Theater Review: Coriolanus, by the Donmar Warehouse

Last night, I saw Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, as part of the NT Live series of plays broadcast to cinemas. Playing at the tiny Donmar Warehouse in London – a mere 251 seats – this was the only way to get to see this production. The main draw was the lead actor, Tom Hiddleston; while he was excellent, the rest of the cast was also up to his level.

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Coriolanus is set in a time of strife. Romans are demonstrating because they lack food, and the leaders have been withholding stores of grain. They blame Caius Martius, a Roman general, for this. Caius Martius critizes them, but when he hears that a Volscian army is approaching Rome, he leaves to fight the Volscians in their city of Corioles. He returns, after defeating the Volscians, and his deeds earn him respect. He is given the agnomen of Coriolanus, and is encouraged to run for consul.

He wins, but the people doubt his honesty in attracting their votes. He eventually gets banished from Rome by the same people who want him to be consul. Leaving Rome, he heads to the Volscian capital of Antium, where he seeks out their leader, Aufidius, and plots to attack Rome. This being more or less a tragedy, there is a tragic ending.

Director Josie Rourke manages to take this play about war and dissension and squeeze it into a small space. The stage of the Donmar is tiny, and the set was sparse. There was a wall behind the stage, where people wrote graffiti, and a ladder leading up from the stage, as you can see above. Other than that, the only elements of staging were the occasional chairs and lecterns that the cast brought out. During parts of the play, the cast sat against the wall in silence, as other actors were “on stage.”

Hiddleston is a riveting Coriolanus. He is cold and calculating, violent and bloody. But he nevertheless remains a flawed human. He goes through many changes, some self-imposed, others the result of a manipulating mother. He never manages to free himself from his mother, however, which leads to his tragic end. The only area I felt he was weak was in showing his disdain for the people of Rome. He chose a snickering disdain, which didn’t feel totally sincere; it didn’t feel like the type of disdain we see from politicians, where contempt is hidden behind a veneer of caring.

Tom Hiddleston Caius Martius Coriolanus Photo by Johan Persson 4

While some plays with stars tend to be imbalanced (see my recent article Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?), this Coriolanus has a cast that doesn’t let Hiddleston steal the show. Mark Gatiss is excellent as the “humorous patrician” Menenius, and Deborah Findlay was a strong and powerful Volumnia (Coriolanus’ mother). I felt that Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia was a bit wishy-washy; at times she was absent, and at others she overacted. But the rest of the cast was excellent and there were few weak moments.

The NT Live production, however, had some problems. During the first part of the play – up until the intermission – the sound was iffy. At times, it was hard to hear what was being said; when people were talking softly, or when they were very loud. It didn’t seem as though the actors were wearing microphones, and the miking was not excellent. Hiddleston seemed to be acting for the cinema, not the stage; he didn’t project his voice well enough. This improved in the second half, though I could not make out Aufidius’ final growling words at all. And the music which was used to punctuate scenes was annoying. I’ve heard this sort of banal, generic electro-pop in several theatrical productions, and it adds nothing to the play; it just seems out of character. I also found a bit disturbing the fight sequence between Caius Martius and Aufidus early in the play. There was a handheld camera very close to the actors, that seemed to break the “invisible wall” between the stage and the audience. I felt that I was too close to the action; zooming one of the cameras off-stage would have been fine. And the handheld was very shaky; this could have been avoided with a steadicam. I wonder how the spectators in the theater felt about that intrusive camera.

(We could also do without some of the interstitial chatter, that just wastes time, and takes audience out of the atmosphere of the play. I’m glad that The Guardian finally reacted to the bogus “bonus” features in NT Live productions.)

Near the end of the play, when Coriolanus stands at the corner of the stage as his mother, wife and son beg him to spare Rome, Hiddleston manages to visibly tear up. This is no mean feat, and this tearful remorse says a lot about this violent man who has decided that peace is the better choice.

“Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you: all the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace.”

