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

 

Anti-Audio Tech Sites, Pt. II

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I’m an A&K and I take sound quality very seriously.


To followup on my rant against american tech sites like Ars Technica and how they completely ignore hi-res audio, I found some proof.

Check out Crutchfield, an american stereo catalog retailer. Crutchfield is known for their help in installing and explaining tech. They have a whole section of their catalog for portable hi-res music players.  They have a nice selection of the current products available to US consumers: Sony, Pono, Pioneer, Onkyo, A&K.


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Pioneer making it’s pitch with a good hi-res DAP that looks like nothing else.


Head over to arstechnica.com, a site that reviews the newest tech gadgets, and search the site. You will not find a single mention of any of these devices (except for takedowns of the Pono). No reviews, no press releases, no mention in other articles. It’s as if they don’t exist.

It’s not that they don’t cover audio or mp3 players: search for headphones and get 2000 results. search for mp3- 970 results. iTunes? 8410 results.

Pono? 5 results, including 3 for the same review slamming it as ‘snake oil’. All the other DAP’s combined? 0 results.

Why do self-professed gadget lovers ignore this class of gadget. Is it plain ignorance of good sound or is something more nefarious at work?


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Sony has multiple walkmans, including Hi-Res models starting around $300


It’s not just Crutchfield, either, an audio specialist. Check out Amazon.com and you’ll see hundreds of MP3-only players under $100, and at least 40 different models of hi-res players starting at around $100.


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The PonoPlayer is the only one noticed by Ars Technica, and they shit on it by saying it sounds the same as an iPhone with a radio shack switcher, and by the way no one needs lossless music either. Snake oil! Audiophiles!

The Power of Labels

Degrade -d  

  • treat or regard with contempt or disrespect
  • lower the character or quality of
  • reduce to a lower rank, especially as a punishment

Synonyms: demean, debase, cheapen, devalue, shame, humiliate, mortify, abase, dishonor, dehumanize, brutalize, lossy

 


Original   

  • present or existing from the beginning; first or earliest
  • created directly and personally by a particular artist; not a copy or imitation

Synonyms: authentic, genuine, actual, true, bona fide, kosher, archetype, prototype, source, master, lossless

 


Do you think mp3 would be nearly as popular if it was called the devalued version or dehumanized version? 

Do you think lossless would be ignored by the masses if it was called the original version or the true version?

Of course not – this is the power of labels. Marketers and politicians understand this and use it against us. We must see through the subtle brainwashing, this trick of words.


TLmatched

This is not an audio wave but it caught your eye didn’t it?


Lossy sounds like a cool nickname on purpose. It’s all marketing. They figured out how to sell us less for the same and have been doing it for nearly 16 years now.

The various limitations requiring degradation of our fucking music have expired – leaving only greed.

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Lossy Is Hurting Us

 

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Summer fun in full resolution: Cedar Point, Ohio looking out over Lake Erie.

 

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If you stream music or buy lossy files, here’s your version of summer fun. Close enough, right?

 

If you own a ponoplayer or another fancy modern 24bit digital audio player, you can experience this. Full resolution for all the music you love will return you to the quality you deserve.

 


Note 1 – I bet your browser showed the compressed image first. That’s why data compression exists – to get the file to you faster. Once they are both loaded, was the wait worth it?

Note 2 – Image is not audio. Audio has more detail, more nuance, and packs far more emotional cues than visuals.

#SaveTheAudio

 

 

Youkill Audio Youtube

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Lossless data on the left. The right side is a visual representation of what we’ve been listening to for 20 years now.


Deets on Youtube’s audio handling:

Audio is streamed at either 128k or 320k mp3.

Everything defaults to 128k. You can only get the 320k audio stream by selecting the HD video quality. Some videos start in HD but most don’t. It’s also hard to embed HD youtube into other sites since it seems to default to the basic stream.

It appears there’s no FLAC streaming allowed and no lossy streaming of any kind.

The 320k mp3’s can sound decent, especially coming from 128k, but once you go lossless you won’t want to listen to lossy anymore.


