QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 3)

Ok, so you’ve gone through the previous steps and configured everything for your network environment.  Now time to press on and see what makes this more than just a hard drive in a box.

STOP PRESS: as at this instant (4th Jan) it appears that a new version of the software (4.1) is in Beta and the online manual has already been updated to reflect some of the changes which directly impact some of the applications.  This update also appear to address the fact that the Time Machine backup facility no longer works with the latest version of OS X so hopefully I’ll be able to test that now.  As such, I’ll hold off going into any more detail for the moment until this is officially released.

The two applications I had already written about below don’t appear to have changed so check them out.

Applications

All the following applications can be enabled (and in some cases downloaded first) to allow your files to be accessed in various alternate ways, and also reveal some powerful new features.

Station Manager

QNAP provides the concept of ‘Stations’ which are a dedicated interface to manage different media or functions.

Photo Station

Ok, I must admit I haven’t tried this yet.  I have an Apple TV and use that for viewing photos from my iPhone, but I have hundreds of photos which are locked away on my laptop and when I get a chance I will look at moving them to the QNAP and enabling this feature.

Having said that though, these ‘stations’ tend to provide two things: a web interface to view photos/play music/play videos etc, and a remote API so mobile apps can also access those files.
What they do not provide is something that you can view and interact with via your television – for that you require XBMC (which QNAP includes under the ‘HD Station’ banner which is described later on).

Thus, there seems little point enabling this feature for photos for example since the photos are already accessible as a network share which I could browse using any existing software such as ACDsee.  And I have no burning desire to squint at my photos on a mobile device (although if you wished to re-purpose an old tablet as a digital photo frame this would be ideal).

However, if you wish to make your photos available to the outside world, then this will allow you to do that, and has facilities to create slide shows, albums and even has some photo editing capabilities.

Music Station

Same deal as Photo Station but for music.  The web interface allows you to browse your music and play it within any browser – no extra software required.  If you open it up to the outside world then you could listen to your entire collection of music at work for example.

QNAP Music Station

Enabling this station will allow you to use the Qmusic mobile app that provides a similar feature set but on a mobile device.

Qmusic Interface

The Qmusic app does have an interesting feature: it allows you to download the music to your device so it is available offline.  Thus it could allow you to sync music to your phone without requiring iTunes.  There are at least 134 reasons why that is a good thing, but the number one for me is simply the fact that iTunes doesn’t stay in sync with my music – it doesn’t automatically recognise when I add new files to the NAS while this software does – as you will see later on there are options to ‘watch’ your files and make sure they are added to the library automatically.  Using the NAS as an iTunes server will mitigate that somewhat but iTunes is still painfully slow with large collections and I’m not sure if I can sync files from a shared iTunes library to my phone – I haven’t tried that yet.

Finally, for iPhone users, you can play files from this app via AirPlay so if you have Apple TV, you can play music to your hifi without needing to:

  1. Turn the TV on to navigate through your files
  2. Physically connect the NAS to your hifi

That works pretty well, and the software will handle playback of formats that the iPhone/Apple TV can’t handle natively (i.e. FLAC).  Of course, the ridiculous hardware limitations of the current Apple TV mean you are stuck with 16 bit/48Khz playback, so no HD audio.

One final thing: the Qmusic app has a glaring omission (at least as far as I know).  As it is designed for a range of QNAP devices, it doesn’t know about the HDMI output on the TS-269L.  Thus there is no option to tell it to play your music through the HDMI connector!  It downloads/streams it via the app first and then you listen to it on your phone, or send it back to your hifi via AirPlay.

Clearly that is very silly and hopefully will be addressed at some point (or someone please tell me where to find this feature).  Luckily there is another way to achieve this result as you will see later.

QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 2)

So following on from my previous post, I’ve installed the hard drives into my QNAP TS-269L NAS, powered it on and downloaded and installed the ‘Qfinder’ software to detect the drive and perform initial setup.

My home network has DHCP services provided by the ADSL router which would be the same for most people so the device picked up an IP address on startup and the Qfinder software detected it immediately.

I was guided through a wizard that configured low level settings like server name, date/time, password for admin account and also prompted me to upgrade to a more recent version of the firmware (and reboot).

This software has options to assist setting up storage folders, mapping drives and configuring advanced network settings (the device actually has two Ethernet ports so there are some sophisticated options available here if needed).

Overall it was a pleasant experience, but all the high level options such as configuring services and installing add-ins is done via the web interface, which can be obtained simply by double-clicking the required NAS in the list (Qfinder will manage more than one QNAP NAS if others exist on your network and this opens up yet more options such as replicating data to a second unit in real-time).

The QNAP Web interface

Initial impressions were very favourable, with large, friendly (but not cutesy) icons and various status indicators and quick links dotted around the place.  The interface is very dynamic, with things opening independently in their own draggable windows and there are lots of nice touches.  The dashboard is particularly attractive and is a good overview of the system, including any tasks that may be running in the background:

QNAP Dashboard

Tip: It is a matter of personal preference, but there is an option in the menu in the top-right to switch to a ‘tabbed’ view which ditches the individual windows in favour of tabs which will bring each opened section to the front and I much prefer this since I never found it necessary to see two windows at once.

Clicking the Control Panel icon gets to the meat of the system:

QNAP Control PanelI’ll run through most of the options and highlight the things I altered to achieve my goals.  For some background, my environment and use cases are:

  1. Mixed environment of a couple of Windows laptops and an Apple Macbook Pro, all of which need to access the data on the drive
  2. I want to backup the laptops to the NAS.  The Macbook uses a Time Machine already but the QNAP supports the Time Machine protocol so theoretically can take its place
  3. I want all my digital multimedia files to be playable directly from the device via HDMI into my amplifier.  And I really mean direct – if I have 24 bit/96 khz FLAC then I want that decoded and sent to the amplifier as a bitstream of the same resolution ready for D/A conversion
  4. A ‘nice to have’ is the use of DLNA to make the files available to other devices (such as the networked Panasonic Bluray player in the bedroom)
  5. If possible, allow the playing of music off the device through the hifi without needing the bloody television turned on just to navigate the system
  6. Tune the system by removing or disabling anything I don’t need without sacrificing reliability
  7. Oh yeah, and before I forget again, I need a way to backup the contents of the device itself since the bulk of its content is only held there

With that in mind, let’s begin …

General Settings

These mostly mirror the settings that are available in the Qfinder software and I didn’t change anything further at this point.

Storage Manager

As it suggests, anything to do with storage is contained here, including configuring RAID, encrypting the file system and a bunch of hardcore options for iSCSI which I won’t pretend to understand or need.

The important part to check is that the physical disks are listed correctly, and the logical volume is configured correctly – in my case a mirrored volume.

QNAP Storage ManagerThe system supports S.M.A.R.T monitoring to check the health of the hard drive(s).  For what it is worth I configured it to do a complete test once a month in the hope of some advance warnings of any issues.
Tip: I set it to do a full scan at 9am on the first of each month and applied it to both drives.  It is now New Year’s Day and I’ve just realised why things seemed a little slow – it has been running the scan for almost the entire day.  I have now changed it so it will run at 1am and have staggered the drives so drive 2 will scan on the 2nd day of the month.

I must admit I don’t recall exactly what I did to initialise the discs for the first time – there were a couple of steps to select the configuration of the hard-drives between RAID 0 or 1 for example, and it went away and formatted the drives for first use and then spent time synchronising the mirror.  During that time I was still able to write some files to continue my testing, but I rebooted part way through and it restarted the synchronisation again so probably safest to let it run through to the end (a few hours for my 3TB drives).

Network

There are some hard-core settings here and I didn’t change anything.  On the ADSL router however, I did set up the NAS as a static IP address based on MAC address so it will always be identified via the same IP address which I figured would make life easier when accessing the web interface and is one less thing to think about when debugging network issues.

Security

You can create access rules here to allow/block IP addresses from accessing the device.  I didn’t change anything as all ports are blocked via the router in my situation.

