Thursday, August 21, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 3: Music Files and Software




Earlier in the year I started a series on digital music and how to play it. Sorry for the hiatus but I'll continue with it now...

In case you thought the technical aspects of the hardware associated with a hi-fi system for digital music replay were complicated, I should warn you that the coding aspects of music file formats as well as the replay software is a total nightmare. I'll try to gently demystify it for you here and also make a few recommendations.

Music File Format
The number of different music file formats available is mind boggling and a comprehensive review is outside the scope of this article. If you want to know more I suggest you read up here, here and here. However the first practical thing you need to know is that these files come in two basic formats: "Lossy" and "Lossless". Within those categories there are several subtypes. Here is a brief overview.


Lossy Formats
These are compressed files. The are compressed from the master recording for two reasons (1) to save storage space and (2) to enable fast downloads.  However the compression comes at a price: details of the music are lost and the sonic degeneration can be quite marked, especially if the listener is using anything but earbuds. Lossy (I hate that term as well as the format) include:

MP3 (MPEG 2 Audio Layer 3). This is a digital media format designed by the Moving Picture Experts Group and is the most common form of music file. Most downloads from Amazon are in MP3 format and it is used by numerous other sites. Highly compressed: an MP3 file is about 10% of the size of an equivalent file on CD.

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). Can be regarded as the successor to MP3 filetypes although is somewhat sonically superior. Often though of as a proprietary Apple format but in fact was developed by a consortium of companies and can be played on non-Apple devices.  Most downloads from the Apple store are in AAC format.

WMA (Windows Media Audio). This is a proprietary format from Microsoft for use with the Windows operating system.

OGG Vorbis An open sources codec. It's the format used for some streaming internet radio stations such as Spotify. There are several quality levels although I think this is mostly academic from the perspective of those building a music file collection.

When building a music collection, avoid "lossy" formats like AAC and MP3 like the plague. No matter how good your system, nothing can compensate for the loss of detail in the music. Remember the expression "garbage in, garbage out"  -it's really worth the trouble to collect high resolution lossless files.

Lossless Formats
Lossless formats can be compressed and uncompressed.  I'm not going to differentiate here as the sound quality is unaffected.  The most commonly encountered ones are:

AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format)

ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec)

FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec)

WAV (Wavform Audio File Format)


Which Format to Get?
Well assuming you are going to avoid lossy formats wherever possible, you are going to acquire (mostly) one of the four file types mentioned above.  Ultimately it will depend a little on what music player you are utilizing. If you have iTunes, whether on a Mac or PC, then the Apple-compatible formats, AIFF and ALAC will be your first choice.  FLAC is not yet supported on iTunes and WAV doesn't carry meta-data. If you prefer Windows music player then FLAC in addition to MP3 and WMA.

Downloading Lossless Files
This can be a bit disappointing. There are sites such as HD Tracks which offer lossless tracks in several formats but they tend to have a limited selection and are quite expensive. For example, at the time of writing,  Miles Davis' Kind of Blue in AIFF format is $24.98 from HD Tracks, $6.99 for either an MP3 download or (new) CD from Amazon, $9.99 as an AAC download from iTunes and as little as 24 cents as a used CD from Amazon. More on CDs in a second but twenty five bucks for a download of a popular album is steep.

The CD bargain
For me the absolute best way to get high quality digital files onto your hard drive is to rip (copy) them from a CD.  There are several good reasons for selecting these rather out-of-fashion shiny discs instead of downloads (lossless or otherwise): (i) the CD format is lossless (ii) CDs usually contain interesting sleeve notes, lyric sheets, artist/band history, production details etc. (iii) you get a little bit of album art  -not what it was in the heyday of vinyl but artwork nevertheless (iv) many recordings (usually older material) can often be found on CD but have not yet found their way to digital download sites (v) in case of catastrophic loss of your hard drive/music library you have a solid backup and (vi) they are as cheap as chips. I try to buy mine used from Amazon: often the cost of the postage exceeds the cost of the item. The only downside is that you have to wait a couple of days to get them but that seems a small price to pay for  all the advantages.

Torrents and File Sharing
Look, just don't do this! First of all it's illegal and and second, you have no control over the quality. In the US more than 200,000 people have been sued for file sharing since 2010.  If you can't afford to buy, too bad  -it does not give you the right to steal.

