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

 

Proper Digital Audio Playback

The PonoPlayer got it right, whether they survive as a business or not.

There is a right way and a quick way to build a digital audio playback circuit.

The following information comes from Charlie Hansen, the designer of the Pono audio chain, and the excellent review by Tyll Hertsens. I’m putting it into it’s own post so other audio device builders get inspired.

  • EVERYTHING from DAC to jacks is DC coupled. No coupling caps anywhere.
  • Everything is TRULY balanced from the DAC chip all the way to the output jacks. There is no virtual ground needed, as we have true +/- rails from the switching power supply. The raw rails go to SUPER low noise regulators, of which there are a TON.
  • The audio circuitry has their own dedicated +/- regulators.
  • All of the digital circuitry runs off of positive voltage only
  • Three or four separate dedicated regulators there — one for the audio master clocks, another for the digital side of the DAC chip and a third for the rest of the digital circuitry.

“NOBODY builds portable players that are fully-discrete, fully-balanced, and zero-feedback. This all makes a huge difference.”

— Charlie Hanson of Ayre Audio

That’s what happens after the DAC, in the analog stage.



Regarding the file quality and DAC behavior before the analog stage, we have more details from Charlie:

 

  • Brickwall filtering creates massive time smear.
  • The human ear/brain is already known to be exquisitely sensitive to time smear.
  • DBT and AB/X are really only sensitive to differences in frequency response. Using these tools for anything to do with music is like pounding a nail with a screwdriver. Ain’t gonna work.

Specifically, one of the massive benefits of a higher sampling rate is not extended bandwidth.

Instead, it allows for gentler filters to be used.


In the case of the Ayre QA-9 A/D converter, the anti-aliasing filters have zero ringing or time smear for double and quad sample rates. (Only one cycle of ringing for single rates — something has to give somewhere…)

When Ayre designed the PonoPlayer’s audio circuitry, we held back nothing.

We gave it everything that could fit within the constraints of the budget, physical space, and battery life.

Every single secret we discovered went into the PonoPlayer. The digital filter is taken directly from our own products.

The Problem With Experts Indeed

studio


Interesting take over on RealHDAudio taking shots at a music producer.

I read and replied to his post but it’s not publishing over there, so here is:


vocalize


Timing, timbre, and room sound.
Timing, timbre, and room sound.
Timing, timbre, and room sound.

These are things that you can’t scope or measure or chart. These are the basic building blocks of music.

This is why record producers, mastering engineers, and artists with a good ear are the experts here.

They are the only ones who understand mixed music. Not test tones. Not frequencies alone and isolated. Every bit of music is a complex stew of multiple tones, some heard, some hinted, some masked, some over/under ringing.

If the people in the studio that did the session say the 16/44 version sounds the best, then it does. If they prefer the 24/88 or 24/192 versions, they are the best. Creators privilege. Only they heard it as it was being made, aka what it originally came from. (They can all be different mixes of the song too, they don’t have to tell us that.)

The rest of us just take it for granted and enjoy it. Unless you are making the mix, or making the original sound being mixed, you are a secondary expert.

Mixed music is a tremendously complex collection of tones, all affecting each other, all containing critical timing, timbre, and layers upon layers of complex sound.

That’s why it’s so powerful. The power of music is ignored in these scientific discussions. If the 16/44 version moves you emotionally, that’s good. If the 24bit version does it more so, it’s a better version. Whichever packs the most in it is the best.


Even for sparse music, acoustic music, whatever…. more data = more sound = more vibration = more enjoyment. It’s simple.

I do think there’s a limit though. I hear some advantage at 24/192 on very good rigs but it does not make 24/88 or 24/92 sound degraded.

The pointless 16/44 is the degradation that we need to remove.


 

Too many people these days try to hear with their eyes and understand with their computer screens.

 

Which is music?

This:

beatles_wave

Strawberry Fields Forever, by The Beatles

 

or the audio track in this?

 

Lalo’s Classics

Great performance from the BBC big band directed by Lalo Schifrin, one of my favorite 20th century composers.  This guy has written some amazing soundtrack music over the years — Dirty Harry, Bullitt, Mission:Impossible… just to name a few.

