Listening

I was chatting with one of our staff surgeons a few months ago. He saw me looking up some headphone recommendations for a friend while I was on a break. He wondered if I even had a stereo at home. I told him I did, although he seemed surprised that my main source of music was a turntable. He reminisced about his early residency, sharing that it used to be a rite of passage to buy your “first real stereo” out of med school, once you started making a little bit of spending money. Now, he lamented, he’d be surprised if even one of the residents in their program owned an actual stereo.

87 Speaker by macattckI use the term stereo knowing full well that many of you do not really understand this concept. A few years ago, I didn’t either. On a real stereo, music is played from two speakers (left and right). When these speakers are placed in appropriate position relative to the listener’s ears, a three-dimensional “image” forms roughly between the speakers. With appropriate stereo recording and engineering, it’s not that the drums come from the left speaker and the guitar from the right. You can actually picture a stage in front of you. The drums come from 1 foot left of center, the guitar from 1 foot right of center, and the lead vocalist sounds like he is singing directly between the speakers. Better yet: the bass drum kicks dead center, the hi-hat two feet to the left of that and the snare hits between them. In other words, an entire concert takes place between the speakers. Or even beyond the sides of the speakers. Have you ever heard music in true stereo? Imagine standing in the front row at a concert. That’s what your music should sound like at home!

So why do we settle for anything less? I think a major reason is ignorance, especially among younger listeners. If you’ve never heard music you love on a proper stereo, you’re not only missing out, but you don’t even understand what you’re missing. Once you hear it, in my opinion, there’s no turning back. Convenience is also a factor. Today, there are so many devices for listening to your music: TV sound-bars, Bluetooth speakers, iPod/iPhone docks, headphones, car speakers, and even laptop speakers (shudder). Almost none of them actually sound good or give true stereo imaging, but the companies that make them have powerful marketing departments. They’re all sold as “ready to listen” devices. Plug in and press play. But if you only understood what you’re missing! And listening to music that sound this good doesn’t even have to be expensive!

Listening habits have changed, too, but it’s a more fundamental change than saying music is more portable. There are plenty of ways to listen and maintain portability. But stereos are from a different era. Forty or fifty years ago, both adults and kids sat down to listen to an album, although probably still not together and not the same artists. Think about that. When was the last time you sat down and just listened? No phone, computer, or tablet, and not cleaning the house, chatting with friends, exercising, or driving. Music has become, in most instances, background noise.

You notice things when you sit down and listen, especially to good, well-recorded and well-produced music. You notice inflections in people’s voices. You notice the sound of instruments. You realize there are different drums in a drum set. You notice the lyrics and consider what they mean. Music is an emotional art, and that emotion is ripe when you sit quietly and listen to it. Take it in and let it run through you. That’s music.

Turntable by David LenkerA few weeks ago, an old friend was in town. She is one of the few others I know who owns and uses a turntable. This was the first time she had been to our apartment since I have owned a decent stereo. We visited a local record shop, Bullseye Records, where she bought Illinois by Sufjan Stevens. We were both in for a treat the next morning when I put the record on. I, because I had never heard this album before. It’s fantastic. I bought it a few weeks later. She, because she had never heard it on vinyl in stereo. She mentioned afterwards that she should get some real stereo speakers for her ‘table instead of the built-in speakers. (n.b. This post actually has nothing to do with vinyl. Similar results can be obtained with CDs or music downloads. Don’t be discouraged!)

This got me excited because I love to spend other people’s money, but I also love to help them get a good deal and great value for their money. I’ve been reading a lot about home audio lately. I have a subscription to Stereophile magazine, and I read Steve Guttenburg’s blog The Audiophiliac over at CNET. Although Stereophile tends to focus on very high-end equipment, out of the price- and interest-range of 99% of the population, I do keep my radar up for components with particularly high price/performance ratios. Stephen Mejias’ column, The Entry Level, frequently reviews these high-value components. I mentioned to my friend that I had recently read Mejias’ review of a set of decent sounding bookshelf speakers selling for $50/pair, and she seemed interested. A few days ago I read another article from The Audiophiliac recommending pairing these speakers with an inexpensive but high-quality amp. All things considered, with these components you can own a very nice sounding stereo for $70-100.

