December, 2007:

Kevin Meaney at Tarrytown Music Hall

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A while ago, Lois and I had to make a decision as to which of two shows to attend last night (December 7th, 2007). There was another Dave Koz and friends concert (including Jonathan Butler, who blew me away the last time), at the Beacon Theater, and Kevin Meaney at the Tarrytown Music Hall.

We loved the Dave Koz concert last time, so that would have been an easy one to pick. That said, we like to spend weekends at the house whenever possible, and I like Kevin Meaney (and comedy in general), so we decided to see Kevin.

It was snowing much of the day, so only having to drive 10 minutes was welcome, though we had to walk very carefully from where we parked.

Kevin was pretty funny right off the bat. I knew that he had a few guests scheduled (it was his Christmas Show), so I was actually a little surprised that he opened the show himself.

He brought out seven little kids (the oldest had to be 7 or 8). He interviewed each of them, and it was absolutely hysterical. Then they all sang one Christmas song together, and the kids were done. Very cute.

After a little while, he introduced a comic whose name I didn’t catch, but both Lois and I think his first name is Jamie (see comments, as we now know his last name is Lissow), and he lives in NYC. He had a slightly strange style, and it took a few minutes for him to warm up, or for the crowd to warm up to him, but once he got rolling, he was really funny. Cheeks were officially hurting by the time he was done.

After a few more jokes by Kevin, they broke for intermission. After the intermission, he introduced a comic whose name I thought was Brian Kylie Kiley (now we know) (sp?) who is a staff writer on Conan O’Brien. Unfortunately, I’ve tried to search for him (and Jamie) and couldn’t find either, so I am sure I got his name wrong too.

He was essentially a one-style comic, but he had it honed to perfection. He would tell the setup, wait five bananas, and deliver a punch line that was always 100% misdirection. Here is a typical example, though this particular joke is both old, and not even remotely one of his better ones: “Now that I’m a parent, I call my Dad for advice more often. He always says the same thing… (count to five bananas…) ‘How did you get this number?'”.

Anyway, the above joke aside, he was very funny. My cheeks really hurt again when he was done.

The only marginally unfortunate thing is that Kevin Meaney ended the show with a movie that he shot in Tarrytown that afternoon. There were clever moments, and it showed off his skill at improvising, but ultimately, it wasn’t that funny, and there were a few uncomfortable moments as well. It was a waste of time…

I am an over-the-moon lover of comedy. I would rather laugh than do anything else. I am also an easy mark. I am happy to laugh at bad jokes, if I can see where the joke was heading. Lois, on the other hand, enjoys a good laugh, but the joke better be clean, and delivered well, etc. In other words, she’s a much tougher critic than I am.

I really didn’t expect her to enjoy the show last night, and I greatly appreciated that she was willing to go in good spirits. Thankfully, she really liked both Jamie and Brian (again, perhaps we got the names wrong), and 1/2 of Kevin’s stuff made her laugh as well (she was nuts over the part with the little kids).

So, it was a very successful evening!

No Longer a Digital Download Virgin

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In this post, which I just published a few minutes ago, I mention that I just purchased Acoustic Sketches by Phil Keaggy. In that post I said that I would write separately about how/where I purchased that “CD”. This is that tale…

I have purposely avoided the seduction of purchasing music for downloading online, even though I buy most things online (including the vast majority of the CD’s that I buy), and even though 99% of the time, I listen to ripped MP3’s of the CD’s that I buy!

Why? By far the biggest reason has been DRM (Digital Rights Management). I am 100% against illegal trading of copyrighted material, in any form. I want to see artists/authors compensated fairly for every user of their works. That said, as a consumer of a legitimate purchase, I want to be able use that work for my own benefit, in any manner that pleases me (short of making it available illegally to others!).

DRM sounds harmless enough. After all, I can certainly listen to the music that I purchased, as many times as I want, right? Sure, to begin with. But, if I buy a DRM-protected song on iTunes, I can play it on my laptop, and only on an iPod (and a specific iPod at that!). Today, I love my iPods, so it sounds like there is no problem. However, in the future (could be soon), I could easily fall in love with a new device (say, the next generation Zune), and the song I’ve already purchased will not run on that device, simply because I chose to buy it from Apple.

