Wednesday, 5 October 2016

XLD & Sierra

Those of you who use XLD to convert FLAC (and other audio file formats) to Apple Lossless format for use with iTunes, may encounter unexpected difficulties when using it after upgrading OS X to macOS Sierra.  The solution is to download the latest version from:

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem.

For your viewing pleasure on YouTube, a fine all-Italian quartet of soloists, although non of the other three can quite match the power of impressive soprano Erika Grimaldi. London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. The Mezzo was Daniela Barcellona, Tenor Francesco Meli, and Bass Michele Pertusi. Recorded live on 18 September 2016 in the Barbican Centre (where good orchestras go to die), London. Most enjoyable with the aid of a good pair of headphones (I used Audioquest Nighthawks).

Look for this to be released on the LSO Live label at some point.

Monday, 3 October 2016

de Vriend’s Beethoven Cycle

I wrote a while back about how the Mahler Symphony Cycle has more or less replaced the Beethoven Cycle as the reference standard against which modern conductors and orchestras seek to measure themselves.  One of the problems is that there is almost a saturation in the Beethoven repertoire. It's been done so many times that there is less and less room for someone to make a new statement, or showcase a personal approach. Another issue may be that Beethoven’s canvas can be considered more limited and more limiting than Mahler’s, although that is an argument that tends to find more traction outside of professional music circles than within.

On the other hand, Beethoven’s relatively more rigid and formalized approach can be used to great advantage to emphasize subtle points of interpretation, particularly in the context of a complete cycle, in much the same way that a Black & White photograph often opens a window to a greater appreciation of composition and character than its colour counterpart.  There is also the practical issue that it is possible, if one is of a mind to do so, to audition a 5-hour Beethoven cycle over the course of a leisurely afternoon, something that would be out of the question with a 13-hour Mahler cycle.

These days, for a conductor embarking upon a new recording of the Beethoven cycle, the vast legacy of Beethoven Symphony recordings that are already out there must surely loom dauntingly.  I recall reading one reviewer’s assertion that there are over 400 complete symphony cycles alone, something I find astonishing.   So, whatever your vision might be, there is a pretty good chance that somebody, somewhere, sometime, has already done something similar. Then there are the great reference cycles to be considered - what can possibly be constructively added to what the likes of Karajan, Toscanini, Klemperer, Bohm, and so forth, have already laid down?

Over the last three or four decades we have also been treated to the HIP (“Historically Informed Performance”) movement, which seeks to pay homage to the fact that musical instruments in Beethoven’s time were constructed differently, and hence sounded different, compared to contemporary practice.   It, in effect, poses the question “What would these pieces have sounded like at the time they were originally created?”, the unspoken subtext being that whatever it was should most accurately reflect the composer’s intentions.  It is a very valid question from an academic perspective, and makes for a fiery philosophical discussion.

In any case, none of this seems to have put any sort of brake on the continuing output of recorded Beethoven cycles, which continue to emerge.   And it should be noted that some of them have been very highly praised.  Harnoncourt, Chailly, Jansons, and Krivine have all produced well-received cycles during the last decade although I haven’t actually heard them all (or, in the case of Krivine, even heard of him!).  The cycle I am going to report on here is from another conductor who, until I happened upon this cycle, also occupied a place on my ‘never-heard-of-him’ list.  Jan Willem de Vriend.  Do we call him “de Vriend” or just “Vriend”?  I don’t know, but either way I’m already getting pretty fed up with the way my spell-checker keeps changing him to “Friend”, so apologies in advance if any of those escape my final proof-reading.  Here, Vriend conducts The Netherlands Symphony Orchestra.

Carlos Kleiber’s 1975 recording of symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic stands out - and in my view stands head and shoulders above all others - as a landmark interpretation.  In many ways, it established a new school of thought regarding Beethoven interpretation, but it would take more space than I have here to do that notion justice.  Where, for example, Karajan’s superb 1962 cycle emphasizes phrasing, tonality, and an earnest sense of reverence, Kleiber’s 5th has a lighter, smiling face, and opens our eyes (ears?) to the importance of the tight rhythmic elements of the composition, something with which modern jazz musicians would feel an immediate kinship.  Vriend’s new Beethoven cycle is very much of the Kleiber school, which, I suppose, is one reason I like it so much, since Kleiber, being possessed of a famously difficult personality, did not go on to record a complete cycle.

