Thursday 24 March 2016

Master Bates

I have very recently been introduced to the American composer Mason Bates, and in particular an album of three of his symphonic works recently released by the San Francisco Symphony.  Indeed, the first of these - “The B-Sides” - was commissioned by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas on behalf of SFS, the commission reportedly being proposed by Tilson Thomas during the intermission of a performance of Tchaikovsky and Brahms symphonies.  The album is called “Mason Bates - Works For Orchestra”, and I highly recommend it.

Mason’s music is possessed of the uneasy sonorities of a movie soundtrack set in the isolation of deep space.  It is both unsettling and captivating at the same time.  At various times it evokes ‘Alien’, ‘2001 - A Space Odyssey’, and ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’.  But a sense of brooding foreboding seems to infuse everything.  Even as it breaks into the gusto and swing of big band jazz, this is quickly interrupted by ominous rumblings of thunder, or howling winds which transform into weirdly gurgling water.  The third movement of “The B-Sides” is some sort of eerie communication between astronauts and ground control, and we feel nervously concerned that the fates can have nothing good lined up for Major Tom.  It’s strangely strange, yet oddly normal.

Is this classical music or something else?  There are times when it is purely orchestral - and fits into the classical mould in both form and structure.  There are other times when only electronic sounds are present, or purely modern ensembles such as big band jazz.  We tend as music consumers to want to categorize our music into neat groups.  Sure, there is crossover music which melds disparate forms, but generally such works adhere to a consistent affectation throughout the piece.  Mason Bates is different.  Taking his inspiration from the way a movie soundtrack is put together he moves seamlessly from one soundscape to another in a style which comes across as remarkably organic and natural.  Still, it fits better in the ‘classical’ box than in any other.

For a conductor who can do Mahler with the very best of them, Michael Tilson Thomas does display a keen sensitivity to the Mason Bates idiom, but overall has a tendency to hold the music back too much.  This music carries an ambiguous yet overt emotional payload.  Tilson Thomas allows the tension to build very well, but doesn’t provide an appropriate release.  The net result is akin to reading a gripping novel, and finding that some swine has torn out the last chapter.

Naturally, for music inspired by the modern idiom, rhythm is a powerful element, and needs to be treated appropriately, unlike with Beethoven, say, where a heavy hand on the rhythmic aspects can overshadow the textural and structural subtleties.  The syncopated rhythms - indeed the overall phrasing - of Bates need to be played in such a way as to emphasize the ‘groove’.  Listen to the second movement “Chicago (2012)” of the ‘Alternative Energy’ symphony, and compare Tilson Thomas’s reading of it to Bernstein’s legendary 1958 performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Now I’m not suggesting that one should expect Tilson Thomas’s Bates to be “legendary”, but it does illustrate very cleanly the areas in which his Bates is wanting.

It is interesting to compare Tilson Thomas’s effort on ‘Works For Orchestra’ with Gil Rose’s interpretation of Bates’ ‘Mothership’ with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  This conductor/orchestra pair is more attuned to the contemporary music idiom, and thus the performance is more organic.  But the BMOP does not possess the depth of sonority of the finest orchestras, and as a result the film-score nature of the music is more to the fore, and any more profound emotional message is less apparent.  I expect that I will return to that album less frequently than I will the Tilson Thomas.

While my comments come across as overly critical, let me be clear.  I find “Works For Orchestra” to be deeply compelling.  The recording is crystal clear, the music is brilliantly conceived and finely played, and - for what it’s worth - the cover art is seriously cool!  Bates’ music shows genuinely original compositional skills without appearing to resort to modern artifice for its own sake.  Despite the new electronic sounds his basic orchestration is competent - bordering on the extremely good, actually - but is neither novel nor experimental.  Which is not a bad thing - I rather like it.  “Works For Orchestra” was, naturally, playing while I wrote this.  After the album finished, the next track which popped up randomly up on my playlist was Pohjola’s Daughter by Sibelius.  The transition was remarkably seamless, which I thought was very interesting.

You can download “Mason Bates - Works For Orchestra” in resolutions up to 24/192 from and others.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Fun & Games at SSI 2016

In Montreal every year in late March we have our annual HiFi show called Salon Son et Image (SSI). Its name dates back to the turn of the millennium when Home Theatre was the big thing in the larger world of audio (hence the ‘Image’ bit). The last few years though, it has reverted back to a pure audio show. Look for a probable name change next year.

Last year, as the dust of the show settled, the mood among the exhibitors was extremely negative. There were murmurs that there wouldn’t be an SSI in 2016. The reasons are complex, but for sure are not related to attendance - SSI is always a seething event. Anyway, leading up to SSI 2016 the show was still on. But then, on the Wednesday before the show was due to open, the organizers (the Chester Group) suddenly announced that it had been indefinitely ‘postponed’, although no indication was given as to when - or even if - it might be re-scheduled.