Ugh. Further, the CD provides a perfect backup device on two fronts. First, I don’t travel with it, so it sits with all of my other CD’s, patiently waiting to be re-ripped should the need arise. Second, it’s at the highest possible quality, so if in the future I want to rip into a new format (not MP3), or a higher bit rate, I can easily do that. But, since for now, I am happy listening to 96kbps MP3’s, I save space on my laptop and iPod while still owning the master copy on the CD.

If I download a song, even a DRM free one, I have to actively think about a backup strategy for it. Not rocket science, but an extra step at a minimum, plus, it’s not likely to be CD quality (not that I can hear the difference), so I can’t (necessarily) take advantage of future encoders.

The only thing that ever made me feel badly about not downloading was the immediacy and convenience of the process. The impulse nature didn’t hit me as much. Under most circumstances, I’m happy to wait a week to get my delivery from Amazon.com in the mail.

A month or so ago, I looked into the new Amazon.com MP3 download service. Here is the page for Acoustic Sketches. The more I looked into the Amazon service, the more I liked it. DRM free. 256kbps encoding (like I’ve said too many times, I can’t hear the difference, but others can, so the sale should give a reasonably high quality file). I decided that sometime in the next few weeks, I’d take the plunge.

Acoustic Sketches turned out to be the perfect guinea pig, because the price of the downloaded album is $9.49, and the price of the CD is $14.99 (though I can swear that when I looked yesterday, it was $16.98, but perhaps I am just crazy…). That’s a big enough difference to make the plunge obvious. Also, since this was still a bit of a gamble for me, if I hated the result (for any reason), I wouldn’t necessarily feel the need to run out and buy the real CD, which I would if I were buying something from Girlyman (for example).

So, earlier today, I hit the “One Click Purchase” button, and a few minutes later (probably more like one minute on my FiOS connection) 😉 I had the entire CD downloaded. Yes, I used iTunes to “convert” to 96kpbs. I intend to archive the 256kbps version for posterity, but I still prefer the smaller files on my laptop and iPod.

If you read the post before this, you know that I am extremely happy with the album itself, so obviously, the resultant download worked as well as expected (from a sound quality point of view). That said, there are a number of things that I am truly unhappy with (perhaps frustrated with is a better term). None of them will stop me from purchasing more music from Amazon.com, because I definitely will, but nonetheless, the experience is far from what I’d like to see (given my personal preferences!).

So, what’s the problem?

Purchasing the music couldn’t be simpler. On Windows (and I think Mac), there is a small helper application that you can install if you want to purchase entire albums. You don’t need to install anything to download individual songs, though the helper app makes even purchasing a single song easier.

The app can be configured to automatically import (add) the song/album to iTunes or Windows Media Player (WMP). I found it a tad strange that you can’t check off both, but it’s not a big deal to me. After all, I could have a Zune and an iPod, and want each to be sync’ed from their own library, etc.

First, the songs have the most important ID3 tag information already encoded. That’s a good thing. Except, the name of the song also has the name of the album in it, in parens. This is silly, since the album tag is filled in correctly! What’s worse, the filename is taken from the name tag, so the filenames on the system have the parens and the album name in them as well. Ugh.

That might be the only real complaint, since I think the rest has more to do with my personal preference. From that perspective, I recognize that few other people will be annoyed by these nits, since they won’t go through the process that I did, but here it goes just in case anyone cares.

If you say that you want the files automatically imported into iTunes, then you get a copy of the file in iTunes (meaning, a duplicate on the filesystem, not just a pointer to the file in the directory where you download the files). Not a huge deal, but still, something to potentially have to clean up. For me, this becomes necessary (though annoying), because iTunes will only convert files that are already in iTunes. In other words, I can’t pick a file in a directory unknown to iTunes, and tell it to convert that file to MP3 in iTunes (that would be ideal for me for this application). Perhaps there is a way to do it in iTunes, but it’s definitely not obvious.

Next, when I use iTunes to convert the file, there is no option to replace the existing file. So, I end up with two files in the iTunes application. I know, this is an iTunes problem, not an Amazon one, but it still affects the entire pipeline of deciding to purchase music online. One file is the original 256kbps file, and the other is the new 96kbps converted file.

