Monday, July 22, 2019

Best Jazz Album of All Time?

I had heard of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington since high school or earlier. Our band director, Jack Dahlinger, went out of his way to educate through playing the greats and inviting them to perform in our civic auditorium in Alexandria, Va. I heard Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington and various other players in this venue. The Duke also is remembered through the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, DC, locations I was aware of by virtue of travel in this city.

But in my post-high school listening, I had not spent quality time with the Duke's recordings. Obviously, "Take the A Train," and perhaps a few others. That all changed recently, when my preferred digital download service HDTracks featured a 1963 collection called "Take the A Train," with a high quality reproduction that was impressively modern in its sound. Now I was on the hunt for other earphone friendly recordings and the search spread to online reseller Discogs.

The Duke Ellington Orchestra performed at the American Jazz Festival in Newport, Rhode Island in July, 1956. This performance is concurrently famous, infamous and incredibly restored. Famous because of the musicianship and performances; infamous because of the deception foisted on the public for many years that the released recording was of "live" performances; and incredibly restored after a Voice of America recording was used to piece together a complete version of the live event. The Duke had felt that the performance was not up to snuff and brought the group back into the studio to recreate the music. This re-creation was sold on vinyl for many years until the VoA tapes were found and used to digitally stitch together a stereo rendition of the "live" performance: Columbia/Legacy 88697492052 Ellington at Newport 1956 (Complete).

Ellington at Newport marked a significant upturn in the group's popularity. If you listen to the recording it will be immediately apparent why. Observers reported that a near riot occurred during moments of the festival, which may have simply been overjoyed listeners. This career upswing (heh) lasted for several decades. Happy listening!

Friday, January 4, 2019

The Songs Remain the Same Only Better

Over the last couple of years I converted my compact disc collection to digital files. This allows me to enjoy the music in whatever venue I happen to occupy: car, living room, basement lair (aka the "country bunker"), MARC train, interplanetary shuttle or molecular transport. No need to lug the discs and player with me and through the magic of miniaturization I simply plug a AudioQuest Dragonfly Red DAC (digital-analog converter) into the lightning connector on an iPad. Said iPad reads the files from a terabyte-sized storage device and to the headphones via the DAC which happens to include a headphone amp.

Apple has presented a bit of a hurdle in connecting high capacity storage to their portable devices. You cannot just plug something in. In this case a tiny RAVPower FileHub connected to a 1TB external storage device is wirelessly sending files via a built-in wi-fi. Does one terabyte seem like overkill? Au contraire, so far my music collection consumes over 250GB. To date this does not include video but someday ...

Once down the path of hosting a file-based music collection, purely digital distribution attracted my oft fleeting attention. These days my favorite purveyor is HDTracks who has become one of if not the largest seller of digital music files. My travel system is optimized for 24 bit/96kHz and the remastered version of the Beatles "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club" album presents an incredibly clear sound at this bit depth and resolution. At this point let me say that not all recordings will present in an improved fashion in uncompressed format(s). Something that was heavily manipulated, compressed during recording, mixing or mastering, or otherwise adulterated may not offer a perceptible sonic improvement at 24 bit/96kHz (or for that matter anything over the lowly CD's 16 bit/44.1kHz) and occasionally one may even prefer the MP3 rip. YMMV but modern recordings and remasters from quality source material including HDTracks cofounder David Chesky's Binaural+ Series do quite well in the upper stratosphere of lossless file containment.

Of course after I had "ripped" all the discs to digital files using MP3 encoding, the benefits of a lossless format became obvious as my audio playback chain improved. Nothing wrong with MP3 when listening in a noisy environment but with KEF headphones running through the Dragonfly, baby wants, even needs lossless compression. So a second pass was made of digitizing the CDs using the dBPoweramp CD Ripper and saving to the Apple ALAC file format. In the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished department, I now wish I had used the open-source FLAC format but hey, who's to say I won't re-re-rip all those disc or simply convert from ALAC to FLAC using the dBPoweramp Music Converter?

[Quality Update: added an Audioquest "Jitterbug" USB data & power noise filter which purports to "reduce the noise and ringing that plague both the data and power lines of USB ports." I like the sound but have not yet done extensive A/B tests. Stay tuned ...].

[Added a 2nd Jitterbug to the portable system so now they are on the file store and DAC. Subtle improvements but definitely there for at least some of the recordings I listen to. Sampled the remastered Parton/Harris/Ronstadt "Trio II" recording and Tom Cunningham Orchestra "Swingin' and Singin'" to positive effect. The bass is more open, highs are clearer and separation between multiple vocalists and instruments is enhanced.]