Note that there are various options to allow the device to act as a ‘personal cloud server’ so you can access your files externally.  That would require external access to the device and I’m not sure what is involved to allow that to happen – for me this feature isn’t worth the potential downside and for those occasions I wish to share files between home and work for instance I either copy them to a USB stick or use a genuine cloud service such as SkyDrive or Google Drive.

Hardware

Some general options here to control the fan and hard drive standby mode.  I can’t think of a downside to allowing the hard-drive to go to sleep after 30 minutes of inactivity so it is worth turning this on if not on already.

Power

Some more hard-core options to reduce power consumption.  I left these alone but changed the ‘Power Recovery’ option so that the unit remains off if there is a power failure and then the power returns.  I figured if the power went off for some reason then it would be safest to leave it off and switch it on manually.  If you need to access it remotely then use one of the other two options.

Notification

You can setup an email account to be notified of system alerts and warnings.  This actually requires you to enter your email password as it uses your provider to send the email rather than a generic SMTP server.  My old Western Digital MyBook Live didn’t require this and must have used their own SMTP server and some sort of authentication to make sure requests only came from genuine devices.
Given the amount of stuff I have tied with my Google/Gmail account, I tested this out but felt safer removing my details and will rely on logging in every now and then to check what is going on.

SMS is supported as well but once again required credentials for a provider of such services.

Firmware Update

The system can check for new firmware automatically so just let it do its thing.

Backup / Restore

This allows you to save system settings to a file and restore them again, or reset to factory defaults.  Worth keeping a working copy in case you screw something up.

External Device

This is interesting and has options to manage external hard-drives plugged in via USB or eSATA.  It can also manage an attached USB Printer and share it on the network.  Finally, it can connect to a UPS and shut-down automatically if needed.

All great options in an office environment but not something I needed.

System Status

More information than you could possibly need on processor, memory and network utilisation.  Also shows specification of the system and temperature.

Most useful is the System Service page which snapshots all the running services and is worth checking to see the effect of turning things on and off.

QNAP System Service

System Logs

As the name suggests, there is a comprehensive log of all events as well as a list of connected users.

Users

Moving on to Users under the ‘Privilege Settings’ category.  There are some useful options here, even if you are a solo user.

Firstly, there is the concept of a ‘home’ folder which is private to each user (although the degree of privacy is configurable I assume).  As you would expect, this is a dumping ground for your own personal files with no expectation that they would be available to other devices via DLNA for example.  Instead, if you were opening up file access to the outside world, this would be the ideal place to keep personal things you wish to access from anywhere.

Each user’s ‘home’ directory shows up as an individual network share when browsing the NAS via Windows Explorer or a Mac Finder – depending on the credentials they have accessed the device with.  In an office environment this could be useful, but for a home network it may not be, so clicking the ‘Home Folder’ button allows this to be disabled which means one less share shows up when browsing the device.

It is advisable to create a dedicated user account for yourself, even if you are the only user, rather than use the existing default ‘admin’ account.  That way, if for example a virus gets hold of your computer, there is potentially less damage it can do to files on a mapped network drive than if you were connected as ‘admin’ and could access and change everything.  Also, if you add more users in the future it gives greater visibility when you can differentiate between who made what changes to which files.

Click the ‘Create’ button to create a new user account.  For ease of use, choose the same username that you use when logging into your computer.  Every user is automatically in the ‘Everyone’ group, which is sufficient for read-only access (so they can play multimedia files but can’t add/edit/delete them).  Whatever username and password you enter here is what you should use when mapping a network drive to your desired share.
The ‘Private Network Share’ icon allows you to fine-tune permissions for that user for any network shares currently defined, and ‘Application Privilege’ allows you to enable/disable access to services and applications such as FTP.

User Groups

Here you can edit existing groups (‘Admin’ and ‘everybody’) or create your own group and assign default permissions which can be overridden on a per-user basis if needed (not recommended in order to keep things manageable).

They’ve done a good job here as the ‘admin’ group actually has no permissions at all when it comes to files: every share is denied.  Thus you either have to make a conscious decision to override these settings, or create a dedicated account.  Strangely though, the actual ‘admin’ user account by default does override these settings and sets them all to read/write, so the purpose is completely defeated.  I didn’t want to muck around and reduce these permissions so just stick with a dedicated account instead for your day to day usage – don’t map shares as ‘admin’.

Now that I have a better understanding of these options I might create a ‘Power User’ group that has read/write access to multimedia files for example and put myself in it, and leave the ‘everybody’ group for less technical members of the household to just read files.

Shared Folders

This is where you can setup network shares themselves.  A number are setup by default, and so far I’ve felt most comfortable sticking with those and creating folders within them instead.  Creating new shares gives the most flexibility but at the cost of more complexity, and unless you are in an office environment and/or dealing with sensitive material, it isn’t worth it.

Each share shows up individually when browsing the device in Explorer/Finder but if you click the ‘Property’ icon there is an option to hide it.  Your mileage may vary, but I hid the ‘homes’, ‘Recordings’, ‘Web’ and ‘Download’ shares.
I guess that ‘Downloads’ is used in conjunction with the Bit-torrent add-on (which I’m not about to give in to temptation to), and ‘Recordings’ is used by the TV Tuner option, which sounds really great but not on my agenda yet as I don’t have a TV tuner dongle.

QNAP Shared Folders

The key folder is ‘Multimedia’.  As you would guess, this is where it is recommended to add your multimedia files as other included applications look here by default.  This is the share that I have mapped directly on my computers and all my files go here in relevant sub-folders:

QNAP Multimedia Folder LayoutTip: If you use software that needs to scan your music (for example I use the Mixmeister and Traktor digital DJ’ing software), you would normally point it at your music folder and let it detect BPMs, keys and other meta-data for all your files.  If you also have a lot of DJ mixes from Soundcloud or whatever, then it will try and scan these too, which takes forever and is fairly pointless (and in the case of Mixmeister it crashes with files over a certain length).  Thus I moved those files into a separate top-level ‘Mixes’ folder so they are not scanned.  If you do want them scanned in other software just add that folder to the list of folders to scan (for example in Media Monkey).

Quota

This allows you to configure disk usage quotas to control the maximum amount of disc space a user can use.  A global value can be set here and can be overridden per user.  I have no use for this and have it turned off, but amongst a larger group of users is probably a good idea.

Domain Security

This allows you to offload user management to either Active Directory or an LDAP server.  Great in a business environment no doubt, but just leave it set to ‘No domain security (Local users only)’ for home use so you can manage users as described above.

Win/Mac/NFS

Moving on to the Network Services category, here you can configure how the network shares are accessed via other operating systems.

To allow access from Windows machines, select the Microsoft Networking option and enter the same Workgroup name as the rest of your machines (probably WORKGROUP).  These days it doesn’t seem to make much difference but can’t hurt.  Everything else should be the default for home usage.

If you are only accessing the NAS via Apple machines then conceivably you could enable Apple Networking and disable Microsoft Networking.
However I did read somewhere that Apple are moving to the Microsoft system as their default, and Microsoft Networking is very well supported on a number of platforms so unless Apple Networking give you something specific you need then just enabling Microsoft may be simplest.
I didn’t notice any difference in speed between the two in my very unscientific tests.

If you wish to enable Time Machine backups, it appears you will need to enable Apple Networking however.

FTP

You probably don’t need this unless you are using the NAS as a development machine, and even then you would probably transfer files via network shares or SCP over SSH.

Telnet/SSH

I can’t imagine why you would need telnet enabled, and SSH should only be enabled if you specifically need to login to the embedded operating system on the NAS.

SNMP

Leave this disabled unless you are integrating with monitoring tools for your network.

Service Discovery

UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) should be enabled if you have other devices on your network that may wish to access the files on the NAS (such as a Smart TV or streaming audio device).  It just helps them find the NAS automatically.

Bonjour is heavily used by Apple products and should be left on if you use any such products on your network and wish them to access the NAS.  Turn off any services you don’t need to advertise or have disabled.  For example I have SSH enabled, but it is not a service I wish to advertise to the world so this has been unticked.

