The Magic of Vinyl

About a year ago, I put a Sonos sound system in my flat.  It had been more than 15 years since I’d had a stereo of any kind, and while I’d enjoyed being able to carry around my music collection on my phone for years, I never really listened to music at home, unless I was in front of a computer.  While it sounds incredibly cheesy, it really did help me fall in love with music again – I could listen while walking around the flat, working on something not in front of a computer, cooking, etc.

One of my favourite features of Apple Music (yes, lets not get into the Spotify vs. Apple debate) are the variety of radio stations and the playlist discovery, but I realised (after a year of listening to way more music than I’d ever managed before) that I’d gravitated to this almost anonymous way of interacting with artists, albums, and music.  One of my personal policies with the iTunes Store over the years was I would always buy the entire album of an artist.  I felt like an album was a sacred thing.  But here I was guilty of not having listened to a complete album in over a year.

I had lost something.  I had lost the ceremony of music.  I missed the experience of looking at the album artwork and liner notes (remember that?) and focusing on music the way the artist intended.    What to do?

I decided to get a record player.  Nothing fancy, and I’ve committed the sacrilege of hooking it up to my Sonos system which would horrify any analog purist, but I don’t care.  I also don’t care about audio quality that much either, and I’m not going to pretend that records sound better or that they’re warmer or any of the other stuff Vinyl Geeks will obsess over – that’s not the point.

The point is, the last couple of weeks I’ve sat down, dimmed the lights in the living room, put on a record, and experienced the album and artist in a way I haven’t since I was in high school.  Back then I would spend hours listening to music and intently study every piece of art and lyric that came with a new CD.

I still listen to playlists and radio stations my massive digital music collection while I’m walking, working, and running around the house.  But I now have a new avenue for music, and it was something that’s been missing.

I know I’m late to the party, but I’m glad I finally made it!

P.S. Sonos is my nominee for “company most likely to become like TiVo and squander a massive opportunity”.  Their hardware is great, their idea was revolutionary and visionary when they launched, but they’ve spent years coasting and delivering crummy software.  I don’t see them pulling out their tailspin anytime soon and Google, Apple, and a bunch of other companies will be eating their lunch over the next 2-3 years. Just like what happened to TiVo. It’s sad, really, but when your latest big feature (Alexa integration) takes you more than a year to ship AND it’s completely terrible, you kind of deserve it.

How to Solve Sonos Playbar Speech Issues with the Apple TV

A couple months ago, I purchased a Sonos Playbar to replace a Bluetooth Samsung Soundbar I had, as I wanted to integrate the living room audio setup with the rest of my house, which is all Sonos.

Probably due to over-exposure to loud music from playing in rock bands through highschool and college, I really struggle to hear conversation in noisy environments like pubs, and this issue extends to hearing speech in movies unless I’ve got a dedicated speech channel. My hearing seems fine overall (famous last words I guess), just differentiating speech within noisy backdrops is annoying.  Modern flat screen TVs really exacerbate this issue as their speakers aren’t great anyway, let alone for pushing out a nice clean speech channel.

The sound you get from the Playbar (and two Play 1s for surround sound) is great for music, but the results I’ve had regarding speech during movies have absolutely sucked.  It’s kind of surprising when you start seeing threads like this one where there’s dozens of people complaining for years, with no real response / solution.

Here’s how to solve this situation:

You need to bypass any potential pre-processing that might happen to the audio signal.

If you have a receiver it’s probably a safe bet your signal is clean, but like most people, I just have a TV and a bunch of HDMI inputs.  I had them plugged into my Samsung 4k Smart TV and I had the optical audio connected from the TV to the Sonos Playbar.  I had the TV correctly configured to bypass any audio processing and it was only shunting the audio out to the optical port.  Except it wasn’t.

