Modern Retro – Long Live the CD!

Each year during the post Christmas lull I tend to spend a few hours sitting online trawling the CD sales on the usual websites. I tend not to buy any music coming up to Christmas to allow for this annual binge. My list of new artists to check out, as well as new albums by existing favourites, had blossomed nicely and I managed a good dozen buys without really trying. Time now to actually listen to them, having received them from my local Postie and ripped them onto iTunes.

But what, I hear you ask, is the point of all that?! I could have bought them instantly through iTunes (naturally, other music vendors are available, I add in my best BBC voice). The price would have matched the CD sale price all year round. There is no delay in delivery, and no faff importing the files.

Well yes. But here is the what.

Firstly, I am a tactile type. I like the physical copy in my hands. The smell of freshly painted card or opened plastic. And the knowledge that this CD is safe in my filing system should my hard drive – and, granted, back up hard drive – both fail. This final argument is flimsy at best I agree, especially considering that online services allow fresh re-downloading of files in such cases.

CDs seem to be moving from the classic plastic jewel case to cardboard. These are rather cool “mini-vinyl” cases that seem to allow for more expression and variation from the production line. Different opening methods, placement of the insert, textures, etc. I am sure much of this is being green-friendly and/or reducing costs, but I have grown to like it. When it was just the odd CD that came this way, they stood out as awkward on my shelf. Now the balance has shifted.

Examples of some CD sleeves using the "mini vinyl" approach

Before the prominence of the MP3, the other issue was that constant handling and travel would make these cardboard cases look tatty in no time. I am looking at you, glove compartment, tomb of many broken jewel cases and lost CD inserts! But now, like the vinyl of yore, CDs are a home comfort, so this is less an issue.

Next up, sound quality. A funny one this. I have already admitted that I immediately rip my CDs to MP3, and much of my listening thereafter will be through my phone or iPod Classic (another new-retro for you there – 8 years old and still going strong!) But not only do I rip to a high quality, 192kbps or higher, I also know that the CD is there should I want to hear the audio unadulterated. Sure, there are “super audio CDs” at 96k/24bit…but we have to draw the line somewhere and CD quality is high enough for my lugholes, thank you kindly.

Rather comically, there is another reason I currently avoid CD playback. My Yamaha CD player/Amp combo is on its way out and the CD player spinner is ever so slightly off axis. This produces an annoying whirling sound that is heard on softer parts on the music. Another tick for the movement free MP3 playback!

Ownership is a funny thing. I guess because music is so vital to me, owning a CD feels like the ultimate investment.

When George Martin re-mastered the Beatles catalogue, it was common expectation that this meant the Beatles catalogue would soon hit iTunes and other download services. But I knew where my investment would be going. The choice was between a physical CD boxset in all its glossy glory, or an stream of 1’s and 0’s directly down my internet pipe. No contest. The fact that I may sit listening to the MP3 rips whilst thumbing the glorious mini versions of the original vinyl sleeves is moot. I have the best of both!

In the real world, I know that MP3s will prevail. But I sincerely hope the CD powers on for the nouveaux-dinosaurs.

This week, HMV has hit the news as it enters administration. Things aren’t looking good for the high street giant. Despite predominantly shopping online, I do enjoy a good CD store. Granted, HMV has been a bit of a cross media whore for years now, losing focus on the music to instead aim at larger margins on games and hardware. But regardless, it will feel like the end of an era. Perhaps the market has shifted irrevocably, which may allow for a resurgence of smaller indie stores once again. Or perhaps my love of Nick Hornby’s wonderful book “High Fidelity” is getting the better of me here.

To this end, I spent a good chunk of time and cash in Fopp yesterday. A chain, granted, but a smaller, more homely feeling company. I like this store. It reminds me of CD shops a decade ago. The CDs are given a degree of prominence. Staff recommendations and magazine reviews often bookend the shelves, which allows me to shop in a new way that I instantly loved. Headphones and 3G enabled phone to hand, I could preview these artists online while checking out the lovely artwork and reviews laid out in front of me. Half a dozen CD purchases later, each from artists I had never heard of, I left, smiling.

