My 2021 Project: Making My Music Sound Better

It actually didn’t start out as a project at all. It started with some new Apple products. In 2021, I replaced my iPhone (iPhone SE for old iPhone 6), MacBook Air, and iMac. It was a big hit, but all of them had lasted me 6-7 years. I was mostly very happy with the upgrades except for one thing: iTunes. Now renamed rather uselessly as Music, the software continued to annoy with its bloat, and its blatant efforts to force me to subscribe to the confusingly named Apple Music service. I have always preferred to own rather than rent my music, but Apple is making it increasingly difficult. The final straw came when, in its zeal to “organise” my music folder, it simply deleted hundreds of files. I had been looking for a new way to organise and play my music for years, but this made it urgent.

Roon Interface

Roon

Luckily, it didn’t take me very long to find Roon. It’s a subscription based piece of software but it doesn’t mess with my files. It also has a very nice interface, plays high-quality formats like FLAC, and does some other under-the-hood things to make my music sound better. Now I simply point Roon at an external SSD drive (or drives, since I am adding more music all the time), and it finds it, displays the artwork and other information (using Allmusic.com, I think), and I’m good to go. Roon is currently US$13/month or US$10/month if billed annually.

Bandcamp Interface

Bandcamp

I’ve been a fan of Bandcamp for a while now, but it’s worth pointing out that it lets you download your purchases in a huge number of formats, including lossless ones like FLAC, WAV, and AIFF). Not to mention that Bandcamp also pays artists a much larger portion of the purchase price than the iTunes Store does. Don’t even get me started on what the streaming services pay artists. It’s like, nothing. If you have the storage space, I recommend downloading one of the lossless file formats, which will definitely sound better with the right equipment.

Zen DAC

ifi Zen DAC

I’ve owned a pair of Grado SR60 headphones for about 10 years, and while they’re great, I began reading more and watching some YouTube channels (Darko Audio and Cheap Audio Man are great, for starters) that made me think I should invest in a headphone amp/DAC (digital analog converter) to give things more oomph. I read some reviews and decided on the ifi Zen DAC. This stylish little unit sits on my desk and adds a lot of depth as well as more power. It’s a very well-reviewed product and it’s built like a tank. I paid around $200 for mine.

Hidizs S9 Pro DAC/Amp

Hidizs S9 Pro Balanced DAC and Amp

For music on the go, which in my case means either my iPhone SE or the Fiio M7 portable music player (which accepts Micro SD cards, so I can store ridiculous amounts of music on it, including lossless FLAC files), it also helps to have a headphone amp/DAC. There are a variety of “dongle DACs” that are available and some can be quite expensive. I did some research and decided on the Hidizs S9 Pro, which I picked up for US$125. It just arrived today, but so far is sounding great!

Moondrop Aria IEM

Moondrop Aria IEMs

IEMs (in-ear monitors) seem to be a fancier version of wired earbuds, and I’ve been blown away by the sound from these Moondrop Arias, which are available for around US$80. Wired headphones and earbuds are almost always going to sound better than Bluetooth ones, at least for now, and these have been getting rave reviews. For the price, they are really outstanding.

Flacbox Interface

Flacbox

Since I’m trying to eliminate Apple’s music playing/syncing software from my life, I am so happy to have found Flacbox, an incredible iOS app that allows me to copy FLAC files (via wifi) to my phone and play them. It’s really well-designed and has a free ad-supported edition as well as a paid edition that’s around $10-15.

As you can see, I play all my music through headphones/earbuds for now. Next year, I’m hoping to find a suitable room in the house for music and will look into buying some decent speakers and maybe an amplifier. For now, though, these simple upgrades have made me so much happier with the music I’m listening to. The only other thing I can recommend for now is buying one or more external SSD drives (I like the Samsung T7) to store your music on. They can be moved around from laptop to desktop with ease and the data transfer speeds are impressive.

Between the Hammers

Hammer and Anvil

Life has been particularly unkind to me over the past five years. Grief, heartbreak, struggle have been closer than ever. And now there’s more.

I had my annual physical this past fall and mentioned an episode of abdominal pain that was particularly severe. In the past, I’d had these episodes several times a year but dismissed them as bouts of food poisoning. They always passed by the next day, and this latest was only different in its intensity. I started to think maybe I had an intolerance to something. My doctor scheduled a colonoscopy, which was going to be scheduled in any case since I’m over 50. I had this routine procedure just 9 days ago, and afterwards the doctor told me he’d found an obstruction and couldn’t complete the procedure. He took a biopsy and said that I’d need surgery. When I mentioned I’d planned ten weeks of travel beginning on January 15th, he asked if I could cancel it.

