Frank Doris Tag

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Robert Johnson is the most legendary bluesman in the genre, with a story to match, and the Netflix documentary Remastered: Devil at the Crossroads (one of eight episodes in the ReMastered series) examines his life and myth.

 

Johnson was born in 1911 in Hazlehurst, Mississippi and died in 1938 at the age of 27. He was not a good guitar player until, as the story goes, he went down to a crossroads at midnight and sold his soul to the devil in order to become one of the greatest Delta blues players of all time. The details of his recorded output are inextricably woven into the Robert Johnson legend—he only released 29 songs (along with some alternate takes) for the American Record Company—and there are only three authenticated photographs of the man.

 

Yet Johnson, who scuffled as an itinerant musician and didn’t become famous outside his local area until long after his death, became a 

towering influence on people like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton (who famously covered Johnson’s “Crossroads” on the Cream Wheels of Fire album),  and uncountable other blues and rock artists. Many of his songs are classics, like the “Cross Road Blues” (as it was originally titled), “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and ”Love in Vain Blues” to name a few. As Bonnie Raitt says, “If you love the blues, you just gotta go back to the root of Robert Johnson.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads examines Johnson’s life in detail in its approximately 45-minute run time. It features many excerpts from his recordings, as well as artists like Keb’ Mo’, Taj Mahal, and Bonnie Raitt playing his songs. Much of the documentary consists of interviews with his grandson Michael Johnson as well as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, artist and Columbia 

Records producer John Hammond, and others, along with archival footage of the era and of musicians he influenced like Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Robert Plant.

 

The documentary brings a lot of information to light, debunks some received wisdom, and leaves unanswered questions. This isn’t the documentary’s fault—not all that much is known about Johnson and much that’s been passed down over the years is contradictory.

 

The cornerstone of the Robert Johnson myth is that he sold his soul to the devil in order to become an extraordinary guitarist. In fact, at one point in his life Johnson left his Delta home for about a year and came into contact with guitarist Isaiah “Ike” Zimmerman, the best guitar player in the region. The story goes that Zimmerman took Johnson to a grave and showed him how to play. When Johnson returned 

DEVIL AT A GLANCE

Part of the Netflix Remastered series, this 45-minute documentary on legendary bluesman Robert Johnson suffers from some ill-considered animation and could use some extended performances of Johnson’s work, but otherwise does a good job of telling the story of his obscure life and his tremendous influence on contemporary music.

 

SOUND     

Clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so.

home, he had become so good that people thought he must have made a deal with the devil. As Michael Johnson notes, “Playing music in the graveyard perpetuated the myth.”

 

We learn that not much was known about Johnson until his death certificate was discovered in 1967, after which more information came out and “a new key would open up yet another door.” Johnson grew up in an environment of sharecroppers and wanted to make a living with the blues, but it was dangerous for a black musician to travel during those times. Yet as Taj Mahal points out, “You played that music and you could be outside of yourself and you could take everybody else [in the audience] out.”

 

Devil at the Crossroads doesn’t go into depth regarding Johnson’s playing technique, although Terry “Harmonica” Bean notes that Johnson had exceptionally long fingers, which allowed him to do things other guitarists couldn’t. Keith Richards points out that Johnson could sound like a one-man band, covering the bass, chords, and melodies simultaneously on the lower and upper strings. “One part of what he’s playing is talking to the other part and he’s [singing] in the middle.”

 

The documentary goes into far more detail about his personal life, his first wife dying in childbirth, his conflicts with family members, and his never knowing his biological father. All of this and other difficulties fueled his need for playing music, traveling, drinking, and womanizing. “Robert’s life was just one tragedy after another. It never seemed to end for him,” says Michael Johnson. It did in fact end after Johnson drank from a poisoned whisky bottle at the Three Forks Juke, given to him by the jealous husband of a woman Johnson had taken up with. He died on August 16, 1938.

 

Johnson’s music began to be rediscovered in a major way by, of all things, what the documentary calls “78 geeks”—college students in the 1950s and early 1960s who would buy boxes of 78 RPM records. In 1961, John Hammond was instrumental in the release of Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers, which introduced a new generation to Johnson’s music.

 

Devil at the Crossroads does have flaws, the most egregious of which is the use of cheesy animation to illustrate some of the narration. It distracts from and cheapens the seriousness of the subject matter. And while there are plenty of song excerpts by both Johnson and the performers, I wish they would have included a full performance or two. Another thing that will irk blues aficionados to no end: The documentary shows the “crossroads” where Johnson supposedly sold his soul—and shows it over and over again. However, it is not known which intersection is actually the crossroads.

 

That said, Devil at the Crossroads is visually well done, artfully mixing archival footage, location shots (including the shack where Johnson was supposedly born!), and interviews. The sound is clear, full-bodied, and well-mixed. The audio of the original recordings has been very obviously cleaned up and de-noised, but not intrusively so. And the songs and performances make you realize how much the haunting sound of acoustic slide guitar is crucial to acoustic blues music.

 

Most of all, Devil at the Crossroads conveys the tragedy and the emotion of Robert Johnson’s music and life. As grandson Michael Johnson points out, “I really believe he was searching for the freedom within, the soul within.”

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

How to Listen: Nirvana

Nevermind

In Utero

Qobuz Hi-Res 24-bit/96kHz

 

Nirvana might be one of the last bands you’d think about when the subject of audiophile recordings comes up. Yet, their two landmark albums—1991’s Nevermind and 1993’s In Utero—are admirable examples of how to record and produce rock records.

 

Nirvana was of course one of the key bands that brought grunge to a mainstream audience in the early 1990s. Nevermind featured “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” perhaps the single song that defines the grunge era, along with the irresistible earworm 

“Come As You Are.” In Utero was the worthy followup and featured the hits “Heart-Shaped Box” and “All Apologies.”

 

Want to see if your system can play loud and rock? You’ll know after playing these records, assuming you don’t blow a speaker in the process. These typhoon-intensity sonic assaults “want” to be played at volume. (Well, you really don’t have to—the recordings sound fine at neighbor-friendly levels, but if you want to hear what the band and producers Butch Vig and Steve Albini really had in mind you have to let them rip.)