Music Players
Playback of your music is a little tricky as not all players are created equal. iTunes is popular as it organizes music quite comprehensively although it's a bit complex for my taste. Also it's free and can be used with Apple's "Remote" function on iPads and iPhones. The problem with iTunes it that it is aimed at the multi-media user and other players simply sound better.  This in part due to the bitrate of the player -that is to say the number of pieces of information it can handle per second. Generally speaking the more the better. Bitrate is not the entire picture, however and some experimentation will be necessary. Perceived sound quality is down to many factors including hardware (especially the type of DAC but speakers, amp and interconnects also have an influence) and user preference. Some players cost quite a bit more than others and user support is variable. You'll have to experiment a bit here. Most offer a free trial period. Some have a very clean user interface and others are a (to my mind) a bit clunky. Most will utilize or integrate with your iTunes library. Sound quality does vary quite a bit although this is quite a subjective matter. Players, other than iTunes,  include: Decibel, Amarra, Pure Music, Audrivana, BitPerfect and Fidelia.

Ripping
This is the process of copying your music  -usually from a CD. Their are proprietary apps for doing this although I find iTunes quite adequate. Specialist programs offer superior error correction that iTunes although in practice I don't find this to be much of a sonic advantage and they can be quite non-intuitive to use.

Summary
Phew! I hope that wasn't too bewildering. In the next and final part of this series I'll offer some very specific recommendations based on my own experiences.

A domani..!


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Three-Year-Old

Olivia at 30 with stalwart partner and fiancé, Giulio* 
Apparently my three year-old-daughter has inexplicably turned 30. My geriatric grey matter is having cognitive dissonance about this milestone event  -it seems just yesterday when she was frolicking in the waves like this...(bugger! -where did three decades go?)...

Olivia, Stinson Beach, California c1986/7

Happy Birthday, Olivia!

*Photo purloined shamelessly from her FB page -my thanks to the unknown photographer.

Monday, August 18, 2014

FourPlay


FourPlay performing at Jazz Alley. The band comprises Bob James (keys), Nathan East (bass) Chuck Loeb (guitar) and  Harvey Mason (drums) -truly a supergroup

I was fortunate to catch these guys at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley in Seattle just recently. Absolutely amazing musicians, all: get to see them if you have the opportunity. My thanks to the Management of Jazz Alley for permission to take photographs. Scroll down for a vid (not mine) of the band in concert.

Nathan East and Chuck Loeb having a 'Status Quo' moment. Make no mistake, these guys can really do some straight ahead rock when it takes their fancy

Not much in the way of conventional Four/Four rhythms for FourPlay: Harvey Mason's drumming was so intricate  that I gave up trying to count the time signatures!

Bob James: consumate master of the keys and an original founder of the smooth jazz genre       

Gorgeous George

The Gorge Amphitheatre: situated on the banks of the Columbia River this must surely be one of the most beautiful concert venues in the universe.

It's the 45th anniversary of Woodstock. You know, that hippie "Aquarian exposition of peace and music" happening thing?  Perhaps not if you are a young thing.  I wasn't there but as an impressionable teenager, 3000 miles away on a different continent I remember clearly the reporting of the event   -subsequently I schlepped from leafy Surrey to London and watched Michael Wadleigh's eponymous, rambling, cinematic record of the  event at the Odeon, Leicester Square, with rapt attention.  Somehow "Woodstock" with its peaceful but shambolic organization (not to mention some superb music) became the zeitgeist for a generation and its ramifications are still felt today. 

Since then I've attended numerous music festivals in Europe and the USA and enjoyed most of them. However none has come closer to the Woodstock vibe than The Gorge amphitheater located at George in Washington State (George, Washington, geddit?). Perched on the banks of the Columbia River, this venue must be one of the most spectacular in the World. And it was there last Friday, on a balmy late summer evening, the 45th anniversary of the-event-that-started-it-all that I found myself listening to Stevie Winwood and Tom Petty as clouds of (now legal) cannabis smoke wafted by. Magic!


The Gorge, George, Washington (state). Pfnaar! Pfnaar! I wonder who thought that one up...?

