Spatial Audio

I got the following e-mail from a producer/engineer:

“I just want to try and alert you to the potential seismic scam happening with this Atmos roll out.  Atmos catalog remixing is being done by the truckload in a handful of Nashville, LA, and NYC rooms right now and has been for a couple of years, and almost none of it is being overseen or approved by the artist or original producer or mixer.  And these versions- according to Apple- will be the new standard versions, superseding the original versions, now designated by Apple to the dustbin of history.

I have heard some Atmos mixes which were indeed an improvement.  However, most are not.  And I would like to steer you toward this demo from Apple to get a sense of their mindset

In the rush to make content for Apple, labels are jamming this crap out with little QC and -again- almost no input from artists.  This format has real potential but if they continue to try and tell us that shit like this ‘new’ version of ‘What’s Going On’ is better than then original, then it will be seen as a counterfeit and a fraud, and will go the way of the Home Pod.   I know how you feel about catalog being remixed and this has potential to be a worst case scenario.”

And then my inbox filled up with more, and iMessage started to ring from other professional engineers.

Now wait a second, this was supposed to be a breakthrough. But is it more of a marketing gimmick? A way for Apple to gain subscribers?

So I pulled it up.

You can hear it, it definitely sounds different, but is that a good thing?

And here’s where I venture out beyond the limits of my knowledge, to what these people are telling me.

There are over a hundred reference points in Dolby Atmos. As in this is far beyond conventional 5.1. Think of a movie theatre, where the sound moves around, now you get the idea.

But that’s movies. We’re talking about music, sans pictures.

Now the truth is almost all music today is ultimately released in stereo. You record it, someone mixes the multiple tracks down to two, and then a mastering engineer EQ’s it. The artist supervises the entire process. But when it comes to Atmos…

Let’s say you have the equipment and ability to make an Atmos mix. My understanding is right now, you send the end product to Dolby and they use their special sauce to create the final product. Furthermore, they have special sauce to turn the same Atmosfied music into two track stereo. So, in a business where how it sounds is critical, Dolby is the ultimate arbiter.

The writer at the top is right. It is sacrilegious to remix/Atmosfy classic tracks. They weren’t cut that way to begin with. It even bugs me that they’re using remixed tracks from “Abbey Road” to Atmosfy, now you’re multiple steps from the original.

Now if we look at the history here…

The big breakthrough came in the mid-sixties, when there were two formats, mono and stereo. At first albums came in both iterations, then stereo only. And the goal was to buy the best home stereo you could afford, so you could hear the end product the way it was made, so you could get closer to the music.

Then they introduced quad. There were two competing formats, they both failed.

And then, this century, there was surround sound, a lot of money was dropped and consumer adoption was extremely low. Once again, the albums were being bastardized, this is not how the band and producer and engineers envisioned the sound to be, this was an afterthought. And it also required a special system to hear, which most people didn’t own, the script had flipped, from buying ever better, more expensive stereos to boom boxes and then headphones. And right now the standard is AirPods/earbuds, which ironically don’t even work with Apple’s Spatial Sound/Dolby Atmos. But if you have a wired connection…

I fired up Apple Music last night on my iPad. There’s Zane Lowe’s dog and pony show linked to above, but there’s also 127 demo tracks, as in Apple is trotting these out to demonstrate the greatness of Spatial Audio. I pulled up ones I was familiar with.

Now I was listening on wired Sennheiser headphones, which retail for about $300, far better than what most punters are listening on, never mind the bass-heavy, distorting of the music Beats, talk about a marketing job.

And the tracks were, as I said, definitely different. Not radically different, but there was more space…

But then I started getting reviews e-mailed to me.

And just now I went back. Now I’m listening via my computer, with $700 Audeze headphones with a separate headphone amp. And what I’ve learned is…the Spatial Audio and stereo versions are not only different, the process affects the punch, the essence of the originals!

I compared Spatial Audio tracks to their HD equivalents on Amazon Music and I found exactly what one writer said: the vocal gets lost. Instead of being up front and in your face, it’s buried more in the mix.

Let’s start with Apple’s demo track, “What’s Going On.” In the stereo mix Marvin Gaye is up front, the band is backing him, in the Spatial Audio version, the band is surrounding him, on the fringe, background vocals popping up way up to the right, Marvin is just an element, not the essence, it’s a cornucopia of music, but it’s not the legendary track, it’s absolutely different, a sacrilege.

Same deal with the Doors’ “Riders On the Storm.” Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.”

Let’s talk Bon Jovi’s legendary “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Listen to the stereo version and it’s like there’s a band on stage, the members are not all standing in the same place, but they’re definitely on stage, in front of you, you’ve got a cohesive sound. Now on the Spatial Audio take… It’s like you’re in the arena and sounds are not only coming from the stage, but off to the right and left of it, from other places in the arena. It’s an immersive experience akin to a…movie. But is music a movie? I don’t think so. And in this movie, the instruments dominate, Jon Bon Jovi is fighting for attention, and he’s losing the battle.

