Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Sound of Silence

Bad news when I turned on my amplifier in the family room/library and switched it to the Airport Express setting so that I could listen to streaming music from my Mac: what I heard was a tinny, distant sound that gave the illusion that my sound system was about two counties away from here. Try as I might, I couldn't get any listenable volume. Switched out Airport Express units with the one from downstairs, though, and it worked just fine, so the problem has to be in the Express unit's output and not the stereo.

One of the real advantages of Mac OSX 10.4.4 and the new Airport Express firmware update is the ability to stream music to up to three different sets of speakers/Express combinations. That means that, for the first time, I've been able to stream the same music to amplifiers on the main floor, the upstairs floor, and the basement, allowing me to listen to the same song wherever I go in the house. This new feature is only about a month old, but I've become addicted to it. When I'm in the mood for music, I want my music to follow me wherever I go... and thanks to this upgrade, it could do just that.

Called Apple's tech support and we verified that it was the base station. The tech asked me to try resetting the base station and see if that would correct things; I didn't have time then, so I told him I'd do it when I got home and call back if it didn't work. I did, it didn't, and I called, but I was ten minutes too late (forgot that Apple Tech Support closes at 6pm PST).

I'll call back again tomorrow and see what Apple can do. I'm hoping they can just trade out the Express unit for one that does what it's supposed to.

It's funny how MP3s and computers and streaming music have changed the way I listen to things. In the 60s and 70s, when I bought a new album, I'd play it over and over again until I had memorized every nuance of the music. I knew as one song ended what song would follow it; the album was an organic unit broken into subset songs.

In the 80s, I began to use my cassette deck to make customized mix tapes, and I began to organize some songs and artists into favorites. Even then, the focus tended to be fairly tight; a cassette only gave you 90 minutes or so, and you carefully planned song pacing and placement for maximum effect.

In the 90s, CDs became the dominant musical form for me, and I had six-disc (or more) changers that enabled me to load multiple discs and hit "random." I chose a method of listening to music that contained an aspect of surprise: I no longer knew what song would be coming up next. I could make the mix even more unpredictable by using a CD recorder to burn songs from other CDs onto a single disc, then adding that to the six-disc mix.

Now I use an iPod. My current iTunes library contains, as of tonight, 13877 songs, and that's nowhere near my complete music collection; I suspect that, if I actually burned to MP3 everything I own, it would pass the 60,000 song mark for sure, not including transfers from vinyl that I've never acquired on CD. While my iPod is broken down into various listening subgroups, I'm generally inclined to turn the iPod on, hit random play, and be surprised. I rarely hear entire albums any more; heck, I rarely hear two songs by the same artist in any one listening session unless I opt to listen to one artist's catalog.

It's like a vast radio station that plays only music that I like. I discover gems from my collection that I had forgotten about; I'm likely to hear a jazz standard followed by a Vaughan Williams symphonic piece followed by Flatt & Scruggs followed by the Beatles followed by James Bond soundtrack cut followed by Jerry Lewis (not Jerry Lee Lewis, mind you, but Jerry Lewis the funny guy--yes, I do own Jerry Lewis' Greatest Hits on CD).

In some ways, I think this is not good for the musician; the gestalt effect of the album has been all but abandoned, at least for me as a listener. But it's making me rediscover a pleasant unpredictability of music, listen to songs that I might otherwise skip over, and I am sometimes pleasantly surprised--and at other times bewildered--by my own musical tastes.

Hopefully the Express Base Station will be up and running again soon. In the meantime, I listen to music upstairs and in the basement (where I work out twice a day), while the first floor remains the musical wasteland. Well, except for the iPod and the XM Radio that are both available to me on that floor, of course...

1 comment:

Doug said...

I think that digital music IS good for most musicians, because they now have a means of getting their work to audiences without a record label.

As goofy as it is, MySpace has been such an awesome source of finding music I like, especially with local and regional acts. I see an artist on someone's profile and have a listen, then go find the albums online for purchase if I don't go to the show.

My friend found Tristan Prettyman, a really solid singer-songwriter from San Diego, on MySpace and turned me on to her music. If it weren't for the digital age of music distribution, it'd have been difficult to know about her.