Frank Doris Tag

Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.

 

Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101

 

This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”

 

For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.

 

It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.

 

We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original

 

While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.

 

For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)

 

But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.

 

“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.

 

My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Our Favorite Underrated Stuff (Pt. 5)

underrated stuff
Pugwash, A Rose in a Garden of Weeds

Founded in 1999 by Thomas Walsh, Pugwash is a superb Irish rock band with more than 10 studio, live, and compilation albums. The 2014 compilation A Rose in a Garden of Weeds showcases the band’s memorable power-pop melodies, lush production with layers of ringing guitars and instrumental colors, and inviting vocal harmonies framing thoughtful lyrics.

Upon first hearing Pugwash I thought, here’s what a better Electric Light Orchestra would sound like. I also get a George Harrison feel from the way the songs can sound friendly and familiar then go off into unexpected chord progressions and directions. If you hear echoes of XTC, it’s no coincidence, as Pugwash has recorded four albums with XTC founder Andy Partridge’s label, and XTC guitarist Dave Gregory has contributed string arrangements.

underrated stuff

But like any great band, Pugwash ultimately sounds like no one else. This music sounds timeless, like it could have come from 1967 or 2017.

 

The album’s 17 songs range from the good to the absolutely stunning, from the pop perfection (no other way to put it) of “Answers on a Postcard” to the beautiful, heartbreaking longing of “Here.” Pugwash is way more popular in their native Ireland and in Europe. But their 2017 album Silverlake is also stellar and has earned best-of accolades in Irish end-of-year polls. Maybe the rest of the world will finally catch on.

 

Action

Well, I don’t know if I’d actually call this a gem. In fact, the 1999-2000 TV comedy Action is mostly in astoundingly bad taste. So this isn’t a “recommendation” per se. And yet . . . Action mercilessly and often hysterically spoofs the Hollywood movie industry in a manner insiders might consider closer to truth than satire.

 

The series revolves around the misadventures of movie producer Peter Dragon, sardonically played by comedian Jay Mohr. Dragon is a rude bully of a big-time producer of schlock action films but his last movie was a disastrous flop, so now the pressure is on for him to create another hit. Mayhem ensues as Dragon encounters one obstacle after another in getting the movie made, from accidentally hiring the wrong screenwriter (his name was similar to the one Dragon wanted—oops!), to playing psychiatrist to a binge-eating leading lady and substance-addled male star, to dealing with endless disasters on set and off.

 

Action skewers no-talent starlets, clueless executives, diva directors, sexual proclivities, racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes, and most of all the desperation, hunger, and phoniness behind Hollywood’s glitz-and-glamour veneer. (There’s a running joke about who can and can’t get a table at the see-and-be-seen restaurant.)

underrated stuff

The supporting cast is spot-on, especially Illeana Douglas as Wendy Ward, a world-weary actress-turned-call girl-turned-Dragon’s-girlfriend/VP at Dragonfire Films. Buddy Hackett turns in a surprisingly sympathetic performance as uncle and confidant Lonnie Dragon. There are big-name cameos and name-dropping galore.

 

Although Action is played as over-the-top farce, it’s not one-dimensional. Dragon’s feelings towards his daughter during Take Your Kid to Work Day are touching (even if the day ends in inevitable disaster), and his why-do-I-keep-doing-this sense of self-doubt under all the bravado lifts his character from one-dimensional to sympathetic. (Well, somewhat.) There’s heart amidst all the in-joke invective.

 

I remembered Action as more of a silly spoof when it first came out, and upon re-watching realize it’s far more controversial. Sometimes the lens of memory is cloudy. You may be extremely offended, and I have to note that swaths of Action are simply just cringingly bad. But if you’d like to see Hollyworld get its comedic comeuppance, and have a high tolerance for politically incorrect humor, you may find Action the ultimate inside joke.

 

Action is available for streaming from Amazon Video and iTunes.

