Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The John Peel LP Collection: Infinite, Scarce and Significant Objects


If my blog traffic statistics tell me anything, it's that you are probably reading this after a google search related to your interest in the opening of the John Peel Archive online. My original piece, written when the project was announced in February 2012, appears below. If you are an ardent Peel fan, you might want to scroll down now. If you have an true interest in music and scholarship, hear me out.

[Image: John Peel and collection, date unknown.]

The Peel Collection made its debut this week with the first 100 titles in the alphabetized A section. 100 more titles are scheduled to be added each week. The site is well-produced, with photos and videos in addition to the record collection. I'll restrict my comments to the experience of browsing the records.

It is a hollow experience, a faint shadow of the project's potential. As a visitor, you are confronted with a photo of album spines. As you mouse over the spines, a popup appears for each, with a thumbnail of the album cover and a "card" (catalog?) number. Curiously, the cards are not numbered 1-100. Click on a spine and the corresponding "card" appears, with photos of the front and back cover, additional photos if the album has more elaborate packaging, and an image rendered to look like an index card with the track titles.

That's it.

Oh ... and a link to hear audio from the album on Spotify. Assuming, of course, you have a Spotify account.

The physical collection is a priceless one-of-a kind significant object, given its size, its owner and its place in the history of poular culture. Separate any one phsyical album from the rest of the herd, and it becomes just another used record, with a market value governed by scarcity and condition. Reduce it to a Spotify playlist and it becomes an infinite object with zero value.

Anyone can make a playlist of songs that happen to be in John Peel's collection. With 25,000 LP titles in the collection, it's hard to make a playlist (of songs released prior to Peel's death) that doesn't contain something from the collection. So the "musem" contains photos of metadata (not metadata itself), and weblinks to existing MP3 files. All of which can be gathered from other sources, often in more depth, via online search.

We were promised original paintings. Instead we got a xerox of a Poloroid of a photo of a painting. The site will always attract the mere curious for a single visit. But it offers nothing of permanent value. I don't see the project getting past the C's before the sheer futility crushes the will of all involved. Its celebration in the blogosphere and twittersphere (I haven't found a second dissenting opinion) are further examples of how we are all losing respect for knowledge in general, and music in particular.

Thanks for reading.

[Original essay below.]

The LP collection of the late BBC radio host John Peel, more than 25,000 titles, is going to be digitized and made available to the public via an online museum. This provides an opportunity to discuss the inherent value of physical and digital media as it relates to scarcity.

Physical media books, LPs and the like are scarce objects. No matter how many are made, the number is finite, the individual objects are unique, and are subject to wear, damage and loss over time. The ones that survive retain value according to their condition.

Digital media information stored in bits-only form are infinite objects. There is no limit on the number of people who can simultaneous possess the information, each copy is identical, and does not degrade over time. The value of infinite objects is in the information transfer; the objects themselves have no retained value.

Attaching infinite objects to scarce objects can make those scarce objects more valuable. Some examples:
  • Unlimited streaming of the movie Clueless (infinite) has helped cement Jane Austen's position as a literary icon for another generation. This in turn elevates the value a certified first-edition copy of Emma (scarce).
  • Reports show digital downloads of Van Halen's A Different Kind of Truth (infinite) are not selling well, but music industry veteran Bob Lefsetz offers this view: "Based on [fan] reaction, the band will be able to tour for years." (Concert tickets: scarce.)
  • A high-resolution digital transfer of a rare LP, taken on the owner's own equipment calibrated to his exact specifications, allows the LP's content to be shared, studied and enjoyed without inflicting further damage. The scarce object becomes more significant by being both widely accessible (infinite) and perfectly preserved.

Which brings us to the Peel Museum project. A physical music collection as large as the Peel is beyond scarce — it's one-of-a-kind. Its value to a private collector is enormous, but finite. There would be a winning bid at auction, the public would gasp and tweet at the figure, and then the collection would disappear into a vault somewhere, never to be seen again until the next auction (and almost certainly never played).

By having the collection digitized and made freely accessible to the public, the Peel family escalates its status from significant object to priceless cultural landmark. Bravo.

What would I want produced by the project? Three things:
  • A high-resolution (at least 24-bit/96KHz) digital transfer of each album and single in its current condition, representing the archive of the collection.
  • A high-resolution digital restoration of each title, producing the highest possible sound quality that can be achieved from the archived copy. These are the versions that can be made accessible for social, educational, historical and scholarly projects. New restorations can be created as technology improves, as new tools and techniques become available.
  • Creative ways for the public to browse the collection, its cover art, its label art, search its metadata, and listen to audio (where not restricted by copyright).

