Friday, December 20, 2013

Yuletide By the Fireside, and Joyful Memories There

It's an established tradition at In Aurem A2D to use holidays as opportunities for Surface to Air Full Circle music challenges. Our last was on Valentine's 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 (as I always do).

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 Christmas in the USA, our starting/ending song is Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" from the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas. After ephemeralizing my own LP copy of Charlie Brown to weightless high-res digital, I donated it to the Library of Congress in 2012.

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

For the first time, a list clocks in at 60 minutes on the nose. As a bonus, we included two consecutive Everly Brothers covers that both had other relevant metadata connections and were recorded by male/female duos. Previous lists can be found in the Surface to Air 2012 Retrospective.

Merry Christmas!

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #63            

Artist: Linda Ronstadt
Title: Get Closer
Genre: Rock
Year: 1982

In an earlier piece on sustainable business models, we profiled a vinyl-to-digital restoration of an example of Linda Ronstadt's mid-career collaboration with Nelson Riddle. Get Closer is a title from her earlier "rocker chick" period, the music that got her elected to the Rock -n- Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2014. Well-deserved.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

While cleaning/organizing her parents' basement over Thanksgiving weekend, my wife Ellen came across one of her childhood craft projects, a monogrammed sitting mat constructed from two pieces of naugahyde, blanket-stitched together and stuffed with newspaper.

Taking it apart, we discovered it wasn't just stuffed with "newspaper." It contained a particular newspaper — the complete Minneapolis Star-Tribune edition of Sunday, April 23, 1972 — an unexpected and surprising time capsule.

How do articles selected for publication in one physical newspaper on a non-historic day more than forty years ago speak to the world today? More than you would think.

Nation/World. The Vietnam War was still going on, the Star-Trib reporting on a bombing campaign being waged south of Hanoi.
Today. Unfortunately, war is a constant. But today, manned campaigns attacking large areas in hope of hitting targets of interest have been largely replaced with more focused strikes by unmanned drones.

Science. The Star-Trib reported that astronauts John W. Young and Charles M. Duke, Jr. of Apollo 16 were exploring the Moon, having landed on April 20, 1972. [Note: Duke would famously leave a photo of his family on the lunar surface before departing on April 27th.]
Today. NASA can successfully drop unmanned space robots on Mars for exploration and data gathering. But no human being has stepped foot on another celestial body since 1972 (Apollo 17). Echoing President John F. Kennedy's promise of the early 1960's, NASA has pledged to return a man to the Moon before the end of the decade.

Sports. Ted Harris, Captain of the Minnesota North Stars NHL hockey team, was threatening to defect to the Winnepeg Jets of the newly-formed World Hockey Association (WHA) because the Stars would not add a no-trade clause to his two-year contract.
Today. The median salary for an NHL player in 1972 was $25,000 (highest was $200K). The WHA broke the reserve clause, bringing free agency to hockey, later merging with the NHL in 1979. The median NHL salary is now $1.4M (highest is $8.7M). It is now common for star athletes in all team sports to have no-trade clauses, identifying to which deep-pocketed teams in glamorous media markets they would accept a trade. Still, ESPN reported that Derek Stepan of the New York Rangers refused to report to 2013 training camp in a contract dispute. [Footnote: Harris stayed with Minnesota, but was traded to the Detroit Red Wings during the 1973 season. He later coached the North Stars for three seasons 1975-1978.]

Real Estate/Inflation. A 4-bedroom colonial in the South Harriet Park neighborhood of Edina MN, listed in the classifieds, was on the market for $69,900.
Today. South Harriet Park is located close to the now-popular 50th & France area for "shopping, dining and entertainment." 4-bedroom houses in this neighborhood command more than $1M. [Source: Edina Realty.] Houses from the 70's are likely to have been torn down to make way for new construction.

Weather. 4 inches of snow was threatening to cancel the 1972 home opener for the Minnesota Twins baseball team the following day.
Today. Some things never change. Snow threatens Opening Day in northern cities almost every season. But we are more likely to get weather information off our smartphones at any time of day than from a morning or evening newspaper.