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Which is better? Neither. The compression on the left appears to have slightly fewer artifacts but neither is close to the original.

Making Records In The Age of Pono

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Great blog post covering Pono and the trends in music from a well known music producer. There is a lot of work to still be done in ending the era of bad sound quality but I like how he acknowledges that Neil Young has been leading the fight with a Pono-shaped machete, hacking away at low quality playback habits wherever he sees them.


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Youtube’s Audio Specs

Finally got my answer about Youtube’s audio specification — there isn’t one, really.

The only have a video policy.  Audio stream quality is a part of the video spec.

So here’s the details:

  1. Audio streams as 128k or 320k MP3 only
  2. 320k is only played during videos streaming in HD of 720p or higher
  3. The video must start in HD to get the 320k audio, and most players will not reload the higher audio stream if the user switches video quality during playback.

The end result is that most of youtube is streaming 128k mp3 audio, aka garbage.

The high quality portion of youtube can get 320k MP3 to you but it’s not automatic. They have to force the player into high-quality, which is against the youtube platform defaults.

Low-vs-High-Quality-Image

The FLAC folks on Youtube? They force the 320k MP3 and perhaps they are encoding the video with a high resolution flac as the audio source? Or they are just misrepresenting themselves?

The two I contacted about their sources never answered me, so I don’t know. From what I’ve read youtube cannot stream FLAC or even lossless audio.

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And yes, 320k MP3 sounds pretty good, it’s almost CD quality. But there’s still digital loss, artifacts, and a fatigue from listening.

CD’s usually push about 800k bitrate at you, so the perceptual coding at 320k sounds pretty close to the original.

But once you up that lossless original to between 2000-6000k (24bit audio) you really hear it pop and become realistic as compared to 320k.

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Relatively accurate representation of some of what is LOST: things masked by louder sounds, aka the feel of the space as the note plays.

Here’s to hoping youtube allows lossless streaming soon, or at least defaults to 320k mp3.

 

The Danger of Perceptual Coding

Perceptual coding is responsible for data loss that is greatly misunderstood and perhaps even dangerous to society.

What is perceptual coding ? It’s a data compression concept used in audio, video, and streaming technologies.

 


 

send-to-zip

ZIP is a lossless compression like FLAC. To permanently reduce media size, MP3 and AAC use perceptual coding to determine importance of data and permanently reduce it.


 

Why does perceptual compression exist? Native media files tend to be large. In the 90’s it was difficult to move these files around because they were too large for the network speed and storage prices of the time. Extreme data compression was needed.

A CD might hold 10 songs at 40mb each for a total of 400mb. How to get that 40mb song file small enough to fit through a dial-up modem and play on the other side in real-time?

The answer was perceptual coding, the trick behind lossy compression. It has been used for decades in voice transmission compression. You have to go inside the audio data and start throwing sound away.

 


 

PerceptualCoding

PerceptualCoding.pdf


 

 

But what sounds can be thrown away? How do you go inside of a mixed piece of music and delete things? And how far can you go before people notice a quality drop?

Perceptual coding can’t do things like delete the 2nd guitar solo or reduce the backing vocals, that can only be done in the mix of the song.

Perceptual coding also can’t make the song acoustic or shorter in length, those can only be done in the mixing stage.

What perceptual coding does do is analyze the sounds in the song and prioritize them. The programmers determined which sounds are more important on the scale.

First it locates the lead sounds – the main instruments/voices in the material.

There might be 5 primary sound makers in your song, let’s say drums, bass, guitar, keys, and voice. Perceptual coding manages to quarantine those and only removes small amounts of their identifying data.

This allows a listener to quickly ID the melody, the lyric, the artist, and the song since these primary elements are only slightly degraded.

 


 

lossy


 

But you can’t achieve 90% overall data reduction by only slightly degrading the material. Perceptual coding achieves the brunt of it’s loss from outside of the primary sounds.

This includes everything not inside the primary sound including the echoes and delays of the primary sounds. In fact all reverbs, delays and room sounds are attacked and removed. Other things outside the primary sound are timbre characteristics, breaths, string and instrument noise, room shape and activity, and soundstage timing cues. All of this is shorthanded to “the tone” and “the soundstage”.