Rourke makes a lot of cuts at this point, moving directly to the final scene, where Coriolanus tells Aufidius of his agreement to save Rome, and then to the denouement of the play, and of Coriolanus’ fate. For those unfamiliar with the play, this transition might have been a bit jarring and confusing, since it suggests that Coriolanus met his mother, wife and child in Antium, but that it was indeed just outside of Rome where he had the long conversation with them. Here and elsewhere, the spatial element of the production made it hard to know where events were taking place. Some more visual cues might have helped.

Nevertheless, this was a powerful, raw production of a play that should be better known. Coriolanus as a character presents many traits that we can relate to, and the protest at the beginning of the play is, unfortunately, a familiar element in today’s society. The cast earned a standing ovation from the theater’s audience, deservedly so. I would very much like to have seen this live.

Note: For a different take on Coriolanus, see this excellent film with Gerard Butler and Ralph Fiennes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

Do We Need Shakespeare Productions Without Stars?

The Guardian today proclaims that British Shakespeare productions need more than scene-stealing stars. The article cites recent productions with Big Names, such as David Tennant’s Richard II in Stratford-Upon-Avon (see my review), Simon Russell Beale as King Lear at the National Theater, Jude Law’s Henry V in London, and Coriolanus, with Tom Hiddleston at the Donmar Warehouse (which I’m seeing tonight in a cinema as part of the NT Live series of broadcasts).

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In my short tenure here in the UK, I’ve seen a half-dozen live Shakespeare performances. The Richard II with David Tennant showed that the “star,” the former Doctor Who, imbalanced the production. Tennant was excellent, but it was hard for other actors to play against someone of his stature, and the overall play lacked direction. Compare that to two of the brilliant RSC productions I saw this year without A-list stars: Hamlet, with the brilliant Jonathan Slinger, and Stephen Boxer as an astounding Titus Andronicus. Both of those plays felt like they were “company” productions, where no one actor, even the lead, stood head and shoulders above the others.

The big problem with A-list stars in theater is that the play becomes inaccessible. I very much wanted to see King Lear with Simon Russell Beale, but the day the tickets went on sale – the minute they went on sale – there were no more. They had all been sold to “members” before the official public sale date. (Which made me wonder why the National Theatre bothered to send out emails telling people that the tickets were going on sale.) Apparently, they are going for up to £2,000, which is patently ridiculous for a theater ticket.

To be fair, many plays are broadcast to cinemas in the UK. This year, I saw several plays from the National Theatre’s NT Live series, including Kenneth Branagh’s impossible-to-get-tickets-for Macbeth in Manchester. It’s a good way to see plays, but it’s nothing like the actual live experience of being in a theater. But it makes me wonder if many of these plays are being staged with big stars as much for the cinema broadcasts as they are for their performances. Branagh’s Macbeth played in a church with some 280 seats; it had a run of just a couple of weeks, so only a few thousand people could see it. (Compare that to one night in the RSC’s main theater, which has 1,000 seats.) With broadcasts to cinemas – not just live, but “repeat” broadcasts as well – in the UK and around the world, there’s probably a decent return on investment.

I think we need more “company” performances of Shakespeare. The RSC is leaning toward stars now for some of its plays, but not all. The Richard II sold out very quickly because of Tennant’s participation, but the coming season does not have any stars of his caliber. The London stage is different; they don’t have a Shakespearean company – other than at the Globe – and any plays put on in individual theaters need A-list actors to sell tickets, making them harder to see. It’s a complex paradox, and one that clearly does not favor average theatergoers.

Watch a Live Performance of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach

Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach toured around the world recently, and there’s a video that’s freely available from the Paris Théâtre du Châtelet. So sit back and watch all four and a half hours of Einstein on the Beach.

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

These are the days…

Read more about Einstein on the Beach here and here.

Theater Review: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently performing adaptions of Hilary Mantel’s Booker prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Written by Mike Poulton, with the approval of Ms Mantel, each play runs about three hours, and are performed at the Swan Theatre, the RSC’s smaller venue with about 650 seats.

