The Reviewer’s Conundrum: What to Do with a Very Bad Recording?

I review CDs and DVDs for MusicWeb International, the site with the largest number of classical CD reviews freely available on the internet. I’ve been writing reviews for the site for nearly 15 years, and have reviewed some 600 CDs and DVDs.

MusicWeb reviewers receive a list of CDs every month or so, and choose the ones they want. (I also get some CDs directly from record labels.) So I go over the list, and check out what interests me, what new releases fit with my musical tastes and knowledge. In this month’s lot, I got a recording of a work I love and know very well – I’ll leave it nameless – that I tried to listen to this morning, but that was so bad, I had to give up. It’s a solo instrumental recording, and the performer plods through the piece, which, by the way, is played at a tempo which makes it about 50% longer than other versions of the same work.

So I’m faced with a conundrum. In general, I don’t like writing bad reviews; I think it helps no one, and harms the performers and record labels. But there is also a responsibility to write such a review, to alert other music fans about such a poor recording. It’s not like they can’t judge from themselves; the release is available by download, so anyone can listen to excerpts and hear what I heard, and see if they agree with me.

So what do you think? Is it better to write honest reviews of bad recordings, or just toss them aside, and spend time writing reviews of the good ones? Because, since the time of all reviewers is limited, every bad recording that gets reviewed means one less potentially good recording will go unreviewed.

Music Review: November, by Dennis Johnson


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The musical avant-garde has created a number of very long pieces of music. Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, for example, runs for around six hours; other works by the same composer last from one to four hours. La Monte Young’s Well-Tuned Piano runs around five to six hours. John Cage’s As SLow aS Possible runs from 20 to 70 minutes, but a performance underway in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, began in 2001 and should take about 639 years. Other long works include Erik Satie’s Vexations, which runs somewhere around 28 hours. But the latter two works are more gimmicks than anything else; Satie’s piece is merely one minute-and-a-half piece played 840 times.

Length does not equal quality, but in the area of minimalist music – this is the minimalism of sparseness, not that of repetition, such as the music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass – the listener enters a sound world that moves at a different pace from the world around them. Listening to such works – Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet is an excellent example of this – forces the listener to rethink what music is and how it is heard and experienced. I like music of this type which slows me down and makes me listen differently. In many ways, November, as with many of Morton Feldman’s works, is as much like looking at a painting as it is like listening to a work for piano. It’s beautiful music that moves in slow motion.

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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.

Miles midnight

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.

This is the case for many albums from the 1950s and 1960s, produced before stereo became the norm. When I want to listen to Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, I’m more likely to queue up the mono mix of the album; the way most people heard it when it was released. And if I listen to The Beatles’ Revolver, it’s the one-channel version that grabs me more than the stereo mix. And have you ever listened to The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds in the original mono? It’s a different experience from the two-channel version.

In a time of surround sound, why would anyone want to go back to one channel? Home theater systems offer 5.1, 7.1 and even 9.1 systems, with the plethora of speakers and wires needed to reproduce this sound. Since most recordings today are recorded on at least 32 tracks, it’s easy to manipulate this music and spread it across the soundscape. But does it sound real? Or is it a creation of an audio engineer?

Back to Basics

For the Miles Davis album I mentioned at the beginning of this article – as for many jazz albums of the 1950s and 1960s – mono was the finished product. The mono mix had to allow each instrument in his quintet to come through in a single channel; listening to it today, you can hear how successful it was. This is one of nine Miles Davis albums on Columbia Records recently re-released in their original mono versions. On each of these – including the iconic Kind of Blue[1] – you hear a relaxed sound that doesn’t try to manipulate the music. There’s no attempt to create an illusion of instrument placement; just the music in one plane. And it sounds great.

Miles mono

Several high-profile mono box sets have been released in recent years. The Miles Davis is the most recent, but two other important sets are Bob Dylan’s Original Mono Recordings and The Beatles in Mono. The Dylan set includes his first eight albums, “as most people heard them, as they were expected to be heard, and as most often they were meant to be heard: in mono.” As mono recordings represented the majority of sales, the stereo mixes were often rushed out as an afterthought. As engineer Guy Massey says about The Beatles’ early stereo mixes, “The mono was always The Mix. On Pepper they spent three weeks mixing that, and the stereo was done in three days.”[2]

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“Shakespeare More Exciting than a TV Series” – Henry VI at the Avignon Festival

Henry VI – Shakespeare’s three-part history play – is one of the Bard’s earliest works, and my only experience seeing it performed was not very positive. I spotted an article about a production at the Avignon Festival in France, that claims that the play is “more exciting than a TV series.” Performing all three plays in one day, from 10 am to 4 am, the production is “18 hours long,” though that’s the total running time of the plays (13 hours) including intermissions.

