It’s almost 2011 for fuck’s sake, so why is “CD Quality Sound” still used like it’s a good thing?

Anyone who knows me even a little knows that I have a thing for quality when it comes to audio above all else (see previous posts about my thoughts on the disposability of cheap consumer goods).

And what really gets my cloven-hoofed, bearded, herbivore is the fact that in 2011 (almost), it is getting harder to achieve this.


The human race put a man on the moon in the 60’s, so why am I still listening to technology developed in the late 70’s/early 80’s when it comes to audio?  Why do vinyl lovers still proclaim the superiority of something that came out DECADES before that even?

In my opinion it comes down to one simple thing: convenience.  I can’t think of a single word more responsible for the evils in the world than that.  Sounds melodramatic you say?  Bullshit.  People will compromise on almost anything if it is more convenient than a better alternative that takes more work, however slight that might be.  I’ll set aside arguably more serious issues for now and just focus on audio.

I came across a great article the other day: Are DVD-Audio and SACD DOA? It sums up some of the issues beautifully, and I will use these choice quotes in particular:

Hey, if CD audio already sounds inferior, and let me assure you, a format based on early-1980s digital technology is not exactly a hot item at audiophile wienie roasts, why not compress it a little further and pass it around for free? Now the industry is well and truly skewered.

It seems incredible that, rather than take advantage of a golden chance to phase out the CD in favor of something that’s more secure and sounds better, the music industry is instead adding onerous copy-protection technology to the CD, effectively making an obsolete product worse.

The issues around the music industry and their inane desire to restrict how people purchase and use their music is another issue, but it kind of all seems to be related and we end up with a complete bunch of FAIL: crappy sounding music that we can’t listen to in a manner of our choosing.

The scary thing is that this article was written in 2004.  I can’t even remember back that far.  Since then SACD I believe has been ‘officially’ discontinued by Sony.

SACD is something I have known about for a while but until recently never experienced.  The reason I have never experienced it is because while I have always been happy to put my hand in my pocket and pull out cash a credit card to pursue better quality audio, no-one has really been willing to accept it.  The amount of content on SACD is abysmal, and the players are simply too expensive.  Unless you like nothing but obscure jazz, classical, world music and ‘misc’, there is nothing of any value on SACD except the occasional classic rock album. Even then I almost didn’t buy the SACD version of Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon when I found out that Alan Parsons wasn’t involved in the new 5.1 mix.

However, I recently purchased a new Blu-ray play to replace my Sony BDP-S500 (which was also a bunch of fail as it didn’t support DTS Master Audio.  How can you not support something that just involves reading data off a disc and passing it through a cable to an amplifier that was capable of decoding it anyway?).  This new baby was a Cambridge Audio “Azure” 650BD.  I might as well quickly give my thoughts now that I have been using it heavily for a number of months; so in summary:

  • Audio quality: brilliant.  I had an Arcam CD-72 as my transport up until that point, and even though I am getting my Yamaha amp to do the digital conversion for both, the Azure sounds clearer and more detailed.  I was surprised at the difference, as the Arcam is clearly a fantastic bit of kit, but I’m guessing it is due to the fact that the actual CD transport in my particular Arcam was a bit damaged and skewed and must have generated more errors
  • Startup speed: excellent.  Until now the idea of using a DVD player as my primary Audio CD player was anathema.  My Sony Blu-ray was horribly slow to startup (although being a few years old it was apparently one of the quicker ones, which is scary).  The Azure in comparison will eject the tray in a couple of seconds and you can be playing a CD in a few more.  Skipping tracks is still slower than a dedicated CD player, but only an issue if you tend to buy CDs with only one or two good tracks I suppose, so didn’t bother me.  Fast forward and rewind still sucks, just like any device that is effectively using a CD-ROM transport.  Why do these manufacturers still make the mistake of previewing the sound as you skip through, at THE SAME VOLUME as when playing normally?  It just sounds horrible and the preview is so choppy with these devices that it is pretty much useless anyway
  • Video quality: The Sony did have excellent video quality, although I don’t understand enough about how it is encoded to know how much difference the player really makes when you are sending it to the TV via HDMI anyway and letting it do much of the work.  The Azure is excellent; possibly slightly better than the Sony but I wouldn’t have bought it purely on those grounds.  It supports 1080/24p output just like the Sony and my TV, so movies are super smooth
  • User Interface and features: Excellent.  Menus are comprehensive and easy to use and read.  The screen is dimmable and it supports a ‘pure audio’ mode that switches off non-audio related circuits, including the display, which is mega sweet.  It also does something that nobody seems to bother with: it remembers where you were up to when listening to audio and resumes automatically when you next switch it on.  How awesome is that?  It takes just a few bytes of non-volatile storage to implement this, yet nobody does it (which is even more odd when you consider that EVERY car CD player supports the feature).  It also plays files off a USB device thanks to a built-in USB port, and has an ethernet socket for BD-LIVE, which I have never used

I do have two complaints though:

  1. Once again, the work-experience student was allowed to design something, and this time they allowed him to work on the remote (Patrick’s Rule of Bounded Perfection: I firmly believe that every new product development team has at least one work-experience student, and that there is an obscure government regulation that mandates this to prevent any company creating a perfect product that would eliminate all competing alternatives overnight).  In this case, the remote has a rounded back with little flanges for stability at one end only.  The result is that if you press buttons towards the sides, it tends to rock or even flip over onto its front- you basically have to pick it up every time you want to press a button.  Obviously product testing no longer involves actually using the product these days…
  2. The player is super sensitive to scratches, finger-prints, specks of dust and stray molecules.  I still have the Arcam CD player hooked up because I have virtually mint CDs that it simply won’t play right through without borking.  A friend bought the same player at the same time from the same place and has the exact same problem, so unless it was simply a bad batch, this is a definite issue.  DVDs and Blu-ray playback is a lot more robust and even rentals haven’t really caused an issue, only CDs, which is strange considering how big the laser target is.  It feels appropriate to quote Vroomfondel from HHGTTG: “… our brains must be too highly trained …”.  Having said all that, it is still pretty rare and some dodgy CDs that I felt would never work play through fine

Besides finally gaining DTS Master Audio (which was my only real reason for upgrading from the Sony, which was otherwise perfectly good), I was delighted to discover that this player also supported SACD playback.  I was even more delighted when my friend pointed out that my copy of “Depeche Mode – Violator” (the remastered one with the DVD mix in 5.1) was actually a SACD/CD hybrid, which until now was an entirely academic distinction.

