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

 

Curse Breakers

When something’s wrong in #TheLand, who you gonna call?

Curse Busters!

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Just a little update on the details of the Cleveland Curse. I hate how it’s sold as nothing but losing teams for 50 years.

The Curse is that Cleveland has come with some amazing teams over the years, but just can’t get that ring/trophy in the modern era:


The Cavs – 46 seasons in NBA = 5 division titles – 3 conference titles – 0 championships

thurmond

Early Cavalier greatness by Nate Thurmond


The Browns – 66 seasons in NFL = 12 division titles – 11 conference titles – 4 championships (last one 1964)

The Browns – 4 seasons in AAFC = 4 division titles – 4 conference titles – 4 championships (last one 1949)

plus 16 players in the Hall of Fame, 4th most in the league.

graham

Otto Graham invented the modern QB position and won several titles.


The Indians – 116 seasons in MLB = 5 league Pennants – 2 championships (last one 1950)

31 players in the Hall of Fame

feller

The great Bob Feller.


 

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

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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.


 

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Language Splits; Music Unifies

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Interesting article here about how humans use music psychologically, and how we have evolved with the help of music.

Language divides us into groups and parses all types of information into specific, tribal code.

Music on the other hand, unites us as one species, something that our brains require to comprehend and solve our daily problems.

“Music is the greatest mystery” – Charles Darwin

Very interesting read. Especially how Darwin tried to explain music creation by natural selection and was puzzled. He resorted and retired with the generic “music is the greatest mystery”.

 

 

Remember WFNK Funk Supersite!

There were several branding attempts on WFNK.com over the years, including the “funk e-griot”, “funk supersite”, “no fake afros”, and the not-so-modest “center of the online funk universe”, whatever that means.

The point was to use this new technology to build a community of music lovers around the expansive, beautiful exploration of anything funky, by any means necessary.

Many trends have come and gone since WFNK.com launched 18 years ago, but the goal remains the same (even if diluted through the current anti-facebook format): WFNK.com brings the funk to the masses and represent the funky music and lifestyle that is key for survival on planet earth.

Plus we do it daily and free of charge, and have for almost 2 decades now.

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To that end, a new project has started that should really hit that target: I’ve begun plans to digitize and videoize some of my record collection in HD. It’s a time consuming process and they could always pull it down so it will be 1 song at a time, but it should be fun to hear and see the true vinyl and discuss the funk within.

Maybe we get some contributors to the cause, or link to some existing stuff where people post funk vinyl playbacks?

I know of some new places on the web that will be cross-posting this stuff, and if y’all tweet or share it that would be all we need.

 

 

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!

 

 

Recording Quality Rule Of Thumb

Allow me to speak some truth about the recording arts — the overall quality of music production has been going down since before I started. I’ve done nothing to reverse the trend ;-).

This is due to multiple factors not least of which is the march of technology and the reduction of overall recording budgets bootlegging has brought us.

How much would you spend on producing an album that most of your actual fans won’t even purchase?

Continue reading

40 Years of Recorded Music Distribution

Vintage baby

Vintage jams

Quick history lesson —

Digital audio made it’s public debut with the CD standard known as “RedBook”, started in 1978. A collaboration between Phillips & Sony, the CD standard was originally going to be 14bit/40k with error correction and ship on a 115mm disc, but Sony pushed for 16bit/44k with no error correction. A VP of Sony also pushed to increase the total run-time from 60 minutes to 74 minutes, warranting the disc be enlarged to 120mm, and ruining Phillips’ early investment in a plant already printing the 115mm discs! Corporate intrigue for sure.

The RedBook standard was finalized in 1980 and CD players started hitting the shelves by 1982. To this day RedBook is owned by Phillips and costs a manufacturer over $300 to download the specifications. Why the name RedBook? The engineers compiling the specifications did so in a red binder. Engineers aren’t known for creativity ;-).

In the marketplace, the new digital CD’s had numerous advantages over the two existing analog formats of vinyl albums and cassettes. To list a few: no dust problems, little heat warping, less vibration-induced skipping, couldn’t unwind or tangle, vertical storage no longer needed, no replaceable stylus, not magnetic, liquid-proof, instant auto cue. Also there’s the indefinite duplication with no loss in quality on the copy or the original – that’s a huge advantage for digital.

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But CD’s did not clearly “sound better” than vinyl when all the other issues were addressed. Most of those issues are considered interference or physical media issues. None of them address how the actual recorded music is presented. All music sounds best live, as the microphone is not able to recreate our auditory system. Did CD’s actually sound “better” than analog once playback and media issues were addressed?

