Hi all.  Mr. Brinton asked me to guest-author an article for The Polysonic Journal and I’m glad to have a chance to throw in my two bits about audio, even if it might only be tangentially related to the rest of the content on Tom’s blog.  Much of what Tom has already said relates to the physics of sound—and truth be told, I’m happy to let him keep romping in that green pasture.  He knows more about that stuff, anyway.  What I’d like to do instead is spotlight a band (a single musician, really) who covered miles of sonic territory in a relatively short span of years.  Their recording techniques are the stuff of legend, much of their work remains very radio-friendly, and chances are you’re probably familiar with at least one of their tunes.  But if you’re not, that just gives me all the more reason to cackle while rubbing my hands together.  After all, it’s not every day that I get to introduce my friends to one of my favorite bands: Electric Light Orchestra.

To appreciate the audio-related contributions ELO made to the music industry, I think it’s important to understand the reason these boys from Birmingham, England formed a band in the first place.  It was the late 60’s, and musicians Roy Wood, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, and Richard Tandy were (in Lynne’s own words) “sort of fed up with playing the usual style of rock and roll—the three guitars, bass…that sort of stuff” and envisioned instead a new genre blending strings and horns with traditional rock instrumentation.  Led by Wood and Lynne, the newly-christened Electric Light Orchestra first performed on April 15, 1972.

But innovation is a bumpy road, and the young ELO certainly experienced its share of potholes.  Roy Wood left the band during the recording sessions for the band’s second album, taking one of the cellists with him.  ELO underwent a few lineup changes, and Jeff Lynne had to step up and assume several roles simultaneously (lead singer, songwriter, frontman, and producer).  And then there were the sound issues.  Oh, the sound issues.  At that time, putting violins and cellos in the same band as electric guitars was like locking a tiger in the same room as a three-legged pig and then telling them, “Play nice, you two.”  Basically, the signal strength of an electric guitar far exceeds that of an amplified acoustic instrument like a cello, so early on in the band’s history, string players found themselves drowned out onstage.  But Lynne and his fellows soldiered on and as their fan base improved, so did amplification technology.  This allowed for better sound both inside and outside the studio, though the live mix was still quite rough.  Playing live, after all, was more a way to promote new albums than anything else.

With each successive album, Electric Light Orchestra’s sound became more defined and vibrant—thanks in no small part to Jeff Lynne’s studio production values and his seemingly inexhaustible fountain of songwriting ideas.  During one three-and-a-half week burst of inspiration, for example, Lynne penned 17 songs that would become ELO’s 1977 album Out Of The Blue. The album went Platinum four times.  In all, ELO released 12 albums during their time together, selling in excess of 50 million copies.  Even after the band’s informal dissolution in 1986, several members of the band continued playing together under similar monikers like ELO Part II and The Orchestra.  To me, this indicates that members of Electric Light Orchestra knew that they had been part of something special.

If I’ve piqued your interest in ELO with the above endorsement, you might be saying “12 albums?!  That’s a pretty big mountain to climb!  Where would I begin?  Any suggested tracks?”

Well, it’s funny you should ask.  Pencils ready!

I would start with ELO’s 1976 album A New World Record.  For me, this is the album where their sound really started to gel.  Suggested tracks?  “Telephone Line,” “Livin’ Thing,” and “Do Ya.”  The second track in particular showcased the blissful marriage of symphony and rock.

After you’ve warmed up, jump to the 1979 album Discovery.  During this phase, ELO had really appropriated the disco groove, clearly heard on tracks like “Shine A Little Love” and “Last Train To London.”  This catchy album closes with the band’s biggest hit, “Don’t Bring Me Down.”  Awesome.

You’re now ready for your graduate studies in ELO.  Listen to the 1977 album Out Of The Blue. This is the one Lynne wrote in three-and-a-half weeks, remember?  The LP opens with the thrilling exercise “Turn To Stone,” followed closely behind by other notable tracks like “Sweet Talkin’ Woman” and “Across the Border.”  There’s even a four-movement “Concerto for a Rainy Day,” which concludes with “Mr. Blue Sky.”

Are the above suggestions all-inclusive?  By no means—and that’s why it’s hard for me to stop when I start explaining why I love Electric Light Orchestra.  They produced some really great music during their time and Jeff Lynne’s enduring status as a lauded record producer is one proof of his technical prowess; in fact, George Harrison of The Beatles stated that ELO is what they (The Beatles) would have sounded like had they not disbanded.  But the greatest proof of all is the music itself—which is why I’ve included this vid to get you started.  Take care, and keep exploring that sonic landscape.

Rob Callan is a radio host at Classical 89 KBYU-FM and a life-long music enthusiast.

