Getting The Best From Your Music On The Move

iPod familyNot so long ago, thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs, we all bought MP3 players…more often than not an iPod. While many of us still use these – the concept and tech involved is a bit dated as we all have many other devices that are capable of playing music.

As we all know, a smartphone is a far more convenient method of listening to music than an MP3 player. We always have our phone with us, its always charged, we know where the charge cable is when it needs charging…its part of our everyday life. The MP3 player doesn’t fit this level of convenience any more, it needs charging and it needs to be synced with extra software from a computer.

What has accelerated this shift is the rapid growth of subscription based streaming services that can be accessed by a wide range of devices including smart phones, tablets and regular computers through a web browser.

Whilst the quality of MP3 files many moons ago was somewhat suspect. The quality of the modern day streaming services are fantastic. While some audiophiles may argue that they can here the encoding process in the audio – I think that most of us will be more than happy with the end result…I know I am.

Coloured headphonesA side effect of this streaming music boom, is that the earphone and headphone markets have seen a huge growth in demand. This has lead to loads of new companies entering the market place, with some newcomers creating some really interesting and different products.

It is pretty safe to say that the earphones that came with your smart phone are bad, really bad. If you are at all serious about your music, you need to upgrade them sooner rather than later. Budget is always a concern – £30 will get you a great set that most people will find amazing. Anything that costs less than £20 will probably lead to disappointment.

Finding a good set of earphones is straight forward these days. Most of the best in ear headphones come with silicone tips (the noise isolating type) and are capable of producing some of the best quality sound you can get at an unbelievably low price. With so many to choose from, its not hard to find a great set – with several examples winning numerous awards such as the Soundmagic E10s.

Once you have a decent set of earphones, you can still improve the sound further. Where mobile devices have the edge over computers playing audio through their web browser, is that the music players on mobile devices have a built in equalizer.

As all earphones sound different, everyones ears a slightly different and the amplifiers in different mobile devices also sound different…an equalizer allows you to adjust the way that the music sounds as you listen to it. This really is the icing on the cake.

The golden rule when tweaking the sound is generally that less is more – try turning frequencies down before turning them up. If you turn up a lot of the frequency bands, you are just making it all louder – this will distort the internal amplifier and sound pretty awful. Take it slowly & use your ears.

It is also worth considering that earphones and headphones wear in over the first few hours of use. This means that the sound will change a little – it may be very subtle or it could be quite dramatic, it depends on the headphones in question.

Portable audio really has never been this good before – get out there and enjoy your music.

Enjoying Music at Home

A common misconception is that to enjoy music, you have to sit and listen to it with no distractions. We often forget that it can be used as a backdrop to gatherings within our own homes.

An evening inWhen we go out to a cafe, pub or restaurant, we take it for granted that music will be playing. In some cases, you may not even be aware that it is being played – this can often happen in cafes. In these circumstances, music is being used to set a mood and create an atmosphere. If it was turned off, the entire environment would change dramatically.

While music gets played when we have a party at home – there are many other occasions when it gets forgotten.

An evening at home with a few friends can be transformed with a bottle of wine, a good playlist and something as simple as a board game. This simple set up can create some of the best entertainment around.

Board games have changed since we were all young and there are now so many more types of board games to choose from. We are no longer limited to just the best family board games that we knew and loved from days gone by.

The volume of the music is incredibly important – it needs to set the mood and atmosphere. If too loud, the music will become the focus and not your chosen game.
The types of board games that work best in this kind of setup are those that require interaction between players and not just simple dice rolling or piece placing – some of these also include the best Christmas board games.

While this is a great way to enjoy music and to have fun generally, it also works brilliantly as an icebreaker if you have a few friends meeting for the first time. In this case go for a creative game – this will help bring most people out of their shell.

Obviously, the choice of music is equally important – put it all together & you’ll create an evening in with friends that will be remembered for a long time to come!

Pump Up The Volume – Is Louder Better?