Big bands are pretty amazing, especially in person. The power and precision is addictive and you just feel good watching a big band work through their numbers.

If your town offers anything like this, I recommend checking it out. Scrub up, put on a nice suit, grab your lady, and take her out for some drinks in style.


Lalo Schifrin and BBC Big Band

You’ve Got To Give Them What They Came For

Sun


One of the baddest underground funk bands ever was SUN, live from Dayton, featuring a hint of all of the greats rolled into a sound all their own.

The vocals were amazing, the band was TIGHT, they could swing, they had latin flavor, they could throw down with horns or without… I mean, they are true legends with very little fanfare.

Check out some outstanding Sun selections in the OhioFungk playlist:

 



 

Ohio Funk Dosimetry

300 tracks and counting….. ALL OHIO FUNK youtube playlist

curated by ezraz the enfunklopedia

to lock you on the 1

and cool you out in these stressful times

Works nice in shuffle mode.


Featuring

dayton83_grupp

Dayton

Bootsy

Bootsy

sun

Sun

heatwave

Lakeside

roger

Roger

aurra

Aurra

Ohio Players

Ohio Players

slave2

Slave

theisleybrothers-20121101

Isley Brothers

faze-o

Faze-O

Dazz Band

Dazz Band

platypus2-sp

Platypus

 

10 Months Late

david-bowie-last-panthers-blackstar

1947-2016


It’s hard to believe that David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie’s surprising death is already 10 months ago.

Days before he passed he promoted a strange tangle of an album called Blackstar, complete with a new band, a new sound, and an ominous video about dying.

Then he died. I couldn’t listen to the album even though I was fascinated by it’s story.

McCaslin

Donny McCaslin

Our hero knew he had a fatal illness but shared it with almost no one. He hunted the New York nights for inspiration, finding it in Donny McCaslin, the saxophonist that Bowie always wanted to be. McCaslin had a progressive jazz combo that Bowie caught one night and immediately set up a meeting.

Walking into this jazz band’s practice space, Bowie opened up his notebook and proceeded to free jam song ideas and melodies with this band of guys he had never played with, much less met before!

It was all recorded, and it was so magical that it was almost released as the album! Can you imagine, the ultimate improv?


bowieblackstar0801-616x440


But business and engineering interests prevailed so they set up recording sessions to properly render their ideas.

Like his previous album The Next Day, this was a secretive project. The result was completed and shipped as Blackstar just two days before he met his demise.

And it has sat on my Pono in hi-resolution for 10 months now.

Too painful to press play and accept that this was Bowie composing very concisely about his pending demise.

I say go for it. I did.

It was amazing. His whole career, his whole artistic essence, facing the end and needing to channel this into music. It’s utterly devastating.

He can do anything. Accepting his ultimate fear leaves him fearless.


blackstar


This might be his best album ever. I shit you not. It has no hits or singles. Nothing fashionable. Nothing I can scream out to you in small pieces.

It only is the most perfectly sad moment of music I’ve heard in quite some time.

 

Anti-Audio Tech Sites, Pt. II

ak380

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.


pioneerxdp100r

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?


sonynwa26

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.


pono_both

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!

Not Over You

Michael Ivey

Michael Ivey


Basehead was a glorious thing back in the day – the most indescribable band in era of genre mashing. Basehead was an outfit somewhere between hip-hop and country-western, and believe it or not that blend has aged well due to the good writing and consistent performances throughout.

Leader Michael Ivey sing-raps in a slow drawl about the blues in life – women, friends, drinking beer – as the band glides through the changes on mostly acoustic instruments. Many songs build to a slow-boil, balancing tension and melancholy in his pleadings, fully aware that they are breaking new stylistic ground.

They did 2 great albums in the 90’s – Play With Toys and Not In Kansas Anymore, then dropped out for a while. Ivey did manage another hard to find album after renaming the outfit DC Basehead but to my ears some of the initial magic was gone.

Here’s one of the many great tracks from their debut:

Looks like they reformed with some original members for a 2007 album called Rockalyptic Music under the name Basehead 2.0.  The samples sound pretty good, I might have to pick that up.

