Friday, November 11, 2011

lzy chf ssgs prsnts: A Winged Victory for Depleted Music? (Birdy Numb Numb?)

Read this first.

Over the past few years, I've been making an effort to become a better listener. In practice, this has meant taking more time with fewer recordings, being patient with ones I didn't get immediately, and aggressively filtering out hype by actively avoiding review sites and people raving about things released yesterday – or next week (ahem).

Circumstances have also meant that a lot of this listening has been done on my mp3 player, which is a hand-me-down from my friend Dave S that he donated after mine was incinerated in that pesky little bushfire that nearly killed me, back in early 2009. Dave gave me his player mostly because he's a nice guy. Hi Dave. But the headphone jack was slightly busted, which is the main reason why he'd replaced said pod with a smaller, lighter flash drive version. I had my hand-me-down repaired for about sixty bucks, and it serves me well enough to this day.

I can't say I love my mp3 player, really – does anyone? It works, but I don't identify with it or through it, the way some people do with their iPhones (that Siri thing is especially creepy). I can't say I love my mp3s, either. Is it even possible to really love files?

Still, I'd be fucked without mp3, my hand-me-down player, and the internet, music wise. Being a PhD student and living in Australia means that I can't afford to satisfy my appetite for new music with the physical objects, especially vinyl, that I so prefer. I still buy vinyl, but only sure things that I've already had for months on file, in big orders, to cut down on shipping costs. Net effect? I am almost completely dependent on mp3. Quite the full-blown user. I slam that shit right directly into my pod; streaming is for pussies.

Facilitating this habit in an acceptably ethical way means that increasingly I rely on friends of mine sending me sendspace links to their copies, and I do likewise when I've got something new, as well as taking full advantage of soundcloud, and listening to a lot of podcasts. I'm right back where I was in high school: one of us would fork out for the CD, after which we'd fill all reasonable requests for a cassette copy, knowing that our friends would do likewise for us when it was their turn to take the hit on the CD (at a time when 30 bucks was an obscene amount of money). The rest was all radio, which I'd also tape. In quantitative terms, my biggest 90s music spend was on TDK AD cassettes and a series of Walkmen. I listened to my tapes a while back, on a 4 battery 80s Walkman (one of the early 80s models with the double jack) in good nick that I picked up in an op shop; the tapes now sound like shit, but they're easy on the ears. You can listen to their muddy renditions of your faves for hours and hours and hours. They make mp3 sound pretty good.

The combined effects of my efforts at better listening and my mp3 dependency have had interesting effects. I listen to things a lot more. Not just more closely, with undivided attention (which is the ultimate scarce resource in the age of the iCon), but more often. The play count bar, which I activated in iTunes a while back, indicates that I've listened to John Maus' Pitiless Censors... 20 times, Peaking Lights' 936 19 times, and the Menahan Street Band 13 times. This is more than you'd think. In fact, since activating the play count, I also learnt that I've only listened to some albums (I purport to know and understand) three to five times. Which is kinda rubbish, no? The fact that I have a 30 gig mp3 player and prefer 320 or lossless, in tandem with my listening policy, also means that I continually prune the shit out of my collection. If it's NQR, it doesn't last long. But on the other hand, if I've so much of an inkling that a recording has something amazing or exceptional about it (or if a person I trust insists it has), I persist with it. Thus Destroyer's Kaputt stayed on board for months, even though I thought it was a bit naff at first, based on silent ssg DW's rave. Now I fucking love it. As hardwax would say: tip!!! Just had to sit with it for a while, until it clicked into focus with my mood. See? If you're careful about what and how you use what you use, you can learn: not just about the music, but about yourself and the way listening works its way in to you. Give it a go. But then a little something happened...

Anyone who's come within five feet of me this year has heard me gab on about John Maus, Tim Hecker, and Kangding Ray. My wife's father has been on the receiving end of some of these gushes. He's a muso and a boomer and a recorded music aficionado; that rare beast, a man in late middle age who is still actively seeking out, and genuinely open to, new sounds. He's also picky, and will often surprise me by liking things I hadn't expected, and hating things I was sure he'd dig. It turns buying presents challenging, nerve-wracking fun.