Precision” is the first world that comes to mind when listening to the de Vriend cycle.  It's what in Rock Music circles we refer to as tight.  And Vriend would, surely, have been a drummer.  Every phrase and passage, every instrument, is carefully delineated, so that we get to hear deeply into the music.  The phrasing is light and airy, but tightly controlled.  Tempi give the impression of being on the brisk side, but a stopwatch shows this to be mostly illusory.  Above all else, there is a cohesion of purpose across the entire cycle, accomplished to a degree I have never previously heard.  Listening through the entire cycle in one sitting, as I have done several times, each symphony flows naturally into the next, like movements within a single vast work.  What comes across is a combination of conductor and orchestra very much on the same page - the one is very clearly buying quite enthusiastically what the other is selling.

Perhaps Vriend’s most remarkable accomplishment is the way he transforms Symphony No 1 from being a 'baby brother' symphony to fully formed mature work.  Once the slightly plodding introduction gives way, it really makes you sit up and take notice.  It is the closest thing you will ever come to hearing a previously undiscovered Beethoven symphony for the first time.  Has de Vriend played fast and loose with the orchestration?  There is a richness of tone and sureness of touch to the development that I haven’t previously associated with the Haydn-esque Symphonies 1 and 2.  I certainly didn’t detect any evidence of such liberties being taken with any of the other symphonies that I know much better.  Either way, as the closing bars of Symphony No 1 bray triumphantly out, your attention will surely have been captured, and you will probably find yourself staying in your listening chair as No 1 gives way to No 2, No 3, and so on.  I've lost count of the number of occasions in this cycle where, as a particular movement closes, I just want to do a fist-pump and shout "Yes!".

The famous 9th symphony was the first of the cycle that I actually heard, and it prompted me to get the rest of the cycle.  ‘Idiosyncratic’ was the word I wrote on my notepad.  It too had me sitting up from note one, although first time through it was more ‘interesting’ than gripping.  However, it served it purpose, and left me wanting to listen through again, having notched my expectations up accordingly.  The 800lb gorilla in the 9th symphony is the choice of tempi with which to conclude the final 30 seconds of the last movement.  It is quite possibly classical music’s finest and most satisfying climax.  My problem is that, for me at any rate, Karajan’s 1962 performance rules the roost, and any departure from his inspiring rendition just sounds jarring to me.  And de Vriend’s version DOES depart.  Not in a good way.  No fist-pump.  Big let-down.

Like I said, more than anything else, what de Vriend has accomplished here is the most coherent Beethoven cycle I have yet heard.  It is not perfect, though. While his performance of the 1st Symphony may conceivably be the finest on record, none of the other symphonies will likely make anybody’s personal ‘best of’ list.  But this whole coherence thing is not to be under-rated.  It has a magnetic personality of its own.  More than with any other symphony cycle I own, listening to any one of these symphonies makes we want to listen to another, and another, and another.  As a cycle, I have always had a soft spot for Karajan's 1962 go-round, but playing it now, I find myself hearing it as a curation of nine separate symphonies, rather than as a collective statement. What Jan Willem de Vriend has accomplished with this cycle deserves great credit.  My feeling is that, as it continues to grow on me as a cycle - and it really does continue to grow on me - it will establish itself considerably in stature.  I just wish the ninth didn’t wrap up so disappointingly!

One last thing to be said about this cycle.  It was recorded by Northstar Recording in Holland.  This group is making what are quite possibly the finest classical recordings in the world today.  Given that the quality of classical music recording in general is today at an extraordinarily high level across the board, these could quite possibly be the finest classical recordings ever.  Take advantage while you get the chance.  Here I listened in DSD64.  I also have some of their other recordings in their native DXD (24-bit 352.8kHz PCM) format. [What with Channel Classics also being Dutch, there must be something in the dunes and dykes over there.]   It is SUCH a bonus when great music and great recordings come together.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Jenna Mammina - Close Your Eyes

All too often, as audiophiles, we are torn between listening to the music that we like to listen to because of its musical qualities, and music that we appreciate for its sonic qualities.  Some of our favourite albums are - lets face it - just not that well recorded.  This is brought into even sharper focus when we listen to older recordings - I have examples going back to the 1950’s - that have been remastered recently under circumstances where sound quality is secondary to absolutely nothing.  The recordings I am talking about are all - virtually without exception - major commercially successful recordings.  In some cases (a good example here might be The Doors’ self-titled 1967 debut) they are even colossal musical landmarks.  But today, if anything, contemporary recordings seem to be getting worse, even as recording technology supposedly improves.

