Monday, April 30, 2012

Time Really Can Be On Your Side, After All

Have you mastered time?

When asked about his career ambitions in the movie Say Anything, the character Lloyd Dobler (played by Jon Cusack) famously said, "I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed."

But you don't have that luxury. If you are ephemeralizing physical analog media to weightless digital form, by now you know there is always something to record, pre-process, process, post-process, export, convert, or catalog. And if you're working on deadline (say, doing a project for a friend or relative) it can feel like the tasks are coming faster than you can dispatch them. To contradict The Rolling Stones, time is not always on your side.

Or is it? There are four task groups in the audio processing pipeline (see below). Understanding what kind of time commitment each task group takes will help you regain control and master time.

Time Commitment Taxonomy of Audio Processing Tasks.

  1. Background Tasks (Machine/Real-Time). Background tasks are the most efficient use of your time. Recording the source material cannot be accelerated (if there are 60 minutes of audio, it will take exactly 60 minutes to record it) but requires very little intervention (set-up and flipping sides).
  2. Monitored Tasks (Machine/Accelerated). Monitored tasks take time proportional to the recording length but are anywhere from 2x to 15x accelerated. Less efficient than background tasks, although your active intervention is usually limited to set-up and pressing "go."
  3. Automated Tasks (Human/Accelerated). Automated tasks are similar to monitored tasks, with the additional step of having to evaluate results, sometimes adjusting controls and repeating until desired results are achieved.
  4. Manual Tasks (Human/Real-Time). Manual tasks are the least efficient use of your time. They are hands-on and can be frustratingly repetitive. But, in the end, the quality of the work you do here elevates a merely good result to studio-quality.
Assign background and moniored tasks to large blocks of time when you are at home but need to be doing other things. Take on automated and manual tasks when you are comfortable giving them the necessary attention. Time will take care of itself.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #30           

Artist: Philip Glass
Title: Satyagraha
Genre: Opera
Year: 1980

Satyagraha, based on the life of Mahandas K. Gandhi, is a 3-LP set. Yet, I was able to completely process it in course-record time. How? Despite its running time of nearly 2 hours, there are only nine (9) scenes/tracks. This minimized the slowest manual task of isolating tracks for export. Very efficient.
            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #31           

Artist: Chick Corea
Title: Children's Songs
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1983

In contrast, Chick Corea's Children's Songs allocates its seemingly short 45 minutes of running time to 20 individual tracks, only three of them longer than 2 minutes. This maximized the slowest manual task of isolating tracks for export. It took me longer to process this one disc than all of Satyagraha. Very inefficient.
© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Welcome to Surface to Air

To celebrate a coming of age at In Aurem A2D, we're making some changes.

First, we're unveiling our cool new logo.

[Logo design: Janet Raugust, Chicago IL]

Second, the blog formerly known as In Aurem (In One Ear ...) is now Surface to Air. New name, same commitment to good science, solid technique and reasoned opinion. The name Surface to Air succinctly captures our central mission: triangulating among relevant topics and trends at the intersection of the analog music past and the weightless digital future.

Chances are, you've arrived via one of the posts republished at Music Think Tank, originally appearing here as: How Vinyl and iPods Ganged Up to Kill the Audio CD; What Can You Do When Your Dreams Come True, and It's Not Quite Like You Planned; Can the Cloud Satisfy an Army of Musical Bit Snobs?; and Decide What to Be and Go Be It.

You also might be interested in how we skewered some of the Mastered for iTunes hysteria, discussed how to achieve quality, and confronted the question, how many bits in infinity? And we frequently offer advice on ephemeralizing physical analog media to high-resolution digital with an emphasis on preserving numeric integrity and fidelity to the original.

So, if this is your first visit, feel free to check out some of more popular posts or browse through the archive. And thank you for your continued readership.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #29           

Artist: Van Morrison
Title: A Period of Transition
Genre: Rock
Year: 1977

From "Still, like any period of transition, this is somewhat tentative and uneven, with its best moments being, at best, minor masterpieces. Yet there's a charm to the album Morrison and co-producer Mac Rebennack have made, a laid-back organic feel that may not be exciting but it's inviting -- all the more so when it's seen as the transitional effort it is." Not unlike this blog piece.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

We Need to Talk About Our Relationship (With Music)

How is your relationship with music these days?

London Telegraph journalist Lucy Jones fears we are losing our respect for music. "Our listening is often quicker, shallower, and of lesser quality, through tiny computer speakers and low bit-rate streams and downloads. It is in danger of degrading and trivialising what we’re hearing."

[Image: 8,730,221 Suns from Flickr (Partial)]

But is sound quality really the issue? Generations have grown up discovering new music through a low bit-rate source — radio — without detriment. Eliminating computer speakers and earbuds from consideration, the majority of home listeners unfortunately are still listening to music using a variety of mediocre, mismatched, incorrecly installed and improperly operated audio gear. Yet they somehow find enjoyment.