I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play in French (I lived in France for nearly three decades), and I’m not that interested in hearing these plays in translation, but I’m curious to see how the Henry VI plays can be this interesting. I admit to being a bit skeptical, because the plays are long, and the writing isn’t great, but perhaps this French director has done something with them to make them more interesting.

Just last night, after seeing the wonderful RSC production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I was wondering if the RSC would be able to make the Henry VI plays interesting. They’ve done well with the two “weak” plays I’ve seen: Two Gentlemen of Verona and Titus Andronicus; perhaps they can do well with Henry VI. As part of their project of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays over the next five years, the Henrys will certainly be coming up soon.

To be honest, I wouldn’t want to see all three of them in one day. 13 hours, without intermission, sounds like a lot; the Globe Theatre productions I saw were around 3 hours each, so the French version is either longer because of the language – French takes about 10% more words than English – or the director has chosen to play them slowly.

The Henry VI plays will be broadcast on French TV, and available on the Culturebox website. I’m not sure if I can get access to them, but I’m curious to see what all the fuss is about. If you’re in France, you might want to check them out.

The iTunes Store is Big Business

Apple had an earnings call yesterday, and, as often, they’ve been printing money. $7.7 billion in profit in the last quarter; the iTunes Store generated $4.5 billion in revenue. As MacRumors says:

For the first fiscal nine months of the year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said iTunes software and services were the fastest growing part of Apple’s business. iTunes billings grew 25 percent year over year to an all time quarterly high, largely due to the App Store.

In the third quarter, iTunes generated $4.5 billion in revenue, an increase of 12 percent year over year.

The iTunes Store, which was once a break-even service, is now big business. Many tech companies would love to have that kind of revenue for their entire business, and for Apple, it’s just a small part of their total numbers. Amazing.

Note that the lion’s share of the increase is coming from the App Store, not from music or videos. What started as a music store has morphed into a powerful digital content storefront.

Theater Review: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The RSC’s new production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona is exhilarating, fun, and full of energy.

If you know a few Shakespeare plays, you certainly know Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, and maybe a few of the history plays. Some of the comedies are well known: Much Ado about Nothing, As You Like It, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And everyone knows Romeo and Juliet.

But in the canon, there are a number of plays that are rarely performed, and that most people are unfamiliar with. The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of these. The Royal Shakespeare Company has not performed this play on its main stage in 45 years, and I attended the opening night of the current production in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I admit going to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night with a bit of trepidation. I only know this play from the BBC’s forgettable television production of the 1980s. The Guardian recently ran an article discussing Why Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona is as flawed as it is fascinating, and the play certainly has its weaknesses.

The Two Gents has one of those convoluted love stories that show up in some of Shakespeare’s comedies: two friends fall in love with the same woman but one has already sworn his love to another woman, and the second is not considered good enough for her. There is love, betrayal, banishment, and cross-dressing.

Valentine travels to Milan to see more of the world. He wants his friend Proteus to travel with him, but Proteus is in love with Julia and doesn’t want to leave. Proteus’ father finally convinces him to travel to Milan, and he departs from Julia tearfully.


(Photos: Simon Annand, for The RSC.)

When Proteus arrives in Milan, he finds that Valentine is in love with Silvia, the daughter of the Duke, but she is promised to Turio. Proteus instantly falls in love with Julia, and this sets up the plot of the two friends vying for the same woman. Valentine is eventually banished from Milan, and Proteus declares his love to Sylvia.

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Elegy for the iPod, the device that transformed Apple

413440_g1-100358886-large.jpgIn my latest Macworld article, I look back at the history of the iPod, but also the history of the portable music player. As the iPod’s sales are decreasing, new devices are replacing it: iPhones, iPads, and even, perhaps, the mythical iWatch.

I hold a small metal device in my hands and twirl my finger on a circular controller, navigating the menus on my iPod classic. I haven’t done this in a long time. I have a full range of iPod models, and this one, bought back in 2008, doesn’t get much use any more. That click-wheel controller was never a great idea–it’s clunky and inefficient–but it’s emblematic of the early iPod line, before tapping on a tactile screen became the norm.