I like physical newspapers. (I get three on Fridays.) Breakfast isn't the same without one. But I am no luddite clinging to old media. The online edition of The New York Times is an essential tool; a wealth of industry news reaches me via LinkedIn and Twitter. And, of course I researched the salient details of the above topics on the web.

With news on a constant digital feed and the internet archiving all human activity for perpetuity, can the events reported on any routine day in any particular city again be significant, if only in hindsight?

            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #62            

Artist: Jethro Tull
Title: Thick as a Brick
Genre: Rock
Year: 1972

Thick as a Brick is the fifth studio album by the UK band Jethro Tull. It reached number 1 on the Billboard 200 in the United States upon release in 1972. The original LP packaging opens up as a 12-page newspaper (parody), The St. Cleve Chronicle. Later LP editions would condense this to the standard four-side gatefold (draining it of much charm and humor). For the 2012 release of the sequel Thick as a Brick 2, a mock online newspaper StCleve was set up.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

If You Don't Answer, I'll Just Ring It Off the Wall

[Image credit: "Hanging on the Telephone" by Aitch]
It occurred to me that I have been devoting all of my recent blog bandwidth to opinionizin' and have neglected one of my core missions, to offer advice on maximizing the value of your weightless digital music library. So let's talk ringtones.

Just as custom Walk-Up music in Major League Baseball parks herald a particular player's plate or bullpen appearance, custom ringtones allow you to announce the arrival of a call from a specific contact with a unique sound effect. All modern phones come with a standard ringtone library; most will allow you to upload sound files to create new ones. And for-purchase ringtones based on hit songs is big business.

But you know all this. What you may not know is that you can harvest music from your legally-purchased weightless digital library to create unlimited free custom ringtones, without having to worry about copyright or ownership rights.

What makes a good ringtone?
  • It should be personalized, an artist or a song that reminds you of the caller.
  • It should have energy. The caller is important to you.
  • It should be an instrumental passage, preferably the introductory or bridge bars of the song sometimes called a vamp. Vocals just complicate editing.
My preference is for a ringtone to be short — 10-15 seconds — so that it repeats, like a conventional phone ringing. Thus a "good" ringtone is judged on how it sounds played in loop mode. To achieve seamless looping, there need to be compatible zero crossings (ascending or descending) at the beginning and end of the selected passage, so that there is no sound hiccup when it repeats. The editing process to extract a ringtone from a longer work is exactly the same as the steps taken to remove a scratch or pop, only you save what you extract instead of what you join. [Instructions here.] Finally, I like to choose the endpoint to be a transition where you as a listener expect the musical pattern to change but instead it loops back to the beginning.

Some examples I recently created (click links for sound):
  • My ringtone for my wife. We like Moby and Ellen likes the Bourne movies. (Let's not kid ourselves, she likes Matt Damon.) So a natural fit would be a passage from the Bourne theme, Extreme Ways.
  • Ellen's ringtone for me. No-brainer. David Byrne is one of my musical heroes, so we picked a passage from I Zimbra by Talking Heads.
  • My ringtone for my mother. No one knows Mom's musical tastes better than I, having made high-res digital transfers of all her cassettes to fill her iPod. But not a lot of her music meets the criteria above. I settled on the opening of Clarke's Trumpet Voluntary, as played by The Canadian Brass.
  • Ellen's ringtone for her father. Had to be jazz. Many choices, including "Harvard Blues" by Duke Ellington (Tony is an alum). But, in the end we settled on the iconic piano vamp from Take Five by The Dave Brubeck Quartet.
Be creative. Have fun.

            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #61            

Artist: Talking Heads
Title: Fear of Music
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1979

Fear of Music is the third studio album by Talking Heads. The album reached number 21 on the Billboard 200 in the United States and peaked at number 33 on the UK Albums Chart. Three songs were released as singles between 1979 and 1980: "Life During Wartime," "I Zimbra," and "Cities." I loved the original radio promo for the album, a robotic monotone voice repeating "The Talking Heads have a new album, it's called Fear of Music," over and over. It would be worth violating my "instrumental" rule to have this as a ringtone.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Artists are Stars. Albums are Planets. Tracks are Moons.

