Monday, December 31, 2012

Surface to Air 2012 Retrospective

Today Surface to Air celebrates its one-year anniversary. The site was originally founded to share lessons learned guiding discerning listeners in the transition from the physical music past to the weightless digital future. But over the course of 2012, our focus broadened to join the discussion on the many social and business issues surrounding the evolution of music.
I have often been asked what is the editorial stance of Surface to Air. With a year's worth of writing behind me, I can safely answer that this site stands for three things: 1) good science; 2) solid technique; and 3) reasoned opinion. That said, here is our 2012 index.

Good Science:

Solid Technique:

Reasoned Opinion:
But sometimes, articles are simply human interest stories:
Thanks for reading. Looking forward to continuing the conversation in 2013 and beyond.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #49            

Artist: Andy Williams
Title: The Andy Williams Christmas Album
Genre: Vocal/Christmas
Year: 1963

Among my many $1 estate sale finds in 2012 was this Christmas classic. Opened, but still in its shrink wrap, its pristine condition implied it could not have been played more than once or twice. This title may be the cleanest used record I ever bought and a welcome addition to the weightless digital holiday collection.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Nickel Ain't Worth a Dime Anymore

The urge to believe there is a magic formula for success, and that it can be deduced from studying past hits, is powerful. Strategic Communications Group CEO  Mark Hausman believes he has distilled The 3 Hallmarks of Exceptional Content. Columnist Marcel Williams is convinced he knows The Essential Features of a Hit Record. Their two cents on the subject may be worth a nickel, but as Yogi Berra observed, "a nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."

These checklists, while almost intuitively obvious and rightly containing features correlated with past successes, fail immediately as predictors of the future by being neither necessary nor sufficient. Their authors cannot prove that all the characteristics are necessary for success; i.e. eliminating any one of them will guarantee failure. (Mr Williams even admits as much.) Nor can they prove that their list is sufficient for success; i.e. a work possessing all these characteristics may still be a failure for lacking other elements.

The lists highlight statistical regularities—good for documenting the past, lousy for predicting the future. In The Financial Regulators' Dilemma economist Edwin G. Dolan illustrates how statistical regularities do not always reflect causal relationships using the so-called Nickels Paradox:

Suppose the Federal Reserve observes a strong past correlation between the number of nickels issued by the U.S. mint and the rate of inflation. Does that mean restricting the issue of nickels would be a sufficient instrument to control inflation? Of course not—not if pennies, dimes, bank balances, and money in all other forms were issued in the same quantities as before. All that would happen is that the previously observed correlation of nickels with inflation would disappear.

How does the Nickels Paradox apply here? Suppose all music producers take Mr. Williams advice to heart, and 100% of future tracks can be characterized by: catchiness, timeliness, a strong vocal, and accomplished performance. There would still be only 100 releases on The Billboard Hot 100 in a given week, and the vagaries of public taste would still decide who gets there. Or, taking Mr. Hausman at his word, all suppose all future web content has: a unique perspective, great "get" and/or brilliantly constructed prose. All that would happen is these would cease being differentiating features in attracting readership.

Don't stop critiquing your past work, learning from others, applying rigor and discipline, or nurturing creativity in your quest for greatness. Just don't mistake performance metrics for predictive ones. And use that advice for what it's worth.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #48            

Artist: Keith Jarrett Trio
Title: Standards, Vol. 1
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1983

Nothing in Keith Jarrett's discography or collaborations prior to 1983 could have predicted he would record a collection of standards with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. And nothing could have predicted that this trio would become one of the most enduring working groups in jazz, recording and touring for more than 25 years. Such is fate, or the instinct of veteran producer Manfred Eicher, who put the three together in the studio.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Consumer-Driven Marketplace Has Been a Hallmark of Innovation

Pandora CEO Joseph Kennedy, NAB spokesman Bruce Reese, and venture capitalist David Packman recently testified before a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on music licensing, speaking in favor of bill H.R. 6480. To summarize their reasoning: current music licensing standards prevent select investors from making big money in internet radio.

Speaking against the bill were economist Jeffrey A. Eisenach, music producer Jimmy Jam, and SoundExchange President Michael Huppe. To summarize their reasoning: current music licensing standards enable the free market to get artists fairly compensated for use of their work.

The core issue of the debate over the bill, subtitled The Internet Radio Fairness Act (IRFA) of 2012, is whether "fairness" would be established by having services like Pandora pay less in music licenses in order to fix their unsustainable business model, or whether other services should pay more.

The statutory licensing model, under which a service pays a set percentage of its revenue in licensing fees for music content was established by the Digital Peformance Rights Act of 1995. The so-called Willing Buyer Willing Seller (WBWS) model, under which a commercial service pays a set per-play license fee, was introduced by the Digital Milennium Copyright Act of 1998. Services in existence as of 31-December-1997 were exempted from the new standard. Terms of the DMCA have been modified three times since passage to narrow the definition of services to which WBWS applies

