Music from Childhood?

What would children like to listen to?

tl;dr — here is a Spotify playlist 🙂 —

“It’s no problem finding music for children”, the record companies say.

But what really works? What brings joy and engagement?

Even when I was only three years old, and using my father’s ex-WWII valve radio, the dials were crowded from end to end with countless styles of music.

On the long waves in southern England were French chansons, orchestral and chamber music also from across the English Channel, and a mixture of music from several decades on BBC Radio 2, labelled as “1500 metres, Droitwich”.

Medium Wave brought traditional Irish music from Dublin via Athlone, the measured tones of the new Radios 4 and 3, then broadcasting art music for everyone throughout much of the day, and the “exciting, fun sound of Radio 1”.

It was hearing Tony Blackburn launch the station in 1967, and head a presenting team enjoying the effect of pop music, that first made me want to be on the radio — which I still am, as a commercial radio newsreader.

Then, around the world on Short Wave, strange scales and languages from the Middle East, China, Japan, Vietnam, the four corners of Africa, and the Spanish-speaking orbit, arrived.

No, that’s avoiding the question.

The other day, my friend Julia shared a picture of her adorable infant granddaughter dancing to the wind ensemble of the London Philharmonic Orchestra during a free open-air show for villages near Glyndebourne: Glynde Oom-Pah Day. It’s a regular event where one of the two opera house pit bands come to play for fun, and to offer great music-making because it needs to be heard by everyone, without fuss.

Julia’s original question was: “Children’s music recommendations please!”

Here is a personal list, based on my memories of what I heard on the old radio, and my father building a record player for some classical LPs he’d collected.

It’s purely individual, because I’ve no background as a music teacher for children; only young adults.

A lot of compilations for children seem rather parent-oriented: they’re intended to help infants go to sleep! My selections are exactly the opposite.

Peter And The Wolf

Sergei Prokofiev’s half-hour masterpiece for children was one side of a favourite LP released in 1964, the year I was born. The record label, ‘Fidelio’, was known for recycling low-price library music tapes, so the players, credited as “Colonne Orchestra under Isaie Disenhaus” were probably some college orchestra, or eastern European radio ensemble, recording at midnight for the session fee alone. Certainly, the same recording on another, related, label has the players with a different credit “the Pasdeloup Orchestra”, which is a genuine ensemble.

Update: the conductor appears to be a real musician (1924-2006), and was also the composer of some film music (for Robert Bresson) and choral works.

However, the narrator is a real treat. Oda Slobodskaya‘s speaking sounds like it was recorded in a broom cupboard in Acton, then crudely spliced on tape between the orchestral performances. Ms. Slobodskaya (1888–1970) was a soprano, born in Vilnius when it was part of the Russian Empire, who later moved to London to become a British citizen. Her song recordings are treasured, with one writer adding she possessed a “beautiful and ample voice of characteristically Slavonic colour”, with a “strongly accented speaking voice and a characterful turn of phrase”.

Her Peter and the Wolf amply displays this and, above all, is my best remembered childhood record. But it won’t be to everyone’s liking.

Here is a recording of the LP.

A particularly charming video production is this recent arrangement for wind quintet and percussion, which my friend’s granddaughter has been thoroughly interacting with lately. It was recorded remotely, during lockdown.

Many audio recordings with familiar voices are available. On a computer editing system, it’s really easy to make your own by pulling apart your own favourite orchestral performance, and adding your own narration, simply recorded.

David Bowie? Sure.
Peter Ustinov? No problem.
Sting? Well, he was a proper teacher before becoming a music legend. You’ll need to start on Track 2.
Dame Edna Everage? Here you are, possums.

Jupiter from The Planets

The exciting fourth movement from Gustav Holst’s perennially popular suite The Planets ended Side 1 on the first classical LP I ever asked my parents to buy.

Jupiter, The Bringer Of Jollity not only brings plenty of danceable, child-friendly rhythms into the work as a whole, but also adds melodies that embed themselves quickly into many listeners’ memories. Two of the tunes have become hits in their own right: the “big tune” is the hymn I Vow to Thee my Country, sometimes suggested as an alternative national anthem for the UK, and its second main melody is the source of the Manfred Mann song Joybringer.

