Rob Faucher

Just a guy doing a blog

Jul 102017
 

Further to my last post with Kensington Market street photography, I uploaded a short video to youtube.

It was shot with the Panasonic Lumix G85 in 4K/24fps.  All footage was taken handheld, “run and gun” style.  I’m still learning how to shoot video, so this was a good practice run.  There’s much room for improvement and I will plan another day out at Kensington with the goal of getting better footage and telling a story.

That said, I am pleased with the video performance of the Lumix G85.  The video quality is far better than any camera I’ve owned.  Hence my new interest in videography.

 

Jun 302017
 

I love walking around in Kensington Market, I really do. 

It was a treat to take my wife, Melissa on her Birthday weekend to explore this historic Toronto enclave.  Joining us, was her daughter, Bailey and boyfriend, Matt.  Adding to the day’s fun was meeting up with Melissa’s oldest daughter, Brittani and her friend, Meagan, who were attending Pride Day.  Moreover, Kensington Market always offers ample opportunity for street photography. 

Kensington Market represents a sanctuary from uninspired blandness and business culture which unfortunately defines many areas of Toronto, which are crowded.  The city is expensive, at times angry, congested and it lacks a deep sense of history and tradition that one finds in European cities.  Toronto is also a prosperous, clean, modern, peaceful and safe city that adorns itself with a sprawling landscape of skyscrapers and condominiums.  

From an architectural perspective, much of the city is boring, pragmatic, post-modern, homogenized and inflicted by a tyranny of right angled symmetry.  Older buildings are often abandoned factories or businesses designed to fulfill the profit requirements of past generation’s bourgeoisie.  Those buildings are either demolished or converted to luxury residences.  In this accountant’s wet dream, the city prospers and grows.  Its rational and calculated approach to attract business and foster sustained growth succeeds well, but does so at the expense of the soul and a classical sense of beauty.

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

These modern malaises are not the fault of Toronto nor its inhabitants, rather, it is the consequence of its intersection in history and all too recent ascendancy.  Until the 1980’s, Toronto played second fiddle, both financially and culturally, to the much older and established City of Montreal.  Toronto is now Canada’s first city and its fate entangled with the machinery of big money.  Therein lies our historic intersection: the city reflects the unfettered advancement of a new world without the anchor of a long and troubled history.  The logic of global trade and finance sooner or later homogenize all cultures and demands new growth complies to its needs.  If Paris is the achievement of the artist, then Toronto is the achievement of the balance sheet.

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

For the first half of the 20th century, Toronto was that “second city” where one went to do business.  It was serious, law abiding, politically stable, sober and sterile.  Old Hogtown was overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon, its founders were stoic, humourless British Tories and puritanical Scottish Presbyterians.  No wonder Ernest Hemingway found himself despising Toronto during the 1920’s when employed as a correspondent for the Toronto Star.  In a letter to Ezra Pound, written from his room at a Sherbourne Street hotel, he opined:

 “It couldn’t be any worse. You can’t imagine it. I’m not going to describe it.[…] I have not had a drink in five days.” Of Torontonians he wrote, “We have come to the right place to have a baby because that is the specialite de ville. They don’t do anything else.”

Annoyed that purchasing candy from the drugstore was prohibited on Sunday, Hemingway wrote that Canada “is the fistulated asshole of the father of seven among Nations.” And Canadians, he claimed “are all merde [that is, shit].”

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

That rigid version of Toronto has changed in large measure thanks to multiculturalism and the collapse of Montreal as the financial and cultural centre of Canada after the 1976 Quebec referendum.  The role of the aristocratic Tory and curmudgeonly Presbyterian are fading passages in the city’s history.  Toronto is now a tolerant city welcoming all races, cultures, religions and sexual preferences.  At times it is chaotic, unclean, perverse, drunk, stoned, conflicted and uncertain of its identity and status as a “world class city”.  These cultural paroxysms are just what the city needed to wrench it away from the austere control of the old Anglo-Saxon masters.   Hemingway’s old Canadian merde has lost its stench.

