Collecting Music in an Analog Age

In the early 1980s, I had a day job crunching numbers for a financial company in midtown Manhattan. But when the nine-to-five, suit and tie part of my day was finished, it was time for music to take over. I would listen to my favorite albums on my Sony Pressman (the ancestor of the soon-to-be released Walkman), on crappy headphones, wearing the long, gray tweed coat I’d bought used in Greenwich Village.

I was a fan of Joy Division, the seminal post-punk group from Manchester, England. Their two studio albums, Unknown Pleasures and Closer, were part of the soundtrack for my life in those days.

After Joy Division’s lead singer Ian Curtis committed suicide in 1980, the band morphed into New Order and recorded the last two songs Curtis had co-written. This first single contained two gray-tinged songs, Ceremony and In a Lonely Place, that were apt successors to Joy Division’s signature sound. This record, released on the small Factory label, was hard to find in New York City, where I lived at the time, but it was a must-have: this was the final statement of a group that would become legendary.

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It took some hunting, but I managed to find it in the Imports bin of a record store on Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village. I don’t remember how much I paid for it, but I do remember the satisfaction I felt in having tracked this single down. I played it until I almost wore out the grooves.

High Fidelity

If you’ve ever seen the movie, or read the novel, High Fidelity, you’ll have an idea what my life was like for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I used to hang out at a tiny record store in Queens on my way home from work. A handful of us would hang out there, listen to music, and discuss it together with Stu, who ran the store. There was Richard, Chauncey, Clara, Roberto, and a few other irregulars. Somehow, Stu had a pretty good selection of imports for a tiny store, so we’d spin records and opine about them. On Friday evenings, we’d go to a Chinese restaurant and talk about music, literature and poetry.

From our suburban homes (we were part of the bridge and tunnel crowd), we tried to emulate the kinds of art and music that Manhattanites were showing off in the East Village. We listened to music, wrote, published a little magazine and a few slim chapbooks. We played music, and did something vaguely resembling performance art.

Each member of the group had their own favorites. We’d play each other our recent finds, and we’d trade cassettes. (Yes, home taping was killing music back then…) Or we’d go to Stu’s apartment on the weekend, gaze with wonder at his collection of a couple thousand LPs, and listen to a selection of his rarities.

For the most part, we had similar musical tastes. I had been a Deadhead (a fan of the Grateful Dead) for many years, but, at that time, I was leaning more toward punk, and the post-punk music coming from the industrial wastelands of England: The Clash, Joy Division, The Cure, and many other lesser known bands.

I missed out on a lot of local music. None of my friends went to the popular New York clubs where local bands were getting famous, so I never set foot in CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. I never saw Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Television, The Ramones or Talking Heads in their prime (though I did see some of them a bit later). At the same time, we ignored popular music. For some reason, the European gray of the post-punk bands from England struck a chord in me.

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A Song Is Worth How Many Words?

Since much of the music we liked came from England, we would buy and share the British music press: New Musical Express, The Face and Melody Maker were sold in the same record stores that imported these vinyl surprises. While these publications kept us abreast of new releases, you can’t describe music with words. You can discuss a mood or a feeling, but you can’t write what a melody sounds like.

Most of these bands got no radio play back then, and were never on TV: certainly not Joy Division or The Cure (in its early years). Definitely not A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column or Section 25. And you’d never, ever hear Throbbing Gristle on the radio, except, perhaps, on a college station very late at night. So we’d read about new bands then go in search of their singles to hear what they sounded like.

We learned that many of the bands we liked were clustered on small, indie labels such as Factory, Rough Trade, Fiction, Mute, or Les Disques du Crepuscule. If we’d come across a band we didn’t know on a familiar label, it could be worth a listen. Some of these labels released samplers or compilations that showcased their artists, and led me to discover bands like Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, Soft Verdict, Tuxedomoon, and the wonderfully-named Crispy Ambulance.

No matter what we bought, there was an element of the unknown which made the hunt all the more interesting. The thrill of finding a new single by a band we’d read about would be augmented if the songs were really good. If not, we’d just move on; singles only cost a couple of bucks, even for imports.

Collector’s Lust

I like collecting music, though I’m not a collector. I don’t seek out recordings just for the sake of owning them; I want to listen to them. I don’t search for records the way philatelists would look for EFOs (stamps with errors, freaks, and oddities); my interest has always been the music.

It wasn’t hard to find the first few albums by The Durutti Column, one of my favorite bands back then (and still now). They were released on Factory Records, which had decent distribution in New York, but certain EPs, such as Deux Triangles (on Factory Benelux) or Greetings Three (on Materiala Sonori), required some detective work. I scoured the record stores for anything I could find by The Durutti Column, occasionally stumbling on something new that I’d never heard of. It was harder to know what to look for back then, because you couldn’t Google an artist’s discography on a website, so you had no idea what had been released.