 

3D TV

Life moves fast—technology moves faster. So I suppose we can consider 3D TV—the buzzworthy technology only a few years past—a forgotten gem nowadays. (I’m not the only one who thinks so.) Which, considering the public’s appetite for ever-more-elaborate entertainment sort of surprises me.

 

Then again, maybe not. Look at the history of improved audio formats such as DVD-Audio, SACD, and hi-res digital—they’ve either croaked or been largely met with indifference. So why should 3D TV have been any different? (And who knows, maybe even HDTV would still be a pipe dream had digital TV not been federally mandated.)

 

Still, I’m willing to bet, whether optimistically or pragmatically, that 3D TV will make a comeback. People want their entertainment bigger, more dazzling, more explosive, more realistic. And 3D has been embraced by virtual reality and gaming fans, and IMAX 3D doesn’t look like it’s going away.

 

Perhaps getting rid of cumbersome goggles via autostereoscopy or 4K 3D will be the catalyst. Maybe the first 3D TVs were too expensive. But in our technological journey from the Edison cylinder to the Star Trek Holodeck, I’m thinking 3D TV is forgotten but not gone.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

I Think, Therefore I Game

mind control games

You’ve probably seen segments on programs like 60 Minutes that feature a disabled person with a bunch of electrodes attached to their head and shows how they can control a computer screen just by thinking about a letter of the alphabet or something like that. You might have even heard about using mind control for virtual reality gaming.

 

Recent articles in IEEE Spectrum, Wired, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere have made me realize mind-control gaming is closer than you might think—as in, it’s already here.

 

A company called Neurable (sounds like something out of a William Gibson novel) has created a game called Awakening where players can move and affect objects in a virtual environment just by concentrating on them. It works via a brain-scanning headband and related software that read and interpret EEG signals from the brain to control the gaming elements. The headband is compatible with existing VR headsets like the HTC Vive.

Neurable will be introducing Awakening in VR arcades throughout the world this year. While there are currently only a handful of these arcades in the U.S. and Europe, they’re already wildly popular in China and parts of East Asia.

 

There’s no doubt VR arcades will proliferate. I was impressed by both the size and scope of the Virtual Reality installation at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, which I happened upon during CES 2018And there’s already a VR arcade called Virtual Realms near where I live on Long Island. (Lay that waiver and release form on me!) 

 

While mind-control games are just beginning to appear in arcades, it’s a sure bet they’ll soon enough become as commonplace at home as your TV’s remote control. Neurable isn’t alone. Other companies like Looxid Labs (which exhibited at CES 2018), Qneuro, and InteraXon are working on or have already demonstrated some type of brain/computer interface (or “BCI”). And games like Throw Trucks With Your Mind (I’d love to try that one!) have been shown at events like the Experiential Technology Conference & Expo in San Francisco. 

 

Heck, there’s already at least one discontinued BCI gameMindflex, produced by Mattel from 2009 to 2011, which purported to sense brain activity to control objects. (There was some question as to whether the headset actually measured brain activity or something like muscle activity instead.)

mind control games

True, the current mind-control games only let you do simple things like push numbers on a keypad, and it will probably take more advanced technology like brain implants to give you more control. But I’m confident BCI headsets will improve.

 

And here’s another wrinkle in mind: Consumer Reports says future games could change content based on a user’s mood. Imagine the possibilities: A game that could sense whether you wanted an apocalyptic zombie shootout after a bad day at work or a relaxing session of mind-control Tetris.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Altered Carbon

Netflix Altered Carbon

I read Altered Carbon about five or ten years ago and was blown away by its brilliant combination of sci-fi novel and detective thriller, its post-cyberpunk future-world setting, its fast-paced hard-edged evocative writing, and its all-too-believable premise, given human nature. I thought it would make a fantastic movie, but would have to be 10 or 20 hours long, so, how?

 

Enter Netflix’ new Altered Carbon TV series.

 

Richard K. Morgan’s novel is about a world a few hundred years from now where people can store their personalities into “stacks” that can be fitted into “sleeves” (new bodies). The wealthy (the “Meths,” for Methuselah) can essentially achieve immortality while those of lesser means have to settle for whatever aging bodies and lifespans they can afford, and some people won’t re-sleeve on religious grounds. As a result, the chasm between rich and poor has never been greater, nor the rich more powerfuland decadent.