Network Recycle Bin

This is a useful option – normally when you delete something off a network share it is gone immediately.  This enables functionality similar to the traditional desktop Recycle bin or Trash.

As it says, it will create a separate Recycle folder per network share.  Thus, if I delete any file in any of the folders in my Multimedia share, they will go into a single recycle folder at the top of the share.  Note that it will store the full path as well, so if I delete a photo in the ‘Photos’ sub-directory, it will be recycled as ‘@Recycle/Photos/crappy_photo_of_me.jpg’

I assume this only applies to files deleted when accessing the share via Windows Explorer/Finder and if you delete a file using another application or directly via FTP etc, then it is gone immediately.

There is an option to retain files for a set number of days which makes a lot of sense so you can set and forget and not worry about running out of space.  I set it to 30 days.

At this stage I’m not sure what the ‘Network Recycle Bin’ share is for – it seems to be something different altogether and I’ve decided to hide it.

Qsync

I haven’t looked into this yet but it sounds useful.  At the time of writing it says ‘Beta’, so I might wait a bit for this.  If you are interested, check out this article on how to use it: http://www.tweaktown.com/guides/5966/build-your-own-cloud-with-qnap-network-attached-storage/index.html

Conclusion

By this point you have a fully configured device that does everything you would expect of a NAS and you could probably leave it at that, but to do so is deny yourself the real power and flexibility that it can deliver.

In the next part I’ll examine the included applications and look at how to get the most of the device from a multimedia perspective.

QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 1)

I recently suffered the ignominy of a failed Network Attached Storage (NAS) device that contained all of my digital music files as well as a bunch of videos and local copies of DVDs such as music magazine cover discs for easy access.

It was a Western Digital ‘MyBook Live’ and the fault seemed to be in the firmware rather than the hard drive itself as it couldn’t connect to the network.  Naturally I hadn’t yet gotten around to backing up the bloody thing so I was motivated to get it up and running.  Even though most of it was replaceable, the thought of ripping all my CDs again didn’t exactly excite me so I looked up what my options were.
The device runs an embedded Linux distro and the drive is formatted as EXT3 or EXT4 so I’d need some software to read it on my PC but it seemed like an open and shut case: extract the drive, plug it into my laptop with a SATA to USB converter and install the software and copy the disc to a new drive.

I borrowed a SATA to USB cable and broke open the device to extract the drive and triumphantly plugged it all together only to be greeted with the sight and smell of burning electronics.  At this point I resolved to get help.  Thanks to the guys at Data Recovery Services they managed to get the drive up and running again and copy the data onto another external drive.  It was a little more expensive than I’d hoped but a tiny fraction of the opportunity cost of recreating the data myself so I got over it.
It turned out the drive had some bad sectors as well but they gave me a list of the affected files.

I’d only owned the unit for about 12 months so I wasn’t happy that it had failed so badly in such a short time.  Coupled with fairly lacklustre performance I wasn’t keen to buy another unit and was unsure what to do next.

Determined to not repeat the whole experience I set the bar higher this time in terms of reliability, performance and general features.  Always in the back of my mind too was the question of how can I make these digital files available to be played in full quality through the hifi in my lounge room without involving my computer or some half-arsed intermediary such as Apple TV that won’t cope with my slowly increasing collection of high-definition FLAC files.

A feature list was beginning to form:

  1. RAID 1 mirrored and user replaceable hard drives for redundancy
  2. High performance
  3. Good build quality but not stupidly expensive
  4. Software interface that doesn’t suck
  5. DLNA compatible to help media sharing with other devices
  6. Direct AV output via HDMI of high-definition audio formats

I had already toyed with the idea of building a Home Theatre PC running something like XBMC as I knew it would give me the flexibility I wanted, but the idea of matching all the parts, setting it up and maintaining it didn’t appeal, and the cost is not insignificant.

Point 5 was for future-proofing: none of my existing equipment is ‘smart’ but I have my eye on a Bluray upgrade to something like an Oppo BDP-105 which supports network music playing and supports HD FLAC out of the box.

Point 6 wasn’t really on the list as I had never come across any NAS that supported it.  Sure, I could buy a dedicated music streaming server at great expense but I really wanted a general purpose NAS with RAID and easily user-replaceable hard-drives.  It was added to the list once I came across one that did!

Armed with some Google searches for ‘Top NAS reviews’ I was quite impressed by the Synology line, in particular the DS214play:

Synology DS214playIt certainly would look sweet in the hi-fi rack and had a truckload of other features of varying usefulness to me.  The important thing is that it seemed to be a top-quality NAS but with an emphasis on multimedia.

Being the impatient sod that I am I probably wouldn’t have bought it if the local computer store had one in stock but they had everything else but that model so I continued to look around.

I’d come across the QNAP name in my travels so checked out their range as well.  It wasn’t long before I found the TS-269L and knew then I had found exactly what I now knew was exactly what I wanted.

QNAP TS-269L

This also ticked every box like the Synology, but with one massive extra: built-in HDMI output and the inclusion of the XBMC home theatre software and full support for all its’ add-ons as well as hardware remotes.

From my perspective, the main features were:

  • RAID 1 support with dual hard drives
  • Small size with built-in fan (there seems to be this mania to build fan-less devices, which is fine – right up to the minute they overheat and die, which is clearly my fault for living in a warm(ing) climate and not leaving the air conditioner on all day.  On hot days I can almost fry an egg on my Apple Time Machine, even though the hard-drive is asleep)
  • Various ways of sharing music including DLNA, uPnP, ability to act as an iTunes server and of course direct HDMI output
  • Support for Apple Time Machine backups in the hope I could consolidate all my backups into one place
  • XBMC and everything that gives you, including native support for high-definition FLAC (ok, that is probably more a function of the sound drivers and decoder libraries, but at least there is some hope that they would be used to their full capabilities)
  • Reasonable price
  • Super configurable
  • Some good looking mobile apps
  • Fully functional as a standard NAS for the purposes of supporting non-multimedia use cases such as backing up my PC and Mac, plus my wife’s PC as well
  • A dozen other interesting features which basically made the whole thing feel very rounded and future-proof
  • Upgradeable RAM: I have two 2Gb sticks sitting around since I upgraded the RAM on my Mac so I was hoping one would slot right in which would have been awesome since they are otherwise worthless these days.  It comes with 1Gb and can be upgraded with another 2Gb

Really, I felt like this was ‘one NAS to rule them all’ and that it would achieve all my goals with no need to upgrade anything else in my system.

All these devices come without hard-drives and must be purchased separately.  I wasn’t going to take any chances this time around so I made sure that the drives were listed on the ‘compatible hardware list’ from QNAP.  Thus I settled on 2 x 3TB Western Digital ‘Caviar Red’ drives which are designed for NAS usage.  I was reluctant at first due to the failure of my previous WD drive, but that was a ‘Caviar Green’ which some people reckon aren’t the best choice for a NAS so I was prepared to give these a go.

With the addition of a 3 metre HDMI cable, the whole lot set me back $849 (inc GST) from Skycomp Technology with local pick-up in Sydney CBD.

I was taken aback at first when picking up the goods – I checked the box to make sure that I had ordered and that they had delivered the correct item but there was absolutely no mention on it about having HDMI or supporting XBMC etc.  The picture of the rear showed what looked like a HDMI connector but it was unlabelled.  Trusting I made the right decision I took it home on what appears to be the correct assumption that the original release had the connector but the software was not yet available and the new features only became available in a recent firmware upgrade.

The box contents as well as the hard-drives, HDMI cable and RAM sticks on the left that would hopefully find a new home:

Box contents

The monstrous power supply was a bit disappointing but seems to be par for the course for anything other than an Apple device.  Everything else felt really solid and well made with no sharp edges or flimsy panels.