Wait, it gets worse. Forget the big budget records, more and more music is being made by individuals in bedrooms, home studios, on a budget. They have neither the equipment nor the skill to mix in Dolby Atmos. As for just sending the file to Dolby to be processed…that’s like finishing a painting and having an amateur come in and completely change it, make it 3-D.

Actually, the more I listen to these Spatial Audio cuts, the more offensive they become. Kind of like those Beatles remixes. These are not the original records, they’ve been messed with, they’re not even facsimiles, they’re bastardizations.

Now the truth is this is a headphone genre. Which at the moment doesn’t support Bluetooth, which is how most people listen to music on headphones today. So they can’t hear the space, but somehow they’re going to listen to two channel Atmosfied mix-downs. Oh, there could be two takes, like with mono and stereo in the sixties, but that’s far too confusing, we need one standard, the marketplace needs one standard.

So, maybe there’s a future for Spatial Audio…if it’s mixed that way to begin with. But as demonstrated now, it’s a hell-bent drive in the wrong direction.

Merck Mercuriadis-This Week’s Podcast

Merck Mercuriadis runs the most talked about company in music today, Hipgnosis Songs Fund, which has raised money to purchase the publishing catalogs of such luminaries as Jack Antonoff, Shakira, Steve Winwood, Nikki Sixx, Neil Schon, Mark Ronson, LA Reid, Dave Stewart, Chris Cornell, Chrissie Hynde, Carole Bayer Sager…and even half of Neil Young’s! We cover Merck’s history, his theory in starting Hipgnosis, his relationship with artists and much more. Originally recorded for Canadian Music Week.

Bo Burnham: Inside

This is the album of the year.

But it was released as a Netflix comedy special.

“Hey man you may have seen it but for something truly beautiful check out Bo Burnham’s Inside – it’s truly art”

I got that iMessage at 10:48 last Wednesday night, a time when most people are afraid of sending texts for fear of waking someone up. You remember Larry in that “Curb” episode talking about the cut-off time, right? But when you’re wowed, you need to share.

I told Christopher that he was the second person that day who recommended it.

So I went home and fired it up. That’s the power of personal recommendation. There was a review that morning in the “New York Times,” but I didn’t go beyond the headline, I’d never heard of Bo Burnham, I have limited time and unlimited input, I’ve got to separate the wheat from the chaff, which is what Bo Burnham talks about in this special, modern life.

The biggest album of the decade is “Hamilton.” Most people still have not seen it, but you’d be stunned how many people know it. By heart. Both youngsters and oldsters. And yes, one can call it hip-hop, but the truth is the lyrics are so interesting, so clever, saying something, that one is drawn to it. Sure, the story is important, but not that important, the music works on its own, the songs are catchy, you want to listen to them over and over again. Not in a club, you don’t dance to “Hamilton,” it’s a pure listening experience, frequently alone.

Bo Burnham’s “Inside” is “Hamilton” But instead of being about what happened two hundred plus years ago, it’s about what is happening today.

Do I expect “Inside” to be as big? No. But if it had started out as a stage show…

Those were the best selling albums of the early sixties, original cast recordings of Broadway musicals. And then the Beatles came along and…covered “Till There Was You.” That’s from “The Music Man.” Yes, the Beatles had roots, they had to play multiple sets a night in Germany. And when they got their chance, they were poised and rehearsed, and had honed their songwriting chops.

And over the last fifty years, popular music has strayed from the basics. Melody, pre-chorus, bridge… They’re often nowhere to be found.

But you can find them in Bo Burnham’s songs.

So, Bo Burnham wrote and recorded and shot “Inside” during the pandemic, it took over a year. He did it all by himself, just like Paul McCartney, but even more like Todd Rundgren. They could play, it wasn’t about exhibiting their chops but what they could do with them. “Goodbye,” the closing number, before the coda of “Any Day Now,” has the feel of Todd’s “Just One Victory,” which closes “A Wizard/A True Star.” Not in the lyrics or the melody, but the concept. It’s a summing up, a way to end the project.  Bo, like Todd, is pushing the limits, not giving the audience what it wants, but what it needs.

What’s it like being a millennial today?

Well, there’s the ‘net and social media and drought and climate change and…we’ve been waiting for someone to address the issues of the day in a palatable manner since…the turn of the century, with the ramping up of hostilities with Iraq.

But we got nothing. Because music turned into the domain of lowest common denominator denizens who desired to make dollars more than art. And sometimes they go together, but that’s when you let the art speak for you, when it’s not about creating a brand with extensions, but a body of work.

Like “Inside.”

In the first song, “Content”…Burnham utilizes the word that is anathema in today’s hit parade. Burnham is living in the present, not some fantasy world detached from the listener. As a matter of fact, he’s just like the listener, albeit with more talent and more determination and persistence. Burnham has paid his dues for over a decade, don’t expect to get great, insightful music from the barely pubescent, certainly not from a track built by committee. To deliver this truth, you’ve got to do it all by yourself.