 

Takeshi Kovacs is a former Envoy, a military corps whose members have been trained to survive in multiple bodies and lives and through extreme combat, including real and virtual-reality torture. He’s hired by ultra-wealthy Laurens Bancroft to investigate Bancroft’s own death. Bancroft has been re-sleeved, thanks to a personality-upload backupbut has no memory of his last two days because of his 48-hour backup schedule. It looks like a suicide, but Bancroft wants to know if he was murdered and, if so, why. He hires Kovacs to find out.

Netflix Altered Carbon

Does the series live up to the book? Well, it’s an altered Altered Carbon.

 

Most of the book’s essentials are here, including the main characters: KovacsJoel Kinnaman and Will Yun Lee, both utterly convincing as Kovacs in different bodies; BancroftJames Purefoy in an understatedly chilling performance; his sensuous/heartless wife Miriam (Kristin Lehman); and detective/Kovacs-antagonist/ally Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda).

 

Altered Carbon’s visuals and cinematography are stunning, richly imaginative (although the dark, dystopian Bay City owes a lot to Blade Runner), and often hallucinatory, with the lines between actual reality, virtual reality, and flashbacks blurred. The sound is also excellent, with impeccable dialogue clarity and a superb audio mix.

 

Many of the settingsthe extraterrestrial Harlan’s World, the sleeving company Psychasec, Bancroft’s above-the-clouds residence Suntouchevoke the book’s descriptions and are spectacularly realized. (Head In the Clouds almost perfectly matched what I had pictured.) There’s a dazzling array of future drugs and tech: Combat-enhancing Neurachem, sex-enhancing artificial pheromones, intelligent weapons, “needlecasting” to remote locations, and much more. The series does a fantastic job of portraying it all. There was never a moment when I thought, nah, this could never be.

 

Conversely, there are entire storylines and characters that don’t appear in the book. Part of these alterations are beneficial, including a major subplot between Kovacs andwell, I don’t want to give it away, but it and other subplots really illuminate the characters’ motivations. Other aspects just seem like change for the sake of change.

 

Yet I know books need to be adapted to the very different medium of a TV series to play well on screen, which is why, for example, I can understand changing the nature of one of the key AI characters. And Morgan was a consultant to the series, and I doubt he was put into virtual-reality torture to agree to the final product. So I guess he’s OK with it.

 

So am I. Because the series gets the feel of the book right.

Netflix Altered Carbob

The tough, gritty, unrelenting feel. The dialogue. The tension. The fact that Kovacs has had huge swaths of human emotion bred out of himbut not all. The twists and turns. The violence. The nudity. (Since bodies are just sleeves, the nudity feels like part of the series’ texture, not gratuitous.) The flashes of humor. The sex. The scenes of brutal treatment of women-as-sex-objects, which has caused some online controversythough the men aren’t exactly immune from this objectification either. It’s not all bleak, thoughthere are moments of tenderness, caring, empathy, and love. And hope.

 

Most of all, what Altered Carbon gets right is its portrayal of the rich complexity of still-humanand indeed all-too-humanemotions and motivations in a world that’s much more complicated than the one we live in and where a basic tenet of humanityeveryone diesis no longer true.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

CES Impressions 2018

CES 2018--Altered Carbon (Netflix)

I can now join the ranks of pretty much every journalist I talked to at CES who’s affirmed it’s become impossible to do a comprehensive show report. CES has gotten too big for any one human to cover it all.

 

Clearly, home entertainment AV products and manufacturers are no longer the focus, although exhibitors like Samsung, Sony, and other big guns were present, headphones and Bluetooth audio systems were abundant, and there was a floor or so’s worth (rather than a hotel’s worth as in years past) of high-end audio companies at the Venetian.