I decided to try and perform the RAM upgrade before investing time in the initial setup on the assumption that it would either work perfectly and speed up the rest of the process or it would brick the device in which case I would save myself the trouble of going further.
Looking at some forums online it appeared that people had mixed results using anything but the ‘official’ RAM upgrade sold by QNAP at great expense (apparently; I couldn’t actually find it listed), but no-one seemed to have damaged their device so I gave it a shot.

Four screws at the back kept the outer shell on which then slid off stiffly but without fuss.  I had to break a plastic cover to access the SODIMM RAM slot but I don’t feel like I violated it in any way.
After inserting the RAM I left the cover off and proceeded to screw the hard-drives into their cradles and then easily slid and locked them into their slots.

So far so good, but upon powering up the device I was greeted with some lights but referring to the PDF manual I wasn’t seeing the lights I should be, and even after waiting a while nothing changed so powered it off and removed the RAM and tried again (later down the track I tried the other stick of RAM with no luck either).

This time it worked and I proceeded to download the ‘QFinder’ software from the website (I didn’t waste time even looking at the included CD on the assumption it was way out of date) to do the initial setup and download any firmware updates.

Stay tuned for part 2 for the gory details of configuration and turning it into the hub of a high definition multimedia powerhouse …

More 1% finished shit

As promised mere minutes ago, I have a few more half-baked ideas ready to foist upon the unsuspecting world.

I should have made it clearer that all these were dreamed up in the depths of time – between 1986 to 1991 or so I reckon.  That will at least give me some leeway when it comes to explaining why they are hand drawn and not full 3D models.

So as you can see, I had a book which was clearly character focussed.  I think the bit at the bottom was supposed to represent the lava tunnels or whatever the hell they were of Rygar.  Damn that was a wicked game.  Don’t be fooled by all the videos on YouTube; they are all weird-arse versions.  Go to this link and check out the original arcade game complete with sweet atmospheric music (and a bass line that I’m totally going to use one day).  The fact that it morphs into some sort of hacked version isn’t too bad, as the soundtrack also turns into some banging 303 mayhem.  The ironic thing is that the 303 pre-dates many of these games.  If only pioneers like DJ Pierre and Armando turned their skillz to computer game sound-tracks …

So here we have some designs for some sort of shoot ‘em up.  I still tried to work within a limited colour palette, but these sprites would have been pretty large for any 8 bit machine of the era.

More shoot ‘em up material, this time modelled on Gradius I think.

Ahh, yes.  The moai statue gives it away – must be Gradius.

Hmm, some power-ups for Gemini Wing plus some sort of character from Joust?

Moon Patrol?

Ok, so I must have run out of textas by now.  These icons were for a sort of role playing game with spells and weapons and such.

And now we come to the main characters.

It’s a tank, complete with 8 directions of movement.  There is only so much re-scaling and rotation you can do algorithmically within a 16×16 square with 8 colours.

Moving towards something more serious – trying to create some sort of GUI on the BBC.

Ditto for this – a font designer?  Pretty sure there wasn’t a standard font file format so of limited use unfortunately.

A further example of my GUI concept for the BBC, clearly borrowed from the RISC OS platform (which borrowed from an amalgamation of every other GUI in existence – although the ability to drag files between applications without the tedium of saving and loading them was unique as far as I know).  As always, if you can’t afford to buy one, build it instead …

I got a bit further with this ‘Mario Killer’ platform game.  I actually coded this up far enough that you could run and jump around a game level.  Nifty …

Notes on a game where you drive a tank around picking up weapons and blowing shit up.

Now this is different.  I was slightly into role-playing games and war games (sci-fi and fantasy ones only of course; in case my mum is reading), and combining that with a love of anime (long before I’d even heard the term) and robo-suits I came up with this.  It was great not having to worry about screen resolutions and pixels and just draw something.

I used to enjoy reading the Middle Earth Roleplaying game books (which were fantastic), as well as Role Master and the Star Wars roleplaying game.  As my wife reminds me, I spend a lot of time reading and not enough time doing, but it isn’t always that simple, especially if other people are involved.

Still, I’ve gotten back into my Fighting Fantasy books again but time isn’t on my side.  It isn’t like I can read a couple of pages before I go to bed.  I’ve reacquired the ‘Sorcery’ series again but like everything important to me, I’d want to give it my full attention.

How does one find the time to spend an hour of uninterrupted attention to devote to anything these days?  And by uninterrupted I don’t just mean that the phone doesn’t ring.  I mean no-one talks to me, no-one emails me, no-one rings me and I can’t hear anything that requires a response from me like a baby crying.

I miss being a kid/teenager and living at home.  I could close the door to my room in the evening and that was it – the rest of the world could get stuffed.

I love artists like Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Thom Brennan, but how do you appreciate a 20+ minute ambient soundscape with so much going around you?  I really miss having that time.  I might have to buy this to recreate the same feeling while taking the bus to work.  Not the same is it?

Ironically I now have all the trappings to enjoy it more than I could have dreamed before – a beautiful sound system, comfortable lounge room, stand-alone house where my ears will implode long before the neighbours complain about the noise and piles of CDs filling the walls.

But no time to enjoy it …

 

 

I coulda been a game designer …

… Not much chance really, but working in isolation meant that if my favourite game was not available on my chosen platform, which as you may recall back to the genesis of this blog was the Acorn BBC Micro, then I had little choice but to write it myself. Back in the DIY days of personal computing that wasn’t as crazy as it sounds, and thankfully that ethos still survives if stuff like this is anything to go by.

So in collating material from the archive of my life, I came across a bunch of designs for my take on something that could only be described as an obsession (at the time; I’ve discovered other things since as I’ve grown older for better or worse): Bubble Bobble.

I won’t describe the game as you know it of course.

But did you know that Taito announced in 1996 that they had lost the source code to the original arcade game?  Pretty weak huh?  Thankfully we have the Cloud these days (although if Sony uploaded their source code to Beanstalk for example, what are the chances that they would then turn around and sue them for copyright infringement in 6 months time?).

Anyway, I dearly wanted to be able to play this at home (because no matter how much it cost to buy it would have been cheaper than playing it for hours on end at the arcade), and as no version existed for the Beeb, it seemed like a suitable use of my time to try and create one.

And this is what I came up with …

Bubble Bobble 1

A few power ups it would seem, including the classic ‘music note’ motif.

Bubble Bobble 2

A couple more sprite designs for Bubble Bobble, along with one third of an XOR map.  I must have been pretty pov at the time to be that tight on my graph paper. I guess my pocket money wasn’t very high.

Bubble Bobble 3

More characters, including the letter bubbles to get an extra life.  Not sure why I used those colours – it looks very MODE 5.

Bubble Bobble 4

Getting serious now – hopefully some of these are recognisable.

Bubble Bobble 5

My final lot of characters.  There were plenty of more to do to cover all that were in the actual game – and that was before any were actually animated. Phew.
Maybe by this time I started wondering how the hell I would animate and control a whole heap of bubbles on the screen, let alone the main protagonists and the monsters, and realised it was somewhat beyond my skills.

So there you have it – my attempt at bringing that masterpiece of arcadium to the home television screen.  I never got any further than the character designs but it was awesome fun.

I tried to keep the designs within the limitations of my chosen platform but I’m pretty sure a few extra colours crept in there.

But wait, there’s more …

Misc 1

Looking at these I’m very tempted to say these are meant to represent the rather awesome shoot ‘em up Gemini Wing.
Besides the sweet music, this game stood out from the rest by the fact that the bad guys were things like insects, maggoty things with huge jaws and eye-balls on stalks coming out of the ground.
Oh yes, and the first level boss was a Giant Walrus that lived in a waterfall. Obviously a rare freshwater walrus …

Misc 2

Ok, that is definitely Gemini Wing, except for the skull. Not sure about that … could be useful one day though.

Misc 3

Ok, something else now.  Looks like a more traditional sideways scrolling shooter.  With a bi-plane.  Maybe that is a left over from Time Pilot (or Space Pilot as the rather excellent BBC clone by Superior Software was known).