Our title is taken from the designers' introduction to Planetary, an iPad app for visualizing your music collection as solar systems. Planetary has been acquired by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum as its first source code installation.

Apps are infinite objects. There is no limit on the number of people who can simultaneous possess a copy (Planetary has been downloaded more that 3.5 million times), each copy is identical, and does not degrade over time. However, no one can create the app without its source code. There is one copy of the source, making it a scarce object. But is it significant? Can source code be, in effect, a weightless digital work of art?

Damn straight.

I speak from first-person perspective, having been an hands-on programmer for more than 20 years. While not sure I ever became an artist, I was at least a skilled craftsman. There is a creative process to software design, whose hallmarks must be celebrated.

Source code has form, composition, the designer's point of view. The best examples have grace, elegance of expression, economy of language. For every line of code present, there are an untold number of lines that were rejected as either inadequate or superfluous. Great source code is as distinctive as fine literature. It informs, illuminates, educates.

Furthermore, source code must be preserved, because it can only be built for a specific period of time. It may depend on libraries that are no longer maintained by their authors. The hardware platform and operating system for which it was designed may be obsolete. As Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope wrote in the Cooper-Hewitt curatorial statement, "Software and hardware are separate but inescapable companions that exact a sometimes profound and warping, and sometimes destructive, influence on one another." And companies don't last forever. (Bloom, creators of Planetary, closed in November 2012.)

I hope the Cooper Hewitt continues to acquire significant code for this collection. For consideration, I submit Rob Pike's landmark graphics system for the Blit terminal, circa 1983. If you are reading this piece on a computer screen with multiple, overlapping, active windows, you have Mt. Pike to thank. If you are reading this on a mobile device, you should appreciate the need to preserve the generation of interactive techniques that enabled it. And studying the Blit source code taught me everything I ever needed to learn about guru-class programming.

Related: Taxonomy of Objects, Selfish Design.

            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #60            

Artist: Jack DeJohnette
Title: Special Edition
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1979

"The first (and mightiest) of NEA Jazz Master and Grammy Award–winning drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition ensembles offered a sound that in many ways was revolutionary in modern contemporary and creative improvised music circa 1980. This CD deserves a definitive five-star rating for the lofty place it commands in the evolution of jazz headed toward new heights and horizons." [Allmusic] JDJ is one of my musical heroes, AND this release contains the memorable track, Journey to the Twin Planet.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

A Day in the Life of The Spectrum

When was the last time you listened to a single pre-programmed radio station for a full day? If you do, any problems with its format will quickly reveal themselves.

My wife and I just returned from our annual August Detroit-to-Minneapolis road trip. Three solid days of driving (in a seven-day excursion), including one blissful day following the Great River Road scenic byway along the Mississippi from Dubuque IA, to Red Wing MN.

Normally SiriusXM's The Spectrum channel competes with Detroit FM station WDET for bandwidth while we're in the car. But for the first day in the wild, we listened to The Spectrum exclusively (12 hours). After that, and after I decided to write this piece, we listened exclusively for two more days. Its "spectrum of rock" format has several problems, for which I offer SiriusXM possible solutions. You're welcome.

Problem: Repitition. The spectrum of rock is neatly packaged into a cycle of artists that is repeated roughly every four hours. We arbitrarily identified the start of the cycle as the song, If I Loved You by Delta Rae. (Co-written by Lindsey Buckingham, IIYL has displaced Bruce Springsteen's Girls in Their Summer Clothes as the saddest song ever. Scroll down to the comments to learn why.) The Spectrum plays a set combination of "new" artists and "heritage" artists during the cycle, and the treatment of each has unique problems.
Solution: There are six cycles in a day. Rather than repeat the same roster of artists in each cycle, venture out to introduce some percentage of different artists in each of the first three cycles, then venture back in the trailing three to come full circle.

