Ear. Cannot. Forget.

I’ve been wanting to write this “mini review” almost since my first play of Steven Wilson’s release Hand. Cannot. Erase. but I haven’t for some reason. I don’t really know why, maybe because I knew I’d be writing a gushing piece and I didn’t want to appear to be fawning towards him after my gushing review of Raven.

In all honesty, the news back in late 2014 that he was releasing this album in many ways troubled me – I didn’t want it to arrive. I loved Raven so much, it didn’t seem possible that it could be improved and I didn’t want to be disappointed. I ordered it, of course, in fact I ordered the deluxe edition as I tend to always do these days.

I chose to give it a first listen on my Astell & Kern player with IEMs to try and focus quietly on its content. As I’ve said before, I absorb music, every nuance. And it takes me quite a long time to feel comfortable with a new piece. It took one listen. It was honestly one listen.

I was familiar with the proposed concept from the pre-release material and website, so it made it easier to absorb the storyline as the tracks went past. I’ve now got to the point where I feel I know every piece of the album in intimate detail and I’ve also had the privilege of hearing it played live in Seattle recently.

It is definitely better than Raven in my opinion, for different reasons. The tracks superbly and emotionally convey the story in a way that challenges the listener to hold back their tears, it is a sad story that many will identify with to some degree or other.

Whether that’s with the themes of isolation on a deeply personal level, or just the “always connected” themes of today in Home Invasion, there’s elements for all.

Given the superstar nature of the ensemble, you almost don’t need to comment on the musicianship but it is surely churlish not to. Each of the core musicians contribute substantially to the whole but for me the absolute highlight is the bookend solos by Adam Holzman on Moog and Guthrie Govan on guitar on Regret #9. The percussion of Marco Minnemann and bass/stick of Nick Beggs equally superb throughout.

The story throughout is, to a degree, ambiguous. It’s a matter of record that the inspiration for the album was the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of Joyce Carol Vincent that was turned into a documentary Dreams of a Life. However Steven Wilson has gone on record as saying that the album is not a direct telling of that story and a few interviews subsequent to the album’s release have revealed tantalizing glimpses of the meanings. The live show takes that further forward with backing videos providing other visual clues, without telling the actual story.

I’m really not sure about the ending, in terms of the story. Again, Steven Wilson has said in interviews that unlike the Vincent story, his protagonist does not die, but I find it hard to listen to the penultimate track Happy Returns and then the final Ascendant Here On… without a vision of a sad death. With previous references to medicine chests, the line “But I’m feeling kind of drowsy now so I’ll finish this tomorrow” seems to me a possible reference to an overdose. But who am I to challenge the word of the writer.

I’m not a great fan of Steven Wilson’s band work (Porcupine Tree et al), it’s really his solo works that have left an impression on me, and this fourth solo release has shown an artist confidently growing with each new release. I no longer fear another release, in fact I’m intrigued as to the direction he takes next. Whatever direction it is though, nothing will take away the immense beauty and power of 2015’s Hand. Cannot. Erase.

Shortly after writing the above, Steven Wilson was interviewed at the Montreal Jazz Festival and if you have time to listen to the full 45 minutes, I think it clearly emphasizes what I’d already written. I can identify so clearly with what he says and it only goes to emphasize what I feel, that he is one of today’s preeminent musicians…


High Resolution Audio (by my reckoning)

I’m often asked by friends and colleagues about high resolution audio, or 24 bit audio. They ask my opinion simply because they know that I like music, both playing and listening and presumably decide that I must have an opinion on it. And I do have opinions.

I decided to try and write up my thoughts in a blog post to point people to, not because I don’t like the questions, but more because I found myself typing the same things over, or at least searching for the last reply to cut and paste.

To set things up, I’ll declare that I am not what might be described as an audiophile, though many would think that I am. I like my music to sound good for sure, but I don’t go to the lengths that some people do, with thousand dollar power cords, and other ridiculous things. My equipment is very good, it suits me fine, but it’s far from top of the range. I can listen to MP3 files without being snobbish, but I have spent quite a while compiling my music library with uncompressed files in a variety of formats to suit various players.