I went into a record store - a real, physical record store - to get him the John Maus for his birthday after pump-priming him with a superenthused rant about it, and (seduced by the cover yet again), I also bought him Winged Victory for the Sullen – Christmas sorted. I hadn't bought CDs for years. It felt... weird. I don't dig CDs as objects. Ugly data carriers in cheap plastic cases. Well, the discs themselves were cool when they came out. Frickin' laser beams. So 90s. But, you know, in 2011 in Melbourne, a city where a pint of beer costs ten bucks (USD 10; 6.3 GBP; 7.5 Euro, at least for the next few days) and a burger in a pub costs 19, 25 spaceclams isn't really that much to pay for a CD.

So I pedalled home with the CDs, and cheekily (is it okay to play a gift before you give it?) I fired up Winged Victory, which I've been listening to it very closely on the phones and over the speakers at various volumes for the past few weeks. But on CD? Holy shit balls. Holy fuck. What the fuck was I thinking? Who the hell was I kidding? The CD sounded about 30% better than the mp3. An instant and expensive revelation... I had got so wrapped up in mp3 – by habit, by circumstance, and by active practice – that I straight up jilted myself out of the music. I mean: with mp3, it was all there, all audible, but by comparison it is just manifestly lacking in punch, vitality, body. The CD was just in every way a more visceral, engaging experience. So: if, like me, you are mp3 dependent and think you have heard all your favourite recordings have to give, you are jerking your jack (and not only when you wiggle it 'cos it's crackling).

It made me think of this quote from RA's interview with Ben Frost:

I read this interview today between Nico [Muhly, labelmate on Bedroom Community] and Jonsi [Birgisson, lead singer of Sigur Ros] talking about [Jonsi's new album] Go, where Jonsi was saying he limits what he listens to in the same way he limits his diet to raw vegan food. While I crave red meat and couldn't dream of being a raw food vegan, my approach to music and film and literature is very similar. It's not that I hate music as much as I know I just don't need 99% of it. I don't need to hear every half-baked rehash hipster band Pitchfork is trying to ram down my throat, just like I don't need a fucking quarter pounder meal. But conversely, submitting myself to an hour of like, Darkthrone, is in a way overstepping a naturally occurring inclination to not consume that music and to not submit myself to that sound and that volume. It's more like forcing yourself to go for a run to get rid of the hangover instead of staying in bed. There is a physiological reaction to the experience that translates into this big release of endorphins. It's punishing, and that's the point I think. It's not supposed to be enjoyable in itself, it's a submission. You can't ignore the Norwegians, and I wish more music commanded that kind of commitment.

What's this got to do with the price of dark metal hamburgers in Oslo you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a depleted age. Depleted fish stocks, depleted tomatoes, depleted uranium: we're loving the convenience, but we're also living the consequences. We are the consuming causes of it all. And all of us have pitchforked the odd 'quarterpounder' when we're in a hurry, no? All of us have partaken in the depleted feast; so all of us have further depleted the feast. The datasea is, weirdly, a hyperabundance of mostly depleted music (just as our real oceans will soon be full of Nomura jellyfish, jumbo squid, and PET bottles, all turning around in the great gyre). What's the problem?

When you eat depleted food, it tastes okay, but it's all in Dr Evil style quotation marks: 'tuna', 'tomato', 'lettuce', 'laser beams'. It tastes 'nice', and makes you 'full', but it lacks... it's not satisfying. And that perpetuates the lack. Which makes you want more. And so you go back, and go back, and keep consuming, and never feel full. Which suits those pimping the depleted stuff just fine. When I visit my mum, she feeds me fresh lettuce from the garden. It tastes deeply green, and deliciously bitter. Winged Victory on CD was just like that: there was more there, there. More space, more dynamism. The silences were more silent, and the strings were stringier. Like mum's lettuce, it was much more satisfying, more nutritious.

So then this week, I went back to the CD shop. I bought Ravedeath, 1972 on CD. I came home, and listened to it, start to finish, at high volume. It was amazing. It was moving. It was also actually quite exhausting. Full on. You had to submit to it, just like Ben Frost's hangover run and Darkthrone marathons. What does this mean for my precious mp3-dependent practice?

