The Problem With A-B’ing And Why Neil Young Is Right About Sound Quality

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Great Tape Op post that’s thinking big about audio, music, and hearing.

The main crutch of the good enough team is what is called the double-blind listening test (shortened to ABX). When doing studies based on perception, it is the great measuring stick, and perhaps the only way they can start to squeeze some numbers out of human sensory perception.

It’s basic – here’s source A, here’s source B, maybe switch back and forth a couple of times, now make your decision. Which one was better? Can you hear a difference? Do you like one better than the other?

But as the article states, every ABX test is flawed because of it’s short sample time, and building out theories on these short ‘taste-test’ findings has led us to this mess of bad science and bad assumptions.

Since we live with and love music in intimate ways we cannot accurately write or describe, the author proposes that for any “double blind” tests to be valid the subjects should actually get to keep and live with their music collection for a month or two, then report their feelings towards it.

Much like how a sugary treat tastes better than anything next to it, but if you lived on sugary treats all month you would be feeling much worse than the person with the quality diet. Often the lesser files are close enough on initial inspection to fool enough people, and the ABX test stops right there. No one is doing long-term ABX tests, we all are doing taste tests, not nutrition tests.

Neil Young and the high-def audio movement is about getting the nutrition back into your music. There’s industrial white bread, and then there’s all those other breads. They both hold the sandwich together but living off the nutrition inside of it leads us to different outcomes.

 

Hi There I’m Walkman 2014

Neil Young’s preaching has been working — Sony recently announced their latest WalkMan, the 35th Anniversary model, and it’s pretty bad-ass. Save the Audio!

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That little slab of gadget-lust has got hi-fi audio specs (DAC, amp, wiring, shielding), excellent build quality, and it plays high resolution digital!

This is the proof that there is a market for true music playback systems again. If Sony’s 35th anniversary walkman plays HD audio it immediately differentiates it from the “low-fi” phone and iPod world we’ve been in for the last 10 years.

Some general information, in case you are interested in purchasing one:

  • available in Japan and Europe late 2014, street price expected around $700 US
  • plays up to 24 bit, 192k FLAC and other formats
  • 64gb on-board memory, not expandable
  • runs the full android OS with app installation allowed, including outside music stores
  • wifi and bluetooth expected for non-audio features. not clear if it can send audio over bluetooth

 

Compared to the Pono player, I think we will have some choices in this emerging market:

  • available in the US late 2014, street price expected to be $400 US
  • plays up to 24 bit, 192k FLAC and other formats
  • 64gb on-board memory + card slot for swapping 64gb cards (128gb cards coming soon)
  • runs a proprietary OS with audio only features. no apps or internet connectivity
  • no wifi or bluetooth. Neil says you can’t take away the wires if you can’t replace what originally went through them 😉

 

There’s two other DAP’s I found on the market in the US, one from a company called Fiio and one from an upscale stereo maker whse name is slipping my mind. But the Fiio one was around the $400 price point and looked to be an impressive device. The other one is high-end all the way, with the player over $1k and even the cables were $100+, so no thanks on that.

 

 

 

Resolution, Not Frequency Range

Anyone arguing about audio and getting stuck on the overall hearing range of humans is actually missing the point.

What digital audio has really been doing is giving us lower resolutions on the sounds we can hear.

Have you ever had a car radio with a dial that won’t go to the exact volume you want? The ‘chunks’ are too big to get it exactly where you want it? That’s a lack of resolution in that volume knob. Put that lack of resolution throughout every part of the audio program and the overall effect is perhaps not easily heard, but it seems to be easily felt. – Excerpt From Save The Audio

HD audio is really about the resolution, not the frequency range. The color’s won’t be brighter, there will just be more of them available. Having more available means you leave the computer to guess about less.

The whole “no one can hear above blah blaah” is just a diversion from the fact that we can all hear and do indeed miss what the computers have been removing from our music.