I spent the next week in an anxious state of limbo. I told some close friends about the results and figured that my chances of having cancer were about 50/50. My main concern was not having to cancel my trip. My short film series Shorts That Are Not Pants has been running for six years, and my plans in 2018 are ambitious, including monthly screenings and a festival weekend in November. I was returning to volunteer at the Sundance Film Festival for the third time (I missed out last year while I was working in Dublin) and then planning a return to the biggest short film festival in the world, in Clermont-Ferrand, France. After that, I hoped to attend the Berlinale and visit that city for the first time, return to Dublin for a few weeks, attend the Glasgow Short Film Festival for the second year in a row, and then wrap up my trip by attending the Short Waves Festival in Poznan, Poland. I’d mapped out my schedule and booked about half my flights and accommodation. I’d arranged for my cats to be taken care of, and had found a lovely couple to sublet my apartment until the end of March. To be quite honest, my first reaction to the colonoscopy results was annoyance at having to change or even cancel my trip.

So on Tuesday this week, I went in prepared to bargain. Surely the surgery could wait a few weeks or even months. I had made commitments and plans and didn’t want to change them. I wasn’t that surprised when the word “carcinoma” was mentioned. My surgeon calmly explained that the protocols of cancer care in our province required him to operate within a month of diagnosis. He agreed that I didn’t seem symptomatic and that I could travel but that my surgery was going to be scheduled for Tuesday February 13. This allows me to attend Sundance and Clermont-Ferrand, the first two legs of my trip, and the ones for which I’d already arranged flights and accommodations. I’ll return to Canada on February 9th, and have the weekend to prepare for my surgery.

Knowing I’m scheduled to leave on Monday, the good people at St. Joseph’s Health Centre quickly scheduled blood work, my pre-admission appointment, and a CT scan all for this week. I came home Tuesday, a bit numb, and started letting some people know the news. I’ve stuck to just telling people the facts, and the practical arrangements for the surgery. I don’t know how to feel about having cancer yet. The surgeon said they won’t know what stage it’s at or my prognosis until they’ve removed it from my body. So for the next month, I’ll be in a busy fog, which is maybe the best kind of space to be in.

In 1986, my mother told me she had lung cancer, and I remember holding onto that news for weeks, not wanting to tell any of my friends. I was afraid of two things. One, that it would make the whole thing real and give it power. And two, that everyone around me would start treating me differently, with pity or with awkwardness. I knew that what I needed was connection, and that our fear of disease and death would create distance. Of course, that feeling came flooding back this week. And I’m still afraid of being seen as “sick” and pushed away with well-meaning platitudes. But holding stuff in and keeping secrets is its own kind of cancer, so I won’t do that.

I’ve felt a lot of shame over the past few years, for how my life didn’t turn out the way I’d expected, or wanted. This latest bout of bad news seems weirdly unsurprising to me. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. It’s just that I’ve been dealing with a lot and this just joins the rest of that junk. In 1997, I created my very first home page and gave it the title “Between the Hammers.” It was a reference to a line from The Ninth Duino Elegy from Rainer Maria Rilke:

Between the hammers our heart
endures, just as the tongue does
between the teeth and, despite that,
still is able to praise.

Even back then, I saw my life as one filled with struggles, and my aspiration was to have a heart that endured and kept praising. I may not leave much of a legacy when I leave this world, but if people talk about me as someone with a big and tender heart, then I’ll be okay with that.

Re-reading the entire poem now is quite powerful. Here’s something from the beginning:

…everything here
apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way
keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,
just once. And never again. But to have been
this once, completely, even if only once:
to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

And the last section:

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any smaller… Superabundant being
wells up in my heart.

Class Struggle

From the Depths (1905, William Balfour Ker)
From the Depths (1905, William Balfour Ker)

The class system in Canada likes to think it’s invisible. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that it’s not invisible; it’s insidious. I have realized that I will always be the child of immigrants* who never climbed out of the (lower?) middle class. My parents never bought a house. Part of that was my mother’s decision not to work outside the home. My father had a respectable white-collar job, but we rented among many two-income blue-collar households and those are the people who still understand and accept me. Those are my people.

Even people I’ve met as I’ve flirted with upper-middle class “respectability” somehow have never stuck. It’s like I have a certain smell clinging to me. I’ve never owned a house or a car. My family never had a cottage. It’s hard to be around people for whom life has always been pretty easy.

I’ve been reading old journals and realized that I’ve always worried about money, even when I seemed to have it. Nothing ever felt secure financially, and so I didn’t take unnecessary risks. I’m not that materialistic, and I’ve not really missed a lot of “things,” but it certainly makes conversation awkward or at least uninteresting with a lot of people.

