Monthly Archives: March 2014

Lost Classics — Carpenters: A Song For You

There has been a lot of good and bad said about the brother/sister duo Carpenters, but if there were any one album I would recommend that anyone get as their most representative work, I would choose A Song For You.  This album catches them at the peak of their creativity.  You not only had the duo of Richard Carpenter and John Bettis turning out tunes such as the hit singles “Top Of The World” and “Goodbye To Love” for the album, the duo of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams also contributes “I Won’t Last A Day Without You,” keeping stellar company with the rest of the tracks on the album. The album is also themed in that the title song bookends the rest of the tracks.

File:A Song For You (Carpenters album).jpgThe importance of the record should be put into historical context.  At the time this was recorded, Carpenters were riding high on the smash success of “(They Long To Be) Close To You”, touring for dozens of weeks around the year, and fitting in recording during their touring downtime.  As a result, a few things happened.  They had spent time on the road honing their craft, so the band was performing as tightly as ever.  And, the endless touring also made them road weary, which is reflected in the tune “Road Ode.”  The frenetic pace also seemingly energized the production of this set, as it showcases Richard Carpenter’s full mastery of the studio as another creative “instrument.”  Their popularity had swelled by this point, and this album celebrates it with some of their finest work.

I have not yet had any luck finding a clean tan label first pressing of this album (most are trashed, thrashed and bashed), but the best CD version to get is part of the Remastered Classics series.  In that series, the original versions of the albums are reissued–no remixing, no re-recording, nothing but the original mix on CD.  The Mobile Fidelity version, as well as the first A&M CD reissue, start featuring remixes among the tracks.  Most notable is “Top Of The World” which kicks up the redneck meter with additional pedal steel guitar.  Fine for the single mix but for many of us who owned the original, it’s just wrong on the album proper.


Lost Classics, Rediscovered

As part of my media server project, I’m securely ripping a good portion of my CD collection all over again, and combining it with the previously ripped and downloaded files.  In the process, I’m going through my entire collection, one disc at a time.  And I find that I am rediscovering quite a few parts of my collection.

As I uncover these, I will be posting about some of the notable items I come across.  Good, or bad.

Media server project

I am currently using a Seagate Central as a temporary network drive.  I had a WD My Book Live die on me, and it took me over a week to pull off not quite 2TB of data using the DiskInternals Linux Reader application.  With that and other media I’d collected since the My Book Live died last July, I’ve filled a 3TB Seagate Central to within 400GB of capacity.

My current path is a Synology DS214play NAS (network attached storage) box.  There are a handful of models in the DS214 series, but the D214play has the most powerful processor and a floating point unit, having the ability to transcode video and audio files on the fly.  Since I will be using this as a media server as its primary function, getting a unit capable of transcoding was a good move for me.

Why do we need transcoding?  Not all devices in the house can play the same video formats, and the DS214play will transcode them to the proper format while sending them across the network.  The excellent Mezzmo package for Windows 7/8 does the same, but I am not going to turn my desktop computer on, burning up 300 watts or more of power, just to send a video to one room in the house.

The DS214play does not come with hard drives–it is an empty 2-bay unit.  I have researched drives a bit.  My recent experience with the My Book Live, whose drive got corrupted after a simple power outage, has made me shy away from their products.  Although, their pricey “Se” and “Re” series drives are high reliability enterprise drives with a five year warranty and extra technology to help with error recovery and vibrational stability.  The WD Red drive is claimed to be an “enterprise” or NAS drive, but its poor 5400 RPM speed instantly ruled it out for me.

One drive catching my attention was a Hitachi, aka HGST.  Many server and cloud providers have used these with among the lowest failure rates in the industry.  Given the price on one of these in a NAS-duty configuration was $70 lower than the same sized 4TB WD “Re” drive, I decided to give it a try.

Having 4TB will take care of my needs for awhile, and the Seagate Central will be a backup drive, fired up occasionally to sync with the DS214play.  The My Book Live is still under warranty, so I will be replacing that as well, and may use it for a backup also, likely with less critical files.

The Synology NAS products are really well thought out.  Rather than having to hack them and install my own set of utilities, Synology has the ability to download applications that install right to the NAS without any hacking or special knowledge needed.  Bittorrent clients, the Serviio DLNA/UPnP server, a video surveillance recorder, and many others are available as add-on modules.  Very nice!

It is all coming together nicely.  Further progress will be posted here as it happens.

HDCD ripping tip

The Oppo BDP-105 does not currently play ripped HDCD files “decoded” so therefore, I have to make do with a workaround.  Thankfully I own few HDCD titles, so this is not very time consuming at all to convert them into a higher resolution FLAC file which any digital player can render properly.