Misc 4

Ok, so I was a bit of a Super Mario fan too – the fact that it had so many hidden areas was mega cool and kept you coming back.  Not to mention that playing something like this at the arcade and knowing where those areas were and having an audience of people who didn’t was very satisfying.
As ever I had an idea of doing my own version, but made numerous changes.  The thing that shot out the bomb remained, and maybe the original had a fish somewhere.
However I’m pretty certain the Mexican jumping bean is new but I’m not sure if it was meant to be a power-up or an enemy. Or maybe it is a black pudding with extra fresh blood?  It isn’t often I get to say OMGWTF (and actually mean it, as opposed to people who say it in every second sentence), but speaking of black pudding it seems there is documented evidence that someone actually died laughing at that particular episode of the Goodies.  I’d better be careful – it is one of my favourites and I’m not getting any younger.

In the interests of keeping page load times to something reasonable I’ll take a short break, but there is plenty more!  Stay tuned!

I’m sick of sitting on the sidelines, let’s make some choons

It’s been an interesting few weeks – I have been inspired to seriously do something about the dream that I have held onto since late high-school: to buy a keyboard and try and make my own music.

I have found myself at a bit of a loose end these last couple of months – I have managed to get my work/life balance to a point where I now pretty much only work the hours that I actually get paid for, with the occasional extra hours that I am now happy to do.  As a result I have had to struggle to fill the time with something of value; after years of long hours I have lost sight of myself and now need to decide what I really want.

I thought about working on my own online business or developing an iPhone app; after all I’m a programmer by trade and that is what I’m good at, but it seemed too much like hard work even if there was some extra cash potential.  Money has been tight with a new-born and all, but we are scraping by for the most part.

I tried to simply relax and enjoy time with the family, listen to music, read etc etc, but I still felt like a dumb consumer – if I’m not creating something what is the point?  I briefly considered getting back into my artwork as I used to have some skill at drawing, but I didn’t really have anything in my heart that I wanted to say.

Then one day I heard a demo by some guy of some psy-trance stuff that he had been writing for himself over the years.  As far as I know it was all software based, and was quite well produced and engineered, and hearing it played on a decent system gave me a vicarious sense of hearing your own music being played and enjoyed somewhere else by someone else.

Despite the potential it had, I couldn’t help thinking later, “surely I could do that”.  And that, as they say, is that.  As any motivational speaker will say, feelings precede actions, and that thought lodged in my head and quietly made plans.  Plus, I was reminded of Fran’s comment from Black Books:

I must be musical. I’ve got hundreds of CDs.

The next day I was in the local pawn shop looking for cheap Blu-rays and generally chilling out and saw a pair of Behringer MS-40 monitor speakers for $129.  I was quite taken by them for a number of reasons:

  • They were affordable, although until I did my obligatory google search for reviews I didn’t let that sway me too much
  • They were active speakers, which was very convenient for hooking up to the computer and ditching the 30 year Dual amp I was using, along with the crappy speakers from an old 80′s ‘all-in-one’ National system (it had a record player; that’s how old it was)
  • They had a coax and optical digital input as well as standard RCA and also a 3.5mm stereo jackplug
  • They did 24 bit/192 KHz digital-analogue conversion.  That was the exciting bit
  • There were a number of other nice features: headphone jack in the front, dual volume controls for digital and analogue inputs so you could effectively mix them together, bass and treble controls, and inbuilt power supply with detachable power cord (amazing how many companies insist on dangling crap off the back which you can’t disconnect)

There were also a pair of Krix bookshelf speakers which were pretty ancient, but after haggling with the guy I got for $11.  Turns out that one had a busted tweeter but I have sourced a new Peerless driver that is a direct replacement and I may even get two and replace them both and it is still a good deal.

Regarding the Behringers I figured, what they hey; I can use them for the computer, and if I ever make music they will be perfect monitors (funny that).  Also, they’ll be kick-arse for DJ monitoring, especially being active so much less mucking around with cables and amps.  They aren’t the most accurate or powerful speakers out there, but are a great starting point.

After getting them home and hooking them up via coax to the digital out of my Creative Audigy NX on the old Windows laptop and hearing the sweet, digital tones, I felt like I had broken some kind of barrier and stepped up a notch.

Memory fails me, but within 24 hours, maybe even that night, I found myself on the Ableton website looking at their Live! product and getting really exciting watching the demo with the guy using Live! and the AKAI APC40 controller.  It seemed a method of working that really struck a chord (no pun intended) with my way of thinking.

Also, I tied this in to the fact that I have a powerful Macbook Pro which isn’t doing a hell of a lot, yet is a near perfect music making machine.

24 hours later I was at a friend’s house showing him the same demo and me explaining how inspired I was, and could I borrow some books and magazines?  He had tried his hand at making music in the past but for whatever reason had ended up taking up fishing instead and devoting his life to that.  However, with the inevitable march of progress, I reckon he could be tempted to get back into it and swap his hardware samplers and sequencers for software.  Looks like I might have my first collaborator.

Armed with a bunch of (out of date but still interesting) material (lots of Future Music mags) I spent a few more hours looking into my options for starting out in music production with bugger-all money and without falling into the trap of convincing myself I need all this ‘stuff’ before I could make a track and using that as an excuse for not achieving anything – “I gave up because I just couldn’t get the right ‘whauuu chicka wau wau’ sound”.

I narrowed it down to the following:

  • Some ‘do-it-all’ software such as Ableton Live!
  • A MIDI controller – this was a must.  I have no musical training besides damn good taste, and need some way of being able to play around and get notes into the software with some sort of tactile feedback. Pecking out notes via the mouse would be a dead end as I just wouldn’t know what would come next.  I wanted something decent enough that I wouldn’t feel limited (velocity sensitivity was mandatory of course), but a full 88 weighted keys was laughably ambitious
  • Good headphones to keep the peace at home.  I didn’t skimp here as good headphones are always useful, even if I realise eventually that the music isn’t in me

I was keen on the AKAI APC40 (it looks so sweet), but figured I needed to focus on getting the music in before jumping the gun and thinking about live performances (nothing wrong with thinking big though).

Armed with my more musically experienced friend and a bunch of competitive prices from the internet (local Aussie stores only, although with the AU dollar being what it is now, the US is a good option), I went into my local music shop to ‘get ideas’.  The gentleman at McCanns was very helpful and after considering various options I walked out with an M-Audio Oxygen 49 MIDI controller and a pair of AKG K-141 MK II headphones, and an order for the boxed copy of Ableton Live! Intro (with the extra 7 Gb of samples you don’t get with the downloadable version).

Originally I thought I would get the M-Audio Axiom 61 keyboard for two reasons:

  • It had semi-weighted keys and aftertouch, which I figured would make anything I learnt more ‘useful’ in terms of applicability to a piano or other professional keyboard, and I liked the idea of the extra expressive possibilities of aftertouch.  Plus it had more keys
  • It had 8 assignable pads which seemed like a great way to create drum-patterns

I sensibly cut back to the Oxygen as I set myself a 6 month timeframe to see if this whole experiment was going to go somewhere, and if so I could justify an upgrade.  The Oxygen was pretty sweet though, as it had assignable faders and knobs to control parameters in the software in real-time.  Plus it was in stock, and patience isn’t one of my strong points, especially when I had already been waiting 20 years.

I should take a step back and say that originally my dream wasn’t so much to create music but to be a keyboard virtuoso.  Back in high school I wasn’t seized with the idea of being a composer as such.  I had discovered prog rock around that time, which inevitably meant encounters with luminaries like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson, and let’s face it, those guys could play.  Being a shy teenager this seemed like a wonderful way to be ‘somebody’.  Of course, I did realise that the rest of the world wasn’t sophisticated enough to give a shit about how Keith could play his Hammond upside down while stabbing it, but I wasn’t willing to compromise and do something ‘popular’.