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I recently wrote a research paper about speakers and headphones. During the accompanying quest for acoustical enlightenment, I became acquainted with binaural recordings.

Binaural recordings are best listened to on a pair of ear-buds or headphones. However, they are different from regular stereo recordings because they not only create an illusion of a wider sound, they actually give the sensation that you are in the place where the audio was originally recorded.

Not following me? Bust out a pair of earphones and then give this a listen:

“Virtual Barbershop”

It sounded like you were there because the brain processes the different signals sent to the right and left ears and uses them to construct a spacial illusion. The most accurate binaural recordings are made using a dummy head with microphones where the ears should be, like this:

These recordings are the most accurate way to experience recorded audio. By accuracy, I mean that you hear almost the same thing you would hear if you were at the recording location in person. Binaural recordings of classical concerts are also available. In fact, some audiophiles (assuming they are familiar with the concert hall in which a recording was made) can tell in which row and section the binaural dummy was sitting, just by hearing the recording.

A family gathers around and old-timey radio set.I work at a radio station.

And, I love it.

There is something rewarding about it–especially, I think, because I work at a public station that serves the community. Our format is Classical Music with a little bit of talk. We interview notable musicians as well as everyday people and put it on the air. We have intellectual individuals come in and talk about some truly interesting topics. We provide news, weather, and traffic reports. We introduce people to beautiful and inspirational works they wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

But despite all these wonderful things we do for you, you don’t listen to us.

I’m a little offended, sure. But really I can’t blame you.  You have become accustomed to ruling over your media intake with utter sovereignty. And so you shudder at the thought of someone else telling you what you should listen to.

So, will radio as we know it become extinct in the next few years?  The next era of radio seems to be upon us with the advent of interactive recommendation-based radio software like Pandora and Last.fm.

But isn’t there something to be said for the traditional form of radio? I say yes. I will attempt to explain myself.

First, of all there’s the human element. A lot of thought and effort goes into the programming that you hear, especially on a public station where selling advertising space is not the main driving factor. Knowing that there are people searching for the best music, best local stories, and so forth, you might be able to trust a local radio station more than a computer telling you what is worth your valuable listening time.

Maybe it requires more patience to listen to traditional radio, but when you hear something interesting or moving that you wouldn’t hear otherwise, the patience is worth the payoff.

Which brings me to the next point. Localization. At the radio station where I work (Classical 89, by the way) we know the only way that we can survive in a world of XM and Sirius radio is to make our content centered around the Wasatch Front community.  We highlight local events and people as much as we can, and feature recordings of local music ensembles.

The humanity and localization of radio will keep it viable. And yes, we will continue to adapt to new technologies and formats. But despite these changes in the way information is transmitted, the important thing is still the information itself. Content will always be king. And as long as the content is high-quality, human, and centered around a local arts community, the radio station as an entity can continue to thrive.

In the last post, I extolled the virtues of vinyl records but neglected to say where you could find actual music to spin. My apologies.

Of course, the first thing you need is a record player. I got my record player from my Grandma. It seems to be from the early 90’s, and still had it’s protective plastic on it when she gave it to me. So the first avenue to check is family and friends. See if you can do them a “favor” by taking an old turntable off their hands. They might have some old records to give you, too.

The next place to look is local thrift stores. I have seen many record players at places like D.I. (Deseret Industries) and Savers. Sometimes they are in horrendous condition, but half the fun of thrift shopping is to find the diamond in the rough.  These kind of stores also carry records, but usually the selection is limited to titles like Sing Along with Mitch and the best of Barbara Streisand.  However, every now and then a real music afficionado dies and the local thrift gets flooded with excellent titles. This happened to me recently at the Brigham City D.I.

Then there is the option of buying a turntable from a reputable outfit like Target or Amazon. My friend got this one recently (it stacks 6 records at a time):

But say you want to listen to music you actually like on vinyl. That’s when you need to find a real music store. For those of you who live in the Wasatch Front area of Utah, here are a few options:

1. Graywhale Music

This is my favorite music store. They have seven locations in Utah, and if they don’t have what you are looking for, chances are that one of their other stores does and they can get it in a couple of days. They carry lots of used CDs and vinyls, as well as new releases. And if you have a Killerwhale membership, you get a dollar off of every CD you buy.

2. Slowtrain records

As far as new releases on vinyl, Slowtrain is the best. They carry most newer indie music although the size of the store is much smaller than Graywhale. They also sell tickets to most concerts with a verysmall service fee. Definitely worth checking out when you are in downtown Salt Lake City.

3. Randy’s Records

The reason this store is notable is mostly because they have a good selection, and also they have a discount section where once a month it is $1 Record Day. You can find some treasures if you are willing to search.

Good luck in your search for good music. If you really can’t find what you want, you can usually find it for pretty cheap on Amazon.com. But always go local first.

