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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Composer: John Williams)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Composer: John Williams)

Star Wars is a cultural icon and so is the music that John Williams has written for not only this edition of the franchise, but all previous major Star Wars films. I dare say that there wouldn’t be many people who have not heard a chord that John Williams has written. He is synonymous with the motion picture industry and is one of the most accomplished composers of our time.

For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed music in films. I strongly believe that a good soundtrack can make or break a movie. For me, it certainly is 50% of the film experience. Perhaps that is why I can’t understand film loving individuals purchasing incredibly large and expensive televisions, but refusing to place the same investment into the accompanying audio system.

Yes, some companies have tried to improve the sound from their television sets, Bose entered the market a couple of years ago with their Bose VideoWave. They were certainly impressive units, but the price was just too steep for many people, including myself. Hence, they no longer manufacture this range and have instead focused on their independent speaker systems.

If all you listen to movies through is your television speakers, then please consider at least adding a decent quality sound bar to your television. I can personally recommend the Bose Solo range as good starting point.

Back to the soundtrack and one of the reasons why I chose to listen to the latest Star Wars soundtrack was that I was going to see the film. I thought it would be interesting to listen to the soundtrack, watch the film, and then re-listen to the soundtrack as a post film experience.

The first listen, prior to watching the film, was met with familiar Star Wars sounds. It certainly wasn’t a replica of past soundtracks, but it paid homage to them. The first thing I noticed as I was listening is, even if you’re not a Star Wars fan, you could enjoy this soundtrack. The orchestration is beautifully relaxing and I’ve no doubt those of you with classical tastes will enjoy the experience.

One problem that I have is the lack of recognition for the orchestra. It is certainly not unique to this album as I noted this same concern when I took a look at the 007 SPECTRE soundtrack. Now unless Thomas Newman, or in this case John Williams, is playing every instrument, then I want to know which orchestra undertook the recording. This acknowledgement should be on the album cover and while I respect these composers, it is the orchestra that makes them sound good. Therefore, they deserve recognition.

What I do know for certain is The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars soundtrack to not be recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in Abbey Road Studios. That information was in the official press release, but when it came to naming the orchestra that was used, the press release merely mentions “Williams worked with members of the highly regarded freelance orchestra with which he's recorded numerous film scores over the years”.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised but it bothers me as every single person involved in the film making process is listed in the end credits. Yet, the masterful musicians are omitted on the associated soundtrack. Perhaps the orchestra used was named correctly in the film credits, but I didn’t take note at the time.

I should also add that they are not mentioned in the liner notes that appear with the album on TIDAL Hi-Fi, or Apple Music. Perhaps they are named in the CD liner notes, but after performing a 15-minute Google search, I couldn’t find any detail regarding the name of the orchestra or even who the principal musicians were. If anyone has this information, please let me know in the comments.

The non-classical music listeners may be wondering what the big deal is, but classical fans will likely agree that we search for principal musicians, conductors, orchestras, and composers. I can honestly say that compositions by the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky, sound different depending on the chosen orchestra and their interpretation. Hence, the importance of knowing specific details, especially when a score is as well recorded as The Force Awakens.

Despite the beautiful recording, there is one track that I just didn’t like. That song is called Snoke. It is akin to a Gregorian chant and is simply out of place with the rest of the score. 

This is probably a good time to talk about the soundtrack integration in the film. Certainly Snoke, while disruptive to the soundtrack, did appeal to the scene it was attached to in the film. That said, it would have been nice if the song was left off this album, or at least be presented out of chronological order as the album’s final track.

Regardless, I enjoyed the sonic familiarity with the film, as a result of listening to the soundtrack prior to seeing it. It didn’t detract from the film experience and I feel that I was able to further appreciate the intricate nature of the soundtrack and how it was applied to specific scenes.

Based on this experience, I think I will listen to classically scored soundtracks before seeing films in the future. It was a wonderful experiment and one that I would recommend to anyone.

Listening to the soundtrack, post film experience, now refreshes my memory of the film. I have a terrible memory when it comes to experiences and I think that is one reason why I gravitate to music. I seem to be able to remember elements of my life and experiences based on the music that I associate with that moment in time.

For example, last night I was vividly taken back to my teenage years, an era I don’t think of often, when I was listening to Metallica’s Load album from 1996. I don’t know how it works, but music has the ability to unlock memories so vividly that it is akin to actually re-living the experience.

