Hi—I’m glad you’re back. In this month’s column I share the results of the thought experiment I teased you about last month.
Not very long ago, the cost of the gear needed to effectively record a band or any kind of small music group would be prohibitive without your having to take out a loan. But with today’s powerful computers and the increasing sophistication of hardware modeling, working entirely “in the box”—that is, not using a traditional mixing console and such analog processing hardware as compressors and equalizers, but their software equivalents—is not only feasible but is increasingly the norm.
Hi, and welcome to SoundStage! Xperience. My name’s Mark Phillips, and I’ve had a lifelong love affair with music and audio. I suspect that’s true for y’all, too. My path here to the SoundStage! family of websites may be unusual, but then, there’s no established career path for audio reviewing. Being a good writer isn’t enough—just as important are years of critical listening. I liken it to the training a sommelier goes through, but refining the sense of hearing instead of smell and taste. My training in critical listening came from being a recording engineer, first for classical and jazz recitals at a large university, and later, mostly rock in my own studio and independently. I left the field not long before the digital audio workstation (DAW) revolutionized recording.
In 1978, when Dire Straits released their first album, Dire Straits, punk and new wave were rising, and disco’s days were numbered. A glance at the albums released that year, however, shows that there was still interest in the roots-based music that was Dire Straits’ specialty. Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits’ songwriter and lead singer, wrote songs that took in jazz, folk, blues, and more, and his lead-guitar playing was imaginative and elegant. Guitar heroes by then were unfashionable, but Knopfler’s emphasis on melody over flash and his skills as a composer made his band -- younger brother and rhythm guitarist David Knopfler, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers -- stand out from the pack.
My first best-of-the-decade list was a defensive reaction to the frequently revived notion that jazz is dying, or worse. Those kinds of negative notions were swirling again in 2009, so I decided to look back at the recordings that had caught my ear over the previous ten years.
This year is the 80th anniversary of Blue Note Records, the venerable jazz label established by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis in 1939. While other record companies played important roles in documenting jazz, Blue Note’s presence in the marketplace overshadows them. It’s doubtful that any other jazz label is better known, or has more recordings currently available in various formats -- the number of Blue Note titles in circulation on CD, as downloads, or on recent vinyl pressings is staggering. Blue Note is also a favorite of audiophile reissue labels, several of which have licensed albums from its catalog to release as new LPs.
Twenty-five years after Frank Zappa’s death from prostate cancer at age 52, it’s still difficult to assess his career, in part because it was so multifaceted. Composer, guitarist, satirist, free-speech activist -- Zappa had many sides, and while they often overlapped, it’s easier to appreciate each of them separately: he was almost compulsively prolific. In his last 27 years he released 64 albums, many of them multi-disc sets, and since then the Zappa Family Trust has released an additional 49 albums, bringing the total of available Zappa releases to 111.
By the early 1970s, rock music was firmly established as a cultural force, and the influx of cash from increased album sales gave record companies incentive to try new things. It was a time when musicians beyond category, such as Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, could have recording contracts with a major label. The ambition of bands both famous and obscure over the previous five years had opened the minds of listeners to all kinds of possibilities, and that willingness to permit and encourage experimentation extended to pop music of all genres. Stevie Wonder, to choose just one example, released some of his most ambitious and groundbreaking recordings in the early ’70s.
Newvelle Records is a Paris-based label that offers jazz recordings on vinyl by subscription. For an annual fee of $400 (plus shipping), the subscriber receives a newly recorded LP every other month and, at the end of the year, a handsome, heavyweight slipcase to store them all in. This year is the third for this service, but you can buy each of the previous annual collections, while still available, for the same price as the subscription.
The recent launch of Schiit Audio’s Loki equalizer, which I first saw at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, inspired me to rethink some of the ideas I’ve long held about audio. The Loki provides a simple, affordable ($149 USD) way to alter the sound of the music you’re listening to. That the Loki is one of only a handful of equalizers ever marketed to audiophiles spotlights a paradox in high-end audio: It’s generally considered verboten to use an equalizer to change the sound of the music you’re listening to, but it’s perfectly OK -- and, in some camps, preferred -- to alter the sound of music through the use of speakers and electronics that add their own sonic color. Check out the comments sections on audio websites and you’ll see that many audiophiles shun the most scientifically advanced, sonically transparent speakers (PSBs, Revels, etc.) and embrace speakers with demonstrably colored sounds -- such as any model using a full-range dynamic driver.
When I got into high-end audio, around 1990, I was attracted to its focus on achieving more realistic reproduction of the music that has been my passion since I was eight or nine years old. But I’m starting to feel that high-end audio now often aims at a different goal.