These two novels tell the story of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer and right-hand man. If you remember your history classes, Henry VIII was the one who had six wives, and Cromwell was instrumental in assisting Henry in obtaining the proper dispensations from the Pope so he could move on with legitimacy. The two novels show Henry VIII having his marriage to Catherine annulled, because he does not yet have a male heir, marrying Anne Boleyn, then becoming infatuated with Jane Seymour and casting off Queen Anne (after she, too, fails to produce a boy child).

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Wolf Hall, the novel, starts with Cromwell’s childhood, but the play begins when Cromwell is working as Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary. The first half of this play mostly shows how Cardinal Wolsey manages the King’s affairs, and ends with his death. After the intermission, Cromwell rises in power, and Sir Thomas More ends up in prison, then is executed, after being tried for treason.

Bring Up The Bodies covers the period when Henry VIII becomes infatuated with Jane Seymour, a mousey lady in waiting to Anne Boleyn. Henry acts like a smitten schoolboy, and comes up with an excuse to wriggle out of his marriage to Anne. Eventually, several people in her entourage are accused of sleeping with her, and are executed, as is Anne herself.

It’s a daunting task to bring these two dense novels to the stage. I confess to not having read the books, which put me at a disadvantage; it seems that much of the audience had read the novels, and laughed at certain bits that I didn’t find funny. And not having read the novels meant that I wasn’t able to fill in the gaps that left me wanting more, at least during Wolf Hall.

The first play covers a long period, 1527 to 1535, and there is so much to tell that there’s no time to really experience anything. I felt that I was watching a series of sketches rather than a continuous narrative. While the writing is witty, and the acting excellent, the story seemed cold and distant. It was as though it were merely checking off a series of essential scenes rather than telling a story. I had no feeling for Cromwell as a character; Ben Miles, who, as I’ll discuss below, is excellent in this role, seemed to have nothing to say other than his words. Wolsey and More, however, were interesting characters, and I almost wanted to know more about them. Paul Jesson, as Wolsey (and as Sir John Seymour and Kingston) was excellent in a bombastic way; John Ramm, as More, got the tone of this defiant man just right.

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But in the end, there was no emotion in Wolf Hall. The cardinal rule of fiction, it is said, is to “show, not tell.” I felt that Wolf Hall was all about telling; because there was so much to tell. Rather than focus on one aspect of the novel, it tried to cover everything.

To be fair, there was no other way to approach Wolf Hall. Since Bring Up the Bodies is a sequel, not checking all the boxes for what happened in the first book would make the second play unintelligible. For example, in Wolf Hall, there is a sort of masque performed by a number of the characters after Wolsey’s death, with one dressed up as the late cardinal, mocking him as being in hell. In the play, this seemed superfluous, but this turned out to be a key plot point for what happens in Bring Up the Bodies.

The second play has the advantage of covering a shorter time period, and the narrative of Bring Up the Bodies was tighter and more coherent. While the actors seemed to be just going through the motions in Wolf Hall, the second play – which I saw the following night – was much more satisfying. Instead of seeing Cromwell as just a man performing actions with no emotion, his focus on ousting Anne Boleyn – to the point of creating questionable accusations, leading to the execution of six people – showed him as much more ruthless. Ben Miles was brilliant in this role, and he portrayed a man with a mission. In Wolf Hall, Cromwell was just a functionary; in Bring Up the Bodies, he was a man of power, wielding that power to serve his king, and, in some ways, himself.

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The first half of Bring Up the Bodies was somewhat sketch-like, as Wolf Hall was, but it was after the intermission that it came together. One of the problems of these plays was that there were too many short scenes for there to be any dramatic tension. That all changed in the second half of Bring Up the Bodies, with two long scenes. The first was where Cromwell was questioning Mark Smeaton, the lutenist and boy toy who Anne Boleyn was infatuated with. There was enough space and time for this to be real theater. Next came a brilliantly staged scene where Cromwell questioned four men who Smeaton had named as adulterers. Each sat at a corner of the stage, hunched over on a stool, until it was their turn to be questioned, then left the stage after Cromwell had found them guilty in his mind. This long scene – perhaps twenty minutes – was dramatic and tense, and was all about the actors and their words, in the most desperate of situations: that of being judged by the man who could condemn them.

