Tag Archives: music

The Stars And What They Mean

Almost exactly 3 years ago, I was mulling over how to apply star ratings to albums so I could sort of make some sense of my music collection.  I actually never went through with it, but now I’m considering tackling something even bigger – applying ratings to the songs.

The big motivator here is building playlists.  When I first started with Plex, I had a vision of kind of a radio station feel to the whole thing, and appropriately, I made playlists that sounded like radio stations, or more like channels on XM.  And that worked pretty well for a while.  At some point, I can’t remember what happened, but I lost all my playlists and had to recreate them.  Ugh.

I remade some of my more used playlists and then I started reconsidering the others and broke them up into decades and sometimes by genre.  The problem there was sometimes I didn’t want to listen to all one decade of music.  So I made one massive playlist of all the singles in all decades.  And that one has been pretty much my go-to when I just need background music.  Realistically, I’m only playing 3 different playlists, but maybe with better metadata, that can change.

One big hurdle I’m facing is that there seems to be no way to get the ratings in and out of Plex from the files.  So whatever ratings I do, I would have to duplicate the effort in both Plex and the files.  And putting the ratings in the files has no benefit because Plex can’t import them (yet).  That sort of makes my Plex library more fragile, since there’s data in there I can’t just lose without a lot of effort lost as well.

Anyway, to disregard that problem for the moment, a bigger problem was how to efficiently get all that data?  Let’s step back even a little further, what exactly am I planning on with these ratings?

That point was something I dwelled on for a while.  I went around on it for a little while.  I considered using Plex collections, but those are only for albums, not songs.  Songs have Plex tags, and I looked into using them.  I thought maybe tags like "Single", "Top40", "Top10", and "#1" might be good.  But my inner software architect was displeased.  Initially, you would assume that "Top10" would also mean the track was "Top40" and also "Single" because of the inclusive nature.  So you’d only need one tag per song.  But that’s going to make the filters (queries) really messy because you have to put that logic into the filter.  If you want a list of "Singles" you have to also include "Top40, "Top10", etc.  The alterative is to use all appropriate tags where needed, so a #1 song would have all four tags on it.  That’s not pleasant either.  ugh.

So going back to the thoughts I had in my earlier post, what if I just made the star rating mean whatever I want it to mean.  So I quickly wrote down a scale:

1 star – Single
2 stars – Top 100
3 stars – Top 40
4 stars – Top 10
5 stars – #1

I think that’s usable.  And before I change my mind on it, how about that efficiency concern, now?  I had almost 2000 albums to go through and determine which songs were released as singles and what their position was on the charts.  And which chart, at that?

So obviously there’s a bunch of compromises that need to be made in this process.  The first was determining what stars mean.  The next will be starting with one source of data.  I considered I could use Wikipedia and look up each album to get the singles and chart positions, but that is woefully underpopulated, so I can’t use that for my primary source.  Billboard does this stuff for a living, I could try them.

As it turned out, someone had made a downloadable dataset of all the songs and chart positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts up to 2020 (far more than I needed).  After a quick download and import into a SQL database for easy querying, I felt I was closer.  While I was going to miss out on any 1-star entries, the dataset of the Hot 100 would cover 2-5 star entries, and I could backfill later.

At this particular point, I’m not able to do any automation of the rating import, because I can’t figure out how Plex stores the rating in their database.  I manually changed some things and didn’t see any data changes in the database, so initially, it’s going to be manual entry.  And then I can start building playlists based on singles and chart position, maybe mixing genre and release year into it.  Hopefully that gets me somewhere pretty good.

Lessons To Learn

In my previous post, I talked about music and "remastering" some of my old music.  Where I left off is that I was trying to redo some old keyboard pieces that used the Yamaha SW1000XG.  I bought a Yamaha MU80 as a replacement and that didn’t have the same sounds, so I bought an MU100.  To my surprise, again, not the same sounds.  So while I lick my $400 wounds and decide how I want to go from here, I made progressions on another musical concept.

I had written some guitar tunes a long while back, before I became a more aware and less offensive person.  As fortune would have it at that time, my voice could not cope with the style of singing required for the songs, so all I had recorded was the music.  There are some guide vocals in some songs, which are cringey to say the least.  It’s for the best they stay muted.  But anyway, the recording of the instrument parts left a bit to be desired as well, so I set myself to it to clean those up.

