Box Sets, Steve Jobs & the Military Industrial Complex

4 12 2011

Quadrophenia: Long due for an expanded edition, this massive box set is a complete immersion in mid-60s England  and a leap into Pete Townshend’s mind. It’s a high point for rock, something that should be in everyone’s collection.

The reviews on the remaster however raise lots of questions. The original was badly recorded? Really? Tommy still sounds murky and Quadrophenia jumps from the speakers and it has since its release. The singer is buried in the orginal mix? Hardly. The 5.1 mix in this new set contains only 8 of 17 songs? Please, remix every song this way, though it’d be nice to know what the thinking was in the final decision. The demos are better than the final band versions? Doubt it. The original was pretty much perfect.

But, in this case, more is better. Pete Townshend’s demos, audio versions of shaded pencil sketches, are always worth hearing. He lost his hearing doing demos such as these. At the time, his studio was in his house. He worked late, the kids were asleep, as was his wife, so the headphones kept the volume down everywhere except in his head.

Volume should have been Pete’s middle name. His hearing loss, in this case, is our gain.

This box improves on a great thing, though the cost is high. It’s a literate immersion into history and rock. It doesn’t get much better.

Steve Wilson interview: Sound is the prisoner of its surroundings. Steve Wilson knows this and his limitations.

This video interview, well worth sitting through, shows he’s practical yet determined to bring the best sound to an audience.

When it comes to recordings, he’s remixed some of the best of prog into shimmering 5.1 mixes that allow the listener to luxuriate in a surround sound experience that often improves upon the original recordings. In this video, he talks about bringing surround-sound to a live audience. Can’t be done nearly as well as a recording, he says, and rightly so: in an auditorium or theater, there’s only room for a handful of people to be seated in the sweet spot. If you’re not in the sweet spot, you’re getting a distorted version of the sound field.

He has a few tricks to fix that for live performances. He also ticks off the bands and records he’d love to remix, such as the Kate Bush catalogue. Hey, give the guy his head and let him do it. No one is more sympathetic to remastering this style of music.

Jethro Tull Aqualung remaster: Two versions, the more reasonably priced has the Steve Wilson stereo remaster but you have to buy the collector’s edition to get the 5.1 mix. The deluxe edition has a deluxe price, not to mention items you may not want, like a vinyl copy of the album. Please, release all this ala carte.

Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here box: Lots of extras from Pink Floyd’s best album. Live recordings from the period, experiments in the studio that didn’t quite work out but are still interesting, video backdrops from the ’75 tour. Does anyone need the marbles in a bag, or the Welcome to the Machine scarf? No. The 5.1 mix of the entire album is pretty good, though not nearly as head-thwackingly stunning as the King Crimson remixes. Worth hearing and having. Absolutely.

Be careful what you wish for: George Kennan lived to be 101 and saw the most tumultuous century ever. He also lived long enough the see his one of his worst fears come to pass — the US has in many ways become a national security state in order to protect itself and its overseas interests.

It all started out with the best of intentions, but Ike saw it coming too. This Vanity Fair piece from Todd Purdum is worthwhile and rewarding reading.

A sample from this story:

Just over 50 years ago, in his farewell address from the Oval Office, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation of the dangers inherent in a powerful “military-industrial complex,” and just three days later—as if in proof of Eisenhower’s words—John Fitzgerald Kennedy famously vowed to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yes, the United States faced extraordinary challenges in the postwar era—and was forced to shoulder extraordinary responsibilities. But some steps, once taken, prove impossible to walk back. By 1961 the problem that Eisenhower had identified was well advanced. Already, the United States was spending more on military security than the net income of all American corporations combined.

In the years since, the trend has warped virtually every aspect of national life, with consequences that are quite radical in their cumulative effect on the economy, on the vast machinery of official secrecy, on the country’s sense of itself, and on the very nature of national government in Washington. And yet the degree to which America has changed is noticed by almost no one—not in any visceral way. The transformation has taken hold too gradually and over too long a period. Almost no one alive today has a mature, firsthand memory of a country that used to be very different—that was not a superpower; that did not shroud the workings of its government in secrecy; that did not use ends-justify-the-means logic to erode rights and liberties; that did not undertake protracted wars on the president’s say-so; that had not forgotten how to invest in urgent needs at home; that did not trumpet its greatness even as its shortcomings became more obvious. An American today who is 25 or 50 or even 75—such a person has lived entirely in the America we have become.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson: A mesmerizing portrait of genius and unhinged ego. It too is worthwhile reading, as Isaacson gives free rein to both sides of the mammoth personality that was Apple’s founder. What does it take to birth a revolution? It takes a lot of sacrifice, both interpersonal and administratively. In the mid ’80s, Jobs had seen Xerox’s stab at the personal computer. He took the best ideas, as artists do, and improved upon them. When Bill Gates did something similar with Microsoft, Jobs was outraged.