 

Much of what I saw and read about was all about “connectivity,” the Internet of Things, “smart” this and thatjeez, even Bluetooth hair-care systems and yadda yadda. Well, even though I’m a tech head, I don’t care about most of these things. I care about having an emotionally moving entertainment experienceand the products and technologies that can deliver it.

 

There were many times when this Baby Boomer felt alternately intimidated and overwhelmed by all the new tech, as opposed to being in my comfort zone attending AV-oriented shows like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and CEDIA and checking out the high-end rooms at the Venetian. Perhaps CES by its very nature now presents a skewed picture of what’s really happening in home entertainment. The show used to be more representative of “our” world. Google “media room” and you’ll get about 1,230,000,000 results. That’s not a typo. So there’s lots of real world interest in the subject. Hmmm.

 

A bright spot (more like a bright acre or two) was the proliferation of virtual reality and augmented reality exhibits in the South Hall. Total home entertainment immersionnow that appeals to me, and judging by CES 2018, I have plenty of company. This isn’t just a gamer-geek novelty anymore.

 

Much was made of the power failure in the Central Hall on the second day of CES. The irony was lost on no one. It made me realize that any consumer electronics product is worthless unless it works. After the show, I visited a friend who spent much time yelling at his smart-home control so it could “hear” him. The man-machine interface ain’t perfect yet. Will CES 2028 have a Brain Implant Device Pavilion?

 

Seems like “artificial intelligence” has become the consumer electronics buzzword du jour. But how much of it is merely hype? This is something I want to investigate. Having your refrigerator create a shopping list or having a car with facial recognition isn’t exactly the same as IBM’s Watson or even Sophia the Robot.

The most subversive booth I saw was the Netflix exhibit promoting the upcoming Altered Carbon sci-fi series (shown at the top of the page). It featured highly advanced future tech that was completely fictitious. As I left the booth, I wondered how many people thought it was real.

 

What was the Big Picture here? I don’t know if anyone can see it anymore. Literally. Maybe a few years from now, publications will be sending AI-enabled robots that unlike us mere humans might actually be able to cover the whole show.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Frank Doris’s Wishlist for 2018

Since this is a wishlist, I’m going to put it out there without regard to the possibility or impracticality of any of it.

 

Carbon Nanotube Loudspeakers

If the mass of a loudspeaker driver could be eliminated, the driver wouldn’t have any inertia and the speaker would be instantly responsive to the audio signal from the amplifier. Talk about clarity and lack of distortion!

 

Many have tried to make a massless (or close to it) driver, including the Hill Plasmatronics speaker (which had to be connected to a tank of helium!) and a demo at a trade show years ago (sorry, I can’t recall the name of the company) where two ultrasonic beams were aimed at the listening spot, causing the lower-frequency interference patterns to make audible sound—or something like that. And of course a primary reason for electrostatic and planar-magnetic speakers is to avoid the relative sluggishness of good old magnet-and-cone dynamic drivers. So I don’t think we’ve heard the last word in speaker technology.

2018 Wishlist--carbon nanotube speaker

Carbon nanotube speakers hold promise. A thin film of carbon nanotubes acts as the speaker diaphragm, which moves back and forth to heat the surrounding air, causing it to expand and contract to produce sound waves. (Neat, huh?) Such speakers could weigh very little (I’d never have to schlep around a heavy guitar amp ever again!) and could be made into interesting shapes and integrated into car interiors, for example.

 

As far as I know, no one’s created anything close to a Wilson Audio Alexia or Magneplanar 30.7 yet using carbon nanotubes. But wouldn’t it be great if someone could come up with something as good . . . or even better? Maybe it’s just an engineering problem or something.

 

A La Carte Everything

Perhaps Jeffrey Lyons can say differently, but I don’t have subscriptions to every movie and TV provider out there. I don’t want to either. The science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon formulated Sturgeon’s Law, which states, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” And who am I to argue? But some providers won’t let me download just single movies or TV episodesI have to subscribe to their whole service.

