Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Not being afraid to change (Including your hairstyle).


In this era of hyper development and rapid progression, are we still right to stick our heels into the ground, and hold onto tried and tested methods when it comes to the way we work and project ourselves into the outer (and cyber) world? Or is it time to be more daring and take more risks or can we still change things without feeling like we’ve jumped off the edge of the cliff of security into the ether of random chance? 


I partially have Seth Godin to thank here, as inspiration.For the record, I’m not a volte-face plagiarist and I'm refering to some of his influence at a subconscious level, in terms of writing this article. I’ve been a subscriber to his blog for a long time and I’ve watched a number of his video interviews including a TED talk on YouTube. I’ll also be dipping into some more of  his books soon, when they’ve arrived in the post. 


More importantly, he is where he is, because he refused to steadfastly adhere to the rules and effectively made his own, without turning into a dictator or criminal. There’s a lot of good karma there too somewhere, which has helped, although some may argue, including Seth himself, that he has made his own luck.

In any case, the point I’m trying to make, is something I’ve noticed for the last few years, but perhaps been too reticent...no, that’s not true. The reality is that for whatever reason, you can sometimes be afraid to say something that everyone else may well be feeling too.

It’s “elephant in the room” syndrome; everyone knows it’s there, but the level of disbelief is too great to risk being the one to talk about it. 

Everyone knows something's not quite right, but maybe it'll leave the room without any fuss.


The elephant in this instance, is a metaphorical whiteboard that has the following scrawled on it, in huge 72 point (that should be big enough) Arial or Times New Roman font (a familiar and comfortable font, which is helpful), maybe in bold type face.  It says:- 

EVERYTHING THAT WORKED BEFORE ISN’T WORKING SO WELL ANYMORE. WE NEED TO CHANGE AND IMPROVE IT FOR OURSELVES, BECAUSE NO ONE ELSE WILL. 


Admittedly, it’s a large whiteboard. In real terms, if it were a motorway or highway sign, there is no way you would be able ignore it. Unless you were coming from the opposite direction, in which case you’d look in the rear view mirror and... You know what I mean. 

Glance back to check what you've left behind, but looking ahead is the only way to know what's coming up, so you can adapt and change course if necessary.


I’d never suggest mindless anarchy, cause that can create more problems that it ultimately may solve. But I will suggest what I personally do, which is to not always take the easy way out and just give up on getting a result with a different approach; simply try at least once more if you can, twice more if possible.  If you’re far too close to wipe-out in any important area ( i.e. mental, emotional, physical and financial), and the resources aren’t pulling together to get the project or plan into full motion or restarted, which is reflected by a lack of external throughput or “take on”,  then it may be time to stop.

It may also be that this isn’t the right time for it. You can always file it away for “maybe another time” or “tried, failed, and could use parts/concepts down the line”. The concept of failure isn’t a waste in my book; it’s part of the journey and par for the course. Time immemorial has shown (albeit retrospectively), how long and how much time, energy (and money), has gone into getting from the start to the pinnacle of something, with prototypes, revisions and even total fiascos on various levels, as part of many personal and corporate journeys. You must be open to defeat in order to win. 


For the pedants out there, this doesn’t mean, for example, walking miles on foot if a car journey can get you there more safely and quickly; if the car you own is roadworthy, then why bust a gut ( and your legs, feet and other organs) trying to go for gold, when there are no Olympiads to win? That’s just being different for more aggravation and eventual pain.

This is more about demanding better, but without breaking the other guy (or girl) in two, and without giving yourself a hernia or ulcer (apologies to those who already suffer) in the process. It’s about  the concept of win-win

When Both sides can reach an agreement, it's a win-win situation.



Win-win is about being smart enough to know that if you want something doing, be it getting others to agree to your viewpoint, salary raise, new song, new product and even a new hairstyle ( that count’s me out, these days),  you’re going to have to give a little  back yourself, too.

It’s about not just getting what you want, but trying and succeeding in getting the other person to believe in that and them getting what they want, too.  I mention this aforementioned strategy because as of now, we’re all mostly ensconced in the “me, myself and Irene” culture on the internet, (and in real life too, if slumping high street sales from established vendors and purveyors are to be accounted for.. even lowering the prices isn’t generating a “win-win”; maybe the feel good factor attached to internet shopping, is missing), due to all the wonderful ways we can promote ourselves using the social media tools. So if we’re all selling something, then why aren’t we all closing the actual deal? 


Some of us are in denial. No one wants to admit to getting things wrong and failing, due to the perceived sociological stigma of failing. Some of this is understandable as we all need survival skills that are workable so we can live our lives independently, but we can’t always be expected to get everything right each and every time we do something; it’s unrealistic and you probably wouldn’t learn any other way or method of doing anything. You’d also potentially be quite a dull, smug and self satisfied individual.

Now all of that is painful to admit to, but it’s nothing new if you think about it. There are a lot of sound bites and well written articles about this on the internet. Some, for example, mention a complete generation as being in denial, which I see as akin to a skewed interpretation of Irving Janis’ theory on groupthink. In effect, too many people having the same vision or solution to a problem can also make a bad decision collectively. It's akin to watching an army of lemmings fall of the edge of a cliff, because others are already doing so.   


Irving Janis' GROUPTHINK concept, illustrated above. In effect, this occours when a group of people get together and start to think collectively with one mind. The group is more concerned with maintaining unity than with objectively evaluating their situation, alternatives and options. The group as a whole, tends to take irrational actions or overestimate their positions or moral rightness. Janis used a number of historical political disasters, such as bay of pigs and watergate to illustrate the negative impacts. On a positive note, groupthink is the obvious way fans gather together, for example, to fund a project or support a recording artist, too.

If, for example, everyone of a certain age category thinks that due to the tools available, they have a much greater chance of becoming a media celebrity, that’s a potential combination of :-



a)      Misunderstanding the true nature of the game. It IS a game and the odds of making it vs those who don’t, are probably higher than the national lottery, in some instances. And that can be just to make what some could describe as “a regular wage”, too. 

b)      Misconception of the tools themselves BECOMING the skill set you’re touting or selling. The Social media networking site you’re using ISN’T there to solely promote you and you alone. It is up to you to decide how you’ll beat the competition using the same tools. Being different is a strategy, but is that enough in itself? 

c)       Confusion in the message from both the user AND the social media toolset used. If for example, you put “part time blogger, marketing maven, singer, writer, actor and poet” underneath your profile, is that worthy of a gold medal of your diverse talents? Or, is it blurring and diffusing where your REAL talents lie? 