I had already gone through the menus and setup the Azure to output SACD data in its native ‘DSD’ encoding, which I had also discovered my amplifier would decode.  With sweaty palms I inserted the disc and let it rip.

“Violator” was always a tightly engineered album but the newly remastered 5.1 SACD mix was on a totally new level.

A new perspective on what is possible …

It sounds trite to describe it like it was ‘as if hearing it for the first time’, but I truly felt like I was finally hearing it how the artist intended it.  Dave Gahan’s vocals (now coming predominantly from the centre channel) had a much richer, resonant quality.  The percussion bounced around the sound stage but never became gimmicky, and the bass (now through a dedicated LFE channel to the sub) was as tight as you could wish for.
Stereo separation had reached a new level, and the sound was now truly three-dimensional.  The level of detail thanks to the increased resolution was such that the sound really did sound like it was coming at me at different heights – my floor-standing Krix Symphonix speakers were delighting in the pure audio being fed to them and giving each individual driver a personal massage.  Every sound truly hung in the air at a precise location and there was plenty of space between them (to me the mark of a good system is being able to hear the spaces between the notes).

This will truly show up any weak spots in your setup.  My rears and centre are by Richter while the mains are Krix, but luckily they have a very similar tone and the transition from front to back is smooth and unobtrusive.  I might need to beef up the cabling to the rears however, as I’m sure the long lengths of cheap wire aren’t doing me any favours – it’s just hard to justify the expense considering the lengths involved.  The Eichmann eXpress 4 cables for the fronts were holding up very nicely, and I’m sure the bi-wiring was now truly coming into it’s own.

I was pretty excited by this point – as far as I was concerned this was the breakthrough I’d been waiting to hear, and every upgrade over the past 15 years was just a stop-gap solution waiting for this final piece of the puzzle.

It was hard not to ask questions along the lines of why am I only hearing this now (SACD was released in 1999), and more to the point, why isn’t everyone listening to this?  Surely the costs involved in fitting SACD playback capabilities to all CD players has come down enough over 10 years to make it viable to a large enough audience?

The answers to this I’m sure are many and varied.  Let’s start with the name: SACD.  You’d have though that the people behind HD-DVD would have learnt this lesson from watching SACD’s failure to capture any significant market share and come up with something catchier.  I’m convinced that Blu-ray won out to a large part due to having a name that was memorable, easy to say, and didn’t suck.  SACD is even worse.  At least people could figure out that HD meant High Definition, and even the most dim-witted consumer would think that was a good thing, and could probably even articulate why.

What the hell does SACD mean?  The level of market recognition is abysmal.  Whenever I have mentioned my snazzy new SACD player, NO-ONE has known what I am talking about.  Not one person.

Maybe my theory holds true again: the Sony product team came up with a fantastic product that delivered the goods sonically, was convenient (it fitted in all your existing CD racks for example), had a degree of backwards compatibility (with ‘hybrid’ discs having a normal CD layer that played on traditional CD players, and an SACD layer that new players could read), yet they gave the job of marketing it to the work experience student.

As I’m only recently on the SACD scene, I’ll point to a couple of pages that discuss some of the historical screw-ups that led to the current situation:

Was SACD a great idea doomed to failure by sheer bloody stupidity?

and Steve says… SACD is a failure!

One common theme is that the marketing failures don’t just belong to Sony, but to the record labels themselves who actually do release discs in the SACD format.  Maybe the work experience guy moved onto these companies and got jobs there based on his ‘experience’ with Sony.  It wouldn’t surprise me as I had a similar experience with someone like this recently.  But I digress …

I ask you: why would you go to the trouble of remastering and re-pressing your music into SACD and then NOT TELL ANYONE.  Why the fuck did my Depeche Mode disc not have a great big sticker proclaiming the fact it was SACD?  Even if I didn’t know what that meant, would it have killed them to have a paragraph in the liner notes explaining it to pique my interest?  I guarantee I would have hopped on the Net immediately and at least looked up more details and checked prices on a compatible player.

What marketer wouldn’t salivate at being handed a product that ticked so many boxes in consumer desire (and at a higher level of disposable income, but not too high to restrict the market size)?  Whoever had the job of handling this I hope was sacked with extreme prejudice.  Fricken moron.

Did the makers of the Depeche Mode disc think that someone who was prepared to buy a new copy of something they probably already owned NOT BE INTERESTED in a SACD version?

Over time I would re-purchase an SACD version of virtually every disc I owned if they were available and done properly (the multi-channel capabilities are a bonus, but I’m just happy with having a much better quality 2 channel version).

It galls me now having to shell out money for a normal CD, knowing that the only reason I can’t buy a better quality disc is just down to stupidity, not technology.  Going back to the quote from Mark Fleischmann at the beginning, why should I pay $15 to $30 for something that sounds crap when I could pay zero for something that sounds only slightly crappier?  It is only out of respect for the artists and my desire to own the physical medium that keeps me buying CDs, but even then I rarely pay full price and wait for specials, or buy them second hand (when in Melbourne, I only shop at Dixons.  Can I get my freebie now?).

My concern now is what happens next?  I hope that history judges the failure of SACD as a marketing one rather than a technical one, as the last thing we need is another barrier to someone trying to release a replacement to CD.