Next, because both files are in the same directory, iTunes had to create the new one (the one I want), with an extra “1” hanging in the filename, since the original has the correct name. So, after I delete the original file (in iTunes, not my canonical Amazon download directory, which I will archive permanently as the original file), I need to change the name of the file on the filesystem. Of course, that means telling iTunes (file by file!) that there is a new location for the file.

Finally, I need to edit each song individually to remove the album name and the parens from the ID3 tags.

When all is said and done, I still end up with the album on my computer a week earlier than waiting for the CD to arrive, and the sound (to me) is identical. But, I had to work a lot harder than I should have, even though I got it sooner, and paid less. When I rip the CD, it goes directly into iTunes, with the correct filenames and the correct bit rates in one motion, and I already have my permanent archive in master format. Oh well…

One last nit. If you looked specifically at the Acoustic Sketches page on Amazon.com MP3 Downloads, you will note that in addition to being able to purchase the entire CD for $9.49, you could purchase individual songs. Note that #7, Looking Back, is only 40 seconds long. It still costs the full freight of $.99. Fair enough. Oh oh, wait a second, now look at #12 “50th, The”, which is 7 minutes and 2 seconds long. It’s $1.94.

What? They want more money for long songs, but no discount for teeny tiny songs? Just seems wrong. If a song is $.99, I can live with that, but then long songs should also be just $.99…

So, am I likely to purchase more CD’s for download? Definitely. But, if it’s a favorite artist, and the price differential is close, I will likely still buy the CD instead. A specific example is the new Little Big Town album A Place To Land. It’s $8.99 to download (cool!), but only $9.99 to purchase the CD. We are nuts about Little Big Town, the difference in price is small, so I will likely purchase the CD.

Phil Keaggy Acoustic Sketches “CD”

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If you read this post, then you know that I intended to purchase Acoustic Sketches by Phil Keaggy. Today, I did just that. How/where will be the subject of my next post.

I listened to the entire album today, I like it a lot. Just Phil, no complications with other instruments or musicians. While I will listen to selected cuts on The Master & The Musician many times, I will listen to this entire album even more.

I will almost definitely purchase Freehand – Acoustic Sketches II as well (I listened to the 30 second previews, and I like them as well).

Finally, someone else (besides Eric) whom I respect enormously just pointed me to Phil Keaggy’s “Beyond Nature” CD, which I will definitely get based solely on his recommendation. Unfortunately, it isn’t available at Amazon, and while Buy.com lists it, they are “temporarily out of stock”. So, I will search a little wider…

Thanks again Eric, both for introducing me to Phil, and for pointing me to Acoustic Sketches.

Phil Keaggy CD Arrives

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On October 25th, 2007, I posted my impressions from the night before’s Kathy Mattea concert at Joe’s Pub. In that post, I highlighted my amazement at Bill Cooley’s guitar playing, stating that he was possibly the best acoustic guitar player I had ever heard.

That led to a comment by Eric Sink that he would likely disagree, based on his belief that Phil Keaggy was probably the best that he’s ever heard. Eric is rarely wrong, trust me on this one folks! Given the way he phrased his comment, he can’t really be wrong in this particular instance, no matter what I say here. Of course, I too phrased my observation as “probably”, giving myself some wiggle room. 😉

So, after hearing such praise from Eric, I went to Amazon.com and searched for Phil Keaggy. Yowzer! Tons of albums. In fact, I think he has over 50 solo albums! How to choose. So, I sampled the free 30 seconds that Amazon permits on roughly 20 songs, spread across four CDs. Some songs grabbed me in that brief listen, some didn’t. Unfortunately, on each of the CDs, at least one song didn’t, so I couldn’t settle on a specific CD to buy to get to know Phil.

So, I got on to the Phil Keaggy site (linked above), and found out that he was about to release a 30 year anniversary edition of one of his more famous albums, The Master & The Musician. If one pre-ordered on the site, it would come signed by Phil. Cool. I did. That was roughly six weeks ago, and today, the CD arrived (actually, a double CD).

If you’ve read this space before, you know I love classical guitar the most (though I’m really a guitar nut in general). The very first song grabbed me (Pilgrim’s Flight), so I was instantly happy with my purchase. Clearly, Phil is a master (though in this particular album, he means to be equated to “The Musician”, I’m sure). 😉

While the rest of the album is in general excellent, some of the cuts are strange, or even borderline boring. Wherever there is guitar playing, it’s flawless, so this isn’t a commentary on Phil’s abilities as a performer, but more so on either his writing or selecting, etc.