What would you like to see produced from this landmark project?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restorations #22 & #23           

Title: Think of One
Artist: Wynton Marsalis
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1983

Title: Haydn, L. Mozart, Hummel: Trumpet Concertos
Artist: Wynton Marsalis
Genre: Classical
Year: 1983

Wynton Marsalis scored a landmark achievement in 1983, winning both the Best Jazz Album GRAMMY® for Think of One and the Best Classiscal Album GRAMMY® for Trumpet Concertos. Acquisition of these titles on LP over 30 years ago began for me a personal interest in Mr. Marsalis' work that continues to this day.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

If You Don't Know Where You're Going, Any Road Will Get You There

Even if your metadata is not sufficiently rich to let you sort your music autobiographically, you can still have fun with it. Let's play a music association game.

[Image: Connect the Dots Music Festival, Beaumont TX]

WDET-FM in Detroit runs an annual event called Music Head. Starting with a song submitted from a listener, in-studio guests "connect the dots" among artists, titles, and musical collaborations to create playlists where each succeeding song is somehow connected to the previous song.

Unfortunately, the listening audience experience of Music Head is a lot of near-dead air as the hosts and studio guests hem and haw, battling the clock to navigate a journey that has no destination on a road that diverges in all directions at every decision point. How can you judge the value of any choice? If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.

Then, on her Essential Music show the following day, host Ann Delisi delivers a version of Music Head with a specific goal. Starting with a song previously submitted by a listener, she charts a path along associated metadata to create a connected playlist as before; but at some point, she has to reverse course and return along a different metadata path to arrive back at the starting song, and to come full circle in about an hour of running time. There's a real challenge.

To celebrate that challenge, here is the first Surface to Air Music Head Full Circle list. All songs come from my dematerialized music library:

Full-size table here. Annotated table with all the associations here.
What do you think? I intend to publish Full Circle lists from time to time. Readers are encouraged to submit song sugesstions via the Comment Form or via email. Let's collaborate on a journey.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #20            

Artist: Blondie
Title: Parallel Lines
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1978
More than five years before the Parents Music Resource Center (aka the "Washington Wives") advocated warning labels on physical music media for potentially objectionable content, the original LP release of Parallel Lines had the following label affixed to the shrink wrap: CONTAINS THE UNCUT, UNCENSORED VERSION OF 'HEART OF GLASS.' The line bleeped by radio station censors: "... it was a pain in the ass." Could anyone possibly be offended by it today?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #21            

Artist: Philip Glass
Title: The Photographer
Genre: Contemporary
Year: 1983
January 27, 2012 was the 75th birthday of composer Philip Glass. Among the tributes and retrospectives, the radio program Fresh Air ran an previously-unbroadcast This American Life conversation between Philip Glass and his cousin, host Ira Glass. For me, the highlight of the exchange was this quote: "Style is specialized technique. You can't have style until you have mastered technique."

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Automated Tools Can't Fully Replace Listener Insight

Which has more impact: the power of automated software tools, or the power of human insight?

Automated software tools are the backbone of the sensor fusion step in the digital transfer process, the step that mines through your source recording to recreate the best possible audio image. However, they cannot replicate your knowledge of what your music is supposed to sound like. And only you can recognize when they have not gone far enough to recreate a full-fidelity image.

Never is this more apparent than in cases where special repairs for old damage are needed.

As you execute the final presentation step of isolating and labeling your tracks, don't speed from track start to expected track end. Examine the wave form as you proceed, looking for blemishes software tools could not correct algorithmically. These include: pops and clicks that somehow did not fit the pattern that cleanup algorithms sought, larger skips, special surface problems. All must be corrected manually.

Do you get more satisfaction out of the bang-for-your-buck from software tools and processes, or from the small hand-crafted victories?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #19          

Title: Chase the Clouds Away
Artist: Chuck Mangione
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1975

When reviewing this recording, I encountered an odd repeated sound pattern around the 13:00 mark of side one. The "comb" pattern is the hallmark of a "broken record," a permanent defect in the groove wall of an LP that causes a turntable stylus to skip back to the previous groove, endlessly repeating the same 1.8 seconds of audio. In this case, the phenomenon went on for over five minutes before the stylus somehow got jostled enough to get past the defect (otherwise it would still be recording).

You can listen to a copy of the affected passage here.

Because automated tools see nothing unusual about oft-repeated audio patterns, one would think the recording is ruined. But a hands-on matching technique was employed to save it. By matching, I mean the sound wave just before the throwaway audio repeats is matched to the wave just after, cutting out the sound in between to effect a smooth transition.

