Tuesday, June 30, 2009

It's In The Hunt

As one who is still very new to the active collection and enjoyment of vinyl records (I'm not counting using them as frisbees or surfing the basement carpet on them as a child), I've begun to appreciate the fickle, frustrating nature of the medium. Everything about the collecting, the listening, the tweaking, the maintenance and the hunt can be equal parts maddening and rewarding. I once spotted a pristine, mint-looking early Nat King Cole record at a thrift store. The jacket - shiny. The spine - solid. The inner sleeve - factory crisp. The record inside - "101 Strings, The Glory of Christmas." It's enough for me to cause a scene there amongst the rusty Faberware.

There are good days, however. Here are a few recent finds from a Goodwill. 

James Brown - I Can't Stand Myself (1967, King)

This is a very lively record with The Godfather of Soul in his prime doing what made him famous.

Tony Bennett - I Left My Heart in San Francisco (1963, Columbia)

This is a Canadian pressing (I'll explain my hang-up about this in some future post), but I couldn't pass this up at $1.99 CDN. This album was the first LP, I believe, with the hit title song which had already been released as a single.

Teddi King - All The King's Songs (1959, Coral)

This is valued at $60-$70, but more importantly, it's a great recording and is a very good record with outstanding performances by Ms. King.

Jimmy Rushing - Five Feet of Soul (1963, Colpix)

Jimmy Rushing was a blues singer who sang for Count Basie. His powerful voice and powerful personality is on display here. "Five Feet of Soul" refers to his nickname, "Mr. Five By Five." Five feet tall by five feet wide.

Cecil Payne - Performing Charlie Parker Music (1961, Charlie Parker Records)

Cecil Payne was a saxophonist who played with Dizzy Gillespie. He only had a handful of records as a bandleader, and this one is from 1961. It's also in great shape.

In the film American Splendor, Harvey Pekar, in an interview, commented on his time spent at garage sales looking for old jazz records, in search of that one title which will somehow magically make his collection complete. To paraphrase, just when he feels like giving up, he makes some find that whets the appetite all over again, and the cycle continues. I wouldn't draw too many comparisons between myself and Harvey Pekar. Besides, finding records at garage sales is becoming rarer and rarer. The energy spent (and weekend sleep lost) getting up on Saturday to check out garage sales which might advertise records on Craigslist are usually in vain since eBay and flea market creeps often contact the sellers early to try to get first crack at the bounty. Who wants to compete with that?

Luckily, I've rarely spent more than just a few dollars for a used record. Demand is low for analog, which is sad for the industry, but great for fans. Unless, of course, you're a Michael Jackson fan. After his death, Thriller began selling for over $100 for used copies on eBay. I'm glad I got a replacement copy for my 1984 original a few months ago from the 50-cent rack at a local record store. Of course, eBay is the worst place to buy anything, really, since prices are usually driven up by one singular moron with more money than common sense.

I refuse to be that moron. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Perfecting Sound

NPR has a wonderful interview with Greg Milner, author of "Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music" which can be downloaded here. In the book Mr. Milner traces the development of recording technology from the Edison wax cylinder to the modern day. Based on the interview the books will probably a very compelling read.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Audio over USB

The arrivals of the iPod, iPhone, Airport Express and Apple TV have raised the bar of consumer expectations of convenience when it comes accessing their music collection. With hard drives being as cheap as they are and so many new DACs coming equipped with USB inputs putting together a DIY music server seems like a better and better idea every days. However, like many things in high end audio it's not as simple as it first seems. At least two major factors stand between the interested audiophiles and good sound.

  1. Jitter: In essence all of the "1" and "0" are present and in the correct order but the word clock that tells the DAC when to decode them is wrong. We're talking about fractions of a second here but our ears do pick up on it. Think of it this way. The world's best marching band all taking their time from a drummer with great rhythm vs. that same marching band with someone with no rhythmic sensibility. The musicians haven't changed, their instruments haven't changed, and the sheet music is still the same. But the rhythm won't be the same and things will start to sound sloppy and lax. Many of the new digital to analog converters are built specifically to reject incoming jitter are based on the Burr Brown PCM270x chips. That chip set has two major limitations. First it has a strong jitter component at 1kHz, which as misfortune would have it is smack in the audio band AND the frequency at which the human ear is MOST sensitive. Second, the chip is limited to a maximum sampling frequency of 48kHz which excludes it's use to transfer high resolution 88.2 kHz, 96kHz, and 192 kHz content. A better solution is a DAC capable of exploiting USB's asynchronous mode where the DAC requests the data when it is needed and therefore determining it's own word clock. Curently very few DACs on the market are capable of properly implimenting the asychronous mode because of the coplexity of the computer code necessary to make it work properly. Gordon Raskin, whose first career was in the computer world is one of the few people on the planet with a good understanding of bother sides of the problem. Currently his custom code is available in products from his company, Wavelength Audio and the upcoming QB-9 from Ayre.
  2. Re-sampling: CD's are at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz which means that every second is broken up into 44,100 slices with each slice being described by a series of 16 "1" and "0." Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided that most of their products translate everything to 48kHz or 48,000 by adding essentially garbage in a part of the program called the "K Mixer." According to the Wavelength web page the "K" mixer can be by-passed or mapped through as it's called (proceed at your own risk) by the following steps. "Go Control Panel => Sounds and Audio Device => Select Hardware Tab => Select USB Audio Device.

    Click Properties Button => Select Properties Tab => Click the “+” to the left of [+] Audio Devices that will pop down USB Audio Devices.
    Select USB Audio Devices and click Properties.

    Check both Use audio features of this device and Do not map through this device.
    ==> [ Apply ] <=="

Tuesday, June 02, 2009


Many times it is a struggle to explain to those not interested in high-end audio what drives the audiophile to sacrifice time, money, aesthetics, and domestic tranquility to achieve their goal of sonic bliss. Trying to describe any emotional experience to another individual is always difficult but the euphoria that is brought on by experiencing a phenomenal musical reproduction in one's own home of a favorite artist, many times long since dead is particularly difficult.

For the most part when trying to explain the quest to those who are interested in understanding I've repeated the same anecdote. When I was in college most of my friends were training as classical musicians which gave me the chance to hear live orchestral and string quartet music on a very regular basis. Though I 'm no expert. One night we were all sitting around and shooting the breeze while my stereo was playing a piece by Debussy in the background and one of my good friends asked, "Isn't this all a bit excessive?" while motioning to my system of the time. He was a huge Johnny Cash fan so I asked him, "When you pop in a CD of early Johnny Cash recordings into your boom box what is your goal?" He smugly replied, "I want to listen to a Johnny Cash CD of course" thinking that he had won the argument. My response was to say, "Then a boom box is an acceptable tool to reach your goal. My goal is different. I want to be transported back in time and space to 1955 Memphis, Tennessee at Sun Studios with Mr. Cash and his band 10 feet in front of me and Sam Philips a couple of feet behind me in the control room. To me a really great audio system is almost a time and space machine which should create a virtual reality experience." Instantly everyone in the room sort of got what all of the madness was about and from that day forward they respected what I was trying to accomplish.

Of course if this 20 minute documentary involving the Audiophile Club of Athens by Ken Barns had existed then I would have shown them this as well. It's a great peak into the passion, humor, and diversity that is the hobby. It's also wonderful viewing for audiophiles that have somehow lost their way and forgotten that it really is all about the music. Even though these gentlemen and I have had very different life experiences there is no doubt that the passion that we share for music and audio would be enough common ground to enjoy each others company for an afternoon.