This has been a sticking point since the early 80’s. Many of us could hear something missing from CD’s, and it wasn’t just dust and motor noise from the turntable. It was the stuff that is nearly impossible to describe in words: reverbs and decays were different, the timbre of cymbals, voices, and stringed instruments were different, the mid-lows weren’t as warm or round, delays didn’t seem as present or accurate, the stereo-width wasn’t as obvious, the center was hard to find, the top was very pronounced and brittle, some complained of a boxy sound or a digital graininess.

The 1980’s didn’t just bring CD’s to market, it brought us personal computers and the early internet. By 1990 the same group that was working on the JPEG digital picture compression standard starting working on a media compression format. MPEG was designed for squashing CD-quality audio files small enough to stream on dial-up modems. By the mid-90’s the mpeg format was in use and competing with other early digital audio formats like RealAudio.

Now that the music could be squashed to an easily tradable size, piracy ran rampant. The late 1990’s brought us mp3 (after mpeg-1 and mpeg-2). Napster, peer to peer file sharing, bad DRM attempts (security on audio files), and ultimately led to a rapid decline of the music industry. Everything was being stolen and fewer hard copies were selling. The new mp3 files were perfect for trading online, and the novelty of this new convenience outranked the decline in sound quality. “Good enough” became the standard for sound quality.

Into this disaster stepped Apple, wisely seeing an opportunity to re-invent the personal audio player like the Walkman/Discman (stealing that market from Sony) and re-invent the record store (taking that market from traditional retailers). First they launched the player line “iPod” with it’s easy loading from your computer, then they opened the new record store with legal $1 songs and no-hassle purchasing.

Apple bet right and it took off (I bought music from there for a few years). I kept thinking I was getting ripped off though — where’s the hard copy with artwork that I can love, lose, find, loan out, break and buy another (or not?). All gone. Instead of our society going “paperless”, we went “album less”, to our detriment. We have been buying and streaming low-quality audio for over a decade now, and not always because of technical limitations.

That’s the end of this lesson, kiddies. The point here is that if you grew up in the mp3 era, you were listening to a compromise built on top of a compromise. 24bit HD Audio should be a revelatory listen for you.

 

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.

 

R.I.P. The Father Of The PC

Missed this one over the holiday, but on July 3rd, Douglas Engelbart died at the digital sounding age of 88. He was not a household name, but amongst PC history geeks he’s about as important as they come. By 1968 he had worked out the ideas behind and the rudimentary technology to operate: the mouse, teleconferencing, hypertext, word processing, hypermedia, object oriented file management, and collaborative real-time editing.

It was not vaporware – the demo he did has been renamed “The Mother Of All Demo’s” and would be a pretty high-tech thing to pull off even in 2013. Read more and see the demo here.

If you are reading this you owe alot of that credit to the visionary genius of Mr. Engelbart.

The True Story of the Iraq War

RC: 1100: Phone call to Prime Minister Spidla of the Czech Republic to inform and to thanks for support of Iraq policy. OVP

US Vice President Dick Cheney makes a phone call to Prime Minister Spidla of the Czech Republic to inform and to thank for support of Iraq policy, 3/19/2003.

Here’s a behind the scenes account of how, why, and who the US ended up in a huge war with Iraq 10 years ago.

Guess what – no surprises here. This guy is telling the truth almost exactly as I remember it, and myself and similar minded people were telling everyone that would listen how this was going down. Anyone who tried to shout down or otherwise invalidate my opinion, read it and weep. Over a hundred thousand dead. Weep, indeed. Continue reading

Happy 30th Internet!

Happy belated 30th birthday to the modern internet!

In 1982, Vint Cerf and his team at ARPANET had a problem. They had roughly 1,000 servers spread around america trying to network with each other. The addressing and networking protocols they were using were failing at that scale. So they set out (with US Department of Defense funding) to develop a far more robust protocol.

Their new system was called TCP/IP and it’s the core of the internet to this day. They installed it and turned it all on January 1, 1983. Now the network could scale, and it grew quickly through the 80’s.

By 1989 a professor named Tim Berners-Lee was finishing up his design on the http hypertext protocol so he could share his editable research notes with colleagues overseas. This became the www by the early 90’s and we haven’t looked back since.

30 years of internet and look how far we’ve come. Try to imagine the internet in 2043!

World?s Oldest Digital Computer Resurrected

“The Witch” is back.?‘The Witch?: World?s Oldest Digital Computer Resurrected.

