Monday 29 July 2013

One Star at a Time

Maturity, most people will tell you, comes in your twenties (physically), your thirties (emotionally), or your forties (intellectually).  Few people think of maturity arriving during the golden years of a normal lifespan.  Yet the music world - and in particular the classical music world - is not short of examples of composers and conductors who have produced their best work in their seventies and eighties.  Music produces such a complex and conflicting span of emotional responses that, perhaps, it is not unreasonable for them to continue to come together over the long course of a lifetime.  For composers and conductors, perhaps, if their mental acuity and physical stamina is able to keep up, maybe it is not so surprising that their later decades can be when it all finally comes together.

For the rest of us, it is mostly our appreciation of other people's music that has the ongoing capacity to mature.  I noticed this most clearly in my own appreciation of song lyrics.  When my son grew up, it was naturally very satisfying to find that he - for the most part - enjoyed listening to the same music as me.  Including what people annoyingly refer to as the 'Classic Rock' genre that you can excuse his generation for being inclined to turn their noses up at.  However, it became clear to me that, while he enjoyed listening to a "broad church" of musical repertoire, he was getting something quite different from it than I was.  In particular, he was always quick to point out when the lyrics were especially expressive, powerful, observant, or poignant.

I guess, if I ever had a view on the matter, lyrics for me were no more and no less than the words the singer had to sing.  To the extent that they had any meaning, or provided any room for interpretation, for me they were of little more import than the headlines in a newspaper.  I could quote them only to the extent that they were easy to remember and were conflated with, and inseparable from, the music.  As long ago as the sixties, I recall my mother asking me if I knew what "Michelle, ma belle - sont les mots qui vont tres bien ensemble" actually meant.  It baffled me that she would ask that, because even then, to me, they were just the words in the Beatles song.  It mattered not a jot to me that I didn't know what they meant.  It mattered even less to me when I learned French and found out!

There are, I suppose, two ways to write a song.  You either start with the words and add the tune, or you start with the tune and add the words.  I guess you can also meet somewhere in between, but you get my point.  Examples of the former include virtually all of the great songwriters that come to our minds.  Examples of the latter include - for example - Paul McCartney.  Even in my younger days, I was well aware that McCartney's lyrics were shallow and syrupy, yet sprang almost organically from the music.  And this made some kind of sense to me.  Which was why, when I tried writing songs back in the '70's for a band I played in, I couldn't do it.

Many years ago I first heard The Tragically Hip's "Bobcaygeon".  I thought that was hilarious!  I mean, the word Bobcaygeon (actually a small town in Ontario) does not spring organically from any line of music I can think of.  And yet The Hip wrote a song about it.  So for the longest time I thought of it as some sort of musical parody because of the bumbling juxtaposition of that awkward word within an almost schmaltzy rock ballad.  I'm sure Mr. Bean could have made a great skit out of it.

I think the transformation of the Internet into a tool that most everyone now has permanently at their fingertips has, amongst many other things, meant that song lyrics are now readily accessible.  You want to sing along with a song?  Click - here are the lyrics.  Ever wondered what the heck AC/DC are screaming?  Click - here are the lyrics.  Why on earth are The Police singing "We're upstairs, in the material world"?  Click - ahh… right.  Lyrics are now - in its literal sense - accessible in a way that they never were before.  Little things like that have the power to change the world.  Little by little, bit by bit.

Back to the maturity thing.  A short few years back I watched a Tragically Hip concert on DVD.  And suddenly, in those two short hours, I finally got it!  Gord Downie somehow managed to open to his audience a glimpse of the deep meaning behind his powerful lyrics.  Downie is an extraordinary performer and communicator.  He immerses both himself and you, the audience, fully and completely into his music.  And not just the notes, melodies, harmonies, cadences and rhythms.  He immerses you in his poetry.  He is a spellbinding performer.  But maybe it was just my time.  Maybe that was the instant in my life when all of a sudden the sum total of my life's experiences came together in such a way that at last I could appreciate simple lyrics. 

Truly, it was like that.  From that moment on, lyrics of songs I knew by heart for decades were possessed of layer, nuance, and meaning.  I continue to listen to old songs anew, regularly gleaning insights I never knew I had.  At the same time, I totally fail to see why these same things were not blindingly obvious to me beforehand.  But they weren't.  And now they are.  Go figure.  (That maybe reads as being subliminally religious, something which I assure you was not intended)

And that song "Bobcaygeon"?  It turned out to contain some of the most beautiful lyrics I have ever heard.  Or not heard, you could say:
"It was in Bobcaygeon that I saw the constellations reveal themselves, one star at a time".