Definitely a powerful Woodstock vibe at this place  -except that this venue is much better organized than Max Yasgur's farm

At night the stage is spectacular: the colors of the stage lighting blend with the dusk...



In the video clips above, the fabulous Steve Winwood band perform Traffic's "Medicated Goo" and the Spencer Davis classic "Gimme some loving" (written by Winwood when he was just 17).

Photos and vids taken with Nikon Coolpix 510: post-shoot editing carried out with iPhoto and Pixlr-O-Matic.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Train of Thought


I've been taking a bit of a sabbatical from blogging. Sorry! There have been too many things going on recount here...just take it from me I've been busy. Anyway there are quite a few stories in the queue so be patient and watch this space. In the meantime here are a few pics I captured recently at the depot of the Northwest Railway Museum, Snoqualmie, Washington. Hopefully these rusting old locomotives will some day be restored to their former glory.







Photos taken with Nikon Coolpix 510: post-shoot editing carried out with iPhoto and Pixlr-O-Matic.

Supreme Victory


In the words of the founder of Aikido, the late Morhei Usheiba, "True victory is victory over self". Quite so...!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 2: Hardware

Here's Part 2 in the series. Part 1 dealt with the modern history of musical replay and the transition from analogue storage (vinyl LPs, cassette tapes, etc) to digital files managed by a computer of some type. In this article I'll go through the basics of the hardware required to set up a genuine hi-fi system. Let me stress that this is a not a guide for the audiophile  -it's intended for (i) individuals who've been collecting digital music libraries and want to know how to manage them better and get better sound quality than their desktop sound dock or (ii) people like me who grew up playing LPs and CDs on decent hi-fis but are uncertain as to the best way to integrate these formats. Anyway let's get into it...

The replay of digitally encoded music in hi-fidelity form requires three basic components:
  1. A sound source (in this case a computer hard drive)
  2. A pair of speakers
  3. An amplifier
I'll deal with these items in reverse order. Needless to say an amplifier and speakers are universal for any system and I'll try not to labour over their descriptions. The set of the sound source is tricky and quite a bit more complicated than in the day when we just chucked an LP on a turntable and let it play.

Amplifier

My own amp is an Italian made Unison Simply Two integrated amplifier.  For the techies, it's 10w per channel of pure class A current. Really all you need to know is that it looks and sounds wonderful

An amplifier's job is to, errr, amplify the signal from the sound source to the speakers. It's necessary because an iPod/iPad/computer doesn't put out enough of an electronic audio signal to power a pair of speakers; they'll drive a pair of ear buds but that's about it.  Even modest bookshelf speakers require quite a lot of power to get the speaker cone flapping and moving air (which is what sound is all about).  Crudely, it makes the sound louder. A powerful amplifier can amplify the signal in a very lazy way and introduces very little distortion into the music.  There are lots of types available and a discussion of pre-amps and power amps is beyonds the scope of this article: suffice to say that an amp that integrates the pre and power stages (logically described and an "integrated amplifier")  is more than sufficient for most purposes.  The same goes for solid state electronics vs valves. As a rule-of-thumb, amps using old school "valves" or "tubes" usually sound warmer than their solid state cousins. In my humble opinion they have a retro-cool look but that's a matter of individual taste. Electrically they are pretty inefficient and tend to run hot (as in temperature). Decent amplifiers cost anything from 100 dollars/pounds/euro to something that looks like a NASA budget.


Speakers

Speakers: this is where the sound comes out. They come in all shapes and sizes and should be selected for the room size, listening habits and musical taste. Don't confuse these with self-amplified computer speakers; they need an amplifier to drive them -this is a source of confusion with many young people brought up with sound docks and computer speakers. They also need to be connected to the amplifier with high quality cables (sound quality out of Bluetooth-connected wireless speakers is usually poor).  Speakers shown are my own British made Rega RS-5s.

Speakers are what the sound comes out of.  Generally the higher the quality the better the sound. The same rule applies to their cost as amplifiers i.e. anything from 100 units of currency to "how much?  -you're having a laugh!".  Quality and price are not necessarily correlated. Bigger and lazier usually sounds better (lower distortion) but requires a more powerful amplifier. Pick the size to suit your room and your budget. Space them correctly (the listener and the speakers should ideally form an isosceles triangle) and don't use them as plant stands (it looks naff and ruins the sound).