ResolutionBandwidth_sta

Digital Audio Verses Timbre

If an electric guitar and a piano both play a C major chord at the same volume, can you tell the difference between them?  Would you be able to discern a difference between the guitar and the piano’s version of the same note? Digital audio programmers hope you can’t.

If a violin and a plastic keyboard both hit a D and hold it out, can you hear a difference between them? What are the differences between the violin and the electronic keyboard when the result is the same note? Digital audio programmers hope you don’t know or care.

If you recorded the two tests above and played them back, would you still be able to hear a difference between them? Of course you would, but the more you degrade the digital audio by compressing in a ‘lossy’ format, the differences between the two would diminish. Somewhere around 128k lossy you’d have trouble hearing any difference between the instruments, even if in different families all together.

So how exactly do you tell the differences between the instruments, and how well they are played? We don’t even have words to describe all of what is happening there. But you can hear the difference even if the computer just sees the frequency and the volume. Most of this familiarity as to “what is making that sound” is put under the term timbre, and then most of it is thrown out in the digital realm.

Timbre is where they go looking for things to LOSE when compressing digital audio. Why do you care if it’s a piano or strings, you hear the note, you get the point, right?  The timbre is what many like Neil Young talk about as being part of the ‘soul’ of music, unquantifiable and very emotional for each person.

Lossy media compressions were developed for dial-up modems (remember those?), and to shrink the file by 80% they actually threw out most of the timbre, most of the sub-lows,  most of the highs, and most of the steps for panning and depth. Part of what you hear as mp3 artifacts are all those holes in the timbre being filled with wrong data.

BTW — the cover image is a microscopic view of an actual groove in a record. Look at the amount of vibration data the stylus picks up as it drags through that groove. 16 bits is just not enough data space to recreate all of that.

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1 Trillion Odors, or alot of Funk

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Ha, Imagine That!  I’m running all over the internet fighting bad science about hearing and music, and The Journal of Science publishes a study that says scientists have really underestimated the abilities of our nose and sense of smell.

Oh those crazy scientists, always learning more about our senses. Always so amazed at what the human body and brain can do. Sometime Simpleton.

This mirrors what is happening in the audio world. I really do think we will look back at the days (decades) of claiming “humans can’t actually perceive anything beyond 16/44 digital files” as the ignorant dark ages of hearing science. Producers and musicians have been ignored and derided in the name of digital convenience for many years now.

All it takes is one scientific paper to state something about how we can sense all kinds of other tones, timbres, and frequencies throughout our bodies, and how when receiving the full spectrum of audio, human bodies react positively. Familiarity is the first stage of listening, but we must go further than that for actual enjoyment.

But that’s not science, is it? It’s just a reality that is hard to quantize.

 

 

Bad Science + Business Interests = Trouble

Computer geeks know lots of things. The sheer breadth of stuff that geeks have crammed in their head is impressive.

But their major mistake is often not acknowledging their own ignorance. Many have come up in a world so digitally driven that they forget they are analog animals.

They forget sound, light, smell, touch are all analog. These are things computers don’t do natively.

In fact it has taken 40+ years of digital advancement to even start competing with original (analog) methods of creation.


NEM U87AISETZNI

Hi there I’m analog


Most computer nerds know nothing about professional media production. They might know the basics or have clicked around a bit with an app, but they know nothing of producing high quality media for a living.

On the other hand, most producers these days have to know their computers, especially the parts critical to creating professional media. I believe some nerds don’t like the competition so they declare themselves experts on everything digital.

Experts are the people that do it for a living, not people tasked with spreading false information on the internet.

A computer programmer/nerd believes there is a digital solution to everything.

Then they build on this bad foundation the fatal flaw of believing a digital copy of something analog will somehow be superior. Many sub-measurements of that digital file might be superior to the analog, but remember to always step back and say “what is this trying to solve?”.

Music is created to get an emotional response from us and that requires as much audio data as possible.