Four years ago, before control was assumed by the Chester Group, SSI had been organized every year by a local couple Sarah Tremblay and Michel Plante. So when the rug was summarily pulled out, Sarah and Michel decided to see if it was possible at such a late stage to step in and turn things around. The first thing they found was that there were only 18 exhibitors who had signed up! 18 exhibitors does not a trade show make, so you had to wonder what could possibly be done over the space of a weekend to resurrect it. What indeed?

Very quickly the word got around that (a) the Chester Group had cancelled the show, and (b) Michel and Sarah were going to step in and make sure it went ahead. Tim and I decided that we definitely wanted to support Sarah and Michel. Although we did exhibit once in 2012, trade shows are not a particularly cost-effective promotional tool for a business like ours that sells software exclusively via the Apple App Store. Nonetheless, on the Thursday afternoon I called Sarah and committed to taking a room at the show. After all, we are all part of a larger community. I guess a lot of other people did likewise, because by the time the weekend was over Michel and Sarah had increased the exhibitor count from 18 to 65. I have to tell you, that says extraordinary things about the esteem in which these two individuals are held.

Next, we had to assemble a system to demonstrate. I couldn’t just schlepp my own reference system down to the show. I have B&W 802 Diamond S2 loudspeakers and these are for all practical purposes utterly impossible to transport. Also, my speakers and amplifier are about 5 years old, and you need to be showcasing the latest and greatest equipment. So I got on the phone with Paul McGowan, owner and President of PS Audio. I have been using a PS Audio DirectStream DAC for a couple of years now, and really enjoy listening to it, and have been following the lengthy gestation of Paul’s new power amplifiers the BHK 250 Stereo and BHK 300 monoblocks. In fact, last year at SSI I heard the prototype BHK 250 and was seriously impressed. So I asked Paul if he would be willing to loan me a set of BHK 300 monoblocks to use in our room at the show. Not only did Paul enthusiastically agree, but he also volunteered to send one of his P10 power stations (of which more in another blog post).

Now for loudspeakers. We have for many years enjoyed a friendly relationship with Graeme Humfrey at local audio dealer Coup de Foudre. So I called in to their new showroom and asked if they would be willing to supply me with a pair of loudspeakers that we could use at the show. Graeme casually waved his arm across a room containing something like a million dollars worth of high end loudspeakers and said “Sure, which ones would you like?”. We chose a pair of Focal Sopra No 2 floorstanders, which retail at about $15k.

Another phone call to Steve Silberman at AudioQuest, and a package was soon on its way containing ‘Castle Rock’ speaker cables, ‘Water’ interconnects, ‘NRG-10’ power cords, ‘Diamond’ USB cable, ‘Vodka’ ethernet cables, even three USB ‘Jitterbugs’. Have I forgotten anything?….

There are some seriously nice and seriously helpful people in the high end audio business, and our thanks go out to all of them. But as it would turn out, we would be needing a lot more help before the weekend was over, and there seemed no limit to what people would be willing to do to help out their colleagues … and even their competitors.

When Tim and I visited the hotel on the Tuesday to check out the room, it was being used and so we were unable to inspect it. This became an issue when we showed up on the Thursday morning and found that our room was almost square (30’ x 25’ x 12’) with three walls formed from a very flexible sort of thin particle board, and one comprising sliding glass doors. The suspended ceiling used flimsy polystyrene tiles and the floor was concrete covered by a rather hideous carpet. The overall decor and condition was pretty grim. Setup was going to be very challenging, and we were going to be in need of serious room treatment if we hoped to get things sounding right.

We decided to place the speakers along one of the (slightly) shorter walls, and set everything up accordingly. Immediately we found that the room had a wicked bass hump at around 50-100Hz, which sucked the life out of the music. No matter where we placed the speakers everything sounded awful. What the heck were we going to do?

My first port of call was Michel Plante. He works for the company that distributes Focal loudspeakers in Canada. I dragged him into our room and asked him, based on his experience with the speakers, where he thought they would work best in our room. He went away and came back with a room acoustics expert, who played some music, walked up and down, clapped, shouted, sat and thought. His recommendation was to move the speakers to the opposite wall, which I must admit sounded rather improbable, but since he was the expert we shut the system down and schlepped it across the room.

Meanwhile, Michel came back again bearing curtains to cover the glass wall; a pair of heavy area rugs to cover the area of floor between the listening seats and the system; a whole bunch of acoustic panels that we could arrange around the walls as appropriate; and a selection of spot lamps that we could use to provide mood lighting thereby drawing attention away from the drab decor.

Eventually we got everything set up, and began to test it again. There was no doubt that the sound was better balanced, but still it was uninspiring, and surely nobody who heard it would leave with positive impressions regarding any of the equipment involved in producing it. Then the left channel got noticeably quieter. Then it started to hiss and crackle. Then it went pop and shut down. One of the BHK 300 monoblocks had evidently failed.

