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Microsoft Surface as audio source

17 Mar

Really loving the quality of audio from my Microsoft Surface Pro 3. Best I have heard from a PC’s headphone socket by a long shot. Been enjoying the casual headphone listening. Tonight its plugged in to my vintage A&R Cambridge A60 and ProAc Tablette speakers while I work. Was sounding pretty good at my home workstation, until I stepped back to get a more normal stereo perspective and found myself blown away by the sheer quality coming from the speakers. Smooth, spacious, precise and luscious.

Listening to the nicely produced atmospheric Different Pulses LP by the gifted singer Asaf Avidan on Spotify at 320k compression.

Will make some time in the next couple of months to properly compare with my Sony Walkman NW-ZX1, which has been my portable audio champ to date. The Surface is obviously not pocketable like the Walkman, but an interesting comparison nonetheless. My impression so far is that the extra power available in a larger format device is assisting the Surface in presenting music with an ease that will escape pocket-based devices.

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Transfiguration of Vincent

17 Feb

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It’s eleven years old; when it’s twenty-one years old I will still be listening and sailing into the ether with this record.

First shared with me as an MP3 album, I have been hypnotised from the moment it entered my life. M Ward’s “Transfiguration of Vincent” is an album that transcends time and fashion to transport me every time. Eager to experience it in full gloriousness, I was disappointed to discover that the vinyl pressing was only available second-hand at US$80 a piece. But recently I discovered it available (via GEMM.com) at a US record store for a realistic price.

Alone in the world as an M Ward acolyte, my communion became communal when three Christchurch friends were, a couple of years ago, equally blown by the MP3 beamed off my Sony Walkman into their DLNA system. We consummated the union at Bodega, Wellington in 2013. M. Ward did not disappoint; as masterful in his live performance as he was on record.

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This evening the stylus hit the groove. Fresh off the boat, 12 inches of black goodness  spun into my life. As always, going from 320kb MP3 to full frequency spectrum analogue was a revelation. The subtlety of every little change in tempo and pitch bend added to the rich gestalt of a complete, masterful performance.

Do a search and you will see some nice writing about this LP. M Ward apparently made this record to mark the passing of his friend Vincent O’Brien. Eulogies come no more heartfelt and virtuoso than this.

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Last Night You Saw This Band

9 Mar

An unplanned quiet night at home has seen me pull out a new vinyl record that I received a few weeks ago, but have not had the opportunity to listen to.

I noticed some time back that my record player was running a little slow. A recording I had made of a Sleigh Bells LP showed songs were longer than their mp3 counterparts and the musical pitch was noticeably lower than it should be. Doing some checking, I figured that my turntable was running 3% slow.

The fix for this is a straightforward adjustment of a screw inside the turntable. But by the time I take off the base of the turntable and labouriously count platter revolutions (I have never sprung for a stroboscope) it takes a bit of time; time that I haven’t had recently. Tonight I finally got on to it.

The result has been a sublime listening session with Minuit’s latest recording “Last Night You Saw This Band”. I picked this up through a PledgeMe deal that funded the recording and scored me a digital download of the LP (same as CD, full lossless FLAC format sound).

Well, I’ve had that digital LP for a while now but I never really got into it. Tonight, after sorting my record player issues, I slapped on a slab of Minuit and engaged with this recording like never before.

The record was noisy because I washed it and had briefly forgotten my newly discovered infallible rinsing process. There was electrical hum because my preferred turntable-to-amplifier cables have poor electrical shielding (a bit of a no-no with turntables). There were a couple of moments of frequency fluctuation, due to an irritating speed consistency issue with my turntable that I must address. Despite all that, the record drew me in and held me from start to finish.

And here’s the rub. The sound was not distorted or coloured compared with the digital LP. I was not being tricked by doctored frequency response or retro nostalgia. The vinyl sounded better because there was simply more of what the musicians from Minuit intended me to hear.

The result was a sense of hearing the whole package and getting down for the ride. With the digital recordings I pretty much heard all the same detail as what I heard off the vinyl. My digital playback set-up is nothing to be sniffed at. But with the vinyl it suddenly all hung together and made sense like never before. It kind of helped that I was hearing more of a 3D presentation, the bass was full and rich and the high frequencies were extended and smooth.

Huge kudos to Minuit. This vinyl release was delayed for a couple of months as they ironed out production issues. They obviously paid huge attention to the quality of the product that their committed PledgeMe customers were going to receive. The experience of listening to this recording on vinyl is quite different and far superior to digital. Despite having seen them live several times and having all their CDs on hand, I have got a new appreciation of what this fabulous band is capable of.

The PledgeMe campaign that funded the pressing of 300 records was very cool. You were able to choose from a range of pledge dollar amounts. One of the options was to pledge a bit extra for the privilege of having one of the guys from the band come and mow your lawn with his shirt off. I settled for what was a standard LP purchase price, yet still scored my choice of handwritten lyric from Minuit’s singer Ruth.

“Me and the boy with the aubergine hair” with thank you note:

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Cover and lyric sheet:

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Check out my video of Minuit live at WOMAD 2012 playing their familiar repertoire accompanied by a full Gamelan orchestra.

Magazine and the correct use of record cleaner

24 Feb

The arrival of a convenient vinyl record cleaner has spawned an orgy of long-neglected-vinyl listening. A couple of Magazine records were uninspiring, and I began to doubt my attraction to this fashionably fringe late 70s band until I hit their 1980 live LP ‘Play’. Their early records were at the cerebral and keyboard-driven end of the punk explosion. The single ‘Shot by Both Sides’ was a stand-out slam-rocker from the Virgin Records double LP sampler Virginity that made big waves amongst my senior high school set around 1979.

So during this vinyl hygiene phase I started picking out the later records of their splintered career. ‘Magic Murder and the Weather’ and ‘The Correct Use of Soap’ are titles that titillated me at the time, indicate the cerebral intentions of lead singer and lyricist ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto, and contain some fine moments, but don’t hit the sweet spot.

Live LP ‘Play’ includes many tracks that appeared on what was their current release on this particular tour, ‘The Correct Use of Soap’. But unlike the latter, ‘Play’ has just earned my 5-star rating.

Magazine’s first two LPs were classics. ‘Real Life’, followed by ‘Secondhand Daylight’ were clever, energetic examples of songcraft and musicianship. These studio efforts were the basis on which many hoped that Devoto’s career was headed for the motherlode. ‘Magic’ and ‘Soap’ allowed the strain of personnel changes and poor sales to disrupt the flow.

But in the middle of that latter phase, a slightly rough-around-the-edges recording at Melbourne’s Festival Hall in September 1980 revealed what the later studio efforts obscured. Five fine musicians getting into a groove in front of an audience.

I am listening to ‘Secondhand Daylight’ right now. It has a special sense of gestalt that the later albums could not achieve but still has a lot of weak moments. In contrast, ‘Play’ achieves a consistency of draw-you-in energy and excitement with every track.

‘Play’ is not in any way a classic of the Magazine discography. That appellation belongs to the first two albums. But ‘Play’ is easily the most enjoyable of their releases to these ears. Stripped of the calculation and control of the studio, one of Magazine’s lesser-known line-ups delivers the intricate keyboard swirl and treatment-layered guitars that were the band’s trademark with a sense that there were ‘real life’ moments where it all made sense.