The first issue, which is just like the Yamaha issue, is trying to find the effects that I used when recording the tracks.  After many failed attempts to match up the guitar effects plugins, I gave up and chose new effect patches for the tracks.  They don’t sound the same as the originals, but no one’s heard the originals, so whatever.

The next step was cleanup.  In the original recording, there was a major problem with bleedthough in the mixer I owned, so a lot of tracks have a background noise of the click track.  Through a lot of clever editing and some aggressive fadeouts, I was able to hide any noticeable clicks.  As I made those edits, I determined how to best organize the project for mixdown.  This led to a solution of having the midi drum track span the full length of the song, including pre-silence and fadeout.  That way I could set the locators (which determine what part to mixdown) to the selected drum track and be good to go.

The step after that was mixing, burning, and testing the tracks in CD players: home and car, plus through computer speakers.  I have a spindle of 100 CDRs that I never thought I’d use.  I’m going to use them now.  As I did my tests, I adjusted track times, in cases where the mix cut off too quickly or in some cases, didn’t leave enough lead space for a CD player to audibly start the track immediately.  That was weird: that even if you want a track to start absolutely immediately, you still need a small bit of silence at the beginning otherwise it sort of quickly fades in.

And that was actually a problem, because I had two tracks that segued into one another – I couldn’t have a silent gap between them.  This issue was compounded by the software I was using to write the CDs.  Coming up with a resolution involved another step and more software.  To solve the gapless issue, I had to create a CUE sheet, which would identify the exact placement of the track boundaries on the disc.  And instead of burning multiple audio files, you burn one file that contains the whole CD audio.  The CUE file points to sections in that one audio file.

So now I have to create a single file of the entire album’s audio.  And this forced me to do the proper step of CD mastering.  In this step you work with all the mixed tracks together at once and make them sound cohesive.  And at the same time, you work out the timing of the tracks and the gaps between them.  It was something I was aware of in my listening tests – that some tracks needed volume adjustments – and the mastering process gave me that opportunity to balance everything out.  It’s something I expect to do in future projects.

So I’m up to test disc #6 now, which contains the level-matched tracks and also the gapless track changes where needed thanks to the CUE file.  When I burnt the CD using a new utility that utilized CUE files, I noticed some mentions of CD-TEXT being written, which allows CD players to pick up and display the track title.  I haven’t been able to see that in any players I’ve tried yet, but that’s another target to hit for future test versions.

Musical Progressions

It was a while ago I made a post with a lot of reservations.  It was regarding hauling out my music stuff and getting back into music.  And my reservations at the time were that I wasn’t going to get very far with my initiative because I’d been through the process many times in the past and each time ended up packing everything up and putting it away with nothing to show for the effort.

And, well, this is somewhat the same in that it has not been too productive.  I developed one idea I’d had for many years, but haven’t gotten enough to really make something concrete.  And while that was developing, I also worked on getting the recording station all set up.  I bought a new micro computer, monitor, and monitor stand.  I installed and set up my old Cubase software (which is way behind the times and yet more than I’ll ever need).  Although that’s all ready to go, I haven’t really started anything.

I knew I would have an uphill battle getting my physical abilities back since I hadn’t played in such a long time.  To my surprise, my capability came back faster than expected.  However, I plateaued quickly and my stamina was much diminished, so that was a little discouraging.

Instead of giving up, I decided to pivot a little bit and try to get some inspiration and relearn some engineering technique.  I have a lot of old music that exists in MP3 format.  It should be in FLAC format to be of the best quality.  Additionally, some of those songs need a little improvement.  One in particular has the beginning sort of cut off and I have no idea why I accepted that at the time.  Since I have the "source files" for the songs, I should "remaster" them in a sense and bring them up to a standard where I won’t need to worry about quality anymore.

What does that entail?  Well, I have to recreate the recording setup I had back when I recorded them.  This is not a trivial matter for me or for anyone who has ever attempted something like this.  While my case is relatively simple, imagine an actual professional musician trying to track down vintage synthesizers and recreating the patches that were used on each track.  It highlights the need for documentation in a studio.  I admit, I didn’t do hardly any – I never really gave it any thought.  So when I loaded up one of my old files and got a message about missing plugins, I essentially have to go hunting for vintage synthesizers.

