, you are in rare company), at the same time, I am encouraged.  These are people just discovering the joy of collecting physical media.  Judging by their selections, they are young, which means there is still life in physical media.  It’s not dead.

There is another reason for encouragement as well.  I’m not going to pretend that piracy doesn’t exist, whether software or music or video.  I can admit that I used to be a pirate.  In the old, old days, we used to have dual cassette decks that would copy tapes.  There’s really no legitimate need for a dual-deck unit otherwise.  So, I had plenty of copied tapes.  Why?  Because I was young and poor.  I also had lots of pirated software.  Why?  Exact same reason.  I couldn’t afford $500 for Photoshop.  As I grew older and started making money in my career, I didn’t need to resort to piracy anymore.  I didn’t need to “settle” for a copy.  I could get an original.  And I started valuing having that original in my collection.

If these budding collectors are anything like I was back then, that means they are beginning to advance in their life, making a living wage, where they can afford the luxury of not stealing.  That means the world is getting better.  Also, they take pride in their collection.  Consider the pride between showing someone 200 gigs of downloaded albums (which may elicit some praise from some people) vs. showing someone a collection of 100 CDs.  “They’re all real.  They’re permanent.” 

You can copy off that 200GB of music to your friend and not feel a ounce of pain.  But, giving up a CD from your collection, you’re actually losing something.  It’s the same psychological trick pundits use when they encourage you to live a cash lifestyle.  By handing over physical cash when you buy things, you feel a loss, more so than when you just swipe a credit card.

So even as these beginners are showing off their tiny collections, it’s still something to encourage and cheer on.  They have many years ahead of them and decades and decades of music to discover and collect.

En Garde

My CD collection continues to grow by leaps and bounds.  My spinning CD rack that holds 800 CDs is just about full.  I’m planning for the purchase of the bigger model that holds 1600 CDs.  Yeah, it’s a problem.

Anyway, while on one of my shopping runs, I came across a CD from a band I don’t see very often at all – The Residents.  I have a couple of their albums and I don’t really get them.  Regardless, I had to buy this CD anyway, just because their catalog is so infrequently seen.  I popped it in the stereo on the drive home.

I don’t think a lot of people have even heard of The Residents.  More people have probably heard of Frank Zappa.  And of those people, fewer still have actually listened to Zappa.  And of those people, fewer can even “get” Zappa’s music.  Now, I listen to Zappa and can get along with even some of the weirder stuff, but The Residents are on a whole level beyond that.  I can’t even really handle it.

So as I’m listening to this album of terribly performed songs, I’m trying to think of what I’m supposed to be experiencing, other than, “This is ridiculous.  I did stuff like this when I was 15.”  Although, I really didn’t.  I didn’t have a full studio and multitrack recorders and other period technology to make sounds like that.  That’s kind of the idea to keep in mind.  A lot of The Residents stuff might be described as “creation of sound”, rather than “making music”.

And the fact that I was exploring how the music made me feel, rather than enjoying the music, made me characterize the album listening as more of an artistic endeavor.  And The Residents would be clearly classified as “avant garde”.  Coming to this realization was almost like taking a burden off my back.

When I’m faced with “music” that is just so difficult to understand, that seems to make no sense, that is completely unstructured, I try to figure it out anyway.  In the end, I’m just frustrated and come to the conclusion that “this music sucks.”  But I’m unsatisfied with that conclusion because obviously the artist spent time on this “music” and it makes sense to them, somehow.  But, approaching the album in the same way as visiting an art museum, it becomes palatable.  Similar to visual arts, you just absorb it and consider how it makes you feel.  Are the sounds menacing?  Humorous?  Does it stop and start unpredictably?  Are there multiple “subjects” conflicting or cooperating?

With that new perspective, I could classify some other CDs in my collection as “avant garde”, too.   Buckethead’s Cuckoo Clocks of Hell makes absolutely no sense to me.  The best I could come up with when I listened to it was that it was primarily rhythm-based.  There wasn’t really a traditional song structure with a melody line and a defined chorus.

And my final takeaway from my epiphany is that I granted myself license to only listen to an album once.  Like visiting an art gallery or a performance, you take in the whole experience in the same way you take in a speech.  You leave with a singular overall impression – motivation, happiness, uneasiness, or whatever.  And that experience is done.