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

My love of Kensington Market comes from its confident sense of history as well as the harmonious collision of conspicuously different cultures and lifestyles.  The buildings are old, unique and full of character.  Its denizens are mainly young, but they live a local lifestyle that would be right at home in old Europe. One is likely to buy fish, vegetables, meats and clothing from at least 4 different vendors.  It reminds me of my Grandparent’s long gone delicatessen and wine shop in Oostende, Belgium.  All of it a far cry from the modern superstore when one can buy underwear, t-shirts, fruits, meats, electronics and condoms under one roof.  The vendors in Kensington Market are one of kind, with no analog found elsewhere in the city.  Each shop represents the idiosyncrasies of its owners, there is no uniformity and that is a beautiful thing.

Kensington Market, Toronto. 06-24-2017

Kensington Market stubbornly resists the encroachment of the 21st century and corpocracy.  Its streets are dispossessed of corporate logos, obnoxious billboards and men in suits.  It is visually rich, confident, energetic and proud.  It is a uniquely Canadian experience that in its own inexplicable way unifies the promise of benevolent multiculturalism with the surrealism of William S. Burrough’s Interzone.

And yes, you can purchase candy on a Sunday anywhere in Toronto.

Kensington Market, The Modern City Pushed Into The Background

Hopefully my images below were able to capture the spirit of Kensington.

May 232017
 

Wow!  It has  been a year since Melissa and I were married!  Seems like only yesterday I saw my beautiful bride walking up the aisle.  Time seems to fly by faster and faster as one gets older.

We celebrated our first anniversary in Victorian era town of Niagara-On-The- Lake, Ontario and toured local wineries.  Thanks to a generous gift card from Melissa’s brother, John and his wife Kelly, we enjoyed an evening at the posh Queen’s Landing Hotel and treated ourselves to a gourmet dinner and an excellent bottle of vintage Amarone.   

We came back home with a nice cachet of Ontario wines and a dozens of photos.  I also took a several videos with a GoPro and my Panasonic LX-100 that I will probably publish in another post. 

It was definitely a great weekend out of town.  I’d love to return to the area by motorcycle and spend more time taking photos.  

Rob’s Photos taken the Panasonic Lumix LX-100.  

 

Melissa’s Photos taken with the Panasonic Lumix G3.

May 072017
 

Well, since spring is taking its time to come to Southern Ontario, I’m cooped up indoors instead of riding.  So, I’ve been trolling through my collection of photos in Adobe Lightroom to find some old images that were never edited or posted. 

I found this cachet of photos taken last May, shortly after Melissa and I were married.  We had just returned from our honeymoon in Montreal and we took advantage of some vacation time to visit Niagara Falls.  The big attraction was seeing the amazing indoor aviary at the “Birds of the Lost Kingdom”.  We also did the cheesy stuff, like visit the wax museums, Ripley’s and that big-assed SkyWheel with the cheesy muzak.

Apr 092017
 

I took these photos back in October, 2015 when my work took me to a conference in Niagara Falls.  After dinner I grabbed my camera and a tripod to take some night photos.  Some were taken from my hotel room and others outside.  It was unusually cold and I was not quite dressed for it, but I managed to grab a few shots before walking back to my hotel.

I forgot to post these photos online upon my return home as I had far, far better things on my mind.  Once I returned home, I proposed to my beautiful wife, Melissa Faucher.  Yes, she said yes 🙂

Nov 232016
 

On Nov 11 to 13, Melissa and I had a mini-vacation in Collingwood, Ontario.  We stayed gratis at the Blue Mountain Inn Ski-Resort thanks to a generous wedding gift from her brother.  Although, we were married back in May it is just now that we are taking advantage of his gift.  He also included a bottle of sparkling wine and a one hour massage for each of us.  As someone who spends a lot of time motorcycling across North America, in all weather, staying in budget motels and eating at local diners, this weekend was one of luxury and comfort.  So, it was different twist to be pampered and lazy.  This has never been my thing.  That said, I am still grateful for this weekend getaway.

Collingwood is a nice area and it is one of the few locations in Southern Ontario that is not flat as a board.  Well, mostly because of the Blue Mountains, which are just tall enough for winter sports.  As such it is a popular ski resort which features the aptly Blue Mountain Village.  This little quaint enclave is a tourist trap designed to quickly separate you from your money.  They charge Toronto prices for everything but the food quality, although decent, is not quite there.  The village is also peppered with various high end boutique clothiers and gift shops.  