Judge for yourself the quality of the audio match here. If you are interested in the details of the technique, a step-by-step guide is available.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Transcending the Grade: Don't Judge an LP by Its Surface

On a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being the most damaged and 10 being the least, what is the lowest score you would assign a (used) LP you would consider buying, or playing on a regular basis? How much wear and tear is acceptable to you?

Would your answer change if you only had to play the record once, to capture a high-resolution digital scan, and you could eliminate many forms of wear in post-processing with software and skill? For me, it does.

[Image: "Scar Tissue," Daniel S. Friedman.]

Vinyl record grading is serious business, based on a variety of systems and scales. I was surprised to learn that Good is usually a euphemism for "bad." A record in Good condition "can be played on a turntable without skipping, but it will have significant surface noise and scratches." One has to move up a couple grades to Very Good Plus to get a record "that shows signs that it was played and handled by a previous owner who took good care of it."

Subjective opinion has ecomonic impact. A record graded in Very Good Plus condition is typically worth 50% of an equivalent copy in Mint condition. The value of the same title in Good condition drops to 10% or less.

Trouble is, grading systems only assess the quality of the install disc—the atoms. They cannot assess the quality of the digital music image that can be fused—the bits. Tools and technology exist to capture a near-mirror image of Mint vinyl. Good technique — much of it automated — can often elevate the merely Good to Very Good or better.

In the course of ephemeralizing my own LPs and processing titles for friends and family, I've seen and corrected many forms of surface abuse. Very little scares me now. And that enables me to approach less-than-pristine LP titles in bargain situations (e.g. estate sales) and think with confidence, "I probably can't make you a great [recording], but I know I can make you a better [recording]." (All That Jazz)

Ask youself again, how much wear and tear is acceptable?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #18            

Artist: Elton John
Title: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Genre: Rock
Year: 1973
GYBR was Elton's John at his songwriting peak. Despite the age of the material, this title has only been in my dematerialized library for a couple months, purchased at an estate sale for $2. The physical LPs may only be in Good+ condition, but the bits extracted are Very Good indeed. I know it is possible to purchase a pristine 24-bit/96KHz FLAC download of GYBR, but this digital recording more accurately recreates the copy that was lost when my brother's basement flooded.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights resserved.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Technology Can Make Virtual Goods Feel Physical. Is Physical Relevant?

You've ephemeralized all your LPs. You've ripped all your CDs. Once you've captured your entire music collection as bits only, are all those leftover atoms relevant?

A study conducted in Norway, Denmark and Sweden by Aspiro Music and Norstat reveals that a majority of music fans still value their physical past, even as they look toward the ephemeral future. Only a handful have banished the past entirely. And a significant minority have taken the first step toward banishment, though they can't quite let go.

[Image: Library den Haag.]

In a survey of 1000 people in each country, 60%-70% of responders (varying from country to country) said they still displayed their physical music collection. 1%-3% had already sold it, donated it, or trashed it. And 20%-30% said they had relegated the collection to bulk storage (basement, garage, etc.).

Technology has made at least part of my dematerialized music library — the part installed from LP — seem physical by preserving the sonic quality of vinyl. The physical discs themselves thus don't have much present value. They may have future value in the event I have to re-install the music in some disaster recovery scenario. But I want them out of the way, along with their fraternal twins the CDs. So I stand with the representative  25% of Scandinavians that have chosen out-of-sight storage for physical media.

Significantly, there is no specific provision in my estate plan covering the disposition of my physical media collections. But I do specifically designate that the dematerialized music collection be donated to my local municipal Library, reflecting my estimate of its lasting value.

The Aspiro/Norstat study concludes that fewer than 10% of respondents believe they will still be buying physical media in 2-4 years. There should be a cool way to show off your collection once completely dematerialized. Probably an app for that. Will you continue to display physical media collections in the future?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #16            

Artist: The Clash
Title: London Calling
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1979

At this point in my life, London Calling is not a title I would deliberately listen to start-to-finish. And as an LP, that would be my only listening alternative (at a minimum, listening to one side). Freed from its physical boundaries, each track now has the opportunity to mix and mingle with any other track in the library — offering a continental counterpoint to Jamaica in reggae playlists; or played opposite Big Audio Dynamite, Ellen Foley (see below) or even Johnny Cash. Some dismiss this playback style as aural wallpaper or lazy convenience. But how can illuminating and exploring musical connections be a negative?

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #17            

Artist: Ellen Foley
Title: Spirit of St. Louis
Genre: Rock
Year: 1981

Some combination of Ellen Foley co-starring with Meat Loaf in Paradise by the Dashboard Lights, her TV/film acting credits, and the production presence of Mick Jones of The Clash (obliquely credited in the liner notes as, "Produced by My Boyfriend") convinced me to take a chance on this title. And, even after all these years, it does not disappoint.

© Copyright 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.