After a certain length of time, there isn’t much hope for me to recreate some of the music as I would need thousands of dollars worth of older synths to do it, but a lot of my newer stuff used virtual synths and I still have that software.  I mean, most of it, I do.  Some I had to really go out and hunt for as it was discontinued.  I still don’t know if I have it all yet.  I’ve only worked on a couple songs.  Always keep backups of everything.

One of the bigger problems I faced is that I used a synth from the time that was on a sound card – the Yamaha SW1000XG.  I do still have that card, but I can’t install it in my new micro PC system.  I was able to find a virtual version of the same synth, called the SY50XG, but it had a serious problem where you couldn’t directly select the patches per channel.  You have to do patch changes through SysEx messages.  That’s not insurmountable, except for the fact that I don’t know the exact patch that I need.  That lack of documentation, you see.

So, money to the rescue, as usual.  The SW1000XG is supposedly a PC card version of the Yamaha MU80 synth module.  I was able to find one for under $150 on EBay, shipped from Japan.  When it arrives, I should hopefully have everything I need to recreate the old songs and remix them at full FLAC fidelity.  All I should have to do is change the port from what was the SW1000XG to the MU80 and the patch I had selected on the old synth should map right to the new one.

But even this overall process is a real pain.  My recording workstation is not comfortable.  I have the choice of standing or sitting on a wood stool.  The keyboard is a mini keyboard with embedded touchpad, like using a laptop.  And all this equipment is in my music room, so there’s no real space to stretch out.  I feel like I need to eliminate my guest bedroom and make that a studio room, but I don’t want to do something drastic like that yet.

Over the long weekend, I worked on the project on and off in something like 30-minute increments.  Most of it was installing missing software synths and testing them out.  The recording PC is not network connected, so if I needed anything, I would have to walk back and forth between that and my regular PC in another room, transferring files on a USB drive (they used to call that "sneakernet" in the days before widespread computer networks).  So that process was annoying and exhausting in itself.

But I guess the big positive takeaway is that I haven’t given up yet.

Follow-up edit:

It turns out the MU80 is not the same thing as an SW1000XG.  After receiving the device and integrating it with my setup, I tested it out on a track I knew to use a lot of Yamaha sounds.  Very specifically, the drum kit I needed didn’t exist on the MU80.  Research, which I should have done before purchasing, would have given me the information I needed.  One web site gushing about the SW1000XG having 1200 sounds and 46 drum kits, then a Wikipedia article for the Yamaha MU series listing the different models and their capabilities gave me the full story.

The SW1000XG came out in 1998.  The MU80 came out in 1994 and had 729 sounds and 21 drum kits.  The MU100 came out in 1997 and had 1267 sounds and 46 drum kits.  And, you know, even if I was dumb enough to ignore the timeline, I should have given some credit to the model naming scheme.

The end result is I have to buy a Yamaha MU100, meaning I now have an extra sound module that is of little use to me.  Luckily, they aren’t that much more expensive than the MU80, but still, double the cost kind of sucks.  I suppose I can sell the MU80 and recoup some of that cost.

Self-Hosted Album Art

I have an extensive music collection on CD, which shouldn’t be news to anyone who’s visited this blog.  I rip all my CDs to my local Plex server.  I’m a little particular about the album art for the albums.  I want it to be an exact representation of what is on the shelf and I want it to be in good quality.

For multiple varied reasons, I sometimes can’t find suitable album art online and in that case, I do it myself, scanning and cleaning up the cover art.  The result is something unique.  Duh, since I wasn’t able to find it elsewhere.  And I think it would be a shame to keep it to myself if someone else had a need for that artwork.

Up until now, I’ve been storing these files on Flickr.  It’s not been bad.  Even with their recent restrictions on free accounts, I don’t really have any worries of exceeding their limits.  But, as mentioned in past posts, I’ve been wanting to be more independent, so I made the move of the files to my own server.

And now you can get the cover art files from https://anachostic.700cb.net/AlbumArt.  It’s a little gallery that took all of about 45 mins to code up.  It displays smaller images and when you click one, it shows a larger image in a new window.  The small size is 500×500 and the large is 1500×1500.  These should be usable for anyone’s general usage.  You can save some time by right-clicking a small image and choosing Save Target As.