Wall of speakersIt seems that there is a common perception that music sounds better when played loudly. In a club for example the bass can make you chest thump or trousers flap. The mid range of a heavy metal band in an enclosed venue can leave you with ears ringing for days after the gig. These examples help create the atmosphere for that event, but should we follow these examples when listening at home, on the move or in the car?

There is of course a lot more to the fidelity of audio than volume. Electrical components need to be carefully matched with each other, the speakers need to have the correct power rating & positioned correctly within the listening environment.

Harmonic distortionIf an amplifier is asked to power speakers that aren’t correctly matched, you can end up with a strangled, distorted sound that really isn’t very pleasant to listen to. Any kind of amplification turned up to its higher levels will induce harmonic distortion to the audio signal. Likewise if an amp is way too powerful for the speakers that it is connected to, the amp won’t be able to show its true colours or operate within its most efficient range.

When matched correctly, an amp will produce the correct level of output for the speakers without any induced distortion or excessive colouring of the sound. If done correctly, there is a sweet spot where the sound fills the room and you can still talk over it.

The room you listen in will also influence the quality of the sound and the volume required to get the best from it. Different rooms have different acoustic properties – different frequencies that resonate or echo. Adjusting the volume as well as the EQ can help keep these under control.

Another factor that many people don’t consider is that our ears have a natural compression. Apply excessively loud noise to them & our eardrums actually distort…at this point, the sound levels are pretty unpleasant & any music sounds pretty awful.

More care needs to be taken when listening to music on headphones – the sound is being produced within such a close proximity to our ears that even small changes can make quite a difference.

Smart phones now warn us for listening to loud music for extended periods of time & give warnings if we try to turn the volume up. While this is a good guide – it isn’t necessarily correct because the phone doesn’t know the power rating or sensitivity of the headphones that are plugged in. Full volume for one set of headphones may sound excellent & comfortable, while another set may only require half the volume setting to get the same results…operating systems can’t tell the difference.

Listening by any means for an extending period of time can also lead to ear fatigue. Ears become tired when they have been exposed to music for a while, this is often when you start feeling that you want to turn up the music louder. This is normally a good sign that you should give your ears a rest & have a break.

So as you can see, music doesn’t necessarily sound better when played louder. It sounds better when its played at the right volume for the equipment being used & the environment that its in. So in actual fact, you may need to turn your music down to get more from it – your neighbors may thank you as well!

The Digital Age – What Has It Done For Us?

We live in exciting times, right in the midst of a digital revolution. The earlier were a little iffy at best, but now times have changed.

In its infancy, digital audio was often considered inferior to analogue audio. Much of this was based around the lack of warmth in the sound and no tape compression. Early digital audio also often lacked bass and sounded quite flat without any character – it took quite a bit of effort to get it to sound good.

Radar hard disk recorderIn recording studios, equipment manufacturers started increasing bit depth and sample rates, the sound gradually improved. Whilst the sound quality was now on a par with 2″ tape in recording studios, the equipment was still extremely expensive. Some 16-24 track hard disk recording systems such as Radar cost in the region of £20,000.

At this time while we had CD’s there were few other options. DATs and Minidisc were attempting to find their way into consumer homes, but both failed miserably.

Apple LogicAs the recording industry continued to lead the way with digital audio – big technical advances were made in leaps and bounds. The primary big advances were mostly due to Protools & Logic Audio, both software platforms providing digital audio recording, editing, processing and mixing in a computer environment. Logic Audio was originally created by a company called Emagic. As this was the time of Apple’s huge growth with the iMac and early gen iPod etc, they were always on the search for new technologies to buy. Apple bought Logic Audio (now known as Logic Pro) and set their place at the forefront of digital audio music production.

With Apple now having the iPod out in consumerland and owning one of the premium studio audio platforms, progress was inevitable. The early iPods, in retrospect didn’t sound great at all – couple that with the actual hard drive inside them & the performance was pretty poor. How much of a coincidence is it I wonder, that the quality of the following generations of the iPod improved so dramatically after the purchase of Logic Audio. You have to assume that some of the technology they bought was instrumental in changing the way in which we all now listen to music.