So for years, I have followed the rise of “high resolution audio”, sometimes referred to as 24bit audio (though that’s only one version of it). There are now multiple vendors of these music tracks and it’s only a matter of time before the mainstream stores like iTunes start to vend them. Sites like HDTracks offer a vast variety of genres to purchase at a higher cost than standard sites, or physical CDs for that matter.

So to the crux of the question. Is it worth buying a high res album? It’s higher resolution and usually more expensive, so it must be better surely? Well yes. And no. This is not a definitive science by any means, although quite frankly it should be – we’re dealing with bits of information that can be examine “under a microscope” so to speak, so it shouldn’t really be subjective. But it actually is. Here’s why. In my opinion.

The resolution debate

You can read about this in literally hundreds of articles online, some of which come close to the truth, many don’t. Very few speak in terms that the average person can understand. A CD comes at a resolution of 16 bits and high resolution files are typically, but not always 24 bits. At this point, the wheels often start to come off the description. What does this resolution of 16 bits mean? It simply means that at any point in the music track, any one point in time, the waveform has a discrete value and in the case of a CD it can be any one of 16 thousand values. I’m sure that everyone has seen a waveform from a music file, it’s a great big jumble of squiggly lines with peaks and troughs – the peaks being the loud bits and the troughs, the quiet bits. But if you zoom in and zoom in again, in fact keep on zooming, eventually those squiggles become one line – however complicated the piece of music, however many instruments are playing. That line represents the totality of what you hear. And at any one point in time, you can measure how high that line is and give it a number (one of those 16 thousand numbers). By the way, it’s not exactly 16 thousand, I’m trying to keep things simple.

Figure 1 – How we usually see stereo music represented

Figure 2 – What you see if you zoom in far enough

So invariably people compare this to chopping up the waveform into these chunks. Frequently a digital photo analogy creeps in at this point, because they are also described in “bits” and you’ve also seen zoomed in digital photos that break up into squares – you can actually see the “bits”. And people know that if you have a higher resolution photograph (taken with a better camera for instance), the detail is better because you’re chopping any given part of the picture into ever smaller chunks at higher resolution. So that must be the same for audio files too right? Because they’re digital too…

No. Stop the analogy right there. You are not comparing like for like. This is the simplest way I can explain why it’s not true. In a photo, more resolution does give you better resolution because you’re chopping up the same area (say a 1cm square) into smaller chunks. In audio, when you move from 16 bit to 24 bit, you’re not chopping up the same piece of audio loudness into smaller chunks, the chunks are the same size, you’re just adding more chunks on top of the ones you already had. You’re adding 8000 to the 16000 you already had to make 24000. Remembering what I said earlier that the higher the audio line, the louder the file? Well that extra resolution allows you to capture more “loudness”, not more detail. And this is where people just glaze over. Because they equate loudness to how far they’ve got their volume control cranked to. “Why do I need more loudness in my audio file? I just turn the knob up!”

Indeed you do, this isn’t about the playback volume (which is indeed under your control) this is about the recording volume in the studio. The extra bits are essential in being able to differentiate clearer between the intended sound (the instrument or voice) and the unintended sound (background noise). If your piece of music has loud parts and soft parts, you absolutely benefit from the extra space that 24 bits provide, if your preferred listening is hard rock, not so much…

Sounds Great, What’s the Problem?

The problem, put simply, is that this is not retrospective. It applies now in all recording studios (just about). But it didn’t apply in the 60s or 70s or 80s. Back then, everything was recorded to tape, which even 16 bit CD resolution more than covers. In fact, what you got to hear on vinyl wasn’t even from the original tape that the instrument was recorded onto, it would have been a 2nd, 3rd or even 4th generation copy (to allow for mixing, copying, safety etc.). The range of loudness that a tape could capture, even the highest quality recorder with a high quality new tape, can be completely represented within those 16,000 bits (you don’t actually need “that” many!)