 

Nevermind was produced by Vig and In Utero by Albini, two very different individuals, and yet, having listened to them back to back, I was struck by how similar the albums sound. Maybe it’s because after Albini sent In Utero in to the record company, the label thought it was too raw, and the band and another producer, Scott Litt, had to go back and make changes (Albini refused)—undoubtedly with Nevermind casting a very large shadow. That said, overall Nevermind is brighter and more open, In Utero darker and sludgier.

 

If you think grunge music equals sloppy playing, the first thing you’ll be struck by on both albums is just how tight they are. This isn’t the sound of three guys playing off the cuff—these are multi-layered, carefully crafted productions, with numerous overlaid guitars. I have far more respect for singer/guitarist/main songwriter Kurt Cobain as a musician now that I’ve revisited these records. His playing is rhythmically exact, in tune, and roaring, thanks to his use of distortion and chorus pedals. His vocals are frequently multitracked, typically with a main vocal front and center and background parts off to the sides. Dave Grohl’s drumming has tremendous impact and presence.

 

Cobain favored distorted power chords and jarring riffs and sang in a vocal-cord-ripping style alternating with more intimate singing. (In interviews, he acknowledged that Nirvana’s “loud-soft-loud” style was influenced by the Pixies, who earlier had codified this approach.) Grohl played drums with masterful technical prowess and sang background vocals and Krist Novoselic laid down a tight, in-the-pocket bass groove.

 

On a good system, the kick drum should pound and wallop 

and the snare should drive the band like a whip driving a horse. Songs like “Very Ape” (Nevermind) show that these guys were a killer band, and you should feel the rhythmic drive and physical presence of the music. (Although Nirvana was never one of my favorites—IMHO, the songwriting is uneven—tracks like this make me wish I’d seen them live.)

 

If there’s one “How to Listen” takeaway from these records, it’s that beyond what’s been mentioned already, what you should listen for are the studio effects and how they’re applied, and how well your system reveals them.

These aren’t recordings where the sounds of the vocals and instruments are set at the beginning of the sessions and then left alone. Everything’s tweaked with every track. Some things to listen for:

 

The equalization, or “EQ,” of each instrument and vocal track—the proportion of bass, midrange, and high frequencies—can be altered, and Vig and Albini use this to deliberate artistic effect. For example, the bass in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rumbly and indistinct, whereas on “In Bloom,” the higher harmonics (overtones) of the bass are clearly heard. EQ is used on the drums to make the bass drum “kick” and emphasize the sound of the beater hitting the head, and on the snare to fatten it up or make it leaner, like a snapping branch.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Cobain’s voice is sometimes goosed with some added upper midrange (though this could be the choice of mics). On “Smells Like Teen Spirit” the guitars have a piercing upper-midrange and treble. Your ears will hurt when it’s played loud. By contrast, the guitars on “Come As You Are” have a mellower top end. Both albums have powerful bass with a lot of weight, and a palpable midrange.

How to Listen: Nirvana

Compression is used not only to even out the differences in volume between loud and soft sounds, but to give instruments like drums and bass added presence. Compression is all over the drums, to give them extra punch. Listen to the tom toms carefully. That isn’t the sound of naked drums in a room—they’re compressed to make them “sit” more evenly in the mix. Once you know to listen for this, it’s obvious.

 

Both albums avoid the excessive use of reverb and delay—in fact, the albums are on the “dry” side, which serves the music well. No cavernous 1980s Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drums here. The soundspaces of Nevermind and In Utero aren’t wide and deep and beyond the edges of the speakers; they’re more like a monolithic wall of thundering and snarling sound. There’s little left-right placement of 

instruments or even a sense that you’re listening in stereo except for some occasional panning of Cobain’s guitars, mostly during solos.

 

The mixes on both albums aren’t all that transparent. You won’t be listening for little tinkly bells or Cobain breathing. On Nevermind’s “Polly,” Cobain strums an acoustic guitar. In Utero’s “Dumb” features a cello. But both instruments sound flat and low-fi. If they don’t seem fleshed out, it’s not your system, it’s the fact that those subtleties aren’t there. Well, these aren’t subtle records and I’m pretty sure the last thing on VIg’s and Albini’s minds was whether audiophiles would be able to count the snares on Grohl’s snare drum or tell whether Cobain had put new strings on. This is rock and roll, not Diana Krall!

 

And I did mention that these records ask to be played loud. I had to try this: For my final listening, I played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through our band’s PA speakers (currently residing in my basement). I blasted the song at a hellacious volume, over 102dB (I measured). Holy mother of gawd! What a glorious brain-frying racket! It sounded titanic! Certainly not audiophile-“correct,” but the freight-train decibel level blew all such cork-sniffer rationality aside.

 

I’d forgotten that rock and roll and volume not only go hand in hand, but are sometimes one and the same. Nirvana, Vig, and Albini didn’t.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He is also the editor of Copper magazine, a
professional guitarist, and a vinyl enthusiast with multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your 

system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

Like so many of us, when using Netflix or some other streaming service I tend to browse to find something to watch rather than zeroing in on a particular show. Since my tastes run to music, I usually seek out music-related documentaries and concert films. So I somewhat semi-randomly stumbled upon this episode of a Netflix series called Once in a Lifetime Sessions, a documentary series featuring musicians talking about their careers and performing live in concert and in the 

recording studio—including a live-to-vinyl session! If you’re looking for a “history of the band”-type documentary, this isn’t it—but it is an insightful look into Nile Rodgers’ career, life, and flat-out incredible musical chops.

 

Rodgers is the co-founder of Chic (along with bassist extraordinaire Bernard Edwards), a band that burst upon the disco and pop music scene in 1972 with hits like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and their signature, oft-sampled mega-smash “Good Times.” Rodgers is also an extremely successful producer—a small sample of songs he’s been behind the board for include David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross, and a little thing you might have heard recently—Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”

 

He is also known as one of the best rhythm guitarists of all time, with a distinctive funky propulsive style that, while 

NILE RODGERS AT A GLANCE

The Chic co-founder, hitmaker, and legendary rhythm guitarist dissects his most famous tracks, talks about his life, and stages a super-tight club performance with his bandmates. 

 

PICTURE     

Attractive and direct documentary-style visuals mercifully free of gimmicks.

 

SOUND

Clean, rich sound, with plenty of bass and with each instrument clearly heard—but in a mix so lacking in stereo spread it borders on mono.

deceptively simple-sounding, no one else can quite duplicate. Think of that opening riff to “Good Times.” You’re probably hearing that unstoppable guitar groove in your head right now, along with Edwards’ iconic bass line, maybe the greatest electric bass riff ever.