Some records were hard to find. The Normal – aka Daniel Miller, record producer and founder of Mute Records – only released one single: T.V.O.D / Warm Leatherette. Strongly influenced by J. G. Ballard’s novel Crash – a shared favorite among the record store group – these two songs become emblematic and influential (Grace Jones later recorded Warm Leatherette), examples of the early days of electronic pop music.

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I remember hearing the first single by Theatre of Hate, called Brave New Soldiers. Finding the band’s first – and best – album, produced by Mick Jones of The Clash, was difficult. I eventually found a copy on cassette, and wore out that tape.

Another one that was tough to track down was I’m a Cult Hero / I Dig You, a single that bore the band name Cult Hero. This group was actually The Cure, and they recorded this as a test to see if they got along musically. Instead of having Robert Smith on vocals, they used their local postman Frank Bell, who is also on the cover in a Cult Hero t-shirt.

Analog and Digital: Two Different Lifestyles

In some ways, collecting music in the analog age was tiresome. You’d spend a lot of time tracking down records, and not always like what you bought. In the digital world, you can sample everything online, buy music in seconds, and download an entire album in minutes. The thrill is gone, but the ubiquity of instant access to most of what you want balances that out. There are still some CDs that don’t get released digitally, but even those are easy to buy. A few clicks on a web site, and you can order a CD from anywhere.

Collecting in a digital world is different. No more do you need to go to record stores and check out the used or import bins; you can just go to the iTunes Store, or Amazon, or google the name of the band you’re looking for. Do you want to get recommendations for bands you might like? You don’t need the music press for that any more; just try any of a hundred apps, or use iTunes’ or Amazon’s recommendations.

Or you can get music from your children. In an interesting example of the fluidity of music from my past to the present, my son comes up with occasional discoveries, such as Trent Reznor and friends covering Warm Leatherette, which he thinks are new and fresh. Until I get him to listen to the originals. But some of his favorites get me excited too, such as Psychic, the first album by Darkside, a band that could have existed thirty years ago, if only the technology had been more advanced.

Music is an important part of my life: I have a huge music library – both on CD and digital purchases – and I write about music and how to work with it on computers. I got rid of most of my vinyl collection a long time ago. But I still have about 100 LPs and singles, the ones that were the hardest to find, the ones that carry the strongest memories. I don’t have a turntable, but every once in a while I flip through them to take a brief trip back to the analog age. To a time when each new purchase was a conquest.

As I listen to New Order’s Ceremony and In a Lonely Place now, the music, like a madeleine, brings me back to a time when music represented freedom from the world I was trying to understand as a young adult. With a small group of friends, I scoured record stores across New York City looking for musical portals to a different world. Sometimes, we actually found them.

This article first appeared in issue 17 of The Loop Magazine.

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Did You Know that Spotify Uses Peer-to-Peer Networking?

Most people don’t know this, but Spotify uses peer-to-peer networking for its streaming. In other words, when you choose to stream a specific song or album from Spotify, you may get your stream from Spotify itself, or you may get it from other users.

The problem with this is that peer-to-peer networking may affect your internet plan. While many users have unlimited downloads and uploads, this isn’t the case for everyone. If you use Spotify’s desktop client, you’ll not only be downloading music, but you’ll also be uploading, if the music you’ve listened to is popular enough.

Spotify doesn’t seem to have a page explaining this, but here’s a forum thread where a moderator discusses the use of peer-to-peer. Note that mobile apps and the web player don’t use peer-to-peer networking, so if you are on a restricted data plan for your computer, you might want to use either of those.

Also, if you reduce the size of the cache Spotify stores on your computer (Spotify > Preferences), there will be less music available to stream.

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So be aware that, if you leave Spotify running, you may be using up a lot of your quota, uploading music to others. Reduce the cache, and quit Spotify when you’re not using it. Or, just use the web player.

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Is there a Right Way to Listen to Music?

There’s an interesting debate going on over at Cnet. Two of their writers are discussing how one should listen to music. In this corner, Geoffrey Morrison says listening to music in the background is fine; not just that, but that he listens to music in the background all the time. In the other corner is Steve Guttenberg, who claims that “The problem with background listening is that it leads to more background listening.”

The initial premise for these two articles was, as Morrison says:

One of the prevailing trends in audiophile circles is the notion that, to fully appreciate music, you have to stop doing anything else and just listen. I disagree.