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All consumer digital music, from the CD in 1978 on, has been a compromise. When you hear analog playback you are hearing a reflection of the recording, that is, an analog copy that is slightly degraded but overall intact and whole.

The original sounds hit the microphone in analog and it will hit your ears in analog.  It has not been broken up and re-assembled, and no computer decided what to keep and what to throw out.

Nature does degrade the signal to a certain extent (magnetism in a tape or physical dragging movement on vinyl), but no programmer had to determine mathematically what parts of your music to throw out.

Computer nerds trust in the computer to decide what’s important in our audio signal, more than they trust their own intuition or senses.

Computers don’t have skin, hair, ears, or emotions, so what do they know about music? Nothing. Nada.

Programmers with agendas are behind much of this nonsense, and it is all based on a total misunderstanding of how we hear, and what we actually get from music.

Familiarity is just step 1. “I can recognize that song I like!” is not the same as hearing the whole thing the way it was intended.

Check out this cool article about a guy that helped design the Pono Player.

 

 

Gravitons, Waves, and Cosmic Microwave Background Oh My!

Big news from the physics world that I can’t possibly explain accurately, but here goes anyway.

Someone discovered a trace of a magnetic signal that is believed to come from the origin of the universe, a signal created shortly after the Big Bang.

This supposedly supports both the theory of rapid universe expansion (“inflation”) and  the concept of gravitational particles referred to as “gravitons”, that we have yet to detect but theorize exist in some form.

This is fun stuff, a good science read over at Wired. It’s the continuation of experiments and theories of Einstein and Hubble that were started over 60 years ago.

gravity

gravity

Those guys weren’t deterred by ignorant facebook posters mocking everything they did ;-).

 

Wow Righteous Indeed

Excellent talk from Neil Young at South By Southwest about his new product – the Pono Music Player. He breaks it all down in simple terms, better than any amount of text I can type:

Listen: Neil Young Explains Pono

I just bought one over at kickstarter. I have been waiting for “iPod II – Pro” for 10 years now. This thing is going to sound amazing. High-end audio in your bag, on your desk, wherever. They are busting out their kickstarter goal!

“Rescuing an art form is not something of interest to many in the investment community.” – Neil Young, on Pono’s early funding

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It will play your current mp3’s and most other formats much nicer than your phone, but it will also play the high rez files all the way up (most iDevices top out at 24/48, androids less than that) as high as you want to purchase through their HD store, or through existing stores like HDtracks.com, or your own files ripped that high.

More importantly than all of that, it is attempting to restore some sanity to the digital audio world. Audio, and audio alone, has been going down in resolution for the last few decades. Every other digital media tech we have – cameras, video, television, film, displays – has increased resolution every decade or so. But audio has been dropped, disrespected, misunderstood, confusing familiarity with quality.

“There was really something wrong. What it was was – we were selling shit. People were still buying it because they liked music, but they were buying wallpaper, background sounds, xerox’ of the Mona Lisa. They were buying musical history, supposedly preserved for everyone to hear, now preserved as a tiny little piece of crap with less than 5% of the data of the highest resolution in digital recording today” – Neil Young, on the recent music industry woes

BTW — Ignore the people online spouting ‘science’ about how no one can hear beyond 16/44. Every music producer and most musicians I know can hear a difference (even old ones ;-)). Audiophiles can hear a difference. Classical and jazz heads can hear it easily. Anyone who listens to any music created before 1988 would hear a difference. Beyond the usual internet ignoramuses, some have dead ears and/or business interests in the “good enough” digital music world. There’s some real science behind these lossy formats but it’s all kinds of flawed. Thankfully facts are catching up.

“5% became the standard of the world” – Neil Young, on the mp3 generation

Listen to the experts – the people who make, mix, and remix legendary music. Every one of them works at higher than 16/44 these days, and they can all hear why. It’s obvious.

