We talk with Kyle Devine, author of a new book about the environmental impact of music recordings, which raises a number of issues that we had never previously considered.
A unique piano which was treasured by the Canadian virtuoso Angela Hewitt as her “best friend” was broken beyond repair when it was dropped by specialist instrument movers.
The expensive accident happened late last month after Hewitt finished recording Beethoven’s piano variations at a studio in Berlin. She said it left her in such shock that it took her 10 days before she could announce the news to her followers.
In a Facebook post Hewitt said her F278 Fazioli, the only one in the world fitted with four pedals, and worth at least £150,000, was “kaputt”. She said: “I hope my piano will be happy in piano heaven.”
The broken instrument was inspected by the firm’s Italian founder, Paolo Fazioli, who declared it “unsalvageable”. The piano’s iron frame smashed when the 590kg instrument dropped as movers tried to lift it on to a trolley. The force of the break, compounded by the high tensions in the piano’s strings, was so strong that it split the piano’s lid in two.
“It makes no sense, financially or artistically, to rebuild this piano from scratch. It’s kaputt,” Hewitt said.
The accident left Hewitt in mourning. She said: “I adored this piano. It was my best friend, best companion. I loved how it felt when I was recording – giving me the possibility to do anything I wanted.”
This is incredibly sad. She is a great pianist, and her recordings of Bach are some of the best on the instrument.
There are lots of people who have the same name. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of John Smiths in the world. In acting, in some countries, it is not possible to use a name that has already been used. The Screen Actors Guild and the British Actors Equity Association stipulate that if a name is already used, you must come up with a stage name. As Wikipedia says:
Nathan Lane, whose birth name (Joseph Lane) was already in use; Stewart Granger, born James Stewart; and Michael Keaton, born Michael Douglas. Diane Keaton, whose birth name is Diane Hall, took her mother’s maiden name as a stage name after learning that there was already a registered actress named Diane Hall in the Actors’ Equity Association. Ugly Betty actress Vanessa Williams officially uses “Vanessa L. Williams” due to SAG guidelines, although the other actress with same first and last name (Vanessa A. Williams) is arguably less notable. Similarly, David Walliams changed one letter in his surname due to there being another “David Williams”. Terry O’Quinn of Lost fame changed his surname from Quinn to O’Quinn as another registered actor already had the name Terrance Quinn. Long-time Simpsons writer and Futurama executive producer David X. Cohen changed his middle initial from S to X because there was already a David S. Cohen registered with the Writer’s Guild of America. Julianne Moore was born Julie Anne Smith but found that all variations of that name were already used by other actors.
But in music, there are no such rules. So, for example, you may be a fan of Bill Evans the pianist, but if you search for him you will also find Bill Evans the saxophonist. In fact, there is also a country musician with the same name, and a bass player. And both the pianist and sax player show up more than once in search result on Apple Music for that name.
The other day, I listened to an album of music by Toru Takemitsu: Orchestral Works, by Nexus, Pacific Symphony Orchestra, and Carl St. Clair. It contains three works: From Me Flows What You Call Time, Twill By Twilight, and Requiem.
Carl St. Clair is the conductor, as shown on Discogs, but there are other artists with that name. In fact, since I “loved” the album on Apple Music, I now see, in the For You section, a whole list of suggestions of his music.
I think it’s pretty obvious that the first two are not by the same “artist.” But my Apple Music profile will forever be tinged by the belief that they are, indeed, the same people, just working in different genres. And so the algorithm that recommends music will be skewed.
The solution is, of course, to “un-love” the album, which I will do. But highlights two issues with the way streaming recommendation algorithms work. First, when loving or liking an album, you are perhaps liking the music (in the case of classical music) with no concert about the artists. However, you are showing your interest in the composer, which is generally forgotten in these algorithms. Second, the fact that multiple artists with the same name are lumped together means that there is a good chance that you will pollute your profile with artists who you don’t care about, and have never even heard of.
The solution is simple grunt work; humans have to go through these things, perhaps using Discogs as a source, and separate out different artists. It’s not hard, but it’s time consuming. And it will never happen; music streamed is probably 80% from well-known artists, so the big streaming services just don’t care. Even though Apple averaged $1 billion dollars in revenue per day in the holiday quarter of 2019.
Andy Doe joins us again to discuss the perils of having software-controlled audio equipment. After the Affaire Sonos, when the company announced that a lot of its older products would become “obsolete,” perhaps it’s time to think more carefully about how long hardware we buy will last, when it depends on software.
nside a US vinyl pressing plant – its owners have asked that I do not give its location – dozens of hydraulic machines run all day and night. These contraptions fill the building, as long as a city block, with hissing and clanking as well as the sweet-and-sour notes of warm grease and melted plastic. They look like relics, because they are. The basic technological principles of record pressing have not changed for a century, and the machines themselves are decades old.