When it comes to new releases, the gulf between commercial and specialist recordings in terms of sound quality is widening by leaps and bounds.  The best specialist recordings are getting progressively better, while mainstream commercial recordings are getting progressively worse.  [The one ray of hope is in Classical music, where the sound quality of commercial recordings is getting to be staggeringly good pretty much across the board.]  The trouble with the specialist recording industry is that there is a bit of a disconnect between the artists and music that they offer, and the tastes and desires of the wider buying public.  Most of this is down to simple economics.  There is no money in the music industry, which seems an odd thing to say with Kanye West and Taylor Swift flying overhead in their private jets.  But it’s true.  Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no money in music.

So as audiophiles we can cue up our audiophile prizes - here’s a stunning recording of Joe Blow with his guitar whispering his honestly-crafted and heart-felt folk songs; there’s a Jani Doe with her heart-on-her-sleeve piano arrangements of out-of-copyright classics (listen - you can hear the tears rolling down her cheeks); I have a copy of Burt Qwonk’s incredible virtuoso performance on the [insert name of a bizarre instrument that looks like a guitar with four necks]; then there’s all these other REALLY INTERESTING albums.  No, wait, honestly…  Once you put your cynicism to one side, some of them are REALLY GOOD.

Sorry, I was getting kind of excited there.  No, they’re not.  None of them can be mentioned in the same breath as Kind Of Blue, Ziggy Stardust, The Doors, OK Computer, Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Random Access Memories, etc, … the stuff you really want to play when the booze has run out and your audiophile buddies have all gone home.

Wait a minute.  “Random Access Memories”??  I did NOT write that!

No.  What I’d want - what we ALL want - is an an album of really good music, showcasing first rate material, serious-shit musicians, and a producer who won’t settle for sound that falls short of demonstration quality.  I’d want an album that I’d enjoy listening to even if it was only on my car stereo.  I’d want an album I’d find myself humming all the time.  I’d want an album I can play to friends without having their eyes roll.  In fact, they would like it so much they would ask me what it was.  And I’d tell them - it’s Jenna Mammina’s “Close Your Eyes”.

I downloaded Close Your Eyes from Cookie Marenco’s Blue Coast Records store, “Downloads Now!” (exclamation mark included).  If you don’t know who Cookie Marenco is, you’re either no audiophile, or you’re living under a rock.  She’s been in the music business since … a long time ago.  I imagine she must have recorded “Nobody Does It Better”, because nobody does, although she would have been about 3 at the time.  Now she has her fair share of “honestly-crafted and heart-felt folk singers”, and all kidding aside, some of them are seriously, seriously good, and her catalog, while limited, is as good as any in the no-compromises audiophile market.  But I don’t think she has any four-necked guitar virtuosos (actually, if there are any, Todd Garfinkel is probably recording them).

Occasionally, when the budget is there, Cookie will show you what the extra dollars can bring, whether that is the cost of talented session musicians, or the cost of the extra studio time required to assemble a multi-tracked recording.  And you should know that the caliber of session musicians Cookie can assemble includes folks who won’t even return your phone call ... in fact their agents won't even return your phone call.  Jenna Mammina is a talented singer who inhabits the middle-of-the-road pop scene most readily identified with Norah Jones.  Jones is a superstar whereas Mammina is not.  Such are the vagaries of the music business.  Listening to Close Your Eyes, you
might wonder why.

Close Your Eyes is a sort of “Best Of” album, comprising tracks taken from different recordings Cookie has made for Jenna going back about ten years.  Mostly these are recorded to 2” analog tape, although a couple were recorded directly to DSD.  For “Close Your Eyes” the original tapes were remastered to DSD256 using the very latest Pyramix equipment.  The results are quite astonishing.  Most tracks comprise Jenna on vocals, backed by Bass, Drums, Keyboards, and assorted other instruments including Guitar, Soprano Sax, and Accordion.  Most of the instruments are recorded and mixed with a light touch, the whole album having a seriously laid-back feel, but the bass - OOH, THE BASS - is just spectacular.  I don’t mean Jaco Pastorius spectacular.  I mean absolutely flawless technique, a musical approach that doesn’t intrude, an instrument of the highest caliber, and a recording technique that captures it all perfectly.  You might argue that it is mixed about 6dB too high, but then maybe you just don’t appreciate tasty bass.