Problem: Music Stagnovery. To their credit, SiriusXM includes a healthy percentage of new or emerging artists in The Spectrum programming, addressing the much-discussed music discovery "problem" (a problem that has never plagued me). But they play the one promoted single from any of these artists, reinforced by so-called Spectrum Tastemaker online voting. The discovery process stagnates, leaving the listener in a state of music stagnovery, wanting to hear more from these artists.
Solution: Create a new channel of the so-called Bakers Dozen weekly Spectrum listener favorite artists to showcase additional material.

Problem: Promotion Lockout. So-called heritage artists like Pearl Jam, The Avett Brothers and Elvis Costello are among the tent poles of The Spectrum programming. However, each of these acts has a new album coming out in the next couple months, and the one promoted single from those albums has locked out all other PJ, AB ad EC material (more stagnovery). I've already made my future purchase decision based on the first couple plays (yes, I prefer to own music) — move on.
Solution: Resume regular programming for these artists, and promote the new material as available for free streaming at SiriusXM website. Maybe even free download.

Problem: Stealth Promotion. No matter the time of day or program host, post-play patter for Coldplay included the factoid that the band had recorded a song for the soundtrack of an upcoming movie. And always that Lenny Kravitz extended his acting career with an appearance in the same movie. While sounding folksy and conversational, all the factoids get the convoluted movie title exactly right and include the release date. I know a commercial when I hear one.
Solution: Transparency. "Coldplay programming is made possible by Lionsgate Films, presenting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, in theatres November 22nd." Works for NPR.

Automakers are already hedging their bets on the long-term viability of satellite radio by including user-customizable internet streaming services like Pandora, Spotify and I Heart Radio in their multimedia infotainment units, as well as content aggregators like Aha Radio by Harman. (The satellite tuner would follow the CD player as the latest one-trick component to be eliminated.) To stay competitive, SiriusXM must either abandon broadcast for internet streaming or find creative ways to add diversity to mass customization.

            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #59            

Artist: Charles Mingus
Title: Mingus Ah Um
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1959

The Penguin Guide to Jazz calls this album "an extended tribute to ancestors" (and awards it one of their rare crowns), and Mingus's musical forebears figure largely throughout. One of my favorite tracks, the oft-covered "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" is a tribute to saxophonist Lester Young, who had died shortly before the album was released. "Self-Portrait in Three Colors" (speaking of the spectrum) was originally written for the John Cassavetes film Shadows about Beat-Era jazz in New York City, but appeared herein for the first time.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Cassette Store Called ...

Riding the coat tails of Record Store Day (20-April-2013), it was just announced that 7-September-2013 will be the first International Cassette Store Day. I swore this had to be a parody when I first got the Tweet, but the organizers seem sincere and committed (if misguided).
International Cassette Store Day makes no sense. Need convincing? Let me count the ways.
First, there is the name. We all know what a record store is. Record Store Day was created to celebrate them — the neighborhood bricks-and-mortar independent music retailer — not any particular music delivery format. The Cassette Store Day promotion aspires to be equally cool, but fails for the same reason the "Jerk Store" rejoinder failed in The Comeback episode of Seinfeld: no one knows what a Cassette Store is, or if any exist.
Consider raison d'etre. Why did tapes thrive for a time? The advantage of the cassette over any other competing physical format was portability. That advantage was obliterated by the audio CD, and then they were both rendered obsolete by weightless digital. The original tape-playing Sony Walkman is long gone, and tape decks and CD players have been displaced in new automobiles by iPod/USB ports. What is the market for new cassette titles?

As a result, let's look at market impact. Physical album sales declined 13% between 2011 and 2012. (Source: Neilsen Soundscan). While estimated cassette sales quadrupled in the same time period, they still accounted for 0.1% (one tenth of one percent) of the market share for album sales in 2012. Cassette sales peaked in 1988 (25 years ago!) and bottomed out in 2005. A Cassette Day sales bump would produce an insignificant change in a dying sector.
 Finally, there is sleeping with the enemy. Record Store Day was created at least in part as a protest against online music retailers threatening the livelihood of bricks-and-mortar record stores. The organizers of Cassette Store Day have elected to include online retailers in the promotion. If there are bricks-and-mortar cassette stores, aren't they afraid online cassette stores will kill their already-unsustainable business?
Let's celebrate September 7th as the anniversary of the first Miss America pageant (1921) or the opening of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1963). No need to lionize obsolete physical media.
            Physical-to-Digital Restoration #58            

Artist: Kate Bush
Title: The Whole Story
Genre: Alternative
Year: 1986

The Whole Story is a compilation album that reached no. 1 in the UK album chart and was certified 4x Platinum in the UK by the British Phonographic Industry. It is one of the 0.06% (zero point six percent) of the roughly one thousand titles in my lossless, weightless digital library originally sourced on cassette.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Literature Is News That Stays News

There have been recent developments in some news stories we reported in 2012. Let's catch up.