HDCD, in simplest terms, is essentially closest to a 20-bit sample encoded into a 16-bit sample.  The data for this encoding is hidden in the least significant bit of the signal.

Some digital players, primarily computer based, can decode these files as though they are 20-bit and play them back as such.  But for network media players, including those built into BD/SACD/CD players like the Oppo, support is variable.  The BDP-105 is one of those which does not play this file back decoded.

The trick?  HDCD can be decoded into a 24-bit file; the extra four bits of empty padding can be at the top or bottom of the digital file.  If this padding is placed at the bottom (in the least significant bits), the signal played back will be six decibels louder; if placed at the top in the most significant bits, playback will be softer.  Sound quality will remain the same either way, however.

The decoding to a 24-bit file can be done during ripping, or after the fact from existing FLAC files.  I use dBpoweramp as my primary ripping and conversion suite for files.  dBpoweramp has a DSP plugin for HDCD.  You can run it on any CD rip or FLAC file.  It will save a 24-bit file if it finds the HDCD encoding, but if it doesn’t, it will save it as the original 44.1kHz/16-bit file.  (If you are converting FLAC to FLAC, it will leave an unaltered 44.1/16 file, so you need not worry about it having been altered by the program if HDCD encoding was not found.)

Thankfully I know which titles of mine are HDCD encoded, and it took only a matter of minutes to convert them.

Pro-Ject Xtension 10 setup and first impressions

It’s been ages since I took delivery of a new turntable; then again, I’ve never had anything this advanced.  One should be a bit impressed when a 50kg crate shows up at the side door.  I felt like I was back to working in a warehouse again!  And it took all I had to maneuver it through the side door and up the landing into the kitchen.

The Pro-Ject Xtension 10 is well packed.  It comes in a wooden crate, with all the major components separated by thick stacks of Styrofoam.  Setup really is not too difficult, as it involves putting the heavy platter on the bearing, attaching the feet, and attaching various bits and pieces.  Lugging the finished unit to a suitable temporary table was a chore in itself, due to its weight.

The hardest part, as always, is getting the cartridge aligned and mounted, and that took awhile mainly due to the finicky setup parameters of the Ortofon 2M Black (the Shibata stylus needing to have exacting setup to perform properly).  Having plenty of adjustability in the tonearm did help–that is one drawback to the Grace tonearm, in that there were a couple of adjustments I could not easily make.  Not to mention the inability to align the cartridge to a Lofgren A alignment.

The alignment still needs some tweaking at this point.  I will have another go at it when my eyes are refreshed, and I can print a couple of different alignment grids to cross-check my work with.  In addition, I need a way to view the stylus rake angle, and that may involve borrowing or buying a USB microscope.

I can say, however, that my first impression is that the music has taken on a clarity and solidity I have never heard from my own vinyl before (outside of the demo rooms, of course).  On a rather new vinyl acquisition, Kevin Eubanks’ Zen Food (on Mack Avenue Records), the sound of the vinyl is so steady and clear that you’d swear you had a digital hi-res file playing back.  The quiet surfaces of this LP help tremendously.

Two things work in its favor for speed stability and clarity.  The platter of this turntable is massive.  Literally.  Its high mass acts as a flywheel.  But what good is a flywheel if it is not fed “pure” energy?  The Xtension 10 also includes Pro-Ject’s Speed Box DS circuitry built in.  It is not a filter (like a couple of other turntable manufacturers use).  Rather, it is a unit that uses DC voltage to regenerate a clean 60Hz sine wave to feed to the AC motor.  (AC motors’ speeds are determined by the input frequency, not the voltage.)  With the motor being free of the “crud” that comes off of our electric grid, the motor rotates without any of the variations or “cogging” that this crud can cause.

The high mass of the turntable also dampens vibrations from the vinyl itself.  You notice this by way of a “blackness” from which the music emanates, along with a revealed strength in the bass performance.  I noticed this when stepping up from my Denon direct-drive to the Walker, and now an even bigger step up from the Walker to this turntable.  Good 180 gram vinyl is almost whisper quiet now, and the bass solidity and strength is “nailed”.

I will get into comparisons with other turntables I auditioned locally, but the short version is that for the types of music I’m listening to as of late, the Pro-Ject offered me the most musical and natural representation of all of them (although the contenders were really close).  With the included dust cover and built-in Speed Box DS, and an incredible Audiogon deal, the whole thing kind of came together somewhat quicker than I’d imagined, being an incredible value.

The coming weeks will feature more tweaking and listening impressions. Stay tuned.