Then again, we are dealing with an industry that can’t even be bothered typing in the names of the tracks for CD-TEXT when mastering a CD.  I have over a thousand CDs and not more than 5 have the track names encoded.  An industry that unconcerned with delivering value probably isn’t going to jump on a new high-quality format, except when they see an opportunity to screw audiophiles on price perhaps.
Actually that is an interesting point – people have raised the point that SACD was aimed at audiophiles with the intent of gouging them because they were an easy target to spend more money chasing better quality.  If that is the case, then clearly the SACD product team was even more screwed than I thought as they must have had a work-experience accountant on board as well.  Let me explain some simple economics:

Let’s say a normal CD is $20.  At that price it isn’t a hard decision to purchase, even if you don’t like all the tracks.  The result is that even despite all the whining by the record labels about piracy, they still sell a ‘shitload’ (that is an official SI unit; look it up).

You can increase the price slightly, but you start needing to justify it, either because it is an import (lame excuse due to bullshit licensing deals that have nothing to do with postage or anything else the consumer may comprehend) or has extra features (like decoder ring,  CD-TEXT, or some special offer not available in your country or that expired two days before you purchased).

Your sales rate drops pretty rapidly with each extra dollar of cost after that, and you can quickly kiss impulse purchases good-bye.  In a little-known study, the rate of sales increased dramatically with each extra benefit delivered to the consumer THAT WAS NOT accompanied with an increase on price, with the results that the minuscule decrease in per-unit profit due to the inclusion of say a “full-colour” booklet (who the hell includes a black and white booklet in anything?  Now that is good marketing), resulted in an exponential increase in units sold.  However this study is widely dismissed amongst senior record and movie publishing executives…

Now let’s say that you release a CD of an existing recording, with tiny writing on the back talking about something called SACD, and a shitty logo that would lost on a blank piece of white paper even if written in red crayon.

If you priced this at $20 and stuck it amongst all the other thousands of releases, how many do you think you would sell?  Probably as many as you would have expected to sell for the non-SACD version, which could potentially be a lot (although arguably everyone who wants a copy of Dark Side of the Moon probably already owns it, so besides people replacing their copy that had bong water spilt on it, you probably won’t go platinum).

So let’s go for the ‘high-end’ of the market: increase the price, put a few ads in specialist publications read by a relative handful of people, and sell on the technical benefits and how you can breathe new life into all of your favourite music, assuming your favourite music is DSOTM, Kind of Blue, and a few other bits and pieces you probably already have various different reissues of, so are clearly itching to buy yet another copy.

End result? You sell ‘buggerall’, which as you now know is considerably less than a ‘shitload’.

The simple economics comes into the fact that selling a new copy of DSOTM to every single ‘audiophile’ (for any definition of that word) on the planet will make less at any unit price than selling a copy of the latest top 40 hit at $20, or even $2.

I hear you say, ‘hang on, they are selling the top 40 CDs anyway. Would they sell more if they were SACD at the same price?’.  Good question, but we can only guess at the answer considering how screwed up the marketing was.  The eternal question is still truly, “if a SACD sat in the shelf but nobody knew it was SACD, would it make a higher quality sound?”

A better question is “Does it matter?”  Is the music industry the only industry on the planet that is immune from the (seemingly natural) urge to improve things?  Shouldn’t the fact that it sounds better than the current status quo be enough reason to advance the state of the art?  Seemingly not.

If only there was a seismic shift in the way the entire industry worked.  Would that prompt change?

Welcome to the digital download ‘revolution’.  Could differentiating your offering against cheap (or free) and convenient downloads by providing a (much, much) higher quality alternative be the answer?  Or is convenience once again killing quality and breeding a generation of listeners who care more about the size and portability of their legal and illegal MP3 collection than the sound?

We’ll have to wait until next time …


The Chipophone. The what!?

Wow, two posts in one night!  Actually, the only reason I’m posting anything is because I wanted to post something about the Chipophone, and I got distracted writing about Macs and stuff.

I came across a mention the other week about yet another insanely talented person doing some wicked retro-related work, this time shoe-horning an 8-bit synthesizer inside an old organ case.  I guess shoe-horning isn’t quite the right word as I’m sure there was a lot of empty space after removing all the discrete circuitry, but still …

This guy is seriously awesome – we are talking a full synthesizer hooked up to the keyboard (both of them) AND the pedals, complete with a sequencer, and not only that, he can actually play the damn thing, not just peck at the keys!

Once again I am in awe at the talent of some of the people out there.  Having just suffered a Federal election here with two dead-duck parties of self-serving imbeciles, it is gratifying to know that at least one person has a spark of something greater than just themselves.

Watching him play some old computer game tunes, complete with percussion from the pedals, is just too much brilliance for this poor soul … to echo the words of one poster on his website: may he live for a thousand years!

May retro computer games and music live a thousand years …

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Goddammit – it has been far too long – there is just too much other stuff going on, and the winter chills have kept me firmly ensconced in the dining room with the laptop on the dinner table rather than in the Garage of Awesomeness™ where I belong.

Our new darling daughter (3 months old in a fraction over a week!) has been a lovely distraction, and there have been a few other things going on the background too.  You know, those sorts of horrible things that seem to have to happen at various points in people’s lives to enable the good things to happen.  We are moving office, which is a fantastic opportunity to do some spring cleaning of the mind, the soul, and the desk.  There are also some staff changes which I think know  are going to leave us with a core group of really dedicated and switched-on guys (and gal).  Not sure if I have mentioned it before, but I am co-owner of a local web software company, and naturally that consumes a lot of my time.

The old BBC has been languishing in the garage while I have been playing with my two new toys – a 17″ Macbook Pro and my iPad.  For those who know me, I’ve never been an Apple fan … the old one-button mouse just made me laugh, and the translucent cases of the old iMacs made me think of half-sucked lollipops.  Not to mention the shitty old operating system without pre-emptive multitasking and memory protection and the ‘bomb icon’ error message (don’t get me started on the ‘sad mac’ icon)

However, things change.  OS X is a reasonably slick interface over a UNIX core (not really familiar with BSD, being more of a Linux user in my server admin capacity, but to be honest I haven’t needed to delve deep enough to really notice any difference), but it is the hardware that really shines.  I have a Dell XPS 1530 as my work machine (I think that is the model number – I actually have it next to me but it is not written anywhere!), and that has been (and still is) a great machine, but the Macbook really is a beautiful piece of hardware.  I’ll say straight up that despite people banging on about Windows being slow and bloated compared to OS X and its ‘UNIX engine’ and efficient core or whatever, I have noticed virtually no difference.  I use similar apps on both (Netbeans as my main development environment, and Firefox as my browser), and the speed is pretty much identical, even though my Dell is about two years old (running 64bit Windows 7 now, which is actually a very nice OS, and should be a free upgrade to anyone who was sucked in to buying Vista).