1. The Voices of the Little Monsters Were Exceedingly Unpleasant

In 2012 scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs used non-contact 3D imaging technology to "play" the audio from an 1888 tin sound cylinder from an Edison Talking Doll. This feat enabled the cylinder to be enshrined in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" recordings.

Now, they've done it again, digitally recovering a 128-year-old recording of Alexander Graham Bell's voice, enabling people to hear the famed inventor speak for the first time. The recording ends with Bell saying “in witness whereof, hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell."

In the case of the Bell recording, 2D scanning technology was used to map the surface of a circular disc to rectangular format, a technique developed over many trial runs harvesting audio from damaged 78 rpm records. The great inventor's voice can be heard here. Details and images from the project are here as Cat. No. 287881-A.

2. The Social Bandwagon: Everyone {Likes, Retweets +1's} a Winner

Artistic works that build their audience slowly and sustain it for long periods are becoming rare. Most works live and die with their debut. 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.

But now,  according to the New York Times, a former statistics professor named Vinny Bruzzese has started to aggressively pitch a service he calls script evaluation. For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success.

At best, the results confuse correlation with causation, the so-called Nickels Paradox. At worst, the analysis ignores originality. While, according to Mr, Bruzzese, bowling scenes tend to appear in many films that fail [TGD: for other reasons] and are thus "statistically unwise," bowling figures prominently in the enduring hit The Big Lebowski. Bet on the Coen Brothers for a hit, no matter what the historical numbers say.

3. Would Pandora Survive Russian Winter?

Since October 2012, Apple has been hinting they would introduce a streaming audio service in iTunes to compete with Pandora. Google already beat them to the punch, announcing Google Play Music All Access for $7.99/mo. But I don't think Google is a Pandora-killer.

However, Marketplace Radio now reports that an Apple announcement is imminent. Using their industry clout, Apple is securing support for "more functionality, like the ability to rewind or advance or announce the next five songs that are coming up. Things you can’t do on Pandora.” The temperature is dropping.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #57            

Artist: Steve Kuhn
Title: Last Year's Waltz
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1982

[] For a time, singer Sheila Jordan was a regular member of pianist Steve Kuhn's quartet, a group also including bassist Harvie Swartz and drummer Bob Moses. This live set finds the band performing five Kuhn originals, one apiece by Swartz and Steve Swallow, plus "I Remember You," "Confirmation" and a brief medley. Although Jordan functions as a member of the band, her highly appealing singing is the main reason to acquire this memorable and well-rounded disc. (The presence of this disc in my library may explain why I also own one title by Bob Moses as bandleader. Follow the metadata.)

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Solitude the Mind Gains Strength and Learns to Lean Upon Itself

The tragic events surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon have given me reason to reflect on a lost love—running. But, doing so also brought me to reflect on what seems a lost ability in modern man—running without headphones.