This made me wonder whether others might be interested in such a set-up. An advantage of building this stereo from components is that you can modify what you buy based on what features you want. Here is the basic stereo I would recommend, including prices.

  • Dayton Audio B652 bookshelf speakers – $40-55 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Lepai LP-2020A+ amplifier (without power cable) – $20 [PE] [Amazon]
  • Recommended upgrade: Power cable (12VDC 5A, only if buying amp without cable) – $15 [PE]
  • Recommended upgrade: Speaker wire (16 AWG OFC) – $9-11 [PE] [Amazon] [Monoprice]
  • Total: $85 + $15 shipping
  • Optional upgrades: Bluetooth input ($20), improved DAC ($40)

People frequently spend this amount of money or much more on a TV sound-bar or Bluetooth speaker or iPod/iPhone speaker dock or even headphones. They’ll spend 4-5 times this much on a “Home Theater in a Box.”  So what about you? Would you ever consider spending $100 to make your music sound infinitely better?

La Roux

As I browsed through The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2009, I came across La Roux. As soon as I heard the first song on her self-titled album coupled with the good reviews on The Hype Machine, I knew I should probably just go ahead and buy it. The Hype Machine helped me discover an artist I otherwise would have probably ignored.

La Roux’s “A Flock of Seagullshairdo matches her musical style quite well. It really has that “straight from the 80’s feel” of futuristic synth-pop. The song variety leaves a little to be desired, but the entire album has a fun feel to it. Normally the occasional falsetto strain in her voice would turn me off, but her voice is quite unique and likable. Maybe it’s her accent. I bet that’s it. Of course, the lyrics are nothing to write home about, but I didn’t expect them to be.

Notable songs include “In For The Kill,” “Tigerlily,” “Cover My Eyes” and “As If By Magic.” This album is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a fun twist on an old style and probably worth a purchase (or at least a listen).

3/5

(As a side note, I purchased this album from 7digital soon after Ubuntu announced that 7digital would be providing the music for the Ubuntu One Music Store. Not that it matters much.)

eMusic Review

When I bought my new portable audio player, it came with a bunch of free songs from eMusic. I have gotten these offers before, but in the past I did not bother cashing them in because the eMusic selection was pretty limited. Since I wanted to grab some new music to fill my new toy, I decided to give eMusic another chance. I was pleased to find that their selection is much better than it was a few years ago. They are no longer limited to music from independent labels, and they actually offer a decent amount of music from mainstream artists. Much to my delight, they also offer a nice selection of classic rock albums.

As you might be able to guess, another stipulation that I had for eMusic was its ability to work in Ubuntu. They can offer me all the free credits they want, but if they require a PC/Mac-only downloader, it doesn’t do me any good. I was pleasantly surprised to find that eMusic actually offers a Linux downloader, and it actually works fairly well. As a bonus, Banshee offers an integrated eMusic Importer extension in its latest release.

I received an offer from eMusic for 50 free credits. One credit equates to a single song, but many albums are sold as “deals” that cost less than buying all of the songs individually. In order to get the free credits, I had to “subscribe” to eMusic. This means I had to sign up with a credit card and choose a subscription plan, with their most popular being $11.99/month for 24 credits/month. The pricing is pretty reasonable at $0.50/song. Of course, this is contingent upon being able to find 24 songs per month to download and spending $12 every month on music. The first 50 songs are still free, and you are not charged for the subscription until your free credits are used up. As soon as your free credits are gone, your credit card is charged and your subscription starts, but if you’re satisfied with 49 freebies, you can cancel your account without charge and keep the music. They offer a nice bonus too: if you’re close to finishing off your free credits, they’ll offer a few extra freebies to entice you into starting your subscription. For example, if you have 8 free credits left and you’re browsing an album that costs 12 credits, eMusic will probably display a message that says something like “We’ll give you 4 more free credits to start your subscription today.” Unfortunately, the free credits can’t be used to buy certain songs and albums on eMusic. It was pretty frustrating because a few popular albums that I wanted to pick up were unable to be purchased with free credits. Free credits are also only good for 30 days. I would recommend not starting your account until you have about 4 new albums to buy.

