Tag Archives: music

Stages (Parts 1 – 3)

Being cooped up in the house with the COVID stay-the-fuck-at-home orders has led me to express my shopping needs in other ways.  The subject at hand is my stereo system.  An earlier post reminded me that I’ve had this goal to recapture the stereo excitement of my youth for quite a few years now.  And that’s not to say progress hasn’t been made – it definitely has.

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It started with a cheap thrift store stereo, a tape deck, and headphones.  Then a CD player was added.  Then another CD player was added.  But still, very little listening was being done.  Then the milestone of having a dedicated room for listening was reached and I cobbled a new and different stereo system together using my powered studio monitors and a new preamplifier to handle inputs and volume.  A dedicated listening chair completed the arrangement.  This setup has worked very well for over a year.

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But I’ve been envisioning the real stereo experience, with a powerful amplifier and full-size speakers to go with it.  However, in these uncertain times, I don’t want to blow a wad of cash all at once, so I’ve planned out a phased approach to get there relatively quickly.

The primary hardware to complete the goal is really only two items: the amplifier and the speakers.  There’s also some ancillary bits as well, including furniture for the hardware.  I’ve kind of been stalled on progress because I didn’t want to buy the amp and the speakers all in one go, but I didn’t want to buy either one and just have it sit unused until I bought the other.  Then, I had a revelation, which came late, but probably at a better time.

If I buy an amplifier, it would be a waste until I bought my speakers, because my existing speakers have built in amplifiers without any way to bypass them.  My revelation made me realize that although the amplification in my speakers can’t be bypassed, the amplifier circuit in the right model of amplifier could be.  That would reduce the amplifier to only preamplifier functions, just like the preamplifier I currently own.

The search was then on for a receiver that had preamp outputs on it.  And the critical decision needed to be made: do I go vintage or modern?  In my original plan, I had current, modern products picked out and a pretty large budget for them.  And now, after experiencing a number of vintage CD players, I’m not sure I need anything more modern than them.  So vintage it is.  And in keeping with my nostalgia, I’m going to choose the Technics brand.  Justly or no, Technics has a bad reputation for their 80’s gear.  There are fans out there as well, but they get shut down often by "the ones who know better".

The model I picked was the SU-V98, which has the required preamp outputs and will also be suitable for my future speakers with 110 watts per channel.  That’s actually pretty respectable as many of the amps I had been looking at were 30-50.  As luck would have it, a listing just popped up on EBay selling one for $70.  Others were priced in the $150 range, so the purchase was made.  Step one complete.

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Now, the last step in the transition will be the purchase of the speakers.  I’ll be able to run everything right the way I have it now, simply substituting my preamp for this new Technics amplifier.  But, it’s not going to be a viable long-term option.  See, my stereo setup is on a long Ikea table.  Ikea stuff isn’t known for its durability and even with only a couple of CD players sitting in the middle of the span, I can see the slightest bit of sagging happening.  Adding a 15lb amp to the table isn’t going to make that any better.  So step two in the mid-term is going to be new furniture.

Replacing the Ikea table will require a new stereo rack and stands for the studio monitors.  In the final stage, the studio monitors and stands will be replaced with tower speakers.  Since the speaker stands are only temporary, I can skimp out on them, but I should get the stereo rack with the goal of having it be suitable for the future.  However, when shopping for speaker stands, there is a clear distinction between "good" and "good enough".  That difference is the size of the mounting plate on top.  In most all affordable stands, that plate is 5"x5".  My speakers are about 8"x10".  Balancing those heavy, expensive speakers on a tiny platform 32 inches off the ground doesn’t sound appealing to me, especially with cats in the house.

That alters my plans a little bit.  It essentially doubles the budget for the speaker stands.  But, to remain positive, the stand quality will be excellent and the speakers are already excellent, so there won’t be any unnatural need to rush to the last step and buy the tower speakers.  There will be time to enjoy and appreciate the configuration as it is. 

And that’s really the plan:  to enjoy the upgrade journey.  Sometimes when you get the end result all at once, you can’t appreciate al the elements involved, because you have no history of change to compare it to.  This is really the best way to grow a stereo system.  Will it ever end?  For a lot of people, it never does.  In fact, I do know one more step I can take after "the last step".  If I find my amplifier doesn’t sound as good as I think it could, the preamp outputs in the SU-V98 can be used for what they were designed for – running an external amplifier.