I’ll use myself as an example. I can sing in tune, and in time. That’s great. But maybe my chances of being a professional singer aren’t as high as someone much younger, marginally more appealing to the target age demographic of 12 to 30 (ahem), and hence who has a better chance of making the millions (or hundreds of thousands, hopefully) of pounds or dollars etc, that would result from being easier to market to the suggested demographic.

Okay, so I can be self critical and analytical enough to suss out for myself, that i should put my energies elsewhere, or more importantly focus my energy in an area or areas that more accurately reflect where I have a better chance of being heard, contributing something worth listening to (I also make music for TV, film and other outlets too ), or reading about. But in today’s times, adaptability is something that is also a valuable tool to have. That has it's obvious plusses and some not so immediately obvious minuses. This is all ironically due to a possible variation of groupthink, which is a reflection of the open ended nature of the social networking tools currently available.


The banking crisis and economic slump we have endured en masse, has precipitated a lot of knee jerk “catch it all” style self titling, as demonstrated above. That’s understandable, as the thinking is that if we tout all that we’re good at, then we might get a better shot at being heard. Sometimes, however, it comes across as desperate.

Maybe that has to be with this transition phase, which reminds us of the child in us who is desperate to impress and be noticed, versus the specialist, such as a doctor or surgeon, who everyone respects, as they’re amazing at one thing and one thing only, to which they’ve dedicated almost a third or more of their lives already.  So where is the cut off line? 

In my humble opinion, if you have multiple skill sets, and they are related, it can be justified; maybe keep it to two or three maximum.  But if you’re an accountant, who is also an expert marksman, mandolin player and NLP coach... well, pick the ones that fit together the best as a sales prop, and leave the rest for a chat with friends in the bar, at the pub, or for the next barbeque social event with family and friends; especially when there’s new people around who you really need to impress, cause the others will already know and have heard it a few hundred times already.


Maybe the aforementioned bucks against the trend of being memorable, but if everyone is listing half a dozen or more skills as part of the signature line pitch, then the person with the least amount can stand out as a specialist. That in itself signifies confidence at another level. 


In effect, if we won’t settle for average or second best these days so willingly due to the massive swell in choice available to us on nearly everything we do or can do and consume, then we need to understand that if there is something we can change with a view to improvement, then it might be a good idea to take a chance and go for it. Innovation shouldn’t always stem from desperation, but sometimes our environments can change so drastically around us, that we go into freeze mode, as a side effect of “fight or flight”. There’s no need to throw the rulebook(s) away (at least not yet), but there is a need to instil or initiate change within ourselves, rather than always wait for our environment to change for us.

On a broader scope, things aren’t necessarily guaranteed to be cyclical anymore, in terms of socio-economic patterns, so we have to follow suit. Transition periods have occurred before and this is obviously one of them. Not all can be at the helms of ships, and some will just be passengers, but there has to be a willingness to change and at least to be adaptable. As Tolstoy himself put it years ago, “everyone wants to change the world, but no-one wants to change himself”. This has never been more resonant than now. In short, there’s never been a better time to take risks and initiate change for yourself and others. 


As for the hairstyle, I’ll carry on shaving my head using a conventional disposable razor and a special head shaving cream, as I have been for several years.

Some things are better left as they are.. at least for now.



(C) S R DHAIN

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Everything is connected to something and someone else; the age of ultra connectivity


We're now more interlinked than ever, with the swipe of a phone or the click of a mouse allowing us to see, hear and hence speak to each other ANYWHERE in the world at any given moment; quite literally, on a whim. Does this mean we can solve more problems faster, better and more easily? More importantly, do we now have a better understanding of each other, in a global context? 

Getting older usually means getting wiser. Invariably some things never change as rapidly or at all, but it’s a given yet unknown quantity, that innovation, progress and change are an inevitability of life. Either you embrace change, or in some way or fashion you’ll feel a little sidelined and confused at the rapid pace at which the future arrives at your doorstep. Or so it seems.

For all the rapidity with which new levels of innovative uncertainty is thrown at us in a maelstrom of sound,  smell, colour, texture and  even taste on a near daily basis, it’s also a relief to know and understand that there are constants in our daily lives. The sky is always in the same place, our parents , friends, siblings et al are also mostly people that aren’t as transitory as a bullet train.

And as you get older, you can end up realising other things with pristine clarity; the most obvious being that nearly everything is connected to everything and everyone else by a marginal degree of separation.

The most obvious example, lies within our social circle. The classic “friend of a friend” concept which is better known as the six degrees of seperation, was coined by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, almost 100 years ago, in a short story he wrote called 'Chains'.

In effect, this refers to the idea that everyone is on average approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person on Earth.  There have been various iterations of this theory, with a more recent (ish) one being a play on words called 'Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon' with the obvious intent of illustrating how everyone in Hollywood is supposedly connected to the aforementioned actor, by six identifiable people ( the steps in question).  On a more readily relatable note, the social networking website Facebook is a far more obvious modern day iteration of this concept.

If you have a facebook account, and have 6 friends or more, note how many different people come up in the “people you may know” suggestion box. If you selected every suggestion and carried on in this vein, you may eventually be able to propagate to everyone else on there.

Think about it. That’s only 6 steps away from over a billion other people with accounts on there; that's six billion ways to communicate and find out about each other.

The six degrees of kevin bacon, is a humourous way to illustrate the 6 degrees concept

All in all, it’s mostly great to feel so connected, as it rekindles our innate need to connect with society, with the added emphasis of  belonging to something or  grouping together, even if in a seemingly superficial manner;  after all, we want and need to feel  recognised, loved and accepted at some level. Furthermore, in our communication oriented world, it becomes far easier than before to spread a message quicker and hence cheaper than ever before, using the standardised methods of communication that have prevailed for centuries.