By masking and/or deleting all kinds of sounds that they believe are unable to be reliably perceived* by listeners they achieve massive size decreases.

*What the smart DSP programmers behind perceptual coding understood is that while people can easily hear this loss in the music, most can’t identify it reliably and consistently using the same terminology, and good luck having any of this come out in the whacked-world of ABX listening tests.

If most can’t identify what is gone, but can identify the song and sing along, the codec is considered a success. And MP3 was and still is a huge success by those metrics.

But listen to Ghost in the MP3 to hear an idea of what perceptual coding takes away from your music.

 


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The destruction of all of the natural movement, transients, and timing cues has a long lasting effect on our music, which has a long lasting effect on our psyche.

The things that perceptual coding deems unnecessary and inaudible are in fact the critical emotional elements of the music.

This amounts to a perceptual loss in all modern music and is the reason behind two trends: 1- robotic voices with fake instruments, and 2- hyper-fast switching of sounds from disparate sources with heavily active pan and audio limiter settings.

When your end result is forced to be artificial and limited in size and range, hip producers know to co-opt the weaknesses and make them strengths. The more artificial and huge you can sound the better.

No point in producing realism when there is none at the distribution.


 

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An approximation of lost data from this image after lossy compression.

The Resolution Wars

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Visual representation of “lossy”. These pixels are what is lost when this image is compressed using mpeg.


MP3’s are dying, thank god. MP3 is a transitionary technology that has overstayed it’s welcome. If you believe lossy MP3 is all you need for music, goodbye. Come back when you want to listen. Yes 320k is better than 192k or 128k. Yes it’s getting close to CD quality. It’s still less than half the data (Not to mention CD is 37 year old digital technology!). MP3/MP4/AAC is a lowest common denominator. It has no place in a discussion about quality.

CD quality is 600-1400k so you can just get CD quality these days, even streaming with Tidal. Once you leave the world of lossy and get to real resolutions, you won’t go back.

Confused with all the combinations of bit depth and sample frequencies available: 16/44, 24/44, 16/48, 24/96, etc.?

So what do you need?  Avoid buying expensive 16 bit. Don’t pay new prices for it, unless it’s the best that material ever hopes to be released at. Demand 24 bit versions and pay full price for 24 bit versions.

  • 24/44 is awesome enough for The Beatles and The Cars, two amazing bands
  • 24/88 and 24/96 are the emerging standards for hi-res audio
  • 24/192 is the highest resolution anyone works at and is starting to become popular

I haven’t heard 16/48 in 20 years but I can assure you that 16/44 is not able to deliver the full audio signal -if- the material is from higher resolutions or analog masters.


 

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One part of one inner ear – the most amazing vibration detector I can imagine. Every component does multiple tasks with such detail and subtlety that some of our finest machines could only hope to match it some day.


To spell out audio resolutions in human terms: you need at least 18bits of space to store the data and you need about 30k of undamaged samples per second.

If they had a format of 20/60 it would have been perfect for CD, but they didn’t, so we have to overshoot a bit since the format is just the container. The music is the content and you don’t want the container smaller than the content. In 1977-78 when the CD was being designed, this was a necessary compromise for reasons that have long since expired.

This 18/60 threshold is about the total of what we can detect as humans, so to me, 24 bit is the indicator of true high-resolution audio.  Higher sample rates might give you slightly more detail and audio data, but to my ears 24 bit is the primary upgrade.


 

There's a lot going on inside your ears.

At a micron level inside of the human inner ear. There are thousands of these tiny hairs positioned into arrays at multiple depths, each able to detect certain frequencies and timbres. Each hair sways, the entire mechanism can move, and opposite this area there is a mysterious fluid that appears to defy physics while it adjusts it’s location and density based on the sound. Some researchers believe this fluid performs a liquid-based form of compression/limiting/expansion as well as EQ and is controlled by still unknown forces. That’s serious resolution right there – self-organizing liquids and moveable micron-microphone arrays?  320k/sec is not holding that, nor is 1400k/sec.

