Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Bit too Late

Legal marijuana shop in Bellevue, WA. The state legalized the use of dope for personal consumption last year; Colorado did the same.
The small note on the window indicates that the shop will open for business at the end of September (originally it was August). Bugger! Some calming substances would have come in very useful as I prepared to skip town. A stressful process I can tell you.  I'll have to drop by on my next visit...

Joking aside, I never thought I'd live to the day when this stuff became legal.  Pay attention, UK!

Happy Tenth Anniversary!

Ten years ago I had only the vaguest notion about what a blog was. Then the term became Merriam-Webster's (and subsequently the BBC's)"word of the year" and I started to take notice and thought that it it was that important I should probably have one. Eventually I found my way to Blogger, which had just been purchased by the fledgling Google, and on this day in 2004 Mad Dogs and Englishmen was launched. Since then it's been an interesting ride and I hope it will continue for a long time to come. Thanks to everyone who's dropped by, especially those of you who've felt inclined to comment. It makes the process quite gratifying.

So a Happy Blogging Birthday/10th Anniversary to me!

Here's Noel Coward to entertain us with his immortal song:

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Jean-Luc Ponty

Ronnie Scott's club interior. Photo with permission from the management
Back in June I was fortunate to catch the incredible Jean-Luc Ponty and his equally incredible band at Ronnie Scott's Club, London. This man has pretty much single-handedly pioneered the violin in jazz-rock fusion. Unfortunately I couldn't get a vid clip so this older one (not from me) will have to suffice..

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.

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.

Network-Attached Storage (NAS)
This term is one of those confounding phrases that often serves to confuse those moving to digital management. Essential, once you've recorded a digital music library onto a hard drive you can connect it through your wi-fi network and playback through other computers or speakers in your home. I'm not going to say a lot about networks here as the point of the article is about setting up a high fidelity music management system: once you've got that job done you can then go about the business of streaming music throughout your home (essentially a pretty lo-fi exercise).

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 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...!