But there is a slight downside here, too. What about those, for instance, who need to innovate and want to prevent early leakage of their “eureka moment”? What about those whose livelihoods depend upon the next version of a product or service being kept under wraps for as long as possible, from the same sort of “leak out” ?

More importantly, think of the effect on all our personal lives, when literally anything and everything we say on the world wide web, can be held up to scrutiny like never before.  Can this level of connectivity prevent rather than propagate such behaviours and effects? In order to answer this, the behavioural changes in the real world due to all this expansive interconnectivity, need to be looked at a little more closely.

Think of how an entire generation has a social skill that my generation (and older), doesn’t take for granted. That is, to talk to complete strangers via social networking sites, and to then extend that cyber-relationship into the real world with remarkable fluidity and linearity and the minimum of fuss. This has even extended to dating and matrimonial sites, where if you scour them long enough, you are guaranteed to find someone you’ve either already dated or been in a relationship with, or at the very least know or are acquainted with via ( ironically), the six degrees of separation concept.

It's as if  the world has shrunk into the palm of our hands with the aid of modern technology and we can see , hear and say what we want ,to whomever we want, within some justifiable reasoning and/or logic.

The six degrees of seperation is more prevalent than ever, due to modern technology

So in order to deal with what an older generation would probably have deemed an irreversible carving into the invasion of privacy en masse, there has been a gradual but noticeable self re-education of sociological and psychological norms. In effect, we’re all becoming participants in a huge cross-pollinated, self-regulating diary, where those of us who use social networking sites are systematically listing our lives in the form of sound bites and events that happen.

And all of this is for the world at large to potentially see, hear and read. Most people who use social networking sites ( including myself), are probably well versed in auto-censoring themselves without too much thought.  This in itself isn’t a bad thing per se, as we all understand and hopefully accept the various levels of sociological etiquette, in order to get along together and share our experiences and lives too.

However, it’s not just learning and/or realising that behind any number of identities real and imagined, there are actual people responding and engaging. It is also about the awareness of a newer, faster, near Boolean logic-style of cognitive operation. In other words, “what would happen if i...so then i should/should not...” becomes the instinctive response. And as this increases in frequency,  the time to think through a reply and then respond, for example, becomes near instantaneous.

Just as in the physical world we inhabit, this “world within a world” also carries some level of consequence for response and activities taken and participated in. For every person out there constructively using the internet and all the tools inherent within, in order to succeed or progress in some objective or subjective direction, there is also the darker side to internet use.

“Trolling” for example, which is a form of internet stalking which is tantamount to verbal abuse and unacceptable behaviour, has resulted in chargeable arrests , thereby mirroring the consequences of similar actions in the physical world we live in. 


"trolling" or cyber harrasment and bullying, is the unpleasant side of internet use.

It’s ironic that organisations and governments are berated for censorship, when we all at some level auto- censor ourselves when communicating, for the aforementioned reasons given and ultimately to avoid social faux pas and subsequent ostracising.

Witness how so many high profile celebrities and public figures are now entering into the realms of lawsuits, because the fingers are too quick for the mind to apply the brakes to, metaphorically speakin; that's how (and why) the instantaneous nature of social media can sometimes be a weapon, rather than a tool .

But the key point here, is that it is truly up to the individual as to how they conduct themselves at large, amongst an increasing gamut of communication portals, which means it’s not too different than in the real or physical world, where effective communication skills are essential  to progress (and even survival), on a multitude of levels.

In essence, those who are better adapters of  a more instinctively rapid rhetorical ( and also pictoral, depending on the site used) expressivity on the internet, stand a much better chance of reaching into areas and becoming members of online societies in their various formations.  This would not only increase their knowledge and broaden their horizons per se, but also allow the ultimate and remarkably basic functionality that the internet (and indeed the world wide web), was originally conceived to do, in order to reach their fuller potential. After all, the world wide web and the internet were designed to share information effectively and efficiently.

Again, as in the physical world, there are portals and groups of individuals who organise this information sharing on a profit and non profit basis, in order to make sure that anyone from a novice to a heavy net user can find what they need, relatively easily. Of course, as in the physical world, there are barriers to entry and even exit, too.

To conclude, the internet, the world wide web and technological innovations such as smartphones and social networking, have made the six degrees of separation concept an absolute inevitability from here on in.

Furthermore, this has propagated into a newer level of communicative skill that a younger generation have been born into, whilst the rest of us have adapted to this open-ended sociological restructuring, with varying levels of skill and finesse. Inarguably, because we are now more aware than ever that we truly are more connected than we thought possible, it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves of the importance of understanding our inner selves, as well as knowing and understanding the world around us.

For amongst all the millions of potential friends, faces and data that is available to access, share, and collude over, there can be an overwhelming amount of “social noise”, which exists just as in the physical world.  That can lead to aimless 'net surfing', which can be both good and bad, depending on the perspective taken and timescales involved and examined.

For example, many real world workplaces either ban or limit the use of social networking sites,  due to the potential for distracting away from the productivity and workflow required for the job at hand. And others of course thrive on it, and indeed need it, as part of the workflow. It's swings and roundabouts and value is dependant upon the utilisation of the information over the course of timescales, both short and long term.

As in the real or physical world, it’s best to know what you want out of your web connectivity based experience and why, rather than be lost in the myriad of words pictures and sentences, in order to find a metaphorical place to belong to or even conquer. At the end of the day, we all belong to something, and that something is what drives us and the world around us on every level. It’s the ever present force of life or nature, and that carries on regardless of whether we actively participate in it or not.

(c) S R DHAIN ( revised & updated).

The original version of this article was available via The American Chronicles publication & website.

Monday, 17 June 2013

'Washing machine' Syndrome; Adding value or extraneous functionality?


As newer concepts and innovatory practices continue to stem outwards from the design labs and onto the marketplace, why is it that there are still a plethora of devices, both hard and soft, that are filled to the brim with multi-functionality? Are these extra options and functions useable and valuable? Or is it all 'gizmo-ing'?


I had to buy a new washing machine this year, to replace the sturdy workhorse that had finally given up the ghost after a decade of usage, and two repair visits, one of which was under warranty. I ended up buying the same brand, not out of ludditism, but more because I knew from prior experience that it appeased to my sense of delivering high quality functionality over form, for what is essentially a "white good" in our lives. But what is this 'syndrome' I´m referring to?