And now, when I add new stuff, I don’t have to go to a browser, open Flickr, log in, do the upload, and blah blah.  It’s a simple file copy for me on my network.  Easier all around.

Decisions

As mentioned in previous posts, yes, I’m re-exploring music.  I have purchased and set up my recording PC and now I have to focus on the devices.  This had led me to a difficult decision.

I have a keyboard that has been with me for over 20 years – the Roland RD-600.  It’s been an excellent device and I am very familiar with playing it.  However, over the years the keyboard has worn out.  Some keys will break, or more specifically, the hammers on the keys will break.  I’ve dealt with this for many years, replacing hammers one by one as they break.  It’s an annoyance for sure.  I even have a small cache of spare hammers that I purchased from the manufacturer when this first became a problem.

And it’s still a problem.  On day two of having my rig set back up,  I broke a hammer.  I took the RD-600 off the stand, flipped the board over, and undid all the screws to open the case.  Replaced the hammer and flipped it back over to resecure the case.  Put it back on the stand and another hammer had broken during the repair of the first.  I give up.  I put the kb back in its road case and brought out the other keyboard.

Now this other board is an Alesis QS8.  I bought it at a thrift shop for $100.  It had issues right out of the gate with being out of tune.  I was loathe to throw it away though and figured now I could do some tests on it.  I determined that the MIDI functions still worked (that they were sending the right notes), which is what I primarily needed for recording.  I also found the setting where I could retune the device, and things were looking a lot better now.  However, further testing showed that the pitch problems would randomly reappear, requiring another manual retune.  And as far as the MIDI was concerned, there was some random data being spewed out from a wheel controller that I had previously physically disconnected.  So, this device is not suitable for recording either.

I have two bum devices.  My choices are, replace or repair.  Buying a new device of the caliber of the RD-600 or QS8 is a $1600-$2700 purchase.  Along with that purchase comes a new keyboard action, which I may hate.  Obviously there’s going to be more modern features and technology involved which is a distinct positive, if I wasn’t planning on using virtual instruments anyway.

I investigated replacing the hammers in the RD-600.  I can’t recall how much the initial batch cost way back then, but on eBay, each hammer is currently about $10 plus shipping.  It’s probably looking like about $1000 to replace all the hammers in my 20-yr old keyboard.  I contacted Roland directly to order the parts and they simply refused to sell any replacement parts to me and told me to take to an authorized repair center.  Bastards.

So now the question is, spend $1000 or $2000?  To complicate the matter, if I do refurbish the RD-600, I’ll never get that money back.  Street value of an RD-600 has to be well south of $500.  Hell, I only paid $650 for it twenty years ago.  I would spend more on refurbishment than I did when I bought it used.  But, this is a board I am intimately familiar with, and if it lasted 20 years once, it will last again until I’m long gone.  The alternative?  I can buy a new keyboard with new technology (maybe more durable, maybe not), may have better action, maybe not, may be a lot of things and may not.  If I don’t like it, I can sell it.  Sell it for what, 80% of its purchase price?  75%?  Less?  Will I lose more than I would pay for the RD-600 hammers?

And it’s shit like this that keeps me from going anywhere.  Weighing the pros and cons and never making a decision.

Oh, what about the other kb, the Alesis?  Well, I have an open inquiry to a repair shop to see what it will cost for repair.  I’m sure I’ll have to pay a bench fee, but that’s reasonable to know whether the kb should be repaired or checked.  The problem isn’t mechanical like the Roland, but it is electronic.  That could be better or worse.  But it won’t be $10 88 times over.

But I made a decision anyway.  The Roland is going to get refurbished.  I think it deserves a second life and I’ll be comfortable using it for recording.  My decision was made on a few different points.  First, Roland makes no mention of the RD-600 in their support pages, so I don’t think the hammers will be available for too much longer.  Second, I found an eBay seller selling one octave of hammers (7 white/5 black) for $120 with free shipping.  With 7.2 octaves in a piano, I would be pretty safe buying 7 of these, for a total of $840.  That’s not $1000 and it’s not $2000, and it’s not $2500, which is the price of the new keyboard I tried that had a hammer action I liked.