Burnham sings a song about FaceTiming with his mom. There’s a huge difference from growing up yesterday as opposed to today. Boomers spoke to their parents once a week on Sunday, when the rates were low. Today’s children are in contact with their parents every damn day, they never break away, that’s the norm, as well as never losing contact with everybody they ever knew, they can just go online and find what they’re up to.

There’s a song about being an unpaid intern:

“Who needs a coffee, ’cause I’m doing a run

I’m writing down the orders now for everyone

The coffee is free, just like me

I’m an unpaid intern…”

“You work all day, go back to your dorm

And since you can’t afford a mortgage you just torrent a porn

“Cause you’re an unpaid intern”

I’ve never heard the word “torrent” in a song, but if the younger generation wants content behind a paywall, that’s how they acquire it.

And you do low level work for your resumé. And the outfit gets free labor. Especially in the music business, where there’s a huge population of students wanting to get in…using unpaid interns is part of the business plan, people talk about it all the time…”We’ll get some interns to do that.”

And speaking of porn, there’s a song entitled “Sexting.” You may not understand sending nude pictures over the internet, but it’s de rigueur amongst the younger generations.

And Burnham turned thirty during the making of the special. He was born in 1990, contemplate that. And all of us who have reached that milestone know the mental anxiety of approaching it.

And there’s even a song about Jeff Bezos!

Burnham leaves no stone unturned, everybody’s fair game, he’s speaking English in a world of double-speak, we all know the truth, it’s good to hear someone say it.

Not that “Inside” is the easiest watch. Maybe you want to watch it in pieces. But the songs, you think if there were a soundtrack album, you’d play it in your car ad infinitum, you’d laugh, you’d end up knowing all the words.

Actually, a soundtrack album is being released this week!

Not that I expect any of the songs to make the Spotify Top 50…then again, Burnham’s already got a good number of tracks in eight digit territory on the Swedish streaming service. No, this is not stuff made for today and forgotten tomorrow, this is work that becomes embedded in the culture, that is a signpost, that most people know and never forget, it’s not product.

Not that this is Bo Burnham’s first rodeo, he’s been at it in excess of a decade. Starting on YouTube. Yes, that’s how long the platform has existed. You can make it and distribute it but don’t expect to be instantly famous, that takes more time than you think, Burnham skipped college to work on his art, that’s how much dedication it takes.

Like the rockers of yore.

Bo Burnham reminds me of no one so much as Frank Zappa. That initial LP, “Freak Out!,” was a blaze of social commentary/truth, with hooks, that one could not foresee. Sure, it took Zappa nearly twenty years to have an AM hit… But is that even what it’s about today? A radio hit? That’s not the only way to be known.

Burnham used to go on the road, but he had panic attacks, then after five years he was ready to hit the boards again…and Covid happened.

Yes, HE TALKS ABOUT HIS PANIC ATTACKS! Not for sympathy, like a Kardashian, or someone featured on TMZ, but because it’s part of his makeup. True artists reveal their warts and all, they don’t hold back.

Not that Burnham needs to go back on the road. Maybe he’s more like Steely Dan, the work is enough.

And one of the main reasons “Inside” is gaining so much traction is because it’s on Netflix.

Not everybody can be on Netflix. You can be on Spotify, but not Netflix. If you hear something’s on Netflix you know money was spent, that Netflix believes there’s an audience, you know it’s worth checking out.

Yes, Netflix is the curator, the gatekeeper, something we’ve been waiting twenty years for in today’s music business. Netflix can make a star, Spotify cannot. Spotify is just a distribution platform. Radio made stars. MTV too. But Spotify has not figured out how to do this. We just get endless playlists. How about a Spotify track of the week, just one, or one in every genre, that requires little effort to listen to, that we can all react to and talk about. But don’t expect this from the streaming outlet, it’s run by techies, not music people. Furthermore, they’re afraid of doing this, because if they do all the low-streaming artists will cry and go to the government and complain that it’s unfair. Life is unfair. Not everybody deserves to be heard or seen by everybody. But try telling that to creators.

Burnham wrote all the music himself, performed it and turned it into a visual statement, flipping the script on the old paradigm where the video came after… And he’s got no tattoos. Burnham’s got none of the trappings, none of the identifiers that both wannabes and stars employ to evidence their bona fides. It’s not how you look, IT’S ABOUT THE ART!

So, check out Bo Burnham’s “Inside.” Everybody’s got Netflix or access thereto.

Watch ten or fifteen minutes, that’s enough to understand what is going on. Maybe go back to it later, or watch it straight through. But one thing is for sure, your jaw will drop, to use the old cliché, it’s a breath of fresh air. NOBODY ELSE is doing this, NOBODY! Burnham is the road less taken. Sans all the b.s. of popular music today. He’s stripped it down to the essence, the songs themselves. Not that there are not great interludes in between…

Check it out, you’ll see.

Cowbell Songs-SiriusXM This Week

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Tune in today, June 8th, to Volume 106, 7 PM East, 4 PM West.

Phone #: 844-6-VOLUME, 844-686-5863

Twitter: @lefsetz or @siriusxmvolume/#lefsetzlive

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