The LP at home was an idiosyncratic and rather punchy performance on what sounded like a film scoring stage by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted in 1958 by Leopold Stokowsky: no stranger to doing things his own way.

At school, in morning assembly, the teachers would sometimes play a record of the steadier interpretation by Adrian Boult. But it was the American recording that came first to me, and still brings more joy even in this era of authentic performances.

Here it is.

The Nutcracker Suite

I sometimes explain rhythm by saying that “before music, there was dance”.

And that’s why dance is so fundamental to children’s upbringing; something that the old BBC schools’ radio series “Music and Movement” broadcast about.

My father’s LPs of ballet suites by Tchaikovsky brought to me lashings of orchestral colours and rhythms, and instilled a love for Russian art music that’s lasted forever.

He didn’t explain much about the stories, but the music was immediately attractive. Here are some of the extracts I remember wearing out on the LP player in the late 1960s.

Overture: lively, and whispers of history, saying “Once upon a time…
March: plainly danceable rhythm!
Trepak: the lively Russian dance.

Much more of this suite entered my circle of favourites later in life, but those are the principal sections I recall from before achieving school age. No wonder Disney’s studios thought it suitable for the animated interpretation in Fantasia in 1940.

Here’s the extract from the full movie. You might need to unmute your browser’s player.

Fantasie in E flat

This piece for pipe organ isn’t loud or grand — to start with. But its strange sounds, in a giant concert hall, captured my mind in childhood. And what’s below is the original recording that was on LP in my house; made in 1969, lately transferred to digital formats.

It’s hearing records such as this that convinced me to try playing pipe organ, which I still do when people need a last-minute stand-in for nights of horror in local churches.

Saint-Saens’ little Fantasie was the composer’s first published work for organ, and it comes from 1857, when he was 22. I have since heard the very instrument for which this was written in Paris (Saint-Sulpice), though this performance is on the Royal Albert Hall organ.

This recording made it my childhood ambition to play that particular instrument. It is still going to happen.

If you’d like to explore more of what was possible on the Royal Albert Hall organ in 1969, a whole string of recordings is here.

Ging heut’ morgen

My father’s taste in rather wobbly light opera singing didn’t agree with my childhood hearing: but one recording was different from them all.

Dame Janet Baker’s work cropped-up in a stereo demonstration LP put together for EMI in 1968 by a fellow who later became my lecturer: John Borwick. There was an enthusiasm for music to show off my Dad’s expertise in putting together audio systems, and this piece by Gustav Mahler not only did so admirably, but it was immensely attractive to a child.

The voice is pure, the tune frighteningly catchy, the orchestration full of colour but never overdone, and the rhythm rather springy as the singer declaims the morning greetings of the ‘merry finch’, the harebell and the ‘gleaming’ sun.

The lyrics themselves take a sad twist at the very end, but Mahler transforms this through music into an atmosphere of hope. Aged four, I didn’t understand this at all, of course.

Here’s the song.

The Eroica symphony

From the same LP came the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, the Eroica (‘heroic’).

Like many of symphonic third movements from Beethoven’s time onwards, this was a transformation of the stately, customary, ‘minuet and trio’ into a much livelier dance form, usually given the Italian title ‘scherzo’, meaning ‘a joke’, or ‘playful’.

And it was! In just under six minutes, we get an orchestra gamely chugging away at an incredible pace, an exciting trio of French horns, some syncopated rhythms, and lots of dynamics.

Here’s the piece.

More than fifty years after that recording, some people play it even faster!

Try this!

Carnival of the Animals

So often, ‘music for children’ means ‘music grown-ups think is about children’.

But the pieces in this suite not only contain lively rhythms, memorable tunes, and are mostly very short; but also thrill the child in every adult.

Yes, more Saint-Saens: this time the suite that, for a while, he wanted hidden. Yet Carnival of the Animals seems to concentrate, in one group of pieces, more memorable melodies per minute than almost anything else. And all enunciated by glass-clear arrangement, and the sharp points of light made possible by adding a pair of pianos to the small orchestra.

Saint-Saens was reportedly afraid this suite would harm his ‘serious’ reputation, but he also wrote at the time that composing it was “such fun”. Unfortunately, apart from a few private performances, it was never heard again until after he died.

