Music Learning Systems - Guitar, Piano, and Drums

HD Radio – FM Radio’s Savior?

by Omar on October 27, 2011

in Editorials, Education

People listen to music for all sorts of reasons, which could be summed up under these three main motives:

  • emotion
  • inspiration
  • education

You could go crazy under each one of the above and break down even further what turns people on musically.  Many times though, it’s a combination of the three.

From this drummer’s perspective (meaning me), I always have my ear out for music that makes me want to play it on the drums.  So here’s how it happens:

  1. I hear the song
  2. The drumming catches my ear, for any number of reasons
    1. incredible groove
    2. superb technicality
    3. finesse
    4. nuance
    5. speed
    6. power
  3. The playing is so good that my hands are tapping, and when the song’s over I’m moved to express, “Wow, what a great song!” (the emotion)
  4. After going gaga over the song, I feel moved to try and figure out how the drummer played those drum parts (the inspiration)
  5. I study the song (the education):
    1. listening to the song (radio, mp3, Pandora, etc.)
    2. watching the drummer play it (YouTube, DVD, etc.)
    3. watching other drummers play the song (drum covers)

As far as the educational aspect goes, you may notice something missing from the list:  sheet music.  There’s no question that sheet music is an important tool in learning to play a song, and I by no means am diminishing its importance.  Fortunately though, it’s not the only way to learn how to play.  In my case, I depend on my eyes and ears.

I’ve learned to play the drums by eye and ear.  Over the years, you learn how to listen to nuance, and then watch the drummer play the song, which will then tell you that you were right, or you had that drum part completely wrong (the latter happens mostly :)).  Making those adjustments, and then playing the song somewhat close, brings me a lot of satisfaction and joy.  It’s sort of like reaching a goal:  if you plan your work, then work your plan, eventually you’ll reach the end point, in this case, a decent sounding version of the original song.

But, to be able to eventually play the song reasonably close to the original, you have to be a good listener (and a good observer).  I believe that some are better at those things than others, but I also believe that everyone can be a good listener – you may just have to work at it more.  Since it’s all about sound, it behooves us all to strive to be great listeners, each and every day.

If we want to be able to hear all the details, however, what we listen to needs to be of high quality.  If we’re hearing our music on AM radio, we can forget about hearing the details – it’s just not there.  Of course, these days, in our digital world, most of our sound sources are of pretty good quality, even if a lot of it is compressed – our ears can’t always tell the difference (lossy vs. lossless, and the like).

But here’s where I want to start driving the point home about audio quality:  what’s important to you?  What do you want to hear in a recording?  As for me, for example, I always want the best audio equipment (as much as I can afford!), so I can hear everything.  If I want to play a drum cover, I want to hear and know all the details.  If a drummer is playing double strokes on the bass drum, I want to hear it clearly and cleanly.  If he (or she!) is feathering the bass drum, I want to hear that too.  I don’t want to miss anything.  So when someone sees my drum cover, hopefully they’ll ‘notice the nuance’, because they know it’s there too.

For example, as I was preparing to record my drum cover of Rush’s “The Analog Kid”, I noticed that at the 9th bar, when Neil Peart goes to the hi-hat for the first time in the song, he plays it with fast 8th notes (before this he was playing quarter notes on the ride).  Then for the rest of the song, he plays quarter notes, both on the hi-hat and ride.  I listened very closely to pick that up, but it was because of the quality of the audio source (CD) and some good headphones that this was possible.  If the audio quality is not that good, then those hi-hats at the 9th bar may sound like quarter notes, like the rest of the song.

On another occasion, my Progressive Rock station in Pandora played Genesis’ “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight”.  Before this the only Genesis I knew of was mainly from the Abacab record forward.  This was a major revelation to me as far as musicality and musicianship.  Genesis immediately became one of my top favorite bands, next to Rush and Yes.  “Dancing With the Moonlit Knight” is a great song, so much so that I decided that one day, when I’m daring, I’ll cover it (hasn’t happened yet, but it will [hopefully]!).  I decided to buy the song so I could hear it whenever I liked.

When I heard this high quality version of the song, I was blown away.  Phil Collins was a technical animal!  There’s so much ghost-noting going on, very fast single stroke rolls, incredible use of dynamics, confusing time signature changes, and on and on.  If I want to cover this song, I have a lot of work to do!  But again, because of the high quality of the audio that I downloaded, and listening on good speakers, I was able to pick up on all those nuances, which I did not hear with Pandora (which, by the way, I mostly listen to with my smartphone and earphones).

The bottom line is, to enjoy our music to the fullest, and especially if you’re going to cover any of these songs, it’s best to hear them as closely as possible to the audio quality of the original.  Then you can decide either to play note-for-note as best you can, or change it up.  But those will be decisions based on knowledge of the song, not ignorance of it.  And it’s best to hear these songs with the highest quality sources and players that we can get our hands on.