Spotify Wants Your Profile For The Highest Bidder

While Pono makes news with their righteous promise to give you free content upgrades for life, Spotify is making news with an update to their privacy policy that informs the users of their service – particularly the free subscription tier – through a million words of legalese that they are agreeing to share their contact, photo album, location data, browsing history and Facebook profile in order to listen to music on the service.

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Give your life away to hear rented 10% music files?  Haha yeah right.

Even previously happy Spotify customers are canceling subscriptions over this new (yet totally predictable) revenue stream.

Low-vs-High-Quality-Image

 

I’ve been saying for a couple of years that the streaming services aren’t going to make it. I know they continue to get more and more subscribers, and more listeners. More 10%’ers.

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But they can’t sustain their business because there is no margin. They can barely pay the crazy-low royalties now, and they won’t be able to pay the increased royalties in the near future.  Advertisers will ruin the service trying to get those clicks.

 

 

You simply can’t give access to the world’s entire catalog of music for $0.30 a day, there’s no margin there. There’s too much good music out there with more being made every day. This model will not sustain.


 

Buy your music people, whether it’s vinyl or digital download, and try to buy the highest quality you can get. The rental model is a disaster in the process.

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Spend the $120/year that used to go to Spotify on buying legal retail music and trading with your actual friends and the music industry will survive and prosper.

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Own your own music in full quality, non-tracking, files. Stop renting 10% versions for your digital sanity. Actual social media is enjoying music with other people.

It’s Bandwidth, Stupid

Everything digital boils down to bandwidth

  • how much you have
  • how much can you use
  • how fast the data can move through it

Bandwidth comes in several forms. The network connection is the obvious one because we already use the term bandwidth to describe this. This determines how fast one computer can communicate with another computer through a network.

Storage space is another form of bandwidth, if anything needs to be stored. Even streaming files through the network will require some local storage and files saved to your device require space. There’s the raw space, and also the read/write time of the storage volume – both are a form of bandwidth.

There’s plenty more places to measure bandwidth inside of, and plugged into, the computer such as the motherboard busses between the various chips, the ports in and out of the computer, and the video output. All of these have a known bandwidth and engineers must take this into account when designing circuits.

If it's digital, it's a "computer". This shows the motherboard and the components of the early CD player.

If it’s digital, it’s a “computer”. This shows the motherboard and the components of the early CD player.


 

The entire digital audio format debate boils down to bandwidth.  How much sound bandwidth can your body pick up?

37 years ago when Phillips & Sony were working on the audio CD they knew that bandwidth would be a major issue. Digital audio generated very large file sizes and required lots of bandwidth to reproduce accurately. 50mb was literally HUGE in 1978, and that’s only 1 5-minute song on CD. This is a time when $500 hard drives were 10mb! The draw to the optical disc was the huge storage space it provided on cheap plastic discs.

Which brings us to the bandwidth of the disc and file format selected. The new CD design could hold roughly 600mb of data. What resolution to store the audio as became the driving force in finishing the standard, with engineers deciding a nice compromise was a 44k sample rate stored in 16bit files, allowing for about 60 minutes of runtime per disc, or just enough to hold the president of Sony’s favorite symphony (a rumored requirement of the new format).

This is the thing: bandwidth = cost.  More money gets you more of it, especially in components. Want a motherboard with higher bandwidth? Costs more. Want a chip with higher bandwidth? Costs more. A port and cable that can move more data? Costs more.

So the engineers and designers of the CD knew there were better quality resolutions than 16/44, but the overall cost of making a player to play higher resolutions, and total bandwidth of the storage for them, just wasn’t there in 1980’s tech.  Early digital production systems did use 20bit audio with sample rates from 40 to 88k, but they were expensive and specialized, not for the consumer.

 


 

 

By the 1990’s the price of higher-bandwidth components had come down enough to attempt a format upgrade, but like many things in the 90’s, the internet changed everything.  Instead of consumers moving to a new optical disc holding higher-quality files and played through better players (SACD), the trend was to smaller, mobile files that could be moved around the internet and played on smaller and smaller devices.

