Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Digital audio findings

It's a long story that I won't give in detail, but 6 years ago I started to explore digital lossless music, initially CD rips but increasingly digital downloads. My music interests are mainly contemporary jazz, modern classical, early music, Baroque, West Africa, Mediterranean, Middle East. I went through a lot of gear and setups since. I learned a lot, too much to summarize, but here are a few findings:

  • First question is why lossless rather than MP3 or AAC? Simply, it can sound better for some material (plucked strings especially) with the right downstream gear.
  • How do you get music into that form? If you have CDs, you re-rip them. I use XLD on my Mac. If you want to stream, you can use lossless Tidal or Qobuz (which is what I use). Finally, there are several lossless download vendors: ProStudioMasters, HDtracks, 7digital, eClassical, Presto Classical, and best of all because more money goes to the artists, Bandcamp for independent artists and labels. Most of my recent music is from Bandcamp.
  • How do you play it? You need a means to move bits from local storage or streaming sources to whatever turns bits into analog waveforms in your system. Many options there, from simple Apple or Sonos setups to integrated receivers from companies like NAD, Naim, or Hegel (owned gear from all of them), to dedicated digital transports connected to separate DACs, preamps, and amps.
  • You can use your phone or laptop as a transport, but it is also possible to use a variety of single-purpose devices for that. Here's what I assembled to use at work. Again, one can go crazy on digital transports, to stratospheric prices that make no sense to me. I do own a relatively pricey Metrum Ambre transport for my fancy headphone system(s) at home, but one can do well in the just-digital-audio transport front for much less, such as the Allo USBridge I have for my speaker system.
  • For quite a while, I was having a very good time with a single-purpose CuBox running Volumio, reading tracks from a home NAS (Synology) playing to a Schiit Bifrost Multibit DAC and a Schiit Jotunheim headphone amp for my home headphone and then work systems until I gave it to my daughter. People I trust claim that you can spend a lot less, either from Schiit or from vendors like AudioQuest for a very reasonable sound quality. The AudioQuest devices are nicely portable and work easily off your laptop or phone.
  • Schiit Audio has by far the best quality/price ratio that I know of for DACs and headphone amps. I've never tried their preamps, and speaker amps, but I suspect they win there too. They are also responsive, don't take themselves too seriously, and respond well to nice customer inquiries.
  • If you share living space with someone, or if you have close neighbors, headphone listening has got really good with the right headphones. I have only listened closely to a small number of different headphones, mostly rather expensive (>$1K), so I have no recommendations for anything below $500. At work, I use MrSpeakers Æon Closed, which work well for the sources and relatively laidback music I like for work.
  • It is hard for me to recommend speaker systems because I've heard way too few different ones in the last decade. I can say that for a small(ish) room, a pair of KEF LS50s with a sufficiently brawny amp (the LS50s are rather inefficient) give outstanding clarity and dynamics (LS50s are now mostly sold in a wireless, built-in amp version that I've not heard so I can't comment on). In my current larger living room, my earlier LS50s were replaced by KEF Reference 1s on stands, with a really brawny Hegel integrated amp, but those choices involved a bunch of other factors as well as a lot of listening at a couple of SF dealers. The Hegel integrated can take bits directly into its built-in DAC, which is fine but a bit too polite for my taste. Instead, I use a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC with some experimental hardware (don't ask) that allows it to get outstanding quality from a cheap Allo USBridge transport.
  • How do I get bits to my home systems? I've landed on Roon, which does the best job among alternatives to manage my eclectic local and streamed music collection and send the bits reliably to the two systems I listen on at home (speakers in the living room, headphones in the study). I run the Roon server on a fanless Intel NUC with Ubuntu Server 18.04, mounting its music from a Synology NAS.
  • You don't really want to go there: 

Monday, May 27, 2019

Dennis Bray's "Wetware"

Just finished reading Wetware, which I had owned for a while and started reading a couple times while traveling but misplaced both times, so I had to go back to the beginning. I don't agree with everything Bray says, and in the 8 years since he published the book, a lot happened both in computing and in biology. But I recommend Wetware to anyone who is puzzled about the similarities and differences between living things and computers. Three quotes that connected:
Neural networks can cope with large amounts of information, supplied as written text, facial features, industrial processes, and so on. They can recognize restricted sets of patterns better than we can. But what they do is the tapping of a tin drum compared with the symphony orchestra of natural environments.
Such coupling of environmental parameters through internal circuits allows a cell to predict future events. These circuits contain, implicitly, the probability of certain life-changing events.
If the detailed chemistry of the cell is simply the outcome of a historical ragbag of ad hoc interactions, then it will be no more predictable than the weather. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