So when your favorite high resolution audio site tells you that your favorite album from the 70s is now available to purchase at 24 bit high resolution (at high cost) enabling you to hear all the nuances of the original instruments because of the extra resolution, it’s just nonsense. You cannot manufacture resolution that wasn’t there in the original tape, it’s just not technically possible. You can “upsample” to that higher resolution, which is what they do, but it doesn’t make it any different to the original.

So I shouldn’t be fooled and buy high res right?

Well not so fast. There might very well be a reason. But it’s not the reason they’re telling you, or trying to make you believe. “This” is the reason why you might like to spend your money. When the transfer takes place, it’s done carefully, using high quality equipment. It is often accompanied by additional audio treatment, such as remixing. When the first generation of CDs were made of those great old albums, the audio to digital conversions weren’t necessarily great quality. So today, the equipment used is far superior and often the remixing done on today’s audio equipment uses digital sound processing that we could have only dreamed about 10-15 years ago. So if you can hear a difference between a track from a 10 year old CD and a new high resolution audio file, and you like that difference, then go ahead and buy it and enjoy it. Just do so understanding that you’re enjoying today’s mixing and processing, not the fact that it’s 24 bit. That could have just as easily have been represented in a 16 bit audio file on a standard CD.

So what do I do?

So do I have any 24 bit audio files in my music collection? Yes, I do have some, but not many. When I hear that an old recording is being re-released having been re-mastered, I will certainly buy a CD rather than a high res download, the problem is that many are only released as high res. If the album has high dynamic range (lots of loud and quiet bits) I’ll probably keep it at 24 bit, but if it’s a rock album, I’ll just downsample it to 16 bit CD resolution to save the disc space.

In conclusion

I do love the fact that this new generation of high res audio is making people interested in good uncompressed music – I think it’s spurred many remixes that otherwise wouldn’t have happened (such as Steven Wilson’s series of remixes for classic albums). I just wish that they were sold for what they are, not what they could be.

New recordings have the potential to sound amazing with modern recording techniques, because the nuances of loud and soft can be perfectly captured and passed on to listeners. Sadly, most modern music is mixed and mastered in a way that completely obliterates these nuances, but some artists are using it to great effect. In fact some artists are taking the brave step of choosing not to master their tracks at all, they’re saying that “this is my mix, leave it alone” – fantastic, but rare.

And don’t get me started on vinyl!

Ranting and Raven

It seems that whenever I take to the internet to post something, I’m either ranting about something, or raving about something. Which is fair enough I guess – if you’re somewhere in the middle, chances are you have nothing to say anyway. Well this time I’m raving. Raving about a Raven, specifically one that refused to sing.

Let me start by saying that I’m an audiophile of sorts, not a hundreds of thousands audiophile, but certainly thousands. And I am a music listener, let me be quite specific about this. I really listen to music, I don’t have music on in the background, well not usually anyway. My tastes in music are very broad, but very specific. My music collection although diverse, is limited to hundreds of albums, not thousands. And most of those I know well. And again to be specific, I mean I know every nuance of these albums, every breath, every string scrape – you get the picture. So it takes a rather extraordinary release to capture my attention. In the last decade I’m talking of albums like Moya Brennan’s “Two Horizons”, Kate Bush’s “Aerial”, Foo Fighters’ “Wasting Light” to name a few.

News therefore of a new Steven Wilson album was welcome. Legendary for his attention to detail, I knew that it would be something worthy of a listen at the very least.

The first listen was extraordinary, I’m about fifteen listens in now and it just gets better. I am not going to review each track, though I will straight away note the guitar solo at the end of Drive Home and of course, the haunting title track “The Raven That Refused To Sing”, more about that later.