So, currently, who pays what?
  • AM/FM Radio. $0. The USA is the only developed country that does not impose music performance license fees on over-the-air radio.
  • SiriusXM and Muzak. So-called pre-existing streaming services under the DMCA. Grandfathered to statutory license fee, currently set at 8% of revenue.
  • Microcasters. A microcaster is defined as a service with annual revenue < $5000 and that streams < 18,067 aggregate tuning hours (ATH) per year. (That is equivalent to two sumultaneous 24/7 listeners.) Microcasters pay a flat annual fee of $500 + $100 optional fee to be exempted from recordkeeping requirements.
  • Non-commercial Pureplay Webcasters (defined by their tax status per IRS Section 501). Annual payment of $500 or per-play royalty of $0.0012/play paid on monthly ATH in excess of  159,140, whichever is greater. (159,140 monthly ATH equate to roughly 200 simultaneous 24/7 listeners.) Stations that are CPB-supported or members of various Public Radio consortia do not have to file records. Under the terms of their settlement  agreement, NPR’s Public Radio Interactive is making those payments. These stations will be contacted by Public Radio Interactive with regard to their obligations.
  • Small Pureplay Webcasters (annual revenue < $1.25M). 12% on the first $250K in revenue and 14% on revenue > $250K. In exchange, the webcaster receives an ATH limit of 10 million monthly — essentially unlimited streaming — plus additional benefits. Payment obligation is subject to a minimum of 7% of operating expenses
  • Large Pureplay Webcasters (annual revenue > $1.25M). 25% of revenue or per-play royalty of $0.0012/play, whichever is greater. Unfortunately for Pandora, which falls into this group, a "play" is defined as a song delivered to an individual device running a its client app, including songs a listener skips after listening for a time and songs that are pre-fetched for playback, but never actually initiated. These inflate their play count. Reports estimate Pandora's total payments at $0.02/ATH, which works out to the average listener touching 16 songs per ATH.
Proponents of the IRFA argue that Pandora pays too much in licenses — more than 50% of revenue — relative to its peer services, amounting to a commercial disadvantage, and needs relief. Opponents argue that WBWS is the fair model for artist compensation, and should be extended to services like AM/FM radio and SiriusXM, ending their "subsidized mandate to exist." No one wants small and non-commercial webcasters unduly burdened by new license fees.

The debate will continue not only in  the U.S. House but in the U.S. Senate. "A consumer-driven marketplace has been a hallmark of innovation on the Internet and the same market forces should decide the value both of competing music delivery services and the music content they deliver."

Stay "tuned."

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #47             

Artist: Chuck Mangione
Title: Children of Sanchez
Genre: Soundtrack
Year: 1978

Chuck Mangione composed this music for a film soundtrack in 1978, but it quickly took on a life of its own when it was released as a two-LP set. While the movie Children of Sanchez didn't make much of a commercial impact upon release in 1979, the music won Mr. Mangione both a Golden Globe® and a Grammy®, garnering fan loyalty the film never enjoyed. The repetitive themes necessary for a cohesive film soundtrack make end-to-end listening of the LP somewhat tedious. (Where is the skip button?) But the tracks in weightless digital form equate themselves quite well individually.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thank You For Sending Me an Angel

It's getting to be a tradition at In Aurem A2D to use holidays as opportunities for Surface to Air Full Circle music challenges. Our last was on Labor Day.

You know the drill. (Connection between our game and the WDET-FM Music Head fundraiser is in our first challenge.) Starting with a particular song, chart a path along associated metadata to create a connected playlist; but at some point, reverse course and return along a different metadata path to arrive full circle back at the starting song, in "about an hour" of running time. Bonus points if you only use songs from your personal library.

That bonus may get harder to achieve over time, if the trend continues away from music ownership and personal libraries to music access and personal playlists via streaming services.

To celebrate Thanksgiving Day in the USA, our starting/ending song is Talking Heads' "Thank You For Sending Me an Angel."

Full size table here. Annotated table with metadata associations here.

We're getting a little lengthy at over 61 minutes (longest running time for a list to-date). But this list appeals to me for metadata associations enlisting wordplay that we have not explored in pevious exercises.


             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #46             

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: More Songs About Buildings and Food
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1978

More Songs About Buildings and Food is the second album by Talking Heads. It was the first in a series of three produced by Brian Eno. In 2003, the album was ranked number 382 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. I bought it after seeing Talking Heads peform "Artists Only" and "Take Me to the River" on Saturday Night Live. Before MTV made music on TV ubiquitous, appearing as the musical guest on SNL was a significant milestone for an act.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Music Ownership, First Sale Doctrine, and a Potential Parade of Horribles

The US Supreme Court is hearing an appeal that could change your ownership rights to music.

If you purchase music as physical media or license-free downloads, you are protected by the so-called First Sale Doctrine of the US Copyright Act, which gives people the right to lend, resell, or give away the works that they've bought, even if those works contain copyrighted elements.

If you purchase music as licensed downloads (or by storing it in the cloud) you accept terms clearly outlined in the end-user agreement for doing business with services like iTunes. Consumers do not own their iTunes material; rather, they get a non-exclusive right to access the files, a right that cannot be sold, donated, or given away, even to your descendents after you die.

But the case of Kirtsaeng v. Wiley, currently being heard by the US Supreme Court, could undermine First Sale Doctrine, making ownership feel more like licensing.

Book publisher John Wiley & Sons is suing to prevent an entrepreneur from (legally) purchasing cheap editions of Wiley textbooks in his native Thailand and (legally) importing and selling them to foreign students in the US at below list price.Wiley is asking the Court to rule that First Sale Doctrine only applies to goods made in the USA and that Mr. Kirtsaeng needs their permission to run his import business. [Transcript of oral arguments.]