Sound Source (the important part)

Some Notes on Terminology
Now we are getting to the nitty gritty of the system. Before I start off on technical details, I think it's worth dealing with some commonly encountered terminology which can be quite confusing (it was for me when I started on the digital music pathway and I'm a technophile) or even a deterrent for anyone considering a digitally managed hi-fi. Here are some of the confounding terms:

"Home Entertainment System" A fuzzy term that reminds of the integrated music centers of the 70s and 80s. Essentially a computer box controls the TV for multiple functions including broadcast programs, streamed movies, DVDs, CDs, games, internet access etc and in addition can act as storage for music and games. The Xbox is marketed as such a device. Like the music centers of old, it's a convenient concept but the Jack-of-all-Trades approach means that nothing is done particularly well (particularly in terms of high fidelity playback) and component failure brings down the whole system.

"Home Theatre"  This is exactly what it says, namely an audio visual center for the home and usually comprises a large plasma or LED screen TV connected to a large amplifier and 5-7 surround speakers.  A home theatre can be a home entertainment system. Such systems are great for providing dramatic soundtracks for movies but most are not that good for hi-fi even though many have inputs for iPod-resident music. My advice is to keep hi-fi and television systems separate (more about this below).

"Music Server" A slightly pretentious way of describing the computer which stores and plays your music. In the context of true high fidelity replay, music servers should be dedicated devices.

"Network Attached Storage (NAS)" This means any music library that is connected to your wi-fi network and visible to other computers. A NAS is usually a hard drive on or attached to your music server and used for the purpose of storing your music library.

"Streaming" Nothing to do with plumbing although it's a wretchedly vague and confusing term. Essentially it means that music resident on one device is visible to, and can be played on, another device via some kind of wireless network, usually wi-fi although it can include Bluetooth. For example music from a master library on, say, a desktop computer can be played on  a laptop if both are on the same wi-fi network and sharing is enabled on iTunes.  In other contexts, streaming can mean playing internet radios such as Pandora or Spotify (i.e. music is streamed rather than broadcast) or movies are streamed from sources such as Netflix. With the exception of internet radio, I'm going to advise against streaming on genuine hi-fi system as sharing music over a wi-fi network invariably leads to sonic degradation (movies are ok streamed but just put them on a separate system).

A Computer or iPod?

My music server components (clockwise from top left): 246Gb solid state drive, Mac Mini with CD/DVD slot (c2010), 1 Tb Seagate disk drive, Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100 DAC, bluetooth mouse, bluetooth keyboard, 2 x 4Gb RAM chips

There are several ways to store digital music files. After quite a bit of thought, I opted to put them on a computer hard drive rather than an iPod for the following reasons (i) the user interface on an iPod is fiddly and limiting (ii) I'd be restricted to using iTunes as a music player which has multiple disadvantages in itself (I'll describe these in detail in Part 3 of the series), (iii) storage space: the iPod with the largest amount of space available is 160 Gb on the "classic" model -this sounds like a lot but actually is very easy to fill when using lossless files (again more detail on this in Part 3) and finally (iv) to get music onto an iPod, first it has to be resident on a computer.

All things considered, a computer seems by far the most logical choice as a base for one's music library. Any reasonably well-powered laptop or desktop can be used but I suggest that lower powered notebooks be avoided as their limitations will eventually cause problems. The selection is largely a mix of aesthetics and what computer you might have lying around.  The operating system (Mac OS or Windows) is optional: both will  support iTunes, which is hard to get away from, as well as other music players (see Part 3). I don't know about the suitability of Linux or Android operating systems in terms of their compatibility with iTunes. Just about anything can be made to sync with anything else these days but my five cents worth of advice is to stay mainstream in order to reduce compatibility issues.

Computer Hardware
First, I bought a used Mac Mini on eBay. It came with a wireless mouse and keyboard (necessary). I picked the mid-2010 model of this computer because it was the last one that came with a built in CD/DVD slot. An external drive would be ok but aesthetically it's not a clean a solution. I'm aware that the system is not future proof and at some point I'll have to upgrade the computer but as its primary task is just to replay music, it should be good for quite awhile. I expect at least 5 years. The processing power is more than up to the task and the solid state hard drive I've fitted (see below) really speeds things up and should increase reliability.