The differences are elsewhere:

  • the battery life on the Mac is about twice the Dell (which has the extra battery pack, and I used to think was quite impressive at over three hours)
  • the back-lit keyboard.  Why the hell did it take so long for someone to think of this? People joke about computer geeks sitting in dark basements with nothing but the phosphor glow of their CRTs (if you are Gen Y bugger off and look it up), so it seems like a back-lit keyboard would be an essential bit of kit.  I guess trying to do it WITHOUT white LEDs would have been as effective as digital watches WITH red LEDs, but it seems like Apple thought of it first, or more likely, did it better than anyone else
  • the aluminium case.  What can I say?  A beautiful combination of industrial design and engineering and an end result that not only looks sexy but is as solid as a bauxite rock
  • The gestures interface for the track pad.  My Dell has a track pad from some company that is not Synaptics, which is like buying baked beans from a company which is not Heinz … an utter waste of time (or taste buds).  I feel embarrassed trying to scroll using the area on the right of the Dell track pad – it works about 20% of the time and the rest of the time I feel like I have a nervous twitch, or a fetish for stroking my laptop.  The two-finger scroll action on the Mac is so slick and natural that I find myself using it everywhere, even where it doesn’t work.  Maybe that in itself means I am past the point of no return?
  • The magsafe power connector.  I had no idea what this was until I used it – a magnetised connector to keep the power plug attached to the laptop, but won’t drag it onto the ground if you accidentally trip over the cord.  Once again, why did it take so long for someone to think of this?
  • Very rapid sleep/wakeup times.  One of the first things I do on any Windows laptop is turn off the ‘sleep when the lid is closed’ option.  It just takes too long for those times when I want to close the lid to save power for the screen when on batteries, or I just don’t want to see it because I am listening to music or whatever.  On the mac, it is so quick that you’d be crazy not to use it.  I simply close the lid when done and put it away.  I don’t ever think about batteries or things not quite working when I wake it up
  • I do appreciate being able to bring up a terminal window to ‘localhost’, and having access to the power of UNIX under the hood
  • Plus a bunch of other little things – for example in the email program I can hit reply, and then realise that I wanted to reply to all (I’m not someone who automatically thinks that everyone needs to see my reply – I don’t work in government) – in that situation there is a ‘reply all’ option in the compose email window which will fill in the other addresses into the email I am already writing

Still, it is not all beer and skittles:

  • For God’s sake, why can’t I resize windows using any corner?  Why can I only do it from the bottom right?
  • The Microsoft Windows Taskbar has gone through a number of iterations of the years, and with Windows 7 it is perfect IMHO.  The ability to drag programs in the task bar to change the order was the only thing missing, and Windows 7 finally adds this (it only took 15 years – maybe in another 15 Microsoft will add an ‘always on top’ and ‘minimise to tray’ option to the standard window menu).  The OS X Dock is a masterpiece of form over function.  Why the hell do I need to permanently need to see all the programs on my machine, just in case I might want one of them?  On Windows I barely need the Start menu – I have keyboard shortcuts for most programs, or simply double-click a file to open it in the appropriate program.
    On OS X I have culled back the programs in the dock simply because I’m sick of clicking on the wrong icon and loading an application I don’t want while switching between apps, which as a developer I need to do frequently.  Before anyone shouts ‘Exposé!’, as far as I’m concerned, Exposé is a solution to a problem that should be avoided altogether.  alt+tabbing between programs is something else I do frequently on the Mac, but virtually never on my PC.
    Admittedly, I have my Dock icons pretty small, so maybe if they were bigger I wouldn’t click the wrong thing, but what a waste of screen space just to see pretty icons!  With no titles or other information either.  Windows 7 does a fantastic job of actually showing useful information (for those apps that support it in particular).  For example, I’m a massive fan of MediaMonkey (hell, I own the full version), and hovering over the taskbar entry in Windows 7 shows the album cover and full set of play/stop etc icons. While on that topic, I never use iTunes on my PC unless I want to buy something – MediaMonkey has a feature that automatically picks up new music added to my music folders and is worth it just for that.  Plus the ability to automatically re-compress tracks when transferring to various media – for example when transferring to an MP3 cd or to my iPod, it is set up to re-compress MP3s over a certain bitrate.  iTunes now seems to have something similar, but with a lot less control
  • I thought I would go for the full Apple experience and get an Apple mouse to go with the new laptop.  I avoided the wireless mouse (sorry, even the smallest lag is far too much as far as I’m concerned) and got the wired one (with the little track ball scroll wheel and the buttons on the side that you ‘squeeze’) .  For a start, being in the minority of users who consider themselves ‘right-handed’, I find the cord too short when you consider the 17″ Macbook Pro only has USB ports on the left hand side.  This is major UI FAIL from Apple when you consider how good the rest of the hardware is.  Even an extra inch of cable would have helped a lot.  Secondly, even after 2 months I have trouble consistently doing a ‘right-click’.  For anyone who has not seen this mouse, it doesn’t have buttons in the traditional sense – you simple press the outer shell and there are micro-switches underneath.  Press on the left-hand side for left-click, and press the other side for the other sort of click.  If I had a dollar for every time I tried to right-click something and ended up launching it or whatever, I’d have quite a number of dollars!  Seriously, I have tried various spots, and always try and give it a really solid press, but I always cringe in the expectation that I have just clicked the icon that does exactly what I don’t want rather than bring up the menu of extra options that I do want.  Looks like it is time to buy another Logitech M500.
    I do like the trackball scroll wheel though – much more intuitive for left and right scrolling
  • The whole concept of a single application ‘owning’ the menu bar at any one time I find very limiting, especially when that application has no windows open for whatever reason so all I see is a menu for application X and windows open for application Y in the ‘background’.  The disconnect between a window and the menu bar is very disconcerting, but I’m getting used to it putting up with it

Still, none of these things are of major consequence (except the mouse – it really is frustrating considering how expensive it was).  It will be a shame to lose it though: as much as I love the Logitech, the white mouse really does look good next to the aluminium laptop.