The so-called "Parade of Horribles" resulting from a ruling for Wiley are many and far-reaching: foreign manufacturers like Toyota having to seek permission from all owners of copyrighted content in their vehicles before import and sale in the US; companies perversely moving manufacturing operations overseas specifically to escape First Sale Doctrine on their products; libraries requiring permission from copyright holders before lending titles in their collection; US citizens requiring permission before bestowing gifts of copyrighted items (books, fashion, textiles, jewelry) brought home from the design capitals of the world. All would have negative US economic impact.

Furthermore, once a precedent is established that First Sale Doctrine can be limited, the slippery slope scenario imagines a tangle of special-interest exemptions passed by a lobbyist-influenced Congress until the suburban garage sale becomes a bureaucratic nightmare, used book and music stores become extinct, and eBay and craigslist shut down completely.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation has joined Demand Progress and the Free Software Foundation in giving you a platform to contact your legislators to urge them to stand up for First Sale. While you're at it, ask them to pass legislation conveying legacy rights for licensed media. Take action today.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #45             

Title: The Modern Jazz Quartet
Artist: The Modern Jazz Quartet
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1972
The Modern Jazz Quartet (2-LP, Prestige PR 240050) is a re-packaging of three Modern Jazz Quartet titles: Concorde (PR 7005), Django (PR 7057) and MJQ (PR 7059). I recently purchased it at an estate sale for $2 and made a high-res digital transfer with tracks organized according to original title and album sequence. (Yes, you can do that.) If First Sale Doctrine is not universally applied, how many copyright holders' permissions (euphemism for payments) would have been necessary to buy this used record — one, three, four? Any number greater than zero is too many.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

How Many Bits in Infinity?

Why are 24-bit digital recordings the benchmark for capturing live sound?

It has to do with our limited ability to measure physical phenomena. Experiencing and recording sound is essentially measuring pressure over time.

Regardless of whether you are measuring continuously or sampling at intervals, at any instant you are trying to capture the magnitude of a phenomenon, or signal, that exists as a real number — arbitrarily scaled to lie in the closed interval [0,1] — and its direction. Real numbers cannot (all) be represented exactly.

The set of real numbers has infinite size. The set is so big, the real numbers are not even countably infinite, like the integers. While there are an infinite number of integers, there are a finite number between any two of them, so that the set of integers in a closed interval has a known size N. A set of size N can be represented using b bits, where b is the smallest whole number such that N ≤ 2b. Between any two real numbers are an infinite number of real numbers. How many bits in infinity?

Thus, our ability to record physical phenomena is defined by our ability to quantize it. Quantization maps infinite sets of real values to single values, to create a finite set of approximation sample values ("words") large enough both to have high dynamic range (DR), the maximum decibel (dB) level of a signal minus the aveage noise level, and have an acceptable error factor (inversely proportional to the size of the quantized set).

How big is an accurate quantization set and how many bits are needed to represent its members? Each bit added to the sample word accomplishes three important things:
  1. Doubles the size of the quantized value set it can represent;
  2. Cuts quantization error by half;
  3. Adds 6 dB of DR.
There is a well-known term for this — exponential growth. Not only does the sample set expand as you add bits, the rate of that expansion accelerates. Every added bit is more significant than all the bits that came before it, up to a point. When does adding bits stop adding information?

Since the threshold of hearing is near 0 dB SPL, and since the "threshold of pain" is often defined as 120 dB SPL, it is said that the DR of human hearing is approximately 120 dB. Thus, 24 bits is the first natural computer word size (divisible by 8) that offers a DR geater than that of human hearing. Larger word sizes, while greater precision for other kinds of measurements, don't add meaningful information for sound. 24 bits is the right combination of precision and practicality.

Anything less than 24-bit digital audio has been a compromise. 16-bit samples were chosen for CD audio due both to the requirement to store more than 70 minutes of audio on a disc and to the limited space offered by optical disc technology in the 1970's. Lossy compressed audio was a concession to the covenience of being able to store a lot of songs on the low-capacity flash memory devices that were the first generation of portable digital music players. Now there is sufficient storage space and wireless bandwidth inside our homes to make 24-bit studio master recordings the de facto standard for digital music acquisiton and playback.

The reproduction is never going to be the original perfomance; or, as Alfred Korzybski said, "The map is not the territory." But a richly detailed map is better than the back of a napkin drawing. To paraphrase one of my design heroes Edward Tufte, summaries can emerge from high-information sources, but there is nowhere to go if we begin with a low-information source. A 24-bit studio master recording is a richly detailed map. Why settle for a summary?

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #9            

Title: Desperado
Artist: Eagles
Genre: Rock
Year: 1973
When I bought my first CD player c. 1985, I already had an extensive album collection. Never the record labels' dream consumer, I rarely re-purchased on CD material I had on vinyl. For years, my turntable and CD player peacefully co-existed. So my Eagles albums went silent when I retired the turntable in the mid-90s (before the vinyl revival) for lack of space and a general frustration that an artist shuffle is not possible when the material is spread over seven LPs. It's nice to have the band back together after converting all that physcial media to weightless 24-bit digital. Hell Freezes Over, anyone?

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Social Bandwagon: Everyone {Likes, Re-Tweets, +1's} a Winner

Mumford & Sons released their 2nd album Babel a few weeks ago. It's hard to know what any listeners think of it. But one thing we all seem to know — Babel sold 600,000 copies in its first week. That statistic was re-blogged and re-tweeted thousands of times, blindly hailing "the best debut of 2012." Everyone "shares" a winner.

Does a splashy debut lose significance as the music industry transitions from physical media to weightless digital? We'll get to that later. In any case, debut has replaced legacy as a benchmark of worth.