I hope that one day the insights of the finest lyricists of our times choose to reveal themselves to you, one line at a time.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Value-for-Money and Cables

Just about any topic is capable of arousing inflamed passions if you care to express an opinion on it - any opinion - in an audio forum.   But the biggest enchilada of them all is surely cables.  Try saying nice things about a set of $20,000 cables and you will be flamed until Christmas.

Here at BitPerfect we have been making our own balanced interconnect cables and power cords for a year or two.  It is hardly a business - we make them only to special order.  They are quite good, but there are better ones out there, albeit at a higher price point.  I have recently replaced my own BitPerfect cables with a collection of Transparent Audio Reference MM2 cables, comprising loudspeaker cable, balanced interconnects, power cords, and USB cable. Available via your nice local Transparent Audio dealer for about $20,000 the set.  But this post is not concerned with saying nice things about $20,000 cables - I know I will get flamed for that.  Even though I have plenty of very, very nice things to say about them.

It is pretty clear that the reason cables - in particular high-end cables - incite such strong reactions, is that they tend to offend most people's assumed, unspoken, sense of value-for-money.  Since the dawn of the electronic age, anything electronic you bought which needed a cable to function would include a free cable in the box.  Shipping a product without a power cord - like shipping a printer without a USB cable - really irks customers who expect these things to be included in the package.  Consumers therefore have grown to to ascribe negligible value to them.  What value do you attach to the power cord that came with your $5,000 amplifier?  Not much, I imagine.  After all, a power cord doesn't actually DO anything, does it?  So how can an after-market power cord be worth $300?  Or $1,000?  Or even $10,000 (yes, there ARE such things).  It is so easy just to dismiss it all as snake oil.  And indeed, sad to say, there is some snake oil to be found in among the many fine products.

Lets look at a nice, new, shiny, $20,000 power amplifier.  Say something nice about it in a high-end audio forum, and very few people will be offended by the very existence of such a product at such a price point.  So I guess we have come to accept that the notion of value-for-money does indeed extend to the $20,000 amplifier.  OK, so you go to your nice local dealer and cough up $20,000 for a nice shiny new amplifier.   The dealer in turn buys the amplifier from the local distributor for about $12,000.  The distributor in turn buys the amplifier from the manufacturer for about $7,000.  The manufacturer buys all the parts he needs to make that amplifier for less than $2,000, and spends the same again in labor to assemble and test it.  Of that $2,000 in parts, perhaps less than $500 is accounted for by resistors, capacitors, transistors, ICs, circuit boards, and the like.  The rest goes into the (surprisingly expensive) chassis, the power supply, and a box to ship it in.  Yes, indeed, if you knew what you were doing, you could build your own $20,000 amplifier in an ugly box for less than $1,000.

Lets look at cables.  A cable comprises some wire with a connector at each end.  Doesn't sound like much, does it?  If I want to make a better-sounding cable, I start off by designing a better-sounding wire.  Lets assume that is an easy thing to do (but it most assuredly is not).  I need to get someone to manufacture my nice new wire, because, like designing my own transistor, that's not something I can easily knock together in my basement.  I need to go to a specialist cable-manufacturing company, and there are a few out there.  These companies do not exist to serve the audio industry.  Indeed, most of them will have no clue that there is an audio industry out there that wants fancy cables, because the truth is the specialty audio market is just too small to pique their interest. Suppose that, instead of designing my own special wire, I just grab one of their catalogs and select an existing wire design whose specs are close to my own. For BitPerfect's Balanced Interconnect design, such stock wire is priced at about $10 a foot, and I need four runs of wire per set of interconnects.  A one-meter pair of interconnects will therefore consume about $150 worth of wire.  Four modestly high quality Neutrik XLR connectors are another $10 each.  When you add up everything else that goes into them, one set of one-meter cables costs me well over $200 just in parts.  These must sell direct for at least $500 if I am going to make any profit on them.  That price will double if I am to sell them in a High Street store.  Yet I get accused of selling snake oil by individuals who have never even been in the same building as the product.  This why we dropped our line of cable products.

So if I have a point to make at all here, it is this.  The people who make after-market cable accessories are not all snake-oil salesmen.  They are for the most part highly dedicated individuals and organizations.  They make these products because, goddammit, they DO sound better.  So much so that a $5,000 Amplifier with a $1,000 power cord will almost always sound notably better than a $6,000 Amplifier with a stock power cord (all else being equal).  A power cord, interconnect cable, loudspeaker cable, or USB cable which is offered for sale at a four-figure - or even a five-figure - price point, may well represent just as good of a deal in value-for-money terms as an equivalent-priced amplifier or loudspeaker.