Somehow, each animal appears represented in the music; including the two pianists. Kangaroos hop, hens cluck, fish in the aquarium shimmer in the light, and nothing can match the grace of The Swan (which dancer Anna Pavlova took to the world). As for the “characters with long ears”, are they donkeys? Or are the music critics?

I can’t overstate how deeply this little set of pieces goes into me.

The suite starts this complete programme of French children’s music, performed by the LSO in 1989.

Mock Morris

Confession time: this is a life-long earworm.

Percy Grainger’s arrangements of English folk songs are legion, the best-known being “In an English Country Garden“.

But the first I ever knew was “Mock Morris”. Here in Lewes, we’re blessed with frequent visits from Morris sides; one of which danced for the birthday of folk legend Shirley Collins outside her house in the town only a few weeks ago.

The piece, composed for solo piano in 1910, later arranged (or ‘dished-up’ as Grainger would put it) for many other ensembles, was always lively to dance to; and conjured up a lost image of peaceful, harmonious rural England that could never return, where children grew up innocently, where clothes were white and clean, and where the harvest always came home.

Of course, that never happened. Several important people in the English folk music revival were among the millions killed in wars, women were utterly suppressed, children were abused, starvation and deadly disease were rife, and illiteracy was the rule.

But, from his home in Australia, Grainger still found light. Here’s his piano original.

And this is the ear-worm for me: Martin Jones’ solo in the orchestral version that finishes the film Howard’s End.

Did you forget Kabalevsky? Zoltan Kodaly? Chopin’s Mazurkas and waltzes?

No — but they’re for next time, and there are a couple of examples on the Spotify playlist.

I hope D., R., Julia, and children everywhere, at any age, find something to enjoy here.

Playlists from Foobar2000 into Mixxx

If you like to curate your music using the famously flexible free player Foobar2000, yet you’d like to import your playlists to do some DJ-ing using the free Mixxx software, you’ve probably noticed it won’t import Foobar2000 playlists in the best common format, M3U8.

This is because Foobar2000 doesn’t insert the expected #EXTM3U and #EXTINF tags in the file.

I have written a little Python program (Python 3) to put the tags in for you. Put the program somewhere in your PATH, call the program, and use the name of your playlist as its only argument:

> python 'VERY COOL MUSIC.m3u8'

You can download it here.


Now that another high-class cafe has opened in Lewes (attached to a pioneering state-of-the-art cinema and arts venue, the Depot) it’s time to revise this little list of the town’s coffee shops.

I have counted 48. Lewes’s population is 17,297 according to the 2011 census.

Importantly, if you’re walking between two coffee shops and it all gets too much, there’s almost certainly going to be another one half-way along your route. You don’t need to wait too long! My favourite is Laporte’s (latte, full English, bubble & squeak…), but it’s great to have the choice.

Three-and-a-half years have passed since the last list: and there are changes. This time, hotels where you can ask for coffee, without the staff raising eyebrows, have been included. Many of Lewes’s much-loved pubs offer good artisan coffee; but they are not included here.

Corrections are welcome, and I apologise to any business accidentally omitted or mis-classified. In a roughly east-to-west order:

  1. Cafe du Jardin
  2. M & S at the BP service station ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  3. Costa at Tesco ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  4. The Real Eating Company ** SMALL/LOCAL CHAIN
  5. Smoketronics
  6. Le Magazin
  7. Bill’s ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  8. Riverside Cafe-Bar
  9. Riverside Brasserie
  10. Bake Out ** SMALL/LOCAL CHAIN
  11. Waterstone’s ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  12. Costa in the Cliffe ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  13. Waitrose’s coffee machine ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  14. The Hearth bakery
  15. Aqua ** SMALL CHAIN
  16. Laporte’s
  17. Ground Coffee House ** SMALL/LOCAL CHAIN
  18. Symposium
  19. The Runaway
  20. Daisy’s
  21. Depot Cinema
  22. Limetree Kitchen
  23. Steamer Trading Company ** SMALL/LOCAL CHAIN
  24. Robson’s
  25. Wickle upstairs
  26. Wickle downstairs
  27. Crumbs
  28. PJ’s@30
  29. Cheese Please
  30. Fillers
  31. The White Hart
  32. Pelham House Hotel
  33. Back Yard Cafe (Needlemakers’)
  34. Flint Owl Bakery shop
  35. Lewes Patisserie
  36. Grange Gardens
  37. Pell’s Pool kiosk
  38. Bean + Bun
  39. Caffe Nero ** NATIONAL CHAIN
  40. Beckworths (takeaway)
  41. Castle Sandwich Bar
  42. Anne of Cleeves House cafe
  43. Lewes Fish Bar
  44. Southdown Sports Club (Caffe Lazzati)
  45. Tina’s Kitchen
  46. Shelley’s Hotel
  47. Greenies
  48. Hannah’s Van (Mobile)