A New Piece, And A Little Less Peace

After lunch today, I had the idea to visit the Cash America pawn shop.  I don’t bother much with pawn shops anymore, and it’s rare that I visit them, much less buy anything.  I have the assumption that most everything there is overpriced or has some problem with it.  Although, I do admit, I bought two Wii systems from pawn shops and those have been just fine.  That’s probably my last purchase, a couple of years ago.

So today, I browse around and ended up spying and buying a graphic equalizer for my stereo setup.  It’s made by Technics and is the correct vintage for my CD player.  The model is Technics SH-8017.  The EQ was $25, but was marked down to $20 early for President’s day.  And when I checked out, they made it $20 after tax, so even a little extra. 

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But when I went to check out and pulled out my credit card, they asked for my ID.  I said, "That’s new," and the manager said it was, because, you know.  Yeah, pawn shop.  And then, I was completely set up in their system with an account.  Name, address, phone number, date of birth, the whole works.  To buy something!  midway through, I though this wasn’t worth it for $20 and almost pulled out cash, but also considered, this was going to happen sooner or later and the sooner I can get in the system, I won’t have to do it again.

But what a weird thing, to have to create a customer profile to buy something.  Then again, is it weird?  You do it all the time when shopping online.  It is weird when buying something over a counter.  But is it?  You usually give up all that stuff when you sign up for loyalty or reward programs, too.  And it is a pawn shop, after all.  Everything behind those doors is a strange legal limbo.

But anyway, with all that behind me, I took the device home and plugged it in.  Everything worked quite well.  I noticed no additional noise when running it inline with the Technics CD player.  The only thing wrong with it is it’s missing one rubber foot (not seen in the front right), which I’ll be able to buy replacements for easily enough.  I tested out its capabilities using my CD of ZZ Top – Afterburner, which is notoriously anemic; even more so through the Technics CD Player.  As shown, I simply boosted the lower two bands and that raised the bass level to something more appropriate.

Could I have done the same with the tone controls on my preamp?  Well, yeah, but two things: first, there’s no quick bypass for the tone controls, so I would have to adjust them every time.  With the EQ, I just turn the device off to bypass it.  Second, the bass control is probably centered around a higher frequency than the lowest two bands on the graphic EQ.  That usually causes some "boominess" and is why tone controls aren’t that good for sound shaping.

I recently read a quip from a blogger whose opinion I trust and he said while using studio monitors for music listening (as I do) is fine, they tend to make the music more clinical, whereas normal amps and speakers are designed to reproduce music with a bit more excitement or punch.  So now, I have to consider if I want to go that route and if so, what amp and speakers to get.  My setup has been pretty good to me so far.  I guess it’s time to go to the next level.

A Christmas Burden

As a collector of CDs, sometimes I fantasize about coming across an old collection that’s up for sale, one with lots of old and rare CDs in it, along with CDs that I would also want to listen to.  I’ve read about people having experiences like that – they’re not common at all.  But Sunday, I was fortunate enough to have one of my own.

I had planned to visit my local flea market that day to check out and maybe buying a dart set for fun.  I have a board set up in my garage, but I don’t seem to have any darts anymore.  So I visited the booth with the darts and because there was only one set available, I decided to hold off another week until he got his order with different models.  My flea market doesn’t have a resident “CD guy”, so I don’t stop in very often.  But I did feel like getting some walking in, so I wandered the halls.

I found a couple of temporary sellers with CDs, but their selection was terrible and in poor condition.  Another seller had like 10 CDs out.  Sigh.  But, leaving that seller’s stand, I saw a booth across the hall with a couple of larger CD racks.  I went over to see what was there.  Within 10 seconds of browsing the rack, I could tell this was a personal collection.  There were items there that I never see anywhere else.  In one rack, there was almost the entirety of the IRS NoSpeak series, something I had completed this year.  I could have saved quite a bit of money, here.

Alas, I didn’t find anything in the two front racks, but when I stood back up and actually looked in the booth, there were six more racks and a couple of boxes of CDs.  Oh my god, if it’s all the quality of what’s out front, I’m in trouble.

