Music: Modern, Retro and Convergence

SonosThe Modern:  I’ve blogged in the past about my love of the Sonos digital music system, which I’ve installed throughout my home.  As an avid music collector, over the years I’ve amassed a collection several thousand CDs strong.  However, there are still gaps in my collection, and sometimes you just need to hear The Bangles’ version of Hazy Shade of Winter.  Happily, Sonos released an upgrade a couple months ago which offered native Rhapsody support using the new Rhapsody APIs.  There had previously been Rhapsody support via a kludge whereby the Sonos system talked to a Windows PC with Rhapsody installed on it to allow Rhapsody support.  My house is an all Mac household, so I wasn’t going to go there.  Other folks have praised the new Sonos / Rhapsody integration, and I couldn’t agree more.  I always though about subscribing to Rhapsody to have access to the infinite jukebox in the sky, but it wasn’t until I test drove it on my Sonos that I decided to take the plunge and become a paying customer.

However, I have one UI big complaint that I just have to mention, and I hope the folks at Sonos and Rhapsody are listening.  I don’t know if the shortcoming is a result of Sonos’ design choices or a shortcoming in the Rhapsody API, but hopefully they’ll work together to iron this out.  The glaring omission in the Rhapsody interface on Sonos is the ability to do any kind of keyword search for an artist or album.  The Rhapsody browsing paradigm appears to be totally locked in to a hierarchical model which somewhat surprisingly has the musical genre as one of the top level branches, forcing me to guess what genre a particular artist has been categorized in, which often leads to a frustrating dead-end if you’ve chosen the wrong genre.  Is Alison Kraus country or bluegrass?  Is Jack Johnson rock or pop?  What genre is Steely Dan?  How about Ani DiFranco?  Anyway, Sonos / Rhapsody would go from good to great if I could just do a search for a specific artist or album and not have worry about which genre a particular artist has been categorized in.

Brunswick-1The Retro:  My friend Jason called me over the weekend, and asked me to come over to see the "engineering marvel" he had just purchased.  I walked down the block (he lives all of 300 feet away) and was surprised to discover a vintage turn-of-the-century Brunswick Victrola that he had just purchased from a local antique shop.  The device is an amazing artifact because it manages to produce sound without any electricity.  A hand crank on the side winds a spring-driven motor that spins the turntable.  As it rides the vinyl record’s groove, the needle vibrates a membrane it is mechanically coupled to, creating (very quiet) sound in a chamber on the machined metal arm, which is hollow and pipes the sound produced by the membrane through an expanding horn-shaped tube, providing natural bullhorn-style amplification.  The horn terminates just behind the "speaker" grille shown in the picture.  The sound is a bit scratchy and tinny and lacks low-end frequencies, but it sounded surprisingly good to me given the decidedly low-tech means of producing the sound.  Never mind tubes, solid state circuitry, capacitors or resistors, there are no electronics of any kind in this system.  Cool.

Dle Edison78Spcover Large The Convergence:  So here’s how the past and present converge.  After sitting around and listening to several very scratchy vintage  78s (including Bing Crosby’s White Christmas), Jason and I decided that what we really wanted to do was hear our own music on the Victrola.  After some research, Jason found a site called Custom Records Vinyl Mastering which allows you to have a custom one-off 78, 45 or 33 rpm LP vinyl phonograph record made from a digital audio file that you upload to the site.  So Jason uploaded a couple of tracks (Make Me Feel and Arabic Ska) from our band’s album, Summers in Rangoon, and we are anxiously awaiting the arrival of the vinyl 78s later this week.  I can’t wait for the anachronistic thrill I know I’ll get from hearing the low-fi sounds of Soul Patch emanating from the Brunswick phonograph.

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  • Carl

    Re. Modern: It’s a Sonos thing. I’ve been a Rhapsody subscriber for a few years and it’s really easy to find what you’re looking for (by track, artist, album, genre…).
    More importantly, I just ditched my iPod in favor of a Sensa player connected to Rhapsody, and I love it. I was incredibly bored with my music collection and don’t really care whether I “own” the mp3 or are “renting” it, as long as I can play it whenever and whereever I want. I’ve had a blast dragging albums from Rhapsody over and enjoying music while working out or communting that I would NEVER buy, and reliving guilty pleasures from high school.
    I also added some Rhapsody channels, and each time I plug in the Sensa it gets updated with whole new playlists in that genre – great for finding new music. Oh, and it also all lives on my laptop so I can listen at home on nice speakers.
    I could go on… For me, this solves all my DRM concerns – I have a music library that travels with me that includes everything except the Beatles and Brain Salad Surgery. All for $15 a month.

  • Virtually all those crazy DJs out there who you see cutting and scratching their way to fame or backing up the latest hip hop flash in the pan use custom vinyl – they have records that are nothing but sound snippets that they scratch. A notable exception to this is cut-master Kid Koala who is exceptionally talented and a treat to watch. He brings crates and crates of records and cycles through them track by track, sometimes with 4 turntables running.