Finally, Anne Boleyn’s turn came, and she had no way of contesting the many confessions against her. An executioner was brought in from France, and she was put to death, but rather than seeing her be executed, the stage became a repeat of her marriage ceremony in Wolf Hall, as if this was what she saw in her mind during her final moments.

I had expected Bring Up the Bodies to end with Anne’s execution: the swordsman could raise his sword over her kneeling body and the lights could go dark. But it didn’t it ended with Cromwell drinking “to my health,” presaging his future fate, when he, too, would meet the executioner.

While most of the acting was excellent, Ben Miles gave a masterful performance in Bring Up the Bodies. He was on stage for most of the three hours, as scenes morphed into other scenes. Unlike in Wolf Hall, his character grew and changed, and Miles showed the external signs of Cromwell’s inner desires. Unfortunately, the spectators who didn’t read the novels – which include myself – didn’t know what his motivations were. I almost wish there were a few soliloquies so Cromwell could let the audience know why he was doing what he did.

The productions were performed in full Tudor dress, with sumptuous costumes. The lighting created a wonderfully varied atmosphere all through the two plays, this on a sparse set: just a stone floor, with the occasional table, chair or bed brought out then removed. And the atmospheric music enhanced the plays without getting in the way.

One needs to see these not as two separate plays, but as two parts of the same play. Many events that occurred in Wolf Hall were essential to understanding Bring Up the Bodies, and if you only saw the latter, you would probably be confused. While Wolf Hall disappointed me, Bring Up the Bodies was excellent, and I hope to see it again. I don’t think I was alone preferring the second play: the audience was far more appreciative after Bring Up the Bodies than after Wolf Hall, with much more rousing applause.

Both plays sold out very quickly, and there were only a couple of empty seats on each night. They are playing through March 29, but the RSC website suggests that there will be future performances. I would be surprised if these plays didn’t move to the London stage; the novels are well-known and both have won prizes, including the Booker Prize, and they would be very popular in a larger theater in London, though they might lose some of the intimacy they offer in the cozy Swan Theatre.

It’s worth noting that Hilary Mantel was visibly present both nights I saw the plays, singing autographs – with her own pen at the ready – and talking with spectators, both before the plays and during the intermission. I asked if she came often, and she said that she did. This made me wonder if she’s watching the plays with a goal of making changes to the scripts, though they have just been published in book form. (Amazon UK)

Watch a video interview with Hilary Mantel:

Using AppleScripts with iTunes

AppleScript-icon.pngI write a lot about using AppleScripts with iTunes. Thanks to iTunes’ scriptability, it is possible to extend the app with numerous features and shortcuts. If not for Doug Adams, the master scripter and proprietor of Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes, I would spend a lot more time managing my iTunes library.

I often mention AppleScripts in my Ask the iTunes Guy column over at Macworld, since Doug’s scripts make a lot of seemingly complicated maneuvers a matter of a few mouse clicks. In this week’s column, which I just finished writing, I mention two AppleScripts, and I thought it would be useful to talk a bit about AppleScript and discuss how you use AppleScripts with iTunes.

AppleScript is a scripting language that Apple developed for the Macintosh operating system in the early 1990s. It was first available on System 7.1.1, and it offers a way to take advantage of system functions via AppleScripts, short programs that are much easier to write than full-fledged applications.

AppleScript works with much more than just the operating system: many Apple programs (the Finder, iTunes, iPhoto, Safari, Mail, etc.) and third-party applications (Microsoft Office, Adobe Creative Suite, etc.) support AppleScript to some extent. But none more than iTunes.