 

I’d be happy to pay a download or viewing fee that lets me watch movies or TV shows a la carte, the same way you can buy a single song from iTunes. And such a resource should be one-stop shoppingthat is, just click and buy without having to go to HBO or Netflix or Amazon or whatever site has what I want. I don’t know what would be involved in getting the cooperation of all the providers, and I don’t carejust make it seamless for me, the customer. Maybe it’s just a licensing problem, like finally getting the rights to the original Batman TV series after decades or something.

 

Hi-Rez Audio Everywhere

Wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong . . . er, sorry, had Brian Wilson on the brain for a second there. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to just download any piece of music and know it was in hi-rezwhether high-bit-rate, MQA, or whateverand have a device that would just play it without you having to configure it or worry that it was compatible?

 

It’s almost 2018, and I’d like my music in hi-rez, everywhere, all the time. Do we really have to settle for listening to sonically compromised formats anymore? Maybe it’s just an engineering problem, like getting the announcers’ voices in sync with the picture on remote cable-news broadcasts or something.

2018 Wishlist--Autostereoscopy
Universal Autostereoscopy

Autostereoscopy refers to displaying stereoscopic images, which creates the illusion of 3D without glasses, goggles, or any other type of headgear. It can and has been donelook at the Nintendo 3DS or 3DS XL. While this might not be appealing to manufacturers of VR headgear, it would be very appealing to me, someone who wears glasses and doesn’t want them getting in the way of VR goggles. And I know I’m not the only one.

 

I know the technical challenges are formidable, or perhaps even impossible. But maybe it’s just an engineering problem, like getting quantum computing to work or building a faster-than-light drive or creating a wormhole network to connect galaxies and parallel universes. Hey, George Lucas isn’t the only one who can think big.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Frank Doris’s Best of ’17

Kraftwerk The Catalogue 3-D

Kraftwerk: The Catalogue 3-D (Blu-ray)

I admit it—I love Kraftwerk. They’re astoundingly brilliant and innovative, creators of a prescient synthesizer-based musical world that is still galaxies apart from all others. The Catalogue 3-D Blu-ray set contains all eight of Kraftwerk’s officially-sanctioned albums performed live in concert, reworked and remodeled in arrangements that advance their electro-futuristic music even further.

 

In these shows, the band blends classic Kraftwerk sounds like their hallmark vocoder robot voices, the massive synth bass line of “Autobahn,” and the bloops and ticks of “Numbers,” with a dazzling array of newly created synthetic and electronic sounds, beats, and textures. As a result, the music sounds not only up-to-the-second but still years ahead of its time.

 

The Dolby Atmos (5.1- and stereo-compatible) surround audio is remarkably immersive, each track a painstakingly crafted sonic virtual reality where ever-morphing sounds come from anywhere and everywhere. The retro-minimalist visuals (viewable in 3D on a compatible video system) perfectly complement the pristine, deep, extended, intensely dynamic sound.

Best of 2017--The Deuce

The Deuce (HBO)

I have to confess I haven’t watched the last three episodes yet, but it doesn’t take very long to see that this series about the rise (ahem) of the porn industry in Manhattan’s Times Square in the 1970s plays more like a voyeuristic glimpse into real life than a TV series. It’s frank, rough, and unflinching. James Franco is both gritty and funny as twin brothers Vincent and Frankie Martino as they get pulled into a far bigger and badder world than the street life they were used to. Maggie Gyllenhaal deserves an Emmy (as others have pointed out) for her sensational portrayal of Candy, a streetwalker who’s smarter and more ambitious than any ten of her peers.

 

The supporting roles are unerringly cast, bringing a multifaceted humanity to the characters and their lives and motivations. (Why would anyone want to live as a prostitute?) The Deuce (the nickname for Manhattan’s 42nd Street) is disturbing, funny, nuanced, enlightening.

 

Oh yeah—as a lifelong New Yorker I can tell you that this series is no exaggerated Hollywood-ized fantasy portrayal. Times Square really was that dirty, garbage-strewn, and sleazy back in the day.