In effect, I´ve noticed on hundreds of occasions in the past, that when you look at a washing machine front panel, there are a swathe of buttons and combinations/permutations of wash, rinse and dry cycles for you to choose from. In actual use, however, I´m confident I´m not alone in perhaps using less than a fifth (if that), over the course of owning the machine. So why are all the extra options still there?





All washing machines are festooned with a myriad of wash, spin and dry cycles..how many do YOU use?

It´s a relatively straightforward question but consider this: would you feel happier or more satisfied with owning the same machine if they wern't there? And it´s this level of rationale, which can explain why so much extra ‘gizmo-ing’, as I like to call it, is built into so many products on both a macro and micro level. In effect, it´s all about adding value to the main concept or design remit that the item purports to fulfil.

A classic example is the functionality on even the cheapest mp3 players. Nearly all of them have some sort of random/ shuffle option (some with sub-options), playlist features, and some kind of sound enhancement processing. However, as you go into the mid range in terms of pricing, you´ll find that some are now heading into the realms of becoming PDA´s (personal digital assistant type devices), with document reading/creation et al, all built into the same device. 


And to think, most people would buy the said device for mainly one purpose only, for which the marketing/ advertising budget has most likely been allocated. My theory here, can apply to anything; from steam irons to even electrical rechargeable razors. Next time you´re at an electrical retailer or even browsing an online e-tailer, have a look at the product range for your particular interest, and notice the increase in features designed into the product, as you go further up the price range.

Up to a point, this theory, as already mentioned, certainly applies. However, I have noticed that in certain specialist markets, such as top end audio/ hi-fi, the feature set starts to go the other way, as you pay more. It can be argued that in such instances, you´re paying for the privilege of potentially premium product quality and service delivery, and hence all the other gizmo-ing and dressage becomes surplus to requirements.

In essence, it could be argued that this applies to a number of premium price/ quality products in general. There is an absolute exponential concept that comes into effect, with regards to features vs. price for that category of customer, because quality is very rarely, (if indeed ever) sacrificed to bring the item to the marketplace at that price point. The idea being that these types of products do one thing far better than anyone else, so there isn´t a real need to add and even remove "extra" functionality at later dates, in the life cycle of the product.




An aesthetically simple, yet bold and beautiful top end A/V entertainment system, any day of the year.

So it could be argued that apart from adding value, the need to add far more bells and whistles than is necessary to a product, may potentially be disguising what may have been left out in the concept for budgetary reasons. This isn´t as farfetched as it sounds, when you consider that some devices are great all-rounders, rather than the pinnacle of design and engineering. The aforementioned theory about top-end hi-fi, is a great illustrator of how less truly can be more. Or maybe it´s just to give the product some extra USP´s (unique selling points), when trying to position themselves as ‘the best game in town’?

It´s more likely a combination of both of these, together with manufacturers and designers appealing to our sense of looking for ‘marginal utility’, which is the economic concept of having extra of something and gauging the satisfaction derived as a result. 


In effect, if you feel you´re getting a lot for your money, then you´ll feel much more eager to hand over the cash and buy the product. This was best exemplified in the 1980´s when many home entertainment audio systems, also known as "tower" systems, would fulfil all remits you´d need in such a concept (record player, tape, amplifier, radio, speakers and the stand with a glass panelled door ALL BUILT-IN), and they shifted in huge volumes as a result.

In our current economic times, price has become the key factor for most people when making a purchase decision and the washing machine syndrome may not be as important as it used to be, en masse. Users and potential buyers are far more informed than before, due to the power and obvious ease of information dissemination via the internet.

It´s very noticeable that even audio and media devices on the marketplace, have a cleaner and slicker appearance, with most functionality tucked away in the operating system, only to be revealed on power on or "boot up" of the device. Of course, this serves another important purpose. It aids the prevention or stalling of reverse engineering, if a competitor is trying to grab your share of the market with a rival product.

Inarguably, as long as the consumer wants more value for their money, then designers and manufacturers will continue to look for new and innovative ways to add extra functionality to all gadgets, from white goods to leisure goods. The key word here, is balance. Providing generous delivery of concept functionality at a high quality level, can be enough to negate the other need to add extra ‘gizmo-ing’, which was done to potentially pull in another newer sector of the customer base, who may not have previously considered that product or the brand. Getting it right once, can be like the gift that keeps on giving in that respect ,as people trust the brand and will be more willing to buy other products and services from them.

I´m very satisfied with my washing machine. Not only does it do what it says it should do and with a level of excellence, it also doesn´t try to make my toast for me, or offer me a cup of tea. At least not yet.


(c) S R DHAIN (revised & updated)

The original article was available via The American Chronicles  publication & website

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Please Lord, Don’t Let The Album Die.



Music is now playing and available everywhere; from the lounge, to the hall, to the mall, to the lift, to our cars, and now even our phones. This level of availability is great, cause we can all dip in and out of our collections or some archive somewhere in the electronic ether, as and when we so desire. But has this meant that the listening experience is now something else. More importantly, does listening to "an album" of music, still have the same meaning?

On the way to the gym a few weeks back, whilst I was figuring out in my head what  I was going to listen to whilst working out, I walked past a girl at a nearby bus stop who was merrily singing along to something on her mp3 player. Nothing unusual in that, but I actually slowed down as I walked past her and stopped for a few seconds, because it dawned on me that she was singing in an "auto tune" style, to something she was listening to. I couldn´t place the song, but I wondered whether she was singing along in emulation of the actual song, or whether she was just putting that on as an effect, in order to make it totally her own and put her stamp of approval on it. 

I´ve got over 900 c.d.´s, which should actually be closer to over 1000, but over the last 20 or so years, I´ve had people borrow them and not return them.  Of course, some of them have broken, become damaged or been mislaid and weren´t replaced for whatever reason. Other than make my c.d. rack sound like some kind of warzone ( it isn´t, I promise you), I also have over 300 slabs of vinyl in 7 and 12 inch form. 


Why am I telling you all this? Well, it dawned on me that each time I go to the gym, I must be a bit of a luddite, insofar that I end up listening to a plethora of albums in near  'as originally intended' track listing order, whilst working out. Does anyone still  do this? 