AppleScript support can be limited–supporting a mere handful of commands–to complex. iTunes is one of those programs that offers in-depth scriptability, notably by providing access via AppleScript to the tags in your media files.

When you add AppleScripts to your ~/Library/iTunes/Scripts folder (that’s the Library folder in your home folder, the one with your house icon and your user name), they display in a Scripts menu in iTunes, and you can run them by choosing them. To access this folder, in the Finder, press the Option key, choose the Go menu, then choose Library. Next, find the iTunes folder there, and open it. If you have any AppleScripts, you’ll have a Scripts folder; if not, you’ll need to create one.

When you download any AppleScripts from Doug’s site, you place them in the above folder. Once they are in that folder, iTunes sees them. You’ll see a script icon in the menu bar, right before the Help menu.

Applescript

For some scripts, you select one or more tracks; for others, you select a playlist. After you’ve selected the items the script is to run on, you click the scroll icon and select the script’s name.

That’s all there is to it. Make sure to check out Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes to see what you can do with AppleScript, and don’t forget to donate to Doug Adams, who’s written hundreds of AppleScripts to help make iTunes better.

Essential Music: Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way

220px-Miles-davis-in-a-silent-way.jpgMiles Davis’ career spanned nearly five decades, and he was the engine for much change in jazz. From the early be-bop days through his later fusion, Miles covered just about every type of jazz (with the exception of that abomination called “smooth jazz”). From the early records on Prestige, through the seminal Kind of Blue (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), to later albums like Tutu (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Miles embraced change.

The year 1969 was exceptionally fecund, with the recording of two radically different albums: In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. The former is a collection of slow, almost ambient improvisations; the latter uses a similar approach, but with a powerful rhythm section. Both feature electric instruments and develop Miles’ version of jazz fusion.

In a Silent Way (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) is just over 38 minutes and consists of two songs: Shhh/Peaceful and In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time. Recorded in one day, on February 18, 1969, about three hours of music was used to create these two tracks. With Teo Macero producing Miles for the first time, this record is partly the result of improvisations, partly the result of Macero’s work editing different sections together. For example, on Shhh/Peaceful, Macero took the first six minutes of the track and repeated them at the end, making a piece in three sections which, with this odd edit, works quite well.

While this record could be called fusion, it’s much more. There are electric keyboards, there’s a pulsing beat, but it doesn’t have the rhythmic drive that Bitches Brew shows. Shhh/Peaceful is more rhythmic; In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time shifts between sections that are almost ambient and parts that are more rhythmic. The music is simple, beautiful, and flows like waves.

The list of musicians on this album is one that looks like a hall of fame roster:

Miles Davis — trumpet
Wayne Shorter — soprano saxophone
John McLaughlin — electric guitar
Chick Corea — electric piano
Herbie Hancock — electric piano
Joe Zawinul — organ
Dave Holland — double bass
Tony Williams — drums

This was the first album that John McLaughlin recorded with Miles, and his contributions are excellent, especially in the second section of Shhh/Peaceful. Wayne Shorter has a great sound and his solos are beautiful. The combination of Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on electric piano, and Joe Zawinul on organ, gives a lush background to the soloists. And the rhythm section is tight.

This is one of Miles Davis’ finest albums, yet it seems that, these days, not too many people know about it. It’s a very accessible album, especially now that this type of long, spacy jamming has become a part of the musical landscape. In many ways, this is similar to the way the Grateful Dead would jam around Dark Star or Playing in the Band.

So if you don’t have this album, I strongly recommend it. If you do own it, then you may need to get The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store). This 3 1/2 hour set includes all the music recorded during this famous day, as well as the final album versions of the two tracks. If you like the music on the album, you’ll love the rest of the jamming from that day.

Some Great Mono Recordings

I wrote an article for the latest issue of The Loop Magazine about the pleasures of listening to mono recordings. Not just records pressed in one track, but more specifically those made at the dawn of the stereo era, when mono mixes were still the first end products of sound engineers. In many cases, the stereo mixes of the same records sound contrived, full of effects; the mono mixes sound more honest, closer to what the artists wanted the music to sound like.