I was able to find quite a bit of new music. I made a list long enough to use all of my free credits and my first month’s subscription. All-in-all, I picked up 6 new albums and 5 singles for $11.99. That includes 56 free credits and $11.99 for 24 credits.

  • Creedence Clearwater Revival – Chronicle: 20 Greatest Hits
  • Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing: The Very Best of Dire Straits
  • Matt and Kim – Grand
  • Metric – Fantasies
  • The Submarines – Declare a New State!
  • The Temper Trap – Conditions
  • Some Singles:
    • America – Lonely People
    • Jim Croce – I Got A Name
    • Neil Young – Long May You Run
    • The Yardbirds – You’re A Better Man Than I
    • The Yardbirds – For Your Love

Unfortunately, I couldn’t justify renewing my subscription for any longer than one month. During my search for new music, I came across a few new albums that I wanted to pick up, only to find that eMusic did not carry the artist or album. I also could not see myself consistently spending $12/month on music, even if I could find stuff that I liked. Plus, eMusic does not allow unused credits to roll over from month-to-month, so if I had unused credits at the end of a month, I would be forced to use them or lose them. Overall, I was impressed with their collection though. I was just not impressed enough to keep up a monthly subscription. However, they do offer a variety of subscription plans including a “lite” version that costs $6.49/month for 12 credits/month. If you’re willing to subscribe for a year, they’ll also throw in 100 additional free credits. As an interesting side note, when I attempted to cancel my account, I was offered a free extra month (24 songs) with no strings attached. After canceling, I also received an email offer for 75 more free credits to restart my subscription. I may consider renewing in the future if I can come up with enough music.

For now, look forward to some reviews of the aforementioned albums. And if you’re the music-buying type, head over to eMusic and give them a look. You can get a really nice deal on the stuff they offer, and while their selection isn’t as good as iTunes or AmazonMP3, it’s pretty darn good.

Begin To Hope

I probably first discovered Regina Spektor years after most other people in the country. It was only a few months ago that I was captured by her song “Us” featured in the movie 500 Days of Summer. As I went searching for more of her work, I found that she was already a fairly well-established musician. She just released a new album in 2009, and she also released a popular album called Begin to Hope in 2007. I decided to pick it up after enjoying a few samples. (As a side note, this was my first full album purchase from the new Ubuntu One Music Store.)

The album is definitely something unique and worth checking out. Her music immediately made me picture her performing as an independent artist in a city like New York. Spektor’s lyrics are phenomenal. She embodies everything I’d hope from a modern singer-songwriter. Some of her songs are based on syllabic repetition in a style that is truly her own. Their hooks are so simple, and yet they work so well that it’s hard to imagine trying to complicate them with anything more. There were a few songs on the album that I didn’t care for much, but they gave me a deeper respect for Spektor as an artist. They reminded me that she is a true creator that is not afraid to push the boundaries of what a song should sound like. Above all, she appears to remain true to herself and her vision, and that is worthy of respect.

I definitely recommend checking out some of Regina Spektor’s work, especially Begin to Hope. I will probably end up with some more of it over the next few months. Notable songs for me included Fidelity, Après Moi, On the Radio, Better, Sampson, and Edit. You may noticed that the first song that drew me to Spektor isn’t on this album. It’s actually on another called Soviet Kitsch, which I’ll have to pick up at some point too. As for Begin to Hope, if you’re looking for some unique and well-done music, this album comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

The Sound of White

My first encounter with singer-songwriter Missy Higgins was so positive that I had to check out her debut album, The Sound Of White. I have been eying this album for a while now, and I finally got it for Christmas this year.

I was turned on to this album after hearing All For Believing, Higgins’ first song that she astonishingly wrote when she was only 16. Maybe I was expecting too much from The Sound of White, but I was less impressed by it than On A Clear Night. Higgins had not quite perfected the variety and edginess evident in her later work. That’s not to say it was a bad album by any means, and surely it will grow on me as I listen to it over the coming weeks. I was just hoping for the near perfection found in her second album, which admittedly is a little unfair of me.

Despite my lackluster review, there are a few stand-out songs, including All For Believing and Scar. If you were a fan of On A Clear Night, this album is still a solid addition to your collection. Her voice continues to be unique, refreshing, and a pleasure to listen to. If there was this much improvement between her first two albums, I am now awaiting her next release even more eagerly.