There are a number of other songs that are great, but some of the short ones (thankfully, they’re short!), are at best, silly (e.g., Mouthpiece).

So, how does it compare to Bill Cooley’s CDs? I wrote about them here. Obviously, I enjoyed the Bill Cooley CDs more. To be clear, I think they are (in general) better songs, which highlight his guitar playing, surrounded by complementary instruments.

Phil Keaggy is an amazing guitarist, and I don’t want to try and split hairs on which one of them has better technique, etc. For now, while I will definitely listen to most of the songs on The Master & The Musician many times (skipping the rest!), I will definitely listen to Bill Cooley more, and can’t wait for his new CD to hit my iPod sometime in 2008.

If anyone (Eric, hint, hint) wants to recommend one specific Phil Keaggy CD that I should try that you think will give me more of a thrill than this one, I’m happy to invest in at least one more.

Summary: Phil Keaggy is a brilliant guitarist, and like always, I have no reason to doubt anything that Eric Sink says. But, if I could only listen to one of them, I’d choose Bill Cooley. Thankfully, I can listen to both, even if I weight my listening more toward Bill. 😉

Last Headphone Post for the Year

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I promise! 🙂

I know how incredibly subjective all of this nonsense is, and that I’m not an audiophile, so I don’t even know what to listen for, and probably couldn’t hear it if I knew. But, still, I can’t resist, since Lois found a bag of my old headphones today, so I broadened the test. 😉

Everything was tested with my iPod Nano, listening to the last minute of Hold It All At Bay by Girlyman from the Joyful Sign CD, ripped at 96kbps. Initial volume (and kept there unless otherwise noted) was at roughly 1/3 of the Nano’s maximum.

First up, the Grado SR80. Gorgeous sound, set the standard for the rest to live up to. While there was absolutely nothing to complain about, I was (mildly) surprised that it didn’t sound as loud as I expected it to, compared with my recollection of last week’s test of the iGrado.

Next was the ancient Sony noise canceling MDR-NC20. I have owned these for at least 10 years, probably one or two more than that. I popped in a fresh AAA battery. First, I listened without the NC turned on. This is a feature that I miss on the Bose Quiet Comfort 2, which requires the NC to be on in order to listen.

They sounded dramatically worse than the Grado. I then listened again with the NC turned on. This time, they sounded way better. Not as natural (in the least) compared to the Grado, which was still better, but the difference with NC on or off was night and day. I am sure that it was not that the background noise was ruining the non-NC listen, so I conjecture that the NC circuitry boosts the bass.

While the Sony’s sound good with NC on, it’s most definitely not a natural sound.

Next were a pair of street-style Creative headphones, which came with my ancient Creative Zen Jukebox MP3 player. They sounded reasonable, but a little thin, and a little light on the bass. All around though, for a theoretically cheap pair of headphones, they weren’t all that bad.

Next up, a low-end paid of street-style Koss headphones, that were included with some other CD or MP3 player. No model number that I could find on them. Thinner sound than even the Creative headphones, so while acceptable, not worth listening to if anything else is handy.

I then tried the iGrado again. Wow. The Nano appears to be able to drive the iGrado much more efficiently as the volume level was significantly louder than with any of the other headphones, including the SR80’s. The SR80’s were still warmer sounding (see, I can make it sound like I have a clue, which I really don’t!), but I was impressed with the sound the iGrado produced (not that I wasn’t before, but I imagined that the SR80’s would beat it badly).

I couldn’t resist, I pulled the Bose back out to check them out one last time. Turned on the NC, and listened. At the fixed volume, they were too thin. I cranked it a bit, and the sound was reasonably good. I’d rate the sound (at the higher volume) as better than the Sony, but nowhere near as good as either Grado. I will likely continue to travel (by air) with the Bose, since they completely surround the ear (unlike the Sony) and therefore are better suited for blocking out sound on the plane.

So, why bother doing this test? Aside from wanting to remember how I felt now, should I ever get the urge in the future, or buy a new set, it was a perfect excuse to listen to the last minute of Hold It All At Bay by Girlyman roughly 10 times in a row! 😉