I made two physical upgrades to the Mac Mini: I increased the RAM memory from 2Mb to 8Mb (I purchased two 4Gb RAM chips from Crucial Technologies) and I changed the original electro-mechanical hard disk drive to a solid state 256Gb flash memory drive (again from Crucial). The purpose of the solid state drive was to make the computer's primary function as fast and as electronically and acoustically quiet as possible. As a side note, the flash drive also speeds up the computers speed amazingly  -a reboot takes seconds instead of a minute or more and apps launch almost instantly.  The increase RAM also helps prevent any lag in the computer's function.

I then attached to the Mac, a one Terabyte (Tb) external Seagate hard drive (thanks again, Crucial). This is the primary storage for the music library or NAS. Now before you ask why didn't I use a solid state drive, the answer is that 1 Tb drives are not yet available, at least at consumer-affordable prices. However the picture is changing fast and when they are offered at a reasonable price the old whirring hard drive will be replaced.

The final box I added to the system was a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC), specifically a DAC Magic100 from Cambridge Audio. A DAC, as the name suggests, converts the digital output of a music player (this can be music files played with iTunes or the signal from a CD player) into an analogue form for the amplifier. Most CD players contain a DAC of reasonable quality but computers and iPods have a very limited sound card that performs this function. The DAC magic connects to to the Mac Mini by an (audio quality) USB cable and intercepts the digital signal before it is processed by the computer's sound card. The increase in audio quality is striking.

A HD computer screen completes the hardware list. My apologies for the flash glare but these things are difficult to photograph without the use of flash

Then just to enable me to see what I was doing I added an LED high definition computer screen. It's a nothing special brand from Amazon but was very inexpensive and had great reviews.

Finally, I'll pre-empt the question "why don't you just buy a music streamer?". The reason is that the technology is still evolving. Many streamers perform a variety of home entertainment functions and are neither fish nor fowl. As mentioned above, the Xbox is a good example. There are certainly some excellent music-dedicated systems on the market but they tend to be very expensive and don't have the flexibility of a computer hard drive. If for example I want to upgrade the Mac Mini I can always use it for another purpose such as a back-up drive or photo storage. This would not be possible with a high end dedicated streamer, many of which will become expensive doorstops after a few years. Also I didn't buy a streamer because I reasoned that many people would have a spare PC/Mac lying around that could be gainfully employed to storing a music library.

In summary, I've described here the equipment needed to replay digital music at a high level of fidelity. It's intended as a guide for the perplexed and shows one way to go about building a dedicated music server. For audiophiles roaming the internet I should say that this article is not for you. I certainly don't want to be told by Absolute Sound readers that because I haven't spent $2000 on a DAC (easily done) or that I'm not using interconnects made of solid iridium that the system is only fit to be used as a car stereo.

The final part in the series will deal with music file formats and player software.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 1: The Good Old Days

Vinyl long playing (LP) records: remember them? These are just a few that survived from my  collection of the 60s, 70s and early 80s

Once upon a time, music replay was easy.  All that was needed was a record turntable, a simple stereo amplifier and a pair of speakers.  Even half-decent budget equipment gave an excellent performance. In my youth I acquired such a system and then endlessly played vinyl LPs by the likes of Jethro Tull, Curved Air, Fairport Convention, Deep Purple, Quintessence and Blodwyn Pig in my undergraduate digs.  Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt also found they way into the mix and on occasions I would roll out Bach, Beethoven, Handel and even Stravinsky albums to demonstrate that I was a well-rounded and cultured fellow.  Despite its modest budget, my system was more than just a stereo, it replayed genuine high fidelity music. Not exactly audiophile level but pretty good quality by any standards.  Most of my friends owned similar setups and as a peer group we became used to a relatively high standard of music reproduction. Just for the record (pun intended -sorry!) my own rig comprised a 20W per channel Leak amplifier, a pair of Sykes & Hirsch speakers and the ubiquitous Garrard Sp25 MkII turntable. The latter were so common it seemed like they were issued to the entire (mostly) male population of the UK in the 18-25 age range.