The seller was unwilling to discount his price for a purchase of seven octaves, because he knew what he had.  He knew the part was either discontinued or was soon going to be discontinued and told me as much.  I paid his price.  And I still will pursue repairing the Alesis, for the right price.  There’s a small part of me that wants to rebuild a whole studio with racks of 80’s and 90’s physical keyboards, but holy shit is that an expensive idea.  Obviously, a lot of those sounds are coming back into vogue with new music, so prices have been soaring.  Pawn shops used to be used device gold mines, but I can’t imagine any shop not doing their EBay research and finding out the value of what they have.  So virtual devices will still be the way, with a solid controller.

One More Time Before I Go

A little more information on something I hinted at in a previous post… I’m still quite reluctant to say much about it because I’ve done this time and time again with no success or completion.  Hopefully, without having any expectations, I can meet my expectations.  The "news" is that I have pulled my music gear out of storage and set it up again, with tentative plans to do some recording.

There were multiple reasons I came to this.  I had some inspiration listening to some albums and wanted to see if I could still compose.  I wanted to do some justice to older pieces by re-recording them properly.  My hands and fingers are getting old and weak and I thought maybe playing would return some strength to them.

The last recording I had done was in 2008, when I wrote a bunch of heavy guitar songs for an album.  My voice was unable to perform well enough to do the vocal tracks and the audio was marred with recording glitches like audio bleed from other tracks.  But, the point is, I haven’t done music in over a decade.  Obviously things have changed since then, but I will still be doing things the way I have always known.

Step one was to see if I could even still play anymore.  I pulled out the keyboards and set them up in my music room.  With some headphones plugged in, I tried playing some familiar songs.  To my surprise, the muscle memory was still there.  I remembered most of my old songs, with some stops and pauses to refigure out bits here and there.  The playing was sloppy as I expected and my stamina was greatly reduced, as I also expected.  I only spent about 30 minutes or so that first day to get familiar with the keys again.  The next day I spent another half hour or more with other songs and my stamina had jumped surprisingly just in that one day.  Now, here on day three, the joints in my left hand are sore AF, so maybe I overdid it.  But, the future is somewhat promising.

If I’m going to do this, I’ll need a new computer for recording.  The second computer I had laying around was converted into a web and email server a while ago, so I need to make another purchase.  Here’s the thing.  Technology has advanced SO far since I was last doing this (13 years!), I don’t need to buy a 4-figure computer.  I don’t even have to buy a full-size computer.  I bought a refurbished mini computer for $300 that exceeds the power of any computer back then.  And of course, I needed a new monitor and keyboard.  This time, what I am doing is buying a floor stand for the monitor and a bracket to mount the mini PC behind the monitor.  I’ll place the stand behind my keyboards or mixer and can move it as needed.  New technology is really cool.

Without any real goals or timelines, I’m going to relax and get familiar with the software again.  That has always been an issue with me – the process of recording gets in the way of recording.  There’s a universal image of artists working in a home studio, laying down tracks and fiddling with effects and editing and whatnot, but the notion to me of having an engineer handling and managing all the recording process where the musician can focus on actually playing and making music – that’s the real thing.  And sadly, the evisceration of the recording industry has made that concept a rarity.  Still, I am a one-person team, so I have to do what I can.  In the past, I have rushed all my projects because I have had to wear multiple hats and if I spend too much time wearing one, the others suffer.  In the end it all suffers.

So, It was 2000 when I did my last keyboard album, 2006 when I finished my last Sequence album, 2008 when I finished my hard rock guitar album, and I’ve been wanting to start the loop over again for a long time.  Looking back in the journal, it seems like I had recording aspirations in 2014, but I had other interests going on at the time.  It seems the only time I can really compose and record is when I’m single.  So, now’s the time!  Still, no promises.

The More You Know

Knowledge and experience are a couple of things that unfortunately are in ever decreasing supply these days.  With so many people taking pride in their lack of intelligence and their non-willingness to seek out new information and experiences, it seems humanity is destined to be doomed.  My little story is of little to no importance, but is just one tiny example of how reading and experimenting helps put pieces of a puzzle together and displays a larger canvas than you had formally seen before.