From the very first track you are enveloped by the music.  A laid-back take on Steely Dan’s “Dirty Work”, it immediately sets the tone for the album.  The arrangement is slick, highlighted by a soprano sax solo, and suits Jenna’s breathy vocal to a tee.  Immediately, you are aware that you are in the presence of serious musicians.  Next comes “Lotus Blossom” an old track from the 40’s, brilliantly evoking a Parisian Boulevard with a dash of accordion.  It all comes together so well.  “You Can Close Your Eyes” is a James Taylor song, with Jenna accompanying herself on piano.  As she invites you to close your eyes, there is little else that you want to do in that moment.

Next up, and quite possibly the best cover I have heard of it, is Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”.  I’m sure Costello himself would approve.  The vocal delivery manages to evoke a hint of hip-hop drawl which gives it a contemporary vibe.  Chris Izaak’s “Wicked Game” is the only track on the album that at first seems out of place.  Just Jenna with a simply plucked guitar accompaniment, but somehow I find myself thoroughly drawn into it.  I think it is all down to how artfully the vocal is delivered, and the empty sound of the guitar just catches the emotion perfectly.  “Running To Stand Still” from U2’s Joshua Tree album is probably the most ambitious track on the album.  But arena rock does not translate so well to the intimate cafe-lounge setting, and you find yourself waiting for a slow-building climax that simply isn’t delivered.

Dr. John’s “Pictures and Paintings” is offered as a straightforward jazz standard with piano trio, but segues into my favourite song on the album, Tom Waits’ “I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You”.  Just Jenna accompanied by piano, a great song, sung with great feeling.  It’s odd that, on an album notable for its instrumental mixes, I should pick out the simplest one, but such is life.  “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” is another James Taylor offering presented as a soulful jazz number.  Once again we have that delicious bass playing, the laid-back drum licks, and the keyboards doing their classic Hammond thing.  What’s not to love.  The album closes with “When I’m Called Home”, an Abbey Lincoln song, taken from an album Jenna did of Abbey Lincoln covers.  Abbey Lincoln? You might well ask.

So this is one seriously good album.  The songs are of a uniformly high standard, and quite frankly, is easily as good as anything from the Norah Joneses of this world.  I have played it hard and often.  Even my wife nodded appreciatively, which doesn’t happen all that often.  In fact she asked me to turn it up, which NEVER happens.  And despite having all those strikes against it, it stands as an absolute reference when it comes to recording quality.  I love it.

Friday, 30 September 2016

AirPlay with Sierra.

If you read my previous post “AirPlay with El Capitan” you will know that Apple had introduced a significant change to the way the AirPlay subsystem was integrated with the rest of the audio subsystem. This in turn changed the way in which BitPerfect Users had to set up their systems in order to play through an AirPlay-connected audio device. Unfortunately, the way this was done, which was entirely laudable in terms of having been driven by the right ideas, was less successful in the execution. This has caused a lot of gnashing of BitPerfect Users’ teeth.

Well, with the next version of OS X (now re-branded ‘macOS’) called Sierra, we have what looks like a small but worthwhile update. The process of playing BitPerfect through AirPlay still starts by opening macOS’s ‘System Sounds’ (part of the ‘System Preferences’ suite of tools). Different audio devices which are accessible via AirPlay still appear as independent audio output devices of type ‘AirPlay’. Every available AirPlay device still appears as an independent device. But they still only appear when they are powered on and detected by the AirPlay subsystem. In other words, if macOS can’t detect them, then it won’t offer you the option of selecting them. If you want BitPerfect to play through a specific AirPlay device, you have to start by selecting it here.

As before, third party Apps such as BitPerfect are constrained to having to access the AirPlay Subsystem via its Standard Audio Interface. And you would think that if an AirPlay device such as “Joe’s AppleTV” was live on the system, and listed as an available device under ‘System Sounds’, then it would also be live and available under AirPlay’s Standard Audio Interface, which was the case prior to El Capitan. But no. If we wish to see which Standard Audio Interfaces are live and available we must open Audio Midi Setup (normally located within the Applications - Utilities folder). All of the available Standard Audio Interfaces are listed in the left-hand panel. You can select one, and then configure it in the right-hand panel (although no such configuration is required for BitPerfect). However, most of the time, you won’t see an AirPlay device listed there, even though we can clearly see one or more AirPlay devices listed as being available and accessible under ‘System Sounds’. If a device is not listed in Audio Midi Setup, then it will not be made available to BitPerfect, and it will not appear as a choice in BitPerfect’s list of Audio Output Devices, regardless of whether it appears in 'System Sounds'. So far, all this is the same as with El Capitan.