Fast-forwarding to 2011 (gosh!), I think I identify more with the laptop DJ/musician than the super-talented keyboardist who has been playing since the day he could crawl inside his parent’s Hammond organ.
But, one thing I hold dear is that I don’t want to play with other people’s loops, or churn out bland quantised tunes based on straight presets.  The ability to tweak the sound in real-time is vitally important so lots of knobs and sliders is essential.  After all, the TB-303 is pretty much my favourite instrument and where would Techno be without the ability to play a repeated series of notes but then vary the filters etc in an infinite variety of ways?

Plus, I was excited about being able to put my money where my mouth is so to speak, and produce some 24bit/96+KHz audio and release it to the world.  After all, someone has to do it, and I might end up being a pioneer in this space (which is a sad lookout for the industry really).

To achieve that I needed to figure out how to get high-definition audio out of the Macbook.  My first thought was that maybe Apple TV would be a great way to do it.  After all, it’s wireless so I don’t need to faff around with setting the laptop up in the lounge room with cables.  Plus I get the benefits of using the shitty iTunes interface to browse shows that I may be interested in downloading and watching.  Or not.

Well, it looks like Apple missed the mark yet again.  It seems like Apple TV will take a high-definition audio signal, but then kindly down-sample it before sending it via of its’ optical output.  See the discussion here for all the gory details of FAIL, complete with some comments from yours truly.

A quick search for further options revealed a pleasant surprise – the MacBook actually has optical output capabilities built-in.  Well, bugger me, how the fuck was I supposed to know that the headphone output was actually optical as well?  After popping down to Jaycar and buying a new TOSLINK cable and a 3.5mm adaptor, I can now plug directly into the amp (and my monitors) and get a full high def audio signal.  Okay, so I still need a cable, but the result sounds awesome.

The only high definition audio I have on the computer is a copy of the FLACs released by Mat Jarvis of his awesome ‘Gas‘ album (yes, I don’t own these yet, I’ll buy it in 3 days when my credit card rolls into its next period, but I do own the original low definition CD).  Firing these up through the Behringers was an inspiring experience, and gave a taste of what was possible.

So there you have it – the beginnings of yet another bedroom musician (thought I have a headstart in that I actually have a GARAGE.  Yeah!).  I’ve been playing around with a trial of Ableton Live! while I wait for my boxed version to arrive and I must admit it is a great piece of software.  I reckon that’s because the guys from Monolake are (heavily) involved.  From Robert Henke’s interview, when asked ‘What are your weaknesses as a musician?” he replied:

I cannot play an instrument. I cannot remember melodies. I cannot sing. I have bad timing. I know way too little about counterpoint. I am just someone who is addicted to sound and who under any circumstances wants to create music with electronic instruments. This is what has kept me doing it for almost 20 years.

What a fucking legend and complete inspiration.  Check out his interview in the ‘Berlin Digital‘ DVD too (and the segment on Ableton and Native Instruments).  Can’t believe there seems to be nothing on youtube from this DVD – if I knew how I’d rip my copy and upload it.

Wish I’d heard of him 20 years ago though …

SACD – Too little, too late

Following on from my previous post, my worry is that with digital downloads taking over, will anyone care about a new kick-arse CD replacement, regardless of cost or quality?  I buy the odd album and track  from Beatport, and if I absolutely have to, from iTunes (that should win some award for the worst user interface ever.  If your musical taste doesn’t extend beyond the featured stuff on the front page you are probably ok, but as a method for browsing and discovering new music, it is abysmal), so I’m no stranger to digital media.  Oh, how I miss Audiogalaxy (before it went legit, although I just looked at it and what they are doing now looks extremely interesting).  I downloaded more music through them in one rainy Christmas holiday break (over a 56k modem!) than I have in the entire 8 years or more since.

However, I keep my digital purchases to either single tracks, or obscure albums that I’m unlikely to get on CD.  Beatport is great for that, as you can get heaps of tracks that would only otherwise be available as singles, and even today, probably only on vinyl.

Beyond that, I’m an album man, and I think that represents one of the fundamental shifts in the music buying behaviour of consumers.   Every forum thread that touches on this topic is full of comments bemoaning the quality of modern releases and how you are lucky to get more than a couple of good tracks per release.  I can’t really comment on that as I have no data to back it up, but I can’t help wondering whenever I am forced to listen to commercial radio and hear some catchy yet ultimately vacuous (and shit) track: does this guy have an ALBUM?  Would anyone seriously buy an entire album of this?
I wonder what the drop-off rate is on purchases.  It is frequently said that a movie makes most of its money in the first week, or first weekend even.  Is it the same for music, at least when talking about ‘pop’ music driven by radio exposure?
If you didn’t buy the album in the first couple of weeks, would you buy it at all?  If your desire to purchase the album was on the strength of one single that you thought was ‘funny’ or ‘catchy’, I’d hazard that it wouldn’t be a burning desire.  You may put it on your ‘watch’ list, and then remove it soon after once something else comes along.

Did ‘Baja Men’ release an album after their seminal ‘Who let the dogs out’ single?  I could look it up, but I really don’t want to know – if it was in the affirmative it would only piss me off that studio time was wasted on this tripe.  I bet it didn’t sell many copies though, and we are still waiting for a follow-up with baited breath.

Anyway, the quality or lack thereof of popular music is not the issue here – I don’t necessary blame technology for this: many commentators have suggested that people pirate music because there is so little stuff actually worth paying for, not that people don’t want to pay.

Although in a way, it could be to blame, and that is where I wonder about whether allowing people to buy single tracks so easily will have an effect on what is actually released.

I read with fascination the flap over the ruling that EMI are not allowed to sell individual Pink Floyd tracks through iTunes etc.  For example: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8561963.stm (also check out http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/arts/music/12levi.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all for another mega-star band taking (and maintaining as far as I can see) a similar stance).

While this sort of stance wouldn’t be appropriate to every artist or album (the words ‘artistic integrity’ were used, so that rules out the majority), it is perfectly understandable for those guys.  It is interesting to note however then since that ruling was handed down, the band has relented and allowed the individual tracks to stay, for example: http://www.macobserver.com/tmo/article/pink_floyd_emi_agree_to_new_distribution_deal/.  Make of that what you will.

A comment by ‘Substance’ on that page is something I see echoed frequently:

And it’s a consumers world.  For years consumers were led by the RIAA in the direction of buying whole albums (that kept going up in price despite technology which made the printing of music ever cheaper) of mostly filler to get their hands on a few good tracks.  The ability to download individual tracks puts the power back in consumers hands and forces artists and their labels to put more emphasis on releasing quality, not quantity.

There is a pretty strong supposition here though: labels are releasing crap because they are lazy, and a kick up the pants will change that.  Well, they have been getting a kick for years due to people pirating music, and their only response has been to introduce tougher penalties and try protect their output via DRM (or rootkits in Sony’s case).  Bring out good music that people are happy to pay for?  Pffft, that would be far too difficult; after all, a $100+ million annual budget can only go so far …

The only comment I have to make is this: do I give a shit?  Really, why should I be concerned about the quality of music that Sony, Warner, BMG etc release?  When there are thousands and thousands of other labels in existence (not all of them tiny independents struggling to release cutting-edge music and pay the bills), why should I care about what Sony releases?

Why do people call them labels anyway?  What sort of identity does Sony have as a label?  Tell me, have you ever heard someone say “I’m really hanging out for the next Sony release”?  Who would say something that dumb besides a Sony exec?

Taking a leaf from the electronica world, to me a real label was something like:

… and plenty of others.  These were all labels that had an aesthetic about them, and each release was eagerly awaited.  Some of the more observant among you may notice a pattern: these are all somewhat (ok, very) old-school.  This is something that troubles me personally, as the number of good labels currently in existence is probably more than has ever existed in history, and I can listen to and purchase any of their output with a couple of clicks of a mouse.  So why don’t I know about any of them?

Speaking for myself, a large part of the reason is that I don’t really care.  I mean, I do, but not enough to spend time on it.  With the power of today’s technology, someone can set up a label almost as easily as I can purchase their releases.  There are thousands of disposable labels producing tens of thousands of disposable tracks (mostly download only).  I just find it hard to get excited about trawling through it all and buying a bunch of bytes which I could easily lose if my computer dies, or someone decides to change their DRM rules.

