Forgotten Audio Formats: MP3

The year was 1994.

Music was as popular as ever, with rock bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins, pop artists like Ace of Base and Mariah Carey, and soul artists like Boyz II Men and Janet Jackson selling millions of albums.

The music industry was healthy and investing in new artists. Thousands of people were employed to record, catalog, distribute, market, and keep the books for successful recording artists.

This B-side collection by The Smashing Pumpkins sold 1,000,000 copies in america in just a few months to go certified platinum. That’s 1 million CD’s sold, not youtube views.

Music could be consumed on multiple formats and most people had a mixed bag for their own collection: analog vinyl LP’s and cassettes along with digital CD’s.

Other physical formats existed like reel-to-reel and LaserDisc but were tiny markets. DAT and DSD were still years away.

File-only digital had just begun with the WAV format being released in 1991, but a CD held more data than most hard drives.


In the tech world a trend was accelerating that would forever change the music industry: hard drive price per megabyte:

1988 – $16
1989 – $12
1990 – $9
1991 – $7
1992 – $4
1992 – $2
1993 – $0.95
1994 – $0.81
1995 – $0.68
1996 – $0.21

1 CD worth of drive space would have cost $10k in 1988!

By 1994 it was $526. By 1996 you would have spent around $135 for 650mb of HD space.

But the 650mb CD cost pennies to manufacture and sold at retail for $20. Plus they were proving to be pretty durable and CD-R’s were coming down in price. CD was the digital format of necessity unless and until something drastically changed with either the bandwidth needed or bandwidth available.

Don’t forget: bandwidth = moving storage.  aka Storage = static bandwidth.


So the same software engineers who came up with lossy JPG image compression were called upon to investigate audio and video compression. Their goal – to get the file size small enough for 1990’s bandwidth.

For music testing they used contemporary music (Suzanne Vega) and developed what they called perceptual coding.

Perceptual coding targeted all the parts of mixed music that were open to perception beyond the main focus of the song (melody and beat): things like transients, pan/placement, room and soundstage size, timbre of instruments, blending of sounds, that type of thing.

Remember hi-hats? MP3 crushed them into non-existence.

These audible cues are all present in mixed music but are unmeasurable. They are all nearly impossible to explain and communicate verbally or through written language.

You may know it when you hear it, but it’s not possible to explain further in a controlled, consistent, scientific way. No matter how descriptive you are, the next person will use completely different terms.

This listener confusion and lack of terminology made the engineers jobs far easier. They found that they could remove nearly 90% of the audio data before testers consistently identified a difference using their flawed testing methods.

A few 90’s mp3 engineers, not audio engineers.

 

This gave them the green light they needed. The MP3 specification was published and started to catch on. A 50mb WAV file was now a 5mb MP3 file and life was good!

It was true – at first listen, they almost sounded like the original. It took a more critical listen, or repeated listens, to pick out the degradation, and over time many came to hate the MP3 sound. Casual listeners didn’t care as much, but professionals, musicians, and audiophile-types rejected MP3 as lossy.

Sound quality was secondary though. Finally computers could play near-full quality music! Digital file-based convenience had arrived.

Finally modems and networks could send the files around! Finally bootlegging was convenient!


MP3 was quite popular in it’s time. Nearly every device made could play MP3 files, including phone’s, video games, TV’s, and wireless speakers.

Early MP3 player

But MP3 had no artwork beyond a tiny cover. No lyrics. No credits. No booklet. No shout outs. Nothing to attach to. It was highly bootlegged and for some time, recorded music lost all value.

It also required almost no people to distribute or sell. Nothing to sell & nothing to move = nothing to promote. Nothing to invest in.

Bootlegging ran rampant and the music industry practically folded. Most musicians stopped making money from their music.

Limping along, MP3 got one quality improvement in 2009 (aac), but it wasn’t going to help much. By 2014 streaming was stealing the download market.

Streaming takes everything bad about MP3’s and extends it to the rental model.