August-September music

Artist Title
Alisa Weilerstein Transfigured Night: Haydn and Schoenberg
Andrew Staples/Pauline Cheviller/Esa-Pekka Salonen Stravinsky: Perséphone
Blaze/Sakurada/Sampson/ Wörner J.S. Bach – Secular Cantatas, Vol.10 (BWV 30a, 204)
Cécile McLorin Salvant The Window
Chris Lightcap Superette
Christian Tetzlaff/Hannu Lintu Bartók: Violin Concertos Nos. 1, 2
David Binney Out of Airplanes
Edo de Waart Adams: Harmonium
Ensemble Dialoghi Mozart, Beethoven: Quintets for Piano and Winds
Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Temporary Kings
Gilad Hekselman Ask for Chaos
Grdina/Houle/Loewen Live at the China Cloud
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles! Yo Miles: Sky Garden
Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith/Yo Miles! Yo Miles: Upriver
Jamie Saft Quartet Blue Dream
Jordi Savall/La Capella Reial de Catalunya/Tembembe Ensamble Continuo Bailar Cantando: Fiesta Mestiza en el Peru
Lee Konitz/Dan Tepfer Decade
Louis Thiry Messiaen: Organ Music
Marcin Wasilewski Trio Live
Mary Halvorson quartet Paimon: Book of Angels 32
Mary Halvorson/Bill Frisell The Maid with the Flaxen Hair—A Tribute to Johnny Smith
Matt Lavelle/Reggie Sylvester Retrograde
Medeski Martin Wood/Alarm Will Sound Omnisphere
Mikkel Ploug/Mark Turner Faroe
Miles Okazaki Work (Complete, Volumes 1-6)
Phronesis We Are All
Quatuor Debussy/Jean-Philippe Collard-Neven/Vincent Peirani/Franck Tortillier Claude Debussy: ...et le jazz - Preludes for a Quartet
Robert Kaddouch/Gary Peacock 53rd Street
Robert Kaddouch/Gary Peacock High Line
Rosa Brunello/Los Fermentos Volverse: Live in Trieste
Stile Antico Song of Songs
Tom Barford Bloomer
Tord Gustavsen Trio The Other Side
Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Latest month in music

Artist Album
Alisa Weilerstein Solo
Anthony Braxton Willisau (Quartet) 1991, Studio
Bill Frisell Rambler
Charles Lloyd Lift Every Voice
Daniel Barenboim / Michael Barenboim / Yulia Deyneka / Kian Soltani Mozart: Piano Quartets
David Murray Octet Home
Don Pullen Capricorn Rising: Featuring Sam Rivers
Enrico Pieranunzi/Thomas Fonnesbaek Blue Waltz
Fred Hersch Heartsongs
JD Allen Love Stone
Julian Argüelles' Tetra Tonadas
Martyn Brabbins/BBC National Orchestra of Wales John Pickard: Sixteen Sunrises; Symphony No. 5; Concertante Variations
Old and New Dreams Old and New Dreams [1977]
Paul Bley Memoirs
Seattle Symphony / Roomful of Teeth / Ludovic Morlot Berio: Sinfonia; Boulez: Notations I-IV; Ravel: La Valse
Steve Coleman Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets)
Sylvie Courvoisier/Mary Halvorson Crop Circles
Telemann; Richard Boothby Solo Fantasias
Thomas Demenga J.S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello
Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell duo Angel Dusk
Various Artists Journey – music for Indian violin & tuba
Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording
William Tatge General Cargo

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jazz wonders

  • Heard Christian McBride's New Jawn Quartet at Stanford last night. I knew it would be good, but it was way above good, it was revelatory. All new music, no pretension, no concession to easy listening, superbly tight. I had heard them at SFJAZZ in 2016, they were good but they did not make this intense impression. Yesterday, Waits was like a fast current in a deep channel, many overlaid rhythms, no derivative splash. Waits and McBride set an intense pace, which Evans and Strickland rode creatively without ever going lax or derivative. Still recovering, like a scary steep ski descent. They'll be recording, album expected Sept-Oct. But best, they are touring widely. Go hear them!

  • Great detailed review of Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams's Vanished Gardens.
  • Wonderful, long historical interview with Bill Frisell. Includes a link to a bootleg video of Paul Motian Trio (Motian, Frisell, Joe Lovano) at Jazz em Agosto, Lisboa 1986. Frisell and Lovano look so young!

Monday, June 25, 2018

Photos of my work office small music player

Music SSD in the foreground, player in the in the middle, DAC (green/black) and amp (blue) in the background. SSD is connected to one of the Pi 2 USB ports. Digital audio goes out through an BNC connector from the 502DAC bolted to the back of the Pi touchscreen and plugged into the Pi hat connector. BNC coax cable connects to the DAC. Left picture shows the main piCorePlayer menu; right picture shows the Now Playing screen, in this case for the first track of Marc Ribot's excellent Silent Movies.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Building a small standalone digital music player

For the last several years, all my recorded music listening has been from lossless PCM FLAC stored on a Synology NAS. I went through several iterations of Ethernet-based streaming from the NAS, but now I've settled on a Roon server on a Ubuntu Intel NUC that streams to a couple of different Roon endpoints: an Auralic Aries Femto for the living room speaker system, and an Allo USBridge for the study headphone system. Those endpoints connect to DAC>amp>transducer chains.