Artistic works that build their audience slowly and sustain it for long periods are becoming rare. Most works live and die with their debut. Go big or enjoy staying under the radar. In music, Adele's 21 is the outlier. No one saw it coming, and then nothing could displace it for more than a year.

Hollywood has known this for a long time. Cast, director, genre, story, and production values are irrelevant. The only thing that can predict the long-term box office success of a film is its opening weekend numbers. Big hits that opened small — My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Slumdog Millionaire, for two in recent memory  — are the outliers. To generate buzz, a film has to be able to trumpet an immediate historic feat, whether it be the best opening weekend (of ...), or opening night, or midnight debut, or whatever. Get people on the bandwagon before the next big thing comes along, because it's right behind you, already working the hype machine.

At the polar opposite of the sustained hit is what I'll call the hit-and-run, designed to open big and disappear fast before anyone can know how mediocre it might be. This applies equally to music, movies and books. Frozen Heat by Richard Castle debuted at #7 on the 30-September-2012 New York Times Fiction Best Seller List for combined print and e-book sales, dropping Mitch Albom's The Time Keeper from #6 to #8. The next week, it was gone.

Trouble is, while Mitch Albom is a real-life best-selling author — Tuesdays with Morrie spent more than 200 weeks on the best seller list — Richard Castle is a make-believe best-selling author (turned amateur cop) on an eponymous TV show. The release was a publicity stunt coinciding with the start of the new season. Hyperion Press published both books, and I think they owe Mr. Albom an apology.

A splashy book or music debut may be increasingly easy in the weightless digital world. Apple can't sell more iPhones than it can manufacture and distribute. A movie theater can't sell more tickets than it has seats. E-book and digital music sales make it possible to respond to demand instantly and infinitely, without having to plan, produce, ship and stock physical inventory. Bits are never sold out. Mumford & Sons fan base was ready for a new release and downloaded accordingly.

Less newsworthy was the fact that sales of Babel dropped 72% in week two (though still topping the charts). Social media had already moved on to tweeting the debut of a new album from Muse at #2.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #44             

Title: Voices Carry
Artist: 'Til Tuesday
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1985

If you read The Lefsetz Letter, you know that sales of Aimee Mann's album Charmer dropped 63% in its second week on the charts. If you're on social media, you probably know (and have re-tweeted) that the video for the single Labrador is a shot-for-shot remake, featuring Mad Men's Jon Hamm, of her iconic 80's video for the song Voices Carry. I know that I got my first CD player in mid-1985, and the album Voices Carry may be the last new title I have ever bought on vinyl.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Would Pandora Survive Russian Winter?

If the world was fair, a new rival entering your market would have to compete head-to-head on features. Innovation would rule. But the world is not fair, and new rivals often enter your market specifically because they can win with inherent advantages that make head-to-head comparisons irrelevant. The software industry coined a term for this—Russian Winter. (Why?) And Pandora may be about to experience it.

Russian Winter has been a factor in the rise and fall of many products. Two examples:
  • Mosaic, the first inernet browser, was invented at NCSA. Netscape commercialized Mosaic in 1994, and Netscape Navigator commanded 80% market share at its peak in 1996. Microsoft countered by introducing Internet Explorer. Whether or not it was a better browser than Netscape Navigator was irrelevant. As a stand-alone product, you can't compete with "pre-installed with Windows." Microsoft achieved 80% market share by 2000, 95% at its peak in 2002, completely defeating the invasion of its Desktop.
  • Similarly, the market for simple chart-drawing software was once dominated by Visio and Autodesk Actrix. Feature-for-feature, you could make the case for either one. But when Microsoft bought Visio (the company) in 1999, the climate became much chillier. As a stand-alone product, you can't compete with "bundled in Office." Autodesk cancelled Actrix almost the same day, ceding the market to Microsoft.
In both cases, the victory virtually shut down disruptive innovation in these technology areas.

Pandora invented user-customized radio. You select a song and it will program a stream of more like this music based on its musical "genome." It now streams more than a billion user hours per month. Consumer awareness of Pandora is 50% among internet users, double that of its nearest competitors.

But a new competitor may be entering the market. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times reported that Apple is preparing an audio streaming service to compete with Pandora. How does Apple bring Russian Winter to the streaming audio market? Five things are immediately apparent:
  1. Installed Base. You can't compete with "pre-installed on 365 million iOS devices."
  2. Halo Effect. There is no brand loyalty like Apple brand loyalty. Not only will an Apple streaming service trigger an exodus of Pandora users who were there merely because there was no equivalent Apple service, the cool factor of Apple will bring many new users into the sector who were sitting on the sidelines. Pandora desperately needs these subscribers.
  3. Lack of Transparency. Pandora is having trouble turning a profit, and has to say so every fiscal quarter in SEC filings, incurring negative brand image. Apple will bundle its streaming service with iTunes, burying the costs inside the rosy financials of the world's largest music retailer.
  4. Leverage. The New York Post reported that Apple is negotiating directly with music labels for content, rather than adopt Pandora's disadvantageous statutory licensing model. Apple doesn't need Congressional support to make its business work.
  5. Game-Changing Ability. Pandora's service defines user-customized radio. But, with more that $100B in cash and securities available, Apple could raise the stakes by introducing new capabilities requiring capital investment that Pandora couldn't match in its current financial condition. Or, taking another cue from the software industry, Apple could offer its service free to listeners. In August 2012, UK retailer Tesco announced that it was closing its MP3 store, citing the rising capital costs of trying to stay competitive with the big players, Apple and Amazon.
Could it be that the real target of Apple's ambitions is Amazon? By adding a streaming music service to iTunes, Apple would force Amazon to roll out a similar service to stay competitive. Being acquired by Amazon could be Pandora's way out of the cold.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #43             