Now you own nothing. You just pay a subscription to hear degraded versions of your favorite songs in between commercials. Don’t pay up? No music for you.


The current streaming business model is unsustainable for both the license holders and the license purchasers, but in this post-fact world it really doesn’t matter. Quality has been trumped.

Lossless formats like FLAC, around for years, finally took off around 2016, giving critical listeners an open format to rally around. Buying hi-res music from sites like HDTracks ProStudioMasters was a thing again. Hi-res hi-fi DAP’s finally emerged in many markets. 24bit FLAC continues to offer higher-resolution files with no DRM.

Bandwidth/storage is now available. I have 60+ full lossless albums on a card the size of my pinky nail. I have the bandwidth into the house to stream 24bit audio, if anyone offered it.

One can only hope that the MP3 era is the last time we accept such a massive downgrade in quality.

#SaveTheAudio

 

Team Eye vs. Team Ear Part 1 – TV Sets Through History

il_340x270.469154305_ttbe


Recording allows us to store and replay something. It is the first time-shifting. It’s been around for ~ 200 years but it wasn’t until the last 100 that they really started making tangible progress for commercial applications.

Images were first. Then sound. Then moving images. By 1930 they were all combined into “talkies” – narrative moving pictures with synced sound.

These independent technologies progressed through the 20th century: Phonograph was invented and perfected to bring recorded music into the home; TV was invented to bring moving pictures into the home. The march of progress was obvious. Each new era brought better tech with better specs.

Today we are going to look at the advancement of the TV set over 70 years.


 

[infogram id=”aHKoRm07UAUDaUs5″ prefix=”Yry” format=”interactive” title=”TV Set Historical Averages”]


You can see that overall screen size has risen linearly while pixel size has grown exponentially. Weight has come down and price, after adjusted for inflation, has come way down.

How do you think TV set history will compare with music playing equipment? Stay tuned to this series to find out.


 

Sony-KV-1220U-photo-1-logo-shp-525-WP

Vinyl Sales Continue To Grow

More vinyl albums were sold last year than any year since 1991. This is because of quality not irony.

The mainstream music world has moved to streaming, locking in low-quality expectations. Streamers don’t even talk about sound quality anymore because it’s the elephant in the room.

Vinyl sounds better than streaming. 24bit digital sounds better than streaming. CD sounds better than streaming. Even radio sounds better than streaming.

Vinyl delivers artwork, lyrics, and a physical connection to your beloved music like streaming cannot.

Plus you own vinyl forever. Not a single penny needed in the future to hear it again and again.

Progress Being Made Towards High Definition Audio

Finally! The recording and music industry is discussing standards and practices for proper high-resolution audio, which will hopefully lay the groundwork for mass acceptance by consumers.

This is 20 years past due. Better late than never.

All of this vibration won't compress to 256k.

All of this vibration won’t compress to 256k.

The various entities are having trade shows, panel discussions, demonstrations, and are talking standards, consumer education, and branding for music of all qualities.

Here’s an overview of the talks taking place.  Here is another tech overview. Here is a mainstream consumer view on it.

The keys here are A) provenance and B) final resolution.  Provenance covers the origin of the recording while final resolution is what you are actually being sold. How it got from A to B is important when pushing quality and asking consumers to buy something that many have devalued.

The industry has recommended the following grades that they are calling Master Recording Qualities:

  • MQ-A: From an analog master source
  • MQ-C: From a CD master source (44.1 kHz/16 bit PCM digital), could be up-sampled
  • MQ-P: From a PCM master source that is 48kHz/20 bit PCM or higher (typically 96/24 or 192/24)
  • MQ-D: From a DSD/DSF master source (DSD encoding)

Similar to the 3-letter code on vinyl telling you if it’s sourced from analog or digital, this should inform the consumer and allow the labels to sell guaranteed quality.

This could be a big step towards the mainstream adoption of high resolution audio (HRA).