From roughly the late-80s to the mid-90s I was a competitive runner, at distances 5K-marathon, and bicycle racer, combining the two disciplines in the running/cyclng biathlon (with some success). Even after retiring from competiton, I continued to run until halted by a chronic back condition in 2002, and continued to road cycle until being hit by a car in 2004. Now I am left with trail riding on my mountain bike.
Distance running and cycling require significant time investment, and are often solo pursuits. There are interval sessions on the track, paceline drills, long runs of 1-3 hours, long rides of 4-6 hours. I looked forward to and felt restored by the time spent, engaged in the surroundings and accompanied by nothing more than my inner dialogue—noodling over private troubles, working through design problems (for most of my competitive years, I was a practicing software hacker nerd at Bell Labs) or deconstucting glories real and imagined (can't tell you under how many different circmstances I won the Tour de France).
Now it bothers me to see virtually every runner on the street, every fellow gym-goer, locked into earbuds, entombed in a coccoon of sound. Olympic swimmers can't even walk the short distance from the locker room to the pool without shutting out the world. "The zone" seems quite lonely.
You encounter quite different sounds running along suburban roads, through Little Italy and Chinatown in Manhattan, on the snowy streets of pre-dawn Toronto, in rural Ireland, or cycling the backroads of New Jersey and northern Michigan. Why homogenize them? The experience of running the Boston Marathon, as I did in 1990 and 1991, is one of literally being applauded every step of the way until the deafening din of Boylston Street and the finish. Why shut it out?
Just because high-quality weightless digital packaging make it possible to take your music everywhere doesn't mean you have to. Re-engage with the simple act of being alone with your thoughts.
             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #56            

Title: Eagles
Artist: The Long Run
Genre: Rock
Year: 1979

Like many a marathoner, the Eagles had hit the wall before releasing their final studio album, The Long Run. There are a couple memorable cuts, new member Timothy B. Schmit's contractually-obligated songwriting and vocal contribution, and a lot of forgettable filler. But, like a wise marathoner, they should have known when to hang 'em up; otherwise that one-too-many effort is really painful.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What Would You Pay for Used Digital Access Rights?

The United States Supreme Court has ruled 6-3 to uphold your right to resell legally-purchased physical goods contaning copyrighted elements, even if the copyright holder objects. Meanwhile, a U.S. District Court judge ruled to block your right to resell legally-purchased digital downloads containing copyrighted elements. Where does this lead?

If companies cannot limit consumer ownership rights to physical goods, that may just hasten their transition to all-digital delivery. But courts are fickle, and future rulings could extend re-sale rights to digital downloads. Better for companies to keep digital goods in the cloud and sell access to them.

The major players are taking steps to make non-exclusive rights to access cloud-based digital goods feel like ownership. Since the November 2012 announcement in that the Supreme Court would hear the Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons case, both Apple and Amazon have received patents indicating they are working on technology to permit buyers of e-books and cloud-based music files to resell these products. Don't be fooled into thinking this will give you full ownership rights.

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. And you are free to re-sell them to a willing buyer.

Digital media files  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. But you should be free to re-sell them as long as you actually transfer possession to a buyer; the value of the transaction is based on its convenience.

Cloud-based digital media files are shared objects. Only one copy need exist because possession is retained by the owner (Apple, Amazon) who can sell an infinite number of individual rights to access the file. Amazon's rumored system for selling your "used" Kindle titles merely turns off your access to the book(s) and enables access for someone else. There is no transfer, making it impossible to place a value on the transaction. Why are "used" digital access rights worth any more or less than the original rights?

Furthermore, Amazon has announced Coins, a virtual currency obtained via credit card which will be used by Kindle Fire owners to purchase games, apps, content, and in-app purchases on their tablets. Expect any transaction in the virtual secondary market to be denominated in virtual currency, which amounts to "store credit" issued to the seller. (We all know how coupons convince us to spend more money.) Hard currency enters these walled-off digital ecosystems, but it never comes out.

Ownership of music still trumps access in the cloud when audio fidelity and freedom of choice are considered. All my weightless digital library files play identically, whether the material was originally sourced on vinyl, CD, or legally-purchased download. That same homogeneity should extend to selling any or all of the files, or donating the library after I'm gone. Stand up for First Sale protection everywhere.

             Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #55            

Title: The Big Band Sessions
Artist: Anita O'Day
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1979

The Big Band Sessions (2-LP, Verve VE-2-2534) is a re-packaging of five Anita O'Day titles: Anita O-Day Swings Cole Porter with Billy May (V-2118), Anita O'Day and Billy May Swing Cole Porter (V-2141), Trav'lin' Light (V2157), Cool Heat (V-8312) and All the Sad Young Men (V-8442). 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 be necessary to sell this digital re-packaging — one, five, six? Any number greater than zero is too many.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Saturate Before Using

The Leap Motion controller made quite a splash at SXSW Interactive 2013, bringing tablet-style gesture-based interaction to the open space between you and your computer. Imagine rifling through a virutal record bin with the same finger-walking motion you'd use on the real thing.