It is impossible to know the proportion of the effluent in the Chao Phraya or how much of the pollution is directly linked to the production of LPs. One thing, though, is certain. Vinyl records, as well as cassettes and CDs, are oil products that have been made and destroyed by the billion since the mid-20th century. During the US sales peaks of the LP, cassette and CD, the US recording industry was using almost 60m kilos of plastic a year. Using contemporary averages on greenhouse gas equivalent releases per pound of plastic production, as well as standard weight figures for each of the formats, that is equivalent to more than 140m kilos of greenhouse gas emissions each year, in the US alone. Music, like pretty much everything else, is caught up in petro-capitalism.
Vinyl isn’t green. It should be obvious, of course, but unless someone draws our attention to these things, we probably don’t think about them.
The overall music industry isn’t very green, from plastics in records and CDs, to the carbon footprints of bands traveling around the world, with their equipment, to the electricity used to run streaming services.
Update: Sonos seems to have changed their tune from yesterday, when they said that you wouldn’t be able to use “legacy” devices together with new devices. Here’s what they’re currently saying on Twitter:
Back in the day, Sonos was the only solution for playing multi-room audio. The company’s innovative mesh networking system meant that you could launch audio on your system and direct it to any of a number of speakers, all throughout your house.
Yesterday, Sonos made an announcement that they will no longer be providing software updates to “legacy” devices. And if you have a system which uses both old and newer devices, you cannot update the software of the newer devices. The reasons for this are obvious: the older devices lack the resources – CPU and memory – to manage newer features. And given the mesh networking system Sonos uses, every device needs to be running the same software.
While the company has not stated what features would need more resources, I suspect that they are going to head toward high-resolution audio, which, as it is in many cases, would actually not offer any real benefits given the hardware used. But this will also prevent older devices from getting updates that may be needed for them to remain compatible with streaming services, if they introduce changes, which is certainly likely over time.
There is a great deal of anger among Sonos users, many of whom have been championing the brand for years, and who have, over time, accreted numerous Sonos devices to provide music in their homes. While Sonos is offering 30% discounts to people so they can upgrade to new hardware, this is seen as an insult by many users who have spent thousands of dollars on their systems with the belief that this was durable equipment. After all, speakers last a long time; but software doesn’t. In addition, the way Sonos proposes to recycle these devices is wasteful. And one person I know pointed out on Twitter that he had hard-wired his family’s home just five years ago, and all of his devices will become obsolete. With a setup like that, it’s not easy to just replace the speakers.
I don’t think it’s impossible for Sonos to offer software fixes so older and newer devices can work together. Older devices would not have access to all the same features, but they should still be able to play music, which really isn’t that complicated. But the company clearly does not want to go that route, which is a shame. This sort of planned obsolescence is not what people expect.
So what’s next for those wanting a multi-room audio system? I have a number of Sonos devices: a Sonos Amp in my office, a pair of Sonos One speakers in my bedroom, and a Sonos Beam soundbar connected to my TV. I don’t use these for multi-room audio – each one is a device for listening in a specific location, and I never play them in sync – but this approach shows the way forward.
When I bought these Sonos devices over the past year or so, I was careful to choose devices that support Apple’s AirPlay 2, which allows you to stream music to one or more devices in sync. AirPlay 2 provides features similar to what Sonos offers, in that you can group devices and have them all play the same music, in sync. While AirPlay is a proprietary protocol developed by Apple, it is available to other companies so they can make compatible speakers and TV sets. (The addition of TVs is recent.) From the Music app on my Mac, or from any app on an iPhone or iPad, I can choose one or more speakers to play my music. You can use AirPlay on a Mac, on Windows (in iTunes), and on iOS or Android devices.
Sonos’ apps allow you to play music from a local library, or from a number of streaming services. With AirPlay, you stream from your device and control music from each service’s app. So rather than centralize all your playback in a single app, you may need to use more than one app. But you can do the same thing as you can with a Sonos system, and you are not limited to speakers from a single manufacturer. And you can stream to an Apple TV, to which you can connect any non-networked speaker or receiver, offering even more flexibility.
(It’s worth noting that there is a hard limit of about 60,000 tracks; beyond that, Sonos cannot handle your music. It loads the music in your selected folder alphabetically, and, on my iMac, it only shows music up to Pink Floyd, but nothing after.)
While this solution doesn’t help people who have invested heavily in a Sonos system, it is a way forward that has less of a platform lock-in. But given the reach of AirPlay 2 currently, it’s hard to imagine that it will be short lived. The main difference here is that there is no mesh networking requiring all the speakers to have the same software. You can currently stream to AirPlay 1 speakers without any problem, though you can’t use them with the same multi-device sync features. But they still work; they don’t become obsolete because they don’t have the latest version of AirPlay.
What Sonos needs to do is to get their developers to update their software so older devices can work, but with limited features. If not, it’s time to look elsewhere, and the wide range of AirPlay 2 compatible speakers and receivers is a good place to start.
Chris Connaker of Audiophile Style renovated the attic of his house and turned it into the ultimate listening room. He then tuned it using amazing speakers, acoustic treatment, and DSP (digital signal processing). He explains how he went about this, and how the room itself is perhaps the most important element in an audio system.