My first Hi-Fi: a Garrard SP25 Mk2 turntable (with Goldring cartridge, I think), Leak Delta 30 15w per channel stereo amplifier and a pair of Sykes & Hirsch spherical speakers (almost a cliche of sixties design). Pics all borrowed from the internet

Well unedergaduate and postgraduate days flew by.  My hi-fi system was upgraded and my vinyl collection expanded considerably. I was quite content with this arrangement and also proud of my LP collection which by now occupied several shelves and had a 'cultured' appearance. Then came the 1980s. Sony and Philips collaborated (conspired?) on one of the best confidence trick known to Western Civilization: they convinced us that digitally encoded music on the newly introduced Compact Disc was so superior to the old analogue vinyl record (not to mention, audio cassettes, 8 tracks and reel-to-reel tapes) that we should replace our LP collections with their glitzy technology. And we did. I went along with this piece of genius marketing like everyone else. No more clicks and pops. Scratched records were a thing of the past. Music was bright, clear and flawless (well it wasn't actually, but that's a story for another occasion).   To facilitate playback of these nice mirror plastic circles, I added a CD player to the array of boxes on my music sideboard.  Once again I was more or less content with the status quo.

The New Millennium saw the emergence of a hitherto upstart computer company, Apple Computer, into the music business. In January 2001 they introduced the now ubiquitous iTunes music management software and then on 23rd October of the same year they launched the iPod: a digital Walkman that could hold hundreds, even thousands of tunes. This was the beginning of yet another chapter in the Music Format Wars. The MP3 digital music files used by Apple were already quite popular: portable personally players were quite common but digitized music had been brought into common awareness with the peer-to-peer  music sharing system, Napster. Napster was wildly popular  and music encoded as MP3 files were exchanged across the globe. It didn't take long for the moguls of the music industry to shut down Napster but by then we were all pretty familiar with MP3 files. The rise of the MP3 file was helped immensely by the availability of instant downloads: iTunes and the iTunes store made everything so convenient.

Convenience became the watchword and throughout the "oughties", CD based music libraries were gradually replaced by iPod or computer-resident music. Hi-fi systems were invariably exchanged for sound docks and self-powers speakers. We started to carry huge libraries of songs, sometimes numbering 10,000 or more, in our pockets. Almost any track could be downloaded in moments and elaborate, long customized playlists could be cobbled together with ease. Fantastic!

However a downside started to become apparent, especially to the old fogeys brought up with analog systems. When the music was played back through anything other than ear bud type headphones it sounded lacklustre and highlighted the limitations of this approach. First of all MP3 files and their AAC cousins, are highly compressed (to facilitate ease of downloading and reduce storage space) and are missing detailed information. Typically an MP3 song is a tenth of the size of its counterpart on a CD. Needless to say sonic quality suffers: high frequencies are lost, bass responses become muddy and there is overall distortion in the sound. Ian Corbett has written a detailed technical discussion of the limitations of MP3 files here. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound docks and computer speakers are of vastly inferior quality to the "stereos" of yesteryear, but as the millennial generation had no points of reference (mostly they wouldn't be seen dead playing an unfashionable CD) and acceptance of mediocre quality music became the norm.

Sadly, and as someone who should know better, I found myself falling into the same trap, particularly with regard to instant downloads. Then one day I played CD and MP3/AAC tracks of the same song through my old Hi-Fi and the difference was amazing  -or shocking, depending on whether or not you're a glass half-full/empty kind of person. So I decided to build a system that would accommodate modern digital music yet retain sonic fidelity.  Despite being quite familiar with music technology I found this task quite difficult to do: in my next post I'll describe the equipment I put together and my reasoning behind my choices. Hopefully it may serve as a useful guide to anyone else contemplating such a project.  I'll post it up in a week or so...until then please be patient.

To be continued...

King of Kung Fu

As a lifetime devotee of martial arts movies (the sillier the better) I was saddened to read of the passing of film producer, Sir Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong, aged 107 (wow!).  He pioneered the kung fu movie genre and arguably did more to popularize Asian martial arts than anyone else on the planet. Back in the early 70s I watched "King Boxer" ("Five Fingers of Death" in the USA) with rapt attention and have pretty much devoured all fu-flicks ever since. His early offerings, pre-special effects graphics, were cheesey and stylized by today's standards but nevertheless immensely entertaining.  This video clip from King Boxer features some awesome badassery that remains to be equalled.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

