Intimidation

With ski season approaching in Colorado I am reminded of the futility of trying to talk someone out of being intimidated by merely telling them they shouldn’t be.  Doesn’t work.

Imagine standing at a steep cliff and intimidated at the prospect of imminent doom should you ski down it.  Your buddy standing next to you says “don’t be scared”.  You’re still scared.  But if that same buddy says “just go around the corner and there’s an easy way down” you’re all better.  When someone is intimidated by a big expensive stereo system, maybe it’s better to let them know they can have something that’s close in performance, without breaking the bank, instead of letting them walk away shaking their head.

They can, you know.

Reading one of the stereo mags about the last consumer audio show, RMAF, and one of the reviewers was waxing about the great experience in the most expensive room at the show.  He comments that with all that invested in the equipment ones expectations were high and he’s gratified to not be let down.  I think the room must have had a quarter of a million dollars in gear.  Quite a treat for anyone to hear such a system.  But intimidating at the same time.

I think it may be disingenuous for us to keep the high price myth alive.  You know, the myth that you have to spend megabucks to reach audio nirvana?  It just isn’t so.

The vast majority of people who would not consider themselves Audiophiles instantly pickup on better sound.  It never fails in a demo.  And yes, they are wowed by the big system, the expensive system, the over-the-top system.  But they are even more impressed to hear an affordable in-reach system.

So too are we Audiophiles.  Isn’t what we all want a setup we can play with pride?  To be able to listen and enjoy music without having to make excuses about this or that lacking?

The next time your friend reads about such a system or stands in front of yours whistling at the expense, maybe realize you have an opportunity to turn his intimidation into a win for both of you.

Great systems don’t have to be expensive.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

An even bigger difference

Reader Erik Dorr writes:

“The difference in SQ between formats is like splitting hairs compared to differences in recording quality.  A good 44/16 recording played back on good hardware is a 100% musically satisfying experience, while mediocre recordings on a 2x DSD can sound like crap.  I personally have lost all interest in formats (although obviously I am not an MP3 guy), and focus exclusively on content.

I admittedly may be in the fortunate position of having $60K invested in my front end (DAC / Preamp / cables), but I very strongly feel that the real engineering / marketing challenge is to bring down the price point of this level of performance on 44/16 to a few grand and NOT to convert the universe of listeners to adopting new formats.  I believe many in the industry are trying to solve the wrong problem.”

Erik and I disagree on the last conclusion about formats, but I certainly agree with him on the point of the recording quality.  I have some CD’s that sound FAR better than some of my high resolution discs.  I am sure you do as well.

If only there was a standard marking or rating system we, as Audiophiles, could use and trust.  I’d sign up for that in a heartbeat.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio,Intl.

I prefer mine chilled

In yesterday’s post I asked if you cared about the format, sample rate and technical information of the music you listen to.  Or are you ok with not knowing as long as it sounds great?  Many of you wrote me back with great answers.  Some care, others not, still more confused a bit about the question.

One of my favorite internet radio stations is KPLU in Seattle, known as Jazz 24.  I listen to this almost every night as we cook dinner and it sounds terrific.  Turns out the stream is at the lowest bit rate possible and mono.  Mono for goodness sake!  On my little kitchen radio appliance I couldn’t tell nor, for that matter, do I care.  But try listening to KPLU on your big system and you’d be horrified at the indignity this great music suffers from a station who obviously cares a great deal about music.

And now Sony jumps on the bandwagon and is going to put its muscle into marketing a new breed of digital music player; a player so good the format of what you listen to will no longer be relevant and all that matters is high rez or low rez.  I don’t see where this player is anything special but what I do see is the possibility this 600 pound gorilla can turn millions of people onto the idea music has different reproduction quality levels.  This can be huge for those of us interested in furthering the quality of recorded music.  I just love the way they are relating HD TV to HD music.  There’s a great connection there.  Even the most uninformed luddite is probably aware of HD TV.

But do we as Audiophiles care what it is we listen to?  Could Sony’s attempt at turning the format information into oatmeal, palpable by anyone, change the way we choose what music to buy and listen to?  Doubtful.

You are an Audiophile.  You know the difference between good and less good sound and some formats sound better than others.  If you’re going to spend money buying music, why would you all of a sudden not care what it is you’re buying?

Imagine this question were put to wine drinkers.   The average consumer knows there are red and white wines and probably understands whites are cold, reds are not.  But choose a format of wine?  Merlot, Chardonnay and vintage?  What’s a vintage?  Don’t all cabs taste similar?