This is Hi-Fi

I apologise in advance for this rather extreme short essay. But it occurred to me that the processes music goes through in order to be reproduced via LP records would be in the realm of sado-masochistic novel writing if they had not already been invented.

This is meant to be comedy. But it’s not far from the truth!

This is Hi-Fi

So you’ve made this lush production, full-range sound, lots of dynamic range, in stereo. Perfectly edited, vivid, convincing audio with no noise or interruptions, and little distortion.

Oh, you’re filtering off everything below 40Hz, and mixing everything below 90Hz into mono, and dropping things above 16kHz? What on earth for? Double-basses are meant to be on the right of the orchestra aren’t they?

Now you’re going to change the frequency response of the whole thing quite madly so the high frequencies sear your ears while the low end is lost in hum? That sounds dreadful, to be honest.

You want to send it into a microscopic mechanical transducer?

But you’re not going to couple that transducer to another transducer with a rigid material, but instead attach it to a pointy thing and make it scratch its shape on a spinning piece of brittle plastic? And the plastic doesn’t stay at a constant speed, but starts around 50cm/sec but later slows down to below the speed of professional tape, maybe about 20cm/sec? And you have to put a vacuum cleaner behind the pointy sharp thing that carves so the bits it scratches away are sucked up? And the plastic doesn’t stay where it was put? And there’s dust in the room? And the plastic is affected by temperature?

Now you’re going to move that plastic into a chemical vat that looks more like a sheep-dip container than a concert hall, and you’re growing a layer of metal on it? Did I see you physically break the metal off the plastic? And you’re growing another layer on that, breaking it off like you burst open a bubble-pack; and you’re growing yet another layer on that? And after all that mess and bending and breakage, you’re squirting consumer-grade thermoplastic onto that and crushing it with the weight of a bus in the hope it might take up the same shape?

Are you sure that hole is exactly in the middle?

That thermoplastic isn’t really very hard, is it? But you say you want to take it through the open air into an average domestic room full of dust, and risk handling it outside any protective wrapping, with bare hands? What’s that platter you’re putting it on? Are you sure it’s clean?

Do you think it reasonable to force this malleable, soft, damageable, melt-prone plastic past a piece of incredibly-hard diamond kept in place by bits of rubber led by gravity and inertia, together with corrections that are almost impossibly small to determine? How on earth is this not going to damage the delicate plastic? The diamond isn’t even the same shape as the pointy thing that cut the hard plastic in the first place. And it isn’t meeting the slash in the plastic at quite the same angle the pointy thing made the cut in the harder plastic? And you balance the little diamond so carefully that it nearly but doesn’t leap out of the slash in the plastic, but it’s still deforming the plastic through friction because it’s so hard, and you’re slamming it into walls of soft plastic up to 20,000 times each second? What if you accidentally knock the little diamond?

Now you’re going to attach the diamond to another transducer the price of a house, and yet so delicate that the capacitance of the connecting cable affects the signal badly? And you’re going to roll off the top, boost the bottom so it rumbles, and amplify THAT so loudly that you can hear it but not so loudly that it, too, rattles the little diamond?

And THAT’s Hi-Fi?

Warning: bad Realtek audio drivers

This page shows you how to fix bad audio from Realtek drivers on Windows.

It is tempting to imagine that the Windows modern audio interface (WASAPI) takes account of present-day fast CPUs and allows sharing of audio devices between programs at high quality, using good sample-rate conversion and audio mixing.