This is about music and my music collection.  I’ve mentioned in past posts that I’ve been trying to listen to artists that are outside of my normal choices, and especially so if they are considered groundbreaking or significant artists in their time.  That isn’t a new radical concept for me.  You know at one time, I had never really listened to classical music (except for what was on cartoons).  I think I started because classical CDs were cheap and I wanted something to listen to on my new CD player.

With the exposure to classical music, you immediately understand a lot of cultural references.  You hear a snippet of a piece in a commercial or a movie and you know how the whole song goes.  You’re suddenly in the "in crowd", in a way.  And the more music you can expose yourself to, the more in-crowds you can get into.  And when you grow broad as well as deep, you start to see and understand the interconnectedness of it all.

This particular revelation came last night listening to a new album I picked up.  But the start of the revelation was quite a while ago when I picked up an album by a different band I had heard much about, but never heard their music = Kraftwerk.  I had a general idea of what they probably sounded like and it was a pretty close guess.  After listening to some of their music, I wasn’t really sold on it, but I could listen to it all the way through, if for nothing more than appreciation of what they were accomplishing in the era they were doing it.  Kraftwerk is one of those groups that is touted as a grandfather of multiple future genres.  If not the entire creator of the genre, at least heavily influential in them.  So, I’ve established that I have an appreciation of electronic music.  I find a lot of it to be very repetitive and therefore boring, but I can understand there are certain times you might want a monotonous soundtrack to your activities and it’s a good fit for that.

0n the topic of genres, there’s a fairly common sentiment people use to express their musical tastes: "I listen to anything but rap and country".  I would probably say the same thing, but it’s strange how the more you experience different music, the more restricted those qualifiers become.  "Rap" for me does not include what I believe is termed "Hip Hop", which was more dominant in the 80’s.  And "Country" does not include pre-90’s country music, which was actually closer to pop music.  Or maybe it was just that country singers began doing more pop music.

The point of all that is that I don’t listen to Rap, but I do have some Hip Hop artists in my collection, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for one example.  And I had just purchased Technotronic – Pump Up The Jam.  When I listened to it for the first time last night, I found the Technotronic album had elements that I had heard in other places in much newer albums, like those by William Orbit.  But getting past the pop-styled singles, the Technotronic album was much closer to a Kraftwerk album than a hip hop album.

And that was sort of a missing link album for me, bridging the Kraftwerk of the 70’s and early 80’s to the William Orbit of the 00’s, while also keeping the good parts from the hip hop of the 80’s.  And to be fair, it has the things that I don’t like, such as the monotony of Kraftwerk and more of the bravado and offensiveness of later rapping.  But overall it’s just more proof that music is a never-ending tapestry of styles and colors constantly backreferencing and pushing forward.  There’s always something old in something new.

Stages Part 4.75

In the last installment in this series, I had added subwoofers to my stereo system and was thinking that there wouldn’t be a stage 5, which is the replacement of my small powered monitor speakers with large tower speakers.  In the six months I’ve been using this setup, I am still enamored with it, and have not felt the need to upgrade the speakers.  However, in the other part of the system, changes have happened, mostly out of fortunate opportunity.

The biggest purchase I’ve made in my stereo system is the subwoofers, by a massive margin.  Everything else has been had for well under $100 each.  Because second-hand stereo equipment can be found cheaply, it’s good fun to just try it out to experience the differences.  I had talked about this before with my small collection of CD players.  But one day at a thrift shop, I found a new receiver/amplifier.  It was made by Nakamichi, which is a brand you don’t see or hear about very often, because it is considered a high-end brand.  Checking the back of the amp, there were preamp outputs available, so it was immediately compatible with my system configuration.  The price was fine, $25, so it came home with me the same day.

Cleaning and testing was brief and successful.  The amp was clean and had no issues.  Sound-wise, it sounded a bit brighter than my Technics, which is consistent with other online reviews I read on the product.  Their words were more like "harsh" and "highly-detailed", which sounds a little negative, but as I’m learning with everything in audio, there is no truth, no absolute.  You just have to like what you have or replace it with something else you like better.  And two people can have two totally different opinions about the same thing.