 

Naturally I wanted to know—how did he do it? The documentary answers that question and a whole lot more, featuring plenty of interview footage at Angel Studios, London, where Rodgers tells exactly how he did it. An engineer pulls up individual tracks from the master tapes so you can hear each musician’s parts while Rodgers explains the creative process of how and why the players came up with them. For a musician like me, fascinating, and even if you can’t play a note you’ll learn a lot about the process.

 

Rodgers goes into rich detail about how he and others wrote the songs. Just one of many quotes: “As musicians, we want our voices to be heard, right? That means we want hit records . . . We knew that we had to come up with our own formula for making hits, and we knew that the chorus somehow was what people always wanted to get to . . . So we thought, well, what if we just started with the chorus? That way we give people the dessert first!”

 

He doesn’t just talk about the song-creation process, though. The interviewer draws plenty of life experience from Rodgers, whose parents were drug-dependent. As a result, the family moved a lot and he was the only black kid in a lot of the schools he wound up in. “I didn’t fit in and I was bullied a lot.” Rodgers is unblinkingly candid about his bouts with alcohol and drug

use and falling into the vortex of the 1970s and 1980s partying lifestyle. He thought he was young and invincible and could sustain that level of excess (it worked, for a while), but after it started to affect his playing, he just stopped cold and has been clean ever since.

 

But, for me, the highlight of Once in a Lifetime Sessions with Nile Rodgers

is the live performance footage. Rodgers and his musicians and singers are incredibly tight. I mean, unbelievably tight. I mean, ridiculously superhumanly astoundingly tight. Watching them is a master class in how to play together, how to lock in as musicians, how to groove. As a musician, I can tell you it’s tough to just play through a song without hitting a “clam” (wrong note), let alone play with any kind of feel and swing and togetherness.

 

In this respect, watching Chic play together is in the true sense awe-inspiring and more than a little humbling. In both the concert footage (actually a club somewhere in the UK) and the in-studio performances, these guys and gals are killing it. Nailing it. Destroying it! Every musician is remarkable, and singer Kim Davis-Jones is hair-raisingly good, just an absolute complete knockout. I don’t care if your thing is folk, rock, hip-hop, whatever—if you’re a musician, consider this required viewing.

 

The sound quality is extremely good—clean, rich, and with plenty of that all-important bass and kick drum, and every instrument can be clearly heard. Yet the sound is somewhat mono-ish, lacking in stereo spread. Although I’m usually a sonic purist, I tried various modes on my old but great-sounding Harman Kardon A/V receiver and found the music most enjoyable while listening in surround, particularly Harman Kardon’s Logic 7 Music mode.

 

The visuals are fine—pretty much straightforward. I mean, how much “production” can you do with interview filming that wouldn’t ultimately be distracting? And the concert footage is refreshingly direct, alternating between shots of the band and the individual players with a lack of distraction and gratuitous effects. (We’ve all seen way too much of that sort of thing.)

 

Rodgers concludes the documentary by talking about his “insane” work ethic, something he’s never let go of. For him, hard work and life are one and the same. The 67-year-old Rodgers states, “I always say that I have 10 good years left. I’ve been saying that since I was 20!” Amen, brother.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Unorthodox

Unorthodox

Unorthodox is the story of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Jewish woman who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Satmar ultra-Orthodox community but desperately wants to escape it. She manages to slip away to Berlin, to the consternation of her husband Yanky Shapiro (Amit Rahav) and family. This four-part Netflix miniseries chronicles her coming of age in the journey.

 

I’m going to run my usual disclaimer here: Unlike too many other reviews, I’m going to give away as little of the story as possible, including the reason Esty flees to Berlin (a key plot point) so as not to ruin this series’ many surprises and delights.

(And for the record, I’m Jewish.)

 

As you may have heard, Unorthodox is based on the book Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman, but only loosely, so if you’ve read the book it’s not going to give away the series.

 

Though I’ve read articles stating that Unorthodox doesn’t get the details exactly accurate, I’m impressed by how much it does get the look of the Williamsburg community right, even though some of the interiors were shot on a soundstage. (I’m a New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.) The closeted feel of the apartments where the community lives, the fact that much of the dialogue is in Yiddish (with English subtitles), and the way the people are dressed all give it an atmosphere of authenticity, an eavesdropping glimpse into a way of life.

 

In particular, costume designer Justine Seymour must be 

UNORTHODOX AT A GLANCE

This four-part Netflix series about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Wiliamsburg, Brooklyn is compelling and believable, thanks mainly to a strong ensemble cast. 

 

PICTURE     

The beautiful cinematography does equal justice to the series’ claustrophobic Brooklyn and more expansive European locations. 

 

SOUND

The sound mix is serviceable, but the music—which is key to the series—is well recorded without being obtrusive.

singled out for the exceptional job she did in making everyone look convincingly Orthodox, right down to the perfectly-done shtraimlech (fur hats) and the making of dozens of sets of payot (twisted sidelocks) for the male actors. The wedding scene alone is stunning, the bride’s and the bubbes’ beautifully-done dresses in ornate contrast to the stark traditionalism of the men.

 

A key move by writers Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski (who also produced) and director Maria Schrader was to sign on actor Eli Rosen, who in addition to his marvelous portrayal of Rabbi Yossele, “translated the scripts, coached the actors, and helped with cultural details” according to Wikipedia. Also, Jeff Wilbusch as main character Moishe Lefkovitch speaks Yiddish as a first language and grew up in Jerusalem.

 

Shira Haas gives a remarkable performance as Esty. (You may know her from her portrayal of Gitti’s oldest daughter Ruchami in Shtisel.) Her arranged marriage to Yanky has in the space of a year gone from hopeful to painful, from the dream of a young Orthodox Jewish woman to find a husband and start a family to depression and despair. And yet, the hope of a new life awaits. Haas portrays Esty with utterly convincing depth, with the inner and outer conflicts of someone going through almost unbearable trauma and self-doubt. Haas is slight in stature and not conventionally pretty, making her seem all the more vulnerable. Yet she has an inner strength and conviction, partly fueled by the discovery that all is not what it seems in her background and family. As she tells Yanky during an awkward yet touching pre-arranged-marriage meeting, “but I’m different from the other girls.” Your heart can’t help but go out to her.