So I met one of my favorite bands of all time last Friday. They are called the Futureheads.  They hail from Sunderland in the northeast of Britain.  They played at Kilby Court in Salt Lake City. If you’ve been there, you know it is basically a shed in an old industrial area of the city. The two support bands for the tour got lost and were and hour late, so I got an hour to get to know the band.  They were unassuming and enjoyable to chat with. If you want to download one of their songs for free, click this picture:

Hang in there, this isn’t just a post from a crazed fan-boy.  I am going somewhere with this.

I had the whole band sign a vinyl record version of their new album, “The Chaos”.  As soon as I got home, I put it on my record player and sat there and listened to the whole thing all the way through.

What is it about records that catch my ear? I found myself noticing nuances that I hadn’t heard in the mp3 version of the album (which I had already listened to dozens of times).

Part of it, I admit, has to do with the nostalgia of pulling a record out of its sleeve, putting it on the spindle, and watching it spin around and around.  But there are also other reasons why some prefer the sound of records over CDs and mp3s.

The main difference between these media is that records are analog sound reproductions while CDs and mp3s are a digital representation.

So what does that mean?  Imagine a sound wave as a curve like this:

Analog and Digital Waves

The first would be the analog sound. Notice it is smooth and accurate. The second curve is a digital approximation of the first. It is basically the same thing, but it is obvious that the “stair-stepping” effect, known as aliasing, will not sound exactly the same as the original sound source.

Whether analog or digital music sounds better is really up to personal taste and thus it is an eternal debate.  In my opinion, a record has a warmer, more musical sound that I am much more likely to sit down and listen to.  But I am open to hear arguments in favor of digital sound’s supremacy.

 

Someone in my English class mentioned he is worried about the hearing damage that can result from using iPod earbuds. This is something i have thought about before, but had never really looked into. I remember my choir teacher in high school making this comparison: Listening to music is like playing in the sprinklers or taking a shower, wearing earbuds is like taking two hoses and sticking them into your ears.

I found a news clip from NPR’s Morning edition that is pretty interesting and informative, especially the rap portion.

Check it out:

NPR Morning Edition: Earbuds may cause hearing loss

Now, I typically listen to my iPod with the volume set at exactly halfway. I don’t use the little white iPod earbuds though. I have some skullcandy earphones that have little rubber edges to create a seal.

Apparently that is supposed to isolate the sound a bit, so I don’t need to turn up the iPod as loud. As to whether it is any safer for my hearing, I’ll have to update you in a few decades.

Anyone have any recommendations or thoughts on the matter? Best practices? Horror stories?

Have you ever been listening to a song on your laptop and wish that the bass had a little more presence? Maybe that those cymbals didn’t sound so harsh and trashy? Maybe the whole song just sounds weird through your laptop speakers.

Every set of speakers has a unique frequency response. That means that they may leave out some of the low end, or cut off some of the high end sounds. Their sound production is unequal overall.

This is where EQUALIZATION comes in. Equalization is essentially the process of controlling the volume of individual frequencies (also called “bands”).

Equalizers come in all shapes and sizes, however the one that you will probably be using the most is either in your car stereo or built-in to your computer’s media software.

For this post, I will use the built-in equalizer from Apple’s ubiquitous iTunes. It is easy to find in the menu at the top of the screen: Window > Equalizer

This array of sliders, besides looking sleek and pretty, is also a powerful tool in sculpting the sounds coming out of your speakers.

Let’s start on the left and move to the right. In terms of frequencies, you’ve probably already guessed that the lower the number, the lower the pitch that we will be working with.

Say you want to pump the bass drum on your favorite dance tune. We can skip the 32 hz. Your speakers might not even be able to produce that low of a tone. Give 64 hz a little boost, and then even more to 125 hz. You should notice the low end rumble start to become more prominent. You can also boost 4 khz a little bit to make the bass drum less “muddy” sounding.

Are the “s” sounds in the singer’s voice irritating you? Maybe the cymbals are a bit harsh on your ears. Let’s start by reducing 8 khz. Play with it until it sounds good without getting too dull. If their voice is still bugging you, drop 2 khz and increase 500 hz to increase “fullness” and make it a little smoother.

These are just a couple of examples of what equalization can fix. Try taking each slider and dragging it all the way down, then all the way to the top. As you go through the entire spectrum, you will gain a feel for how each frequency fits into the overall sound.

You can also play with the presets that iTunes already has stored, with names like Classical and Pop. The problem with these is that every song in a given genre has been recorded and mixed differently. Eventually you will be able to adapt any song to your liking.

Some people like more bass, some people like more smooth midrange. With EQ (short for equalization) on your side, you are in control of what you hear.