No, I think we’re not average consumers and we do care.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

Should we care?

Sony has announced a renewed attempt at grabbing market share in the music business.  This time in the form of players that play anything including high resolution.

Their last attempt, SACD, was a great sounding medium but they shot themselves in the collective foot by being so restrictive and didn’t have the chops to pull off a monopoly like they wanted.  Their corporate history is littered with multiple attempts at monopolizing an industry, Blu Ray being their latest one.  Who could forget the Betamax vs. VHS wars?  Perhaps their outright purchase of several major motion picture studios will help them win the video format monopoly they are currently looking for.

This latest attempt doesn’t have the traditional markings of monopoly building and may, in fact, be a legitimate attempt at joining the marketplace and adding to high end audio rather than trying to take it over.  Only time will tell.

What’s interesting to me is a trend they are pushing.  ”Don’t worry about the format, just enjoy the music”.  They are trying to take the computer out of the experience.  I think that’s a great trend and will go a long way towards simplifying the experience of downloading any high resolution format and just enjoying the music without concern how it go there or what its technical aspects are.

So do we really care about this?  Are we, as Audiophiles, worried about losing touch with the different formats, choices, bit rates, sample rates, double this or single that?

Well, are we?

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

The optimum level

There is an optimum volume level for every track of music in your library.  It won’t be the same for every system, but it will be the same when it reaches your ears.

It’s always risky to say there is but “one right” way to do something, but over the years I have never seen this observation to be anything but correct.  Once you hear a track of music played at exactly the right level, you’ll understand what I mean.  But how do we get the loudness just right and when do we know it’s right?

Loudness has many variables: the system itself, the room, the number of people in the room etc.  Within those constraints it’s relatively easy to get the perfect level of any given track of music.  Most of us have the innate ability to simply adjust the level until it’s right and surprisingly enough, that correct level seems nearly identical amongst different people in the same room.  After years of playing stereos for people and observing their reactions, the correct loudness level for any given piece of music seems rather obvious.  I’ll give you a few tips to use if you want to see what I mean.

Image and elements within the image size.  The size of a particular instrument, voice or entire presentation is coupled to loudness.  If it’s too loud the size of the instrument or soundstage is too big to be natural.  What’s interesting here is the opposite doesn’t seem to hold.  If the level is too low, the entire image shrinks in size as you would expect, but individual instruments seem to stay in proportion to the whole below a certain threshold.  A threshold that starts to approach background levels for the music.

Blaring.  This is a good indication of too loud for an individual element or the entire piece.

Presence.  If the track isn’t loud enough it tends to be caught up in the background of the room and won’t have a lifelike presence.

These are just a few of the indications of tracks being too low or too high in level.  The actual level itself is system and room dependent, as I mentioned, so you need to figure out a baseline that works for you and adjust individual tracks from that point on a case by case basis depending on how many people are in the room at any one time (people act like absorbers).

I find this element of presentation so critical that I mark each track I play with the appropriate volume level on the DAC or preamp.  Looking at my library, you’d see numbers next to each of the tracks helping me get it right for a perfect listen or demonstration.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Pushing too hard

In yesterday’s post Common Myths I encouraged people to think of the volume control on their stereo systems as a brake rather than a gas pedal and release as much of it as they could.

Several of you were kind enough to point out one little thing I neglected in writing this advice: loudness.  To be clear, when releasing the brakes on your volume control, be mindful of loudness for a couple of reasons: you don’t get good benefit from pushing a power amplifier too hard and there’s a perfect level for every system and piece of music.

The take away on the level control setting sounding best at its highest, is one that has to be tempered with good practices and common sense: don’t exceed or even get close to pushing your power amplifier or loudspeaker too hard.  Worry about pushing your drivers too hard.  Never listen too loudly for your ears.  Remember that each system, room and piece of music has a perfect volume level: too low or too high is just simply wrong.

Let’s cover that in detail tomorrow.

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl

Common myths

I am afraid to turn the volume control all the way up!

One of the common myths I see amongst Audiophiles is the idea that the higher you turn a volume control the more stress you’re putting on the device.  Keeping the volume control at a conservative or comfortable setting is easier on the equipment and the sound produced is less strained.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Volume controls are intrusive.  They don’t make volume, they restrict volume.  They are always holding back the level, not increasing it.  The few exceptions to this would include our older Gain Cell products where the opposite was true.  But that’s extremely rare.  The vast majority of level controls are restrictive in nature and less is definitely more.