 

Amit Rahav is complex and convincing as husband Yanky, trying to do the right thing even if doing the right thing means being too much of a mama’s boy. He has a good heart, even if ignorant and uncomprehending of Esty’s feelings. Is he a product of his background? Yes, but also not one-dimensional, still young and not entirely wise to the ways of either the ultra-Orthodox or the secular world.

 

Jeff Wilbusch is marvelous as Yanky’s cousin Moishe, a man with a shady enough past to get him ostracized from the community, yet chosen for this very reason as the right man to accompany Yanky in his search to find Esty in Berlin. The contrast between the inexperienced Yanky and the gambling, whoring Moishe (whose worldly-wise ways come as a shock to Yanky) breaks up the ever-building intensity and sometimes emotional terror of the series with some welcome comic diversions. (The scenes where the two men first get to Berlin and clumsily try to blend in are laugh-out-loud charming.)

 

The rest of the actors in the large ensemble cast are equally believable, among them Alex Reid (as Leah Mandelbaum, Esty’s domineering, nosey mother), Gera Sandler (Mordecai Schwartz, Esther’s father), Dina Doron (Bubbe, Esty’s grandmother), and Aaron Altaras (Robert, who Esty meets in Berlin and befriends). Never do you get the sense that the cast is “acting.”

 

Unorthodox is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, from the cramped interiors and gritty facades of the Brooklyn apartments to the open and panoramic views of Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and Großer Wannsee (“Great Wannsee,” a popular tourist attraction—and site of World War II Holocaust plans). It’s perhaps no directorial coincidence that Unorthodox alternates between the claustrophobia of the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and the wider spaces of Berlin. The color palette, camera angles, and dramatic closeups are all magnificently composed. There are even a few chase scenes.

 

There’s nothing extraordinary about the sound mix—it’s just kind of always there without drawing much attention to itself. But music does play a major part in the series (again, I don’t want to give any spoilers—you can read other reviews for that), and it’s well-recorded without being obtrusive. The dialogue is clear and realistic, although perhaps in a large part moot because much of it is in Yiddish, so unless you’re fluent, you’ll have to read subtitles.

 

Esty’s story isn’t just a simple case of, I don’t like my life so I’m running away. In the ultra-Orthodox world, what she does is unthinkable. Orthodox Judaism is a way of life, a holy way, upholding traditions that have gotten their people and culture through persecutions of every kind and the Holocaust, which is still very much uppermost in the characters’ minds (and the site of one of the most important scenes in the series). There are rules, and the rules are there for important reasons. In their world it’s a right way of life.

 

But it’s not the right way of life for Esty. Unorthodox strikes a balance between looking at the ultra-Orthodox community with sympathy, understanding, and more than a dash of humor, countered by the desire of Esty to break away from it, and the complex mix of her courage, doubt, terror, hope, and determination in seeking a new life.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

Altered Carbon (Season 2)

For those of you unfamiliar with this Netflix series, Altered Carbon is set around 360 years into the future, with Season 2 taking place 30 years after Season 1. Based on the brilliant book by Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon is centered on the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs, formerly an Envoy—a highly-trained and feared soldier—and now a private investigator.

 

In this future world, a person’s consciousness can live indefinitely, downloaded into a “stack,” a device made possible by the discovery of not-entirely-understood alien technology that can be implanted into a “sleeve,” or newly-grown body—which 

doesn’t necessarily have to be the one they had before. The only way a person can be truly killed is if the stack is destroyed or if they can’t afford a new body. The alien material from which the stacks are made is found only on Kovacs’ home planet Harlan’s World. As such, it’s extremely valuable, the stuff of wars.

 

(Non-spoiler alert: Unlike many lazily done reviews that consist of a give-it-all-away plot summary and the reviewer concluding, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” I’m not going to reveal any of the key points for anyone here.)

 

Takeshi Kovacs has been re-sleeved—but in a new body, played by new lead Anthony Mackie, who gives Season 2 an entirely different feel. Mackie’s Kovacs is more charismatic and has more empathy and a wider emotional range than the previous two Kovacs, played by

CARBON AT A GLANCE

More pedestrian, less mind-blowing, than Season 1, but better than most of the other comic book-style sci-fi out there.

 

PICTURE     

Dazzling visuals in the Blade Runner neo-noir tradition.

 

SOUND

More restrained than the visuals but just as impressive—except for some occasional musical miscues.

the reserved Will Yun Lee and the stereotypical Tough Big Guy Joel Kinnaman. Mackie (known for playing Falcon in the  Marvel movies), dominates the screen with a can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him presence and physicality, yet gives room for his co-actors to breathe. He brings nuance and, yes, even a little humor to the role in the midst of a grim future world.

 

Ostensibly brought back to Harlan’s World to solve a murder, Kovacs soon finds himself immersed in political intrigue, double-crossing, and other conflicts. He’s also reunited with love-of-his-life Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry), who created the stacks, who Kovacs has been pursuing across planets and timespans, and who is a key element in all that’s happening. Goldsberry is utterly convincing as the once heroic, now traumatized Falconer.

 

As in the first season, real and virtual reality and human and AI characters mix. The characters and actors are a mixed bag. Simone Messick (Misty Knight in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) plays bounty hunter Trepp with an oddly effective combination of tough-girl steel and compassion for those she cares for. My favorite of the bunch, Chris Conner, plays Poe,

Kovacs’ right-hand “man,” as a funny, flawed, insecure, and lovable AI character. You read “lovable” right—in Altered Carbon Season 2, Poe (modeled after Edgar Allan Poe), along with fellow AI and friend Dig 301 (Dina Shihabi), are the most “human” characters and the actors displaying the greatest range of emotions. Poe suffers from a programming glitch and Dig 301 seeks a sense of purpose. In fact, the most touching scenes in the series are between the two of them.

 

Less believable are Lela Loren as Harlan’s World leader Danica Harlan, who never quite projects the steely ruthlessness the character requires, and Torben Liebrecht 

as a flat, one-dimensional Colonel Ivan Carrera. Perhaps this is how the directors wanted these characters played, but the result is that they aren’t as convincing as they should be. Oliver Rice is perfect though as Stone, Harlan’s assistant, the kind of obsequious toady occupying boardrooms and capitals everywhere.