Once again Michel Plante came to the rescue. He went off and came back with a Devialet 400 dual-mono integrated amplifier with a built-in DSD-compatible DAC. A cool $20k if you want one. We could use this for the rest of the show, or until we got the BHK 300 repaired. He also brought his acoustic expert back, plus another of his experts - a cellist named Vincent Belanger, who had recorded an album that we played for him to assess the bass response. Between them they got the speaker positioning fine-tuned and finally we were good to go. There was a compromise. We could get very nice and clean imaging, but with a huge bass hump; or we could tame the bass hump at the expense of the holographic imaging. Naturally, we chose the latter.

A phone call to Paul McGowan determined that the most likely cause of the BHK 300 failure was one of the input tubes (yes, the BHK 300 monoblocks are hybrid amplifiers - tube inputs with solid-state outputs). If we could get a pair of replacement tubes we could swap them out and all would be well. The tubes, he told us, are 6229 Golden Lions, and are quite widely used, so there was a good chance we could get hold of a pair. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. 6229’s turned out to be as common as albino unicorns. Nobody had even heard of them. Thus it was that on Friday, Paul shipped a replacement pair out to us by FedEx, for urgent priority delivery on Saturday morning.

So, by Friday we had a room that was not sounding bad at all. Overall it was still a little on the muddy side, but walking through some of the other rooms it didn’t sound as though anybody else was slaying that particular dragon. Although the BHK 300 monoblocks were looking pretty impressive, they were only holding the carpet in place. By Saturday lunch time, though, we hoped they’d be singing too.

But not so fast. Saturday lunch time came and went, and still no FedEx. We called them up and learned that they had mislaid the shipment! Furthermore it was not going to be delivered until Monday morning, and the show ended on Sunday. It was at this point that the next two heroes entered the picture.

Rick Becker is an audio reviewer with “” and likes his sound tube-based and vinyl-driven. Rick pointed out that there is actually no such thing as a 6229 tube, but there is a 6922 and it is a very common design used in preamplifiers and phono stages. Whipping the suspect tubes out of the deceased BHK 300, he confirmed his suspicion. He then went off with a twinkle in his eye saying “Give me 20 minutes….”. True to his word, he came back at the appointed hour with an introduction to a gentleman named Samuel Furon of l’Atelier Audio, a Canadian dealer and distributor of high-end audio. One of the products he was carrying, a phono preamplifier, uses 6922 tubes, and he had one on display but not in use. These used not just ordinary 6922’s, but NOS Phillips tubes … he just pulled out a pair and gave them to me. Didn’t want them back!

We put the Phillips NOS 6922’s into the BHK 300 and it immediately sprang to life again. So we took the Devialet out of the system and ran the rest of the show with the DirectStream DAC feeding the BHK 300 monoblocks directly. To say that the PS Audio combo dramatically outshone the Devialet sounds like I am being down on the Devialet, and that is not my intention. The euro-chic Devialet worked very well and delivered a nice clean sound with notable bass weight and definition. I’m sure you’d like it - I know I did. But the PS Audio combo really shook my world, and we ran with that setup through the end of the show. It seemed to blow away a large part of the bass-rich mud that pervaded the overall sound, and created a fairly solid stereo image where previously there really wasn’t one. The midrange was to die for - seriously tube-y. For the second half of the show our room really sang!

So that was SSI 2016. It was a resounding success. Everybody I spoke to, without exception, was full of praise for how well the show went and the general atmosphere of conviviality that pervaded the event. Even the fact that the hotel was undergoing significant renovations all around us while the show was going on only seemed to add to the collective sense of camaraderie rather than detract from it. Unlike previous years, admission for the general public was free, and, possibly as a consequence, the attendees seemed to be a slightly different group from the usual suspects. As one long-time exhibitor put it, it was encouraging to “see some new faces”. The mood at the close of the show was diametrically opposed to that of one year ago. Everybody was hyped and looking forward to a bigger and better SSI 2017.

At the end of the show I was supposed to ship the BHK 300 monoblock amplifiers back to PS Audio, but such was the impact the system had on me that I took them home instead. If they can replicate the type of performance we heard at the show in my reference system, then I hope they are going to stay there. I will report in due course on what I find.

One last shout out to Pascal Patry, Tim’s business partner at Spectrum. We had to transport the Focal Sopra No 2’s across town from Coup de Foudre to and from the show. I have an Infinity G35 and Tim a Volvo S60. The Focals simply won’t fit in either of those cars. But Pascal has an Acura SUV, and he ‘volunteered’ to ship the speakers for us. Of course, it turned out that even with the big Acura you could only get one boxed up speaker into it at a time, so he had to do two trips each way. Not to mention all the heavy lifting that we pressed him into service for. But he didn’t once complain.

So, to Sarah Tremblay, Michel Plante, Paul McGowan, Graeme Humfrey, Steve Silberman, Rick Becker, Samuel Furon, Pascal Patry, and many others who never made it into my narrative (but you know who you are), a huge thank you for your contributions to making our little exhibit at SSI 2016 such a success.