For work, however, I want my music system there to be standalone for convenience and security. After a bit of exploration, I settled on the following hardware:
  • Pi 2 single-board computer.
  • AdaFruid 7'' touchscreen.
  • SmartiPi touchscreen stand and Pi case.
  • Pi2 Design 502DAC, to be used as a high-quality S/PDIF source, not as a DAC. A possible alternative would be the Allo DigiOne board, which I did not consider at the time for whatever reason.
  • Samsung 1TB USB-C SSD for music storage.
  • sBooster ECO 5-6v LPS to power the above. Probably overkill, but you definitely need 3A@5V, which is more than the typical USB wall wart.
The player connects with a S/PDIF coax cable to my Soekris dac1541 DAC/amp, which on its own it is a very nice source for my MrSpeakers Æon Flow Closed headphones. However, I currently have an extra Neurochrome HP-1 headphone amp, and that sounds even better between the DAC and the headphones than the dac1541's built-in amp.

What remained was to find standalone music player software that would run well on that low-power computer. I started with RuneAudio, which worked but was was sluggish, often missed command touches, and sometimes got stuck doing harder chores. Scrolling through my 1TB music library was really annoying. I also tried Volumio, but I could not get it to run stably on my hardware.  Eventually, I heard about piCorePlayer on an audio forum as being really lightweight -- it runs from RAM disk -- and decided to give it a try. All of those three Linux-based players are mainly designed to stream music from a separate server or streaming service, but RuneAudio and Volumio can in principle work standalone from a local USB disk.

My adventure was to try to get piCorePlayer to work standalone, even though it is mainly a replacement for the formerly proprietary networked Squeezebox player. I managed to get this to work thanks to advice from kind users of an audio forum as well as a lot of searches for documentation and other forum info. In brief, I eventually succeeded, and the resulting player works really well, scrolling quickly through my big library and allowing me to select the right album for what I'm working on those precious times I'm not in meetings. Here's what I did:
  1. Downloaded piCorePlayer 3.5.0.
  2. After downloading and unzipping, used Etcher on my Macbook Pro and a SD-2-microSD carrier to flash the piCorePlayer image onto a 64GB SanDisk microSD.
  3. Inserted the card into the Pi 2 microSD carrier, reassembled the unit, connected it to my home LAN, DAC, USB SSD, and power.
  4. On boot-up, boot messages on touchscreen are upside-down. Don't worry, it will be solved later.
  5. Connected to the piCorePlayer software running on the Pi with the Web browser (Chrome) on my Macbook Pro. For convenience (it will come especially handy later), I assigned a fixed IP on my LAN to the Pi, which is really easy to do with the Web interface to the Ubiquiti EdgeRouter that manages my home LAN.
  6. Enabled Beta software on the main piCorePlayer control Web page. This will come in handy later.
  7. Using the piCorePlayer Web interface, installed LMS. This requires resizing the boot partition, which involves several rebooting dialogs, and then actually installing LMS.
  8. Set up your preferred name for the piCorePlayer, and also tell LMS about it on the LMS configuration page. Mine is "Ebnefluh," after a memorable ski tour I did in April (all my music-related machines are named after peaks I visited on skis).
  9. Make sure that the LMS flag to bypass mysqueezebox is set and saved.
  10. Install jivelite package to manage the touchscreen.
  11. Once jivelite is installed, use its configuration page on your browser to adjust screen rotation. In my setup, I had to select the option to flip upside-down.
  12. Use the LMS Web interface to tell LMS where your music library is in the USB drive, and to get it to index it. There's a page that shows indexing progress. If you did 9 above, you won't be prompted to get a mysqueezebox account.
  13. Wait until your music is indexed. In my case, this stopped somehow, and I had to poke it on the LMS Web interface. But it got eventually done.
  14. Now you can test that you can control play to your DAC from the touchscreen. Enjoy testing with some known tunes!
  15. Just to be sure everything so far is remembered, use the "Backup" option on the piCorePlayer control page to save your current configuration to the microSD card.
  16. The final step is to make your device work standalone. On the beta options on the piCorePlayer control page, click to set a fixed IP address. That gets you to a network configuration Web page. Set DHCP to off, enter your fixed IP address, netmask, default gateway, and default DNS. You should set this to what you have on the LAN you are configuring the device on, so that it talks correctly to it when you bring the device back to it for software updates etc.
  17. Backup your whole configuration again to microSD. This is critical!
  18. Shut down the device, unplug it from power, and let it rest for a while so that its RAM resets. Also unplug it from your network.
  19. Power up the device again. Once it is up, you should be able to access your music and control play from the touchscreen.
  20. Troubleshooting: at step 19, if you see a boot-up message that the device is waiting for network and that stays for a while, outputting periods on the screen, that means that you did on 16 did not stick, probably because you forgot to backup the configuration to microSD before power down. If that is done correctly, the network should come up right away, and LMS will also boot-up quickly. If not, after the long failed wait for network, LMS will not spin up and Squeezelite won't find your music.