The visual engineers who developed the JPEG compression format stepped in and put together an audio specification for shrinking CD-quality files down to something 90’s era computers could handle. This became known as MP3, and at first it seemed magical. How could that 50mb song from a CD become 5mb and play back almost perfectly from my hard drive? Impressive.  Overall sound quality was deemed “good enough” because of the huge boost in convenience mp3 provided.

As we lived with MP3 and listened closer, many consumers were less than impressed. But time marched on, napster was built to trade illegal MP3, iPod shipped, then smartphones and tablets, and MP3 became the new consumer format in the early 00’s.

This, of course, is not the first time we consumers have taken a quality downgrade in the name of convenience.

 


 

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The deets on bandwidth used. Netflix HD shows how much more video (TV+film) is valued compared to music. Netflix will be 4k soon, perhaps the 7th upgrade to consumer digital video as compared to no upgrades to digital audio.

 

Now is now. Almost all limits of bandwidth from the last 30 years are gone, as is evident with Netflix streaming everywhere, people running very fast computers packed with memory and fast storage on broadband network connections. There are now millions of servers talking to hundreds of millions of devices, each little device packing more bandwidth than a $50,000 computer from 1980.

The bottom line – We no longer need to reduce the art to fit the distribution. If an artist makes a record at 24/192 you should be able to buy it, store it, and play it at 24/192.  If you want a lesser version for a lesser device/use you can easily make it yourself.  If the artist makes the record at 16/44 that’s fine too, buy that one.

The point is that reducing from the audio master was only done in the name of bandwidth restrictions that are now gone.

 

We can store 100's of full-quality albums on this tiny card.

We can store 100’s of full-quality albums on this tiny card.

 

 

 

Tidal Shows The Ghost In The MP3

This is a good start. Here’s Tidal trying to explain simply why MP3 sounds worse than CD quality. They want $20/month the stream CD-quality to you, so they will strongly market against lossy compression.

How great can music sound? from TIDAL on Vimeo.

 

But it is also a bit misleading because so much music is recorded in 24bit and then down sampled to CD quality. I do believe that 16/44 is officially the start of “high-resolution” these days, because MP3 lowered the bar so much.

16/44 is just the start of high-definition (it is high definition from 1980) and if people are willing to pay $20/month to stream it, I’m all for it. If they ever add a radio to the PonoPlayer I would stream 16/44.

The Tidal proposition – $120/year for random-generated CD-quality music. That’s what you’d pay for 7-10 HD album downloads, not a bad deal.

Apple’s Upcoming Music Announcement

Will it have anything to do with sound quality?  I doubt it.

Apple likes to roll out new products with slick presentations touting all of the improvements in the product, or how the new product improves upon an existing solution.

This new rumored streaming audio service (a re-branded Beats Music service) looks like more of the same – random, computer generated playlists or hunt & peck streaming at a compressed rate, trying it’s damnedest to sell you that same compressed copy to own.

No one wants to buy those compressed little MP3’s when you can stream them. If they were smart enough to offer an HD version of the song I bet people would buy more when streaming. I know I would.

A new walkman sounded better than the old one. What happened?

A new walkman usually sounded better than the old one. What happened?

Since iPod shipped 14 years ago, I can recall one single upgrade to the sound quality in Apple’s iTunes ecosystem. This was around 2009 when they introduced the “mastered for iTunes” program, that allowed you to deliver files in 24bit lossless but they would not sell the HD version, they reduce it to 320k AAC (apple’s version of MP3) and sell it for $1.29 a track instead of $.99.

All of this is why I have a PonoPlayer and haven’t looked back. iTunes was always a toy musically, and since they’ve made absolutely no effort to really improve sound quality in 15 years, it’s even more of a toy.

The sad thing is how popular it is, with millions of people listening to tinny, distorted audio devices playing horribly compressed files. None of it is necessary anymore but it lives on as “The modern way”.  A huge decrease in quality in the name of perceived convenience.