So the Nakamichi has become my new default stereo.  The Technics amp and EQ have been moved to my secondary pile of equipment in another room.  And I have been enjoying my system.

Shortly after that purchase, I came across an online auction of a recording studio.  Among some of the items being sold were two "DVD players".  Researching the players a little more, I learned they are technically called "universal players", meaning they can play multiple formats.  While you can buy most any $30 DVD player and have it play CDs as well as DVD-Audio, the format of SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc), is much harder to come by.  SACD players are usually $1000+ unless you get into a universal player that also handles that format, in which case you’re in the $800 range.  Regardless, getting into SACD is not a cheap venture at all.

I actually do own a couple SACDs that I have never been able to listen to, as well as a DTS (yet another high-end format) disc.  These players in this auction would support all of these formats.  They were Pioneer Elite 47ai units.  Long story short, I placed absentee bids on both and won both, one at a low price and one at a high price.  After commission and all, they cost $75 each.  One will eventually be sold off, but the other has been integrated into my system.

Being in a professional recording studio, clearly the devices were well taken care of.  And upon some listening tests, I have to begrudgingly admit that things do sound better on higher-end equipment.  Granted, I am comparing 30-yr old consumer CD players to a 10-yr old professional player.  There should be some improvement, right?  And finally, being able to hear what SACD sounds like was a nice experience.  Was it amazing?  Well, no.  But – and this is an important but – I have made many small improvements to my stereo in a relatively short period of time, and each one has brought with it a positive change, no matter how small.  At no time have I done an upgrade and been disappointed.  Are things absolutely perfect?  Of course not.  I have CDs that will skip in one player, but not another.  So, I do keep two players on my stereo.

And that’s where my system is right now:  The Nakamichi amp, the JVC CD player, and the Pioneer Elite universal player.

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Stages Part 4.5

In previous posts on this subject, I’d been advancing my home stereo towards some goal of having big, energizing, musical sound.  The "final" step in the process was buying tower speakers for the amplifier.  I’ve come up with a step in between.

I was skeptical of the claims made that putting your bookshelf speakers on stands would improve their sound dramatically.  I was proven wrong.  The change was highly noticeable.  So much so, that it made me wonder if I really needed tower speakers.  At the very least, it would delay their purchase for a while.  The improvements got better when I separated the speakers from the stands with silicone buttons and added the floor spikes to the stands.  Both are things that audio fetishists go crazy over.  Not as much the spikes, but to read about the "isolation" and "decoupling" of the speaker from the stand using (only) sorbothane balls or brass spikes gets a little weary.

And I thought I had taken things about as far as I could with what I had.  One of the improvements I got with my changes was improved bass.  I could hear the bass and slightly feel it, too.  And you know, once you get a taste of something good, you want more.  That was going to be taken care of by the tower speakers, when I bought them.  But I wasn’t ready to buy them yet, because I liked what I had.  Well, I guess I wanted to like what I had more, so I had a choice to make.

That choice was whether to add a subwoofer to the system for the extra bass.  I read a lot of articles.  I researched a lot of products.  I reviewed my budget.  In the end, it felt like a "fuck it" decision anyway, so yeah.  Subwoofer it is.

Here’s the catch.  Based on what I’ve been reading, having a subwoofer is just not enough.  A very well-written article by a generally polarizing individual explained the technical reasons for subwoofer use in the 60’s, 70’s, then 80’s and beyond.  And that article, along with other higher-end articles stated pretty simply: you need multiple subwoofers.  At a minimum, you need stereo subs, because although it’s popular to say sub=bass is mono, it really isn’t.  But as long as you’re entertaining the idea of multiple subwoofers, having four is not out of the question.

Now, four subwoofers was not and would not be my plan.  But, while researching products, the subwoofer model that I settled on (due to price) did not have stereo inputs.  That would mean that I would have to buy a cable to merge the left and right channels to go into the sub.  I’m not a fan of that idea; it just seems wrong.  So the evidence is stacking up for getting two subwoofers.  The budget doubles.  So which one (or which two)?