And without dragging it out, yes, it was and, yes, I was.  There were two criteria I was working with at this booth.  The first was looking for stuff I wanted (duh).  The second was looking for any smooth-sided cases, which would indicate early CD pressings.  In the first criteria, I found maybe 6 CDs.  However, when it came to smooth cases, this collector was seriously an early adopter.  I was pulling out CDs 2-3 at a time and stacking them up into multiple piles.

The total at the end was 62 CDs.  The lady charged me a whopping $55 and even was willing to take a credit card when I explained I didn’t have enough cash to cover the purchase.  I was willing to do PayPal or some other method to avoid her getting a fee, but ok.  She was very happy to move so many of the CDs at once, and I was very pleased with what I had pulled out.

Back at home, I stacked the CDs all up and began cleaning the cases.

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After cleaning them, which took a little over half an hour, I had to step away to let my mind think about what I had to do.  I broke the incoming items into three piles: things that were duplicates of what I already had (and might be upgrades), things I definitely wanted to add to the collection, and the rest was going to have to be evaluated to see if I wanted to keep it.  I ended up with 20 definite adds, 6 or so dupes, and the rest was left for later.  Then I had to take another break.

What we’re talking about here is listening to 50+ albums.  Even being really aggressive about it, listening to one CD on the way to work, one on the way back, and maybe one at night, we’re still talking almost a month of new music.  And listening to an album once isn’t always fair when choosing to keep it or not, and I do want to be fair.  That means a whole lot of music has been dropped into my life.

And that quantity of music is overwhelming.  Believe it or not, I haven’t listened to any of it yet.  You would think I would have immediately popped in a CD coming back from the flea market, but I was too shocked at my fortune.  When you have over 60 albums to listen to, where do you start?  The genres are all over the place, so I could get anything, really.  What a first world problem.

I pulled out the 20 albums that were on the must have list and got them logged into my Discogs account.  It put my collection’s Max total over $20k.  Obviously that’s highly optimistic, but it’s still a milestone.  I compared the dupes in my collection to the newcomers and only swapped one out.  The other 5 have to get compared and posted on my other blog.  So I have plenty of things to do ahead of me next week.

Revelations

It was almost 3 years ago that I really started to rebuild my interest in having a home stereo again.  I had purchased a cheap stereo from a thrift store.  That stereo only had a cassette player.  Then, I followed that purchase up with a $10 CD player from another thrift shop.  At that point, I should have been done, and should have been happy to spend so little money on a stereo.  The alternative I had planned was a new system – amp/CD/speakers – on the order of $1200 or so.  My cheap CD player, paired up with the powered studio monitors I’d owned for many years, was a really good sounding little system.  At least that’s what I thought.

In the time since, I have bought other cheap CD players at thrift stores.  The reason for this was for experience.  One experience was the restoration and repair of the devices.  Of my purchases, one repair was successful, one wasn’t, and the latest one didn’t need any work at all.  The other experience was more audiophilic.  People that review stereo equipment have the ability to grade and rank such equipment and that’s really something the average person can’t really do.  No one goes out and buys five different CD players at $300-$500 just to compare how they sound.  But if the players are $10 each, well, that reviewing experience becomes just a fun little hobby.

The first player in my collection is an Onkyo DX-701.  It was made in 1992.  Being the first in my collection, it was my unofficial standard.  When I first set it up, I was thrilled with it.  It did exactly what it was supposed to do: play CDs.  For $10, it was all I needed.

The next player I got was a Scott DA980, in April 2019.  It cost all of $7.  There’s not a lot of information out there about this player, but its manufacture date is June, 1989.  It appears to be a Yamaha-manufactured device rebranded by Scott.  Unfortunately, it needed some work and I got my first experience repairing a CD player.  Comparing it to the Onkyo, I really liked how smooth and silent the loading tray was.  But what I should have really focused on was whether it sounded better.  To be honest, I couldn’t tell.  And that really disappointed me.  I thought I would be able to notice some difference, but I didn’t.  So at that point, I assumed that “digital is digital” and all decent CD players sound the same.  So then, I wouldn’t really need to focus on sound quality, but more on features.

Then, this month, I found yet another cheap CD player.  It was a Technics SL-P220.  It was marked at $16 and I happened to buy it on a 50% off day, so it cost me $8.  My luck in CD player purchases is remarkably consistent.  This player didn’t need any repair, just some cleaning.  Well, some of the cleaning was technically repair because the control buttons were intermittent.  I am a fan of the Technics brand.  It was the brand of the stereo system in my youth.  This player came out just about the time CDs were hitting the mainstream.  Just about the time I experienced my first CD at my friend’s house.  This is the oldest of the three players (June, 1987) and being that old, it would be expected to have the least refined technology for decoding digital audio.