The following is a selection of some great mono recordings. Some are mono mixes of records you may know in stereo, others are just good quality mono recordings, so you can hear how real one track can sound. (You can listen to sound samples on Amazon or the iTunes Store, using the links below, to hear some of what I’m discussing.)

The best place to start is with three box sets released in recent years, focusing on three great artists and their original mono recordings in newly remastered versions.

Bob-Dylan-original-mono-150x150.jpgBob Dylan – The Original Mono Recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) includes the original mono mixes of Dylan’s first eight albums, including such essential discs as Blonde on Blonde and Highway 61 Revisited. There are many differences between the mono and stereo mixes, notably in panning effects (having instruments mostly or entirely on one channel). As the liner notes to this set point out, these are the albums “as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, as and most often they were meant to be heard: in mono.”

An I mention in my article, Desolation Row, from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, is one of the most marked examples of a difference between the two mixes. The mono mix has Dylan’s voice front and center, with the acoustic guitar behind him. But in stereo, that guitar is set mostly on the right channel, and stands out both in volume and in position, distracting a bit from Dylan’s poetry, especially when heard on headphones.

miles-davis-original-mono-recordings-150x150.jpgA recent box set of Miles Davis – The Original Mono Recordings (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) shows how Miles’ first nine Columbia albums sound in their original mixes. His first album for the label boasted “Guaranteed High Fidelity in ‘360’ Hemispheric Sound.” Several paragraphs in the liner notes discuss the recording and manufacturing process, including the mention of “strategically placed wide-range microphones.” Recording engineer George Avakian said, “Mono featured less audio trickery and fewer audio distractions so you can actually hear the musical conversation between Miles and the other musicians as it occurred in the studio.”

As I wrote in my article, “Around 3 minutes into the song, when Coltrane’s sax takes a solo, the mono mix has a cool, smooth sound; the stereo mix feels harsher, with reverb and artificial space trying to fill the stereo soundscape. The mono sounds real; the stereo sounds contrived.”

rubber_sou174f04919ba911c69f88f6.jpgFinally, a good example of the difference between mono and stereo mixes can be heard on The Beatles in Mono. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Because of the many panning effects – for example, the voice is on the right channel and the drums on the left channel – the early Beatles stereo mixes sound like gimmicks designed to highlight two-channel audio. Not all of their stereo mixes have these panning effects, but many of them do, and the punch of the early Beatles songs comes through much better in mono.

Some other albums worth hearing in mono.

If you like jazz, you are most likely familiar with The Dave Brubeck Quartet’s Time Out. Take Five, the third track on the album, is one of the best known jazz tracks of all time. With just two chords, in a 5/4 time signature, it’s an unexpected hit. The track starts with drums on the left, piano on the right, and the bass and solo instruments mostly in the center. But listen to the mono version: there’s none of that panning trickery to distract you from the music. The musicians are playing together, not on separate channels. The drums and piano are less prominent, but they should be. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)

The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, arguably the pop group’s best album, produced by Brian Wilson, but strongly influenced by Phil Spector’s “wall of sound.” This isn’t my favorite music, but hearing the difference between the two mixes is eye- or ear-opening. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

Pink Floyd’s The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in mono in 1967. While their early psychedelic music sounds like it was written for panning stereo effects, the mono mix actually sounds more psychedelic. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Listen to Astronomy Domine or Interstellar Overdrive to hear how the lush sound of early Pink Floyd sounds in mono. You may not find this preferable, but it’s interesting.