Artist: Paul Winter Consort
Title: Earthdance
Genre: New Age
Year: 1977

I'll admit, I chose this library title for this piece because of the artist name. But The Paul Winter Consort is a foundation group in my collection, with metadata tentacles radiating through many other titles. Among the descendent links: the groups Oregon and Gallery, and the musicians Glen Moore, Paul McCandless, Collin Walcott (1945-1984), David Darling and Ralph Towner.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fast is Fine, But Accuracy is Everything

Previously we proposed there are five fundamentals of high-quality digital sound archiving and preservation for analog source material: accuracy, adequacy, appropriateness, consistency, and explicitness.

Today we tackle the first fundamental, accuracy (with regard to the source).

Consider this. Carole King's The Legendary Demos is now available in 24-bit/96kHz high definition. Demos. In high-def. Does that make any sense? Actually, it makes perfect sense, and illustrates the importance of accuracy.

Demos, as you probably know, are recordings of stripped-down arrangements songwriters use to "pitch" material — to producers, bandmates, potential clients. A promise of a song rather than the song itself. Neither professionally recorded nor mastered, the audio quality of a demo varies widely. And great songwriters are not always great performers (with notable exceptions).

The material on The Legendary Demos is true to the form. Many of the tracks sound as if they are simply Ms. King at the piano in her office. Recorded on 60s vintage analog equipment, the sound level is uneven, the piano not balanced with the vocal (the piano perhaps unmiked). So why go high-def?

The first reason is simply to master the material for release to give it as much polish as possible. (It sounds better here than on what may have been the original tapes aired during an April 2012 Fresh Air interview with Ms. King). Second and more importantly, these recordings document the creative process which produced songs that went on to become big hits. How does one preserve such moments for posterity so they are not lost or forgotten?

The International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives (IASA) "Guidelines on the Production and Preservation of Digital Audio Objects" offers these recommendations:
  • Sampling rate. When producing digital copies of analogue material IASA recommends a minimum sampling rate of 48 kHz for any material. The unintended and undesirable artefacts in a recording are also part of the sound document [and] must be preserved with utmost accuracy. For certain signals and some types of noise, sampling rates in excess of 48 kHz may be advantageous. IASA recommends 96 kHz as a higher sampling rate, though this is intended only as a guide, not an upper limit.
  • Bit depth. IASA recommends an encoding rate of at least 24 bit to capture all analogue materials. For audio digital-original items, the bit depth of the storage technology should at least equal that of the original item. It is important that care is taken in recording to ensure that the transfer process takes advantage of the full dynamic range.
Record analog source material for digital archiving with as many bits as you can muster. Preserve numeric precision (and hence dynamic range) in the audio processing pipeline. Establish and follow a plan that preserves the accuracy of the material presented.

[Originally published 10-May-2012. Revised and expanded.]

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #32            

Artist: Carole King
Title: Tapestry
Genre: Pop
Year: 1971

If you are of a certain age, this is the album your sister and every woman you ever dated (my wife included) had in her collection . At one time, the best selling album in history, and Carole King the only female performer to win four GRAMMY® awards in one year. Legendary.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Everything I Need to Know I Learned From the Hubble Telescope

Should a recording document reality as faithfully as possible, or should it improve upon or somehow transcend the music it records? Both, actually.

[Image Credit NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: B. Whitmore ( Space Telescope Science Institute) and James Long (ESA/Hubble).]

The topic is very much in the news. Organizations like Harvard University and public radio station WDET-FM Detroit have publicized plans to digitize their vast archives of interviews and live performances, both for preservation and for cloud accessibility. The Harvard archives include rarities like the first appearances of Joan Baez at Club 47 in Boston, so it is important to do right by the material. But what exactly constitutes a high-quality digital audio preservation process?

Consider the image from the Hubble Space Telescope above, showing the slow collision of two galaxies producing super star clusters. It's spellbinding, dramatic, but it isn't real. Space doesn't look like this.

Hubble images are triumphs of sensor fusion. They are made, not born. Images must be woven together using the incoming data from cameras in many different spectral bands, cleaned up and given colors that bring out features that eyes would otherwise miss. The images illustrate the wonders of the universe rather than documenting them.

[I wonder if the sound subjectivists who believe that lossy compressed audio is “just fine” also dismiss space exploration with sophisticated instruments, because they can see stars “just fine” with the naked eye.]

It may seem quite a leap, but a strong analogy exists between the production process for a Hubble image and a high-quality digital restoration process for analog source material. There are three fundamental steps in both:
  • Data Collection. The dramatic Hubble images have their source in high-resolution instrument data; do no less with your source audio.
  • Sensor Fusion. Use software tools to analyse the audio from multiple perpectives to execute operations to improve audio quality.
  • Presentation. Render the results in formats accessible to the intended audience(s).
When the process is complete, two products have been created. First, there is an archival recording that faithfully transfers the original analog recording, in all its flaws, to digital form. Also, there is a restored image of that recording as processed sound files that transcend the moment to reveal what may not have been originally apparent to the naked ear.