No, Not the 'going to the gym' part, which is a long, mostly pleasant drive there and back. What I mean is, does anyone else still  listen to an album worth of music as the artist intended it to be heard?
My c.d. collection. There are currently over 100 or so that are "missing in action" ( i.e. borrowed and not returned, misplaced, etc)

Naturally, I do this in the car as well. Obviously, one has the option of skipping tracks with cd´s, but my point remains the same; I don't think many people bother with the album 'experience' anymore.

Recently, i saw Johnny Marr in a snippet of a documentary called LAST SHOP STANDING on youtube, talk about how an album is an experience in itself. For those who don´t know who he is, he is one of the greatest guitar players to have come out of the UK in the last 30 years (have a  search on the internet, for further details). In effect, he made a very valid point, in that an album has a start and a finish and is effectively a body of collective work. 


This was especially more applicable in the days of vinyl records, where you had no choice but to flip the disc over after  approximately 22 minutes ( or less), in order to listen to the rest of the songs and body of work. So your concentration and resultant enjoyment would be based in or around this style of listening experience.

Many people feel that a vinyl record, sounds better than a c.d.

Now that music has become so transient and (almost) disposable, it follows suit that we can literally press a button on our smartphones/mp3 players and instantly grab a slice of aural goodness. This is irrespective of time, day, and more importantly, genre and any album it's originally from . Some might say that´s a great thing and to a point, I have to agree. Those moments when you´re waiting for a train, or stuck in a long queue for something, somewhere (place your own desired location here), now mean that all you need to do is stick some headphones on, or even the hands free kit you got with your phone, and soothe away some of those minutes in waiting , with a quick blast of your favourite song. 


Of course, using the built in speaker may have other side effects (i.e. removal from premises or environment), and unless you've ended up in a recreated version of an award winning advert for something, it's doubtful that all the other incumbents in the area will be nodding away or dancing in acknowledgement and gratitude at what was once your private aural moment of musical joy. 

This level of musical listening freedom extends to everyone being able to make their own playlists et al, which wasn´t uncommon in the days of cassette, portable cd player and also mini-disc. However, as there are no similarly immediate physical storage issues and limitations nowadays, then umpteen playlists can be made within minutes of each other, which more importantly can also be shared en masse over the internet using the various social media tools available. And it´s this level of freedom to chop and change, which I feel has taken away from the importance of an album, as it used to exist. 

The album as a product, has very little to do with an artist or record company exercising any kind of alleged pseudo-dictatorship over the consumer regards price and packaging, but in my  opinion has everything to do with giving the listener an experience they can savour more fully. I still buy albums on physical c.d. and download format, simply because i want to get into the whole 'arc', so to speak, that the artist intended for me to listen to his/her/their work in. 

Sure, the record label ( if one is involved), may have had something to do with the track choice and selection, but I cant imagine listening to Oasis´ 'Definitely Maybe', for example, on random or shuffle play, the first and every successive time I ever listened to it. I cannot ever imagine listening to Brian Eno´s 'Music For Airports' on shuffle either.  Although some may argue that it would be a good idea, i'd find it defeatist and almost sacrilegious, in terms of retaining the artistic merit.

And yet there is an entire generation, whom for various reasons may well pick and choose their favourites and just download them from an album, or need/want that extra flexibility to listen to an album on shuffle play, more often than not. I'm not one of them, although as mentioned I may skip tracks now and then. 

But for me at least, I´d rather buy the album and listen to it in the order in which it was arranged on the final released product, because i'd like to believe that the artist(s) involved wanted it that way. It may not cure any illnesses or ailments, it may not fix the world´s ills and socio-economic problems, but some things should be best left alone, in my book. It´s almost the equivalent of chopping up a monet or mona lisa and looking at snippets of it to get an idea of what was going on in the fuller picture, as well of course as then possibly having access to the complete picture itself ;why would you want to do that to a finished piece of artwork?
Listening to an album in full sequence, as the artist intended, can be like taking an audio journey that represents the artistic intention behind the work.

But that´s me, I guess. Maybe I´m in a minority who feels that the musician should always have the opportunity to present a fuller, richer experience to the listener, so that the listener has a greater ( and relatable) idea of the vision behind the product. 


Because if the same musician  isn't going to have the reciprocation of that, which can be evidenced by lack of album sales and the marketing statistics & metrics which come back via sales feedback,( I'm not including the loss of sales due to piracy and illegal downloading as that's an entirely different issue altogether), then why bother to compile 9 songs (or more) for an album? Is it solely to propel sales for yet another tour? 

Surely not, as groups such as The Rolling Stones have proved for years on end, without releasing a new batch of songs each time. Furthermore, established artists seldom play every selection off a new album in concert, as its usually the hits and favourites that get precedence. 

The album is, in my humble opinion, like a sonic book or musical statement of intent. It´s almost like a collection of aural snapshots of the artist(s) life/lives at that time. That´s a very human thing to have in this technology-driven period of our lives, so may it survive as a format, as it has done already for well over 50 years, for as long as possible going into the future. 

(c)  S R DHAIN (revised & updated)

The original article was available via The American Chronicles  publication & website 


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Adding value to music; Making more use of surround sound


Surround sound systems are more prevalent than ever in our homes, and even in our cars and now smart phones. Nearly everything is now broadcast or designed to be enjoyed with the added sonic fidelity that surround sound brings, so isn´t it about time it should be more fully embraced?  
 


As I was leafing through a music magazine I picked up the other day, I noticed a slew of bands are gearing up for album releases throughout this year. All genres were covered, and hence all styles and tastes should hopefully be catered for. There´s nothing unusual in that, as gigging, recording and releasing musical output are part of the cycle of most working musicians. Even the alleged demise of the recording industry, which has been predicted since the arrival of downloadable music, hasn´t prevented that cycle from continuing. However, from an innovative and technology laden perspective,  maybe there could be more that perhaps all artists can be adding to album release formats, in order to give the finished product added value to the end consumer.

Some of this has already been done, in the form of the occasional 'making of' films, along with high quality, well produced studio session photo books, and even USB memory sticks & downloadable content cards. These contain extra material such as the album itself in audio codecs such as MP3, videos, films, digital photos,  and web links which lead to all kinds of downloadable bonus content. 