When I did my first test play with the Technics, it was kind of a surreal experience.  It sounded different.  Way, way different, in a good way.  I put identical CDs in the Technics and the Onkyo and played them together, then switched back and forth to determine the difference.

And here’s where the difficulty begins.  When you read stereo reviews, you will usually find yourself rolling your eyeballs at the descriptions the reviewers use.  In fact, you will probably internally smirk at anyone that tries to describe the qualities of sound.  It’s just something that can’t really be done.  In my case, the first thing I thought of comparing the two is that the Technics was “brighter.”  And that’s a fair description.  Most people can determine bright sound vs dull or flat sound.  This is probably also what experts mean when they say “digital-sounding”.  But who knows?  What does digital sound like?

So, I had a word that I could use to describe how the Technics sounded better to me (that’s important).  But as I listened to it more, there were more differences and those were more painful to describe because it made me sound like a pompous high-end stereo reviewer.  I’ll not get into those descriptions and just say it sounded much, much better to me than the Onkyo.  As I always do when I get a new piece of equipment, I search for anyone talking about it.  And I found only two mentions of the SL-P220, one saying it was great and another saying they replaced it with something that was substantially “better”.

Here’s the thing for me.  This latest player has changed my interest in listening to music.  I’m now excited to hear music from it.  It has the same magic as when I first heard the albums decades ago.  This is something the other two players didn’t do for me.  It’s revelatory.  I’ve read over and over that you have no idea what you’re missing until you hear the music you love on a good system.  But… this is an early player and even at that, isn’t a top-end model, just standard-grade.  It’s a $300 player back in the day which was average.  And, considering what I hear and what experts say, this is an example of poor early-era digital reproduction – tinny, thin, bright, “not analog sounding”, blah blah blah.

So fucking what!  The Technics sounds incredible to me and when I try listening to the Onkyo afterwards, it sounds dull and lifeless.  So if I like the sound of bright digital, why should I be ashamed of it?  So yes, I have a new favorite CD player and it’s my new benchmark.  It’s not going to stop me from buying more cheapo players and comparing them.  Maybe I’ll find something even better.

The Second System

Last month, I upgraded my primary computer and one thing that sort of disappointed me about that event was that the old computer was still quite serviceable.  Aside from the need to support larger hard drives, it was perfectly fine.  After I finished the new built, I boxed up the old parts and left them stored for some unknown future day.

While I am still in my personal rebuilding phase, I’m playing around with a lot of ideas.  Most of those ideas are things from my past.  One specific one is music – playing, recording, etc.  So as I mulled this over, I considered the setup plan.  One thing I wanted was to not use my primary computer for the audio recording, as I had always done in the past.  While all computers are powerful enough to multitask like that now, I just didn’t want the clutter.  And that’s when I remembered I had a whole other quite serviceable computer sitting in a box.  All it needed was a new case.  That makes the idea much more reasonable from a cost perspective.

I got to work shopping for a new computer case, which was easy and not easy at the same time.  I wanted a desktop case (horizontal orientation), but it seems they just don’t make those anymore.  Too old fashioned, I guess.  So I shopped for the smallest tower case I could find.  And since this was a secondary system that would be limited in purpose, I bought the cheapest thing available.  And I bought a cheap power supply to install in it, too.  Maybe a total spend of $60.  Everything else I already had ready to go – monitor, cables, drives, RAM.

The case arrived the other day and I wanted to get a jump on things by installing the motherboard in right away.  Upon opening the box, I saw that all the front panels for the drive bays had popped off.  Then I noted the front panel was also popped off.  This gave me a bad feeling.  After extracting the case from the packing material, I was left with a collection of plastic tabs all over the table.  It appears the box was dropped or mangled in some way to basically shear the front panel straight off.  Every plastic tab that held the front panel to the case was broken off.  Not a single one was spared.