“MP3’s are very convenient. So what we decided to do was to come out with a new system that was not a format, had no rules, respected the art, respected what the artist was trying to do, and did everything that it could to give you what the artist gave, so that you get to feel not just what the artist intended you to feel, but what the artist did. And that is what Pono is. Pono plays back whatever the artist wants you to hear. The artist makes the decision.” – Neil Young

Subtly Outrageous

Well it’s 2014, and snarky internet humor is just about all we have left. Prez Obama actually went on Zach Galifinakis’ mock talk show Between Two Ferns to pitch Healthcare.gov.

“How will it feel when you are not president anymore and everyone won’t let you beat them at basketball?”

“How does it feel to have a 3″ vertical?”

“That’s a 3″ horizontal”. Haha

I thought it was pretty funny, if not a bit demeaning to the president, to play the straight man to Zach’s feigned idiocy. This is 2nd term stuff, not really worrying about elections anymore. Obama’s people saw this as another avenue to advertise the healthcare signup website, and I think it works on that front. Lots of people love comedy and ignore the news.

And besides it is funny, and that’s what it’s there for.

 

Righteous Audio – Finally!

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I love knowing I’m not alone in my rants. I have been complaining about digital audio compromises since the 80’s, and now, finally, a product is coming for people like me. It’s called “Pono” (Hawaiian for ‘righteous’) and its basically the iPod redone with no audio compromises. Just like the classic iPods, it will cost under $500 and play all your various media types, but everything played through it should SOUND TRULY BETTER.


 

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The difference is the sound. The whole difference. How could people discount the sound quality as non-critical? MP3’s are “good enough” for much use, like streaming, but if you want to hear music the way it was intended when created, you have to go beyond the CD standard and go higher with high-def audio files. Pono does this, and then uses hi-end electronics and amplification to round out the package.

The Pono player looks like perhaps the last portable digital music player I’ll ever need to buy. It has 64gb built-in, with 64gb cards to swap in and out more music library. A 64gb card can hold hundreds of hi-def tracks depending on how hi you def. The Pono has hi-end audio circuitry designed for audio only. It has 2 outputs for either headphones or powering a real system with low-noise line level (as opposed to running out your headphone jack like many of us do with our portables now).

Anyone complaining or shooting down this concept (and they are out there) must have some sort of problem with either Quality, or Their Ears.


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Why would people push back against a higher-quality version of something, a version that the original artists approve of? Ignorance or previous investment, I would think. All these jokers own HD TV’s too, too stupid to miss the obvious in front of their eyes. Higher quality digital sound than was possible in 1977? Yeah right!

Listen, don’t buy the Pono if you don’t want one, but I personally purchased my last mp3 file last year. The quality is horrible (and no liner notes!) to have to own that thing forever. I’ve been slowly buying or re-buying the classics in HD digital or vinyl.

If Pono succeeds in making the general public aware of what they’ve been missing for 30+ years – what every pro musician anywhere knows – that there was a lot of good stuff removed from music in the 1980’s, and that we can now bring that back along with the digital conveniences – well that’s something I fully support. I’m buying one of these little tablerone’s of musical goodness.


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Coupla random opinions on the matter:

24/48 tracks should not cost more to purchase than 16/44 – the so-called “lossless” CD standard. Sorry marketing titles, it’s already lost much. CD’s & 16/44 should be discounted because it’s 37 year old digital tech.

24/48 is as low as you can go for “HD” marketing label. 16/44 was a compromise in 1977 and of course it still is. 24/48 is what most producers work at these days, and is the audio-for-video standard.

24/96 is the comfortable place for a modern digital audio standard, at least in popular music. Studios rarely record, mix, or master the originals at higher than that, and at 24/96 there is enough data to really get close to the total experience. You’d have to have an great listening environment, amazing music, and really good ears to get into hearing the improvement at 24/192. Classical fans with money to spend, maybe. Or cymbal tests in isolation. Both will show an improvement going up to 192.

