Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What Can You Do When Your Dreams Come True,
and It's Not Quite Like You Planned

The music industry wishes young listeners would abandon low-bit-rate compressed digital music for harder-to-pirate and more profitable CDs. There is new evidence their dream of abandonment may come true, but not necessarily with the desired outcome.

Physical media is in widespread decline. Billboard reported that CD sales sank 6% in 2011 while digital album downloads rose 20%. (Relatively miniscule, if growing, numbers for vinyl aren't really a factor.)And who is still buying CDs in the USA? Eliminating a statistical outlier, the pan-category juggernaut that is Adele's 21, the top-selling CD in each of the past two years has been a Christmas album (Susan Boyle's The Gift in 2010 and Michael Buble's Christmas in 2011). That buying demographic skews older, and when aging listeners stop buying new music (as they inevitably will), CD sales will stop merely declining and fall off the cliff. Unless, of course, a new generation of buyers replaces them.

Why are CD sales more attractive to labels than digital downloads? Legal precedent is establishing that a digital download transfers a license to the music rather than constituting a sale. Licensing is more lucrative than sales to the artist, often a 50/50 revenue split with the label for a license instead of a 10-20% royalty paid to the artist for a sale. With digital downloads hitting 1.27 billion units in 2011 and rising, that's real money. Ask recent licensing-income lawsuit winner Eminem.

Contrary to the long-held belief that young listeners think lossy compressed music is "just fine," my Harman colleague Dr. Sean Olive has published results from the first peer-reviewed scientific test showing that young listeners will in fact choose CD-quality audio over lossy alternatives when given the choice. Has the dream of a new generation embracing CDs come true? Not so fast.

NPR intern Emily White, self-appointed spokesperson for her generation, wrote that she will never embrace physical media and prefers music access to ownership, triggering an immediate rebuttal from writer/musician David Lowery and a firestorm of debate. Ever the skeptic, I asked around. My unscientific survey of high school and college-age music consumers among my extended family and their friends confirms a strong preference for streaming services where available and a reluctant fallback to acquire digital downloads for situations where streaming services may not be available, e.g. when exercising or navigating the New York City subway system.

So while young listeners may eventually embrace CD quality digital audio, they don't want the platter. As Dr. Olive concludes, "the challenge is to sell sound quality to kids at affordable prices and form factors they desire to own." The new dream.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #36            

Artist: Eagles
Title: One of These Nights
Genre: Rock
Year: 1975

Sometime in the future, Adele may claim the top spot, but (arguably) the #1 best-selling album of all time is Eagles - Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), including three tracks off One of These Nights, the #1 album of 1975. In what may be the Daily Double of obsolete physical media, back in the day you could have purchased this title on Quadraphonic 8-track tape.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Voices of the Little Monsters Were Exceedingly Unpleasant

I think it is a good day in the audio restoration mines when I am able to digitally remove surface noise from an ephemeralized LP that has seen better days. But you have to stand in awe at scientists who can digitize audio from priceless relics — many of them too damaged to play — without actually playing them.

[Photo credit:]

Among the twenty-five 2011 selections for the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of
 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" recordings is an 1888 prototype tin sound cylinder for an Edison Talking Doll. (See above. The tiny phonograph was actually housed inside the doll.) It is a historic artifact on many fronts: the earliest-known commercial sound recording, the first children's recording, and quite possibly the first recording to be made by someone paid to perform for a sound recording (an anonymous Edison employee reciting the first two lines of  "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.")

But, until recently, it was not an audio artifact, rendered silent due to its poor condition (see photo, at right). Technology developed by the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory under funding from the Library of Congress, Department of Energy, and others enabled the deformed cylinder (3" in diameter and 5/8" wide) to be "played" without physical contact using three-dimensional scanning and digital mapping tools to capture sound.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, the process is as follows. A large number of appropriately magnified 2D or 3D sequential digital images of a grooved surface are acquired. Typical resolution is in the sub-micron (< 1/1000th mm) range. Image analysis methods can then be applied to model the local groove shape. Using these models it is possible to calculate the motion a stylus would have made when it passed along these grooves, producing a reference sound file. The reference file can then be post-processed if desired using available audio engineering software tools. A technical presentation on the methods with several restoration examples is available from LBL.

With its audio liberated and preserved by this technology, the Edison Talking Doll cylinder could take its rightful place in the National Recording Registry. Give a listen.

Among the reasons the cylinder is such a rarity is that the Edison Talking Doll was an utter failure in the marketplace. Few were sold; production ceased after only a few weeks. The toy was doomed by some combination of its high cost (two weeks' salary for the average parent; think about that in today's dollars), difficulty to operate, suceptibility to breakage, and fright factor to children. If all that weren't enough, Thomas Edison is said to have admitted, "The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear." Not exactly Tickle Me Elmo.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #35            

Artist: David Bowie
Title: Scary Monsters
Genre: Rock
Year: 1980

From December 25, 1980 Rolling Stone: Where do you go when hope is gone? The artist's next album may see him questing, but on Scary Monsters, he's settling old scores. Slowly, brutally and with a savage, satisfying crunch, David Bowie eats his young.

© 2012 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.