 

Note: This has nothing to do with Meridian’s new encoding format dubbed MQA (their acronym for Master Quality Assurance, I think) which is built to be a replacement for PCM, the encoding used for most digital audio. If anyone ever records in MQA, it could perhaps become MQ-M above.

Loudness Wars Research

I’ve really been exploring my music collection lately* and along with the playback quality of the PonoPlayer, I’ve learned some things about the hated concept of “loudness wars”:

 

  1. I can really hear it start up in the early 90’s with hard rock records from G’NR, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, those types. There is a noticeable louder average volume but there are still dynamics. Instruments still sound natural, just amplified and then compressed analog, and the final mastering mix is pumped up. I suspect they tracked with tons of headroom and let the mastering engineer pull most of it out and boost away since the CD format could handle it. You can still hear natural distortion and plenty of natural room interplay.
  2. By the late 90’s, dance music (especially from the islands) was pumped and exploring automated multichannel compression provided by digital recording systems. Most American rock was dying at the hands of rap-rock and drum replacement software.
  3. By 2003, software that could do extreme compression and trickery was prevalent, so it ends up as artist and producer choice, and most went all-in with digital and robotic, looped music makes headway. MP3’s and iDevices took over the listener market in these years.
  4. By 2010 releases appear about 50% louder than their early 90’s counterparts, and laptops are on stage as well as in the studio, and most people have accepted the sonic downgrade masked as the modern sound. These years appear louder and bigger at first, but immediately tire your ears and upon further listening the mp3 “scratchy paper bag” sound is heard. Trickery is the main game in town in all popular genre’s.
  5. In 2015 the general public seems to be open to an improvement, even though most new releases are very much guilty of being too loud. No one is impressed by music (mp3) anymore. It’s everywhere, plays from anything, and usually sounds horrible. My generation is burdened with the “oh yeah” whimsical look when someone mentions sound quality.

 

Luckily, I’m not the only one noticing this. Check out this amazing ditty about the last 30 years in music creation:

 

 

*After spending the last couple of years exploring online collections, I’ve discovered that I have a pretty amazing collection of over 3000 pieces of music built over the last 35 years and that it’s primary problem has been it’s total lack of organization. Only 5% made it into iTunes as lossy files. So I’ve begun to put all of my digital music into a single lossless collection and am also finally building a computerized index of my vinyl.  When complete, I’ll have a single database of all the music I own, and that’s very exciting to me!

 

 

Rip 2.0

cdstack1

Hello old friends, it’s been awhile

Rip your CD’s again.  Do it right this time.

Most of us went through ripping phases where we created gigs of MP3 files and either traded back in our CD’s or hid them in the basement. We’ve been walking around living with MP3 for over a decade now, either from our files or streaming from the network.

When we ripped our CD’s, we wanted the music from the CD in a small file. The file had to be small because our hard drives were small. A CD holds 0.7 GB, so if you wanted to rip 50 CD’s without compression you needed 35GB of space for them.

If you wanted to rip 300 CD’s like me and you didn’t have 200 GB of space for music – and no iPod/iPhone could hold that much anyway – you made them MP3’s.  Nearly all of us did it. And we could appreciate our music, understand it, sing to it, dance to it, enjoy it in MP3 format. It was the iPod decade.

But this is the thing — that MP3 is actually just a photocopy of the real thing, and the second you go back to using the original CD quality file (16/44) you really hear it.

If you have a real good player, such as the PonoPlayer or Fiio, you can really hear an advantage at 16/44.

So I’ve begin the process of ripping my favorite CD’s again, this time as 16/44 FLACs, loading them onto my DAP, and am finding myself enjoying these CD’s more than ever before.

Then there comes the moment that has come to define this process: I have the FLAC’s next to the MP3’s and I can delete the MP3’s forever, just a bad memory of years past. Like a faded photo of someone you didn’t like much anyway. See ya! Got a better version now!

F1.medium

 

BTW – this image of the spaghetti — that’s the various parts of the brain used to process sound and vibration.

That’s why when you feed it degraded quality it knows, and it affects your psyche in ways they have yet to trap for.