Stepped attenuators as well as simple potentiometer based controls are resistive elements in series with the signal path.  They stand in the way of the music and restrict how much gets through.  So do not think of them as the gas pedal of a car.  Rather, they are more like the brakes on the car.

Cars always do better if you’re not riding the brakes and stereo systems are no different.

BTW, have you noticed how, with the rise of personal video cameras (cell phones) in everyone’s pocket, the reported sightings of flying saucers have almost disappeared?  As soon as most of us gained the ability to video record reality, the popular myths we couldn’t argue with before get fewer and fewer.

What’s your favorite Audiophile myth?

Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

This is the final chapter in the long story about my friend Giorgio Moroder.  We had finished recording the Germersheim rock festival, returned to the network headquarters in Frankfurt with many hours of tape.  The quality of that tape wasn’t great and the German engineers had rejected it for network play.  On my way out of the building I let my friend, newscaster Milt Fullerton, in on my little secret about having long hair, disguising it under a short hair wig, and Milt immediately went to the commanding officer of AFN and ratted me out.

It was Tuesday, May 23, 1972 the day I returned from the festival and got back to Munich.  Hot on my agenda was finding a place to build a new recording studio with Giorgio Moroder.  Terri and I had looked at quite a few places but on that very day, found exactly what we were looking for.  A beautiful large home in the Munich suburbs with a large garden and, most important of all, a big basement where we could build a studio.  The landlord had no problem with us running a business out of the place.  We grabbed Giorgio and Pete Bellotti to take a look.  They loved it and Terri and I signed a 5 year lease with the owner.  Things were moving along nicely.  Construction on the new studio could begin immediately.  I would be released from the Army within 30 days.

The following Monday I was surprised to see AFN’s commanding officer in the building.  I was the morning DJ, responsible for a program called the Dawn Patrol, and if you’re interested, you can click here to hear a very tiny segment of my saying goodbye to listeners to that program.  I am only on about the last 5 seconds of this clip.

When I got out of the studio that morning, there was a lot of activity around the Colonel’s visit and I was surprised when I was told to go report to him in the office (kind of like going to see the assistant principal at school).  This wasn’t good, no doubt, and my heart was in my mouth as I stood before the colonel, Neil Fontaine the station manager and the German secretary from the front office taking notes.  I was standing at attention after having saluted the colonel and he spoke.

“Take off the wig”.  Uh, oh.  That was the last thing I thought I would hear.  I slowly reached up and took off my short hair wig.  Underneath the wig was my real and longish hair, bobby pinned up like a girl.

“You look like an idiot.”  I felt like an idiot.  ”You have been a pain in the side of the army for several years now.  We’ve tolerated your shenanigans because you’re a good announcer.  But now it’s over.  You have 6 months left in the service and that gives me the right to try and fix your attitude for your own good.”

“Sir, respectively, I am scheduled to be released in a few days here in Germany.”

“Yes, I know.  I’ve rescinded that order and you are to be transferred to Fort Benning Georgia immediately.  There you will serve out the rest of your time in the hopes we can turn you into a good soldier.  I really should put you in the brig but I think this may be worse.”

Panic set in.  This man had absolute control over my life.  I had just signed a 5 year lease on a home, a handshake agreement with Giorgio Moroder and this was intolerable.  ”Sir, if you don’t let me out as agreed I will burn down this network.”

“Son, I am going to give you one more chance.  For your own good I have contacted the commanding officer in Fort Benning and asked him to make sure your life is a living hell.  You’re not going to burn down anything.  Your ass will be on an airplane tomorrow morning at 0600 hours and we are done.  Dismissed.”

And true to his word, my ass was on a plane leaving from Frankfurt the next morning.  My personal effects were scooped up by a moving company and unceremoniously delivered to Columbus Georgia in a large box.  The tapes were all there, the mixing console and other electronics stayed a part of AFN, gone forever.  I never had a chance to say goodbye to anyone, I was just gone, my hopes and dreams of a recording studio and a life with musicians dashed.  Terri has never forgiven me for blowing the gig.

Epilog

The army is a big organization and manages to shoot itself in the foot on a routine basis.  Upon arrival in Georgia’s Fort Benning I reported to my new commanding officer.  He looked at my records and said “I see here you’re a 71B (radio announcer).  Odd they sent you here with only 6 months to go.  The only job in your field is at the hospital radio station.  I will assign you there, you have one person under your command.”  Command?  They were putting me in charge of a radio station?  This was my living hell?