I think there’s a lot that’s wrong in both articles. I have nothing against listening to music in the background. As I write this article I’m listening to Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew; loud. I often put on music to accompany me in my work. I hear some background music, and I listen to some; in other words, in some cases I’m so absorbed in what I’m doing that I barely notice the music. In other cases, I’m so absorbed in the music that it helps set a rhythm to my typing. My foot taps, my body moves, and I’m listening to the music, making it a part of what I’m doing.

Guttenberg says:

Non-listening leads to more non-listening, including live concerts, where a sizable percentage of the audience is either talking or engaged with their devices. The music is over there, while the real focus is over here. So even when folks spend large amounts of cash to see Radiohead, Tom Petty, or Arcade Fire, the band’s music is background, being present for the fleeting experience of a concert is passé.

It seems that Guttenberg isn’t up on his history. It’s only recently that music listening at performances took on the reverence that he would like to see. For centuries, people would talk among themselves when listening to music in churches, and in concerts. Live music was, for a long time, a social event, where people would go to be seen. They would move around from box to box in theaters, or, if music was made at home, many of the people would be talking. Have you ever heard Bill Evans’ live recordings from the Village Vanguard in 1961? Did you notice the voices and sounds of ice cubes in glasses? There was no solemn silence in jazz clubs back then; people took in the music the way they wanted.

Some people want to turn music into religion. I understand that it’s important for many people (as it is to me), but there’s no need to tell people how they have to listen. I listen to music a lot when I walk; often when I read. But I don’t just leave music on like a running faucet to make sure there’s no silence.

On the other hand, I find Morrison’s approach to be a form of escapism. Silence is not just golden, it is part of the mystery of life. Guttenberg is right when he suggests:

So if you’ve never really focused on your favorite music, try this simple experiment: listen for 10 minutes in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Who knows? Perhaps the more you really listen, the more you’ll want to focus on the music.

The problem is that nearly everyone, in such a situation, will be so overwhelmed by their thoughts that they won’t even appreciate the silence. I’d wager that most people who claim to listen to music attentively are also flitting around in their minds, using the music as a soundtrack for caroming thoughts and ideas.

And then, yes indeed, Guttenberg pulls out the vinyl card. He claims that people listening to vinyl “stopped multitasking and listened.” Yep. Vinyl is better, it helps strengthen your mind and gives you firmer muscles. Come on!

No, there’s no one way to listen to music. Listen any way you want, with good headphones or crappy earbuds, with titanium alloy cables or a boom box; just listen to the music.

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How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 7

Just in case you thought What Hi-Fi? was the only magazine out there spewing out reviews about magical hi-fi equipment and accessories, here’s another one I found on the Stereophile web site. I have a feeling that the shelf is going to become the next cable; an audiophile device that contains pixie powder and makes everything sound better.

Here’s a review of a shelf. You don’t need to read the whole thing, but the last paragraph I quote may be the best I’ve read so far:

The Pagode Master Reference HD07 rack really did work—at least with components that had an onboard power supply. Each such component I tried, from the lightest line stage to massive, two-chassis CD players, sounded better sitting on the FE rack than on my Bright Star or Merrill stand. Their focus, resolution, and dynamic precision were all slightly but consistently improved; my listening comments were peppered with such phrases as “faster, cleaner dynamics” and “sharper, more dimensional images.”

Alain Lombard and the Paris Opéra-Comique’s recording of Delibes’ Lakmé was a good example. As I moved each component in turn onto the HD07 rack [...] the image of soprano Mady Mesplé became clearer and more solid. Her vocal nuances were more apparent, and I was able to better hear the trailing edges of her phrases. The rear and sides of the soundstage opened up a bit as well, and the space surrounding the performers seemed more transparent.

Repeating the exercise with two different digital systems and Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations,” from Love Over Gold, produced a similar result, but what I really noticed was the improvement in detail resolution. As each component moved onto the HD07, a bit more low-level detail emerged from the background. Distinguishing the multiple echoes around the scuffing shoes traversing the stage was one great example; another was the emerging presence of several different, distinct effects around Mark Knopfler’s speaking voice.

But it gets better. The reviewer added special feet under the shelf.

On the other hand, installing a set of Ceraball or Cerapuc feet under a component was a huge, jaw-dropping change. The differences were the same—improved focus, transparency, resolution, and dynamic precision—but their magnitude was much larger. Slipping a trio of Ceraballs under the VTL TL-7.5 wasn’t like demagnetizing a cartridge; it was like upgrading to a really good moving-coil. And dressing cables? Forget it—this improvement was like replacing all of my freebie and Home Depot wire with a good set of high-end cables.