War Stories: The Bristol Beaufighter -Déjà Vu All Over Again

One of the last surviving Bristol Beaufighters, a TF X model, sits moodily in its display hangar at the Royal Air Force Museum, London

On occasions, the business of blogging comes up with surprises and highly gratifying rewards. Following my post earlier in the year about the WW2 Bristol Beaufighter that crashed at Gusano in the Po Valley, Italy, I received a couple of very interesting emails. The first was from Ewan McArthur at Warbird Restoration Services, near Melbourne, Australia. Ewan was able to provide me with a lot of technical information regarding the parts that were recovered from the crash site and we were able to confirm that aircraft was indeed a Beau. The second was from Mr Eryl Powell, a resident of the greater Birmingham area of the UK. Eryl had stumbled across my articles about this crash and had made a connection: his Dad, Allen, a spry nonagenarian living in Criccieth, North Wales, was the regular pilot for John "Jock" Watson who was lost at Gusano.  Back in the summer of 1944, Allen and Jock had become separated while on different missions. Allen realised that his friend had probably been killed but he didn't know any of the circumstances. He was very excited to learn of my blog post and I was equally enthusiastic to be in contact with a WW2 combat aviator. As fate would have it I was due to make a trip from the Pacific Northwest to the UK and so at the beginning of the month I found myself making my way to the Gwynedd area of Wales to meet with this venerable warrior. Here's the story...

Flight Sergeant Allen Powell, c21 years old in 1944. It seems astonishing that such young men were not only tasked with flying complicated and physically demanding aircraft all around the world but were also given the responsibility of discharging awesome payloads of lethal ordnance. At the same age I think I was just about capable of buying a bus ticket to the Students' Union!
Warrant Officer John "Jock" C. Watson, c1944.  Probably taken at the Alghero airbase, Sardinia. Young, handsome and with an intelligent face: Jock was one of the two aircrew recovered from the Beaufighter that crashed at Gusano on 6th September, 1944
Allen Powell (formerly Flight Sergeant Allen Powell, RAFVR) is a super cool gentleman. He's 93, fit-as-a fiddle and remembers everything. He has a calm, unflappable, demeanour that reminds me of my uncle, also a WW2 aviator: I'm pretty sure these pilots were selected for such qualities. For my visit he pulled out a pile of memorabilia and regaled me with stories for several hours. They were frequently hilarious and self-deprecating.  I can't possible repeat them all here but I'll simply document a little factoid  to underscore what an absolute beast of a war machine the Beaufighter was.  Its armament in terms of guns comprised four Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon and six Browning .303 machine guns making it the most heavily armed Allied fighter of WW2.  Allen told me that when all these guns were fired together, the recoil slowed the aircraft by 30mph (something the pilot would have to take into an account when making an attack): a great practical example of Isaac Newton's third law of motion!

Allen's pilot's log book (see below) documents multiple enemy engagements: ground attacks, shipping strikes and dogfights, however he talked very little about actual combat and I suspect the memories still haunt him.  When I asked him what thoughts ran through his mind when going on a mission he replied "I just wanted to be at home".  Humility and honesty are certainly characteristics of true greatness!

With regard to the loss of Jock Watson, Allen explained that back in the late summer of 1944,  he and Jock were the reserve flight for a mission. They were in good spirits as they had virtually finished their tour of thirty missions and had not only developed a close working relationship but had become good friends. At that time they were due to be sent back to Britain for some rest and recreation. Specifically they were planning to visit Jock's home in Jordanhill, near Glasgow (and I guess doing some serious partying).  However it was not to be.  Jock was co-opted to fly for another pilot whose own navigator had been taken sick.  Sadly he flew off and was not seen again and reported "missing".  Allen waited around for a couple of days but when Jock didn't return, his Commanding Officer cut  his tour slightly short as there was no chance of finding him a navigator for the one or two missions remaining.  He was then instructed to fly to Cairo and then on to Cape Town (an epic flight in itself) where he was shipped home.

Allen never did find out about Jock's fate although decades later he noted Jock's death when it was published in the Commonwealth War records. He was certainly deeply affected by the loss of his friend.  Fast forwarding a few more decades, the details of the Gusano crash were released and as a result I spent a pleasant Saturday in June investigating the site and wrote up my visit as a quite casual account on this blog. I never expected it to have such positive consequences and I hope I've been able to bring Allen a little closure on this tragic incident.