Mp3 is incredibly convenient, and, used thoughtfully, mp3 players can offer us all really interesting new ways of moving and listening to music at the same time. They're do-while devices, for using while we commute, work, sit at screens, enter data into the datasea (that's your job, back to work!). Sony invented this paradigm with the Walkman, and with its incredible success, it also proved that most people prefer convenience to quality. Or at least: provided quality is perceived-to-be-sufficient, convenience wins. Most of us will cop a depleted whopper to conveniently address our lack. But are you getting what you need?

So: it's obviously much more important to listen carefully to good music on whatever media you can afford (spending 100,000 on a hi-fi you then play bilge through is most likely a profoundly foolish conclusion to take from what I'm saying). Little speakers, lo fi, a range of setups: they can all offer interesting ways to listen, and they all potentially have value. But don't diddle yourself: our dependency has consequences. Our convenience comes at a cost. Most of us, most of the time? We are listening to depleted music.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. After 2k words, I'm left wondering why are you content with distributing "depleted" copies of the very special mixes you've brought us over the years?

  3. I'm not a huge fan of CDs, but I will buy almost any CD release of albums I really love (especially underground shit that is highly limited) for car and home listening. I will also play music in the car off of my iPhone, a very convenient way to listen to say rips of recent 12"s or vinyl/cassette only albums without having to have a record/cassette player handy.

    At home, I have a nice mid 70s hi-fi for listening to CDs and cassettes that sounds AMAZING. And then I play my records through my studio monitors, tho I now want to get a smaller hi-fi to monitor my turntables/deejay mixes on. Listening to highest quality playback is essential for me. The convenience of mp3 is nice, but I mostly use it to listen to things I already own on CD/wax/cassette as opposed to being the primary way I own and listen to the music.

    Mixes downloaded from online are the only music I own only as mp3, and I'm still quite alright with that as storage and bandwidth are not yet plentiful and cheap enough for my deejay mix archive to be all WAV. I do however keep my own deejay mixes backed up as WAVs!!

  4. $10 a pint is outrageous. i pay $2 for the cheap stuff, $4 for the craftier brews. my condolences

  5. @ sparkletone: I'm not sure if you're being snide, you haven't read me carefully, or you're just wilfully insensitive to the context. My only polite answer to your comment is:

    why do you think!?

    @ pafufta: it is off the chain ridiculous. Copenhagen is now 'cheap' compared to Melbourne.

  6. I might be mildly glib, but my question/meaning/whatever is sincere.


    Because that is how you receive the mixes, and honestly most of the DJs that aren't doing vinyl sets record them using mp3s.

    For full disclosure: I'm a digital DJ myself and everything I use is either 320s or FLAC.

    If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend checking out the RBMA lecture that the guy who runs Funktion 1 gave recently. If anything's going to make you really care about what you put in your signal chain, and the parts that make up that chain (sound card, pre amp, speakers, everything) ... That will.

    I think things are getting better though. Whlie 256kbps (which is really fine for most consumer-grade signal chains) is the norm now (Amazon, iTunes) ... 320 is also exceedingly common. Not that long ago 128 was the standard, and 320 was hard to come by! Given the plumetting cost of storage, I think reasonable lossless storage is not THAT far off relatively speaking.

    Which is where my question comes from. I get why historically your mixes have been distributed the way they have. I'm grateful. I've enjoyed the hell out of them. But you guys continue to post the occasional ssg special and what not.

    Why not ask for a lossless version of the mix from your contributors and then give listeners the choice of convenience or "the real thing." In the days of cheap 500GB and larger hard drives, the size difference doesn't matter as much as one might think.

    PS. I get that you personally live in Australia, where holy shit bandwidth prices are insane for various reasons... But I don't feel like most of your readership is there. We don't necessarily sweat the big downloads, you know?


    Interesting stuff from Tony Andrews of Funktion 1. Including the assertion that a 320kbps tune contains only 20% of the information of a CD.

  8. You heads are still spilling guts on the internet? God bless!
    Electronics and entrails everywhere!!!

    I like my Ipod apple thing, it feeds me lithium and pumps me jams when I need it. And then it eats the lithium back up real quick and i don't even have to worry about renal function and then I get spun manic proper.