Gates calmly stood his ground and said, “Well, Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

People spend their entire lives wishing they’d been present enough to shoot out a zinger like that one at exactly the right time. Good one, Bill.

Throughout his life, for good and ill, Jobs believed the rules didn’t apply to him. From the book, as an upset Jobs sped down a California freeway at 100 mph only to be pulled over by a highway patrolman determined to write a ticket:

After a few minutes, as the officer scribbled away, Jobs honked. “Excuse me?” the policeman said. Jobs replied, “I’m in a hurry.” Amazingly , the officer didn’t get mad. He simply finished writing the ticket and warned that if Jobs was caught going over 55 again he would be sent to jail. As soon as the policeman left, Jobs got back on the road and accelerated to 100. “He absolutely believed that the normal rules didn’t apply to him,” [Mac team member Alain] Rossman said. 

He had brass ones his entire life. Everyone around Jobs paid a pretty high price for it. The world is reaping the benefit.

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5.1 mixes

21 08 2011

The Prog Desk here at Out There has a terrific audio sweet spot. It’s equipped with enough firepower to deliver the knockout punch for hard charging music and the deft reach to clarify the details of something more quiet. The fundamentals of good sound are in happy alignment: A couple front right and left satellites and a subwoofer surrounding the iMac get the job done.

CD’s rule, along with streaming of radio stations and specialty sites like the Deadpod.

More isn’t always better, but two rear satellites over the right and left shoulders would add depth to the sound field. The goal is getting the most out of the extra speakers, beyond a generic surround sound that is basically just re-filtering stereo. Re-filtering it nicely, sure, but that doesn’t squeeze the most juice from the grape. The ideal would be running 5.1 through the iMac. This level of streaming is rare — Netflix delivers with 1080p video and Dolby Digital Plus sound, but there’s not much else out there.

Most workstations, like the Prog Desk’s, aren’t designed with this kind of sound in mind. The iMac also doesn’t have the ports necessary to get 5.1 out of DVD or Blu-ray players. Out There‘s Viewing Room, at the other end of the house from the Prog Desk, has a terrific 5.1 sound field with an easy chair smack dab in the middle of the sweet spot. This is where lots of listening is done to something prog does very well — 5.1 remixes of classic performances.

The best of these mixes take the gimmick out of the mix. It’s tough to convince folks that 5.1 is an inexpensive step forward from previous failed attempts to upgrade sound, like quadraphonic.

Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree is the highest profile of these classic prog remixers. He’s entrusted by Robert Fripp with the King Crimson studio catalogue and come through wonderfully. The mixes of In the Court of the Crimson King, Islands, Red, In the Wake of Poseidon and Lizard flesh out the essence and spirit of the original recordings, many done with relatively primitive equipment in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original clarity was lost with the bouncing down of tracks during overdubbing, when at least one generation of clean sound was sacrificed for the sake of multitrack recording.

It was a necessary evil at the time. But with the aid of the original master tapes of these sessions, Wilson takes first-generation recordings un-dulled by bouncing and lays them neatly out in the sound field, producing crystal clear remixes of great music marred by the original, wooden production. The results have all been revelations. His mix of Thrak should be out this fall. Watch for it to roll out on Fripp’s excellent DGM site and watch his diary for hints too.

All the King Crimson mixes are 5.1 DVD, but Wilson’s thinking beyond this format.

“There’s no question Blu-ray is the best way to release my material,” Wilson told Sound  & Vision magazine. “For better or worse, I have this reputation as being someone who’s on the cutting edge of audio excellence, or whatever you want to call it. Some people are complaining that we’re abandoning DVD-Audio, but come on — you can get a Blu-ray player for 75 bucks.”

The 5.1 mixes of  Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge, and Ommadawn are compelling. Video complements the wide and instrument-specific reengineering of these marvelous recordings. These were terrific when originally issued in the ’70s and these mixes make them sound even better.

Genesis has two boxes worth the investment: studio and live sets spanning the majority of the group’s career and nearly documenting the entirety of the early classic lineups. Foxtrot and Nursery Cryme suffered the most. Great songs and performances framed by wooden, lifeless sound. Like the King Crimson remasters, these recordings from the early to mid ’70s have the audio veil ripped away to reveal crisp sonics, rescued from the grave of analog murk. Remarkable. These sound so good, especially Selling England by the Pound, that’s it’s sometimes tough to believe they actually exist. But they do and should be heard by everyone.

Is anyone talking about 7.1 streaming? Inevitably, yes, they are. That means Steve Wilson’s on the right road — the one leading to Blu-ray.

When done right, 5.1 mixes like these are miracles. The step to 7.1 brings out the conservative here at Out There: Five is plenty. Let’s enjoy what we have instead of overreaching.