[Android Phone Update -- added USB Audio Player PRO to the Moto G6. This is now working with the Dragonfly Red and micro-SD storage (200GB) and boosts audio levels by correctly sensing the Dragonfly volume levels. A test sending to the car system via bluetooth was also successful.]

Friday, October 19, 2018

Ann and Linda

Talking about the passing of Tom Feher, a member of the Left Banke, led to my revisiting Linda Ronstadt's cover of "Walk Away Renee," a hit in 1966 for the Left Banke. She performed this as a duet with Ann Savoy (who I was not familiar with) on her final album, "Adieu False Heart" (2006). Turns out that Ann is well known as a cajun music performer, author, photographer, producer, artist, mother of other musicians, etc. who has had several performing groups with family members.

Ann and Linda are articulate on the subject of music and musical families that perform, as this collaboration illustrates. It surprised me to realize how many well-known musicians are related and the impact it can have on their sound. This audio recording was a "pilot" if you will for a series that was not continued.

Monday, August 20, 2018

New (Used) Camera Time

The first time I purchased a DSLR, it was the Canon 20D (2005). That was intended to shoot ice skating and it served pretty well for that purpose. I wanted to update but not splurge, so I researched cameras which would have presence in the "previously owned" market and offer system options such as battery pack, specialty flashes, etc. My first serious film camera was an Olympus OM-1 which was purchased while I lived on Okinawa (1976-77 USAF tour). Later I found an OM-2 on closeout at a retail store. Olympus impressed with their light-weight bodies, thoughtful user interface and system approach so for this 2018 acquisition I focused on their digital offerings.

B & H Photo in NYC had a used Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mk1 (2013 model) that seemed to fit the bill. Their rating system and return policy is decent so I pulled the trigger and stuck one of my Rokinon video camera prime lenses on it this past weekend. These are Micro Four Thirds system lenses and I have 3, but all are fully manual and hefty to lug around. You have to set aperture and pull focus by hand. No biggie but the Olympus body is smart enough to give tons of control over auto focus, exposure, etc.

Check back as I update this Flickr album with (hopefully) more sophisticated shots. Due to the many features of this camera, my plan is to work through a tutorial as time permits.

Olympus OM-D Test Shots

[Update] Album shot with new (used) 12-40mm lens:

Train Gang

Friday, June 8, 2018

Long Day's Journey into 4K UHD Blu-ray

Growing up in the 1950's, we didn't watch films on television very often. In fact, I remember smallish black-and-white TV in the early '60s as a place for wrestling, news and series shows. The practice was for local stations to have a 16 mm film chain (played the movie image into a TV camera) which did not result in great image quality. Then there were 'scope or other wide-screen formats that sorta "squished" the actors into an "Academy ratio" rather than displaying at the correct aspect ratio.

For the true movie experience it was off to a local movie theater or drive-in. Even there we were not necessarily viewing a pristine, properly projected image and the sound was a huge variable as well. So-called "road shows" would come along for special films that were exhibited in an already dwindling number of cinema showcases. "Fantasia," "The Sound of Music," "The Robe." Intermissions, reserved seats, 4-channel sound. These were a hint of what was to come and what was technically possible given enough budget.

Short History of Home Media Distribution Formats (viewing experience dependent on quality of source materials, restoration, mastering and various other factors)

  1. 16 mm film (rich peeps, Hollywood types; adult film buffs)
  2. 8 mm film (film aficionados; cheapo adult film buffs)
  3. B&W TV
  4. Color TV
  5. VHS tape/beta (widescreen prints occasionally available; Dolby sound introduced)
  6. LaserDisc (again aficionados; limited Original Aspect Ration aka OAR; Dolby and Dolby Surround sound)
  7. DVD (mix of OAR, pan-and-scan; audio varied)
  8. Online streaming begins (dependent on broadband internet availability; frequent tampering with aspect ratio to zoom in or otherwise fill the screen)
  9. Blu-ray (mostly OAR, best sound to date based on distributor standards)
  10. 4K UHD (best visual and sound experience to date, several theater quality sound standards)

I skipped 8 mm video as it wasn't taken seriously in the U.S. market as a distribution medium. RCA did have a disc-based system (CED) but it disappeared more quickly than Circuit City DIVX. Everything #5 and later were opportunities for people to purchase their favorite movies over and over in hopes of reaching some nirvana of viewing pleasure. 3-D in several formats crept in and seems to be creeping out again as TV manufacturers like Samsung discontinue it in recent models. Never felt a real affinity for 3-D in the home but some people like it (looking at YOU James Cameron!).