Yet what really interests me as an audiophile and a musician, is something that is occasionally offered as part of a higher priced package on an album release, which I believe could be made more frequent in the content list of all albums to get a release. Put simply, it´s a surround sound mix of the album. 

And surround sound has been around a lot longer than we think. 



The commonly known interpretation of a domestic surround sound set up. This is 5.1, with 5 speakers and the "0.1" being the subwoofer unit.



In brief, surround sound was pioneered in a cruder form for use in cinemas, over 70 years ago. It was designed to go with the larger and more spectacular visual experience that cinema offered the viewer. However, like most groundbreaking innovations, it didn´t become a mainstream proposition until many years later. 

In essence, it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, in terms of dealing with the technological logistics of the day. Specialised audio equipment was needed to decode the audio process, which at the time wasn´t seen as something that could be successfully implemented en masse, bearing fiscal and logistical considerations in mind. In other words, it wasn't deemed to be a money making venture.

The first commercial film utilising the surround concept, was Disney´s FANTASIA (1940), and the technique was called "fantasound". In effect, it was Walt Disney who can be thought of as an instigator to bringing the technique to widespread use, as he was fed up with the aural limitations of conventional sound in cinema. Until then, this relied on a low bandwidth, highly compressed and very noisy audio-optical strip on celluloid film, which was effectively in mono. 


William E Garity, who was the head of audio engineering for Disney, designed what was essentially an 8 track recording process which could be condensed into 3 tracks, with a separate "control" track for use with 35mm film. The control track was a series of what sounded like test-tones, which could automatically control the signal level to the amplifiers, which in turn powered anywhere between 30 to 80 individual speakers in the auditorium. 

As mentioned earlier, it wasn´t deemed a success at the time for logistical and (subsequently) economic reasons. However, there's a version of fantasia on DVD which DOES have an audio track which is meant to be a faithful recreation of the original "fantasound" concept. It was painstakingly remade from magnetic sound film copies, which were cleaned up.

In the meantime, the audio industry spent more time & energy improving the fidelity and pioneering (as well as improving), recording techniques, which lead to Stereophonic sound becoming another end product (and standard) in the next few decades.

After stereo gradually became more widespread from the 1950´s onwards, it took the music industry another few decades before this technology metamorphosised sideways into quadraphonic sound , which was now more practical in terms of being easier to reproduce for domestic use. From 1970 onwards, quadraphonic amplifiers, four speakers (one for each corner of the room), and quad LP records started to proliferate the market as another way to listen to and enjoy music. 


Interestingly, the majority of output was classical concert style recordings of renowned composers´ works, with the extra channels allowing many instruments more room to breathe and dissipate. Nonetheless, contemporary artists of the time such as Pink Floyd, Joan Baez, Simon & Garfunkel,  Santana and even Elvis were amongst those who had albums reissued in quad sound. For example,  Pink floyd's 'Dark Side Of The Moon' has a special quadraphonic mix, which Alan Parsons did around the time of the original vinyl release. It's on the DVD Audio disc of the 'immersion' boxset.

But by the latter part of the 70s, the format had gradually succumbed to the law of diminishing returns. This was due to a combination of differing and incompatible standards in the implementation of sound reproduction at the end user stage. Furthermore, the L.P.´s themselves had a shorter useful playing life, there were fidelity problems in rendering, and the set-up required wasn´t as wallet-friendly or even as 'plug and play' as conventional stereo equipment. Obsolescence was beckoning. Or was it?

In the late 90´s, the 5.1 version of surround sound, which is commonplace, was making inroads into the domestic market. This was effectively due to the surge in available DVD and home cinema technologies also becoming far more affordable. It offered CD (and higher), quality levels of audio reproduction from a five speaker (with subwoofer) set up, for a much lower price than ever before.

This version of surround sound originated in 1987 at the famous French cabaret Moulin Rouge. A French engineer, Dominique Bertrand, used a mixing board specially designed in co-operation with Solid State Logic (SSL), which was based around a 6 channel encoding process. This entails the use of a front left, front right, rear left, rear right, bass ( subwoofer), and a dialogue or vocal speaker, which is usually front centre. Newer incarnations (e.g. BLU RAY based technologies) offer 7.1 surround (and beyond), with extra aural depth and power offered, if your amplifier and speaker set up can support it.

These days, some DVD players come with built in amplifier technology and even speaker bundles are sometimes included. This allows you to keep everything more streamlined, makes it easy to set up and keeps it wallet-friendly too. Getting into the surround sound experience has become easier than ever. No matter what kind of room(s) you use, it's always an enjoyable experience. 


I won´t go into the ramifications and logistics concerning premium priced vs. wallet-friendly systems, or even wired vs. soundbar and the pros/cons of wireless set ups, as that´s a series of articles in itself . Instead, I´ll try to cover a plethora of reasons why surround sound could (and should) be more de-rigueur, in terms of music releases.

It must be noted that most of these reasons are not directly related to the content of the music itself (that´s entirely subjective), but more towards why there should be a better embracing of the surround sound concept in the domestic market AS A WHOLE 

GOOD REASONS TO EMBRACE SURROUND SOUND :-

* AFFORDABILITY OF HARDWARE – As already mentioned, the technology required to decode and perform the task of re-iterating the signal is ALREADY built-in to almost every DVD player  available today. All that you need – and even this isn´t strictly necessary – is a separate amplifier and some extra speakers to feel the full effect of surround sound. 

The best part, is that most DVD´s you own probably have a surround audio track on there for you to try whilst watching the film. Furthermore, there is no longer an issue with regards to format incompatibility either; all DVD AUDIO albums can be played on all DVD players. Now imagine what your favourite albums would sound like with the potential for added clarity and spatial depth..

* GO WIRELESS – People can find it cumbersome dealing with the process of trying to hide speaker and connector wire-trails. Tucking them away under carpets, or hiding them by stapling / cable tying them near skirting boards, can take hours of time and energy; mistakes made can be infuriating and tiresome to put right further down the line. 


To that end, the current availability of 'soundbars' by companies such as Yamaha, which contain an elegant array of motorised speakers in a single horizontal enclosure, are a viable alternative. These work by firing the sound around the room at various angles and degrees of loudness in order to create a virtual surround effect for the listener. It's a popular (and effective) solution. 