Best of 2017--The Punisher

The Punisher (Netflix)

Yeah, it’s violent. Extremely so. Yeah, it raises some tough and not-too-pleasant questions about morality, society, and human nature. But it’s exceptionally well written, produced, and acted, with plausible storylines and well-drawn characters with motivations you can understand even if you don’t agree with them. Jon Bernthal absolutely inhabits the role of Frank Castle, The Punisher, with complexity, conflict, and, yes, nuance—he’s no one-dimensional, unfeeling one-man revenge machine. There are dozens of edge-of-your-seat moments.

 

The cinematography is superb. Countless movies and TV shows have used Manhattan as a cinematic backdrop, but here, as in the companion Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil, the location shooting and interiors make it feel like the show simply couldn’t have been filmed anywhere else.

 

Did I mention it’s violent? Watching the fight scenes may feel cathartic after a bad day at the office, but I’d think twice about letting your children watch.

Best of 2017--streaming audio

Streaming Audio

OK, I know this isn’t a new thing, but 2017 was the first year I got into streaming audio in a big way, trying Apple Music, Tidal, Pandora, and Spotify on various devices. While I have a major problem with artists getting paid disgracefully small royalties from these services (I fervently hope there will be a course-correction soon), I just love the ability to immediately access tons and tons of songs, and deeper catalogs than even a short while ago. (Note that I’m talking about streaming, not downloading, which can be . . . more complicated.) The sound quality varies, but it’s serviceable at the least and hi-rez satisfying at best. But none of the providers have “Farmer John” by the Tidal Waves or “Fool” by China Crisis yet, so they ain’t perfect.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Getting High on Virtual Reality

virtual reality

Disclaimer: The Rayva Roundtable is not responsible
for bizarre typos in manufacturer graphics

I thought I had a handle on this whole virtual reality thing. After all, I’d experienced a few demos, including a full 360o one from an HTC Vive system in my own home that was pretty darn convincing.

 

So I thought I was well prepared for a demo from VRPark at the recent New York Photo Plus Expo. Their VRPark Capsule looked like it would provide a pretty realistic VR experience. It had two egg-shaped cockpits for a friend and me to sit in, and it moved around on its base to provide motion simulation. I figured it was a virtual rollercoaster ride.

 

But before strapping us in and fitting us with VR helmets, the woman working the Capsule asked, “Do you want the nice ‘travel’ demo or the scary demo?”

 

“Um . . . um . . . let’s go for the scary demo!” I knew it wasn’t real so how scary could it be?

 

The goggles winked alive to the image of a ride at an amusement park. Yeah, OK, a rollercoaster—but then the “ride” pulled us up and back like a giant swing, up . . . and up . . . and UP! Hundreds, maybe thousands of virtual feet into the air!

 

I’d neglected to mention that I have a fear of heights—a completely incapacitating fear of heights. I can’t go on my roof to clean the gutters. When I get in glass elevators, I have to look at the floor.

 

So when we went rocketing into the sky, I was terrified. I had a bird’s-eye view of the virtual amusement park, the surrounding houses, the trees, the whole town rendered in vivid 3D detail. I broke out in a sweat. I grabbed the ride’s handgrips as hard as I could. The motion of the ride and the sounds through the headphones—including people screaming—only added to the intensity.

virtual reality

Yaaahhhh! I kept telling myself, “It’s not real!” Didn’t matter. My primitive reptile brain took over my rational mind. I got dizzy. After just a few seconds, I couldn’t take it and closed my eyes.

 

Then I told myself, I’ll get used to it. I opened my eyes again. It’s not real . . .

 

We were now way high up, upside down, facing the sky and looking at clouds! Then the ride dropped precipitously, almost hit the ground, and swung back up like a pendulum! Gggaaaahhhh! At that point, I was screaming along with the people in the headphones.

 

I had to close my eyes again. But I didn’t want to wimp out through the whole demo so I re-opened them. The virtual ride was now rotating on its axis with the world tumbling end over end. The VR capsule continued to plummet, tumble, spring up, accelerate, and decelerate. I was totally rushing out holy jeezuz H. gawd almighty AAAH! AAAHHH! AAAAAAAHHHHH!