Breathophile

I love air. I really enjoy breathing, and I do it everyday.

It’s what drives me and is perhaps the most important thing in my life.

I don’t want it constricted or contain some odor of unfamiliarity.

Chiang Mai Open Sewer

I won’t accept known poison unless, of course, I like the way it feels.

This is why it’s important to keep it clean. This is why I am a breathophile.

You can accept poor smelly air or you can move to somewhere better.

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I love music. I really enjoy making it, and I play it every day.

It’s what drives me and is perhaps the most important thing in my life.

I don’t want it constricted or contain some odor of unfamiliarity.

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I won’t accept known poison unless, of course, I like the way it feels.

This is why it’s important to keep it clean. This is why I am a audiophile music lover.

You can accept poor quality mp3’s on phones or you can move to somewhere better.

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The Ultimate (Final) Digital Music Collection

I’ve got my DAP that plays everything wonderfully. It’s got expandable storage and prices are low enough that I think it’s time to abandon the iTunes catalog I’ve spent 15 years curating to the smallest size possible and build a full-quality digital music library to last me the rest of my life.

This will be moved from my various hard drives to MicroSD flash storage using 64gb and 128gb cards. I am going to start at ~ 1.3tb and grow from there, achieved with 10 128gb cards.

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The tech is all simple and affordable. I’m looking at $40 for a multi-slot card reader and storage book for the cards. The reader plus my laptop will give me 3 slots for easy file management.

The cards themselves are priced about $60 for 128gb right now, so I’ll eventually spend about $600 on media. For $650 and lots of feeding discs into the ripper I will have all of my digital music in a single booklet, forever available at the highest quality I own.

Here’s the challenge, I call it my #1 modern problem — how to index/organize the cards?  I have been thinking on this for weeks now, and have asked several people’s opinions, and here’s a chart laying out how I see my various options:

How to organize 10 terabytes of music?

How to organize terabytes of music?

 

As you see, I’ve already excluded 2 methods A & B, leaving 6 more suggested ways to file all this music away. Each has pros and cons and none are scoring ahead of the others based on listenability, findability, and variety.

I will post more on this as I work out this problem. What are you thoughts on the best way to organize over a 1TB of music?

Also, see previous post on this topic of new storage space and great Rip 2.0

Project Overview: 

Combine 1000+ CD collection with a 20gb-sized MP3 collection, ripping the CD’s as 16/44 FLAC, (replacing any lower resolutions), purchasing some new 24bit albums, and storing it with a single index across 10+ MicroSD cards. Managed either manually or with JRiver/Ponomusicworld client.

The PonoPlayer contains 64gb of fixed memory plus the MicroSD card slot. I plan on using the internal storage as my “favorites” library and then I can load an additional separate card for separate occasions. If I’m stuck without a card I will still have over 100 of my favorite albums on the internal storage.

 

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

The Ghost in the MP3

Excellent work by Ryan letting you hear an approximation of what they are removing from MP3 files when doing “lossy” compression.

This is what the MP3 programmers deem unimportant in your music. You can play the video with it’s own lossy audio, or go here to hear the full version of what they pull from your music to make MP3 files.

Most of what is cut out is spatial — reverbs, room sound, delays, decays, fade outs, dynamics, lots of pre-delays, layering of sounds, attacks, breathes, etc..

This is the movement and the emotional content of the song. The interacting layers is the kind of data that computer programmers (and digital internet babies) can’t quite measure, so they disregard it. That’s scientific method at work – if you can’t measure or control it, disregard it.

This is important listening and will help you to understand that hearing music is more than frequencies.

I would love to see someone do this type of experiment with a 24bit mix and a 16bit mix of the same music.

 

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Don’t take away my reverb and delays! The power of Bonzo is a result of decay, delay, and room sound.