It seems that classes act a bit like our immune system. They tend to try to fight off intruders. Every time I’ve bumped up against the ceiling of my “rightful place,” I’ve felt rebuffed. Sometimes actively, like when new friends just don’t call you to hang out. Or passively, when you just can’t afford another unpaid gig so you can break into your chosen profession.

We don’t talk about this very much. Among wealthy white liberals, there’s lots of guilt about race and about gender inequality. About LGBT rights. Even about refugees and other faraway injustice. But nobody talks about class. Even when it’s right under our noses.

* The irony is that if we’d stayed in Ireland we’d have been better off financially. My father’s family were and are solidly upper-middle class. I suspect this is true for quite a few immigrant families, who give up status at home for a chance at something “better” in Canada. When I worked as a welfare caseworker in the 1990s, I met a lot of new immigrant professionals (dentists, doctors, engineers) who were unemployed or working menial jobs while trying to have their qualifications evaluated. Many felt they’d been misled about opportunities here.

Best Music of 2015

It’s that time of year again, for list-making and looking back. As per usual, I crammed a lot of new music into the last month of the year, and two of my top 10 releases for this list actually snuck in within the last week.

My top three records were pretty much cemented by September. Although Beach House surprised us with a second full album just months after Depression Cherry, nothing dislodged these songs from top spot for me. I’ll have to admit that it has a little bit to do with a girl. This record and Lower DensEscape from Evil were the stuff I was marinating in when I found out my heart was still working this summer. Although my romantic resurrection was quickly followed by some tiny heartbreak, these songs will always remind me of someone special and new. Also, after having waited since 2012 for new material from both bands, I was exceptionally happy with the results.

I was delighted with the new direction from Belfast’s Girls Names. While Arms Around a Vision doesn’t have the infectious groove of 2013’s The New Life, the songwriting is bolder and feels more personal. If you like jagged post-punk with echoes of Nick Cave and Ian Curtis, you owe yourself a listen.

Tribulation‘s The Children of the Night came out of nowhere very late to knock me out. Deliriously theatrical from start to finish, this will appeal to fans of early atmospheric horror films like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The scary (though intelligible) vocals are a necessary counterpoint to some really melodic guitar work.

Grimes may be accused of going more commercial with her new record Art Angels, but really there is nobody else doing what she’s doing. I’m very happy to see her in full control of her considerable talents on this very versatile collection of songs.

Having discovered some of Tamaryn‘s older releases this year, I was a bit surprised by the direction Cranekiss takes. While her older material was more soulful and shoegazey (reminiscent of Mazzy Star), this new one is very upbeat and danceable in places. If you ever liked Curve, you’ll like this.

Droid are a metal band from Brampton, one of Toronto’s western exurbs. I’d seen them live a few times over the past year, and this EP, recorded almost two years ago, finally saw the light of day in 2015. The recording and mixing isn’t great, but it gives some sense of what this three-piece are capable of. Thrashy space rock, reminiscent of Voivod. They’re a tremendous band live, and I hope 2016 will see them playing more shows, and maybe putting out a full-length.

The Dears are one of my favourite Canadian bands, and they continue an amazing streak of putting out consistently great records. I describe their sound as “music for underdogs played by underdogs” since they always seem criminally underappreciated. But I can truthfully say that a new listener could dig in anywhere and get a good sense of their quality.

Immortal Bird were a pretty random discovery, but I was blown away by the power of this Chicago metal group and their fierce frontwoman Rae Amitay. Not for the metalphobe/faint of heart, but it’s catharsis at 100 decibels.

Fuzz is one of Ty Segall’s many side projects. I went to see them live on a whim and ended up really enjoying the retro fuzzed out sound. There’s a very ’60s vibe to the guitars, the drumming, and even the way the vocals are mixed.

There are a bunch more that I simply didn’t have time to really listen to enough, so a few of those are listed (unranked) as Honourable Mentions.

A theme for the year might be my rediscovery of my love for live shows. I attended lots more this year than in the recent past, and when I could ignore the pretty girls and the beardy shitbags (and the people who can’t hold their booze), often found myself with happy tears wetting my cheeks. I mentioned in last year’s post how much music has meant to me lately, through some very difficult circumstances, and in a live setting my emotions are even closer to the surface than usual. I’m reminded of a ridiculous quote from one of my favourite films. In Bruce Robinson’s 1987 classic Withnail and I, Uncle Monty (played by Richard Griffiths) speaks of “weeping in butcher shops” and now I’m the guy who weeps at metal shows. So be it. Music brings me joy like almost nothing else does, even when things are otherwise pretty bleak. I hope it does the same for you.