    Saving up for vinyl spins me the best...

    and the information contained in any transmission is irrelevant to the information referred to by the transmission.

    The signifier 'no' can signify a hell of a lot at a very low bitrate. All it takes is one bit to change your world, but then you get hooked and it is more about noise than anything else...

    and noise will eat a fine chunk out of your bandwidth!

  9. Tony Andrews' comment is ridiculous. obiously 320 kbps is 1:5 of the bitrate on a cd.

    last year I attended a presentation where Tony Andrews himself played different sources through a special pair of reference F1s. there was definitely a noticeable difference between 192 kbps mp3 and wave - especially with the bass, which was a surprise - however, the man himself admitted that he was only able to discriminate between 320 kbps mp3 and cd audio on very special occasions!


    it seems more than likely that the real difference comes from the signal chain - have you thought about that? playing your mp3s through a portable player or laptop is bound to give som bad results.

    the biggest problem with doing that is impedance mismatching. the impedance of the output of an iPod, for instance, is much too high for the input of a hifi amp. you can hear the music, sure, but since a resistor is the same as a low-pass filter, the top end will suffer and there will also be distortion and adverse effects on the low end.

    the problem could probably be remedied by a device like this (from Australia, actually):

  10. oh, and a usb soundcard may very well present the same issues.

  11. @ sparkletone: Ah, I getcha now.

    Historically, it hasn't been an option, and we've been offering what we thought was the best compromise between quality and convenience.

    That, and, some artists don't feel comfortable having mixes in WAV and so forth, for the reason that... people will rip it, of course.

    Even if the contributor was willing to offer (and we could ask), there's the issue of getting 'consent' from the other artists involved, if it's a DJ mix...

    Our feeling is that 320 or whatever the artist offers us is perfectly sufficient for listening purposes using the walkpeople of the contemporary period, the pods. And this is not out of kilter with what I'm saying.

    I/we hope that you might listen to Ben Frost's set here, or Jonsson/Alter's recent one, then go get yourself a proper copy on your preferred media: CD, vinyl, WAV, mp3.

    What you mention about signal chain is vital though: every element counts. And none of it matters if the goose at the end isn't listening.

    The subtle thing might be that some forms of listening are precluded without the requisite equipment... but (circling back): we are the main equipment, and we don't take our *activity* in the signal chain seriously enough.

  12. @ dalgard: I hadn't considered these impedence issues at all. Will chase - and thanks for wording me up.

  13. thanks for this article, it contains a lot of truth. My music library grows faster than I'm able to listen. If something isn't exceptionally good I won't listen to it more than once, but who knows how many gems I've missed just because I haven't been in the right mood for a certain piece of music.

  14. yeah, listening is the main thing. to fascilitate listening, however, fidelity is key. presence is the first thing that is lost when quality goes down, and presence is what drives our emotions and motivations.

    try going to hear a symphony in a really great concert hall some day. it will spin your head.

    my problem is that I find myself spending a lot of time listening to semi-good stuff because I don't want to miss out on the hype. often it's the same with movies. and it's such a shame since I definitely think there's some truth to the statement that there's always something less known that is better.

    just need to find it...

  15. @ Dalgard:

    well, I think that Ben Frost is right. You don't need it. The hype. The quarter pounder. The latest pitchfork band.

    You can just ignore it, and it will go away. Same with bad media like Fox News, anything News Corporation, &C. it's time to disinvest in junk experiences.

    I actually think it's tantamount to a political act...

    Where music is concerned, for me it was a bit like that moment when Obi Wan (how geeky is this, sorry!) convinces Skywalker to put down the blast shield. I had to just give myself over to my own sense, and trust my ears and my friends. And be a bit more patient.

    Finally, in terms of fidelity:

    fidelity to what?

  16. & @ dalgard: I wonder how this notion of presence fits into the hauntology of the past few years, playing with Derrida's playing with the metaphysics of presence...

    but/and: surely so much of the lo fi, snow fi, crushed fi sounds of this and last year, from Andy Stott to James Ferraro to Actress to James Kirby... even John Maus' hysterical reverb...