Wrapping this up for now, but one comment on the latest sound innovation(s) for film in the home -- Dolby ATMOS and DTS:X. Depending on how they are used by filmmakers and associated sound designers, these up the game dramatically in your listening space. Dogs will think there really are aliens crawling around outside the house. Get someone to help you hang the height speakers and you are good to go.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Willis, Tony and Me

These guys Willis Nowell and Tony Barther were hanging around on a forum at Shannondale.TV in the early 2000's when I first ran into them online.  This was before Shannondale & Beyond existed. My employer at the time had a server which I offered as a location to host the first S&B forum and thus I was the de facto system support person. This arrangement was fine when the server was in a colocation (run from Greenbelt, Md. by Allen Hoffman) but when it was moved to a residence, access to S&B from the internet became tenuous and Tony found paid hosting elsewhere.

(L to R) Wills, Katherine, Tony
What Willis and Tony tried to do was moderate the forum discussions with a fairly high degree of granularity. They and the other moderators, myself included at some times, developed categorizations for the forum areas that characterized the potential for reader upset. These ranged from "General," which would be suitable for all readers to "Thunderdome," containing inflammatory content. I contributed the thunderdome moniker which was suggested by the Mel Gibson film of the same name.

Willis also was a patron of exploration by air, in our case over Jefferson County, WV. I flew three times at his behest as photographer, with one of the forum members as pilot. Here are some photos taken on the first trip and made into a video with music: Willis Fly By Air

Later in my tenure as S&B advisor, I helped shepherd a survey which was sent to past and present members. To my eye the results showed that many would appreciate less intervention by moderators which was perceived as censorship. Tony in particular did not agree with lessening the control. There had been a few examples of forum disagreements or feuds extending into Real Life wherein an upset reader would appear and confront another individual.  Since many people on the mountain own firearms, the concern by management was that someone would be injured or worse. Political topics usually were the worst although I eventually left the forum over its support of aerial spraying for gypsy moths, a potential health risk to area residents. One of my critiques of the practice was deleted by another moderator and when I complained to the Shannondale & Beyond Board of Directors, nothing of substance was done to remedy the situation.

If you are interested in seeing the information I presented, it is available for download on my file site: Foray 48B files.

Tony died around June 2014.  I have not been able to locate an online obituary and Willis went on Tuesday, January 3, 2017. They lived in the area of Shannondale on the Blue Ridge Mountain where Foray 48B spraying was done several times and while two deaths isn't proof, it is a coincidence that concerns me. Read the files and see if you agree that more investigation by public health is in order.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Routers In the News

[Breaking news: FBI tells router users to reboot ... ]

Here at the Country Bunker high atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, we take our router responsibilities very seriously. Anyone reading this blog is undoubtedly doing so through one or more routers at the local level and then many more across their ISP's network, the upstream internet provider and so on. Modern, sophisticated routers make the worldwide web and internet possible. We are not talking about the kind of router that cuts wood, plastic or laminates, but rather this: Router (computing).

You may be thinking, "I don't need to read about no stinkin' routers." And "Doesn't my internet provider send a reliable, secure router when the service is installed?" Unfortunately, this is rarely the case as these companies are motivated by profitability and the bottom line. Robust security is expensive to maintain and technology moves at a rapid pace as does the potential threat environment. Companies usually provide equipment or agree to support a bring-your-own device that they can support for years and years; they are familiar with the "firmware" (software that runs the router) at a specific revision level and unauthorized updates in their eyes are unsupported when it comes time to troubleshoot a problem with your internet connection or voice-over-IP phone system. Some of them refuse to reveal the root user or administrative password to the end user and maintain control of settings and firmware level in that fashion.

Here we turn to the recent revelations concerning security breaches on hundreds of thousands of commercial routers across the internet, apparently perpetrated to demonstrate flaws in the router software. These are industrial-strength devices so imagine what has, can and could be done to the inexpensive garden variety ones used in most homes. Like most people, I had purchased a home router from the lowest cost source I could find, set it up quickly and then (mostly) forgot about it. I did think to change the default administrative password and name the wifi network something obscure. I disabled the guest network too. Every so often I would check for a firmware update but there hasn't been one from Netgear for this model in years, a common failing of mass market products. More recently I had trouble getting a networked music server to work and thought about upgrading to a router with business features and advanced configurations. Highly publicized router exploits were a strong motivation to upgrade as well. The one I settled on is manufactured by a company that specializes in wireless equipment, a Pepwave Surf SOHO purchased online from

The installation took a couple of hours and nearly everything is back. That one hinky system has always been hard to configure so I will have to dig into the manual and figure it out. Used a Pepwave installation checklist with my own "secret sauce." Stay tuned for the gory details!