To inexpensively solve this issue:

  1. Buy an HDMI splitter with an audio optical out, like this one.
  2. Hook your AppleTV (which doesn’t have an optical out) and any other devices (BluRay, etc.) into the splitter.  Hook the optical from the splitter into the Playbar.
  3. Turn on the Speech Enhancement on the Sonos App and Night Mode.
  4. You’re done! You now have clean audio and a functioning Dolby 5.1 signal that has clear dialog.

I’d like to point out here that the true villain of this story is Samsung for essentially lying about the pass-through capability of the TV.  Sonos should bear some blame here too – it could easily better educate customers and include some common troubleshooting advice either online or in the documentation.

Hope this helps!

Hating Your (Potential) Customers: Content Licensing from a Major Record Label

Have you ever wondered what’s involved in licensing a popular band’s music?  A few years ago I was curious and wanted to see about using a rock band’s song (signed to a major record label, Sony’s Epic music) for a marketing project.  There are some bands who get the internet, and some who don’t, and this band (one of my favorites) is probably somewhere in between.

First, I had to spend quite a bit of time googling and navigating around their record label’s website.  Finally, I found an obscure reference to call a certain phone number.  I called it, and had to navigate through a maze of IVR options, pressing several numbers to wade through several different menu levels.  Finally, I got dumped out to an answering service that played a message instructing you to write a physical letter describing the band, song, use you had in mind, and several other criteria.  The message helpfully repeated itself, then hung up.

I remember being shocked at how arcane the entire thing was, despite the well documented track record of major media labels and distributors to make things as difficult as possible for consumers.  Needless to say we never sent in the physical letter, and I never actually found out what it would cost.

I like to remember this experience when thinking about the barriers our customers have when attempting to give us money.

Guster at the House of Blues

I love hard rock music.  The angrier the better.  Bands like Godsmack, Chevelle, Systematic, Alice in Chains, Rise Against, etc.  The Wife does not enjoy her music with an extra helping of anger.  She likes her music (like her movies) happy.  She has been a long-term fan of a band called Guster, and even though I very rarely ever listen to music that’s not rock music, you can’t help but like Guster.  They’re happy.  They’re catchy.  They also happen to be one of the best live acts I’ve seen which would probably surprise a lot of people who know me.

South Florida rarely gets decent bands visiting.  I believe the reasons are mostly geographical as bands swing down the Eastern seaboard, play a show at Orlando, then have a choice to head towards Gainesville or Tallahassee, or travel down to Miami/Fort Lauderdale.  After their South Florida show, it’s five hours to Gainesville, seven to Tallahassee, or more to other destinations.  This means they’ll have to take the next night off for travel which is usually not a good deal for most bands.

We also lack a good mid-size venue in South Florida for rock shows, with the only reasonable option being Revolution in Fort Lauderdale, but they haven’t done a very good job each time I’ve seen a show there. House of Blues in Orlando does a fantastic job, however.  Both that location and their Chicago venue have phenomenal sound quality which leads me to think this is a chain-wide priority and if so, it’s a smart way to ensure that both fans AND bands enjoy coming.  The production quality at both locations is superb and I’ve seen this happen several times watching the same band on back-to-back nights with one of them being at a House of Blues.

Anyway, seeing Guster perform at the House of Blues was an incredible treat.  Each member switches instruments almost every song, rotating through lead guitar, keyboards, bass guitar, mandolin, and rhythm guitar.  A trumpet makes a guest appearance, along with a harmonica.  Their singer and the backing vocals are never off pitch.  They don’t talk very much at all and when they do pause between their songs to say something, it’s always extremely funny.  Did I mention their drummer plays a lot of their songs with just his hands?  They typically make up a song just for the town they’re in that’s clearly ad-libbed and hilarious, and they usually finish with an acoustic only encore that’s performed with no amplification at all – fans sush everyone until you can hear a pin drop and then the band sings and plays with no mics, no amps, nothing.

Their songs are incredibly catchy, their live performance is unbelievably spot-on, and they’ve played for over two hours each time I’ve seen them.  It’s not my style of music but Guster is certainly on my Top 5 Performing Bands list.  If you can catch them at a House of Blues, even better.