What is an MP3-CD Audiobook, Part 2 – Why We Still Love Our LPs

My blog post about MP3-CDs several years ago generated an unexpected interest – what was different about an MP3-CD audiobook? Did I need a special player? And how did they get an entire book onto one single disk? I answered the questions, but it bugged me that I didn’t answer them enough. And when I dug just a little deeper, I realized the answer might be why there’s such a resurgence in old-fashioned vinyl LP records (kids, ask your grandparents).

Format Development

Back in the 1980’s, as CD and digital technology was taking off, committees were formed to create the format, so that the technology could be used anywhere. JPEG, that familiar photo tag, was formed first, the Joint Photographic Experts Group (1986), and they set the coding and standardization of digital transfer and storage of still photographs. MPEG-1 committee followed a year later, the Moving Picture Experts Group, Phase 1, which included both video and sound. It remains the most widely compatible audio-visual format in the world, and we all know the MPEG-1 Layer III by its short form of  .mp3.

When CDs hit the market, they took off like wildfire. You didn’t have to worry about compact discneedle and dust scratches ruining the fidelity of a record, and even better, you could carry that music with you wherever you went, just like a tape cassette but without all the mess and rewinding. Not all musicians jumped on it, though. Just as John Phillip Sousa hated the invention of the record, Neil Young was one of the earliest critics of CDs and delayed putting his music onto digital format, as is David Crosby, two men who know just a bit about music and the recording industry.

The Battle for Quality

high res vs. low res imagesAnd here’s why: MP3-CDs use what’s called lossy compression, a form of psychoacoustics (your gold-star word of the day). What it does is reduce or eliminate sounds that the system thinks the human ear can’t hear, either because they’re out of normal frequency or other sounds might be louder and keep you from hearing them. Once all that “useless” noise is gone, the audio files are a LOT smaller – enough to fit that whole audiobook onto one or two discs. Of course, in doing so, you lose a lot of sound quality, like when you send a low-resolution photo over the internet, or use a cell phone inside a tunnel.

The Return of the LP

And for all those people who said LP records were dead, here’s why more than 14 million of them were sold last year (14% of ALL album sales).  By the early 1900’s, when records became a thing, they were made of shellac (that bug resin), had a wide, noisy, grinding groove (think of those 1920’s recordings), and at 78 rpm (the speed they spun at), you could get no more than 5 minutes of play to a side – no American Pie, no Thriller, and forget In a Gadda Da Vida. That lasted until 1949, when Long-Playing (LP) records came out on vinyl (good ol’ PVC). At a speed of 33 rpm, with a finer groove that runs almost a third of a mile, they played more than 20 minutes of music per side, with a much higher sound quality. Stereo, which recorded two channels and put one on each side of the same groove, giving you that left and right sound, came in 1957. In a vinyl record, the sound waves from the microphone are transferred directly by needle to a core, which is transferred to a metal master, which is then pressed into vinyl. A needle then rides the groove, transferring those same exact soundwaves to the speakers. With proper speakers and tuning, the result is a rich, deep, acoustic sound much more like live music. Listen to enough LPs, and you really can hear the canned music effect on a CD recording. There is no comparison if you are a music purist.

Vinyl is Final

So, what’s playing on modern LPs? Ed Sheeran’s Divide was a top seller in 2017, and the old/new sound track to Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix No. 1, but so were the classics – Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles, Abbey Road, Thriller, and still, forty five years later, the champion of staying power, with more than 1,000 weeks on the top-200 best-selling albums, STILL selling more than 8500 albums a week, Pink Floyd’s 1973 Dark Side of the Moon.Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon album cover

For audiobooks, where one or two voices may recite a book in a calm, steady voice, you might not notice just how much sound is missing when you listen to it – enough to cut out six or seven discs worth. For music, I urge you to find a friend or a library that still has music LPs and players. Listen to the album (Dark Side of the Moon is amazing with serious headphones and a very dark room), and then listen to the digitally compressed MP3 files, missing highs and lows and the depth they provide. It might take a few tries, but you will start to hear the differences, and while MP3s are so fabulously convenient and almost foolproof, it just can’t compare to a good LP.

Fun fact: There is a gold-plated LP traveling the galaxy. Sent aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977 with recordings of Earth music, it is now more than 11 million miles away. MP3s only made it as far as the Space Station.

Versions and Duplicates (and Elvis)

I have a playlist on my iTunes called Versions and Duplicates. Here I stick all the various versions of songs I like by different artists – whether it’s Sons of Anarchy, Rod Stewart, or Bob Dylan singing Forever Young, or the Sons of Anarchy version of Bohemian Rhapsody vs. Queen, or six different versions of Hallelujah (I still like Leonard Cohen’s best from the soundtrack for Watchmen, followed by perhaps the Canadian Tenors, and a couple of on-line ones). I love Alice Cooper’s version of Eleanor Rigby almost as much as the original, so this file is actually kind of large.