It does not. In the case tested briefly here, the stock Realtek driver (“Reaktek High Definition Audio Codecs R2.81“), in use on countless motherboards and other embedded applications, demonstrates genuinely audible problems, even to a fellow with typical hearing of a fifty-three year old. On searching the Internet for information about this problem, I found none, so decided to document it for you here along with a simple, but not immediately obvious, solution.

This effect was discovered after editing a voiceover. The playback from the audio workstation, which directly addresses the computer’s sound output without the use of the WASAPI interface or any of its logic, seemed clean. But playing back through any media player on the same machine, using the WASAPI driver in shared mode, resulted in what sounded like filtering of the top end, and a phase distortion not unlike that heard in a multiband broadcast compressor.

By a process of trial and error, I found where the problem was. This probably applies to any Windows computer using Realtek components. Please read this, and restore cleaner audio to your listening experience.

The Realtek audio driver contains a number of ‘enhancements’ (in other words, effects or distortions) for non-audiophile users to enjoy. These include reverberation, response selective amplification (or EQ), pitch shift and others. There is also an option to disable all enhancements, at which point the selection list becomes inoperative.

You MUST choose the option to “Disable all sound effects” to achieve high quality playback. Merely leaving all the effects deselected causes noticeable frequency and phase response problems, which become even clearer when tested.

Here is the output spectrum of my test. Audio is white noise, and uncompressed linear 24-bit WAV files were used throughout. The first example, on the left, is 48kHz-sampled white noise played with all enhancements off, but without ticking the “Disable all sound effects” box. You can see that there is a marked roll-off of the higher frequencies. I have not tested for phase shift, but listening to speech also gives this problem. When the “Disable all sound effects” box is selected, the audio is passed through without any change to frequency response, and informal speech testing indicates that the phase distortion is also removed.

I cannot emphasise this enough. The default Windows audio playback through the Realtek driver is appallingly bad, unless this simple adjustment is made.

The Lost Music of Firle

Can the music inspired by a Firle landmark be rediscovered?

If twenty-nine year old composer George Butterworth had not answered his country’s call to arms in 1914, English classical music rooted in the beautiful melodies of folk-song might be even broader and brighter with treasures. By the start of World War I, Butterworth had discovered his true vocation as a composer of lush orchestral textures and poignant songs. He travelled England, especially Sussex, recording on primitive machines or writing down in inns and markets the traditional songs of this land. But, like millions of others, he was lost to the First World War at the age of 31. Not even his body could be retrieved after he fell.

To this day, many critics regard him as the most promising composer of his generation. His tiny catalogue of just fifteen works, more than half of them songs or song cycles, is still popular around the world today, wherever evocations of English rural idylls or the lost beauties of the countryside are sought. And one of those idylls takes us up to the majesty of Firle Beacon.

After Butterworth’s time reading Greats at Oxford, where he excelled in music to the detriment of his other studies, he taught and composed a little: but the modest library of pieces he left are some of the finest examples of the English renaissance in national music, celebrating the folk music tunes and styles of this country. In 1907, at the age of 22, he journeyed widely in England, especially here in Sussex, collecting over 450 folk songs from this area. As he paid his respects to our local heritage of song, perhaps it was around this time that he became acquainted with Firle? His own manuscripts, with the musical notation jotted down in a neat but sharp hand, tell us for certain that he heard songs at least as close as Rodmell, Lewes and East Chiltington (images here are from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library).

In English musical history, along with folk song, one inevitably finds historical research into traditional English dance. Butterworth was no slouch, as a famous piece of film from 1912 illustrates.

His orchestral works are extraordinarily pleasant to hear, typifying the pastoral English tradition carrying its torch blazing bold against the surge of modern, atonal music that other countries, particularly Austria, were producing. Both styles of music appeared for good reasons (imagine the turmoil in creative arts as the twentieth century matured!) but it will always be the English music that features more on the playlists of popular classical radio stations, particularly Butterworth’s “The Banks of Green Willow”. Other popular pieces include his English Idylls and the song-cycle to A. E. Housman’s poetry, “A Shropshire Lad”, from which the composer himself created an orchestral fantasy.