 

As in Season 1, the visuals are dazzling. The claustrophobic feel owes a debt to Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, like so many other science-fiction shows, yet the look of the series is striking, from the honeycomb/alien motifs in Harlan’s palace to the neon-gritty street scenes and 3D computers-of-tomorrow graphics. When characters enter virtual reality, colors and perspectives are shifted in ways that seem surreal and hyper-real at the same time. Season 2 is an entirely believable portrayal of how the world could look around 350 years from now. (Be aware: As in the first season, the show doesn’t shy away from violence.)

 

The soundscapes complement the visuals (save for an occasional bout of overdramatic musical cheesiness) with almost subliminal insinuation into the viewer’s consciousness at times, interwoven with and part and parcel of the fabric of the presentation. That’s a compliment.

 

So. Altered Carbon Season 2 has all the ingredients of sensational sci-fi—but it doesn’t scale the mind-blowing heights of Season 1. The plotlines are more straightforward, less twisted and surprising, more pedestrian. The first season deeply explored themes like: What does it mean to be immortal? What does it feel like to be able to switch bodies and sexes? What are the social implications of the rich being able to enjoy these things, while the poor cannot? How far will someone go to gain power over others to ensure they have access to immortality?

 

However, Season 2 glosses over these ideas, becoming more of an us-versus-them narrative. Ironically, while the latest Takeshi Kovacs is more nuanced and multifaceted than the previous ones, most of the rest of the supporting characters are not.

 

That’s not to say Season 2 is bad—far from it. I dislike ratings, but for perspective, if the first season was an A, the new one is a B-minus, and the show is a heck of a lot better than some of the comic-book dreck shi-fi out there. Is it worth watching? Yes. (And it stands on its own. You don’t have to watch Season 1 first to enjoy it.) There are enough plot twists and surprises to keep things interesting, and the visuals are gripping. But I missed that rocketing adrenaline sense of wonder of its predecessor.

 

There’s talk of a Season 3, and there’s also the animated Altered Carbon: Resleeved, which I haven’t seen yet. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

How to Listen: Kind of Blue

So much has been written about this most legendary of jazz albums that it seems kind of pointless to repeat the usual stereotypical commentary—that it’s the greatest jazz album of all time, that it solidified a new type of modal jazz playing, that its influence is boundless. (All true except arguably the first point—can anyone really anoint a Greatest Jazz Album of All Time when recordings like Bill Evans’ Sunday at the Village Vanguard or John Coltrane’s Giant Steps exist?)

One thing’s not subject to argument: The music is transcendent. Recorded in 1959, it features Miles Davis (trumpet), Bill Evans (piano), John Coltrane (tenor sax), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), James Cobb (drums), and Paul Chambers (bass). The music was recorded with the musicians having no preparation beforehand, making it all the more remarkable when you hear the empathy between them.

 

The sound quality is excellent—not without its flaws, including the fact that, because of a problem with the tape machine, the pitch of the original production master tape is about one and a half percent too fast. (Later re-issues corrected this subtle but perceptible anomaly.) But the recording has a natural tonality and dynamic shadings that capture the ebb and flow of that masterful empathy between the musicians.

 

On a good system, you’ll feel them playing live in the studio: Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio in Manhattan, considered by some to be the finest-sounding recording studio of all time. Not to trivialize the magnificence of the music, but this quality alone, of feeling like you’re there listening in the moment, makes Kind of Blue an essential album for evaluating a music system’s performance.

 

Kind of Blue has been issued countless times (Discogs lists 377 versions, and that doesn’t count hi-res downloads and streaming), so it’s impossible to recommend a definitive version. But I’ve heard a number of excellent pressings, including the original Columbia “Six-Eye” catalog number CS 8163, a surprisingly good “The Nice Price” 1970s Columbia issue (PC 8163), and versions from Classic Records. There are plenty of audiophile pressings from Acoustic Sounds and others. Google is your friend. I also listened on Qobuz in 96/24 Hi-Res Audio.

 

Let’s get the audio imperfections out of the way. Typical of jazz recordings of the era, there’s a lot of hard-left and hard-right panning, with Evans and Coltrane in the left channel and Adderley and Cobb in the right, leaving Davis and Chambers in the middle. As a result, you’re not going to hear that expansive “3-D” soundstage that audiophiles prize so much. The drums are often spatially flat and distant, the piano somewhat less so but certainly far from up front.

That said, the feeling of room ambience, of the musicians playing in a live space, does come through, partly the result of mic leakage (such as the reverberant bleed-through of Coltrane’s tenor in “”Freddie Freeloader”) and partly because the tonal

balance and dynamic presence of the horns is so authentic. Coltrane’s and Adderley’s saxes sound positively creamy and full-bodied.

 

The audibility of the piano is a test of how good a system is. When I first started listening to Kind of Blue in the 1970s, it was on crummy stereos and the piano was so faint I could barely hear it. I thought it was a shame the recording was so “bad.” As my systems got better, the piano got louder. On a good system the piano is plain to hear.

 

Davis’ trumpet—it’s astonishing. Front and center with thrilling presence. On a good system, the nuances of his playing come through with startling clarity. It really does sound like there’s a human being playing a real instrument in real space. You can

Kind of Blue

hear the absolute genius of Davis’ infinite variations in note shading, attack, breath, and dynamics. The trumpet sounds like an instrument with air blowing at you, not a thin two-dimensional simulation. It’s spooky.

 

There’s really no need to do a track-by-track dissection, but some highlights: On an inadequate setup, Chambers’ signature acoustic-bass opening riff to “So What” will be hard or impossible to hear. On a good one, you’ll hear a full-bodied bass with plenty of harmonic richness. “Freddie Freeloader,” the second track, features Wynton Kelly rather than Bill Evans on piano, and you can distinctly hear Kelly’s more aggressive playing and blues-laden style compared to Evans’ more delicate touch and utterly distinctive harmonic approach.

 

Blue in Green” finds the musicians laying back, and Davis is first heard using a trumpet mute. If anything, his individualism and seemingly endless variations in conveying each note are heightened even more. His phrasing and dynamics are hair-raising. Again, the trumpet should sound like a real instrument with body, not some feeble kazoo-like approximation. The minimalist atmosphere of this piece should let you hear everything that’s right about the music’s stark beauty and clarity.