I’m not suggesting there is anything wrong with the music, there are plenty (and plenty) of excellent releases.  Except now I need to rely on people like Chris Norman and his Synaesthetics (goddammit, I’ve used the word ‘aesthetic’ twice in one post – I’d better dust off my turtle-neck sweater) radio show to put me on to them.

One thing I heard through him is “youANDme – Ornaments Symphony“.  This is absolute magic, although in a horribly ironic twist according to the review it was produced using relics of the analogue age:

Label owners youANDme take the reins for the project, utilizing four turntables, one CD deck and a sampler to create the mix. The use of old-school methods is intentional here; youANDme are huge vinyl lovers and I strongly believe they would have released this on vinyl if it had somehow been possible. A far cry from artists such as Joris Voorn, who edit tracks extensively and use digital methods to achieve their results, youANDme treasure the risk.

If that wasn’t enough all the releases on this label are vinyl only, except as stated -  this mix, and just to hammer in the last nail, the Ornaments Symphony CD is an extremely limited edition and not legitimately available as a MP3 download.

For me anyway, this album has become an object of desire, and is currently sitting as a saved search in Ebay.  By the way, why the fuck does Ebay now have ads?  Don’t they make enough money already that they need to slow down everything with Flash Ads?  I’ve just installed Flashblock so I’ll see how that goes.

What perhaps needs to be remembered is that what is on the outside DOES count.  Sure, if the music (or whatever product it is) is crap, you won’t buy it, but if you are competing with hundreds or thousands of alternatives as is the case with music, how do you get noticed in the first place?  Lacking a physical product sitting on a shelf with great artwork on an unusual package format, you need to resort to tried and true ‘word of mouth’.  Only these days we have a lot more sophisticated tools to achieve this, such as online stores that tell you that other people who bought album (or more likely track) ‘X’ also bought ‘Y’.  Unfortunately the systems aren’t smart enough to realise you bought an album for your grandmother at the same time (which was probably burnt to CD so she could listen to it), but for the most part it helps.

(Maybe it is narcissistic to edit my own post this far back, but I notice on the newly launched non-Flash Beatport my other purchases are still coming up a month later as the ‘People Also Bought’ recommendations for Ettetra by Artette.  I feel slightly cheated as I was originally searching for the classic Apollo label (to find someone else using this classic name now, regardless of the reasons why the original is no longer used, is like reusing Blue Note.  You are asking to get fucked up by the Spirit of Jazz).  Anyway, it just goes to show how dodgy these recommendations could possibly be.  Although in this case just buy it.  Seriously)

Back in my day though, we had something called ‘liner notes’, which were written by the artist, or possibly some music critic from NME or whatever.  So instead of learning what little Johnny also bought, we learnt who the artist listens to, or what labels he or she gives a shout out to.  All these things were synthesised into a simple but quite effective network of influences and recommendations that prompted further exploration.  And of course if the CD was on a smaller label you were probably keen to check out more on the same label.

Sitting on the couch listening to the best quality that was available at the time (and for the last 30 years sadly), and perusing the liner notes or absorbing the artwork and really ‘getting’ what the artist was trying to achieve was a joyous experience that is getting harder to achieve.
Sure, all that stuff is available on the artist’s website – you could sit at your laptop or desktop and read it while listening to your compressed MP3s through shitty little speakers, probably while checking your email, Facebook page and Twitter updates.

It’s not the same is it?

And don’t tell me to get with the times – I do all that as well.  My computer at work is chock full of copies of my albums as well as a few hundred MP3s from iTunes and Beatport, plus heaps of free ones and numerous DJ mixes.  And I love it.  I use MediaMonkey as my player (the paid version too) and I’ve starred my favourite tracks so when I can’t be bother choosing something I just play those tracks.  How convenient!

But what does this do to people’s perception of the value of music?  If I put on a CD at home, I normally listen to it beginning to end because that is what it is designed for, and why would I have bought it in the first place if I skip half the tracks?  Plus why stress about a few tracks that aren’t quite as good as others?  Let it play while I do something more productive than hunt around for something else.  If I do buy a second-hand CD that ends up falling short, I rip the tracks I like and then give away the CD to the tip-shop or whatever.  It does happen …
But when I have a cornucopia of MP3s in front of me at work, I find it far too easy to skip around listening to a track here and there and in fact often listen to far too many of the same tracks far too often.  Plenty of perfectly good albums sit unplayed because something shinier caught by attention.

I’ll tell you now, if CDs were suddenly made illegal (I’m sure the RIAA would love that if DRM’d audio tracks were then the only alternative) and I now bought everything from iTunes, my buying patterns would shift considerably.  Firstly, I would sign-up for a US iTunes account to stop getting raped by the outrageous prices we pay in Australia.  Secondly, I would still buy albums, but only if the economics stacked up, i.e. if the number of tracks I was prepared to pay for outweighed the price of the full album.  After all, I’m not getting a physical product, no cover art or liner notes or nifty packaging so who cares if I only buy half?  If the tracks are cross-faded it is trivial to edit it out if I could be bothered.
The crux of the issue is what happens to all those tracks that I might um and ah about?  Like the really kick-arse intro track that goes for 52.5 seconds?  Is that worth $1.69?  Yes US readers, that is what Australians pay per track, and with the AU dollar being on parity to the US right now, it is just laughable, but not the good sort of laugh…
As an aside, I just had to check that price and fired up iTunes and was intrigued to discover that the top charting song at the moment an Australia (so presumably in the US too)  is “Tonight (I’m F***king You)” by Enrique Iglesias, brought to you by the fine people at Universal Music.  Good to know that the death of quality popular music has been reprieved for just a little longer.  I must admit the comments (http://itunes.apple.com/au/album/tonight-im-f-n-you-feat-ludacris/id409818369 and then click ‘View in iTunes’) are a fascinating insight in to the mind of the (presumably young) consumer, and simultaneously give me hope as well as prove conclusively that popular music really has gone down the toilet, and the fact these people also drive cars and are allowed to vote is not a pleasant thought.

So tying all this together, if someone like me, who is dedicated to the art, is willing to say ‘fuck it’ under these circumstances and just cherry-pick my favourite tracks, does that spell The Death of the Album?  After all, this is what a lot of people do already, and the younger generation are increasingly growing up with digital downloads so have less to lose so to speak.
Will it, as many people dare to dream, raise the quality of albums to encourage their purchase (and by quality, I use it in the context of ‘relative to the one or two popular singles that prompted someone to consider getting the album in the first place’ and not in the absolute sense of ‘not being a turd, however polished’)?
Or will it shift the way music is produced into a near continuous release of singles and mini-albums (know to us oldies as ‘EPs’, which is kind of odd because I would have thought an Extended Play would be longer than just a Long Play but I’m sure there is a reasonable explanation)?
From a download perspective, that could work.  You could even subscribe to a particular artists’ output and get it cheaper, but with the risk of some of it being lame (and non-refundable).  If they weren’t bound to fill an album each time, the quality of each released track would probably be pretty good anyway (although see my previous comment on my use of the word ‘quality’).  Not sure how this would tie in with touring though – it would be strange to tour the world to promote the release of your latest single, unless you did it really quickly.

How do you reconcile singles though, which would work fine online, to physical singles, which seem to be a dying breed?  I’m not even sure if my local record store has them any more.
Do you collect them up every 12 months and release an ‘album’?  For most pop music, nobody will be interested in tracks 12 months old.  Therein lies the fundamental dichotomy between online and offline purchasing behaviour – people who buy CDs like to buy albums and people who download, legally or not, are more likely to pick individual tracks.  Of course the reality is somewhere in between – but CDs, with their greater cost of manufacture and distribution, will probably lose out.

The other fly in the ointment is the fact that artists like Pink Floyd, who already release excellent albums where not only every track is good more or less but they are conceived as an entirety rather than a selection of individual tracks, are still being badgered to release downloads of individual tracks?  If these guys are in that situation, what hope does poor Enrique have of filling and selling actual albums online?

