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

 

 

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.


 

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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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Science On My Side

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Another advancement in the understanding of how we detect sound: timing is more important, and more accurately detected, than frequency. #savetheaudio

This flies in the face of hi-res skeptics who believe our horrible ears could never hear beyond that CD-quality standard from 38 years ago.


It points to my favorite quote regarding this debate:

“The whole point of science is that most of it is uncertain. That’s why science is exciting–because we don’t know. Science is all about things we don’t understand. The public, of course, imagines science is just a set of facts. But it’s not. Science is a process of exploring, which is always partial. We explore, and we find out things that we understand. We find out things we thought we understood were wrong. That’s how it makes progress.” – Freeman Dyson, 90, Mathematical Physicist

and shows me that the established science will eventually catch up with what musicians and music lovers have known inherently for a long time. Some day they will be able to accurately measure what and how we hear, and perhaps even what music does to us.


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Promises Fulfilled

I don’t think I ever posted this – this is from a guy that spends his life testing high-end audio devices – things like $15k Amps and $5k headphones. This ain’t my market as you know.

He ordered a PonoPlayer and by the time it arrived he was so sick of the hype, the politics, and the nerd battles raging online about Neil Young’s latest business venture that he skeptically pressed play.

Read his review to get a real nice impression of the impression this device leaves on people. Even the professionals.

He also has the technical chops and the connections to get into the nitty gritty of what is going on when you press ‘play’ on this odd shaped thing.

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Image from Inner Fidelity

How You Hear Music

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Listening 101

1. Directionality – Where is that sound coming from? Where exactly is that hi-hat sitting in the mix? Is the band in front of me or all around me?

2. Delay/Roomspace – Am I in a large room, small room, outside? Was this music recorded in a large room or small room? Was the recording room rounded, square, long?

3. Quality/timbre of instruments – Is that an electric guitar? Do I like the tone of it? Do I like that keyboard patch? How about the singer’s voice?

4. Stereo soundstage – Do I hear 2 guitars doubling each other, or 1 guitar with a wide delay? Is the singer front and center, or is he singing 2 parts, 1 left, 1 right? How wide are the drums set in the mix?

5. Timing of musicians and recording – Do the various delays work together musically, or are they clashing and changing the feel of the song? Are the drummer and bass player locked in? Is the 2nd percussion player ahead, behind, or on the beat?

6. Quality of recording – Is this the best version of this song? Is the distortion in the track intentionally added by the artist or is it in the format?

7. Clarity and breadth of EQ – Are most of the pleasing frequencies present, and are the harsh, brittle frequencies diminished?  Do the various instruments and voices blend and work with each other as layers, or do they cover each other?

8. Noise floor – Is there a hum or buzz in this recording? Is it from a bad recording, or a loud instrument, or something wrong in my system?

9. Phase – If things were recorded in phase you don’t notice it. If things are out of phase with each other, various comb filtering and aliasing artifacts appear in your music.

10. Digital loss/compression – Has this file been reduced from the original? Did they remove things they hope I can’t hear to make the file smaller?  Are there compression artifacts in the mix.

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There’s 10 things to listen to without even thinking about frequency range. 10 things most internet audio experts never take into account.


Becoming a better listener makes you a smarter consumer. It will drive you to enjoy your current collection again and find new music that moves you.

It will also hopefully drive you to push for higher quality. If you must stream, go 16/44 lossless. If you collect, get as much hi-res as possible and play it for as many people as you can.

#SaveTheAudio

New Listening Test – A Proposal

It’s time for a better listening test. It’s time to use our understanding properly.

A proper listening test…

  1. needs to use all available sensory data from a modern smartwatch/ wearable CPU device
  2. needs to be portable and self-contained to allow for mobile use/multiple playback locations
  3. needs to account for the musical style preference of the test subject
  4. needs to stress half-song units as it’s shortest measurement, rejecting fast-switching between samples
  5. needs to be blind without altering the listeners normal and natural listening state
  6. needs to avoid comparisons between a memory and a real sample
  7. needs a moniker as easy to remember as ABX or Blind

 

Why is this needed?

Continue reading

PonoPlayer Review Is Posted

I have a few revisions to make but I thought I’d get this thing posted so I can start sharing out the link next week. Enjoy my long-form run through what a PonoPlayer is, and why you might want one:

http://wfnk.com/blog/ponoplayer-review/


Just a symbol or a way to hear cymbals again?

Just a symbol of hype or the return of hearing cymbals?

 

Praise The Wire


In our rush to modernize and upgrade the conveniences in life we can forgo quality for convenience. Often times the better way gets out-marketed and replaced by the new way, and life goes on.

Wireless digital was the new thing in the 1990’s. In the oughts it was deployed everywhere -from offices to battlefields and mountain summits. By now we simply expect most things to be wireless, because wireless is how we do it now.

But when it comes to the world of pro audio, the wire has not been replaced, at least not yet. A wire is called interconnect and it’s going strong.

Continue reading

Righteous Audio – Finally!

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


 

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

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

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


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

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

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


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Coupla random opinions on the matter:

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

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

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

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


 

Totally Wired

Totally Wired

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.

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4k UltraHD Visuals Coming Soon – Where’s The Audio?

TV’s advance in resolution again – HD, 1080p HD, and coming soon 4k UltraHD. This thing can push 2160p to your eyeballs but it’s gonna cost you $5k for the small one, and $6k for the larger.

So this is the what, 3rd major format upgrade for TV in 15 years? Meanwhile we downgraded our audio format in the last couple of decades.

It’s a crying shame that music – which goes anywhere while encouraging activity, concentration, expression, and emotional fulfillment — is completely overlooked in the digital age in favor of again increasing our television performance.

Watching screens generally discourages activity, concentration, expression, and emotional fulfillment.

Shows where our priorities (ahem profits) are.

 

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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.

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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