 

In “All Blues,” Cobb’s brush work on the snare drum is more prominent. Playing the brushes is deceptively simple to do right (try it sometime) and you should be able to hear that Cobb is an absolute master here. Then he switches to drumsticks in a seamless sleight of hand—I still haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact moment when he does it. And the players take a 6/8 time signature—usually reserved for waltzes—and make it swing! Listen for the distinction of the tap of Cobb’s stick on the ride cymbal behind Adderley’s solo, followed by the cymbal’s after-ring.

 

The album closes with “Flamenco Sketches,” and it’s spellbinding. If everything’s right, you can walk into the lushness of the acoustic bass. Listen to the beauty and restraint of the playing. For a couple of minutes, there are no drums and then they sneak in almost imperceptibly at first, something that will be completely lost on a lesser system. Listen for the decay of Evans’ piano notes—sublime. Coltrane’s balladic playing here is heart-stopping.

 

For those who might ask, “Why high-end audio?,” hearing music like Kind of Blue the way it was meant to be heard is why.

 

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin’

How to Listen: Just a LIttle Lovin'

In the first installment of “How to Listen,” I talked about the sonics of The Dark Side of the Moon, an album with a sound as immense as the album’s influence. The sound of Shelby Lynne’s Just a Little Lovin’ is exactly the opposite.

 

A tribute to Dusty Springfield, with Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs and other covers (plus “Pretend,” a Lynne original), it’s almost minimalist in its approach, with Lynne’s lower-register contralto voice accompanied by just a few instruments on any 

given track—typically one or two electric or acoustic guitars, along with lightly-played drums (usually with brushes), acoustic or electric piano, and acoustic or electric bass.

 

As such, her vocals are right up front, and on a good system her singing and each instrument stand out with an almost physical presence, essential parts of a simple, pure, and clean sonic presentation that is remarkably well recorded.

 

No wonder—the album was produced by Phil Ramone, recorded and mixed by Grammy winner Al Schmitt and mastered by Doug Sax and Robert Hadley at The Mastering Lab. For the most part, it sounds like it was recorded with the musicians playing together live, although I don’t know that for a fact, and on a good system you can feel as well as hear them grooving together with a relaxed yet swinging feel. And Lynne’s gorgeously husky, smoky voice is so well-recorded and expressive that I don’t think you can help but be moved by the emotional nuances of her singing.

 

Small wonder the album has become a bonafide audiophile classic.

 

I listened to the Analogue Productions vinyl LP remaster, an astoundingly quiet and well-done pressing, as well as a Qobuz 24/96 hi-res stream and a recently purchased CD.

 

The tonal balance of the album is warm and smooth—if Just a Little Lovin’ doesn’t make your stereo sound sweetly, richly inviting, something isn’t right. In fact, it could be argued that the tonal balance is a touch too warm; but, on the other hand, some of that very deep bass you should be hearing is there (or should be) because on a few cuts (“Breakfast in Bed” for example), the bassist is playing a five-string electric bass, which goes deeper (usually tuned to a low B) than a four-string electric or acoustic bass.

 

The midrange sounds about as natural as you’ll hear on a recording and the upper-midrange should be detailed and transparent, without a hint of stridency or forwardness. The soundspace overall is big and deep, but not hugely extended beyond the speakers. This is a more intimate than cinematic recording.

 

Another attribute of the album is that while Lynne’s voice is 

dead center, the instruments, while occupying their own sonic spaces, aren’t laser-focused in terms of imaging. It sounds like some of them were miked in stereo and then panned a little more to the left or right, but I can’t verify this. In any case, most 

of the time the instruments create more of a sonic spread across the soundfield than the hard left, center, or right placement you often hear in jazz albums from the 1950s and early 1960s, for example. So if that’s what you’re hearing, your system’s imaging isn’t vague—it’s what you should be hearing.

 

One of the key sonic ingredients is the reverb on Lynne’s voice. During quieter instrumental sections, it should not only be clearly audible but should fill the sound space. This leads to my one quibble about the album’s sonics—at times, the reverb sounds over-applied, and I would like to have heard more of her singing presented “dry” instead. This is especially apparent on the last track, a cover of the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.”

How to Listen: Just a Little Lovin'

Listen for the quiet parts. Many demo tracks or audiophile recordings will impress you with their loud and sometimes bombastic dynamics. This record is exactly the opposite—it’s the detail in the sparse, soft parts that will draw you in.

 

There’s no need to go into a track-by-track analysis since the above paragraphs describe the overall sound of the record, but there are a number of specific sonic attributes to listen for.

 

The first one happens on “Just a Little Lovin’” almost immediately with a literally startling thwack rim shot that happens with incredible realism. Lynne’s voice is so upfront and present that you can, on a good system, actually hear some mouth sounds at points when she pauses between phrases. The Rhodes electric piano gives notice of the sumptuously rich sounds to come.

 

Listen to the way the acoustic piano and electric guitar blend chordally and rhythmically on “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” It’s the sound of master musicians at work. It’s very hard for a guitar player and a piano player to “comp” together in a band, but here you can hear it done perfectly. And listen for the scrape of the drummer’s brushes on the drum heads. Incredible. Most of all, listen for the restrained passion in Lynne’s voice. Hair-raising.

 

“I Only Want to Be with You” is an all-acoustic-instrument (guitar, piano, bass, drums), languid take on the song Dusty Springfield made famous. As such, it’s a can’t-miss system demo track—if your system’s up to the task. The same is true for “The Look of Love.” It’s a song that’s been done and heard countless times, but Lynne brings a grit and a yearning to it that no one else does.

 

“Willie and Lauramae Jones” has a distinctly different sonic feel than the other tracks, thanks to the fact that Lynne is playing guitar on this one along with the other musicians. Listen for the “ring” of the drum hit (not sure if it’s a snare or

something else; the tuning is odd), the beautifully-recorded dobro happily sliding away in the left channel, and the acoustic guitar “chops” in the right channel, where you should very distinctly get the feel of a real person doing them.

 

Speaking of feel, Lynne’s version of Randy Newman’s “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” is so emotionally riveting, I’ll bet it had him in tears the first time he heard it. The way the song ebbs and flows will simply be 

lost on a lesser system. And just when you think you’re hearing a fadeout, the musicians reveal they’re just getting quieter until they decide to end the song. Masterful.