 

Maybe I shoulda tried a yoga or relaxation video. Finally, the ride stopped. I got out, unsteady, sweating—and more exhilarated than I’d been in years. (Sorry, angioplasty doesn’t count.) Whadda ride! Talk about entertainment!

 

Suffice to say my perspective on virtual reality has changed.

 

I’d thought it was a fun way to enhance video gameplay, aid in pilot and astronaut training, and maybe become a stupid novelty for video porn. (Missed that demo at CES.) Now I realize it’s far beyond that, that the line between virtual and actual reality can be readily blurred and not just because of ever-improving technology.

 

At its best, VR overrides your rational brain and evokes visceral, instinctual, and emotional responses so strongly your mind can’t resist. Your id and body take over.

 

If virtual reality can provoke that strong a reaction, I would argue that it might as well be reality. Not a new concept, I know (ref. The Matrix or Neuromancer or any number of sci-fi novels and films). But wait till you try it—then tell me how you feel.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Kraftwerk: The Catalogue 3-D

Kraftwerk essentially invented electronic pop music in the 1970s. Their brilliantly original, distinctive musical and visual style has led to L.A. Weekly—among many otherscalling them “the most influential pop band of all time.”

 

The Catalogue 3-D Blu-ray set offers abundant evidence, featuring live concerts from various locales of all eight “official” Kraftwerk albums. (Remaining original member Ralf Hütter and co-founder Florian Schneider view the earlier Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian albums as “archaeology.”) Which means all the hits are heretheir international breakthrough “Autobahn,” “The Model,” “Computer Love,” “Tour de France,” and the hip-hop-germinating “Numbers” and “Trans Europe Express,” along with everything else plus “Planet of Visions.”

 

This four-disc set features 3D/2D-compatible video, Dolby Atmos/5.1/PCM stereo-compatible sound, and Headphone Surround 3D mixes (which can be listened to on standard headphones), and includes a 228-page book of images from the concerts.

 

The sound quality is astounding. Kraftwerk have always been sonic perfectionists, and The Catalogue 3-D is another technological step forward.

 

Since their electronic music doesn’t have to replicate any kind of sonic “reality,” Kraftwerk is free to place sounds anywhere, fixed in place and moving around the soundfield, morphing and shaping aural space to their will, from tightly focused to vastly expansive. Their use of echo and delay alone is masterful.

Kraftwerk The Catalogue 3-D

The dazzling variety of “synthetic, electronic sounds” (to quote “Techno Pop”) is reproduced with extraordinary clarity, dynamic range, and wide frequency response. The low-frequency synth sounds and bass drums are exceptionally powerful and articulate. You can hear the time Kraftwerk spent crafting these sounds. There is no crowd noise mixed in. This is simply state-of-the-art demonstration-quality sound.

 

I don’t have a Dolby Atmos system (I have 6.1 surround), but I heard previews of some tracks at an Atmos demo, and the added height dimension contributed to the sense of immersion. But those who don’t have Atmos won’t feel shortchanged. The Headphone Surround 3D mixes work well, sounding spacious without being exaggerated.

 

Kraftwerk’s retro-futuristic visuals and minimalist color palette are presented with stunning clarity, from the charming animations of Volkswagens and Mercedes whizzing down the autobahn to the stark abstractions of “The Man Machine” and Spacelab flying at you from Earth orbit (a particularly fantastic effect in 3D). The band is seen from time to time playing their keyboards, controllers, and computers, dressed in their future-man grid suits. (An included “Film” version presents the visuals only.)

 

Why would Kraftwerk bother doing another live album and why would they change (some would say tamper with) iconic versions of their songs? Well, they have always evolved and incorporated new sounds as new musical technologies become available, so the band’s performances now are different than even a few years ago. I suspect that Ralf Hütter and company wanted to capture the band using the latest audio and video technology to have an historic record of Kraftwerk live. (Sure, I’d love to hear an album of new materialbut if this is where Kraftwerk pushes the Stop button, I’m OK with that.)