There he goes, talking about cables…

But I’ve saved the best for last:

Like a kid in a candy store, I kept adding more and more Cera feet. The effects were similar with each step, and similarly dramatic. The biggest improvements came when I slipped Cerapucs under my VTL Ichiban power amplifiers and between my turntable stand’s steel frame and marble top plate. The soundstage became significantly cleaner and the picture snapped into focus. Images inflated from two dimensions to three. The performers on Lakmé felt more like real performers in a real space than like a portrait. And when I played the Oscar Petersen Trio’s Return Engagement I noticed several dramatic improvements. Dynamic transients sounded 10–20% bigger, and the piano had much more inner detail and complexity and a richer, more distinct tonal balance. The bass was more powerful and much tighter.

“Images inflated from two dimensions to three.” The guy’s on acid; that’s the only explanation.

The reviewer is quite precise here: “Dynamic transients sounded 10–20% bigger.” Can we see measurements please?

Oh, the shelf costs $6,195. The feet another $2.200. But the reviewer has “about $100,000 worth of gear,” so it’s no big deal.

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How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 6

In this episode, we discover that What Hi-Fi? actually likes MP3 files. In an article about the new Sony Music Unlimited, they use adjectives generally only applied to expensive cables.

And then comes the major problem with the quality on offer. On the one hand, its 320kbps high-quality streams are among our favourite sounding on test, with impressive detail levels, precise note formation and a warm and exciting character.

Reading the above, it sounds like Sony’s MP3s are somehow better than others. “Precise note formation…?” Give me a break.

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CD and DVD Copying to Be Legal in the UK on June 1; Finally

As crazy as it sounds, it’s been illegal in the UK to rip CDs and DVDs. New copyright regulations which take effect on June 1, now make this legal:

Personal copies for private use

3. (1) After section 28A(4) insert——

“28B Personal copies for private use

(1) The making of a copy of a work, other than a computer program, by an individual does not infringe copyright in the work provided that the copy—

(a)is a copy of—
(i)the individual’s own copy of the work, or
(ii)a personal copy of the work made by the individual,
(b)is made for the individual’s private use, and
(c)is made for ends which are neither directly nor indirectly commercial.

[...]

(5) In subsection (1)(b) “private use” includes private use facilitated by the making of a copy—

(a)as a back up copy,
(b)for the purposes of format-shifting, or
(c)for the purposes of storage, including in an electronic storage area accessed by means of the internet or similar means which is accessible only by the individual (and the person responsible for the storage area).

Finally. I won’t be breaking the law when I rip my CDs and DVDs.

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How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 4

I really wasn’t planning to write about this any more, but the What Hi-Fi? journalist who believes in magic has doubled down, explaining in detail the testing process and why he is convinced that it works.

His explanation includes things like “We run all cables overnight if not longer,” the myth that all hi-fi gear has to be “broken in,” even digital cables. And he admits that the tests aren’t blind:

We’ve experimented with blind testing over the years but it’s not part of our standard review process for any products.

And, regarding Ethernet cables, he says:

I understand what’s being said. But, I’ve recently been part of a listening session where, in my opinion, I heard differences between such cables, so I can’t really agree.

This is just sad.

Let’s assume there’s something going wrong with an Ethernet cable, and some packets get lost. It would – at its worst, with a lot of packet loss – sound like a damaged CD. You’ve probably had a few, where you get noisy clicks when playing an old, worn CD. That’s the worst that could happen.

So imagine the difference between, say, a cheap Ethernet cable, and a very expensive one. The most difference there would be is a lack of errors, which wouldn’t manifest as clicks in an Ethernet transfer, but probably very, very tiny dropouts. (The cable itself does not manage error correction, but the TCP/IP protocol used on data networks does.)

I actually can’t find any reviews of Ethernet cables on their site, but I did find some of USB cables. Here’s one for a £50 USB cable:

The gains in low-end body and punch, midrange spaciousness and detail, and high-end smoothness alone are significant.

This is simply bullshit. If there is zero packet loss because of this more expensive cable, at best the music will sound exactly the way it sounds at the source. If there is packet loss, there may be some dropout, but no loss in “spaciousness and detail,” or “high-end smoothness.”

The best way to understand this is to read this Cnet article, Why all HDMI cables are the same. Geoffrey Morrison explains – and shows with pictures – what happens if there’s something wrong with an HDMI cable. You can see the sparkles in the images with bad cables; this is what you’d get from a bad USB or Ethernet cable, and you can imagine that it would affect music. As the author says:

If you’re paying more than $5 for a 2-meter HDMI cable, you’re overpaying.