I believe we are losing respect for music, as a side effect of losing respect for knowledge in general. In the words of self-described futurist Gerd Leonhold, "Access [to music] is replacing ownership, like it or not. Participate or become insignificant." When mere access replaces ownership, it also replaces understanding and appreciation.

Culture is predicated on shared knowledge and experience. Social networking is predicated on sharing links, passing one's access to information to others without really transferring knowledge or understanding. More "media outlets" exist to re-blog and re-tweet the news without further comment than to report it originally. Status on discussion boards is conveyed based on a person's number of posts, not the validity of their arguments. Klout scores equate influence with volume.  Social networking is our new shared experience base; books have been supplanted by bookmarks.

What is the solution? Reaffirm your relationship with music. Become an active filter again. Don't just share or like something — tell us why. The above image is taken from an extraordinary work. Starting in 2007, artist Penelope Umbrico has systematically searched flickr for photos tagged with the keyword "sunset," processed them and added them to an evolving collage. The title reflects the current count (over eight million). The least we can do is actively curate our dematerialized music libraries with a fraction of that source material.

But, if you must break up with music, upload a farewell playlist of kiss-off songs to Spotify. I've given you access.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #28           

Artist: Jaco Pastorius
Title: Word of Mouth
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1981

Recorded in 1981 at the height of the bassist Jaco Pastorius' career, while still with Weather Report and six years before his untimely death, Word of Mouth showcases his compositional skills, as well as a starstudded big band including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Peter Erskine, and Jack DeJohnette. Muscial networking at its finest.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mastered for Mom: The High-Resolution Audio Debate Hits Home

Rolling Stone reported that musician and studio-quality digital audio advocate Neil Young has applied for trademarks indicating he has a high-res audio streaming service in development. The inventor of a lossy compressed audio codec used his website to argue that high-res digital is a waste of bandwidth. So who gets caught in the middle of this high-fidelity debate? My mother.

Mom now has an iPod, a birthday gift from some of my siblings. And I have accepted the challenge that, by Mothers Day 2012, I will have transformed two shoeboxes of her cassette tapes into a collection of iPod-friendly digital song files. The project enables me to confront the high-res v. compressed audio debate head-on.

The tapes cut a swath through some of the easiest of Easy Listening: Michael Crawford, Vic Damone, Ferrante & Teicher, Kathy Lee Gifford. (When did KLG record and release enough material to have a 2-tape "Best of ..." collection?) Cynics or audiophiles would argue that some combination of my mother's untrained ear, her relatively low-fi playback path (iPod to JBL personal speaker) and a lack of subjective artistic merit in the material would justify a quick-and-dirty A2D transfer process. But we don't advocate quick-and-dirty at In Aurem.

Apparenly, neither does Neil Young. According to the press release, his Pono service will present "the studio quality sound that artists and producers heard when they created their original recordings." Mom's music deserves nothing less. Recording the digital archive copy of a tape is linear and real-time; recording at low bit rate saves you no time over recording at high bit rate. So why not record in high resolution? Your downstream tools in the audio clean-and-repair pipeline produce better results with more information to chew on.

Christopher "Monty" Montgomery (of Ogg Vorbis fame) would take exception to that. But all his time-worn perceptual and subjective arguments — 16-bit/48 KHz source resolution is "good enough" and compression effects are "inaudible" — can be dismissed by the fact that 24-bit/96KHz (or higher sampling rate) is the standard for digital recording. If we can accommodate the bandwidth and storage, we might as well play back the studio master that the talent approved.

Only, I don't have the bandwidth and storage in this case. I have an 8 GB iPod and a lot of material to store on it. Ulitmately, I need an iPod-compatible compressed format in which to export my 24/96 masters, striking the optimal balance of fidelity to the original and small footprint. The finalists are:
  1. 256KBit/sec constant-rate Apple AAC produced from iTunes.
  2. 256KBit/sec constant-rate MP3.
  3. Variable bit-rate MP3 targeting "standard" quality.
Using the methodology and test set from my "Mastered for iTunes" analysis, the variable-bit-rate MP3 was proven to be closest (or near-closest) to the 24/96 master than the other two formats in all cases, and produced a signifcantly (>20%) smaller file in all cases. Results below.

(Blue text represents best result per column.)

Fidelity is always important. Compression is sometimes necessary. My approach to Mom's music is: 1) record in 24/96; 2) process in 32-bit floating-point; and 3) export tracks to "-V 2" variable-bit-rate MP3 files. The results so far are proving it was the correct choice. See you on Mothers Day.

            Analog-to-Digital Restoration #27           

Artist: Frank Sinatra
Title: Point of No Return
Genre: Vocal
Year: 1951

As they used to sing on Sesame Street, "one of these things is not like the others." Standing apart from the Easy Listening titles in my mother's shoeboxes is this Sinatra collection of brooding ballads. I may keep a high-res copy for myself; a little something, you know, for the effort.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.