Years ago, I’d read in the Book of Lists that Yesterday by the Beatles was the most-sung song ever, with more than a thousand people recording their version of it. Forty years later, it still holds the record, with more than 4,000 recordings. I only have two on my playlist.

So when a disk came through my hands – Train Does Led Zeppelin II, I had to listen to it. I liked Drops of Jupiter, their biggest hit, and I liked Led Zeppelin. I love, love, love Iron Horse’s bluegrass version of Zep, Whole Lotta Bluegrass: A Vocal Bluegrass Tribute to Led Zeppelin (it really works, and you can understand the lyrics), and the Rock a Bye Baby lullaby series’ version, played on marimba of all things, is strangely beautiful and calming.

Although the first track, Whole Lotta Love, is perhaps the best of the album, it blew me away. Outside of a word or two, and perhaps the depth of a couple of riffs, Train nails the music dead on. It’s hard to tell it’s not Zep or Robert Plant himself. Truly, if you’re a fan, this is an album you should listen to.  Most of the criticisms of the album revolve around “Why did we need this album?” “Who is Train to think they can play Zeppelin?” I say, “Why not?” and “Who cares?” These are proficient musicians; if they want to play Zep, then let them play it.  Those critics have never heard me pick out Stairway to Heaven on the piano, the only two-handed piece I know.  And here’s why those critics don’t matter:

On the internet (stupid move) I wound up poking into a bee’s nest of Led Zeppelin tribute albums in a mind-boggling array of styles. If you don’t like rock music, if you don’t like screechy lyrics, that is absolutely no reason to skip Led Zeppelin. The music triumphs over the style, and the true genius appears.

Is banjo your favorite instrument? Check out Iron Horse’s album.

Just like bluegrass?  Try Pickin’ on Led Zeppelin, by the Pickin’ On series. A lot of harmonica mixed with banjo and fiddle. Yes, Led Zeppelin on the harmonica.

Prefer Metal? Dead Zeppelin: A Metal Tribute, by Dead Zeppelin. The Immigrant Song sounds like someone left the crypt open and all the demons are headbanging.

Classical tastes?  Chamber Maid: The Baroque Tribute to Led Zeppelin. Imagine you were invited to visit Louis XVI, and a quartet was playing in the corner, and you realized you knew that tune. Like that. Light and flutey, and always beautiful.

Prefer classical guitar? Richard DeVinck plays classical nylon strings on his album Going to California. Too plinky for me, but remember, Stairway to Heaven is a guitar song anyway, so it sounds lovely.

Celtic roots? High step to A Celtic Tribute to Led Zeppelin. The rhythm’s a bit faster, but it’s catchy!

Too laid back for rock? Prefer the reggae beat? Try Dread Zeppelin: Dejah Voodoo: Greatest and Latest Hits. This isn’t just a band that travels around singing Zep songs in reggae style, but with a lead singer who’s an Elvis impersonator.  Definitely a more funky beat, but the style, to me, was lacking, and sounded way too much like a guest star in a pretend cabaret on The Love Boat. I warned you.

Prefer to chill? Try Dub Tribute to Led Zeppelin, full of ethereal dub beats that will put you into a trance to familiar (or maybe not quite so familiar in this style) music.

And all that diversity doesn’t begin to touch on the number of top musicians paying tribute by cranking out serious Zeppelin tunes.  Troll elsewhere, critics.

Now, Zeppelin’s not the only band that attracts cover artists. I wouldn’t begin to count the number of Beatles covers, or Rolling Stones. Rock a Bye Baby covers everything from AC/DC to ZZ Top. Iron Horse does an amazing array of artists in bluegrass style, including Modest Mouse and Metallica. So dare to be different. Try a familiar song done in a new way, or by a new artist. You may just find a new favorite.

Man-Oh-Manilow

Not everyone can keep a career going for fifty years. Desk workers get bored, factory workers get sold out, artists get stuck in a groove and lose inspiration (et tu, Thomas Kincade?) Musicians are not immune, either – anyone remember a recent hit song by Rupert Holmes, B.J. Thomas, or Debby Boone?

Thought so.

Some talents, however, can’t be squashed. Paul McCartney, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, and Tom Petty are just a few of the extremely talented musicians who are still pumping out music in various new forms, rock, classical, jazz, or folk, after more than fifty years.

So is Barry Manilow.

Barry Manilow first hit the charts forty-four years ago. An easy two generations. And with his latest album This is My Town: Songs of New York, Manilow shows he’s still at the top of his game.

Sure. Manilow isn’t for everyone. Say his name and images of white disco suits, sunshiny bright smiles, and Dr. Pepper come to mind (Manilow wrote or sang the hottest 70’s jingles for Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s, Band Aids, and more). Say you’re a Manilow fan and people smile politely and take a step sideways. But whether you like him or not, he’s a musical powerhouse.