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Which Hard Disk Makes High-Resolution Music Sound Best, or What Makes Audiophiles Tick?

Following up on yesterday’s article about expensive Ethernet cables used in audiophile audio systems, and related to a recent article about why high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I toss out a question for audiophiles. If things such as cables make a difference, what about hard disks? Has anyone done testing on hard disks, to see which makes music sound better? Do SSDs sound better than spinning-platter hard disks?

What about system busses? They must have an effect too. They could introduce jitter, even when playing music on a computer. And RAM? Is there any audiophile-grade RAM to ensure the proper “tonal neutrality” and “strong dynamics” of the music you listen to?

The ridiculous claims made by audiophiles do more harm than good to the audio industry in general. They allow companies to produce hugely overpriced equipment, and sell it to credulous people, but they also influence the entire audio equipment market, making us low-end people think that we don’t know how to listen to music, with a fair amount of contempt at times.

Yes, there are audio elements that make a difference. No one can deny that speakers and headphones sound very different[1]; that’s no surprise, because they actually create sound (i.e., they convert electrical signals into air waves, which we, in turn, perceive as sound). DACs can make a difference: the cheap DAC in a $30 CD player will be bested by a standalone DAC, or one in a more expensive player, because they are responsible for converting digital signals to sound signals. And there are certainly valid reasons, other than sound, for purchasing a more expensive amplifier: it may have more features, more inputs and outputs, or may be esthetically pleasing.

But what about all the other elements of an audio system? There sure are lots of them, and, according to audiophiles, altering any of them should have an effect on sound.

Assuming that you listen to music on a computer – which is the most complex audio chain – here are the elements that come into play:

  • Power supply
  • Power cable
  • Computer (I won’t isolate all the elements inside a computer that should influence sound, if audiophile theories are accepted)
  • Sound card (if using an analog output)
  • Digital interconnect: USB / Toslink / Ethernet cable (if using a digital output)
  • DAC (digital-analog converter, if used)
  • Audio interconnects: cables from DAC to pre-amplifier to amplifier, or from computer to pre-amplifier or amplifier
  • Pre-amplifier (if used)
  • Amplifier
  • Speaker cables
  • Speakers
  • Headphone amplifier (if used)
  • Headphones (if used)
  • Listening environment (which has much more effect on sound than most people realize)

According to audiophiles, changing any one of those items should affect the resulting sound. And they claim to be able to hear the difference between, say, a power cable or an audio interconnect among that complex chain.

There are two ways of testing such things. One is a purely subjective test; you hook up a new item and decide whether it sounds better. This is clearly influenced by many factors, notably differences in volume, or simply a desire to reinforce beliefs that a new cable, for example, really does sound better. The second method is ABX testing, where listeners hear different items, but don’t know what they’re listening to. While the former method is almost entirely subjective, the latter is fairly objective. Dozens of ABX tests have shown that people simply can’t hear the difference between different components, showing that, in most cases, the difference in price does not translate to a difference in quality. There have been tests that show that coat hangers sound as good as expensive speaker cables, and that all amplifiers sound the same.

So when these ABX tests show such results, and challenge audiophiles and their expenditures, they come up with another explanation: that the concept of ABX tests is flawed. “The answer is that blind listening tests fundamentally distort the listening process and are worthless in determining the audibility of a certain phenomenon.” They have to defend their choices to spend a lot of money on audio equipment.

You would think that, if all these elements made such a difference, recording engineers would use them to ensure the best possible capture of music. But this isn’t the case. As I recently wrote, I found it interesting, when attending a classical recording session in a church, that no expensive cabling was used, just “miles of copper.”

I care about music; a lot. I care about sound; only if it is in service to the music. I don’t have cheap audio equipment, but my setups are around the high end of consumer audio pricing. Because that’s what it’s worth paying; when you pay more, the quality differences become miniscule. I have a full stereo in my office, with good speakers, and I use several different headphones. But it’s a shame to keep reading reviews of things like cables that are simply made up. If all these elements made a difference in sound, then it would be easy to tell them apart. The fact that one can’t tell the difference in blind testing shows that this is an industry built on feet of clay.


  1. Several months ago, I went to a hi-fi store to listen to a number of headphones. I listened to several Grado headphones, and there was a clear difference in clarity across different models; the more expensive ones sounded better. But that doesn’t mean that any headphones at the same price would sound good. I also tried out Bower & Wilkins’ P5 portable headphones, which were nearly as expensive as the best Grados I tested. I disliked their sound very much; it was too bassy for me. So there’s a lot of personal taste that goes into things like speakers and headphones; it may not be the most expensive that sound “best.”  ↩

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