The early Rolling Stones albums were released in mono, and there’s some confusion as to when they stopped mixing for mono and started producing “fold down” mono mixes; this is the process of simply taking the existing stereo mix and making a single track version of it by copying it to a mono tape. The consensus seems to be that all the albums up to the 1968 Aftermath were original mono mixes, but some think that Sympathy for the Devil, on the 1968 Beggars Banquet (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store), was originally mixed in mono. It’s interesting to compare that song on the two versions; the hard-to-find mono mix has less stereo trickery with the drums and percussion centered and Jagger’s voice is more prominent. And No Expectations, in mono, has much more of the old blues sound they’re trying to emulate. I’d love to see a box set of early Stones albums in their original mono mixes.

And let me mention a few notable classical recordings in mono that sound great. There’s not the same issue of mono vs. stereo mixes, but with classical music it’s much more about microphone placement and mixing down from what was often three-track recordings.

Glenn Gould’s groundbreaking 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations features excellent piano sound. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Wilhelm Kempff’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, made between 1951 and 1956 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), have wonderful sound as well. The Vegh Quartet recording of Beethoven’s string quartets in 1952, and the sound of this set is excellent. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store) Nathan Milstein’s recording of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin is another fine recording with great presence and clear sound. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK, iTunes Store)

There are hundreds of excellent mono recordings of jazz and classical music from the pre-stereo era, and it would be a shame to miss out on them just because they’re in mono. Have a listen to some one-track music, and you may find that two tracks isn’t always better.

Read this article to learn how to rip CDs in mono using iTunes.

Re-Ripping CDs with iTunes

You may occasionally want to re-rip one or more CDs that you own. One of the most common reasons for this is to rip CDs at a higher bit rate than you did back when disk space was more limited.

Wen you do this, you may want to ensure that you don’t lose metadata for the existing files. Not just the names of the tracks, albums and artists, but also information like play counts, artwork and ratings. If you do this carefully, you can ensure that when you re-rip CDs, you keep all the metadata.

The first thing you should know is that, if you rip a CD, and you already have the tracks in your iTunes library, iTunes will alert you to this, asking if you want to replace the existing tracks:

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This is, in fact, what you want to do when re-ripping CDs. When iTunes replaces existing tracks, it only replaces the music. It retains all the other metadata, and it keeps the tracks in any playlists you’ve created. (If you re-rip and add the tracks to your iTunes library anew, then delete the old ones, these tracks will no longer be in playlists, though they will be in smart playlists.) But iTunes can only replace existing tracks if all the metadata matches.

So if you want to re-rip a CD, and have iTunes replace the music, you need to ensure that all the tags – the ones you can change – are the same. These are Name, Album, Artist, Genre, Year, Disc Number, Composer, Grouping, Album Artist and Comments. If any of these are different – if there’s even a comma or different capitalization – iTunes will think the track is different.

When you insert the CD, and examine it in iTunes, you can check the tags, comparing them to the existing files. You can correct any differences manually, or you can use Doug Adams’ Copy Tag Info Tracks to Tracks AppleScript. Read the information on Doug’s site to find out how to use this script.

I find it best to rip CDs by dragging their tracks to a “Temp” playlist; this lets me examine the tracks without having to find them in my iTunes library. If you want to re-rip CDs, I recommend making another playlist with their tracks, then checking that playlist after you rip each CD. You should see the tracks have been replaced. So, if you had tracks at 128 kbps, and you’re re-ripping them at 256 kbps, you’ll see the new bit rate in the playlist.

If you follow this procedure when re-ripping CDs, you’ll find that you save a lot of time: not only do you not have to manually update tags, but you also retain all the metadata that you can’t edit.

In Praise of Mono Recordings

I sit at my desk, listening to Miles Davis playing “‘Round Midnight,” from his 1957 album ‘Round About Midnight. The sound is crystal clear, with each instrument balanced against the rhythm section, as Miles shares the lead with John Coltrane on tenor sax. I’m listening to the original mono mix of this album, and it sounds like the musicians are in my room.

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Around three minutes into the song, when Coltrane’s sax takes a solo, the mono mix has a cool, smooth sound; the stereo mix feels harsher, with reverb and artificial space trying to fill the stereo soundscape. The mono sounds real; the stereo sounds contrived.