 

The New Kid On The High Resolution Block – MQA

Well this is getting interesting. British company Meridian has come up with something that goes beyond just a format or delivery mechanism, and also involves lossy compression, yet it still looks like a potential future audio technology we need to pay attention to.

Continue reading

Pre-CD Grandeur

Great write up on a classic opera recording finally being released properly in HD/Hi-Res audio:

Rediscovering Maria Callas in High-Resolution Audio

Internet experts continue to argue and debate about hi-res, but music lovers that consider themselves real listeners (not just background music) have heard a nice improvement when going to 24 bit for a long time now.

The Diva

The Diva

Music Hoarding Future

OK I’m doing some serious internet-style scientific research (aka asking friends) on the future of buying music, discussed in this post. Here’s a few ideas so far on the future of music product packaging:

Idea 1-  The “All of the Above” set — for $40 you buy the release and receive a vinyl record, a CD, and download codes for both HD and MP3 digital files. Nothing new here but it’s a nice spread of the existing formats and gives you redundancy and multiple formats for different locations, loaning out, etc..

Idea 2-  The “21st Century” set — for $30 you buy the release and receive a Blu-Ray disc and also download codes for all of the content. The disc contains the stereo mixes and 5.1 mixes (if available), and plays in a standard BluRay setup. The data portion of the disc contains the HD and MP3 versions of the stereo mix. The download codes are for those without a BluRay drive in their computer. This gives you a new format (5.1) and doesn’t include any vinyl or CD’s. The entire thing can also be sold w/o a disc (dl only) for $20.

Idea 3- The “Sponsor/Crowdfund” system — this isn’t a product per say, but a new twist on an ancient system for funding music. For maybe $100 you become a sponsor/superfan/investor/subscriber for the artist for a period of time, maybe 2 years. In that timeframe you receive a few things: their new musical output for nearly free (maybe just cost of materials and shipping, or free online); free tickets to any of their shows in your region (you will drink alot that night and the venue will make money); some usual fan club stuff like stickers, swag, and behind the scenes stuff, and a more personal relationship with the artist.

An artist would have fans that were invested in their art and it’s output, and the fans just wouldn’t renew if they weren’t feeling the value of that relationship. 10k facebook likes could be 1 million dollars, which would fund many mid-sized artists for 2 years and cover the shipped product, and doing 25 shows around the country has the potential for 400 fans per gig before you even show up.  Those people bring friends, the place is packed, everyone makes some money, and music lives on (and everyone gets laid that night :-)).

Also, because you want them to succeed and make more music for you before your subscription expires, the artist is invigorated by this direct correlation between output and revenue and the fans demand excellence. A really amazing release where the artist pushes farther and better than before would up their capital immediately. Lazy and misguided artists would find their capital dwindling.

 

Each of these have pros and cons but I thought it would be fun to start thinking about such things.

 

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

Portable_78_rpm_record_player

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.

 

Modern Music Consumption

I’ve been thinking about music distribution and consumption alot lately. Being a lifelong music consumer and a music producer for the last 10 years (and then spending some time in FM radio before that), I’ve been in various roles in this industry.

When I read articles covering the front lines of piracy, copyright infringement, royalty disputes, streaming rates, etc. I always try to compare their examples back to my own daily reality.

For instance, I believe that a music consumer faces more choices now than ever before. Before the late 90’s the choice in America was which mall to drive to, park, and run into a record store to find?(or more than likely not find) the release you were seeking. But it was the mall and this was before the internet, so you usually found something else to do (like sculpt your mullet in the mirrored glass of the hot girl store).

Today this process doesn’t involve maps or mullets. The power to search servers literally planet-wide for a song (which is now just a “file” like any other) then decide to pay or not is the critical decision not faced by prior consumers.

Imagine if the store next to the record store in the mall had more new releases, a more in-depth back catalog, more information on the artists (approved and unapproved), and NO cash register? See, in this store everything is free, brought to you by someone who gets paid for every person that looks into the store! Continue reading