My new music-listening system

May 26th, 2004

In an effort to practice what I preach, I designed and built a new music-listening system for myself around the beginning of the year. It’s been in use for a while now, so I thought I’d post a report on it, particularly in light of my other posts today. The overall goal is to wean myself off physical CDs.

First, I’ll describe my old system. There are basically three places that I listen to music: my house, at work, and in my car. I don’t use headphones in my house, and only rarely carry music portably.

My House: I have a fairly standard home stereo system (floor-standing speakers, 5-disc CD changer) in the main room of my house, which has an open floor plan. Whether I’m in the “living room” or the kitchen, that’s what I use to listen to music at home. At the side of the room I have my 2 CD racks holding approximately 800 CDs. Like most people, when I wanted to listen to music, I’d pull something off the rack and put it in the CD player and listen. I’d rarely use the CD-changer capability.

At Work: I have a small stereo system on my desk in the office, and am lucky enough to be able to listen to music all day. Every morning, I would choose ten CDs from my rack at home and carry them into work, listen to them throughout the day, and then bring them home.

In the car: I don’t drive all that much or that far, so I just grab a CD or two off the rack whenever I know I’m going to be out for a while.

Now, to the new system.

Read the rest of this entry »

“It’s All About Expectations”, or “I’m a Moron”

May 5th, 2004

Take your pick for the topic of this post once you read the whole thing.

I recently got three new DVD-Audio discs, which contain 5.1-channel surround-sound mixes. They are:

Porcupine Tree – “In Absentia”
Bruce Dickinson – “Balls to Picasso”
Megadeth – “Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?”

I had read that the Porcupine Tree represented a new reference standard in high-definition surround-sound audio, so I was really looking forward to that. I hadn’t been able to find any opinions about the other two, so I had no idea what to expect from them.

I listened to all three of them in their entirety. I thought the Porcupine Tree sounded amazing, both in fidelity, and in the multi-channel mixing. It was everything I expected it to be.

The Dickinson sounded rather strange, the sound quality was worse than the CD, but it was kind of interesting because it was something different, and really gave a new tone to the album. The surround mix seemed decent if not as adventurous as the PT, although I thought it was strange that the guitar solos were put in the left front speaker. I might expect that with Maiden and their two-guitar attack, but it seemed weird here. None of that surprised me though, because it wasn’t mixed by a known surround-sound mixer, and I figured it was just crapped out in a hurry because Sanctuary wanted to get a bunch of DVD-Audios out.

I’d never really heard the Megadeth on CD before, but it sounded about exactly what I’d expect a 1986 recording to sound like.

So last night I was messing with my DVD player, and I discovered something interesting. I had the 6-channel connections between the player and my receiver completely mixed up! The rear surround speakers were fine. The front center and front left were switched, and much worse, the right front speaker and subwoofer were switched!

And I still thought the Porcupine Tree sounded great. Yikes! Was it because I was expecting it to sound great, because I’m a moron? I’m guessing it’s the former, but then I’m probably a bit biased. Or was it because it actually did sound great even with everything messed up?

I listened to a bit of the Dickinson with the connections fixed, and it sounded a LOT better. I haven’t re-listened to the others yet, but I’ll give a better review when I do that.

Mastodon, Pelican, Sweet Cobra, and Cougars, Oh My!

May 3rd, 2004

Saw this menagerie last night at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. The $12 price balanced the 9PM Sunday night start time, and then the bands really made it worth my while. It happened to be a benefit show for Lymphedema/Breast Cancer awareness, though there was less social commentary from the stage than the average Queensryche show. Reportedly more than $6000 was raised. On to the bands:

Cougars: Eight guys on stage, including the usual five of a standard 2-guitar band, plus trumpet, trombone, and keyboards. So what do they play, some kind of hardcore-jazz-funk-ambient-death-metal? Nope. Just regular old kickass rock-n-roll. Played nice and loud with perhaps just the slightest punk edge. I don’t know why brass instruments don’t appear more often in rock bands. They’re “loud”, distorted, and can really add an extra melodic punch. When the two guitars, horns, and keyboards would all get going, there was sometimes an epic level of layered harmony that was really cool.

Sweet Cobra: A bit like Mastodon, if Mastodon wasn’t as good. Heavy riffs and screamed vocals, that got a lot more repetitive than Mastodon. But they had some cool breakdowns in the middle of some of their songs, and I actually got a bit of an early 90s doom-death (like Paradise Lost) vibe in their last song, which was a nice surprise.

Pelican: Four guys, four songs, one hour, no singer, and totally captivating. I was repeatedly reminded of early Opeth. Not because they were at all similar sonically, but the songs are long musical journeys, starting at one point, continually shifting from phase to phase, and ending up somewhere different. They also work repetition to perfection; like Opeth, at the very second you think “hmm, this is cool, but I might start to get bored with this riff soon”, they’ve already moved on to something else. I figure any band who can keep me and the rest of the crowd interested for an hour while playing music I’ve never heard before, without a singer, and without any hummable guitar lines, must have some pretty unique songwriting skills.

Mastodon: After being really wowed by Pelican, I wasn’t sure if Mastodon would be able to top them. But they did, oh yes, they did. They started off by playing some really melodic stuff that was much less intense for me than it seemed to be for the Mastodon guys, who were thrashing about more than the previous two times I’d seen them. So I thought maybe I just wouldn’t be able to latch on to their vibe. But then they hit some heavier, familiar stuff and that’s when things started rockin’ and didn’t stop. I think they played a whole lot of new songs, and it sounds like it’s easily better than “Remission”. More melodic, but still with some really intense sections as well. My favorite line: “This is ‘Workhorse’. It’s a song about work. Work sucks!” And I still think the bass player is the son of Peavy Wagner.

I’d say “Catch this package in a town near you!”, but it’s not coming to a town near you. Suckers!