Required Viewing – The O’Jays Crush It

Daryl Hall has reworked his show Live from Daryl’s House and it’s still one of the best music shows going. Originally set in a barn on his rural property, it was a jam session sleepover recorded for our entertainment. He brought all sorts of artists out to the barn – indie and legends – and they would jam on a few songs, hang out, and generally just celebrate the awesomeness of great live music.


screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-3-08-56-pm


It’s now in a club-like setting up the road, featuring more space and better sound and still without a crowd. The end result feels a bit more like a throwback recording session than a jam session.

Which is awesome, of course.

The sound is perfect and there’s a little more space to stretch out and get more camera angles. It feels as though the musicians present the songs better than in the barn, perhaps because it’s more obviously a TV show and recording session. The barn was charming but had a private rehearsal feel.

I’ve watched several of the 2016 episodes now and the highlight has to be The O’Jays. They are funny, have a monstrous catalog, and of course Daryl is such a disciple of the O’Jays sound that it all fits perfectly.

The Original Tech Get Down

There are moments when things change in music. Something new is done. The future is revealed.



The 1980’s were about fusion. Not the pop and art fusion of the 60’s, or the jazz and rock fusion of the 70’s, but a new tension between technology and humanity.

Synthesizers were smaller and becoming digital, which would bring their price down drastically. Electronic drums were available. Digital effects units could bend signal in new ways.

Hip-hop was on the forefront of this tension because of technology. First the mixing board with crossfaders and mutes, then the sampler and drum machine. These were new technologies that the masses used to make a new style of music, a cutup of old and new.

The late 80’s project Tackhead was fearless. It brought together sampling, looping, hip-hop, and live playing like no one before. Since then several have moved into this direction, including my crew with 2MERICA, the amazing Headtronics project with Freekbass, and others.

Tackhead Live 1989

Taking the stage with instruments and gadgets and building something relevant that night is a small but growing art form. In some ways these guys started it all. Awesome stuff.

Wimbish is currently touring the states with Living Colour.

 

Time of Storm

The Law and The Fist

By Krzysztof Komeda, 1964


 

Before a sunrise

from the four sides of the world

from the rowan paths which forests have been burnt

and wind is tired

Right and front where crops are not harvested

with blackened hawthorn

A day is rising

The sun will hug us into it’s hands

and look! The soil is heavy from blood

It’ll bear a field of grain again

Golden dust

Women will let us dwell again

and look! They’ll laugh through the tears

Someone will play and we’ll dance again

Maybe already

In a day or two

After a night, or three

But not today

After night, after day

You will see

A rising dawn

Breads will be baked in stoves for us

and look! There was only smoke

Flowers will cover scars of war

Tinted with roses

New children will be born

and look! They will laugh, from us

remembering that lousy time

Time of storm

In a day, or two

After a night, or three

But not today

After day, another day

You will see

A rising dawn

 


This is the theme song to an amazing polish movie called Prawo i Piesc, translated The Blood & The Fist. If you can find it it’s a hell of a flick.

Kris Komeda, composer

11 Years Gone

2mericaAXE


11 years ago, Me and My Friends made some of music. Well we had been making it for years but we finally released something in 2005.

The magic of the internet allows it to still be available. This was the 1st 2MERICA LP, followed up by Sensors&Switches&Buttons in 2007, and the Mass Entertainment EP in 2012. The 3rd and 4th are both in production. 2MERICA is EVERYWHERE U R.


Everybody’s Got A Thang

The firstest and bestest version of the P-Funk Thang as it was forming in 1969.

 

Bernie isn’t there yet, neither is Tiki, Bootsy or Garry. But the Parliaments are out front and a very early version of Funkadelic is just blaring away behind them melding together 3-4 songs and 3-4 pieces of then unreleased songs.

The Parliaments have their dance moves down and their parts all together, no lie!

Eddie Hazel, Tawl Ross, and Billy Bass are forming a pretty nasty string section. The drummer and keyboard player here were soon replaced. George is from another world.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 10.45.33 AM

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.

dictionary-page

 

 

Lossy Is Hurting Us

 

Cedar_Point_beach_view_from_Sky_Ride_2013_resize

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

 

Windows Phone_20130621_02520130621194354

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