In a way, there’s something nostalgic about listening to music on a device that does little more than play music. (Yes, it can play videos and display photos, but with its tiny display, I’ve never used it for either of those things.) It reminds me of the early days of the iPod, when music listeners marveled at the ability to store so much music on a pocket-sized device, to listen to any of it with a few spins of the click-wheel, to play music in shuffle mode instead of one CD at a time.

The story of the iPod is, in many ways, the story of Apple’s comeback.

Read the rest of the article on the Macworld website.

AAC: Apple’s Preferred Audio Codec

It seems that almost every day I read something about people not wanting to rip their music in AAC (the default format for iTunes and the iPod) because “it’s a proprietary format”, or “because it is owned by Apple.” I see this in forums and blog comments from people who seem to have a fair understanding of technical issues. Yet these thoughts are caused by confusion, a lack of information, and, perhaps, a tricky abbreviation.

Some people think AAC stands for Apple Audio Codec; it doesn’t, its real name is Advanced Audio Coding. It’s true that Apple was the first major hardware or software manufacturer to champion AAC over MP3, but this format is simply a part of the MPEG-4 standard, and is owned by a consortium of companies. Like MP3, this format is available to all for licensing, and there are even open-source encoders and decoders for AAC. This page on Wikipedia goes into detail about this audio format.

AAC is used for the DVD-Audio format, and HE-AAC is used with digital terrestrial television. Most hardware and software players support AAC, and the format offers many advantages: better quality at equivalent bit rates, meaning you can rip your music in smaller files; multi-channel capabilities; higher resolution audio, with sampling rates up to 96 kHz; and much more.

So why are some people afraid of using AAC? The proprietary claim is simply one of ignorance. AAC is here to stay; it’s not Apple’s audio format, and most devices and software support it. If you still think that AAC is “owned by Apple,” think again.

Oh, and that Apple Lossless, or ALAC, format? Apple did create it, but it’s now open source. So you don’t have to worry about using that either.

iWant: AirPlay Streaming from iOS Devices to Macs

AirPlay is very cool. You can stream from a Mac to various devices, such as an Apple TV, or to standalone AirPlay-compatible speakers. You can stream from an iOS device to an Apple TV or to standalone AirPlay speakers. But one thing I’d like, which currently isn’t possible, is to stream from an iOS device to a Mac.

The reason for this is, in my case, to play podcasts that are on an app on my iPhone, and not on my Mac, through my Mac and its speakers. There could be many other uses, such as playing someone’s music on your Mac when they’re visiting, or to view an iPad screen on a Mac while playing a game. You can do both of these to an Apple TV, so it shouldn’t be hard to do them to a Mac as well.

I wouldn’t use this feature a lot, but trying out Marco Arment’s new Overcast podcast app, with its great smart speed and voice boost features, I realized that, when I listen to podcasts in my office, I’d rather use that app than iTunes. So I’d like to just stream them to my Mac. The alternative is to connect an AirPort Express to my stereo, but that’s expensive for just streaming occasionally.

But you may even want to stream something from one Mac to another; again, since you can do this to an Apple TV, it should be trivial to do it on a Mac.

Update: I was reminded by a few friends that there are third-party apps that can act as AirPlay receivers on a Mac. I have one, X-Mirage, which I got in an app bundle, but never used. I’ll try it out.

Is iTunes About to Start Selling Hi-Res Music, or Is a Record Label Confused?

I came across a curious announcement from Warner Classics this morning. They say that they will be releasing some music in high definition on iTunes. Talking about some remastered albums by Herbert van Karajan, they say:

This treasure trove has been painstakingly remastered at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 24-bit/96kHz from the original tapes, available for the first time as digital, high-definition releases via iTunes.

Two possibilities. The first is that the iTunes Store will start selling music in high-resolution, 24-bit 96 kHz. The other is that Warner Classics is simply confused, or is trying to pull one over on music consumers. They talk about these albums being “remastered at London’s Abbey Road Studios in 24-bit/96kHz from the original tapes,” which is generally the case for recordings that are remastered from analog these days. But I think they assume that, if the remastering was done at 24/96, then the resulting files on the iTunes Store will also be at 24/96.

If it were true that the iTunes Store were to start selling high-resolution files, this wouldn’t leak in a now day-old news release from a record label, but would be announced with a fair amount of fanfare by Apple. So my money is on a record label that either doesn’t understand, and are just talking about Mastered for iTunes tracks, which use high-resolution masters, or that is trying to confuse consumers to make them think that they’re getting high-resolution music from iTunes.

For now, none of these albums are available on the iTunes Store, so we’ll have to wait and see.