Read the rest of this article in The Loop Magazine.

An Overview of Audio File Formats Supported By iTunes

Every once in a while, I see some very odd comments about audio file formats. I just read a comment to an article about high-resolution files suggesting that that FLAC compresses the dynamic range of files.

I thought it would be useful to discuss the audio formats that iTunes supports (and talk about FLAC as well).

iTunes supports five different audio file formats. You can see them by choosing iTunes > Preferences, clicking the General tab, then clicking Import Settings.

ITunes audio formats

  • AAC Encoder: This default choice compresses files in AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) format. AAC is not, as many people think, a proprietary format created by Apple. It is part of the MP4 standard and can be used by any hardware or software. In the early days of the use of AAC, not all devices supported this format, but now, pretty much every device – both for portable use and for use with a home stereo – can handle AAC.
  • AIFF Encoder: Both AIFF and WAV files encapsulate raw sound data (in PCM, or pulse code modulation, format) from a music CD in file headers so the data can be used on computers. This format is uncompressed, and it takes up a lot of space, around 600–700 MB per disc, or about 10 MB per minute of audio.
  • Apple Lossless Encoder: Apple Lossless is a lossless format that Apple created. It retains all the original musical data while taking up much less space than AIFF. Audio from a CD ripped in Apple Lossless format takes up about 250–400 MB, or around 7 MB per minute, depending on the type of music. (See this article for some real-world examples of the actual amount of compression achieved with Apple Lossless.)
  • MP3 Encoder: Most people are familiar with MP3 files, which were the catalyst for the digital music revolution. MP3 files can play on just about any device or program that handles digital music.
  • WAV Encoder: Like AIFF, WAV is uncompressed, and takes up the same amount of space.

There are a few important things to be aware of with audio formats. First, you can transcode one lossless format to another with no loss of data. This means that you can rip a CD to WAV, convert it to AIFF, then to Apple Lossless, then back to WAV, and you’ll have the exact same data – and the same music, at the same quality – as the original. However, if you rip a CD to AAC or MP3, then convert those files to a lossless format, such as Apple Lossless or WAV, you wan’t have the exact same quality; you’ll simply have a larger file at the quality of the AAC or MP3 file.

I said above that I would discuss FLAC. This is an open-source format, and stands for the Free Lossless Audio Codec. It is equivalent to Apple Lossless, and converting between the two causes no loss in quality. And, to address the comment I mentioned earlier, neither FLAC nor Apple Lossless have any effect on the dynamic range (the difference between the softest and loudest volume) of music. (You may want to know why iTunes doesn’t support FLAC.)

It’s worth noting that in late 2011, Apple released the Apple Lossless format specifications as open source. While this format was not widely used in the past, notably on Web sites selling digital music, this has changed a lot since then, as not only will more sites sell files in this format, but more software and hardware offer support as well.

Some people claim that WAV files “sound better” than lossless compressed files (Apple Lossless or FLAC). This may have been the case years ago, when the actual processing of decompressing the lossless files may have caused problems, but they are bit perfect replicas of each other, so it’s simply impossible for them to sound different.

For this reason, if you want to maximal quality, Apple Lossless is exactly the same as WAV or AIFF, and the characteristics of Apple Lossless offer more flexibility in tagging files (editing their metadata) and adding album art. WAV and AIFF files notable have limitations regarding tags. (In this article, I speculate on when Apple may start selling files in Apple Lossless format on the iTunes Store.)

It’s also useful to know that if you are interested in high-resolution audio, Apple Lossless can handle such formats, as can FLAC. So if you buy high-resolution music in FLAC format, you can convert it to Apple Lossless to better manage the files in iTunes (if you want to use iTunes). I recommend using the free XLD for converting audio files.

Note: iTunes can also play a number of other audio formats that QuickTime supports. This Wikipedia article gives more details. Not all of these formats are supported very well for tagging. iTunes can also play Audible files, in several different bit rates.


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