To be honest though, I’m really loving the experience …

That brings me to my second toy – a 64Gb 3G iPad.  This is a rather nifty piece of equipment, and it is worth the price for me just in its’ ability to handle email – the bigger screen really makes a difference when reading and composing (although the lack of cursor keys to move around the text is annoying some times).  The ability to read PDF documents in a nice ‘ebook’ format is fantastic too – no more wasted time on the bus looking out the window when I could be reading the Spring Framework manual instead.  Plus the iPod function works pretty well too.

Oh, and Google maps is nice on the bigger screen.

To be honest, that covers 90% of what I use it for.  I have a few apps (like the Argon Monophonic Synthesizer), but really can’t be bothered with most of them.  I just get over them too quickly.  Maybe I’m too serious…

The hardware is beautiful as usual, but surprisingly heavy.  Battery life is good – with virtually every person in the civilised world owning at least one Apple product these days, I’m about as likely to run out of power as I am to run out of petrol.

At the end of the day though, the power is having a device in your bag that is:

  • Instantly on
  • Wireless
  • Powerful enough to actually perform as a useful desktop substitute for things like email, reading documents and browsing the web
  • Not limited to a single function like a simple e-book reader

For example, I have subscribed to the Harvard Business IdeaCast through iTunes U, and I listen to this whenever I am walking to a meeting somewhere in town.  So rather than just walking listening to the inane chatter of those around me, I can actually learn something, and because I am using the iPad as a substitute for actual pen and paper it is no extra effort to learn from Harvard University for a few minutes each day.  That has got to be worth something!

Of course, I like to look after my possessions, especially if I’m lugging it about town, so I bought a case for the ipad – one of these:  Highly recommended.

Not to be forgotten, my dream is one day being able to work a couple of days a week, and out of a café rather than an office, and for that to happen I need a slick case for my Macbook.  This fit the bill very nicely:

The idea of actually keeping the laptop in the case all the time, even when in use, would have sounded strange before, but now that I know that I can put it to sleep almost instantly by closing it and waking up is just as quick it is so natural to just close the case when finished, zip it up and put it away.  Of course I need to unplug cables (or in the case of the magsafe power cable, just give it a tug), but it is such a neat package and you would have to do this no matter what case you had.

Just to wrap up, here is picture of the beast:

One month later …

Wow, I can’t believe it has been a month since my last post.  Still, it makes sense that I haven’t written as much as I would like, even though I have been buying some choice items from ebay (I’ve made it my goal to collect all of Superior’s ‘Play it Again Sam’ compilations, but still have a way to go).

Firstly, it is getting even colder, and without insulation or a fur coat like Hannibal Chew from Bladerunner, I fear for my safety to spend any time in the garage with all my goodies.

Secondly, the baby has become ever closer and we have been rushing madly to get the house ready. In went the insulation and the ventilation system to combat the dampness and out went the lead paint and asbestos curtains and we boarded up the World War 1 bunker.  Ok, we didn’t really do those last things, but I did remove all the barbed wire from the fence between us and the now deceased Polish WW1 refugee next door.

Thirdly, my wife has started to sort out the work stock that needs to be sent back, with the result that the entire garage floor is covered in hair dryers, straighteners, tweezers and mannequin heads.  I take my life in my hands walking to the desk: if I walk quickly I’m liable to trip and get stabbed to death with a very expensive pair of hairdressing scissors, or if I walk slowly I may freeze to death.

Hopefully once the excitement of the baby has died down I might be able to snatch a few minutes here and there to actually play around with some of my new purchases and get some details up on the site.

That’s it really for now …

Back again!

Beside being the title of really awesome track by General Base, Back Again signifies my return from the trial and tribulations of moving house and settling in to a new life (almost three suburbs away from the old one!).

Despite my silence I’ve been doing a lot more than merely organising my CD collection. In between that I’ve been out in the new garage turning it from the cesspit of the previous residents into a retro hideaway. I’ve removed the nicotine stains of most of the walls and vacuumed  the carpet numerous times (I’ll replace it all eventually, but one step at a time) and it is finally at a stage where I can sit for prolonged periods of time without my eyes watering.

Of course like any garage it is full of crap, in particular my wife’s work stock, but thankfully that will be going back soon, so I’ll be spreading out and setting up some proper lounge chairs and a second music system to make a home away from home.

The only downside (beside being f’***ing cold as we go into winter) is the fact that I’m sitting in a big metal box (akin to one of these I guess) and wi-fi reception from the house is pretty patchy.  Not to worry, I started with a 36k modem so it is all part of the retro experience – which just goes to prove there is good retro and bad retro: good retro is playing a game with simple sound and graphics that I have fond memories of as a kid, while bad retro is putting up with shitty internet access like it is 1998.

So what does it look like I hear you ask? Wonder no more:

My quarter of the garage

This is it so far – I’m squashed in the corner but will swing the TV around against the wall on the right eventually when other stuff has been taken away.  There are two old armchairs behind the TV which will eventually form the lounge.

You can see my stack of hifi gear too with a nice Arcam A75 and a suitably retro cassette player and record player along with a whole bunch of records (mostly techno, trance and eclectica, including my much loved ‘Emerson Lake and Powell’ album. All I need now are some decent speakers as the ones on the desk are only really used for the computer via my ancient ‘Dual’ amp.  I have three boxes of cassettes in the bookshelf, mostly recorded off the radio when I lived in Sydney in 1994 (big shout out to Nik Fish and his Musiquarium show).