 

Perhaps the best is saved for last: Lynne duetting with acoustic guitarist Dean Parks on the Rascals’ “How Can I Be Sure.” Now the sonic minimalism is at its most sparse, just the two of them playing with, and off of, each other. Not only can you hear that Parks is fingerpicking rather than flatpicking the guitar, you can hear the sound of flesh on string and the way he continuously varies the touch of his fingerpicking. The beautiful fade out is the perfect ending to this sublime-sounding recording.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Listen: Dark Side of the Moon

How to Listen: The Dark Side of the Moon

In “How to Become an Expert Listener,” I talked about the kinds of recordings you can use to evaluate a luxury audio setup and walked you through the general things to listen for, such as deep, articulate bass, accurate instrumental and vocal timbre, and an expansive sound field.

 

Here I’m going to take one of the most revered albums not just in the audiophile world but in rock history and give you a sense of what makes it such a great recording—not just so you can better appreciate the virtues of this particular effort but so 

you can apply that knowledge to your own favorite albums. Once you get used to not just listening to the music but savoring the quality of its presentation, you’ll find it easy to pick out the common elements that make for a great recording and that reveal the virtues and flaws of high-performance gear.

 

No album is more iconic than Pink Floyd’s towering 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. (I don’t think I  need to give a musical synopsis here—is there anyone reading this who hasn’t heard it?). Dark Side is up there with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, and Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. It was the band’s commercial breakthrough (to put it mildly), spending more than 900 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart.

 

It’s also one of the best-recorded albums ever, thanks to Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons and the innovative use of then-new synthesizers, elaborate multitracking, found sounds, and the resources of Abbey Road Studios, to say nothing of brilliant performances by Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright. It’s a true reference recording that will give every aspect of an audio system a thorough workout.

 

I listened to an original UK pressing on my main system and on Qobuz in 24-bit/44.1 kHz hi-res on high-end nearfield monitors. (Geek-speak translation: “Qobuz” is a high-resolution music-streaming service and “nearfield monitors” are speakers meant to be listened to from up close.) I also heard a good chunk of the album on a huge system at a trade show within the past year. Unfortunately, I now can’t remember the show or the system. I do remember the incredible sound.

 

One quick note: This isn’t meant to be an exam. You don’t need to go through the whole album, in sequence, to appreciate what Parsons and the band wrought here or to put it to use for demo purposes. Start with your favorite tracks and, if you find yourself getting into this new way of listening to an old classic, make your way around from there.

 

“Speak to Me”

The album sucks you in with the iconic heartbeat. You’re not going to hear it fully—or at all—on a small speaker with a 

small woofer. You need a speaker setup capable of extended low end. The track should sneak up on you quietly, then crescendo into . . .

 

“Breathe”

. . .and the trademark sonic signature of the album, a vast, wide, deep soundspace with instruments placed hard left, hard right and everywhere in between, up close and far away. Start with your system volume low!

 

Listen for the clarity of every instrument—electric bass, guitars, keyboards, drums, percussion, and effects. Even though some of the sounds are heavily processed, you should hear the clarity of the processing, such as the myriad of reverbs that are a major part of the album’s sonic palette. The tonal balance is smooth and even, from the articulate bass to the densely detailed midrange and clear highs—although I wouldn’t call TDSOTM the absolute last word in transparency.

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

Alan Parsons mixing The Dark Side of the Moon with Pink Floyd

(Check out a good version of the RCA Living Stereo Reiner/Chicago Symphony Scheherazade for that.)

 

In fact, this one track will tell you everything you need to know about how a system is performing—but you’d be shortchanging yourself if you didn’t keep listening.

 

“On the Run”

On a lesser system, this will sound like flat musical filler. On a good system, you’ll hear a rich variety of 

details, like the multiple synthesizers panning from left to right, and the very distinct sound of someone turning the knobs on the main sequencer/synthesizer in real time as it plays through the track. “On the Run” ends with a roar and a rumble that, on a system capable of delivering it, might even scare you.

 

“Time”

You know what I’m going to say here. The clanging of the multiple clocks going off at the beginning should be nothing less than startling. If ever there was a test of a system’s transient response, here it is. The soundstage, if anything, is even bigger now. This is one of the most masterful uses of reverb in recording history. The mixed male and female processed background vocals are utterly gorgeous. Those vocals rise in intensity after the second chorus, with a scraped guitar string lifting you to Gilmour’s fuzzed-out guitar solo, one of the most epic ever recorded. This should sound simply mammoth, thrilling, with layers of synths, vocals, guitars, everything, behind it. (Conventional wisdom opines that Gilmour’s greatest solo is on “Comfortably Numb” from The Wall. I’d argue, uh uh, no. This one is it.)

 

“The Great Gig in the Sky”

After those dizzying aural heights, you need a comedown. But it’s not a crash . . . just an intensity of a different kind. The soundstage expands to galactic proportions. The dynamic range goes from relaxing to system-taxing. (My main system has 100 watts per channel and three-way speakers, and I didn’t hear any strain. My desktop monitors? Well, I didn’t want to risk blowing them up.) You should be able to hear guest vocalist Clare Torry go from a very distinctive growl (on a good system; it’ll be completely lost on a lesser one) to seductive sweetness and every nuance in between. Wright’s piano accompaniment is the model of sensitivity. And listen to how Waters’ bass beautifully complements Torry’s vocals in the second half of the track. This should sound nothing less than emotionally riveting.

 

“Money”

Like the clocks at the beginning of “Time,” the cash registers and sacks of coins should sound surprising. Listen for the clarity of Waters’ picked bass (as opposed to played with the fingers on the previous track) and the way it drives the song. Once

again, the mix is “big,” but not as much as the previous tracks, and sounds more dynamically compressed. My guess is this was done to make the track sound more radio-friendly. But it’s relative—if the other album tracks’ soundspaces are the size of a galaxy, this one’s merely a solar system in comparison. Listen to the drastic removal of all reverb in the breakdown section after the guitar solo

How to Become an Expert Listener: The Dark Side of the Moon

—a dramatically effective sonic contrast that should come through razor-sharp. Gilmour’s final solo should practically peel the paint off the walls in its treble intensity, yet still have body and depth.

 

“Us and Them”

The galactic soundspace returns. Listen for the “swirl” of Wright’s Hammond organ played through a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet, and the complementing swirl of Gilmour’s guitar through a Uni Vibe pedal, designed to simulate the sound of a Leslie. It’s a rich, densely textured mix. When the sax comes in, even though it has added reverb, it should have a palpable presence and a physicality by comparison.