But how do you design these steps to achieve a high-quality result? There are five fundamentals:
  • Accuracy, with regard to the source material
  • Appropriateness and Adequacy, with regard to your processes
  • Consistency and Explicitness, with regard to your execution
In an upcoming three-part series, we’ll examine how to stay true to the five fundamentals in your project. Stay tuned.

[Originally published 2-February-2012. Revised and expanded.]

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #15            

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: The Dark Side of the Moon
Genre: Rock
Year: 1973

What other title could be more appropriate to discuss? DSotM presents a presentation challenge due to the extensive use of crossfades between tracks, making it hard to identify the instant where one track ends and the next one begins. They slowly collide with each other in passing. As with live albums, you'll be glad to have accurate high resolution sound data when confronted with a crossfade to zoom way in to make a precise cut at your decision point.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What If Your Cloud Suddenly Vanished?

You have abandoned music possession and are now completely dependent on streaming services in the cloud to deliver their vast-but-low-bit-rate song libraries for your listening enjoyment. Are you prepared for the day when your cloud, or any other cloud, may no longer be there? From all indications, that day may be inevitable.

The most popular streaming services, Pandora and Spotify, have unsustainable business models. If these two pioneering giants can't survive in the long run, what chance does any other service have? Maybe music possession isn't as quaintly 20th Century as pundits would have you believe.

Pandora, which had its IPO in 2011, has never been profitable. Its revenues are growing steadily, but so are its losses. For the quarter ending July 30, 2012 revenue was up more than 50% year-to-year to $101.3M, but its quarterly losses of $5.4M were 3x last year's. According to filings in Spotify's home country of Luxembourg, the company lost $57M on $236M in revenue for fiscal year 2011. The red ink cannot continue indefinitely.

"Cost of sales" is the highest contributing factor to the sustained losses. Pandora operates as a limited-play radio service and does not have to negotiate royalty deals with individual labels. Still, last year the company paid 54% of its revenue out in royalites under the provision of federal copyright law that lets it use (almost) any song. Spotify operates as an unlimited on-demand music service and negotiates directly with labels and publishers for the songs it makes available, paying a staggering 97% of its revenue on licensing fees and distribution costs. (Source: NY Times.)

To climb out of its hole, Pandora is lobbying Congress for a copyright license deal more aligned with satellite radio and cable outlets, the so-called Internet Radio Fairness Act. The licensing rate for satellite is set at 7.5% of gross revenue. Cable music services pay 15% of gross revenue. On the other hand, Pandora pays 2 cents per hour for the more than one billion streaming-hours it runs per month. (Source: LA Times.) Music publishers, becoming more dependent on revenue from streaming as CD sales continue their decline, oppose any change. Additionally, statutory licensing is unique to the USA; overseas growth for Pandora will be hard to achieve without similar license deals in other countries.

To reverse its current fortunes, Spotify faces the daunting task of trying to make monopoly economics work. If the EMI sale closes, there will only be only three major music labels. As explained by Michael Robertson of, the jaw-dropping secret licensing demands of record label monopolies would not be tolerated in any other industry as they "crush innovation, as well as any hope of profitiability." Since failure to reach a deal with any of the labels would put a huge hole in Spotify's catalog, the company really has no choice but to concede to industry demands.

Listeners have embraced streaming audio services in the cloud. At least 33 million people have tried Spotify, more than 150 million have registered for Pandora. But maybe now is not the time to abandon music possession completely in favor of streaming; the current cost structure of the industry is unsustainable. Are you prepared for the day when there is nothing but blue sky where your cloud used to be?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #42             

Artist: Willie Nelson
Title: Stardust
Genre: Country
Year: 1978

Willie Nelson has never been one to do the safe or expected, and this Booker T. Jones-produced album of pop "standards" from the '30s and '40s certainly fits the profile. The success of Stardust paved the way for the late-career standards album of virtually any singer you can name. I had never heard more than a couple lines from Irving Berlin's cloud-free "Blue Skies" (via montage in the movie White Christmas) until picking up this album as my introduction to Mr. Nelson's work.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 31, 2012

All Labor That Uplifts Humanity Has Dignity and Importance

[Rivera Murals, Detroit Institute of Arts]
It's getting to be a tradition at In Aurem A2D to use holidays as opportunities for Surface to Air Full Circle music challenges. Our last was on the 4th of July.

You know the drill. (Connection between our game and the WDET-FM Music Head fundraiser is in our first challenge.) Starting with a particular song, chart a path along associated metadata to create a connected playlist; but at some point, reverse course and return along a different metadata path to arrive full circle back at the starting song, in "about an hour" of running time. Bonus points if you only use songs from your personal library.

That bonus may get harder to achieve over time, if the trend continues away from music ownership and personal libraries to music access and personal playlists via streaming services.

To celebrate Labor Day in the USA, our starting/ending song is Elvis Costello's "Welcome to the Working Week."

Full-size table here. Annotated table with metadata associations here.

We're getting a little lengthy at an hour and 49 seconds (longest running time for a list to-date). But this list appeals to me for metadata associations enlisting songwriter names that we have not explored in pevious exercises.

Happy Labor Day!

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #41             

Artist: Elvis Costello
Title: My Aim Is True
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1977

My Aim Is True is the debut album by Elvis Costello. It was the first of five consecutive Costello albums produced by Nick Lowe. In 2003, the TV network VH1 named My Aim Is True the 80th greatest album of all time. In 2003, the album was ranked number 168 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time..