But now, we must consider the centre of our mystery. We know there was a piano piece, “Firle Beacon”, written before 1911. Butterworth considered this piece highly: he felt it worthy of performance before another English composer who was to have a long and glittering career: Ralph Vaughan Williams. The younger man was inspired by Butterworth in many of his own, more numerous, compositions, but he remembered “Firle Beacon” affectionately. He left this tribute to his friend:

“One of my most grateful memories of George is connected with my London Symphony, indeed I owe its whole idea to him. I remember very well how the idea originated. He had been sitting with us one evening talking, smoking, and playing (I like to think that it was one of those rare occasions when we persuaded him to play us his beautiful little pianoforte piece, ‘Firle Beacon’), and at the end of the evening, just as he was getting up to go, he said, in his characteristically abrupt way, ‘You know, you ought to write a symphony.’ From that moment the idea of a symphony — a thing which I had always declared I would never attempt — dominated my mind. I showed the sketches to George, bit by bit as they were finished, and it was then that I realized that he possessed, in common with very few composers, a wonderful power of criticism of other men’s work and insight into their ideas and motives. I can never feel too grateful to him for all he did for me over this work and his help did not stop short at criticism”.

Could we play this piece today on the historic Erard piano at Firle Place, which we know to have been made several years before “Firle Beacon” was composed? At the moment, it appears not. For, unlike the celebrated library of music still safely on the publishers’ shelves, “Firle Beacon” has never been seen or heard since the composer played it. Why might this be?

It seems true that Butterworth was a perfectionist. He destroyed many of his manuscripts before he went to the Battle of the Somme, wishing to avoid the possibility of unrevised, imperfect music being discovered in case he did not return from war. A sniper’s bullet fulfilled this nightmare. Butterworth posthumously received the Military Cross.

Is this why the manuscript of “Firle Beacon” is lost?

Or, could it be that, in his time walking on the South Downs, the young Butterworth might have brought his music to the great house at the heart of Firle, to let it be heard in the fine acoustic of the Great Hall? And, as a gift to his hosts, could he have left the manuscript there? Today, is it possible that this lost work by a revered son of English music may be discovered between two long-neglected books on a library shelf, or safely stored flat amid the pages of a leather-bound volume?

Election results—read all about them

This morning, 10th February 2017, the UK Independence Party is boasting, waving its flags in fact, about winning a district council by-election in the Great Oakley and Little Oakley ward of Tendring, Essex. Tendring District, we note, contains two of England’s ten most deprived areas*.

The winning party is singing about its majority being 7.7% with a 36.8% share of the vote. But the voter numbers, as opposed to proportions, tell a different story. Within the turnout of only 35% of the electorate, the party won by 45 votes out of the 587 cast. That margin is only half the number of players in my local darts league in this small Sussex town.

Furthermore, apart from this result, UKIP’s vote has dropped in every single council election since October 2016 in a ward where it had previously stood (except Swanley, Kent)†.

Just up the road from the three villages in this ward, in the town of Harwich, the candidate with the 45-vote majority had opened a shop promoting his party. The word ‘Independance’ (sic) was mispelt on its signs‡.

Statistics, when kept, can be comforting. But the work outside this echo-chamber must carry on.

* UK Government, Department for Communities and Local Government, Index of Multiple Deprivation 2015

† Statistics compiled by Association of Liberal Democrat Campaigners and Councillors

‡ Essex County Standard 4th February 2017

Is home audio moving forward?

The other day, a friend asked a Facebook group how developments in domestic audio might shape up in the future.

Nothing, not even Dolby Atmos, beats the revelation I experienced, in the early 1980s, of

  1. being able to leave behind the distortion and interruptions of vinyl by using CD or tape; and
  2. being able to build better loudspeakers.

The story goes back fifty years, at the time of writing. In 1967, my father bolted a rescued Garrard AT6Garrard AT6, the autochanger based on the SP25, into a polished brown radiogram cabinet and wired the crystal cartridge to the input of the built-in valve radio/amplifier. The cabinet had a richly toned single speaker underneath, and this system of glowing radio dial and filaments played his classical LPs, the 7-inch singles my mother inherited from her DJ brother, and my children’s records, together with some shellac 78s from second-hand shops and relatives, played by turning the crystal cartridge over in its headshell.