Obviously since then we have moved on yet again – smart phones now rule the high street & the MP3 file that the early iPods pioneered are now everywhere along with streaming audio.

<h2>But what has this actually meant for us, the consumer?</h2>
Tangled cassetteBecause we take our tiny portable devices for granted, I think we forget just how much they have impacted our daily lives. If you dropped a smart phone loaded with music and a streaming service in the lap of someone sat in 1987, how do you think they would react? They would be absolutely blown away by it. Back then cassettes were the only option – hissy tape with very little bass that would often get tangled or unraveled…which would then need to be carefully untangled and rewound by hand. This unbelievable accessible modern audio is of a far higher quality than was available back then. The depth and details that can now be heard in music is exceptional – and it all comes from something that sits in the palm of you hand!

While our modern digital audio is fantastic high quality – we haven’t yet had the equivalent of the 1080P HD TV revolution in audio. Hopefully this will happen one day – but it is probably still a long way off. CD’s are now possibly our limitation – they have a sample rate of 44.1kHz – DVD’s and Blu-Ray both use 48kHz given extra depth and definition, but at the cost of file size and disc space. MP3 files can be generated at both 44.1kHz and 48kHz – but they do essentially compress data to save file space. This means that even at the highest sample rate and available bit rate, audio data is still removed – so the MP3 will never truly be hi fidelity.

There is still room for our audio world to expand in the mainstream and yes there are other audio file formats out there like AAC, but these aren’t common place & the storage space on smart phones isn’t yet big enough to really use them.

Only time will show us what the next step in home or portable audio is. Right now, any improvements, however minor will be major milestones and it will be incredibly exciting to hear the results!

Autotune – Give Us A Break!

There was a period, not so long ago that you could actually listen to a piece of pop music without hearing Autotune. Ever since Cher abused it in 1998 with her song Believe, we haven’t been able to escape it.

Auto-tune robotsWhat most people don’t actually know is that Autotune started out as an expensive separate piece of hardware that processed audio. Its purpose was purely to subtly effect the tuning or pitch of the audio signal, effectively locking it into tune. At that time computer based digital audio was experiencing a huge growth in popularity. Because of this, Autotune became an affordable software plugin that was available to the masses.

If used correctly, it works brilliantly – gently correcting the tuning of a voice of instrument, whilst still allowing it to sound natural. However, thanks to the Cher effect (known from now on as Cherness), it has become commonplace to crank it up to 10 and use it as an effect – or to stylise a voice. This is now so common that it can be heard on pretty much all pop tunes – the voices sound bland, unnatural, robotic & lacking in talent.

While we do still have the occasional guitar oriented pop band that can actually write songs, play instruments and sing, the diluted influx of talent show dross is smothered in a layer of Cherness. Why the producers of this tat obsess over making them all sound the same, I don’t think we’ll ever truly know. Hopefully, someone with some actual talent will shine through & change this direction. For a while it seemed that artists like Amy Winehouse may have had some influence here, but due to her unfortunate demise, it was relatively short lived.

As Autotune has developed over the years it can now also change the timing of voices. We now have to wonder in reality, how close to being in time and pitch are these ‘Artists’. If they really do need this much correction, should they really be in front of a microphone in the first place?

Hopefully over the next few years we will finally see the demise of the TV based talent show. If the popularity of these drops, then hopefully we will once again see an increase in quality artists coming through the ranks. Or at least a significant shift in musical direction.

Perhaps the next concern might be that since we have now had a 1980’s based resurgence, the next decade to be abused will be the 1990’s. While a good portion of the 90’s was filled by Britpop – there was also a lot of trash in the early 90’s. If it then gets to the point where producers start using the likes of Cher’s Believe as inspiration – what happens when an existing abuser of Autotune, takes that as further inspiration?
To be honest I don’t know & I really, really don’t want to hear the results…for the love of music, please stop using Autotune!