Finally on the right you can see the BBC itself in its temporary home.

My BBC Micro collection so far

It’s great finally having a place to put these things and lay them out.  All my (remaining) original items are here, along with a few things I’ve acquired from ebay over the last couple of months.  There are a few comics in the magazine holder on the far left, and that copy of ‘The Micro User’ is volume 1, issue 1 – I figured if I can’t have the whole set I might as well have the first one as a memento. The whole bookshelf is normally covered with a sheet to keep the sunlight and dust out.

Of course it wouldn’t be a real garage if there wasn’t some tool action going on, so my first projects were to get the computer hooked up the Loewe TV and to an external amplifer.

Sure, I could have used a standard aerial cable for an RF signal to the TV, but lets face it – it’s crap: real men use RGB.  Following the instructions found here: Connecting a BBC micro to a Television, I wired up a SCART plug that a friend had given me ages ago and I somehow never got around to throwing out. After a false start where I somehow thought I needed a mini-DIN plug, I got this working first time.

The glorious combination of my Loewe TV and my hand-made RGB cable

You can see how clear the image is compared to a standard RF connection – no ghosting or interference and the colours are extremely vivid (the sort of stripy effect is from the camera).  And damn those pixels are large, although we retro fans prefer the term ‘cuddly’.

I made sure I used a long cable so this should be pretty sweet once I can set up the computer on a coffee table or something in front of the TV.

So that takes care of the visuals, but what about the audio?  The instructions on that same page show how to connect a resistor to bring the speaker level output down to line-out voltage so I wired this up to a couple of RCA sockets (although unfortunately despite having a left and right socket it is a mono output) and hung this out the back of the computer (once again after a false start where I hung the resistor and terminal blocks outside the computer, which was hella ugly).

After hooking this up to the little Dual amp I was able to enjoy the dulcet tones of Galaforce, Firetrack and XOR at their best.

The only thing left now was to get some fellow beeb enthusiasts over for a beer and Chuckie Egg night, which is precisely what happened last night (ok, so it was really a housewarming), and thankfully I managed to not get hungover and was thus able to post this and enjoy a glorious sunny day outside rather than in bed with all the curtains drawn.

I’m indulging in one of the many beers left over and about to have a quick bash at Arcadians, and really, life doesn’t get any better than this …

What’s in the Box?

After passing the first hurdle of having a working computer and a working floppy drive, it was time to rummage through the rest of the box and see what are goodies were in store.

Having sort of gotten over the loss of my books and magazines (whenever I say ‘books and magazines’ I’m reminded of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (or Mormons or whatever the blazing hell they were) visiting Bernard in Black Books), I figured let’s savour the moment and closely examine what is left.

Let’s begin …

Computer Concepts Wordwise Plus

Ok, so not the most exciting start – a word processor.  Near mint original box of Wordwise Plus.  I have no idea how I acquired this.  I don’t know if it works, but it is in such good condition that I assume it does.  I’d better send in that registration card perhaps, as Computer Concepts are still around (I think: the website doesn’t look like it has been updated for a while).  Note the function key strip at the bottom – you could insert this behind the clear plastic strip above the functions keys to get a reference for the shortcuts.  Someone’s thinking …

The Music System

From Island Logic (a division of Island Records strangely enough), I bought this new to try my hand at making some music but didn’t get very far.  As I didn’t read music and had no other experience in making music, it was too difficult to try and get my ideas down – I really needed the immediacy of being able to play around on a synthesizer keyboard and then edit the results into a song.  I haven’t tried it again yet, but flicking through the manual suggests that it is a pretty sophisticated bit of software.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 13

In the dying days of the BBC, Superior mostly released compilations of older games, with the occasional new game included that wasn’t ‘big enough’ for a standalone release, as well as games from other companies even.  Barbarian II by Peter Scott is the highlight here, being a hack ‘n’ slash fighting game.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 8

Another great compilation spread across 3 (count ’em!) discs.  As yet I haven’t played them, but I’m itching to get back into Repton (the game, not the village, which of course I have never been to).

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 7

Definitely one of the best in the series.  Firetrack was a pretty amazing technical achievement and great fun (go Orlando!), while Bonecruncher kept me tied to the screen for a while.
Snapper is as perfect a Pacman clone as you could expect without legal issues and Ghouls was a great little platformer.

Superior Software - Play it Again Sam 6

I love shoot ’em ups, and Galaforce 2 had plenty of that plus a fantastic Martin Galway soundtrack.
Yet another faithful arcade conversion by Acornsoft in the form of Hopper and I remember Hunchback being fun for a while.
Looking forward to giving Sentinel another go, and thankfully my Dad kept our list of level codes so I’ll take it as a personal challenge to fill in the rest.

The Fourth Dimension - White Magic

Coming later into the BBC scene, The Fourth Dimension produced some cracking games for the Beeb and the Archimedes later on.
I was always a fan of the arcade game ‘Gauntlet’ but it was so damn hard (and with the ability to top-up your health at any time simply by inserting more money it was more financially crippling than any poker machine), so I was keen to get my hands on this game.  Can’t remember much about it but looking forward to it again.

Superior Software - The Palace of Magic

Can’t remember much about this and I’m not sure if I’d have the patience to complete it without some sort of cheat sheet, but once again I’m looking forward to finding out.

Logotron - XOR Designer

I didn’t realise that BBC games manufacturers sold so many copies of anything that they felt able to release the game and the designer as two completely separate products and you really needed to buy them both.  The designer comes with a paltry 3 levels all taken from the original game and that’s it.
I used to own the original game too (taken from the cover of A&B Computing and then registered to unlock the rest of the levels) but I lent it to someone and never got it back. It was the first game I ever bought and it took about 5 months to arrive from England by swallow (obviously a heavily laden one).