I arrived at the hospital radio station, located in the basement of the Fort Benning hospital.  It was affectionately known as the “Bedpan network”.  The soldier I was in “charge of” was named Lou and he was a private who was attempting to get out of the army as a conscientious objector.  Needless to say, we got along just fine.  The station consisted of 12 AM radio tuners, allowing the hospital patients to select from one of the 12 stations using their pillow speakers.  There was nothing to do.  Our only job was to make sure the tuners were working each morning.

I quickly learned that the sergeant in charge checked on us once a week, on Friday, at 3pm.  No one knew or cared we were there otherwise and most of the time we weren’t.

I went through official channels to get permission to work as a DJ at night, after hours, and was denied.  undeterred as usual, that only prompted me to simply change my air name from Paul McGowan to Christopher Robin, take the job at local radio station WCLS in Columbus and became one of the more popular DJ’s – one the army sergeants who told me I could not take the job liked.  It was somewhat surrealistic to check into the day room in the morning with the very sergeant that denied me permission to work – and hear him talking about the new DJ in town that made them laugh.  The new DJ’s name was Christopher Robin.  Had I ever listened to his program?

Life is as interesting as you make it.  All the tapes of the concert, all my interviews with the rock stars, a few 16 track 2 inch masters from Giorgio’s studio are all sitting in a box decaying over time.  It’s on my list to go through those and share them with the world, if only I had the time and equipment.

Thanks for reading.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Hatching the plot

When you look back over events in your life you can see a string of mistakes and successes that lead up to a final outcome.  In the retelling of my encounters with Giorgio Moroder and the subsequent events that lead to my removal from Europe and banishment to the wilds of Georgia, this story details my first big mistake in the chain.

In 1969 Woodstock happened.  A giant music festival with half a million people.  In 1970, the Isle of Wight drew even more fans, over 600,000, the single largest gathering of humans in history; all there for music, drugs and fun.  It was the 70′s.  Many would be fans of these festivals, including me, were not able to attend because of a previous engagement.   We’d been invited to join the armed services and the invitations were rather insistent: the Army or prison.  I chose the Army and wound up with a pretty good gig in Germany as a disc jockey.  That didn’t stop me from being disappointed at missing both festivals and when, in 1972, a new festival to be held in Germany was announced, I was determined to be part of it.  The festival would be called The British Rock Meeting and be held in Germersheim Germany.

At about the same time, I was getting involved in recording studios, hanging out with local musicians and, as I mentioned, Giorgio Moroder of Musicland Studios.  These local musicians wanted to be recorded: making demo tapes they could play for prospective record producers in the hopes of getting a contract.  I hadn’t yet sealed the deal with Girogio, yet wanted to remain active in the musician’s community and decided to go it alone.  All I needed to record musicians was a bit of equipment.  The radio station where I worked had plenty of microphones and tape decks, even a large studio where we could go to record at night, but nothing to mix multiple channels of music when a live band played.  So, being me, I built my own 16 channel mixing console out of parts purchased from local German stores; encased in a custom metal cabinet complete with 16 cool VU meters, slide pots for volume and rotaries for panning left to right.  I was Mr. Cool.

The mixing console worked well for microphones.  It was really nothing more than 16 microphone preamplifiers I bought on the Germany economy, all tied together through a master set of volume controls for the final mixdown and feed to the tape recorder.  If the musicians were using electric guitars and bass, I would simply place a microphone in front of their big speakers and record the live sound that came out of it.  I had never recorded anything more than local musicians and was itching to do a “real” recording.  Then I heard about the upcoming rock festival in Germersheim and knew I wanted to be the one to record that festival for the AFN network.  The festival would feature a lot of big name artists including: Pink Floyd, The Doors, Humble Pie, Rory Gallagher, Atomic Rooster, Curved Air, the Kinks, Buddy Miles and many more.  What a challenge!  These were real musicians.

Through my friend, British record produced Pete Bellotti, I got in touch with the organizers and was granted permission to record the entire show for the Armed Forces Radio Network.  That agreement based on my little white lie that I already had permission from the network to build a many-hour show to playback the best performances.  The organizers had their eye on a repeat festival the next year and jumped at the chance for access to the single largest english speaking radio audience in Europe, AFN, with millions of listeners.  The only hitch in the get along was, of course, it wasn’t true that I had gotten permission.  In fact, I hadn’t even asked.  But that never stopped me from executing a great idea.