Has The Home Stereo Had Its Day?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when positioned within pride of place in the home, you would find a Hi-Fi, stereo or entertainment centre. These days with the ever developing world of gadgets and video game consoles the stereo as we know it is a dying breed.

In my parents day, the stereo, or given its proper name, the entertainment centre was positioned in full view on the sideboard. It was a huge flat thing, covered in wood veneer and sported a green backlit radio tuner along with its turntable and cassette deck. The speakers were pretty small in the scheme of things & really didn’t sound great at all. Looking back at it, I suspect that it probably wasn’t a cheap item &amp; was a reasonable investment at the time.

1980s Hi-FiSpool on a few years and we saw an influx of cheaper Hi-Fi’s coming in from overseas. Varying trends saw us filling our homes with either silver or black stereos that were ugly and tended to be pretty monstrous in size. These cheaper, mass produced imports made home Hi-Fi affordable for everyone. The humble Hi-Fi was a very common sight – with many homes having multiple stereos.

As vinyl died off and CD’s became more mainstream, we finally saw a significant reduction in size. Book shelf Hi-Fi’s were all the rage, seemingly covered in as many blue LEDs as possible. It is at this point that the Hi-Fi no longer had such a prominent place in the home. It was now tucked away, out of sight and out of mind.
The next dark cloud to creep over the horizon came in the shape of the demise of the cassette. It took a while for CD’s to become widely accepted, and many still continued to use cassette despite the drastic improvement in sound quality. Perhaps the main reason that they survived so long was because it was so easy to copy CD to a cassette.

Steve Jobs - the iPodSeemingly out of nowhere, Steve Jobs popped up and rocked our world. In walks the iPod and with it the invasion of the MP3 file. This single event has probably changed our lives more than we give it credit for. Without doubt, MP3 finally killed of the cassette with CD’s once again being easy to copy to a new digital format and an iPod was smaller than a portable cassette player.

From here we have moved on a little further. We now have many different types of digital devices including MP3 players, smart phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, smart TVs and games consoles. All of these can play MP3 files without a stereo in sight. Increasingly we are listening to music on earphones and TVs.

Some may argue that the home cinema setup has replaced the stereo – while this may be true in part, it doesn’t give the whole story. A home cinema setup is just that, it is for watching films and playing games – immersive audio experiences. What it is not intended for, is listening to music. Regular stereo music recordings don’t play back well through multi-speaker setups like a 5.1 surround sound. It just doesn’t work – bass is lost &amp; the stereo image disappears as most of the sound comes through the centre speaker. Until music is mixed in 5.1 on a more regular basis, the home stereo is, i’m afraid, dead and buried. Long live portable audio, the MP3 file, earphones and headphones – you are the future!

The Dawn Of Epic Music

As big budget Hollywood film effects and wizardry have evolved over the years, the music has had to grow along with it. Film scores are no longer purely classical pieces &amp; are increasingly merging genres left, right & centre.

Many of use were brought up with the sound of John Williams ringing in our ears and enhancing films like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His influence on film music is unmistakable &amp; is perhaps in part, some way responsible for the journey that film score has taken over the last few decades. His music accompanies on screen mood and action perfectly, setting the scene time and time again. While his music is epic, it isn’t quite epic music.

As visual effects artists continually strive to make the unbelievable on screen look bigger, better and more awesome than ever before. To help the visuals succeed, the music also needs to be huge. You will now regularly hear a full orchestra, choir, programmed dance style drums, heavy bass synths all mixed together into one enormous sound – this is Epic Music.

Epic music isn’t just film scores or video game music, it is a genre within its own right. One of the biggest names in Epic Music is actually a company, yes a company, called Audiomachine. They create huge scored pieces of music specifically for film makers and game creators to use either for working with, or in some cases for use in a final project. These pieces of music are packaged together in themed albums such as Phenomena, Tree of life and Existance. If you subscribe to a streaming music service like Google Play Music I strongly recommend having a listen – there are some fantastic pieces of music on there!