 

“Any Colour You Like”

Here, Parsons uses repeating echo on the main synthesizer to create spaciousness and depth, and even though it’s a dense mix, you should be able to clearly hear the echo repeats trailing off into the sonic distance. Listen for the harmonic complexity of the multiple synths and guitars and the, once again, startle factor of Gilmour’s guitar when it comes in dead center, in the middle of the song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a clam (wrong note) from the left-channel guitar at around 2:14 into the song.

 

Another track that might sound like a flat wash on a so-so system. Not on a good one.

 

“Brain Damage” & “Eclipse”

I don’t know what else I can say, as these concluding tracks continue the sonic strengths of the rest of the album—exceptional clarity, dynamics, tonal balance, placement of instruments, soundstage width and depth, huge drum sounds, and masterful mixing of all the vocals, instruments, and effects by Parsons. A final test of your system’s resolving power: Near the very end of the album, listen for Abbey Road Studios’ doorman Gerry O’Driscoll saying, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. It’s all dark.” If your system’s up to the task, you’ll hear it.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

How to Become an Expert Listener

How to Become an Expert Listener

Recently, I helped my friend Ed set up two audio systems. During the process of dialing them in, I had to walk him through what to listen for in order to hear the improvements because he didn’t know what to focus on in evaluating the sound. It occurred to me that most people don’t.

 

A luxury stereo system or home theater should deliver exceptional sound, of course. But what exactly should you listen for in evaluating, choosing, setting up, and enjoying a high-performance system?

 

(Note: I’m not going to dig deeply here into how to set up various aspects of a system to achieve peak performance, but rather what to listen for.)

First of all: A system will only sound as good as its source material. It’s essential to use good demo tracks. Don’t go with a low-bit-rate MP3 file for music listening, for example. Use an audiophile CD or LP, or a high-res download or streaming service.

 

For stereo music evaluation, you can’t go wrong with that stone classic, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. It’s one of the best recordings ever made, thanks to the brilliant talent of Grammy-winning engineer Alan Parsons. Listing the strengths of this album is like outlining a mini-course in what to listen for:

 

—Deep, articulate bass, a rich midrange, and extended highs

—Accurate timbre of vocals and instruments (except when deliberately processed)

—An expansive sound field

—Wide dynamics, from almost subliminally soft to powerfully loud

—A remarkably clean sonic character.

 

(I’ll expand on each of these various areas below.)

 

A system should have a coherent tonal balance from top to bottom, without any particular frequency range sticking out. You don’t want it to sound too bright in the midrange (roughly the area between 200Hz and 5kHz, where most of the frequencies of the human voice reside) or have weak, recessed bass. With a solo piano recording like Robert Silverman’s superb Chopin’s Last Waltz, listen for the transitions between the low, middle, and high notes, which should be smooth and seamless.

 

Listen for a clear, “transparent” sound with a lot of fine musical detail. The sound should be pure, without any “grain,” hardness, or roughness in texture. (For example, a flute should sound clean and natural, not buzzy or strident or distorted.) Bass should be articulate, not indistinct. The midrange should have plenty of presence, since that’s where most of the music “lives.” Highs should be airy and extended.

 

Subtleties like the “ting” of the triangle in the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony recording of Scheherazade (an example of the upper range) or the reverb on Shelby Lynne’s voice on Just A Little Lovin’ (an example of the midrange) should be clearly audible. Although it’s not all that realistic in terms of spatial positioning of the instruments, Miles Davis’ jazz classic Kind of Blue is excellent for evaluating timbre, resolution, and overall naturalness of sound.

 

For stereo setups, listen for a coherent sound field without a “hole in the middle” (from your speakers being too far apart 

or not angled in properly) or a lack of imaging and spaciousness (speakers too close together). Depending on the recording, vocals and instruments can be precisely defined in space, left to right and front to back, and the sound field can seem to extend beyond the speakers and maybe even the room. (For some tips on speaker placement, check out these articles from Lifewire and Dynaudio.)

 

However, be aware that on some recordings, especially those from the late 1950s through early 1970s, vocals and instruments can be placed too far off to the left or right. Also, you won’t hear laser-focused pinpoint imaging on a properly-miked orchestral recording—because that’s not what things sound like in real life. And keep in mind that changing your

listening position will have a significant impact on the sound.

 

I once visited the Harman listening lab in Northridge, California, where they used Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to help determine the differences between speakers. That’s because it’s one of the easiest cuts for people to use in picking out sonic differences.

 

When listening to multichannel movies or music, the sound literally expands, thanks to the addition of center and surround speakers, one or more subwoofers, and, in some installations, height speakers (for example, in a Dolby Atmos system). In fact, Cineluxe has some excellent recommendations for home theater demo material.

 

Listen for a good balance between all the speakers. The surround speakers and subwoofers shouldn’t overly call attention to themselves except when the audio mix warrants it. You should hear a seamless, immersive 360-degree bubble of sound.

 

Dialogue clarity is critical for movies and TV! As such, the performance of the center-channel speaker in a multichannel setup is crucial. (Center-channel volume can be set independently—a very important aspect of home theater system tuning.)

How to Listen—The App

 

I have a confession to make.

 

Instead of writing this post,  I could have been lazy and just told you to check out the Harman: How to Listen app. It’s a training course that teaches you how to become a better listener by pointing out various sonic aspects to focus on, such as specific frequency ranges, spatial balances, and other attributes. Check out this post by Harman’s Dr. Sean Olive for more details.

–F.D.

On another note, it’s a good idea to use material you’re familiar with when evaluating a system, even if it’s not “demo quality,” so you can instantly hear the improvements a luxury system can make. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat someone in front of my high-end setup, asked them to pick a favorite piece of music, and then heard them say things like, “I can’t believe the difference! I never knew it could sound like that! It sounds like a different recording!”

 

The best advice I can give is to constantly school yourself to become a better listener.

 

Go out and listen to live unamplified music, whether at Carnegie Hall or a friend strumming an acoustic guitar. Get familiar with the sonic nuances of various instruments. Listen to as many audio and home theater systems as possible, at stores, friends’ houses, and audio shows. Listen to the sounds around you—birds, wind, city streets.

 

Good listeners are made, not born.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.