3/5

Honeysuckle Weeks

I discovered The Submarines as many people did, even if they did not realize it. Their music plays in nearly every iPhone commercial, namely the songs You Me and the Bourgeoisie and Submarine Symphonika. I went in search of other music by The Submarines only to find that I liked a lot of it. For some reason, I never got around to purchasing the album this year, so I asked for it for Christmas.

I popped in Honeysuckle Weeks on one of my many hour-long drives this holiday season and was mildly blown away by it. I hadn’t heard much of their music since discovering them back in March, so I had forgotten how great they are. The entire album is refreshing. The band is a male/female duo, and the vocals are shared by both John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard. I especially enjoy Blake’s voice, and interestingly I see from the wikipedia article on their band that she is the great-granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stand-out songs, besides the two already mentioned, include Swimming Pool and The Wake Up Song. The energy of the album seemed to dwindle near the end, which was mildly disappointing. My biggest complaint, however, was that the album was too short! It didn’t last my full trip to Chicago from Sadie’s house. And if that’s my biggest complaint, you know the album is pretty good. Next up, I’ll have to check out the duo’s debut album, Declare A New State.

4.5/5

Hype album, Vol. 1

It’s been a while since I discovered The Hype Machine. I’ve been enjoying their monthly “radio show” podcast a lot. The site itself is really useful, especially if you know what you’re looking for. It can be a little unwieldy to browse at times, but it’s a decent way to find some new tunes. Plus, it’s really great for grabbing promotional copies of the music you’re listening to. I also started listening to Pandora again, which is another really great way to find some new tunes. So I decided to make a random mix CD with some of the new music I’ve found on The Hype Machine, Pandora, and elsewhere on the interwebs. I grabbed all these songs as free promotional downloads from The Hype Machine.

  1. M.I.A. – Paper Planes
  2. Phoenix – 1901
  3. Little Boots – Remedy
  4. Beck – Sunday Morning
  5. Chris Brown – Forever
  6. Michael Franti – Say Hey (I Love You)
  7. Discovery – I Want You Back
  8. Missy Higgins – All For Believing
  9. Temper Trap – Fader
  10. Passion Pit – Little Secrets
  11. Vampire Weekend – Ottoman
  12. Petra Haden – Let Your Love Flow
  13. Phoenix – Lisztomania
  14. The Big Pink – Dominoes
  15. Passion Pit – Sleepyhead
  16. Yael Naim – New Soul
  17. Phoenix – Girlfriend
  18. Chromeo – Night By Night
  19. The Very Best – Warm Heart Of Africa

Let me know what you think, and if have any suggestions for Vol. 2, leave them in the comments!

(Photo CC-BY-NC-SA by gtmcknight)

On A Clear Night Review

Every week Amazon MP3 offers up the Friday Five. They sell 5 popular MP3 albums for $5 each. I grabbed Missy Higgins‘ album On A Clear Night on the Friday Five two weeks ago. I had actually been thinking about buying the album after hearing the song Steer on the music blog Ryan’s Smashing Life. Missy Higgins is an excellent singer/songwriter from Australia, and I immediately picked up on the quality of her singing and guitar playing.

Missy Higgins - On A Clear NightOn A Clear Night is a fantastic album that I ended up liking even more than I thought I would. The diversity of the songs really shows her breadth as an artist. She plays both guitar and piano very well, and that’s complemented by her killer vocals. Her voice is reminds me a bit of Norah Jones, who is one of my favorite female vocalists. Surprisingly, you don’t get too much of an Australian accent when she’s singing except for in one or two songs. Ms. Higgins is probably known best for her single Where I Stood, which I hadn’t heard before. It grew on me the more I listened to it. The songs 100 Around The Bends and Steer both grabbed my attention as upbeat guitar songs, while Sugarcane was an fantastic piano ballad. Peachy even shows an angry side to her music, which was very refreshing. All-in-all, I felt it was a fairly well-rounded album with no two songs sounding too much alike.

It’s available for purchase as a CD or an MP3 album from Amazon, and it comes highly recommended.