Pure Sound Quality

Quality:

  1. GoodMusic as MP3  =  sounds pretty good – get your jam on!
  2. GoodMusic as 16bit FLAC  or   CD  =  sounds better – damn listen to that bass! – time to dance – pure and clean and timeless
  3. GoodMusic as 24bit FLAC  or  Vinyl  =   oh wow am I in the studio? Is the artist in my room with me? Am I crying? This is outstanding and I don’t want to go back.

vs. Convenience:

  1. GoodMusic as MP3  =  easiest and everywhere
  2. GoodMusic as CD  =  barely surviving in cars and clubs
  3. GoodMusic as Vinyl  =  you are a manual no mix/playlist throwback and can’t take that mobile at all, totally dusty and crusty
  4. GoodMusic as FLAC   =  as easy as MP3 if you load onto your player, because it’s not going to stream reliably anytime soon

 

If you are willing to swim back up that river just a little bit – to owning and carrying your own music on a little player – you can enter a whole new world of sound quality and not lose much convenience at all.

 

gotta do what you gotta do

gotta do what you gotta do

Bring On The Competition

Can’t wait for that Pono?

Can’t handle the power of the triangle?

Here’s the Fiio X1 finally available in the US at around $100, and that ain’t too much to pay for some serious hi-res music playback. Pono’s are gonna be about $400 and probably not 4x better sounding, since they are basically similar in important specs.

You know that iPod and that phone just don’t sound that good. Investigate with your own ears.

Walkman IV – The Return of Fidelity

[deep ominous movie trailer chord]

Walkman 1 (1980) – by Sony – stereo cassette – 2 headphone jacks – powered by 2 AA batteries for runtime of 20 hours.

sony_walkman

Finally private jams!

Walkman II (1984) – Discman by Sony – compact disc – 1 headphone jack – powered by 2 AA batteries for runtime of 30 hours.

d111-1

Finally digital private jams!

Walkman III (2001) – iPod by Apple – digital file player w/max resolution of 16/44 – 1 headphone jack – powered by rechargeable internal lithium polymer battery for runtime of 10 hrs per charge

ipod-first-gen-5gb-accessories

Finally bootlegged private jams with no skipping!

Walkman IV (2014) – Pono Player – digital file player w/max resolution of 24/192 – 2 headphone jacks with 4 output configs – powered by rechargeable battery for runtime of ? hrs per charge

pono_ponoplayer

Finally master-quality in my ears like the artist intended!

You know I’ll have a review as soon as I get mine.


walkman

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.

 

Buying Musical Product – What Do You Want?

boombox


So the CD is dead, the mp3 is going nowhere fast, everyone seems to stream or listen to their mp3 libraries, the HD Digital files are just starting to gain traction, and analog records keeps chugging along towards their 100th birthday.

What’s a music lover to do with their money these days? Many that I know go to shows whenever possible, buy vinyl, both new for around $25/LP and used around $2/LP. Many pay Apple, Google, Spotify or whoever to buy or stream an mp3 version. One strange dude I know still goes to BestBuy to buy new CD’s. Indie shops and truck stops still have random cassettes.

I’m getting a first generation Pono Player any day now, so I’ll be soon buying some HD digital albums to expand on the 5-10 I own now. I’ll also be re-ripping some of my favorite CD’s as 16/44 WAV’s to load onto the Pono Player – it’s high-end amp and DAC should make them fresh and new after years of mp3’ing my ears to death.

Figuring out what to buy from the world of music (and sadly, the fraction of it that is available in HD digital) will be tough but I’m all about getting as close to the “album” model of listening – put it on and let it play, in order, with no random access cueing, for 12-20 minutes, with an endless side. Then flip the side and play the rest.

Then’s there’s the issue of storage…. do we want nearly permanent discs of plastic, to be read by either vibrating stylus or laser light, for our precious music? Do we want to own nothing and just rent everything? Somewhere between those two extremes lies the answer.

More to come on this topic soon…

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.

[table id=1 /]

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.

 

Righteous Audio – Finally!

pono_main


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.


 

050415-PonoCables-600


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.


pmLStXf


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.


ResolutionBandwidth_sta


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

The Challenge of Uncompressed Audio Formats

Good overview of the situation I’m heavily interested in (see “Save the Audio” section) – the battle between quality audio and convenient audio. Since the late 90’s most of us have accepted worse-sounding audio in the name of convenience, whether it be small mp3 files downloaded or even smaller mp3 files streamed – both pull more and more important audio out of the worlds music.