I think this video story misses some key historical points. In the late 1930’s you probably know there was some serious war action popping off. Germany and Japan were making their moves, and the side with the Brits, American, & Russians were very busy responding. The need for more calculations than an army of nerds with notebooks could provide quickly, so as to build bigger and cheaper bombs and drop them closer to their targets, advanced the designing and building of huge automated-calculators.


witch-computer-2012


Running scenarios and models all night with no human error, no exhaustion, and no outside?coercion?possible was the draw. The Germans were well stocked with IBM (american) counting machines and some very advanced early digital calculators of their own design called Zuse. The Brits and Americans had two early computers (Colossus and ENIAC, respectively) and were working sorta-together to design new machines. Combine this with the encryption/decryption battle raging between Germans and Poles (early software hacking) and you have the birth of the modern computer age.

[That’s right, the friendly computing device you are reading this from can be tracked back to humans needing faster ways to kill people. Fun?]

The first real computer as we know it (a machine?that could run multiple stored programs) was finally invented around 1949. They were still as big as a room, but could now accept a program along with it’s data and return results, and then load up another program to run without a complete rebuild.

This is where the computer in the video profile fits in. It crunched numbers (albiet slowly) for atomic models/programs through the early 50’s then was replaced by faster hardware, just like all of it’s?brethren?since. Ah, progress. But before you laugh at the old folks just remember that they cruised the space shuttle around the planet with less computing power than the 1st iPhone, and they walked on the moon with less total computing power than a Pentium 1. I doubt we could do either anymore.

The iPad of 1997

It was called a Newton, it had a kindle-like screen, handwriting recognition, great software, and was still smaller than a modern netbook. Check out this in-depth look at using the final model of the Apple Newton, circa 1997.

The guy is right – there’s things it can do that 2012’s iOS, Android, and Blackberry’s still can’t do.

Then again, sitting next to a loaded iPad 3, that Newton does seem about as powerful as a legal pad. Progress in fits and starts.

Upon Jobs second time running Apple, he killed the Newton product line and started work on the iTunes/iPod/Pad/Phone lines that drove the company to dominance.

Hopefully developers in and out of Apple are still working on transferring some of those great Newton features into iOS. I’d use the handwriting recognition, the text markup features, the data handling, even the play dial-tone feature on my iPad.


MessagePad2000

Tech Titans

Market speak for computer companies during my geek-life:

My first glance:

IBM = titans, Microsoft = nerds, Apple = hippies, Atari = artists

My High school years:

IBM = clumsy old titans, Microsoft = business nerds, Apple = misguided hippies & artists, Atari = dead

My College years:

IBM = business nerds, Microsoft = titans, Apple = hippies on life support, NeXT = futurists


BeOS


My 20’s:

IBM = researchers, Microsoft = clumsy old titans, Apple = colored plastic iMachines, NeXT = artists, Be = futurists

My 30’s:

IBM = futurists, Microsoft = business school, Apple = titans & artists, NeXT & Be = long gone


My point? I’ve seen most of these companies grow, shrink, dominate, follow, and some even disappear.

It’s been a wild ride to watch, and as Apple sits seemingly at the top of the mountain again (arguably the first time since 1978) I felt the need to show this cyclic nature.

You younger geeks out there can perhaps get a little context.

October 1972: Birth of the Packet Man

Packets, packets, got your packets here!


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Going way back into the ‘what is the internet?’ file, here’s a great article about the actual first pitch and live demo of the internet (then called by it’s acronym ARPANET).

Yes, it did crash once. Yes, some people left the event convinced the technology was going nowhere. And yes, it was another decade of development before anyone outside of computer science departments heard about it.

I wasn’t even born when that demo took place, and wouldn’t get online for myself until 1986. Hard to believe the net has been in development for 40 years already!

For comparison: The machine they used to get online in 1972 / What I used to get online in 1986.


arpanet_interface_message_processor-4e98f4e-intro


 

Creator of the WWW Credits Steve

Us internet old timers know the story, but with Steve’s passing I thought it important to point out that the guy who developed/invented the world wide web, HTML, and the http protocol back around 1990 claims he couldn’t have done it without his NeXTOS UNIX workstation, the core of which today is available to the world as MacOS X.

His name is Tim Berners-Lee and he’s a fascinating figure. With the dream of getting professors and grad students a quick, free method to share research he used his new Unix workstation with it’s developer-friendly OS to hash something out. He mentions the machine came pre-configured and ready to work, something that is often dismissed as ‘mere marketing’ by Apple-haters these days. By removing frustration and configuration, even on a UNIX workstation, Steve Jobs enabled users to become world-changers.

If Steve Jobs put the electric starter on the automobile 100 years ago Android and Windows carmakers would explain that getting out of the car to crank is more customizable and allows you to configure your exit door, your cranking speed, and your re-entry door. Apple locks you into one choice, starting the car quickly and easily. After all, you have places to go and worlds to change.