4.5/5

Vampire Weekend Review

I discovered the band Vampire Weekend on The Hype Machine Zeitgeist 2008, where their self-titled album came in as the #3 album of the year according to hundreds of music bloggers. I sat down and listened to it all the way through using their lovely built-in player, and I found myself pleasantly surprised. Even though Chris from Flickin’ Spit thinks the album is all buzz, I missed out on any “buzz.”

Vampire Weekend - Vampire WeekendI loved the musicality of the entire album. They combine a cornucopia of instruments including a kettle drum, harpsichord, and a violin if my ears don’t deceive me. I will say that despite listening to it a number of times, the lyrics haven’t stuck with me as being terribly insightful. That doesn’t mean that they’re not, just that they haven’t caught my attention. Still, the musical quality of the album is fantastic. Notable songs for me included A-Punk, M79, Walcott, and The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance. It’s always nice to find a new band to listen to, and I especially like Vampire Weekend. I’m looking forward to hearing more from them in the future. Thanks to The Hype Machine!

You can purchase the CD or MP3 Album from Amazon.

4/5

The Hype Machine rocks my world

I recently discovered The Hype Machine when browsing Ryan’s Smashing Life. I didn’t exactly understand what it was at first, but it’s actually really cool.

So people have these music blogs all over the Internet. They review albums and usually post free promotional mp3s in their reviews. Record labels give out these promotional downloads to spread the word about a new album or band. The Hype Machine catalogs and organizes all these music reviews from the best music blogs for your viewing pleasure. They also have an awesome built-in music player (by imeem) that allows you to listen to the attached mp3s directly from The Hype Machine. Users can mark tracks as a “favorite”, and you can view the “favorite” count for all the tracks.

Now if that was all The Hype Machine offered, it would be interesting, but only moderately useful. Fortunately, there are a bunch of other incredibly cool sections of the website. The “Latest” section is the first section you’ll encounter. It contains the latest posts in the music blogosphere. The “Popular” section contains the most popular music on the site from the past 3 days, either by “favorites” or by play count. The “Radio” section contains a non-stop radio stream of the most popular and recent music. Put it on, and you’re sure to have some fresh tunes to listen to non-stop. You can even plug this into your favorite music player as an online radio station. The “Spy” section lets you spy on what the most users are currently listening to on The Hype Machine. There’s also a “Dashboard” section that lets you customize your experience with The Hype Machine.

Surfing through all that music might seem a bit overwhelming. Even though it’s fairly easy to navigate, finding good new music on there could be challenging, especially for a new user. Thus my favorite section of The Hype Machine is the “Zeitgeist.” At the end of every year, they catalog the most popular music from that year and give you the top 50 artists, albums, and songs. The really cool part, as I read about on ReadWriteWeb, is the Top 50 Albums section. For the 2008 Zeitgeist, The Hype Machine partnered with the folks at imeem and musebin (which creates one-line reviews of every album on The Hype Machine). They pulled some freely distributable, Creative Commons licensed photos of the bands from Flickr and made awesome spreads for each album. Plus with the help of imeem, the full albums are available to listen to for free. I was really intrigued by this. I had already bought the #1 album a few weeks ago, but I really enjoyed the #3 album by a group called Vampire Weekend. I liked it so much that I ended up buying it a few days later (using their referral link directly to Amazon MP3).

If you’re grooving on The Hype Machine, I figured out another cool feature for people using Firefox and other modern browsers. Mozilla’s Mycroft Project, which implements OpenSearch, will let you add an entry for The Hype Machine to your Firefox search bar. Furthermore, if you go to the “Manage Search Engines” section at the bottom of the search engine drop-down menu, you can highlight The Hype Machine entry and edit its keyword to something like hype. Now if you want to quickly search for some music by The Submarines, you can simply type hype the submarines in your Firefox address bar (awesome bar). That’s a pretty awesome and quick way to find new music!

If you’d like to know more about the blogs that are syndicated by The Hype Machine, you can check out their blog post at the Machine Shop blog on the matter. There are literally thousands of music blogs that are syndicated on The Hype Machine. I’ve also found that their musical taste also varies quite a bit, including some pretty interesting jazz and blues. No need to worry that it’s all weird indie rock, although there is quite a bit of that.

So, what are you waiting for?! Go find some new music on The Hype Machine!