The Fourth Dimension - Nevryon

Awesome shoot ’em up.  Much as I enjoyed this, when I saw screenshots of the Archimedes version I was absolutely blown away – I don’t think I had ever seen something as cool as that.  Still haven’t played it …

Superior Software - Exile

What can I say?  I may have completed this game, or at least got damn close.  Yes, I used a hint sheet but it wasn’t easy.  I don’t think I’ve ever played anything so atmospheric except maybe the original Quake game (with the Trent Reznor soundtrack and effects).
It was so tense, and you could feel it every time you got hit by something.  The physics was so realistic that it was hard not to feel like you were there, particularly on the surface of the planet with the wind.
Simply an amazing combination of gameplay and technical achievement.  I’m simply in awe of the people who have the skill to produce work like this (and sick to death of the idiots who somehow make all the money).

Superior Software - Exile (contents)

I’m so happy I own a copy of this.  All I need is a box set of Elite and anything else is just a bonus.  Note all the different keys that are in use.  In this game you can crouch, fly, pick up and throw things and change the angle at which you fire/throw.
I might sit down and read the novella …

Hmm … there was a kid at school with a copy of Elite which I borrowed for a while.  Might need to find out where he lives.

Acornsoft Logo

Early on I felt it was important that I learn another computer language, and clearly Logo was the language of choice.  I think it just came down to the fact that a local computer store had this in stock so I bought it. If only they had Acornsoft ISO Pascal instead things would have been a lot different.
This is a pretty hefty package and comes on two ROMs, along with a sternly worded copyright notice on the box that starts “You are reminded that the software …”.  Back in those days I didn’t always feel guilty until proven innocent when it came to copyright, and no fines were mentioned that totalled multiple year’s salary.

Like the average person could duplicate two ROMs anyway.

Finally, despite the mysterious disappearance of the actual user manual, I still had two versions of the disc interface manual.

Inside front cover

Interestingly, this manual claims to be modified for Australia and is presumably printed locally.  Not sure what the differences could be, and I didn’t see any places where ‘By Jove!’ was replaced by ‘Strewth!’

So folks, that is the sum total of my collection at the moment and it looks like I need to hit Ebay for some more choice pieces.

I’ve had some good news recently however – finance has been approved on the house so we’ll be moving in within a couple of weeks, and that means I can start setting up the garage out the back into some sort of retro pad.

First thing to get setup is my trusty Loewe Xelos 5270 television.

Loewe Xelos 5270 ZW

Pretty much as good as a CRT can get, and I held off buying a plasma/LCD TV for a long time because the picture quality wasn’t as smooth as this. Sure the resolution was better, and they were less bulky and with more screen area, but they all looked so ‘digital’ for a long time.
Still, once the Bravia arrived it got packed away, but I couldn’t bear to get rid of it.  Good thing too – it has something that fewer modern TVs have – SCART, and better still it supports RGB input signals.
And guess what the BBC supports besides shitty RF?  Oh, boy!

I just need to make me up a rewired SCART cable and I’ll have a beautiful display that will look better than the Bravia (which can only support RF).

At least I didn’t throw away the TV.  I discovered a few days ago that I did in fact give my magazines and books away many years ago to a fellow Beeb owner, and he moved out of home a year ago – and threw them out.


On ‘tracking, SID, Koyaanisqatsi and more … (Part 2)

I’ve only just recovered from the awesomeness of the Monty Mole and Delta covers, but must press on with the remaining modules I want to share with you.  I’ve realised that a few of these don’t seem to play in XMPlay: it just completely ignores them so you’ll need MODPlug instead, which seems to cope better with older tracks.

Just remember to rename the extension of these files to .mod from .doc as this was the only way I could upload them to WordPress.

Hallucination – Courtesy of Jesper Kyd, this is reminiscent of Tubular Bells but with some kickin’ drums over the top.  A very familiar drum sample – love to know where it came from.  It’s not the Amen Break though …

Jamboree – From Fleshbrain (no, really!), this is a great dub/reggae piece.  With steel drums and some nice pitch bends and vibrato, what’s not to like?

Laidback 5 – By Dr. Awesome, as its’ name suggests, this is a mellow piece that travels along very nicely.

Message – Another by Jesper Kyd, this samples Depeche Mode, Vangelis and 2001: A Space Odyssey. With a line up like that you are destined for success, but it is a fun track and stands well on its own merits.

The Moebius 2 – Coming out in 1993 this is practically modern, but still features 8 bit samples and four tracks.  A great little trancer.  Not sure of the author.

Moongazer – Fantastic little piece, with a very good attempt at a saxophone.  I should have guessed – this is also by Dr. Awesome.

Noname – Noname is the name, but it is by Anty.  This is one of those mods that just has that ‘mod’ feel which I can’t describe – gloriously electronic but has that ability to take you on a journey.  You can just imagine the graphics that would go with this.  Sadly XMPlay doesn’t play this so use something else instead.

Paradox – Composed by Pinnacle, this is another mellow track, this time featuring some nice bendy flute and more plinky plonk sounds that I love.

RSI Rise – This is a track that I keep coming back to (but you’ll need MODPlug to play it).  Another Romeo Knight number (hey, it says it in the track), this just screams out cyberpunk.  What the hell is cyberpunk anyway?  I think this is one of those ideas that made perfect sense for a while – right between a technological dark age where you had to be a computer whizz to get a computer to do anything of any real interest to a time where everyone was jacked into a network 24/7 without even realising it … only without the cool augmented cybernetic bodies.  We now have a ‘disease’ – Nomophobia, not to mention Internet addiction in general, yet no-one seems to have made a conscious decision to ever say- “Hey, this computer stuff is really going somewhere, I’m going to give the geeks some credit and hang up my football boots and join this interweb thingy”.  Instead, the people who make this all happen are still labelled ‘boffins’ (if I ever meet the person who coined that term …) yet if Joe Sixpack is ever unable to instant message his girlfriend it is all our fault.