I was already convinced of this, but the point was further driven home to me when I recently upgraded the radio in my car to a JVC HD Radio.  The factory radio had a cassette player(!), and the right channel was blown out.  So there was no way I was going to hear anything of high quality in my car.  Plus the factory speakers don’t sound very good either.

Being that the radio had no CD player, I was relegated to hear whatever was on AM/FM.  In the article “Pandora Killed the Radio Star (again)”, I go into great detail as to my falling out of love with FM radio.  The gist of the article pointed out that FM radio music stations (particularly Rock stations) tend to play the same songs over and over again.  This bored me out of my mind, so I was done with it.  Enter Pandora, where songs are played based on my specific tastes, and it was over for FM (at least for me).

There’s another strike against FM, particularly for audio enthusiasts.  For high quality music, FM was never a great choice to begin with either.  Because a lot of FM music is heard in the car, with competing road noise and what not, a form of volume normalizing is used to ensure all the music is heard.  So for low passages, the ‘volume’ is raised, and for high passages, the volume is lowered.  Because of this, the dynamics of the original song cannot be appreciated.  FM’s frequency response is also significantly less than its digital counterparts (40-15,000Hz for FM vs. 5-20,000Hz for CD typically).  This is not a good source to play a drum cover to.

But hold on!  It seems that all is not lost for FM.  Even though the aforementioned FM stations suffer from the “top tracks” mentality (thank you Donna Halper for explaining that concept to me!), many listeners love hearing those songs (they do request them).  And even though FM is not necessarily a good source recording to play a drum cover to, a new technology is giving it new life:  HD Radio.  I won’t go into all of the details regarding how HD Radio works, but I’ll mention what matters most from the listening perspective, and how FM may have found its savior:

20-20,000Hz frequency response – FM stations transmitting in HD Radio now have CD-quality sound.  There’s somewhat of a romanticism about hearing a song you like played by someone else, and hearing it played on FM, and the song playing in CD quality – you just may fall in love all over again.

HD2/HD3 channels – Adjacent to the main station are one or two other digitally transmitted ‘channels’ which provide more content, be it a different genre of music or talk radio.  So with your HD Radio, you’re actually getting more stations, which means more variety – all in digital sound.  In my listening area one of the adjacent channels is a Classic Hip-Hop station.  Run D.M.C, Salt-N-Pepa, and LL Cool J are back!

iTunes® Tagging – You iTunes freaks are going to like this.  If you like a song you’re hearing that you may want to purchase later via iTunes, you simply ‘tag’ the song.  In your iTunes personal account, a list of your ‘Tagged Songs’ will be listed.

AM sounds like FM – If there are stations in AM that you still listen to, they’ll sound like FM.

Oh, and did I mention HD Radio is free?  It’s not subscription-based, like Sirius satellite radio.  However, you do need an HD Radio.  Fortunately, they are pretty much the same price as any other radio you may buy, so if you’re going to upgrade, you may consider an HD Radio.

I feel that HD Radio has the potential to save FM.  I don’t know why it doesn’t get more press, but it should.  For several reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, HD Radio has not been fully adapted by radio stations, but it looks like the list is growing.  It is also most likely that not all of the FM (and AM) stations in your listening area have adopted the HD Radio technology yet, but I’m certain that enough have already for you to justify getting a radio that has the HD Radio feature.

HD Radio sounds great, and more stations will be available on your digital dial than with a normal radio.  The sense of community could be recaptured with the addition of the extra channels.  Whereas the main station can continue to keep their ‘top track’ mentality, they can use the other channels they have available to play those other great songs that they wouldn’t normally play (for example, they could play Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” instead of the staple “Foxy Lady”).  There’s no question in my mind that the listening audience would appreciate hearing such songs.

So coming back full circle, for those who play drums (or any other instrument for that matter), HD Radio (that is, glorified FM) can be used as yet another source for inspiration.  Or emotion.  Or education.  Because the music you like hearing on the radio sounds better, that may inspire you to play them.  Or you may hear nuances that you may have missed before.  Or you may hear songs that you haven’t heard in forever, and they sound great, and now you may want to play them.

I’m all for any source that inspires me to try new things, to play better, and to expand my listening tastes.  Just like Pandora did that for me, HD Radio is breathing new life into FM, and now I’m finding it interesting again.  So I’ll gladly use it as ‘source material’, to inspire me to play even more songs, and play them well (I’ll still hear talk radio though :)).

So Ms. Halper, there’s hope for FM radio!  Hopefully the bigwigs in Radio-dom can see the potential in HD Radio technology, and maximize it.  In the meantime, I’ll enjoy my FM radio (again).

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bruce November 14, 2013 at 12:54 am

If they could stream a flac format, the sound would be vinyl quality. flac is as close to vinyl as you can get without the stylus.


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