I’m not going to go through a bunch of RMA bullshit for a $30 case, but I’m also not going to just pitch it or give up on it.  I went to the garage and got my big box of miscellaneous screws and permanently attached the plastic panel back to the case with sheet metal screws.  That’ll show ‘em.  And without further incident, I installed the motherboard, video card, and hard drives in the case.  Now I just had to await the arrival of the power supply, which would come the next day.

This computer would be one of those unheard of systems that runs off-network.  No updates ever; first install-last install.  File transfer and backup would be via USB drives to my primary computer.  Ah, the good old days.  Time will tell if Windows 10 can even survive in this environment.  If not, well I suppose I could drop back to Windows 7.  Windows 7 is near end-of-life with security updates being phased out in January 2020, but on an unnetworked computer, what’s security?

Next up, software.

Spreading The Art

In a recent post, I’ve talked about the rebuild of my Plex database and one of the things that process exposed was the poor quality of my CD cover art.  Long past are the days where a 500×500 cover image would be sufficient, and you could even get by with 240×240.  After all, MP3 player screens didn’t have any significant resolution.  But now, the “MP3 player” in my house is a 60” television screen, with a beautiful “now playing” screen.  And it’s not all the beautiful when the album picture looks like crap.  So it’s time to remedy that.

For a large part of my collection, I was able to rely on a utility called Album Art Downloader, which is a pretty descriptive name as that’s all it does.  It searches a large variety of websites and lets you pick the picture you want to download in whatever resolution is available.  Initially it’s very overwhelming, but once you get it scaled back to a reasonable number of art sources, it’s quite workable.

I settled on a minimum size of 950×950 for my art.  I wanted to have a nice round number like 1000×1000, but one of the album art sites has a default of 953×953 (how odd), so that’s a lot of what I ended up with.  Ridiculously, iTunes and Google Music both have images up to 4000×4000.  Why so many pixels?!  But anyway, I got the best of what I could, and the rest I would have to handle myself.

It was way back in 2008 that I made a post saying I was scanning my less-accessible albums and posting them online.  Of course, back then, I was posting images at 500×500, which was fair over 10 years ago.  In 2014, I made another run at it.  But now, I’m continuing again, but posting the images online at 1500×1500.  This sharing is all well and good, but it doesn’t have the reach I feel it deserves.  Not many people are going to go to Flickr to search for album art, and also, the Album Art Downloader does not search Flickr for artwork, so that should be a sign.

So, where should I upload my contributions?  There’s one website that is pretty highly respected, Album Art Exchange, and I found them many years ago.  But I was immediately turned off by many factors, primarily the site owner’s terrible behavior and the site’s draconian policies.  For a long time, I stayed with Flickr, primarily for the independence, but also because nothing else out there seemed as organized.  Recently, I learned about Fanart.tv and I’m very hopeful that can be my new home for my efforts.

Of course every site has rules and guides to preserve the quality of their content, but it doesn’t seem to be as toxic as Album Art Exchange.  The site is a little rough around the edges, but on the plus side, they have an integration API, so they are open to sharing their content, unlike AAX, who wants to retain complete control over everything.  Fanart ties their entries to MusicBrainz, which is another site I have a little experience with.  I chose Discogs over MusicBrainz for my collection tracking, but I don’t have animosity for them like I do with AAX.  The point is that their artist and album entries are based on an authoritative source, instead of AAX’s free-for-all text entry is a clear positive.

So right now, I have 200 CD covers on Flickr that I can contribute, excluding any dupes of course.  But then again, I’ve pretty much only uploaded covers I can’t find anywhere else, so that’s promising.  In my collection, I am down to 37 albums under 950px where I can’t find any better source of artwork.  Some of the albums I’ve been scanning I am really surprised don’t have a high-quality image online already.  I have some obscure albums, but Eddie Money’s Greatest Hits?  Surely that would be on iTunes or Google Music, right? Nope.  You can’t find a good image anywhere.  I was also surprised I couldn’t find Styx – Return To Paradise.  On the other hand, I am also amazed at how a lot of classical albums can have different covers for the same album, sometimes with different working, sometimes different pictures.  It’s very strange.  “That’s the album, but that’s not the cover.”

Entering any new community is always scary, especially on the Internet.  Wish me luck.

The State Of Collecting

When I started collecting seriously in 2015, I had about 620 CDs.  Some people would say that’s a lot.  I remember in the 90’s, I started really building my collection by visiting pawn shops.  CDs were usually $5 each.  Now, they are $1-2 each at thrift shops.  The low cost allows me to indulge in albums I wouldn’t have taken a chance on at $5.

