Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Otis Redding - (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay!

I just picked up another single full of history through my vinyl digging adventures. 

(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay is one of the most beloved songs by Otis Redding. Writing began where else, but while sitting on a houseboat, enjoying the moment. He had bits and pieces of the song written and went to Steve Cropper (Stax producer and guitarist in Booker T and the M.G.’s) to help him finish.  


Otis was backed by Booker T and the MG’s, the house band at Stax, for the recording of the song. Members were: Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald Duck Dunn on bass, Al Jackson on drums, Booker T on piano, and Wayne Jackson on horns.

This song was quite different from Otis’ early recordings, leaving the classic soul sound for a more pop-oriented feel. There are also lots of effects added to the recording giving it the ‘on the dock’ feel. This included sounds of waves crashing in and seagulls in the distance. Some of the seagull sound was created by Cropper overdubbing electric guitar fills (not quite sure the exact science of how he accomplished this, but I thought it was a fun fact). The remaining seagull sounds were added in a later date through sound effects. Another memorable part of the song is the ending. When Cropper was arranging the song he left an instrumental break at the end so Otis could ab-lib, but at the moment he couldn’t think of anything so he instead whistled, which worked out nicely.

The song was presented to Stax president Jim Stewert, but he was not impressed. He wanted a typical soul song from Otis, not something so different. Otis strongly disagreed, believing the song would be a huge hit. Unfortunately, Otis didn’t get the chance to see the look on Stewert's face when he was proved wrong. Just a few days after recording was completed in December 1967, Otis and five touring band members (and the pilot) were killed in a plane crash.

Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler asked for an Otis single as soon as possible (Atlantic handled distribution for Stax) upon hearing of his death. Cropper went to the studio and mixed (Sittin’ On)The Dock of the Bay. Jerry didn’t like the initial mixing, requesting Otis’ vocals to be louder. Cropper, who was happy with the mix, left it alone and instead switched it from stereo to mono which made the vocals a little louder, tricking Jerry.

The single was released on January 8, 1968 on Volt Records (owned by Stax) and became Otis’ first single to chart after his death and also winning two Grammy’s: Best R&B Performance and best R&B Song.

The copy I have is on the Atco label and is an original Canadian pressing (Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic, had a partnership for distribution with Stax from 1961-68). I don’t see this particular pressing online often since Canada was the only country to release it on the Atco label making it a bit more collectable, often demanding a higher price.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Addicted to Headphones!

As a father of young children, I’m quickly losing opportunities to blast my stereo system which makes headphones the ideal choice for my home listening. I recently decided to treat myself with two new pairs.

It can be a bit confusing searching online for headphones. I’m no audiophile, but I do like quality so I rarely opt for the cheapest option. I want something durable, comfortable, and that sound good to me.  Many message forums and reviews tend to be biased and/or misleading. Some people enjoy bashing any products that they don’t have and defending their own purchases, not wanting to admit there could be anything better out there. All reviews are not written by these types of people, but many are, which at times can be discouraging. Once I stopped looking for what others call “the best”, and instead concentrated on “the best for me” pair, my search became a bit easier, and a lot more fun. 

You can spend a lot of money on headphones, some costing thousands of dollars. A $2000 pair of headphones is sure to have features and better sound quality than a $200 pair, but you don’t need to spend this much to get something decent. I recently talked to an audiophile who has tens of thousands invested in his system and over 30 years’ experience in the hobby, and he believes that you can get 95% of good sound quality on a budget, it’s the other 5% that you need to pay through the roof for (before all you audiophiles start arguing these percentages, it’s just opinion). There is nothing wrong with the expensive gear and it can be a lot of fun chasing this last 5%, unfortunately my bank account doesn’t currently allow it.

Pair #1- Grado SR80i (price: $149 CAD)

I had the opportunity to try out Grado models SR60i, SR80i, SR125i and SR225i (priced between $100-$275), all while I was in a quiet show room. All four pairs are open back headphones and they sounded absolutely amazing, each increase in price giving a relative increase in quality. Don’t think because the SR60i’s are the cheapest that they are bad, the quality level started very high. Every little ting of the drum cymbals was crystal clear, and the bass drum sounded nice and deep. The good comparison I was given for these headphones is that every dollar you spend, is equal to about $15 spent on high end speakers. So $150 headphones average the same sound quality as a $2250 set of speakers (calm down audiophiles…. damn you are testy….again purely opinion/estimate).

I settled on the SR80i’s. The jump in quality from the SR60i’s was substantial, and the jump to the SR125i and SR225i’s seemed to be at a smaller scale. I felt like I was getting the best sound quality per dollar. When I got home and tried them out I quickly realized the difference between open back and closed back headphones. The quiet showroom was very deceiving.

Grado has a great explanation of open back headphones on their website (

“Closed-back headphones make music sound like it is coming from inside your head. Open-back headphones allow sound to pass through the back of the ear piece, creating an open, accurate and natural sound. This soundstage seems wider and has more presence. That extra air flow is able reduce the effect of sound "bouncing around" inside closed back headphones - creating a more natural and realistic listening experience, while also increasing the accuracy of the audio.”