Neil Young’s Pono Service Illustrates Hi-Def Audio’s Problems.

pono-player-high-resolution-audio-1200x0

Save The Music One Hertz At A Time

OK I have been listening to mp3’s for about 15 years now, and I have to say I’m ready for the next digital format. I want 96k minimum range (192k preferred) so it almost sounds as good as my albums. I want 24 bit so it makes my modern multi-speaker systems work at all volumes. I can cheaply have enough storage to handle it. I want my music’s emotion back!

WOODSIDE, CA - DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)

WOODSIDE, CA – DECEMBER 15: CEO of Apple Steve Jobs sits at his home in Woodside, CA on December 15, 1982. IMAGE PREVIOUSLY A TIME & LIFE IMAGE. (Photo by Diana Walker/SJ/Contour by Getty Images)

I primarily listen to funk, rock, hip-hop, soul, and only a bit of classical, and I miss the full range of Bootsy’s bass, Eddie’s guitar, and Al’s voice. Friends who listen to opera, voice and classical probably avoid MP3 already, but the real culprit is the concept of “CD-quality”. This equals 16/44, and this is simply not sufficient in 2012. It was not even sufficient in 1973 when everything was analog. Only the convenience and laserness of CD’s convinced us that this was about as good as we were going to get. Real technical limitations of 1982 CPU technologies made it the best we could get cheaply.

This was 1982 people. The mp3 format is built on top of the CD format, and audibly it’s a disaster. We have nearly regressed back to the dynamic range of a 1920’s turntable. All those compressors (yeah you dubstep) just make it worse. Remember when the meters really moved?

If you could measure music’s emotional content in a data unit it would be clarity through it’s full range. The days of compressions built on top of dead formats should end.

michell_gyrodec_mki_courtesy-Michell-Engineering

I support any movement to improve the sounds entering our ears. All we want to hear is the same thing in the Steve Jobs photo above.

#SaveTheAudio

 

I Support Pono

98547-full

Neil getting full balanced goodness into his ears

I love this idea.

Neil Young finally got his wish to attempt to restore audio fidelity to our lives. They are calling the thing Pono and most of the press reports on it present it as a battle with Apple’s iTunes world (which is currently living on the 256k mp4 format).

But most modern ears miss the real battle Young is waging – Continue reading

Better 3 Years Late Than Never?

sony-nw-99-02-500x500The music industry, ever pro-active and cutting edge, has finally decided to try and sell music in a digital file format.

I have heard some good and many bad things about this new scheme (mainly that it won’t do much to stop digital bootlegging, which has already won) that they are calling “Echo”.

What do you think, would you pay $18 for a couple hundred megs of a downloadable music with full copy-protection and other big-brother tactics? Read more at Rolling Stone.


[including original comment from Wonder B, posted 02-02-2003:

Hell no!!!!!!! (Score: 1)
by WonderB (FunkMeUp@damnyourspam.com)
 on Feb 02, 2003 – 05:11 AM
(User info | Send a message) http://
I really must be an old fart because I can’t imagine paying for virtual music…
I have been raised on vinyl and buying something that is not real, meaning that if you will have to burn the CD yourself, is something that I just cannot even understand…!
I don’t even buy the CDR’s that are for sale by a lot of artists who do not have a recording contract so I won’t buy the stuff especially if it’s money to be given to the record industry which denies the funk so much…
By not signing any of the artists I love I cannot see myself giving them more money for them to put out more American Idol and stuff of the same ilk (note that I am being very polite on the subject, a thing that would totally change if we had this conversation live in the open! LOL)
NO sincerely I think that the record industry is trying to jump on the bandwagon which left years ago so their try to catch it up is just plain ridiculous I think.
Imagine how much more profit the industry could get from this way of selling???????? No CD’s to be made? no artwork to be printed? No jewel case to put everything in, and more than that, no costly distributors… Hell I think they still would have the better end of the stick!!!

Wonder B