I say that I started collecting “seriously” in 2015 because that is when I started tracking my collection online with Discogs.  From that point onward, I am able to see when I added more to my collection.  The online site doesn’t give any statistics over time, but they do allow you to download your collection for you to analyze yourself.  I’m no Excel guru, so although I tried to create some pretty pictures and graphs, I was unable to get anything that was suitable.

In 2016, I added 207 CDs.  Looking through the filtered list, some additions catch my eye.  This is the year I got a couple of holiday CDs from a secret santa.  It’s the year I first heard Kraftwerk, one of those legendarily influential groups you should hear.  In fact, that was probably when I started really trying to experience “the legends” when up to that point, they were out of my normal musical orbit.  Some other artists that I’d never owned before, notable and not, include: Vince Guaraldi, Steely Dan, Eurythmics, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, and The Pretenders.

In 2017, I added 254 CDs.  I was more actively seeking out sources for cheap CDs.  I would hit thrift shops and flea markets on a regular basis.  I learned that some thrift shops didn’t really have the turnover that others did, so some places had to be hit weekly and others could be visited less frequently.  I was also visiting my local record store for the more elusive titles, which came at a premium price.  Some new artists from this year: Madonna, Autograph, Roxette, Loverboy, Billy Ocean, Pointer Sisters, Billy Squier.

In 2018, I added 327 CDs.  My local record store had moved father away, so I was spending more time at thrift shops and travelling longer distances for flea markets.  I was also discovering other sources for CDs.  ReStore by Habitat For Humanity was a newer discovery.  Antique malls and indoor flea markets were another.  The latter were good sources as they were usually personal collections being sold.  Some of the new artists this year: Testament, Exodus, Dio, Krokus, Black Sabbath, Mercyful Fate (good time for metal), Adam Ant, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Level 42, Aretha Franklin, Annie Lennox, Bruce Springsteen.

All of the purchase counts are exclusive of the duplicate CDs that I bought.  Usually they were upgrades to existing CDs I already had – maybe a foreign pressing, maybe an earlier pressing, maybe a target CD.  In 2018, I sold off 80 of those CDs to a local store.  I have about 30 queued up again.

Is it weird that I am adding to my collection every year a quantity that exceeds most peoples entire collection?  Maybe.  But as in just about any sort of addictive hobby, there will always be examples of those much worse than yourself.  I mean, I have 1500 CDs, but there are people out there with 10x as many.  I’m not even sure I have enough musical interest to span 10,000 CDs.  Since my music tastes only span a couple of decades, that should keep me from going full hoarder.  One collector posted his collection of 40k CDs and it consumed the entire wallspace of two adjoining rooms, plus multiple island cabinets in the middle of one room.  He also said he just returned from a trip to a couple of stores and bought over 160 more CDs.  So, it’s not as bad as it could be.

Another Brick In The Closet

Last year, before the holidays, I found a nice, massive keyboard sitting unloved at a thrift store.  I assume it was still sitting there because anyone that tested it would have found it to be broken.  I, however, am foolish enough to buy things without any consideration of functionality.  So I brought this keyboard home, discovered it was broken, and proceeded to fix it up enough to make it work.  And it’s been sitting in my closet ever since, waiting for its moment of glory.

On this most recent holiday, I saw something else at a thrift shop – a nice, tiny keyboard.  The price was right, so I bought it – untested as is my way.  As soon as I got the device to the car, I realized it was broken.  One of the controller knobs was completely snapped off.  Oh well.  The price was right.  Let’s get it home and see if it even powers up and makes noise.

I got it home and it powered up and made no sound.  Well, it made a buzzing sound, sometimes.  I started doing some online research and learned that this particular synth has a well known issue with that control knob failing (not sure if being broken off is considered “failing”).  So replacements are generally easy to get.  At this point, I don’t even know if that’s the actual problem.  But let’s take a step back and look at this thing.

This little bugger is the Alesis Micron, which is an analog modeling synthesizer.  It originally sold for $400 back in 2004.  It still sells for about $200 on the used market.  I got it for $7.50, half-off the original $15 price.  So you see, it was worth the gamble.  I’ve spent far more on far less (which should be my life’s motto).