Amid the clunks and whirs of the mechanism, I was hooked on music of all kinds, Radiogram circa 1955and speech recordings too from companies like Saga and DelysĂ©. On command, even a child could make dramatic magic happen in that warm-sounding loudspeaker. The amp with its lethal HT anode kicks was IC10replaced in 1969 by a black box into which my father had installed a Sinclair IC10-based 10W amp, which lasted through the replacement of the cartridge with a ceramic item in 1971, then he built (with me holding the circuit-boards steady sometimes) the Practical Electronics Gemini stereo amp set in 1972. In the years of mass-market stereo LPs on “Music for Pleasure” among others, we played this amp into mis-matched speakers rescued from Army surplus shops. Gemini preamp“But it was a stereo hi-fi to US” (to misquote Eric Idle), and the leap forward into “sound sculpted in space” was never regretted.

A Goldring magnetic cartridge followed, and a tuner, and other improvements here and there; but, as a musician-in-training, even when young, it maddened me that the music didn’t sound like it did on the radio or in the schoolroom when we played. There were ticks and pops that you didn’t get from instruments nor did you hear radio3-1967them on the Radio 3 concerts. Sometimes the pitch wavered slowly. Nearly always the sound had a ‘fuzz’ with it toward the end of a side, particularly on French horns, muted brass and sopranos. None of this happened when I taped a cassette off the radio, and it was a crying shame that all recorded music for the masses had this gauze of dirt, this veil in front of it. I learned where every scratch was in the quiet passages of the symphonies and chamber music on the shelf, and was almost surprised when those noises didn’t occur where expected on radio performances. My parents didn’t mind the interruptions, but I knew this rubbish was not music, even though the frequency response ran smoothly from bottom to top and the amplifier’s distortion was almost below measurement. And it was sad that one poorly set-up pickup or arm could damage a precious recording for ever.

Later, in my early teens, the record-making process was unveiled to me, and it seemed strange that good tape copies of the masters were not sold to music-lovers. ella-cassette“Musicassettes” too often sounded muddy, though we rescued a reel-to-reel deck to play home-recorded tapes well; but no decent tapes were available unless recorded from Radio 3 concerts or the Big Band shows on Radio 2 which were superbly presented. As you can tell, I had no idea of the economics of producing tape versus vinyl LPs.

But soon after that I was engineering or producing my own student recordings of good concerts or bands in our departmental studio at Surrey University; and almost simultaneously with my leaving home, 1982 Sony CD playerthe CD came along. Teenagers (as I was then) can tell where 20kHz brickwall filters harm music, but at last, at long last, the music was almost completely pure. It did not waver or wobble. It was not interrupted by ticks and pops, nor by fuzz. Its quality was identical from beginning to end. There was no mourning that the beautiful passages of “En Saga” were harmed by being close to the end of the LP side. There was silence between the tracks or in the rests. Just like in the concert hall or recording session. And, later, it became clear that the recorded sound did not need to be sanitized (albeit, in the hands of a mastering engineer, very sympathetically and musically indeed) to survive the transition from tape to vinyl groove. After this, all else was candlelight. We didn’t have gas in the village where I grew up. (Note to the youngest readers: find Karajan’s statement on digital audio.)

Apart from the gradual increase in amplifier efficiency and very occasional leaps forward in speaker technology (my main speakers are twenty years old, though a better sub was added recently), to answer the original question, I have heard nothing since the advent of interruption-free recordings, whether digital or analogue, that improves my enjoyment of music or drama, except for one thing. The ability to compress the music to suit my listening environment is my primary nod to convenience. Where necessary, my in-car or ‘party’ music on memory sticks has broadcast-style processing added so I never touch the volume control anywhere on the road or while people are chatting over the guacamole (home made) and Cava.

What’s left? Convenience; curation; accessibility, discovery; that’s all, really — and a means of paying musicians properly, of course.

As I become older, one thing intrigues me. If I become thoroughly deaf, and need a cochlear implant, could I tune my computer, as a musical instrument, to the frequency channels and be able to hear (or compose) music arranged especially for those channels? Could that be a thing? Can there be music composed or arranged specifically to be heard at its best through the limited-pitch channels of a cochlear implant, so that permanently and profoundly deaf people might choose to try experiencing music in this way too?