The weekend was unexpectedly cold and we forgot our hats, so we had to buy new ones and there were plenty of clothiers carrying a number of boutique brands.   We each bought toques for top dollar, but they are much better quality that you’d get at Canadian Tire or Wal-Mart.  I also bought a nifty pair of thinsulate gloves with special fingertip pads to operate touch screens.  These are good gloves for operating a camera as well.

Blue Mountain Village is a corporate designed resort that tries to emulate a little Swiss town that one might find near a ski resort.  It seems to have been constructed in a short time and is bereft of a slow organic development — All façade, little substance or real history.  It is a fake as a Darth Vader costume on Halloween.  Although that’s not to say you can’t get a nice photo and the buildings have their own retro charm.  I’ll take this simulacra any day over uninspired rectangular edifices in the city.

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Firehall Pizza Co. Blue Mountain Village

Finding a decent restaurant for dinner proved to be a challenge.  The village was crowded and we had a frustrating time finding a restaurant that did not require reservations or was not full of loud drunk patrons and lulu-lemon wearing Torontonians on a yoga retreat. Our first attempt at dinner was the well-reviewed Cooper Blues restaurant and bar and it was packed solid.  Moreover, the only mantras being chanted here were those of inebriation.  We walked out of Copper Blues as the noise from other people was overwhelming.  Other places required reservations or were packed  to capacity.  Eventually, we settled for the Kaytoo Restaurant & Bar, mainly because there were open tables and one could actually carry on a conversation.  The food was good, but not great.  However, the serenity and pleasant service in rustic Canadian styled ambiance was priceless.  

On Saturday, we decided to explore downtown Collingwood,  which is quaint late 19th century style main street.   A popular spot for well-moneyed Toronto area residents on their weekend getaways.  Saturday parking is at a premium and we had to drive around a few times to get a spot.  We explored a few shops and it’s not much different than many other small towns in Southern Ontario.  One can get a similar “old timey” feeling downtown Cobourg, where there is ample free parking and far less pretense.

Faux Old-Timey Weathervane. Blue Mountain Village

Faux Old-Timey Weather Vane. Blue Mountain Village

For our last night, we decided to stay in the room, warm up near the fireplace, drink wine, watch movies and order a pizza.  Nice, simple, relaxing and fun.  We were also treated to a beautiful sunset.

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Sunset at the Blue Mountain Inn.

So all in all, a nice weekend and more so as our accommodations were a gift.  Would I go again and pay for a weekend stay?  Probably not as I am not a skier and that is the raison d’être for Blue Mountain Village.  The nearby roads, mountain and countryside are perfect for a motorcycle ride so, I would definitely go back on a day trip.  Once one is about 25kms outside of Collingwood, the crowds are gone and there are budget roadside motels.   Just the sort of thing to entice this old biker for a weekend getaway.

Jul 172016
 

After Melissa and I were married last May, we took a brief trip to Montreal as part of our honeymoon.   It was her visit to this city I once called home.   As for myself, I always enjoy returning to my old stomping grounds, whether on business or pleasure.  It has an old world feel and a sense of history that is sorely lacking in Toronto.  Other than Quebec City, it is as close as one can to a European style experience in North America.

I wanted to find a hotel right in the heart of the city, however, this time of the year choices are limited unless one is prepared to pay top dollar.  I wanted to find a hotel that would come under $200 a night and avoid any bland and uninspired corporate accommodations such as Motel 6.  After a bit of online research, I found the reasonably well reviewed Hotel Quartier des Spectacles on St. Catherine St.  The price was right and there was only one room left, so I booked it. Before we arrived, Melissa did some research and discovered the hotel is situated right over a sex shop!  As you can see, the plywood is far seedier than the actual merchandise.  The sign says their business is growing (insert joke here).

The Sex Shop below our Hotel

The Sex Shop below Hotel Quartier des Spectacles

One could easily ignore the sex shop, however, one could not ignore the unseasonably cold weather or soul crushing gridlock and omnipresent road construction.  The weather felt more like March than the end of May.  No matter where you went, there were road closures, lane restrictions, no access to street parking and traffic congestion.  I am accustomed to a certain degree of traffic in Montreal, but this was out of the ordinary.  I soon learned there was a general strike of construction workers and engineers.  58 job sites were abandoned and the city was left in a state of disrepair.  Driving my car was an exercise in futility and frustration, so we relied on taxi cabs.