When I saw “analog modeling synthesizer” on it, I got really excited.  The only synth of that type I’d really known about before dropping out of the music scene was the Nord Modular, which I remember being a 4-figure keyboard.  These types of keyboards emulate the older synths of the 70s and 80s. and they typically do it very well.  They also have a lot of the features of older synths like arpeggiators (for playing Who Are You) and vocoders (for playing Mr. Blue Sky).  There is a video on Youtube of someone playing Mr. Mister’s Kyrie live and solo on the Micron. But before I can have that kind of fun, this device needs repair.

I have a couple of options.  I can just replace the knob (a potentiometer, if you want to sound cool), which requires some soldering work.  The part costs less than $2 (plus shipping), and of course, I’ll need a new knob button to cap it off.  Yeah, that’s one option, or I can buy a whole new control board with knob for $40.  That’s the plug and play option and the one I opted for.  That and the cap were about $50, so if this works out, I will have a really neat new synth for a little under $60.  And then, it can sit in my closet, too.  How stupid.

It is dumb, but I have a lot of fun rescuing junk and making it (or trying to make it) usable.  I should consider myself fortunate this desire is just for musical equipment and not, say, cats.

The parts are currently being shipped and I should have them next week.  Let’s hope I have as much success with this little Alesis as I did with the huge Alesis.

You Shall Be Known By Your Stars

A while ago, I had read a post online by a music collector where he had just completed a goal of listening to and rating every song in his library.  It only took him five years to do it.  Bravo for that level of effort.  The consideration of doing something similar for myself led me to attempt to define what a rating system would look like for me.

The “for me” thing is the most important part.  Ratings are entirely subjective, and still at the same time, they must be well-defined and rigid.  That feels weird to me, “this is precisely how it must be… for me.”  But weird or not, in order to begin rating my albums (and/or songs), I need to have a stick to measure with.

In my consideration of rating my music, I determined that there’s two levels of ratings, at the song level and at the higher album level.  These two ratings more or less correspond with the way I would listen to the music, either absorbing an entire album at a time, for example, playing a CD while driving, or, listening to a playlist while sitting at a computer or through the Plex server.  So, having the two different types of ratings is moderately important.

A 5-star rating applied to a song is pretty straightforward.  How much do I like the song?  That’s an important question because the question is not, how good is the song? That open-ended question carries with it every sub-question imaginable, summed up as, how good is it by what metric?  So, every song would start at 3 stars, being neutral, and the likelihood I’d want to hear it again adds or subtracts one or two stars.  But, I don’t plan on rating every one of my songs in any near future, so I don’t feel concerned with this scheme.

Albums, though, would get rated on a totally different scale and I thought hard on this.  The answer lies in the composition of the songs on the album.  My scale is as such:

5 – A top-notch album.  Any song could be played individually in a playlist and the album would be enjoyed played beginning to end.

4 – An excellent album. Most songs could be included in playlists, but the album is stronger than the individual tracks.

3 – A good album.  Some songs could be included in playlists, and the album could be played beginning to end without feeling the need to skip any tracks.

2 – An album with some good songs.  A few songs could be included in playlists and some songs would be skipped when playing as an album.

1 – Few to no good songs.  Very unlikely the album would be played except to hear the good songs (if any).  It might be a curiosity or kept for completist reasons.

Here’s the problem with rating things.  People want to love things more than they really do.  They tend to ignore the flaws and focus on the good.  That’s great in the world of human relations (although it’s just as unsustainable as in any other application).  So, in rating my music, it was important to have a clearly-defined way to avoid excessive 5-star ratings.  Once it was absolutely clear that 5 stars was highly-rarified territory, and that it wasn’t through any fault of the artist, the pressure of saying an album is “the best of the best” subsides.

To explain, consider an album that has some segue between songs, presented as another track.  It’s unlikely you would include the short 30 second clip in a playlist, thus – excluded.  4-star max.  Or you have an album like Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, which has two 20-some minute tracks.  It’s not likely you want your playlist to be stalled for 20 minutes.  Same for Rush’s 2112.  Alternately, maybe a long song is chopped up into multiple tracks.  The song would make no sense played on shuffle in a playlist.  These examples explain the emphasis on “album” for the 4-star rating.  The album is designed as a linear experience, and there should be no shame that it is capped at 4 stars.