Nomophobia – for God’s sake, how could this even come up as a possibility of an idea of something that could potentially happen. Fear of being out of mobile phone contact?  Sounds like nirvana to me.  It never ceases to amaze me the number of people on an aeroplane who switch their phone on the instant they hit the ground, despite warnings to keep them turned off.  Seriously, what are they expecting to hear?  Are they Donald Trump?  Are they waiting for news of some multi-million deal, or are they waiting for some inane shit from their family – ‘Hi, I’m waiting at the terminal‘ – where else would they fucking be waiting?  People need to gain some perspective on their lives.  Let’s say there was a slight possibility that something could go horribly wrong while using a mobile phone next to a fuel pump or whatever.  Is it their right to make that decision for me that they consider that possibility remote, and thus don’t have a problem ringing to tell someone ‘that they will be there soon‘.  From where I am sitting on the plane I can pretty much see the person on the other end of the call waving to us from the terminal.  For fucks sake, your personal life is not that important.  A few minutes will not send them into a flurry of concern, desperation and mindless speculation that the plane is currently being held up by terrorists and will explode if the tanker truck approaches to empty out the toilet system.

Anyway, I could spend all night riling against the inanity of humanity, but will instead leave you with some of the great comments on this page.

Sahara – Damn, I swear I’m not related to the guy and there is no nepotism involved.  Yes, it is Dr. Awesome again with another out there, melodic, drifting piece.  I can’t remember where I downloaded half these mods from – they have been on my computer for ages so maybe I went to his website.  I doubt it though…  maybe I just like his style.

Sarcophaser – Well, this is a bit of a turn up for the books.  If the AMP website is to be believed, this track is written by Karsten Obarski himself – the creator of the original Soundtracker format.  Some great intertwined melodic lines – it seems that he set the tone for many modules to come and this is a wonderful example of the genre.  Great stuff …

Space Journey – As the name suggests, a journey into the mind – after that it is your responsibility of where you go next.  Fresh samples and squelchy analogue samples round out a superb track.

Telephone – An unassuming name for a sweet track that really gets me going – that melodic line gets me every time.  Pity it is so damn short. I think the author poured everything into it in one go and didn’t leave room for dessert.  A common mistake that one.  Still, put it on repeat and it will be a while before you realise it as it just flows so beautifully.  Sorry, did I not mention?  This is Karsten Orbaski again.  Funnily enough I first heard this track via a public domain disc I purchased for the Archimedes and it stuck in my head for years before I rediscovered mods on my PC and searched it out …

Thunderbirds – Had to include this as a bit of a geek anthem for the time.  Plus it has a totally awesome bass-line …  and just the right amount of orchestra hits.  Couldn’t find it in the AMP database, and it doesn’t play in XMPlay, which makes the effort all the more worthwhile.

Toccata – More commonly know as Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by the ‘father of harmony’ of the classical (or baroque?) world – Johann Sebastian Bach.  While there is debate on whether this was originally composed by Bach, whether it was originally for the organ and whether it was even in D Minor, this version kicks arse (which is like an American ass with less legs and no tail).  Ok, so while it probably derives more from Sky’s version that the original organ piece, this is still an amazing interpretation and must have been done by someone who had some idea of what they were doing.

AMP credits two people – Allister Brimble and Blaster_One.  After listening to tracks from both, I’m sure Allister deserves the credit for this mod.  Plus, it seems he is responsible for the Superfrog soundtrack as well, so as far as I’m concerned, he is God, and I am one of his most loyal and devoted subjects.  Superfrog rulez.   Actually, so does Worms, the other Team 17 masterpiece.

Unveiled – Listed on AMP as ‘ISIS Unveiled’ by Watchman and Trixal, this is so damn boppy.  Ok, so I’m going to be (uncharacteristically) geeky here and mention that there is a part of this song at exactly 32 seconds in (and at 2:39) where there is an orchestra hit line that sounds chopped up and I’m sure that is not how it is supposed to sound.  Many, many years ago I had a Soundtracker player on the PC that ran under DOS (so required a Sound Blaster compatible sound card) and when it played this track that part sounded completely different.  Instead of each note being chopped, they all blended into each other with some pitch bending, and frankly it sounded bloody fantastic.  I have never found another player that did it the same way.  Maybe it was serendipity (you need to watch it).  I’ll try and search out the modplayer in question, but I think it is on a 5 1/4 inch disc at my parents so we’ll see …

Similarity – So we come to the end of our journey, at least for now.  Composed in 1997, this contains 16 bit samples (and I sit here in 2010 and 16 bit samples are still the norm, and with MP3s the quality of music in terms of fidelity has decreased, but that is a topic for another time).  Unsurprisingly no mention of this on AMP, as it has moved firmly outside the Amiga realm, but it mentions being composed by ‘LX’.  I assume this is not Alex Paterson so it must be someone else.  You can tell it is a more recent track as it contains dire copyright notices as well, but I think I am ok as I am not making money from this, but then again IANAL.  Damn, I’ve always wanted to say that … IANAL, IANAL.

Note: this is an Impulse Tracker module, so rename it to .it rather than .mod before you try and play it otherwise your computer will explode in a fireball and almost certainly send a spark into your eye.

This track is supremely spacey and delicate and has all my favourite bits in it …

I hope something has rubbed off on you, but I guess like so many things most of the enjoyment is from the nostalgia.  You just had to be there …

Then again, I wasn’t there.  I never owned an Amiga or Commodore 64.  To this day I have never played Monty Mole.  I have to thank friends like Alex, Glen and Tank-top Tony (poor bastard recorded heaps of mods for me from his Atari ST onto tape and I used to listen to them on my walkman.  Luckily he got a kick out of it too so it wasn’t such a chore) for letting me watch demos and play Superfrog on their Amigas.

Ultimately, to me I love this music so much because it strips it down to its essence.  You had to make something sound good with only four tracks – no room to chuck in random crap that just hides the fact you have no musical ability.  No room for over production or vocals that you only include because of a vain hope of getting into the Top 40.  If your idea sucked then it was laid bare for all to see.

With that thought, I might put on some Monolake and go to bed.  I looove Monolake.  Only minimal when listened at a superficial level.  The best music is music that rewards the listener – you put the effort in to listen and the music gives back in sounds and feelings that tickle the sensitive, rarely used parts of your auditory system.  Or something …