Instruction manual for the Bristol Beaufighter and issued to  Flight Sergeant Allen Powell back in 1944 
Allen's original escape map. The RAF issued these silk-printed maps to all active aircrew. The could be folded into a small square and placed inside a flying boot. Apart from occupying very little space they were also waterproof
Allen's original pilot's log book. His records are meticulously detailed and in elegant handwriting
Beaufighters on patrol. In this picture, taken from Allen's aircraft, Beaufighters skim across the surface of the Mediterranean at a height of 50'.  Photo taken by Flight Sgt Jock Watson and used with the permission of Allen Powell
Aftermath of a raid: this photo was also taken from the navigator's observation dome on the dorsal surface of the fuselage and is looking towards the rear. On the left side above the horizon is a column of smoke rising from an enemy radar station at Cape Camarat, France, that Allen and Jock have just destroyed. Photo taken by Flight Sgt Jock Watson and used with the permission of Allen Powell
Pilot's log entry dated 18th may 1944. The attack on the radar station at Cape Camarat is described and its destruction documented. In Allen's own words it was "pranged"
Allen has his original RAF Irvin flying jacket.  It still fits him and has a beautiful patination -no fake "distressed" leather here!
The back of the jacket bears 272 squadron's motto "On! On!". Allen, with his usual wry humour, says that the jacket is best viewed upside down...!

Concluding Comments and Appreciation
I'm still amazed that my almost accidental trip to take a look at the Beaufighter crash site and my rather casual posting about it on this blog has been so consequential. Not only have I indulged my boyhood interests in old military warbirds and learned a lot about the technical specifications of Bristol aircraft, but I've met (some face to face, some online) a number of very nice people around the world. Apart from Gusano, Italy, I've also been reacquainted with the stark splendour of North Wales (I haven't even mentioned my side visits to Criccieth Castle or  the delightful Portmeirion Village) and spent almost a day poking around the RAF Museum at Hendon where I took so many photos I exhausted the battery in my camera and my phone. I'd like to think my correspondence with Ewan McArthur re-kindled his own interest in the Beaufighter and caused him and his colleagues to turn over the engines of the one resident in the Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin (and maybe even consider its restoration). I've also had the had the privilege of meeting and talking to a real Beaufighter pilot and hero...(Allen, this has hardly ever happened to me but I actually felt slightly starstruck in your presence).  Finally I've been reminded of the horror and personal tragedy of war.

Again I'd like to express my appreciation to Signor Pierlino Bergonzi, Professor Agostino Alberti and their colleagues of the Aircrash Po and Grupo Ricercatori Aerei Caduti teams and the Muzeo Della Resistenza, Sperongia, for making my original visit possible. My thanks also go to Ewan McArthur for not only contributing his knowledge of the Beaufighter but also giving us the thrill of seeing the engines of one of these great planes being turned over for the first time in decades (even if just briefly and on YouTube).  A big "diolch yn fawr" goes to Eryl Powell for putting me in touch with his Dad, Allen, who has my immense gratitude and respect for his service as well as putting up with my questions for a couple of hours and making available a veritable treasure trove of photos and other memorabilia.  Diolch should also be said Anwyl Cooper-Willis who acted as my taxi driver and scribe on this trip. As per my other posts on this topic I'm dedicating this article to the memories of Flight Sergeant John Horsford, DFM and Warrant Officer John "Jock" Crockatt Watson as well as all the brave airmen, regardless of allegiance or nationality, who gave their lives in the terrible conflict of WW2.

P.S. Some unanswered questions about the Gusano crash remain. I haven't dwelt on them here. Suffice to say I'll write of any updates as they occur.

P.P.S. I would very much like to establish contact with the families of Officers Watson and Horsford: if any reader can help me with this I'd be most grateful (just write me a note in the comments section  -I do read them)

P.P.P.S. January 27th, 2014. This might be worth a separate post and I'll maybe do it sometime in the future (for now I'm trying to preserve the continuity of my ramblings on digital music) but Mr Powell's son, Eryl has scanned all his Dad's RAF memorabilia and put the files on a dedicated, open access site -see here.  It's a glimpse back into the dark days of WW2 and makes fascinating reading.