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Of All the Charlie Browns in the World, Mine is the Charlie Browniest

The United States Library of Congress voted to designate the Vince Guaraldi soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas a national audio treasure, including it among the twenty-five 2011 inductees to the National Recording Registry — America's sound heritage.

Trouble is, the Library did not have a copy of Charlie Brown among its holdings. So I gave them mine. Here's the story.

Since 2001, the Library of Congress has annually selected 25 sound recordings to be preserved in the Registry of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" recodings. To give you an idea of the diversity among inductees, this year's group also included Prince's Purple Rain and a wax cylinder from an Edison Talking Doll. The press release made me curious: what exactly does the Library archive for any of the recordings and artifacts in the Registry?

In response to email, Library spokesman Cary O'Dell gave this explanation. "For each item selected for the Registry, we attempt to locate and acquire both the earliest and the best format. For example, if a work was originally issued on 78rpm, that is what we will attempt to acquire. Often as well we try to obtain a copy on CD (if one is available) for the ease of researchers." (Apparently we can count the US Government among those who believe the audio CD is a format of convenience, not significance.)

He continued. "Keep in mind that the Library of Congress already holds thousands of records and discs so many of the items named to the Registry we already have a copy of. When Purple Rain started to be discussed, I explored our holdings and found we did already have a vinyl LP. Though we have a digital copy of the Edison cylinder, the original remains in the historic archives of the Edison Labs in Menlo Park [NJ]."

Which brought us to the topic of Charlie Brown. "Another new title this year was A Charlie Brown Christmas. The [National Recording Preservation] Board has discussed it for several years with some members truly singing its praises and importance. This was the year it got enough votes. Surprisingly, we didn't have any holdings of that!" Mr O'Dell concluded, "The Concord Group has since been kind enough to donate a CD of the work to the Library and I am working to obtain an original vinyl."

This was an opportunity too good to pass up. My own vinyl copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas is in storage, having long ago been ephemeralized to 24-bit/96KHz weightless digital format for playback. So I offered to donate it to the Library for induction into the Registry. Mr. O'Dell immediately accepted; the government even paid shipping costs and sent a gracious acknowledgement letter (at right).

The work is currently undergoing a lengthy process of cataloging, curating and digital preservation before it can be counted among the Library's holdings. I'll let you know when the catalog number has been assigned so you can search for it. [Update 14-December: here's the link.]

I am proud that my humble LP is now the definitive audio copy of a beloved classic in the Library of Congress, preserved for posterity. Or, to paraphrase Linus: of all the Charlie Browns in the world, mine is the Charlie Browniest.

                Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #2 (originally described 1-January-2012)              

Title: A Charlie Brown Christmas
Artist: Vince Guaraldi Trio
Genre: Jazz/Christmas
Year: 1965

There are two CD copies of A Charlie Brown Christmas somewhere in my house. But when it came time to install this title in my weightless digital Library, I decided to dub the old LP copy rather than ripping a CD. Like the homely Christmas tree selected by Charlie Brown, all the LP needed was a little love (and a few mastering steps in software) to make it shine. For more on Vince Guaraldi's music, please visit the Impressions of Vince website.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An 11th Simple Truth For a Delusional Music Industry

It seems like a week doesn't go by without new proposals for streaming music services — some real, some imagined. Most services position themselves to be more convenient than digital downloads. Few promise better quality than CD audio. Therein lies the problem with listener-paid business models, a simple truth from the software industry that should be heeded.

When I got into the commercial software business, titles were delivered in boxes containing install discs accompanied by paper user manuals. From there it became commonplace to purchase a license key to download software and soft-copy documentation. It remains to be seen whether full-feature software can be now be accessed solely through the cloud.

The analogy to music is obvious. The industry has progressed from physical media to digital downloads to the promise of streaming services that make music ownership irrelevant.

A concept the (3D design) software industry embraced, that the music industry still struggles with, is that there is a difference between modeling and having read-only online access to a model. Modeling is scarce and high-value; access is infinite and low-value. Model creation requires full-feature software; access requires only reader/viewer apps. The latter provide low-res representations where complex curved surfaces are approximated by triangular facets suitable for cloud streaming. These so-called tessellated models may look OK for casual viewing (so you can tell you are looking at the right model) but aren't nearly accurate enough for even simple measurements.

Again, the analogy to music is obvious. Low-resolution streaming services are fine for social interaction and music discovery, but not nearly accurate enough for full-fidelity listening enjoyment.

So, if streaming services are the equivalent of reader/viewer apps, here's the 11th simple truth for a delusional music industry, courtesy of the software industry. There is no sustainable business model based on payment for low-res read-only online access. The reader app is always free.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #40            

Artist: Pink Floyd
Title: Wish You Were Here
Genre: Rock
Year: 1975

On its release in 1975, Wish You Were Here topped the album charts in both the UK and the USA. Reflecting the band’s thoughts of the time on the music business, and exploring themes of absence, WYWH contains the classic cut Shine On You Crazy Diamond, a tribute to founder member Syd Barrett.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Decide What to Be and Go Be It

Author Alistair MacLeod once said starting to write a story without a vision of its ending to guide him was like handing a cabdriver $20 and saying, "take me somewhere." I was reminded of this when the largest African-American-owned bookstore in the USA abruptly announced it would close. If you are in either the music or consumer audio industry, there is a lesson here for you.

[Image credit: Ric Stultz.]

It's not that sales are down at the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem. In fact, co-owner Marva Allen told Marketplace Radio that "sales are up 37 percent." Though currently successful, the store is ceasing operations because the owners recognized their business model is unsustainable in the long term.