 

Seeing Kraftwerk live sometimes seems less like a rock concert than witnessing some kind of alien transmission from another galaxy. This Blu-ray set goes a long way toward conveying that experience.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Kraftwerk The Catalogue 3-D

Kraftwerk: The Catalogue 3-D

Kling Klang/Parlophone 190295924959

 

4-disc Blu-ray 3D/2D set

Dolby Atmos, Headphone Surround 3D, and
PCM stereo audio formats

Gentle Giant: Three Piece Suite

Gentle Giant fans are going to be thrilled by Three Piece Suite, the new Blu-ray/CD set of Steven Wilson 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround remixes, stereo remixes, and straight 96/24 stereo transfers of the band’s first three albums: Gentle Giant, Acquiring the Taste, and Three Friends. (There’s also a bonus demo track.)

 

Former Porcupine Tree member Wilson is renowned for his surround remixes of rock albums. It shows. And if you’ve never heard Gentle Giant, this is a wonderful place to start.

 

Gentle Giant was one of the most distinctive and individualistic 1970s progressive-rock bands. Brothers Derek, Phil, and Ray Shulman played a vast variety of instruments, with guitarist Gary Green, keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist Kerry Minnear, and drummer Martin Smith (replaced by Malcolm Mortimore on Three Friends and John Weathers on later albums) rounding out the lineup.

 

The band’s unique style encompasses almost unhumanly virtuosic ensemble playing, complex arrangements, circular, fugue-like passages, and vocals from the Shulman brothers and Minnear that range from sweetly plaintive (“Nothing at All”) to choral-like harmonies (“Three Friends”). A feeling of anything-goes adventurousness permeates the band’s work.

 

The original albums were well recorded and producednot surprising considering the involvement of people like Tony Visconti (David Bowie), Martin Rushent (Human League), and Roy Thomas Baker (Queen). The songs employ a dazzling range of keyboards, mallet percussion, woodwinds, violin, guitars, and more. (Ray Shulman gets a credit for “skulls” . . ?)

Gentle Giant Three Piece Suite

I compared Three Piece Suite with the BGO Records CD reissue of Gentle Giant/Three Friends (BGOCD1095) and the original Three Friends vinyl LP (Columbia PC 31649).

 

The 5.1 surround remixes (there are 10 on the Blu-raynot all the original multitrack masters could be located) are a resounding artistic success, enhancing the clarity and separation of instruments and vocals, and adding varying degrees of surround sound immersion. Dynamic contrasts are much better, and there’s none of the exaggerated, gratuitous placement of instruments off to the side and rear that plague other surround remixes I’ve heard.

 

Both the surround and stereo remixes have a warmer tonal balance, with a better defined low end, along with a richer midrange and detailed highsalthough the vinyl has that all-analog sweetness the digital formats don’t quite capture.

 

Wilson changed some of the vocal and instrumental balances. For instance, you can hear details like the “Oh! Yeah!” exclamations in the background during “Giant” that were almost inaudible before.

 

Whether the gorgeous acoustic guitar and vocals on “Nothing at All” or the synthesizer intro to “Pantagruel’s Nativity,” everything sounds more substantial and dimensional. (The vibraphone solo on the latter is simply stunning.)

 

The straight CD transfers of the three albums were done flat, making them quite faithful to the originals. I applaud Wilson’s decision not to hype them up with “improved” highs and lows or gratuitous compression and processing.

 

The Blu-ray Disc’s visuals complement the songs in a simple, deliberately unfolding manner without being overly garish or distracting, like the surreal floating images of office chairs, paper clips, and briefcases that complement the mood of “Mister Class and Quality” and its businessman protagonist. All in all, Three Piece Suite is a superb addition to Gentle Giant’s body of work.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

Gentle Giant Three Piece Suite

Gentle Giant: Three Piece Suite

Alucard ALUGG057 Two-disc
Blu-ray/CD set

 

Blu-ray audio formats: DTS-HD
Master Audio 5.1 surround, 96/24 5.1
LPCM, 96/24 stereo LPCM. Includes
CD with stereo remixes.