Listening to Star Wars: The Force Awakens certainly reminds me of experiencing the film with my family and as it was my son’s first experience of seeing a Star Wars movie at the cinema, it was a father/son memory that I never want to forget.

With that said, I will likely purchase the vinyl edition of the soundtrack when it is released in 2016. Until then I will listen to the album via TIDAL Hi-Fi. The soundtrack is also available on CD, iTunes, and Apple Music. Although, after a cursory comparison with Apple Music, I would strongly recommend you try and source the CD or TIDAL Hi-Fi edition as this is an incredibly atmospheric album that is truly worth listening to in a non-lossy format. 

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John Coltrane – The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording

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John Coltrane – The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording

One of my pet hates is distortion. It can ruin a beautiful recording and render it unlistenable in my mind. While I have a number of albums that suffer from distortion, it has been a number of years since I’ve heard music distorted as badly as John Coltrane’s Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording. At least that was the case when listening on headphones.

When a friend recommended the album to me, knowing that I’m a fan of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, I was truly excited for I had not previously heard this recording. Upon launching the album via Tidal Hi-Fi, I couldn’t believe how exceptional the introductory notes of Ogunde were, with Coltrane seemingly present in the room with me.

I honestly thought I was in for a truly amazing jazz experience, but that lasted all of about six seconds until the bass and drum stages kicked in. It was then distortion hell throughout the 28-minute track. It got so bad at times, that Coltrane’s exceptional performance was drowned out and sounded like he was playing in another room, or perhaps on the other side of town.

The second track, My Favourite Things, on the two track album (minus the introduction track) was a little less distorted, but at this stage my mind couldn’t relax as I was consistently waiting for distortion to once again dominate the music.  

My immediate thought was this is a problem with Tidal, or their source. I wish that was the case, but as I downgraded the Tidal Hi-Fi 16bit / 44.1 KHz, 1411Kbps FLAC file to their 320Kbps AAC source, there was no improvement. I then went to the extreme and selected Tidal’s +96Kbps AAC source hoping that if the distortion was present, the over compression may drown out the distortion. Nope, that didn’t fix it either.

Determined to find a better mastering I turned to Apple Music, but the same problem existed. I just couldn’t believe that a Coltrane album could be recorded and mastered so badly. At this stage I would have welcomed a bootleg of the album. I even took to listening out of the right channel, as most of the distortion was present in the left channel. Well, that didn’t last as the distortion crept into the right channel as well.

Never to be beaten I started to do some research and found out rather quickly that this release is what I would call a ‘cash-in’ by the record label. That is to say that they had re-issued, re-mastered, and basically milked Coltrane’s back catalogue so much that all they had left was recordings that probably shouldn’t have seen the light of day.

Yes, I am being overly harsh on this recording, but only because I know how amazing Coltrane was as a live performer and recording artist. While his performance is incredible in this recording, the distortion is just too much to keep most people satisfied, except for the most dedicated fans.

If you intend on listening to this album, and all Coltrane fans should, then please listen via speakers as headphones interestingly amplify the distortion. When I used my Bose SoundDock Series III speaker (with the iPhone 5s via the lightning connector), and Bose Lifestyle 235 Series II system (via AirPlay –> AppleTV 3rd Gen –> Bose), the distortion was significantly reduced. I could actually enjoy the album, and I did, but it bemuses me as to the difference between headphones and speakers in representing audible distortion. I’m certainly no audio engineer, but I would welcome opinions as to why distortion is so much more prominent in headphones, besides the obvious fact that the sound is so much closer to your ears.

I should add that distortion was not only present on the iPhone 5s, but also via my mid-2013 MacBook Air. A further interesting note is when I connected my iPhone 5s to my Bose Soundlink Mini, via auxiliary, the distortion wasn’t as prominent in that configuration either. This allowed me to determine that it wasn’t an issue with the DAC, or internal AMP, in the source devices. That said, it still doesn’t explain why two sets of headphones, that otherwise perform well and are from different manufacturers, would amplify distortion to unlistenable levels.  

Tim, thank you for the recommendation, but I’ve been spoilt by the sonic quality of my High Fidelity Pure Audio edition of A Love Supreme. It is unlikely that I will be adding the Olatunji Concert to my Coltrane collection, but I’d be happy to listen to a newly mastered version should it ever become available. That said, if the distortion is present in the original recording, then this release is as good as it will get.  

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