This would be a sad end if Ms. Allen was solely in the business of selling books.  But if, as she says, her vision is giving ethnic writers an advantage in the global marketplace, while preserving [books'] purpose of entertaining, imparting knowledge and honing creativity, then operating a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in one New York City location is now an impediment rather than an enabler. Closing it to pursue new projects, though painful, was the only choice to sustain the vision. Read her farewell manifesto.

How does this relate to music and consumer audio?
  • If you are in the business of selling music on CD, your business model is unsustainable … industry reports show not only declining CD market share, but an accelerating rate of decline.
  • If your business is manufacturing audio components designed for customers who play physical media in dedicated home listening rooms, your business model is unsustainable … the mobile generation doesn’t listen this way and may still not listen this way even after they start nesting.
  • If you are selling MP3-quality digital audio downloads, the rise of similar-quality streaming services may soon make your business model unsustainable … a post-iTunes world is distinctly possible.
  • If you are aksing listeners to pay for MP3-quality streaming, your business model is unsustainable … the software industry would call this a “reader,” and the reader is always free.
To survive long-term, look beyond your current business. Develop and execute a sustainable vision.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #39            

Artist: Linda Ronstadt
Title: What's New
Genre: Vocal
Year: 1983

At the height of her popularity, Linda Ronstadt recognized that her business model — "rocker chick" — was unsustainable. Abruptly changing direction, What's New was the first of a three-album series of American standards featuring Ms. Ronstadt backed by Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra, followed by Lush Life and For Sentimental Reasons. As she told inteviewer Peter Sagal in 2007, "I needed a catalog of songs I could still perform when I got old."

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Can the Cloud Satisfy an Army of Musical Bit Snobs?

I am a music owner and I demand accurate sound reproduction, having converted my entire physical collection to weightless digital form, CD quality or better. But, in the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, "Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant." Bob Lefsetz was more blunt: "Ownership is for pussies."

Cloud-based streaming services provide access to low-bit-rate compressed music, typically no higher than 128 Kbps, targeting low-fi mobile devices. Over 7% of all mobile internet traffic in North America is streaming audio.  What does the music industry think of this listener experience? Neil Young: We're in the 21st century and we have the worst sound that we've ever had. It's worse than a 78 [rpm record]." T-Bone Burnett: "A xerox of a poloroid of a photo of a painting." Lefsetz, again: "Instead of soul, we have two-dimensional garbage."

Ownership is for pussies but lossy compressed music is garbage. What is a music-owning bit snob to do, other than become insignificant?

More than 90 million CDs were purchased in the first half of 2012. Let's say an average buyer purchases one title per month. Sales figures therefore represent an army of roughly 15 million listeners who can potentially be moved from ownership to access. If we all switched over tomorrow, could some new streaming service in the Cloud duplicate the listener experience of playing the CD quality or high-res digital audio we already own? Let's run the numbers.

Storage. I'd want to upload my personal library to the cloud for streaming. Most cloud-based storage services offer 5 GB of space for free. But high-res audio is big data. My collection runs 800 GB. Assuming some room for growth, I'll need 1,000 GB (1 TB) of space. The going retail rate for disc space is roughly five cents per GB, so I can buy 1 TB for fifty bucks. Or, I can rent 1 TB from Amazon for $1,000/yr. (Say it out loud: a thousand dollars a year.) Advantage: ownership.

Content. There really is no need to have 15 million individual copies of Abbey Road (the best-selling LP of both 1969 and 2011) in the Cloud. All owners could share one cloud-based copy. Instead of storing our personal libraries, the Cloud would merely have to provide a CD-quality (or higher) digital copy of the collective holdings of 15 million listeners. Let's start with a copy of ECM 1206 from my collection. Unfortunately not available from the label, never released on CD. I'll stick with my high-res digital transfer from the out-of-print LP I bought way back. Advantage: ownership.

Network TrafficAccording to Sandvine, median monthly usage on North American fixed access networks in the first half of 2012 was 10.3 GB and mean monthly usage was 32.1 GB. Streaming CD-quality audio just two hours a day (assuming a 1.4 Mbps connection) would increase mean monthly usage by 50%. Streaming 24/96 audio for the same period (assuming a 4.6 Mbps connection) would increase that figure by almost 300%. Multiply that load by 15 million new streamers and carriers hasten their cessation of unlimited data plans. Add hordes of young people addicted to streaming — now shown to prefer CD quality audio over lossy alternatives — and the internet comes to a halt. Advantage: ownership.

Intangibles. I don't want to have to register with Facebook to listen to my music (I'm talking to you, Spotify). I will not have the experience interrupted by advertising (commercial services). I don't want promoted content inserted into every playlist I create (Pandora). Advantage: ownership.

The spirit may be willing, but the Cloud is weak. Until the issues of bandwidth and freedom of choice are addressed, I'll content myself streaming high-fidelity owned digital audio through the Fog (the wireless cloud inside my house).

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #38            

Artist: Keith Jarrett
Title: Concerts (M√ľnchen, June 2, 1981)
Title: Concerts (Bergenz, July 28, 1981)
Genre: Solo Piano Improvisation
Year: 1981

One of the pleasures of ephemeralizing physical media to weightless digital is breaking arbitrary physical boundaries to organize the source material in personal ways. I group all my Keith Jarrett solo material by concert date, transforming this 3-LP set with a generic title into a more natural set of two specific shows. Let's see the Cloud do that.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.