I soon look to publish my first album. I will be publishing online initially. But I am actively looking into having a run of CD’s made too. Primarily to sell at gigs, of course. But I somewhat feel that a CD will make things more, well, real.

A change would do you good

Two months ago I took delivery of a new PC for my studio. My first full new tower in over 5 years. Of course, the old PC had a fresh Hard Drive here, extra RAM there; all the usual tweaks to keep it running smoothly. But it was time for the old dog to retire and for some fresh blood.

I don’t know if all professional users feel this, but a new PC brings mixed feelings for me. Of course, new toy syndrome is great! More power than you could dream of ever needing (for now) and new software with bells and whistles galore. But of course there is the cautious, concerned flip side… what will I have to relearn? Which software packages and plug-ins will I have to update and learn from the ground up? Will my soundcard be compatible? Will I get any sleep for the next seven days while I configure the bastard?!

I love me some technology, let’s get this straight. Gadgettery in general is my grown up self regressing to childhood toys, with the added benefit of actual productivity thrown in. But this work/life crossover is also the curse; If my Xbox dies, I can live without it. My Studio PC however, he has to work 100% of the time. So there comes that time when the concern about the current workhorse starting to fail overrides the headache of starting again from the ground up.

So the beast was bought. A processor that could power the entire of 1980’s NASA. More GBs of RAM than my PC ten years ago could claim in storage space. But this is all incidental to the software. The brains to power what I need.

I have updated my Digital Audio Workstation (or DAW, as us geeky muso types call ’em) to the newest build, and my wav editor and mastering suite likewise. Ostensibly, they do the same thing as they ever did. But just better, at least one would hope. The problem I have with updates is that using software is a progressive thing. The longer I use it the better the results I achieve, as I learn the intricacies of each programme. I learn how to get a good sound quicker, and thus free up more time to get an awesome sound thereafter. With new software, even just upgrades, I have to relearn the path to “good”, let alone worry about fantastic!

But let me be honest here. Much of this is talk about leaving the “comfort zone”.

Let’s take effects as an example. For nearly 8 years I have used a set of plug-ins for vocal compression and reverb. They sounded great and I knew how to manipulate them to suit different vocalists and songs. With the newest version of my DAW (Cubase, should you be interested), the plug in crashed and was no longer supported. Bugger.

But here is the thing. Those plug ins are nearly a decade old. Pretty darn ancient in computer terms. Holding onto them was only really due to “comfort zone” syndrome.  With an afternoon’s reading on forums, SoundOnSound and other digital avenues, I have found a better combination of effects with more malleable results. Mostly using built in plug ins rather than after market versions. Software moves on and improves. So should we.

After all; a compressor is a compressor. A sound gate is a sound gate. And so forth. They all do the same thing. They just do them different ways and need different tweaks to get the sound. Sure, some boxes make life easier, but easier isn’t always better. It is important to remember this (in all walks of life really!) Granted, each effect plug-in/hardware console has a signature sound, but as with most professions, a good audio producer can make a naff set of microphones and plug-ins sound awesome, whereas a bad producer can take thousands of pounds of gear and produce an aural disaster zone.

This applies to all creative professions. Recently I read a web blog that followed a pro-photographer as he did some shoots using a “Buzz Lightyear” toy camera. A cheap, $30 kids toy. And the results were better than anything I have ever achieved with my Canon Ixux. The point being, great tools are great. But it is how we use them.

Moving away from the tools we know and the presets we have saved over the years reminds us to use to the skills we have accrued. To take us off autopilot. By doing so we may end up somewhere better than the usual destination, with more satisfaction from the journey itself.

And here is the clincher. New music can come from it! A direct example is formulating right now in my studio…

In order to learn to ins and out of my new software and hardware, I booted up a blank project. Opened up some synths and my new software sampler. And I started noodling. Within an hour I had a bass line, drum pattern and guitar line. All of these will likely be replaced by live versions of themselves down the road. But (a) I am learning new sounds and methods for future client work and (b) I have the foundations of a new song. Hell, I even have a melodic idea and a few lyrics thrown down!

We all like the comfort zone. But sometimes we should all take the rocky road. Good things can often that way lie.