I’d like to thank Mike Brown, very senior audio engineer and radio presenter, for asking the question that provoked this ramble. His website is, and you can read about his many regular radio shows here:

Illustrations are not mine; but are similar items seen on eBay or other websites

Free audio display with FFmpeg and MPV

Just for fun, I wondered what useful stereo audio displays could be placed on a Windows desktop using a single open source suite. Using my binary distribution, here is a promising start.

Audio Meters with FFmpeg

Here, within the MPV player, FFmpeg libraries produce two kinds of spectrum, a phase indicator, an EBU R128 measurement tool, a display showing the musical pitch of incoming sounds, a display of coherence between channels with an average indication, and a volume meter. I’ve started calibration. The PPM is referenced to the BBC’s transmitted levels, and it therefore reads 5dB high. On the spectrum displays, the vertical intervals occur every 5kHz.

Use the MPV player, which can take full advantage of OpenGL acceleration in Windows and other OSes. Then it’s easier to change the stereo source on the end to anything you like. In the example below, I use the 320kbit/s AAC stream of BBC 6Music, which you can hear in the UK. Alter it to your own preferred stereo source.

Please ignore line breaks in what follows… (a straight copy-and-paste into Windows Powershell works perfectly).

mpv --lavfi-complex="[aid1]asplit=7[a][b][c][d][e][f][g];[a]avectorscope=size=480x480:zoom=2:draw=line:r=25,drawgrid=240:240:color=gray[z];[b]ebur128=video=1:meter=18[q][x];[q]scale=480:480[y];[z][y]hstack[w];[c]showfreqs=fscale=lin:win_size=w4096:cmode=separate:size=480x480:minamp=1e-009,drawgrid=x=0:y=479:w=100:h=60:color=gray[u];[d]showspectrum=size=480x480:overlap=1:slide=scroll:scale=5thrt:mode=combined[t];[t][u]hstack[v];[e]showvolume=r=25:w=960:h=50:t=0:f=0.9,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='1':x=47:y=40:fontcolor=white,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='2':x=77:y=40:fontcolor=white,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='3':x=128:y=40:fontcolor=white,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='4':x=206:y=40:fontcolor=cyan,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='5':x=330:y=40:fontcolor=white,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='6':x=528:y=40:fontcolor=red,drawtext=font=Arial:fontsize=24:text='7':x=842:y=40:fontcolor=pink[s];[f]showcqt=size=960x180:r=25:bar_g=7:timeclamp=0.5[r];[g]aphasemeter=size=960x40:mpc=red[h][p];[h]anullsink;[v][w][r][p][s]vstack=inputs=5[vo];[x]anull[ao]"

Television spectrum bandwidth

At the height of analogue television, how much spectrum bandwidth was allocated to the magic rectangle?

Radio frequencies are precious natural resources. There are only so many to go around. Now, it is true that, in many cases, frequencies are reusable (e.g. a tv station in Glasgow can be on the same frequency as a transmitter in London, without causing mutual interference), but frequency bands are generally given over to one or two uses each.

So how much spectrum is taken up by one use: broadcast television to households? When I was younger, and we had only a few television channels, big programmes in the UK would routinely attract 17 million viewers, or thereabouts. One night in 1990, when I appeared on the popular consumer report programme “That’s Life” playing a telephone accompanied by the musically-talented Howard Leader on accordion, the figures that evening indicated that 11 million people tuned in to view. How much of that valuable radio-frequency spectrum did television occupy?

A simple answer is to add together the bandwidth taken up by the four bands used for television broadcasting in Europe, called Bands I, III, IV and V.

Their total bandwidth? 471MHz.

When I was younger, no radio frequency above 1GHz really mattered to the average consumer at home. So, until the advent of PCN mobile telephones in 1995, up at about 1.8GHz, the range of spectrum occupied by broadcast television was very nearly one half of all radio frequencies. Everything else, including all radio, ship-to-shore messages, radio amateurs, weather services, early cellphones, time signals, radio teleprinters, was in the other half.

With the advent of satellite broadcasting, the usable spectrum has expanded; but so has the use of television. All that precious bandwidth, used for entertainment, news and education? Still roughly half.

That’s either a disappointment, or a great responsibility.