In This is My Town, Manilow gives tribute to New York City. Maybe it’s refinement, maybe it’s age – he’s now 74, but his voice has gained a maturity, a deeper tenor that says he’s in command and making a hit is easier than crossing a New York City street. The album is short – just ten songs – and contains a variety of styles.  The first track, This is My Town, is breathtaking, a huge, glorious, Broadway-esque song that begs to be turned into an entire musical. Unfortunately, putting your best first means the rest of the album tends to fade.

Not that the tracks are bad; they just aren’t my style. Manilow drops into several tracks of smooth jazz, more in line with a Las Vegas lounge act than a hot New York club scene. While Manilow is no Petula Clark, his mashup of “Downtown/Uptown” is quite likeable. My only issue with the closing track of “NYC Medley” is that he starts with a cut of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind”; I wish he’d sung the entire song. He does end with a vibrant rendition of “New York, New York,” which is both fitting and energizing, reminding  you exactly why he is so popular.

Listen to it, even just for the first track. Barry, team up with a good playwright, and get that song made into a musical. It needs it. If you like smooth jazz, Broadway, cheerful music that is easy on the ear, New York City, or even just Barry Manilow, this is an album you won’t want to miss.

Which brings up the question – can Manilow write a song that isn’t upbeat? Sure, Could it Be Magic is in a minor key, and Mandy isn’t exactly a cheerleading tune (replace Tony Basil’s Mickey with Mandy?), but it’s not a throw-yourself-in-the-grave tearjerker like Goldsboro’s Honey or Clapton’s Tears in Heaven (written on the death of his five year old son). Chase Holfelder’s a musician who takes upbeat songs (like Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, or Disney’s Kiss the Girl), works them in a minor key, and turns them into haunting pop tracks. Maybe Manilow should be the next thing he tackles.

Quick Read: Mozart: A Life

Mozart: A Life by Paul Johnson is a short and simple biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It is only five chapters long! However, don’t let that fool you into thinking that it doesn’t provide a decent account of his life and music. It describes Mozart in a way that is easy to understand by all. The author also gives the reader new insights into information about his life, and a good understanding both of what his music is about and just how prolific a writer he was. I would have preferred it if this book had been longer and more detailed, but it works well with its simple approach.

Did you know that Mozart wrote over 600 pieces of music in his lifetime? This is especially impressive since he only lived for 35 years.

Did you know that Mozart had a brief a relationship with his wife’s sister?

Did you know that Mozart was literally kicked in the rear by one of his employers when he was fired?

Genre: Biography

Setting: Different parts of Europe from 1756-1791

Is this good for a book club? Yes, if the book club is interested in biographies, music, or just a quick read.

Objectionable content? Yes, but it is not detailed. Religion, sex, violence, incest, and death are referenced, but nothing is explicitly described.

Can children read this? Yes, if they have interest in Mozart and a good vocabulary regarding history and music. Teenagers would be the most likely to be interested.

Who would like this? Anyone who is interested in Mozart and his music. It is also good for people who like quick and interesting reads.

Number of pages: 164

Rating: Four stars

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Amadeus: Revisiting a Classic

“Are we going to appall you with something confidential and disgusting? Let’s hope so.”

So begins the trailer for the movie Amadeus, which you can watch here.

Amadeus tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s professional life from the point of view of his rival, composer Antonio Salieri. Salieri narrates a tale that takes you through the different beginnings each man had, and how they wound up at the same palace in competing positions. This film also addresses the question of whether or not Salieri murdered Mozart.

This film is absolutely wonderful. The acting is superb, the settings are elaborate, the costumes are beautiful, and the music is, of course, top-notch. The only drawback to this film is the lack of historical accuracy. However, while this may not be anyone’s biography, it is still one of the best movies I have ever seen.

Did you know that F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) took lessons while filming so they could learn how to conduct and play the piano?

Also, the director chose relatively unknown actors (at the time) to play the roles because he wanted viewers to be able to think of the characters as actual people, not famous actors pretending to be characters.

Setting: The second-half of 18th-century Vienna.

Was this movie based on something?  It was based on a play, also called Amadeus. The plots of both are very similar.

What is this movie rated? R for brief nudity.

Is there any objectionable content? Yes, including, but not limited to, sexual content, crude jokes, on-screen deaths, and some violence. There are also scenes involving Salieri questioning and rejecting his religion.

Can children watch this? Not recommended for anyone younger than a teenager.

What themes are found in the movie? Religious devotion, music, rivalries, and the line between madness and genius.

Who would like this? Anyone who enjoys watching historical fiction, or who enjoys Mozart’s music. It is also great for people who love movies that have a lot of depth to them.

Rating: Five stars.

This movie is available as both a DVD and Blu-ray.  And don’t forget to check out the soundtrack!

If you’d like to know more about Mozart, click here. We have many books about the legendary composer and, of course, many CDs featuring his music.