Beach House - Depression Cherry
Girls Names - Arms Around a VisionLower Dens - Escape from Evil
Tribulation - The Children of the NightGrimes - Art AngelsTamaryn - Cranekiss
Droid - Disconnected (EP)The Dears - Times Infinity Volume OneImmortal Bird - Empress/AbscessFuzz - II

In list form, if you’re not visually inclined:

  1. Beach House – Depression Cherry
  2. Girls Names – Arms Around a Vision
  3. Lower Dens – Escape from Evil
  4. Tribulation – The Children of the Night
  5. Grimes – Art Angels
  6. Tamaryn – Crane Kiss
  7. Droid – Disconnected (EP)
  8. The Dears – Times Infinity Volume One
  9. Immortal Bird – Empress/Abscess
  10. Fuzz – II

Honourable Mentions (unranked):

  • Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell
  • High On Fire – Luminiferous
  • Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars
  • Black Fast – Terms of Surrender
  • Battlecross – Rise to Power
  • Destroyer – Poison Season
  • Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
  • Max Richter – from Sleep
  • La Luz – Weirdo Shrine
  • Life in Film – Here It Comes

Just for fun, here are some of my previous lists:

How about you? What were some of your favourites?

P.S. If you still haven’t caught up on all of 2015’s music (and there’s no way to actually do that), I’d recommend downloading this massive 183-song annual collection from Fluxblog.

An Extra Human?

Melencolia - Albrecht Dürer

I like being liked.

But I want to be wanted. I need to be needed.

In a few days, I’ll mark the third anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s an event that marked the beginning of a terrible time in my life, a time that’s still happening. I’m experiencing some sort of existential crisis. I’ve lost my way, and I don’t know what to do.

In October 2012, I had a full-time job, and strong family relationships with my father, my wife and my mother-in-law. It’s now October 2015 and my father is dead, my marriage is over, my mother-in-law doesn’t speak to me, and I haven’t held a full-time job in nearly three years. What the hell happened to my life?

I’d always been a career nomad, and the end of my contract in December 2012 was supposed to be the launch pad for a new career as a freelance “content strategist” and writer for hire. I was a little worried about the lack of structure and external deadlines, but I was excited nonetheless. But the first half of 2013 was almost all taken up with going through my Dad’s stuff, throwing things away, cleaning, dealing with lawyers and real estate agents, etc. I had no energy for starting a freelancing business. Luckily, I picked up some film festival gigs at TIFF and Hot Docs. They didn’t pay much but I thought they’d help me in the long run to find better work in the festival and film world.

Then early in 2014, my marriage suddenly fell apart. Just like that my entire family structure and any emotional support I had left disappeared. That entire year still feels like an open wound. Friends did what they could, but I was missing the kind of family support that would have made it less devastating.

I began 2015 in a hopeful state of mind, but it’s almost over and I’m still drifting aimlessly, going in circles, and becoming increasingly fearful about the future. None of my film contracts has led to a decent full-time job. I’m further away from my past as a content strategist/communications professional and that’s reflected in the deafening silence from the more than 250 companies I’ve applied to over the past 18 months. I feel surplus, unnecessary, both professionally and personally. I’m an extra human. And that’s the worst feeling in the world.

I’m paralyzed. I’ve been tentatively applying for jobs in other cities, even other countries, but Toronto has been my home for nearly 50 years. I’d have even less emotional support if I left my hometown. But I hate waiting for my luck to change, and staring fearfully at my dwindling bank balance.

I’ve become much more cynical. My idealism and faith in the bigger institutions of life has been tarnished forever, and yet I don’t want to become a bitter man. But even if I avoid bitterness, I’m filled with guilt and shame about the things that have happened to me. About my current inability to participate in the world and live like an adult. I’m not self-destructive, but my lifestyle is beginning to affect my health. Worst of all, I’ve lost much of my capacity to hope and to care, and this saddens and frightens me.

I’m more sensitive to disappointments in my relationships and small setbacks can knock me down for days. I’m more aware of how thin the line is between success and failure, of good luck and bad luck, of getting back on my feet or of falling into a deeper hole.

I regret my earlier restlessness, even though I’m not sure I could have stopped feeling it. Now that I’ve lost almost everything, I miss the familiarity of that restlessness. I would rather feel that than the desperation I’ve been feeling lately.

When it comes to love, I’m still searching, but now I know what a damaged person looks like. He looks like me. And that’s not something I want to dump on someone new. But I’m not doing too well on my own, either. I don’t think I ever have.

To be honest, I’m not even sure why I’m writing all of this. Or why I’d want to share it. Nobody wants other people to know how much of a mess they’re feeling. Except maybe I do. Because I think I still have a lot to offer, and I’m tired of feeling like I’m not needed or wanted by the world.