You can get subwoofers with speaker sizes of 8", 10", 12", 15", or even 18".  I start small, looking at 8".  I need two of them.  The more I look at them, the less I am convinced.  My bookshelf speakers already have 6" drivers, and the tower speakers I was looking at for the future have multiple 6" drivers.  Is an 8" really going to provide the depth I should have?  So, I look at the 10".  That’s about as far as I will go.  There’s no way I can reasonable justify having two 12" or larger subs in my little listening room.  I wouldn’t even have room for them.  I’m already looking at compact subs because of space concerns.  But, if the future means I have a larger room for my listening hobby, then the 10" subs will be able to handle that growth.  If I do go with the tower speakers in stage 5, the subs will complement them as well.

So the retail price difference between 8 and 10-inch is $229 vs $344 – $115 dollars to upgrade to the larger sub with the bigger amp.  Because of sale prices, the prices are now $126 and $189 -  a bigger discount on the bigger sub.  Now, the upgrade cost is $63.  Still, I need two.  And after looking back and forth and back and forth at numbers in both my web browser and in MS Money, I reached the "fuck it" point and bought two 10" subwoofers.

Fortunately, the subs do come with cables, but I did need to buy two splitter cables, to send the low-level output from my pre-amp to both my bookshelf speakers and the subs.  And what have I ended up with?

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Also new in this picture is a switched power strip mounted below the amplifier, which turns all four speakers on and off.  Since all the controls for the subs are on the bottom of the units, and I was getting concerned and also annoyed by pushing the power buttons on the speakers each day, a single switch should help everything.

Now, how does it sound?  I started my test with all knobs set to the minimum and put on Rush – Signals as my first test.  I went through a few tweaks, raising the crossover, raising the input level, lowering the crossover, and back and forth between the different possibilities.  The result was nice, but not earth-shattering, nor room-shaking.  I was underwhelmed.

Then I thought maybe my choice of album wasn’t that great, so I put on Edgar Meyer – Dreams Of Flight.  Holy shit.  Now I was shaking the walls, which was actually hilarious to see the cat repeatedly alerting on the sound of the pictures vibrating on the wall.  With that album, I did a few more tweaks and lowered the levels a little.

The next test was Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever.  Being produced by Jeff Lynne, certainly this album would have a lot of things happening everywhere in it.  And I wasn’t disappointed at all from the results.  My expectations were being tempered by reality.  Where I expected kick drums to hit me in the chest, that’s not how (decent) albums are mixed.  But what I wasn’t expecting was the loss of the shrillness.  When I would turn up the stereo before, I sort of had to grit my teeth and suffer the high end to get any power.  With the subs hooked up, It was like the high end was tamed.  I don’t want to say "lost", because I don’t think it sounded any duller, just less piercing.

The last test was Iron Maiden – Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.  I didn’t get the sound I expected, but the sound I got was excellent and very engaging.  My ears weren’t ringing at the end either, which was a blessing.  And it seemed like I was able to go louder than before, probably because I wasn’t getting ice picks in the eardrums.

I’m actually thinking there may not be a stage 5 now…

Stages Part 4

In the previous post on this topic, I discussed the stereo buildup to the point where I had a good listening system.  The next transitional step would be to physically prepare it for the tower speakers, which will be stage 5.  I had made another post about the fortunate timing of my speaker stand purchase, which saved me around $50 or almost a third of what I had budgeted.  So the items have come in and are ready for implementation.

The first piece that came in was the stereo rack.  All black glass and chrome, it allowed each component a shelf of its own, but I still kept the amplifier and equalizer together.  Quality-wise, the stand is a big meh.  I didn’t pay a lot for it, so I can’t be disappointed, but I expect at some point, I’m going to be getting a better rack.

The next day, the speaker stands come in.  Heavy steel plates and posts, which are supposedly the key to keeping bass and separation.  No disappointment here.  We’ll have to see how they perform.

I disassembled my setup and moved the current table out of the way for the new pieces.  While behind the system, I did a little wire management for tidiness sake.  This is what it looked like.

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What did it sound like?  Well, I don’t want to get into all the audio snobbery adjectives, but I will say it sounded better.  Significantly better.  Of course, maybe it’s a placebo effect, I’m not going to rule that out, but I tested out two different CDs, with widely differing musical styles and both sounded more impressive to me than I remembered before.  So I will call it a success.

What’s stage 5 again?  Tower speakers.  Well, that can wait for some time now.  I’m going to have to get tired of this new sound, which could be a little while.