These numbers 24/48, 16/44 are used alot, but keep in mind that they include all your dynamic range (loud to quiet), all your panning and depth (soundstage), all of your overtones and timbre (still impossible to quantify), all of your reverberations (tons of math!) along with the raw frequency response. There’s a lot of data in audio, and the computer chips of 1977 could only do so much. Going to 24/96 gives all needed variables more storage room, and you can feel it in the music.


 

Totally Wired

Totally Wired

Oh Europa, Europa

Check it, some smart folks are looking into the feasibility of actually going to Europa, the strange moon of Jupiter that has often been pegged in fiction as the home of our alien friends.

Europa is covered in a crust of ice, and our slight bits of data seem to point to an actual liquid ocean roiling around under that crust. Jacques Cousteau is the ambassador of this group, seriously.


europa_48_bkg_700

NASA’s rendition of Europa’s crusty surface. No comment on if there’s a liquid ocean below.


On the con side is the seriously high amount of radiation in that part of space, so we’ll just have to wait and see if humans ever make their way to this strange moon. I think our 3rd probe will fly by around 2020, perhaps gathering enough data to launch a robotic mission. The distance is such that each step takes decades.

If aliens are living in our solar system, my personal pick is the moon next to Europa – Io.

That strange mustard yellow thing has a highly-metallic crust with who knows what underneath. Our detection methods can’t see much of anything behind that metal.

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Io. This might be a metallic moon and we can’t detect what’s under that surface.

Earth has metal in the crust but not like this. The mothership definitely has a parking spot up there.

Adding to the curiosity of Io is it’s apparent lack of craters. Since Io has very little atmosphere (like our moon) we have no explanation for the lack of craters on the surface. What is stopping the meteors from hitting Io? Or what is on the surface that can remove traces of impact?


 

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K-Strass and A Lack Of Muscle Memory

Hahaha pranking the news is excellent!

This guy, one of the founders of the Found Footage Festival (a mashup of the worst of unintentionally-bad found video), decided he was bored with promoting the festival on morning shows, so he decided to have some fun with the media and created this fictional yo-yo pro. Yes there’s such things.

And of course the local news will book him. Show us some tricks, K-Strass!

These guys just made news again by creating a fake cookbook written by a fake chef (Something about remixing leftovers!) and getting booked for full cooking segments, where host after host just went with the disgusting things being prepared. Desperate folks those local media types ;-).

 

The First LP… ever

The year was 1948. The funk was about to go mobile.

Colombia dropped the first 33 1/3 RPM long playing vinyl disc.

Some serious fiddle by this guy playing this. The breakdown run at 0:34 is amazing. The audio linked is not from that vinyl however. See the actual label and read more info here:

http://www.33audio.com/enter/ML4001.html

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This format lasted 40 years as the market leader before digital compact disc outsold it in the late 1980’s. The CD format offered a lower noise floor, no dust issues, more portability, a wider allowable temperature range, more capacity, and instant access without manual cue. All great advances, and within 10 years of it’s introduction, CD’s were the market leader.

The CD format was a step back in three very important categories, however — sound quality, durability, and sustainability.

Durability is in the archival sense – stored correctly, vinyl LP’s appear to have an infinite life. I have records over 50 years old that play as they did when made. CD’s (which consist of a thin piece of foil filled with millions of holes sandwiched between clear plastic) on the other hand, have been exhibiting foil rust, mold, rot, cracking, and total failure at a alarming rate.

A "new era" indeed, complete with Lasers and Lightning

A “new era” indeed, complete with Lasers and Lightning

There is also the issue of playback for future generations: the vinyl record requires no computer, software, laser, or integrated circuit, even electricity – to be read. It is unknown if CD playback will be possible in 50, 100, 500 years. It is known that a stick can be dragged through a groove under a cone forever.

Sustainability is an issue in that CD’s are practically indestructible little plastic objects that are nearly non-recyclable. We have been warned about throwing them in the trash, and many recycling centers in the US don’t even accept them. Vinyl records (PVC) aren’t always recycled either, but they do not contain any harmful materials.