Audio and Winning

The Raptors won the first game of the NBA finals yesterday. It’s the easiest thing in the world to recognise. Their goal was to be the biggest, fittest, most organised, efficient, accurate team that scores the most points and concedes the least. They won.

I think the NBA is beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it is not in my interests to try and make it as a pro baller. I’m only 6’1, already in my 30’s and I live in Africa – also I have never played a real game of basketball in my life – to name just a few hurdles i have. I wouldn’t win that game.

So how do you win at audio? More art than sport, there is scope to make your own rules and your own goals. Here’s my suggested list of things to do to feel like you are getting the most you can from your listening:

  • Read about music as you listen to it
  • Understand the equipment which you listen to
  • Play an instrument, even if you do it badly
  • Record yourself
  • Choose your own music, rather than letting the app, radio or the TV decide
  • Create a physical space and ritual dedicated to listening
  • Write about your audio experiences

Audio, Resistance and Caring

It’s not cool to care. Generally, those who care deeply about something are a pain in the butt for those who would rather brush over the details and move along to the next thing with as little fuss as possible.

If you are happy to take the music that is fed to you, that’s fine. Spotify has you covered. You will likely never annoy anyone with your opinions, the cost of your listening equipment, or the attention you give to the sound in your ears.

However, if you care about what you hear – if you appreciate the art involved in making a song, if you are curious about where a piece of music comes from or what is available that is not on the charts or in the format everyone is used to – get ready to meet some resistance.

Audio Responsibility

Who is responsible for the music you listen to? And the interviews you hear? Who decides when your voice gets recorded or not?

In a post industrial world, we have more choice than ever as to how and when we consume things. Take your music streaming service of choice – it likely has ~50m songs to choose from at the tap of a button. This can be overwhelming, which explains the success of Spotify and its algorithms. These ‘tailored playlists’ take the responsibility away from you and the music you hear.

The idea of audio responsibility then, asks us to behave in a more engaged way around music and anything else we feed our ears.

A couple of tips to get started on the road to audio responsibility:

  1. Read about it before you listen to it. This forces you to be an active participant and it makes the experience so much more satisfying. Check out this book to get started: Link
  2. The equipment you use makes a difference. Headphones, amplifiers and speakers are the best places to start investing (responsibly) in your audio experience.
  3. Nobody knows what you want to hear better than you. Not even Spotify.

Here’s to taking responsibility. 🙂

Recording yourself

Do you like the sound of your own voice? The first time I heard my own voice must have been on an old phone message machine we had growing up. It held messages on tiny cassettes which it could play back to you.

Having a very creative best friend, we then started messing around with dictaphones and video cameras. When I got into music and sang in a band, we’d record on anything just to hear ourselves play.

And then came smartphones. Nowadays people are trying to get away from being recorded so often. Google Apple or Facebook hears everything we say. There are full fledged studio apps available at the push of a button/ swipe of a screen.

I seem to hear my own voice a lot these days. Whether it is sending voice notes, or creating podcasts. Hearing yourself forces reflection on what it is you’re saying and how you’re saying it. If you’re unfamiliar with it, it’s worth a try.

Hifi as recovery

I like nothing better than to lay some toys on the ground for the kids and put in a good record. After a long day hacking around chasing children, it refills the cup.

Hifi as a Sanctuary

Life is not easy. To paint a bit of a bleak picture – even if you have all the money in the world, friends, family and health – the slow ticking of time in the background tells you It’s a losing battle. None of us will get out of here alive.

So what to do? Well among countless other mindfulness and health exercises, we should engage in activities which take time out of the equation. I mean those activities that engage us so fully, we can’t hear the ticking and the tocking. Time seems to stand still.

This is a sanctuary of sorts. This is music, audio and hifi for me.

Hifi and science

On an anecdotal level, hifi music often overwhelms everything else I am doing. When I hear a song that I like, on equipment that i like, nothing else really matters. I am happy and absorbed, and ensconced in the sound.

On an evolutionary level, why do we humans enjoy music? Why do we dance? What is it about certain sounds that makes me feel like i do? What is the evolutionary function of music? Are these feelings and effects all just neural impulses? If so, to what end?

Luckily I am not the first person to think about these things. I have just come across a book that I hope will help me answer some of these questions, or at least explore some of these ideas.

Hook line and sinker

I have this old stereo amplifier. I bought it from a slick salesman. He linked the amp up to some INCREDIBLE speakers in his made-for-purpose listening room. I was blown away and handed over too much cash. I’ve been trying to patch together that same sound ever since.

The thing is, I WANTED this to happen. I wanted to hear the perfect set up, I wanted to hand over my money and yes deep down I even wanted the frustration afterwards of not quite getting the salesman’s sound.

We humans are strange animals. A quest is often more fulfilling than a destination. But demonstrating a destination is a powerful sales technique.

Hook line and sinker.

Roon + Tidal

I have recently signed up to both Roon and Tidal. So many websites and commentators are raving about it.

Linking your Tidal account to Roon gives you endless volumes of high fidelity music and MQA format recordings in a beautiful package.

It is convenient, sounds great, and the Roon software is staggering – it needs to be experienced to be understood but to me one of the key things that Roon does well is give you suggestions and notes to read while you listen to a track – this combination is key. The reading element brings back the old LP / CD cover notes vibe to streaming music. A wonderful thing and I am sold.

Now to optimise the Roon Core / DAC / MQA combinations! Can’t wait.

Listen for the drums

Before I learned how to drum, all I heard was guitar and voices. I wasn’t listening for the drums as an instrument in any music I heard.

Once you start listening for new things in music, it opens up a whole world. This is something I love. I have recently tried to listen out for any horns sections in songs – there’s a surprising amount of horns out there!

Back to drums – as a backing instrument it rarely gets the credit it deserves. Consider this an effort at shining the light on two examples.

Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” has impeccable blues drumming. It kicks off the track and keeps it rock solid so that he can moan and growl on top. It’s so hard to drum slow and strong like this.

An easier one to hear: Ringo in the Beatles’ “Ticket to ride” adds syncopation and a lurching thump. This beat keeps an otherwise very average song up in the clouds.

Listen for the drums :).