The other alternative to a soundbar is the wireless systems, used by KEF and other manufacturers.

Having owned a wireless surround system myself for some time, I can wholeheartedly recommend it for performance and price. Just shop around for the best deals available, of which there are plenty to be had on the internet.

* SET UP IS NO LONGER A PAIN – Compared to days of old with many hours spent playing test tones and interpreting strange readouts on amplifier LED displays, now it really is a breeze to plug in, set your speakers up and enjoy the music. This is partially down to the auto-calibration technologies offered by many amplifier manufacturers, which take a large amount of the guesswork out of the equation.

It entails the use of a small unidirectional microphone, which is supplied with the amplifier or DVD player & amp/reciever combination, which is to be plugged in and placed at the position that you (and anyone next to you), will be seated in, to enjoy the sound. You then press start on the calibration menu, and leave the room for a few minutes, whilst the speakers are firing test tones which the microphone picks up and lets the amp/receiver know about. The amp/reciever automatically decodes this information, and makes adjustments for optimal surround listening pleasure.

After you come back, it will have made a remarkably good job of calibrating the set up – I´ve used it and its spookily accurate – and you can still make manual tweaks yourself, if necessary. Furthermore, if you move rooms, or even house/ apartment, you can repeat the process; just set up, place the microphone in the new spot and let it recalibrate for you. It´s a simple, neat and effective solution.

* COMPUTERS AND EVEN CARS, TOO – Years ago, if you bought a DVD-AUDIO album or indeed just wanted to watch a film in surround sound , you had no choice but to enjoy it in your 'home theatre' area, thereby potentially inconveniencing others if they weren´t in the mood to sit it out with you. But in the last decade, there has been a notable increase in the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) computer suppliers putting machines onto the market with surround sound capabilities as astandard, into their machines. These also come with the relatively cheap option of adding extra speakers for a full surround set up.

Having owned one of these machines with a 5.1 set up, I was astonished as to the power and clarity offered. This was a surprise, as up until then I never thought home computer speakers would have the finesse to deliver the goods, but the technologies offered in the domestic computer market are now vastly improved. This has been in part driven by the OEM´S and also perhaps O/S ( operating system) manufacturers wanting the home computer to become more of a 'home entertainment centre', which then knocks onto the other driver of technologies, which is the games industry.


In effect, games developers spend large budgets on near lifelike, cinematic audio-visual vistas, for a deeper, encapsulating gaming experience. This entails ever increasingly crisper rendering of visuals and incredible sound and music to go with the experience. So graphics cards and soundcards are constantly being tweaked and/or redeveloped, in order to provide higher fidelity and better signal to noise ratios & resolution.

The car industry has similarly offered much more in terms of ICE ( in car entertainment) systems in the last decade, too. 


Premium sound upgrades are no longer the preserve of the high end car manufacturers, and surround sound is now commonly found as an option on many cars on the market. This allows you to enjoy the experience quite literally on the move, which is obviously freeing you up from the traditionally static, room or 'home theatre' experience

* ADDING VALUE – I own over 30 albums in surround sound, and would happily buy more if they were available. These days, it´s not even the price at POS (point of sale) that´s an issue – there are bargains to be had for the judicious shopper - but more a decision by record labels and quite possibly the artists to not spend time and money  pursuing surround mixes, as a whole. I won´t go into the logistics behind what constitutes putting out an album by major artists, as that´s a complex set of decisions with marketing, promotion, and product placement concepts encapsulated therein. 

However, being a musician myself, I know that  most DAW´S ( digital audio workstation software applications) which are used to record, edit and mix down to the final product, come with surround sound recording and mixing capabilities, as standard. There isn´t a leviathan like leap into the terrifying dark, in order to make a surround mix anymore, so the possibilities are always there to be used.

Furthermore, let´s say a musician or various musicians provide the soundtrack to a movie, only to release it on c.d. It doesn´t take a huge amount of intelligence to deduce that in these tougher unit-shifting times, soundtrack c.d. albums don´t shift as many units as in days of old. Why not also offer the soundtrack as a separate extra on the DVD film package itself, in its fully intended surround splendour? How’s that for adding some extra value to the package?

There is also a huge untapped market of many classic albums and back catalogues being remixed and mastered in surround for the fans. Now this is entirely subjective, but I own all THE DOORS´ studio albums in surround, so there is no reason why all THE BEATLES´ back catalogue couldn´t be remixed and remastered in surround; some of it was already done for the LOVE/
Cirque du Soleil project a few years ago.

Then there are albums such as Chorus by ERASURE (a jar of crisp analogue synthesizers & classic pop song writing goodness), Penthouse and Pavement by HEAVEN 17 (A classic mix of electronics with soul overtones), Morning Glory by OASIS (a surround mix does exist in the now much neglected SACD format) and Brian Eno´s Ambient 1 and other works, which are ripe for a remix in surround sound. In fact many albums may even benefit from the extra space that a surround mix would offer them, with multiple instrument and vocal tracks given far more room to breathe in the soundscape.

We've explored the pluses ( and benefits) of surround sound systems, which is a complex thing to articulate in words, such is the nature of the experience; it really has to be heard first-hand to be appreciated. Even older equipment and earlier albums with slightly overdone swirling audio effects, will sound breathtaking to the new  listener, but it'll be a fascinating experience. It'll also dispel any initial misgivings, and help to convince them to invest in the process.

So if the surround sound experience is no longer as complex, expensive or even cumbersome to implement as it used to be, then what are the barriers to engaging with it on a more regular basis? 

POTENTIAL BARRIERS TO EMBRACING SURROUND SOUND

* THE MP3 REVOLUTION – There´s no denying the impact that this technological innovation has had on anyone who enjoys music for pleasure. It´s allowed us to carry our entire music collections on slabs (or slithers) of plastic and metal, for  portable, and private listening enjoyment.

Apple was the first to produce a globally embraced product, but almost any corporation that has an electronics division in their structure has been making them for over a decade. It has created a network of sub industries, where people no longer need a record or CD to in order to play the music at their convenience. And it's limited by  your imagination, and your willingness to listen to as many genres of music as you can be open to.