Our first night was spent in Old Montreal.  After a decadent steak dinner, we took a few hours to walk the cobblestone streets.  Melissa was smitten by the beauty and European flair of this old French settlement.  No matter how many times I return to Montreal, I cannot tear myself away from the original city to explore its narrow streets, restaurants, bars and shops.

Sunset in Old Montreal

Sunset in Old Montreal

The following day, I wanted to take Melissa to see some of Montreal’s most famous landmarks, such as Notre Dame Cathedral, St. Joseph’s Oratory, Jarry Park, Schwartz’s Deli, Olympic Stadium as well as my Grandparent’s apartment in what used to be Little Italy.  Gridlock made it difficult to get around, so we settled for Notre Dame Cathedral, the old Faucher homestead and Shwartz’s Deli.

My Grandparents home in what used to be Little Italy

9189 Esplanade Ave. – My Grandparent’s home in what used to be Little Italy

Back in the 1960’s and 70’s Esplanade Ave. was predominantly Italian.  I can still recall the pungent aroma of garlic when visiting Grandma Faucher.  There were old men playing Bocce ball in the park, women gossiping on their porches and the street was full of Italian kids at play.  Those days are long gone.  Now it is tapestry of different ethnic groups, namely Indian, Arabic, Portuguese and Chinese.  The Bocce ball courts are crumbling away and life is eerily more silent as people remain indoors.  What was one a tightly knit community bound by an old world heritage is now a loosely knit multicultural patchwork.

No visit to Montreal is complete without trying the best smoked meat in the world from Schwartz’s deli.  I forewarned Melissa that one must be prepared to stand in line for at least 20 minutes, but patience will be rewarded.  As luck would have it, we waited all but one minute and were promptly seated at the lunch counter.  Melissa is now a convert and agrees it’s the best smoked meat anywhere.

If there is anything Catholicism has given to the world, it is spectacular cathedrals and breathtaking religious artwork.  Perhaps the best representation of this tradition in North American is the Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica which is modelled on the larger and more fabled Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris.   However, the beauty of Montreal’s version speaks for itself.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

After Notre Dame, went back to our hotel, rested a bit and then it was back to Old Montreal for dinner and another promenade.  What a nice way to end the day.

We would love to visit Montreal again, but I am reticent to return until the city’s streets are repaired.   I am hoping by summer 2017, the streets will be in much better condition.

 

Apr 192016
 

This sort of odd pairing could only happen in a post cold war world.  I am talking about replacing tubes in a British made headphone amplifier with vacuum tubes originally designed for the former Soviet military and space programme.

Resurrecting an Old X-Cans Headphone Amplifier

I was curious to see if these Soviet-era tubes would tame some of the brightness and sibilance of my headphone amplifier.  I have an ageing Musical Fidelity X-Cans V1 headphone amplifier that has served me quite well over the years.   When it was released, back in the the mid-nineties, it was well regarded as an affordable dedicated headphone amplifier which offered better sound than headphone jacks built in to amplifiers and AV receivers.  Although X-Cans are not considered high-end, they are most certainly better than cheap headphone circuits built in to any integrated amp or AV receiver I have owned.

Musical Fidelity X-Cans. Class A tube headphone amplifier

Musical Fidelity X-Cans. Tube headphone amplifier, a bit old and still sounds good.

In the evenings, I now listen to music through headphones and back in 2015, I pulled the X-Cans out of a storage bin and discovered the original Phillips JAN 6922 tubes were kaput.  There was a loud hum and barely any audio signal going through.  I ordered some common Electro-Harmonix 6922 tubes and got the X-Cans working again.  The sound is decent and it is good enough for lower end and “laid back” headphones.

Taming Brightness Caused by Electro-Harmonix “Black Box” Tubes

Now comes the rub, with higher quality headphones, the X-Cans can sound bright and there seems to be some artificial colouring to the higher registers in music.  Especially with my Grado 325Es, which are very revealing with a forward midrange and a big sound stage.  Just like a pair of electrostatic speakers, the Grado’s will accentuate any flaws in your system.  When I plug the Grados into the headphone stage of my Asus Xonar STX soundcard, they sound more balanced.  The Xonar has a really good headphone stage, but lacks the punch, power and sound stage of the X-Cans.  Grado headphones are known for a prominent mid-range and some critics also find them a tad bright.  They really need the right headphone stage to sound their best, namely something warm and not too forward.