Another artist that also produces some amazing music is a relatively unknown UK composer, Ronnie Minder. His pieces are grouped together on small EP’s, or Cinematic Episodes, these are also well worth listening to. Given their shorter length, they are also very easy to listen to as well.

Epic music will continue to evolve – a bit like pop music tends to reinvent itself every few years. When you have artists such as Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers creating scores for films – they will without doubt influence other traditional composers and film makers along the way. The Tron soundtrack that Daft Punk created is perhaps the most mainstream example of Epic music. Although their approach was more digital based, they did also use orchestral pieces as well. We will continue to hear gentle nods to this for many years to come.

Having been a fan of both classical music and electronica for as long as I can remember – this blend gives us the best of both worlds. The digital side embraces not only dirty sounding analogue synths, but also distorted drums and big, enhanced bass. An orchestra is capable of producing anything from gentle intimate string pieces right up to huge dynamic full orchestral pieces with rasping brass. Combine these previously alien styles of music gives you an emotional range that can accentuate and enhance any visual experience…surely this is the best of all possible worlds? It is after all Epic Music.

The Evolution Of Video Game Music

There once was a time when video games were filled with crunchy 8-bit beeps and tones that were extremely poor imitations at recreating real world sounds and instruments. Video game arcades were filled with repetitive, simple sounding tone based music that had the power to annoy. This primitive sound track was very much an accompaniment, sometimes an afterthought and didn’t really add anything to the playing experience.

Spin on a few years and we saw the introduction of sample based music – still crunchy 8-bit audio, but actual recorded sounds. This was a game changer – literally. Still to this day, I think that Xenon II megablast on the Commodore Amiga was groundbreaking in this respect…as well as being very memorable. With music provided by Bomb the Bass and alien voice samples actually in game – this was finally audio that enhanced the experience and added an extra dimension to the game world.

As PC’s and video game consoles have evolved generation after generation, so have the games themselves. As game worlds expand creating more depth and detail in each new generation, the audio also becomes more refined adding greater realism and involving atmospheres.

Now that video games are more widely accepted as a mainstream form of entertainment – not just reserved for geeks, the budgets have rocketed skywards.
The biggest game franchises now have budgets on the same scale as the biggest Hollywood blockbuster movies – and often make far more money in return. This huge increase in budget brings with it the opportunity to produce fully scored orchestral soundtracks.

Because of the technical nature of video games – it is also triggering a fusion in musical styles. This now applies to both video games and film. Musical scores now combine classical orchestral sections along with hard sounding, bass injected synths and dance style drum beats. Almost a grown up version of Dubstep – this has generated a whole new genre of music commonly referred to as Epic Music.

With the launch of the Playstation series of consoles, we saw a shift in the way that some games used music – or put another way, how music saw games. For a period, games were built around musical artists &amp; were used to promote music. One notable example of this could be Chemical Brothers – their first biggest success was partly due to the wide exposure they received from cult space racer, Wipeout. While this may not quite be the case now, the music in games is viewed with just as much, if not more importance.

Video game musical scores are now available to buy in any record shop on the high street – or to listen to on demand through a streaming service. As I type here I am currently listening to the Call of Duty: Ghosts soundtrack which more than stands up to being listened to on its own, away from its original intended context.

I doubt the scores sell especially well – nor can I imagine that in the grand scheme of things that they generate much income. But it is very interesting to see how something that was once an afterthought is now a very important part of the gaming experience.

As we slower progress through more and more generations of game consoles, I find it hard to predict where things will go in the future. While the music itself can’t really progress much further. It is possible that the way that it integrates with game play develops further…I look forward to the day when the pace and style of moves that my character performs on screen are actively mimicked by an interactive score.

Southern Oracle – Back Online!

Its been a while – but Southern Oracle is back online!

While were not going back to its original roots – we are inspiration from its most successful incarnation. We’ll be focusing on music and how you can increase your enjoyment of it whether your at home, on your own, with friends or out and about.

Music is something that many of us are extremely passionate about – we aim to fuel your fire and increase you enjoyment.