It´s convenient for sure, but it could be argued that we´re now comfortable with less fidelity in reproduced sound at the final end product point due to the loss of audio information in codecs such as MP3. This is in comparison to the resolution of CD'S , which were once hated for sounding harsh and brittle, whilst delivering audio at 44khz and 16 bit resolution. 
By comparison,  DVD AUDIO sonic fidelity is much higher, with 24 bit and 192khz rendering almost standardised.

In any case, as all of us (myself included), are happier to travel around with our portable audio devices on our person at all times, then the inability to successfully reproduce a 'mp3 style'  portable standard for surround, means that it may become an anachronism for at least one generation. 

Furthermore, it may eventually become an inconvenience for others who have to be relatively stationary – even in a car, you´re sitting there in one position – to enjoy the experience.

* STILL A BIT CLUTTERED – As the wireless speaker options continue to be refined and further developed for the domestic market, most people still envisage the surround experience as a marathon-like experience of selecting the right system for your needs and wants, then buying speaker stands, metres of specialist wiring, cable tidies, duct tape and wire cutters, etc. This can be off-putting due to all sorts of reasons, but the investment of time and energy can be sizeable; having a plan will save you on every front.


Furthermore, where spouses, partners and others share the listening or home theatre room(s), they may tend to find the aesthetic articulations of wires and oblongs of wood, metal and plastic in surround systems, unsightly and even uncomfortable. All of this equipment also sometimes includes, lest we forget, more power consumption from the power sockets, with all the extra wiring and plugs there, too. 
   

What a mess! Nowadays, this is much easier to reduce and avoid with the availability of wireless systems. 





* SUPPLY AND DEMAND – I’ve already touched upon this in an earlier section, but until more artists are willing to commit themselves to having a surround sound mix as standard on each release, then the pool of albums available is significantly less, in comparison to the much larger availability of conventional stereo format recordings in hardware and software formats.

This also reflects in the advertising of the music, where it´s only the special or 'box set' style editions that carry the surround versions of the album, and even then you won´t hear this mentioned in the same glory, for want of a better phrase, as accompanying books, posters, badges and so on. It´s a pity, as surround mixes are much more of an aurally fulfilling experience in my opinion; there’s a noticeable feeling of greater involvement and connectedness to the performance of the music, which is invaluable.

* TIME, PATIENCE, SKILL AND MONEY - Making a surround sound mix isn´t as easy as creating a stereo mix of music. That´s assuming you know how to balance and mix in stereo to a professional, marketable standard, which in itself is a fairly subjective construct. I´ve heard some very varied surround mixes of albums, where it seems there has been some kind of artificial 'upmixing' involved, as if a plug-in (software) algorithm has been used to do the bulk of the work, with only perfunctory tweaks done to add some level colouring and aural movement.

In effect, it´s as if there wasn´t much thought involved to create something that could be distinctly 'surround friendly', which to me doesn’t mean constantly swirling whole tracks and sounds around the room clockwise or anti clockwise for forty five minutes and beyond.

I had the pleasure many years ago of making a surround mix of one of my own pieces for an art installation. Unfortunately, a week prior to the event, it transpired that the venue couldn´t get a surround system installed or working effectively enough, so I remixed the whole thing in stereo and also implemented a very low-tech version of surround ( or 'pseudo surround') ,by playing composite parts from different corners of the room, on a loop setting, using laptops and a stopwatch.

To my delight (and surprise), it did work well, with the effect being something that had the flavour of surround sound. As an aside,I lost the original surround mix due to a back up drive failing at an inappropriate time (as they tend to do). 

You don't have to have a pro-standard studio like this one, to make a surround mix, but it still needs time, care and patience to make a great finished product.


The point I´m making, is that creating a surround mix of an album´s worth of music is still seen to be a complex and more laborious process than the conventional mix down to stereo. To simplify,  the greater the number of tracks within a piece of music, the more detailed the decision making process becomes, in terms of macro and micro sonic placement, within the surround sound 'play area'. This includes the movement of the sounds, as well as usage of effects such as delay and reverb, the grouping of sounds and tracks, busses, and so on. There's a lot going on, and a lot to keep your ears (and eyes) open to. 

In effect, it's not considered de rigueur to make a surround sound mix for every release, for all the aforementioned reasons, which end up equating to extra time and money spent. This to a degree, is understandable in our current music sales climate.

In essence, there are many positive (and valid), reasons for the music industry to try and make surround sound more commonplace across the board, so it’s not just for re-releases, but current albums too. What hasn´t yet been mentioned, which is one of the strongest reasons for its advocacy, is that (at the time of writing), manufacturers of software and hardware aren´t in any hurry to stop making surround based products that are used for recording and playback. 

As a result, it could be argued that the main reasons for continual manufacture and support, are that nearly every other form of what can be considered mainstream entertainment of a domestic ( e.g. TV, film and computer or console gaming) and non-domestic ( e.g. the cinema) nature,  all use the surround format as an option in their output stage. Furthermore, there have been vast improvements in audio technologies, with newer laptops featuring a virtual surround effect, which is very effective; it’s akin to a holophonic effect.

SRS LABS, for example, have a plethora of effects already available on our phones and mp3 players and their algorithmic implementations are a pleasure to savour. Even my android based Smartphone has a wonderful 7.1 surround effect, which although not the real thing, has a great usefulness when listening to a plethora of material, revealing all kinds of details and making the sound that extra bit richer, fuller and clearer.

In the meantime, I´m going to get the Dépêche Mode and Yazoo surround remasters out for another spin, whilst I wonder whether Vince Clarke will hopefully get around to making/ supervising surround sound (re)mixes of Erasure´s back catalogue, sooner rather than later. Maybe someone will do the same for the entire Beatles´ catalogue, too. Come to think of it, how about Oasis, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, Coldplay, Kraftwerk... the list can almost go on forever. 

With some care, patience, teamwork and a whole lot of love, surround based systems and audio can not only be kept alive for the next generation and beyond, but they can also be given a better place (and position), in the pantheon of innovatory developments, than they have done for the last few decades.

(c) S R DHAIN (Revised and updated) 
The original article was available via The American Chronicles  publication & website