    ...does it not exist in some kind of relation to the utter glassy smoothness of the dominant technologies, the iCons?

  17. it's very true what you're saying - it will go away. I've managed to do the trick with shopping malls, news networks, stuff like that. when it comes to music, however, I am still battling my neuroses - I guess it's the fear of being left behind...

    I also couldn't agree with you more on the point that there's a political or even moral aspect of it. I actually think it's great that you acknowledge it. although I'm afraid that at this time as a way of thinking it only influences the world on a personal level.

    about fidelity ... I guess I'm talking about the conservation of information from the source?

    it's always possible to find some antitheses to an argument, but I don't think it's unimportant even for lo-fi recordings to be played back with a certain quality -- in order to appreciate the intentionality behind the sounds. when it comes to acoustic sources, vocals for instance, it holds true that the higher the resolution, the higher the emotional impact. which in most cases is a desireable thing.

    I guess there are aesthetic and unaesthetic kinds of information loss. blurry photographs aren't that interesting unless you get a sense of meaning from the blurriness.

    I'm not saying that a reaction against the smooth plastic of today's consumer culture isn't justified, though! :)

    oh, and as I'm sure you know, I wasn't alluding to Derrida when I used the word "presence"; it might be interesting to further explore that theme, but it also might be the kind of 'glass bead game' I tend to avoid... ;)

  18. btw, when you wrote "activity" earlier did you actually have activity theory in your mind?

  19. That was lovely PC - keep the thoughtful contributions coming.

  20. @ dalgard: I don't know about activity theory... what I meant was that listening requires active attention, which is also a creative act.

    For the music to connect, we have to be... more than 'receptive', but actively listening. I think.

    & in terms of fidelity: I keep thinking of my father's hi fi. Dad always had good hi fi. But really... I think he had fidelity to good equipment. That was the 'quality' he was being faithful to.

    I'd rather be faithful to the music, and align the equipment (including myself) according to that, as the guiding principle.

    ...but maybe it's also important to be faithfully unfaithful: I listened to Legowelt's FACT mix while cooking tonight, on a pod playing through one of these

    Hardly hi fi, but perfect for wokking out to.

    And it also 'reveals' the music in a different way. If I was dependent on it, I'd be pretty shitty though...

    ...I mean: this also goes for everyone exploring cassettes right now. It's fun as a fetish. When there was no CD or mp3, cassettes mostly sucked.

  21. I get your point and totally agree with you about active listening.

    one think I would like to add, though, is the importance of Funktion One. I know that not everyone agrees with me, but I personally hold this to be the biggest revolution in mediated human perception since moving pictures.

    F1 has made it possible to take a sound that would otherwise be too subtle for humans to appreciate its characteristics and directly up-scale it to an extent where the smallest details may be inspected by the mind (and as an important bonus taking the physicality of the experience to a whole new level).

    to me that is significant.

    mind you, this kind of extreme experience can also be fatiguing - but then, are we really supposed to be able to submerge ourselves into that level of active perception for 10-12 hours straight?

  22. This really resonates, I've been thinking about it a lot lately. I pay for much of the music that I listen to, and the last 18 months have seen me transition to mostly purchasing mp3 (typically off Boomkat). A couple of factors come into play - Sydney has pretty shit record stores in general so getting physical copies can be difficult, and when I read about something I like to get my hands on it immediately - downloads are quicker than the delivery from the UK or wherever, habit and bandwidth have stopped me from moving to flac/wav. I've listened to and enjoyed tons of new music this year (including many of your fine suggestions as usual), but overall I've felt disconnected from it (except for Ravedeath, I've listened to that countless times... that and By the Throat have a lot to answer for with respect to my recent listening habits...). I used to remember the records I owned in a very visual manner even more than by the artist/label/whatever (the one with the cover with the clouds on it with the tinny snares for example) - that simply doesn't map to collections of files. And quality is certainly an issue - the better the headphones you own, the more you realise is missing from mp3. I'm considering doing what you've done and buying all the most important albums of the last couple of years that I don't already own on CD.