AFN was officially run by the military but, in reality, it was actually managed by a group of civilians.  The news department was nearly all civilian and the head of many of the network stations around Europe were civilians, including where I worked, AFN Munich.  Our station was run by a very likable self-infatuated gentleman named Neil Fontaine; whose one claim to fame at the time was a bit part in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate factory, filmed in Munich.  I knew Neil would agree to anything that raised the stature of his organization in the eyes of the network and so to work I went, explaining that the show organizers of a “major music festival” had asked me to record the event for exclusive playback on the network.  Neil hated rock music, hippies, and the sorts of people that would attend an outdoor rock concert, so I only mentioned it was a music festival and conveniently left out what kind of music.

“Sorry Paul, we simply don’t have the equipment, manpower or resources to record such an event.”  I knew that all I had to do was get Neil to say yes to some part of the plan.  Any part would do.

“Mr. Fontaine, IF the resources were made available by the show organizers, would you agree to rebroadcast the events?”

“Certainly, it would be a feather in our cap.”

“Let me ask and see what can be done.”  It wasn’t difficult from that point on: all I had to do was stretch the truth just a little (well, a lot actually) and several days later I announced to Neil the organizers would provide the recording facilities and engineers and all we would have to do is supply the tape.  We’d need about 40 10″ reels of tape and they would handle the rest.  Neil’s eyes lit up with visions of accolades from the network.  Little did he know he was about to commit AFN to taping the largest drug crazed rock fest in German history, something the conservative heads of the Armed Forces Network would surely never have approved had they known.

The plot sickens tomorrow.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl.

Rules

A plan was hatched between Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotti, Terri McGowan and me that would change the course of our lives.

In yesterdays post Giorgio Moroder, I began to tell the story of my first meeting with record producer and father of disco, Giorgio Moroder, first introduced to me by my friend Pete Bellotti.  Giorgio had a Moog synthesizer and a recording studio, the two things I wanted more than anything in the world.  I was living in Munich Germany, after being drafted into the Army, and luckily was a rock and roll DJ for the Armed Forces Network (AFN) rather than an infantryman in Vietnam (which was raging at the time).

My new friend Giorgio made his living recording top 40 knock offs called “covers”.  These were copies of popular American songs translated into German to be played on the local radio stations.  Giorgio was actually doing quite well making these knock off covers but hated the work which involved no creativity or originality.  He felt as if he were in a factory doing menial labor (which wasn’t far from the truth).  I, on the other hand, was an engineer and not a musician and thought the idea of running a recording studio, making knock offs of top 40 covers would be the coolest thing I could imagine making a living at.  Over time me, Giorgio and my new girl friend Terri (the future Mrs. McGowan), got together and hatched a plan to get all of us what we wanted: Giorgio the time and money to make “real music” and for Terri and me a chance to run a recording studio and hang out with musicians.  It would be a match made in heaven but for one small detail.  I already had a “job”.

The US Army has some pretty strict rules (go figure).  One of those rules was indentured servitude, the other a strict dress code.  More on the dress code later.

If you were in the service it was illegal to have another job.  You worked for Uncle Sam and no one else.  When our plan was taking shape I had about 1 year left in the Army before I could go home back to what we service men called “the world”.  Giorgio wanted to build another studio and wanted Terri and I to run it, make the covers he hated doing and let him pursue his dreams of real music in his studio called Musicland in the basement of the Arabella hotel in Munich Germany.  We’d get a studio and a salary out of the deal.  Giorgio was in a hurry to get moving and Terri and I were in a hurry to move with him.

At the time there was an Army program called a European Out.  This program was offered to soldiers stationed in Europe who had been good citizens of the Army and included a 6 month early release from duty and a one-way ticket back to the States, usable whenever the soldier wanted to go home.  I applied for this program and got the ok from my commanding officer (who was probably happy to see me go).  I would be released from the service in a few months and Giorgio, Terri and I went looking for a place to build our new studio.  Timing was perfect, Giorgio would fund the entire enterprise, and life was looking really good.  All I had to do was keep my nose clean for a few months.  A model soldier I was not and at the time, keeping out of trouble wasn’t the easiest of things for me, but I suppose one could say I would “soldier on” (sarcasm noted).

I was still making weekly interviews with all the big rock stars and my friend Pete Bellotti had gotten me an exclusive interview with Elton John and a copy of the master tape of his Rocket Man track.  I was able to be the first to play Rocket Man to the world over AFN, a real feather in the network’s cap.  I still have that tape to this day.

Tomorrow we take a big turn in the road and travel to Germersheim Germany where we join 72,000 crazed, stoned rock fans in an open air festival and yes – it’s all part of the story.


Paul McGowan – PS Audio, Intl