I figured the generic Electro-Harmonix 6922 tubes could be the culprit.  I seem to recall the X-Cans sounding less bright with the original Philips JAN 6922 tubes.  After some googling, I discovered a common complaint against  Electro-Harmonix tubes in hi-fi systems is the sound can be harsh and bright.  These tubes are better suited to guitar amplifiers.  Moreover, guitarists seeking a warmer sound are told to stay away from entry level Electro-Harmonix tubes.  No worries, they are inexpensive, so no great loss.

Time to roll some tubes.

Time to roll some tubes.  These Electro Harmonix tubes are too aggressive and bright.

Ideally, the best solution would be to dig deep into my pockets and get some vintage NOS tubes from Mullard or Telefunken.  People with tube based headphone amps or pre-amps often give them glowing reviews.  Alas, a set of those tubes would cost as much as buying a new and better headphone amp. It does not make sense to spend hundreds on rolling tubes for a budget component.

Vintage Soviet Era Tubes, An Affordable Solution

On some audio forums I was reading good reviews for Soviet-Era Voskhod “rocket label” 6922 tubes.   Any available stock of those tubes will be used or “new old stock” (NOS).  On Ebay, I found a Ukrainian vendor who is selling matched pairs of NOS 6922 Voskhod Rocket tubes for under $25 CAD shipped.  His feedback rating is 100% for over 2300 transactions, so, I know I’m getting the real deal.

Soviet-Era packaging. At least 20 years old. Notice the Rocket Logo?

Soviet-Era packaging. At least 30 years old. Notice the Rocket Logo?

It took just over a month for the tubes to arrive and look decades old.  I would fathom a guess these tubes were made any time between the late 1960’s and early 1980’s.   They are military grade and for all I know, may be been designed for use in rockets or missiles.  This means they should be immune to microphonic ringing caused by sound waves from speakers.  Any space exploration geek knows that Voskhod rockets were used to send the first humans into orbit and deploy Zenit satellites.  They flew from 1963 to 1976, so if the Soviet space programme ever used this series of vacuum tubes, that’s very cool in my books.

So, in a bizarre twist of old cold war enemies, I went to work to rip out modern Russian vacuum tubes from a British headphone amplifier and replace them with good old-fashioned communist tubes from the former USSR.

6N1P-EV ~= E88CC ~= 6DJ8 ~= 6922 Matched Pair Voskhod Rocket

6N1P-EV ~= E88CC ~= 6DJ8 ~= 6922 Matched Pair Voskhod Rocket NOS

So, How Does it Sound

In short, they sound great!

Before evaluating new tubes, I keep them powered on for at least a day.  This gives them time to break in a bit and provide a good indication of how they will sound over time.  So after leaving the Voskhods on for 48 hours, it I decided to given them a listen and play a variety of music over a 3 hour period.

Gone is the harshness and exaggerated treble of the Electro-Harmonix tubes.  The Voskhods sound fuller, warmer, detailed and less fatiguing.   Even after a prolonged listening session, my ears were not tired.  They have transformed the X-Cans into a better sounding headphone amplifier…one that I will be inclined to keep indefinitely.

The Voskhod tubes also tamed the brightness of the Grado 325E headphones.  I really like those headphones, not only are they very comfortable, the midrange is fantastic and they render sound in a very detailed and musical way.  The Grados allow me to hear sounds and music veiled by other headphones I own, such as the Focal Spirt One S and the Sennheiser HD-558.   That said, the Grados are not perfect, some find them too bright around 2 to 3 Khz range.   One solution is to modify or replace the pads and the other is to look for a warmer sounding headphone amp.  I opted to do both.  I wrapped the pads with electrical tape which took some edge off the high end and also added a bit more bass.   I reasoned that tube rolling could help warm up my headphone amplifier and with the Voskhods I struck gold on a budget.

Now, I love my Grado 325E’s more than ever.  The Voskhod tubes roll off the high end in a very pleasant way without sacrificing any soundstage or detail.   To my ears, they sound more neutral than the Electro-Harmonix tubes, whilst retaining the fullness and three dimensional sound stage one would expect from a good tube amplifier.

Highly Recommended!