While it gives this natural clear sound, it also lets all outside noise in. So to wear these in the same room that my kids are watching television doesn’t work so well. In a quiet environment, however, these were amazing. There was no way that I would return them, instead I bought a second pair of headphones.

Pair #2 – Monster Inspiration ($249 CAD, but got on sale for $129)

Monster and their old partner Beats are hugely popular headphones and also amongst the most bashed brands by audiophiles and geeky forum people who like to complain.

These are closed back over ear headphones giving it the more “inside your head” sound as stated above. I like this isolation since I can listen to music at a much lower volume and still make out the details. They also have active noise cancelling technology meaning that they have little microphones in the earpieces that when they pick up the frequencies of outside noise they create another frequency matching it but inverted, cancelling it out. The Monster noise cancelling is not anywhere as good as the popular Bose noise cancelling, but it still helps. I don’t have the need for the active noise cancelling so I leave it off, but it’s nice to have the option.

These headphones do tend to emphasize the bass a bit, which many people dislike since it is masking the original sound. Why are headphones that customize sound a bad thing? Adding bass or treble is modifying how the instruments sound, but so is adding reverb, delay, distortion, bass, treble,  etc. to the instruments during the recording process. I don’t see it as a mistake, it’s a conscious choice. The people recording this music wanted to manipulate the sound so that would match their vision. Why can’t we do the same thing at home? Let’s face it; some music could sure use a little polishing to make it sound better. I just read this great article on pitchfork that covers this nicely ( I especially like this quote from the article:

“Beats by Dr. Dre are popular because they don't reproduce music as much as they transform it. They are the right headphones for the current era, because their design "customizes" the sound for the listener who wants bass. Music is never finished; we can chop and screw, add bass, slow it down 100x, mash it up with something else. And people will buy headphones that finish the music in the way they like.”

It doesn’t work for all of the music I listen to, but I sure do like the Monster Inspiration headphones for a lot of my music. While these headphones are a bit pricey, the build quality alone makes me feel I am getting my money’s worth. I’m no expert on all of the electronic guts in the headphones and perhaps they do cheap out on some parts, but it worked for me.

In conclusion:

While purchasing two pair of headphones is not ideal for most, I’m happy with how this turned out. My Grado’s are perfect when I’m listening to classic music, in particular vinyl, the Monster’s match up with my iPhone nicely, and are great at blocking outside noise. Sure there is probably a pair out there that would match all of my needs, but the collector in me is sure enjoying the quest to find them. I’m already eyeing my next pair.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Classic Albums: Boss - Step On It

Step On It is the sole LP from Australian hard rocker band Boss. Released in 1984 by RCA, this album fits in nicely with other glam metal rockers of the era like Def Leppard, Motley Crue and Skid Row. This album is filled with steady bass and drums (think AC/DC), shredding metal guitar solos filled with palm mutes and harmonic squeals, all capped off with whaling screechy 80’s metal singing at its finest (enter the scene of Mark Wahlberg on Rock Star…. Stand Up and Shout!!!).

Boss consisted of Craig Csongrady on vocals, Kevin Pratt and Pete Sutcliffe on guitars, Scott Ginn on bass, and Joe Tatts on drums (sort of…. more on that later).

What first grabbed me about this album was the cover: A woman’s leg shown in black heels (with a bitchin’ anklet) stepping on a flying V guitar while sitting on a motorcycle. How could this not be good? They even do it one better on the inner sleeve, now with the guitar wedged between her legs and the motorcycle. 

It’s an overall solid album filled with some great party songs. Not role model music by any means (sex, drugs, RnR), but it’s classic mid 80’s cheesy rock. As much as I like it, there is one debatable item mentioned often online that almost ruins this album for me. The rumour is that a drum machine was used for this album rather than Joe Tatts on drums (whom just joined prior to the release, or was sick during recording - both stories exist). As a musician, I’m better without drum machine in rock. I’m a fan of electronic, industrial, and hip hop, and appreciate music from a CPU as an art of its own, but there is nothing artsy about this method. It just seems like a lazy way out of a minor setback. These drums beats are so steady and simple than any decent drummer could have easily performed. I will give them one thing though, it is a decent sounding drum machine, but was highly unnecessary. Plus, if you are going to use a drum machine, perhaps you should stay away from the long boring drum fills with no other instruments playing like they did in Free Wheelin’. IF somehow it was Tatts on drums, he is the most consistent drummer I have ever heard. Every cymbal is hit with the exact same precision and intensity, and his timing is PERFECT!

Regardless of the drum machine debate, I’m happy to add this LP to my collection. As much as I hate drum machines in this fashion, the rest is good enough that it keeps it strong (and this is saying a lot). This album has never officially been re-released on CD, so you will have to keep your eyes peeled for a vinyl copy. A few bootleg editions do exist which get decent reviews in regards to sound quality, but if you want the real deal, vinyl is the way to go (then again, when is it not?). Boss broke up after this album with Csongrady and Pratt moving on to form BB Steal.