  23. for me, setting up my media player to allow me to properly interact with my music library has made a huge difference.

    of course, nothing will ever beat vinyl with a nice sleeve. really, nothing. but it can get a lot better than iTunes and still have all the advantages of digital.

    basically, I'm using foobar2000 with metadata being downloaded from Discogs, however, my dedication to getting this set up has been pretty intense... still working on an easy way of exporting it.

    proper cover art and background info help remembering and exploring the music, and auto-playlists of differents sorts help navigating in the data sea.

    (a couple of examples:)

    I would never interact with a cd collection to this extent since I wouldn't be able to sort it, search it, structure it and browse it in the same way.

  24. amen. i think "work harder at it" is the best advice for critics who complain about dying at the feast of convenience. (it's a pretty dumb complaint to make - for those of us oldsters, imagine handing a fully loaded ipod/cowon/whatevs to your twelve year old self with 1000+ songs on it)

    the only thing i would take issue with is about the headphone womb bit - if my fellow nyc subway riders are any indication, music is a weapon, part of the us-versus-them wall of trying to have a slice of a private life in a very public space. i can hear their music over my in-ear phones and, like, discordance axis or some such real loud stuff.

    maybe i should try turning them onto ravedeath? (har har)

  25. @ dalgard: 12 hours, opening yourself to the signal? Sounds like a job for Dr Hoffmann.

    In general: I guess we can extrap. what Terre said

    'house wasn't so much a sound as a situation'

    well, music is a situation too, no?

    You have to be present for the music to be heard (all the top of the range F1 setups in the world don't matter if you're shittalking at the bar), but in order for the music to be equally present, a whole complex of factors - let's call it the signal chain - has to be very carefully attended to.

    We need to care for it, and this means inconvenience, aka: respect.

    'Respect means: inconvenience yourself.' - Pascal

  26. @ PC:

    just to be sure - I was implying that 12 hours of active listening is _not_ a good thing to have as a goal.

    respect is the main thing, yes.

  27. @ PC,
    You mention your MP3s are 320 or loseless - but still find a significant difference between CD and flac?

  28. @ Toots: yeah, but I think this is related to the DAC in my Pod and the one in my CD player, which is a Panasonic, not high end, but has always sounded excellent.

    I mean: I think anything more than 320 on the pod just doesn't get conveyed, esp. through the stereo mini jack. I've heard it's better through the, err, rear end of the pod... could be that a portable mp3 player with a better DAC and better connections to the amp, and a pre-amp, and the impedance issues &c &c would produce a sound that was indistinguishable.

    For me, this article is not scientific, just personal/empirical. This is how I listen, and this is the difference I hear.

    But I know I'm not the only one, I've been hearing lots of stories about this...

    but (a la my refrain) the whole signal chain, the whole sound situation, it's all vital, no?

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  30. Most commends are about mp3 vs something else. I think PC's point is about that kind of battle in general terms of quality - not hardware quality or source quality. Of cource a decent hi fi setup is a pleasure to listen to, but the content is really what counts the most among with other things surrounding you the certain moment of listening.

    @dalgard I've been into the thing about keeping up with the trend or just not losing some truly great new stuff but I think you are finally sunk into a vortex that puts mud into your water. I prefer losing some good releases, which they are finally going to get on my way at some point if I'm still around, instead of being fed up with mediocre or even shit things, to a point that I cannot really judge the quality of it.

    In general I think internet is a great resource for digging -of course by no means comparable to a physical record store- and you can get nice feedback from places you trust and check periodically in order to get a nice mix or some mp3s.

    Me being a student in Greece I don't have a chance of digging into a real record store any time soon. I even admit that 99% of my digital music, and 98% of it all, is illegal mp3s. I really hate myself for doing it, but shall I starve from music? I even have to save for a 3 euro beer. I just hope that at some point I can erase all those files and go out and buy every good album I remember and can get on vinyl and build a nice and pleasurable collection of music, satisfying most of the parameters that make it 'pleasurable' and worthy.

    Computers are for working, networking, sharing and analyzing data. Music is not just about 01's.

  31. Um... did you ever give Dad the CDs? Or are you saving them for Christmas, when you can wipe your grubby fingerprints off them before wrapping and regifting?


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