I’ll leave you with this thought – would something like Dark Side of the Moon have been written today?  Maybe, but would it have sold 45 MILLION copies?
Still, perhaps CDs and albums will be around a little longer – there certainly seem to be a lot in my local JB Hifi and they wouldn’t sell them if nobody bought them.  They even have a small vinyl section, and the choices there seem very much geared to the younger crowd – what a pity they probably aren’t listening to them on one of these babies: http://www.michell-engineering.co.uk/gyrodec_orbe_turntable.html.  It would probably change forever their perception of what music can sound like.

Wither CDs?

For me personally I look at my walls of CDs and despair that they are becoming relics for no other reason than fucking ‘convenience’.  They aren’t much less convenient that MP3 for most purposes (except going to the gym for example) – I know where everything is so I just grab what I want and stick it in the car, the lounge-room CD player, the one in the garage or the all-in-one system in the bedroom (which has an iPod dock which I have never used).  No computers, batteries or iTunes required.

And frankly they look fantastic in the cabinets, especially as they are grouped by label for the most part, so seeing two and a half shelves of FAX CD is just a joy to behold.  Same with Beyond, Global Underground, Em:t, F Communications, Kompact, Instinct Ambient and more.

And they sound superior!  That is what makes this all so farcical: the modern day music format of choice – MP3 – is rooted in the specifications of CD, and then compressed!  How is that progress? A modern day artist creating a digital download can now choose to master their recording to any specification they desire rather than be bound to ‘CD Quality’, and what do we get? Compressed garbage.

And it gets better – you can spend thousands buying fancy iPod docks, DA converters, upsamplers and multi-media systems to try and put back in what has been taken out of these compressed files.  I would suggest a conspiracy, but I say never put down to a conspiracy what can be attributed to stupidity.

How can all my SACDs sound far superior to any modern CD recording despite the fact that the source material is all old analogue (with the possible exception of the Depeche Mode – not sure what they would have used in 1990.  24-bit 96/192khz would have been pretty intense back then in terms of processing and storage capacity).  How can Dark Side of the Moon recorded in the 70′s sound better on SACD than what the latest digital file format has to offer? It’s bewildering.

So back to the title of this post – you can only wonder what would happen if SACD wasn’t a marketing FAIL.  Would it have raised the perception of what is possible high enough that at least our digital downloads wouldn’t sound like a telephone with a high quality microphone and speaker?  This may not prevent the death of CDs, but at least we weren’t taking a step backwards in sound quality.  In fact we might end up saying good riddance to CDs if we had a better alternative.

There is also the small issue of the fact that SACD actually allows for 5.1 surround sound as well.  Did nobody look around at all the DVD home cinema systems flying out the door of the local home electrical retailers and think that maybe people would also be interested in hearing their favourite music in genuine (not simulated) 5.1?  Was Sony really that stupid that they didn’t see that the world was ready not only for high quality audio, but music in 5.1 surround?  Not only ready, but able. They had a system sitting in the lounge room sitting idle most of the time that just needed the right signal fed to it.

Now, if I want 5.1 surround music I have to buy it on DVD as either a live recording of something or with some visuals added.  Why the fuck do I need visuals?  I have a brain and an imagination!  There are some great 5.1 DVDs out there though.  From my own collection I have the BT – This Binary Universe CD/DVD combo which sounds amazing. The “Meat Beat Manifesto … In Dub” DVD is great, and the DVD that comes with the “Leftfield – A Final Hit” has a bunch of their most popular tracks seemingly re-recorded in 5.1 as they sound brilliant. The Leftfield is a bit different as it actually has the clips to go with the track whereas the others are just visuals, and I tend to turn the TV off after going through the rigmarole of navigating the menus.

Still, yet again stop-gap solutions – none of these are high definition in the modern sense, and all are Dolby Digital only – not even DTS.

Actually there is one bright point: The Cure – Trilogy on Bluray.  This is how a concert should look and sound: beautiful high-definition recording and DTS-HD Master Audio.  Absolutely stunning.  Still bums me that I need to turn on the TV just to be able to press play in the menu if I just want the music.

Want to know the most depressing thing?  Go to Amazon and browse through their SACD collection.  They have a few thousand discs, but there are only about 5 that I am interested in and even then I am mostly interested in them because there is nothing else.  I like The Police, but getting their Best Of album on SACD isn’t a massive priority.  The rest is so niche and dated that just looking at the titles make me cringe and feel embarrassed.
What a waste – I have money to spend and nothing to spend it on.  And the chance of this changing is zero.  SACD is a dead format because it was simply left to die.  It didn’t die due to a ‘format war’, it just crawled into a corner at Sony HQ and withered away from neglect, sobbing with loneliness.

Is there another saviour on the horizon?

After all MP3 is just a software algorithm – it isn’t a big deal to support it and something else.  What the world needs is a new, high-quality codec, preferably lossless, and without the encumbrances of patents.

Enter FLAC – the Free Lossless Audio Codec.  This seems to tick all the boxes right?  And technically it seems to, but being an open source project it suffers from an image issue.  Maybe this is where the imbecile in charge of marketing SACD went to after he was ‘moved on’?  Check it out: http://flac.sourceforge.net/.  No offence to all the hard work, but is this going to save the planet from shitty sound quality?  I have a feeling of deja-vu.  Technically brilliant, but no-one knows about it, and hence no-one cares.

It’s just a codec right?  So surely it should be possible to get implementations for just about every music player on the planet by wrapping the open source reference implementation with the appropriate plugin layer?  Then all you need to do is get a few high-profile sites or artists releasing music at 24bit/96khz from appropriate masters (not just ripped from CD) and Bob’s your uncle.  Of course you still need a computer capable of outputting this bitrate and sample rate, but with HDMI and DisplayPort becoming more common this is less of an issue too.  Anyone with a home theatre system capable of decoding a signal from a Bluray player should be able to cope with it.  And presto!  High definition audio exactly as your deity of choice intended.  Unfortunately you still need the computer so not as instant as SACD, but addresses the main issue.

What could go wrong?  Well, my OS X machine at home suffers from the fact that I can’t yet find a decent media player that supports FLAC (actually I can’t yet find a decent media player at all for the Mac, at least nothing that compares to MediaMonkey).  So that is a bit of a let down. There is a plugin for iTunes that supports FLAC, but was last updated in 2004 or something ridiculous and I’m just not going to waste time with it in 2011.
Once again, am I missing something ultra obvious here, or does supporting probably the most popular media player on the planet not seem like a good idea to get widespread acceptance?

Maybe Windows Media Player has a decent plugin, but who uses that any more?

Not off to a good start, but maybe there are some good tracks out there to get the ball rolling.  Going from the FLAC homepage I visited HDtracks, which sounded like what I’ve been waiting for.  At this point I really began to believe that these guys looked at the way SACD was marketed and saw it differently to everyone else – instead of a massive failure they adopted the model.  Rather than get people into the concept of high definition audio by providing music that they actually might currently listen to, the word ‘audiophile’ is used far too often, and the catalogue consists of the same wankery of titles available on SACD.

So history is doomed to repeat itself – another promising format is going to stay a niche player because there is no reason for anyone to adopt it.  Once again I have a credit card in hand and nothing I want to buy.  And I like classical and jazz too.

How are we ever going to get the next generation interested in high-definition audio by playing them “Al Qantarah – Abbalati abballati! – Songs and sounds in Medieval Sicily“.  Oh, you have this album do you?

How is it possible that kids are growing up now with worse quality audio than the previous generation?  Just because there is more of it doesn’t make up for less quality – there is only so much you can listen to in a day so you may as well get the most out of it.

C’mon guys, surely there is a musician under the age of 70 who is prepared to release something as high-definition audio?

My vote goes to OTT to release something in high-def.  I already consider this guy the Alan Parsons of electronica – his production and engineering skills are phenomenal, and when you hear tracks like Around the World in a Tea Daze on a good system, you begin to understand how good music can sound.

I can but dream …