The procedure to get around this is relatively simple, but for the love of God I cannot fathom out why it is required at all. You still have to go into System Sounds and select the specific AirPlay device that you want BitPerfect to play to. Once you have done that - and this may take a few moments - the selected AirPlay device will magically appear in Audio Midi Setup, and shortly after that will appear as one of BitPerfect’s available audio output devices. What has changed is that under El Capitan only “AirPlay” would appear as a Standard Audio Interface. Now, under Sierra, the specific AirPlay device you selected in System Sounds instead appears as its own personal Standard Audio Interface. This is - in my view at least - a good thing from the perspective of stability.

Under El Capitan I had been using Audio Midi Setup as a regular part of the AirPlay setup process in order to confirm that the Standard Audio Interface had been created, because sometimes it just stubbornly refused to appear (for reasons that were never clear). Under Sierra, though, that aspect seems to be quite reliable now. So really, there is not much need any more to go into Audio Midi Setup at all, other than for information or diagnostic purposes.

Finally, as before, you still need to go into iTunes and in its “Choose which speaker…” selector (the button with a ‘transmission beacon’ icon to the right of the iTunes volume slider) you need to be sure to choose “Computer” and NOT the AirPlay device that you actually want BitPerfect to play to.

What this procedure tells us is that macOS is only creating a Standard Audio Interface for an individual AirPlay device when it is selected in System Sounds. What I would like to see is for the Interface to be created automatically as soon as a device is detected and becomes live and available. There would then be separate Standard Audio Interfaces for each available AirPlay device. This would be a far better paradigm and wouldn’t require BitPerfect users to hop in and out of System Sounds.

One limitation of the Sierra system is as follows, though. Suppose you have multiple AirPlay devices, such as an AirPort Express and an AppleTV. You want to play BitPerfect to the AirPort Express, while at the same time streaming something else to the AppleTV. So you go into System Sounds and select the AirPort Express. This creates a Standard Audio Interface for the AirPort Express which BitPerfect can use. So, with BitPerfect playing nicely through the AirPort Express, suppose you go back to your Mac and in System Sounds you now select the AppleTV device. Unfortunately, it seems Sierra either cannot or simply will not allow multiple Standard Audio Interfaces to exist at the same time, and so it immediately closes the one for the Airport Express, and opens a new one for the AppleTV. In effect, BitPerfect’s designated Audio Output Device suddenly disappears, and it simply stops playing.

Even though these shenanigans are a little irritating, I still feel that they are evidence that Apple’s AirPlay implementation is moving in the right direction. Quite clearly, the requirements of third party users such as BitPerfect are very much an afterthought, and we recognize that we are always going to have to feed off the scraps from the Master’s table. Nonetheless, my feeling is that this iteration of the BitPerfect/AirPlay experience is a step in the right direction. It may not quite knock the Yosemite implementation off its perch, but it is in all likelihood a solid #2. In fact if you prefer Sierra’s quirks to Yosemite’s, you might even rate it #1.

macOS Sierra :)

I now have a workaround in place for the Console Log issue I mentioned last week, plus I have been using AirPlay on Sierra with success, so I will post an update shortly on how to make that work.

In short, BitPerfect users can now feel comfortable upgrading to macOS Sierra if they wish to do so.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

macOS Sierra

I have been using BitPerfect 3.1.1 with the latest version of OS X, “macOS Sierra”.  It comes with iTunes as part of the installation.

The results are a bit of a mixed bag.  Functionally, BitPerfect seems to be working fine.  I haven’t come across any unusual behaviour yet.  However, I notice that the Console App has changed significantly with Sierra, and it appears that it is not displaying most of BitPerfect’s diagnostic messages.  This is going to make it very difficult for diagnostic purposes.  For that reason, I recommend that BitPerfect users hold off from making this update for the time being, unless they have other, more pressing needs to do so.  We will dig deeper into this issue and report our findings in due course.

I also need to spend some time trying out the AirPlay subsystem under Sierra, and I haven’t been able to get around to that yet, so AirPlay users might want to avoid the update for the time being unless they are feeling particularly adventurous.  AirPlay users who are still on Yosemite in particular should stay where they are.  Yosemite is notably stable with AirPlay.  El Capitan is not, and Sierra might not be any better.