The interesting aspect about that rating system is that mediocre albums can be 5-star.  If there’s an album – I can think of a couple of jazzy instrumental albums – where every song stands on its own and could be played individually, but it’s not an album that particularly excites me.  So all the songs would be rated as 3 stars, but the album itself would be 5 stars.  These would be cases where I would add an entire album to a playlist instead of individual songs.

Along with the stress of wanting to rate albums higher than they belong is the admission that an album is not strong as you want it to be.  Tastes change, so that shouldn’t be an issue, but you know, I used to play that album all the time!  I am curious to see how many low-rated albums I really have.  I would guess it’s probably higher than I would expect, because I have been branching out into lots of different artists simply because it’s so cheap to buy CDs.

But the bottom line is, the baseline rating is 3 stars.  Would I put the CD in the car and listen to it all the way through?  If I would skip tracks, it drops to 2 stars.  I probably wouldn’t even take a 1-star album in the car. *cough* Spin Doctors *cough*

Migrating Music

I had mentioned in my last post that I was testing out the possibilities of streaming my music collection throughout my house and elsewhere.  The experiment has been pretty successful and I believe the cat is all the happier for it.  Some of the “phase 2” features I’ve been digging into haven’t been as easy to implement as I would have hoped, but there’s no rush on any of those.  But in the process of learning and applying, I made what could be considered a radical change to my music collection.

In long-ago posts, I’d talked about ripping my CDs to MP3, then re-ripping them in WMA Lossless only to delete it all and keep my MP3s.  Then the light bulb came on and I re-ripped them again to WMA Lossless and have kept that library for years now.  It’s grown to nearly 450GB and has served me well all this time.

Why WMA Lossless?  Well, I was in the Zune ecosystem all that time.  The Zune software was compatible with WMA and it was the only way to get lossless files onto the players.  For many years the open source crows have been squawking, “FLAC! FLAC, FLAC!” and I have been ignoring them.  Because of Zune, of course, but also, all the available FLAC music players sucked.

But finally, Microsoft caved to the pressure and built FLAC support into Windows 10, and the Groove player also now supports FLAC.  I still had my WMA library and was fine with it.  But in reality, I didn’t really use the Zune software much anymore, I just used VLC (which supports FLAC) instead. 

During my experimentation with Plex, I enjoyed a neat little feature that lets you see the current server activity.  That means I can watch the living room TV’s stream and see what song my cat is currently listening to.  Something that caught my attention on that screen was a status that said “Transcoding WMALOSSLESS to AAC”.  This was mildly concerning.  It meant that my media server was spending extra CPU converting my media files to a format the Roku on the TV could handle.  My server is pretty beefy, so like I say, it was only mildly concerning.  However, when I streamed my library to the GF’s Roku on her TV, I experienced some slight dropouts or other minor disruptions in the audio.  I wasn’t sure if this was a bandwidth problem or a conversion problem.  I read up a little on FLAC and it seemed FLAC might be a better choice for efficient decoding and possibly for streaming.

I gave this a little consideration.  If I converted my entire library to FLAC, it’s likely I wouldn’t need to do any transcoding anymore.  I could still play my files with VLC or Groove or Plex – no more Zune devices.  Is there really any downside anymore?  And so, I downloaded a program to batch convert my entire collection to FLAC.  It was about 4 hours of processing time, which actually isn’t too bad.  All the metadata was preserved (and some bad data was exposed along the way).  And I saved about 50GB of drive space, too.  I deleted my old WMA files and replaced them all with FLAC.

Because my collection was all new files, I had to refresh the Plex database, which probably means I’ll have to clean up the artwork again, but that’s fine.  I also need to rebuild the playlists I’d been curating, which is more of a bummer, but hopefully it’s a chance to do it better this time.  I quickly recreated the cat’s playlist and when I streamed it to the TV this morning, the activity monitor in Plex stated “Direct Play”.  No more transcoding – success!

Because I’m generally a contrarian, it hurts just a tiny bit to fall in with the FLAC crowd, because they’ve always been a bit pompous, like “if you’re not using FLAC, you’re an idiot” in the same way Linux people tout the wonders of their chosen OS.  But, the solution is working and I can’t complain about that.  So, now I have an Android phone and a music collection in FLAC.  I suppose the next thing I need to do is start coding in PHP and Angular.JS.