You know the buttons you push at crosswalks? They give you the illusion of control, that you’re telling the stoplight to change color, whereas you know they really don’t. Most stoplights in cities are controlled by a system to keep them in sync; pressing a button doesn’t change anything.
The same thing happens on Apple Music when I “dislike” a track or album. I would expect that telling Apple Music what I “love” and what I don’t like will have some effect on my recommendations. I think that the “love” declaration does help the algorithm, but the “dislike” option does nothing. (It’s worth noting that on iOS, the term “dislike” is not used: the option is Suggest Less Like This.)
Case in point: recommendations in For You this morning:
I listened to a Dick’s Picks the other day, so Apple Music recommends similar music. But I don’t like Phish. (Don’t @ me.) I had “disliked” this album some other time it came up in recommendations. Yet Apple Music still recommends it, and another Phish album (which I hadn’t previously disliked, so fair dinkum on that one).
It’s not just in recommendations that “dislikes” are ignored. In New Releases, I get lots of stuff that I don’t like, and if I explicitly dislike an album, I’d expect it to not remain in the list. Maybe it won’t go away immediately, but it should eventually be removed. I’ve got about two dozen new releases on my For You page, and I’ve disliked half of them (and I don’t know why I ever got many of these recommendations anyway), so I’d expect them to be replaced by something else.
I’ve had a HomePod since it was first released in early 2018. It sounds okay, but there are a number of issues with it. As I said in my review, “sometimes this speaker sounds really great, sometimes it really doesn’t.” And the biggest problem for me was this:
What the HomePod needs, of course, is user access to settings like an equalizer, as you have in iTunes or on an iOS device. Not to the broader DSP algorithm, but to the tone sculpting that makes some music sound too bassy, or, at times, too trebly.
A few months later, I got a second HomePod to combine them into a stereo pair to use in my bedroom. Using two standalone speakers in a stereo pair is practical: you save the space you would need for an amplifier, and you don’t need to run speaker wire to them (you do need to plug both into AC power, of course).
In late 2018, I bought a Sonos One, which is similar in size to the HomePod, but is much less expensive. It turned out that the Sonos One sounded better overall than the HomePod.
So the next step was to buy a second Sonos One and set it up in a stereo pair. I did so recently, taking advantage of post-Christmas sales, and I purchased the less expensive Sonos One SL, which does not have a microphone so does not support Alexa or Google Assistant. I don’t use Alexa, nor do I use Siri on my HomePods, and if you have a stereo pair, you don’t need both Sonos Ones to have microphones anyway.
Note that a pair of HomePods costs $598, and a pair of Sonos One SLs costs $329.
So, it was time to set up the Sonos Ones in a stereo pair in my bedroom and compare them. I placed each one on the same shelf as a HomePod, a few inches away. In the Music app, I set the volume for each pair to approximately what was audibly the same level; the Sonos One is a bit louder, so I lowered its volume until it sounded about the same. (“Bedroom” below is the HomePod stereo pair.)
You can switch from one AirPlay device to another by tapping the AirPlay icon at the bottom of the Music window, and I switched back and forth, starting with my Kirk’s Audio Test Tracks playlist on Apple Music. This is a playlist of music that I am very familiar with, which I use when testing new audio equipment. (I listened to more than just what’s in the playlist, but I started with that.)
Streaming services pay labels and artists according to the number of times people play their tracks. Because of this, a 3-minute ditty gets the same (paltry) amount of money as a 30-minute movement of a Mahler symphony.
But the record labels have figured this out, and are changing the definition of the “track” to adapt to this new market.
Case in point, Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s album Evening Star. I went to listen to it last night on Apple Music, and the second side of the original album, An Index of Metals, was broken up into six tracks:
Here’s the original track listing from Wikipedia:
This isn’t new; I’ve been seeing it for a few years. Another example is Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep. I bought this album on the iTunes Store when it was released. It contains 32 tracks. Here’s the first two tracks of the original release:
Here’s the same tracks on Apple Music:
To be fair, you can’t argue with the fact that labels and artists have come up with a workaround for an unjust system, but their solution lacks finesse. In the case of An Index of Metals, each “track” is from two and a half to more than seven minutes; in the case of Sleep, tracks seem to be as short as possible, with many of them less than two minutes long.
Surely no record label would do that with, say, a Mahler symphony, right? Well, good old Deutsch Grammophon seems to have adopted this model for a lot of their releases. Here’s one example. This release, one of the longer recordings of the work, at one hour and 45 minutes, is divided into 26 tracks. Here’s the first movement:
While this makes the label and artits a bit more of a pittance, it is a real annoyance for listeners who try to find their way in this morass of financially motivated cuts, and also for those who add this music to their libraries and want to play it later.
Again, I understand why they are doing this, but these labels – especially major labels – have the power to bring about change by negotiating with streaming services. It seems to me that there should be different payments per track according to their length. For example, less than 10 minutes would be paid a base rate, 10 – 20 minutes would be paid twice that, and 30 minutes or more would be paid three times the base rate. Yes, there are tracks that are as long as a CD, so maybe there should be more tiers, but splitting up the music, and confusing users, is not the solution to this problem.