Instead, let me try and be a little more specific about quite why this particular album has caused me to put finger to keyboard (put pen to paper in old money).

You see, I’ve been taken on a journey to my wonderful past, my 70s and 80s past. I remember, almost achingly, new releases coming out from my favourite artists like Mike Oldfield, Rick Wakeman, YES, Pink Floyd – and the pure joy of the smell of the vinyl, the first pristine listen without scratches (hopefully) of some of those masterpieces. And the months to follow, learning the intricacies of these pieces. I’d often end up buying a second copy, the learning process having literally worn out the grooves. In recent years I’d also re-buy titles on CD and then SACD or DVD-A where available and spend hours discovering nuances that I didn’t even know existed in the originals!

Listening to “Raven” was like being taken back to those golden days, the only difference was being transported back in time with equipment that I could not have even dreamed of back then.

Again, I’m not going to make this a debate between CD and 24 bit audio files, but I listened to this album from the 24 bit Blu-ray version, though my Ray Samuels Audio headphone amp and superb Sennheiser headphones. Just breathtaking quality. No scratches here, though to be fair, no smell of vinyl either.

But here’s the main reason I was transported back to then and it’s a little bit of a rant after all – sorry. I love old school production. One of my benchmarks has always been Rick Wakeman’s “No Earthly Connection”. You can hear each and every instrument completely distinctly, it’s all so precise and clear. I swear if a blonde hair fell out of Rick’s head onto the studio floor you’d have heard it. And I mean just that. So many modern recordings are just overly compressed trash, a mush of sounds all competing with each other for the attention of the speakers.

But “The Raven That Refused To Sing” has that distinct quality. Engineered by the legendary Alan Parsons, all I can say is that whatever he charges these days, is worth each and every penny.

There are some extraordinary musical performances from the ensemble and I really don’t want to single any one out in particular, but if you twist my arm, it would be Nick Beggs, but I am a particular fan of his bass and stick playing anyway (check out Stick Insect and The Maverick Helmsman to see why!)

And at this point, I would have been quite content with my purchase, and in spending the next several weeks learning this collection of six exquisite compositions. But then by some chance, my house emptied of children for a couple of hours and I decided to venture into the room with the surround sound, sadly only used these days for Harry Potter movies. And of course, I played the 5.1 surround sound version, again from Blu-ray. Oh my word.

I know I’m not the first person to say this on the internet, but I’m just going to add my vote, that this mix sets a new standard for 5.1 production. You are immersed inside the studio with these musicians. In fact Steven Wilson’s website has some videos showing the recording of the album – very old school with the ensemble sitting together playing as one. And this 5.1 mix gives you a ticket to a seat right in the midst of these performances. Sadly this will have to remain a treat for quiet days at home, but what a treat to look forward to.

I will finish with the title track. Again, a little old fashioned I may be, well OK I am, but I like albums to have a decent closing track. This ticks all the boxes. It’s emotional, it’s beautiful, it’s haunting, it’s mesmerizing and it builds to a gigantic climax and drifts off with a simply pianoforte theme. And please check out the beautiful Jess Stone stop frame animation to accompany it.

So thank you Steven Wilson for this masterpiece and thanks also to the band and Alan Parsons. Thank you for uniting the 70s with today. Thank you for caring about production. I cannot wait to hear what comes next!

New blog, new world

Well welcome to my new blog on WordPress. Hopefully this will see me settled down for a little while having moved blogging architectures quite a bit frequently. I thought hard about migrating my previous postings, but decided against it, choosing instead to start afresh.

Part of that reason is a move of teams at Microsoft. After nearly six years working with Microsoft Expression, I have moved onto the Microsoft Commerce Server team where I am hard at work ramping up my skills on an altogether different set of technologies. Whilst I have nothing relevant to post on my new world here and now, I’m sure I will have in the months ahead. But more than that, I think I’ll widen my posts to include my many and varied interests too. So expect to see stuff related to my music loves, photography, technology – who knows what else?