As noted a while ago I went into a deep rabbit hole after wondering if the Apple lightning to 3.5mm dongle affects audio quality. So there is a chip inside the small dongle that converts the digital audio signal to analog. In case you’re wondering, apparently the $15 (SGD) dongle is pretty good for its size, and people are speculating that Apple may be taking a loss on those dongles.
Anyway, that made me extremely curious so I started exploring these converters – known as DACs. Before you know it I now have a desktop DAC that connects my mac mini to speakers, and also allows me to connect regular wired headphones. I honestly thought I wouldn’t be able to hear the difference, but connecting the speakers directly to my mac mini’s audio jack was audibly worse to my untrained ears.
I wanted to understand more about audio quality, so guided by the hive mind of reddit I started exploring this B&W list of 50 albums, adding them to my streaming service. Their write up for this particular album was particularly intriguing for me. Keywords: female singer-songwriter, iconic, masterpiece. Imagery: Hippie, barefooted, ordinary woman on cover. Wow.
I am ashamed to write here that in my 40 years of life I haven’t really heard or known of Carole King. Only upon consulting Wikipedia I realised I’ve been hearing her songs (for herself and for others) all my life, I just didn’t associate them to a single person.
I played different albums recommended by that B&W list, plus some others recommended on reddit. But for some weird reason I am not even sure I can put my finger on till now, I kept coming back to Carole King’s Tapestry. I am not sure if words can articulate why I am enamoured but I’ll try. The music was surprisingly well engineered – I am a complete audio n00b but they made my ears tingle – I tend to associate 70s music with muffled mono-sounding music. The instruments and the vocals were simple, not heavily electronic like the music these days. I also love the piano.
I discovered she did a performance at Hyde Park in 2016 at age 74, so I promptly ordered a bluray/cd combi. I just watched half of it this morning, and I couldn’t stop crying?
Again, I don’t really know why. Sometimes things just move us, and it is a very direct, visceral experience. She was just so alive on that stage, at age 74. She has like ten times more energy than me at almost double my age. Her voice sounded a lot more raspy, but she still hit the notes perfectly (a lot better than some much younger professional singers going out of tune these days singing live), accompanied with very energetic piano playing.
It transported me into another plane, where I was contemplating how amazing music recorded in the 70s can still be thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated forty odd years later, that we can record hi-res video and enjoy the energy and expression of a concert till the end of time (or as long as we’re still alive and possess energy and resources like chips).
I also wondered to myself what is the point of watching a concert where the artiste is just sitting on her piano playing and singing without much visual fanfare. Why not just listen to the CD? But I think to me that is the whole point. She is just sitting there playing her piano and yet it was extraordinarily beautiful to me. In chinese we have this phrase: “台风”, which loosely translated to stage presence. I think for her it wasn’t necessarily stage presence per se, but a sort of beautiful aliveness that is somewhat provoking? It makes me ask myself, how can I be like that?
In the liner notes of the bluray she described the effort and detail that went into the recording of Tapestry:
‘Often Lou and recording engineer Hank Cicalo handled the preliminary stages of mixing and then had me come in with fresh ears. After they had spent hours experimenting with where to put the cymbals and percussion in the stereo pan in relation to Danny’s rhythm guitar and my piano, I’d come in and say, “Try bringing the reverb down on my lead vocal at the beginning of the first verse”, and then other things would fall into place…As well as listening through the Altecs, Lou often listened through headphones so he could hear the discrete left, right, and center separation more clearly. Years later, when I asked Lou why he used the headphones so much he said, “I always liked hearing your voice and piano in the middle of the top of my head.” As we got closer to the final mix we switched alternately to smaller speakers as the Auratones perched on the bridge of the console or the tinny, monoaural car radio speaker durectly in front of us that replicated the conditions under which most people would be listening. If a mix sounded good through all four systems, we took it to the next level: the “over-night listen” in which we brought acetates home, played them on our respective stereos, and got further input from friends and family members.’
I guess it was no accident that the album sounded so good even though recorded in the 70s, and then I can’t help but feel impressed that they involved her in the process and took her seriously. I mean, it was the 1970s after all.
She added more observations on the ordering of the tracks:
“On analog vinyl albums and casette tapes there was an interval approximately midway through, during which the listener had to turn the product over. Until CDs made that interval obselete, an album sequence had to take that pause into account. Knowing that pacing could make or break an album, I suggested several different orders for Lou to try, but we always kept coming back to his sequence. Now I can’t imagine it any other way.”
There, I’d learnt something new today again. I had never thought about that pause that used to exist. Or that order mattered that much (until recently Adele made a fuss over disabling shuffle mode on Spotify). I knew quite rarely order mattered because an album was telling a specific story, but to be honest most albums’ tracks just sound random to me. This makes me think about the little details we may neglect.
We’ve been spoiled by the convenience of music streaming, and the power of making our own playlists with single tracks. I have not listened to entire albums for a long time, probably since I discovered mp3s and that Faye Wong went into retirement. I’ve not bought a CD for eons prior to this exercise. I’m delighted to rediscover this experience again. I can’t help but wonder what else has technology and convenience has taken away from us (but technology has also allowed me to watch a concert in HD quality and listen to hi-res music online so I am not complaining)?
So the Apple dongle opened up a whole entire world for me. I feel lucky that I can discover 60s-70s music now in year 2021, and it is like a whole new experience for me. I am an 80s kid so I am very unfamiliar with anything before 1985. I think it is really cool that something that is so old is something that is so new to me.
They were not joking about the sound of these old records. I’ve only just discovered classics like, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, “Pet Sounds”, Miles Davis, Steely Dan, etc. They are classics, but they sound like a new genre to me, which is mind boggling. What art.
I thought the Apple earpods/airpods or the Bose noise-cancelling headphones I used in my old job were of good sound quality (I don’t like heavy bass), until a pair of IEMs that costs 1/3 of the Apple airpods stunned my ears and mind. I didn’t know sound can be expressed across so many dimensions. Instead of listening to music as a mixed whole now I am noticing the details.
Somehow I feel that there is some metaphor for life hidden somewhere here. That perhaps when we reach a certain age we think we know a lot of the world and of ourselves, but there are entire hidden, intricate worlds out there, if only we veer off the mainstream path just a little bit. Maybe most people will never question the standard audio jack that comes with their phones, or the little dongles they use. Everything seems to work as they should, and that should be good enough. But a little curiousity can open up so much. Sometimes I think what we experience in the mainstream is just the tip of the iceberg, and all the deliciousness of life are hidden in little niches.