[Image credit: Russell Christian, "Liner Notes."]

 Meanwhile, Digital Music News' Paul Resnikoff speculated about music apps or websites that do not exist (but should). He included "a truly open source, comprehensive music database"on his wish list, containing deep metadata on all artists and releases.
Why not combine the two? Let your fingers do the walking through the definite cloud-based trove of liner notes.
Music fans of a certain age remember liner notes, which told you everything you needed to know about the making of an LP, and then some. Shrunk to inconsequential size in a CD jewel box, virutally nonexistent in the weightless digital world.
Online music information services have only the basics for an LP or CD — artist, genre, release year, track list. Maybe for a given track, they will have major collaborators and composer. The information is spotty and contains errors, especially for legacy material. Why — because the cloud doesn't have physical copies against which to cross check.

However, there is one music archive in the cloud that has physical copies: the John Peel Archive, The LP collection of the late BBC radio host John Peel, more than 25,000 titles. You can already interactively browse through the album covers of this specific, significant collection. Why not use it as the starting point of the definitive liner notes archive?

An opportunity beckons to catalog the crap out of this collection, extract the deep metadata, saturate us with information, and put it online — every musician on every track and what they played, producer, recording studio, recording dates, session players and background vocalists who have never gotten credit, composers. All collected in a searchable database. Imagine the bar bets settled. "Show me every song recorded between 1965-1975 on which Robert Plant played cowbell." Now there's a Spotify playlist.

Given the number of records and the pedigree of the Peel collection, this would more or less create the definitive chronicle of popular music over a generation. Both scholarly and fun. And, instead of just repeating the same step of photographing the physical material time after time, every new title cataloged adds more and more value. The information content snowballs over time.

Gracenote, underwrite this effort and make it happen. Our fingers are getting itchy.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #54            

Artist: Jackson Browne
Title: Saturate Before Using
Genre: Rock
Year: 1972

Windows Media Player lists Jackson Browne as the only "contributing artist" on any track on SBU. This ignores the contributions of session players Russell Kunkel (drums) and Leland Sklar (bass). Just as the Funk Brothers anchored Motown, Kunkel, Sklar and guitarist Danny Kortchmar formed the backbone of a session band that produced hits for virtually every solo artist recording in southern California in the 70s and 80s. (And I only know this from reading a lot of liner notes back in the day. You can find similar patterns of session talent in London.) It's time they all got credit in the cloud.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Secret of DNA's Success is That It Carries Information

It has been said that, as humans, music is in our DNA. According to promising results published in the journal Nature by researchers at the European Bioinformatics Institute, practical, high-capacity, low-maintenance information storage in synthetic DNA may be feasible. What is the implication for music?

[Image credit: Janusz Kapusta. Title quote: Jonathan Wells.]

High-resolution digital audio (24-bit samples at 96KHz or higher) is big data. The transition of music from physical media to weightless high-resolution digital form is contributing to the forecasted 50-fold increase in global data by 2020, while hard drive capacity may only grow 15-fold in the same period [David Epstein]. There is a growing storage gap.
Enter DNA. Just as digital information can be encoded as arbitrarily long sequences of 1's and 0's, (bits) it is also possible to imagine the same information as arbitrarily long sequences of other characters, including 0's, 1's, and 2's (trits). EBI scientists Nick Goldman and Ewan Birney have devised a mapping from a string of trits to a DNA string with no repeated nucleotides {A, C, G, T}, as well as scheme for organizing arbitarily long DNA strings into overlapping fixed-lengths runs for sequencing with robust error-correction. The result is a method for encoding digital information in synthetic DNA, a volumetric (rather than planar) storage medium that requires no power and can last indefinitely.
Here's how it works (slightly simplified):
  1. Digital music is encoded as a String S0 of 24-bit samples.
  2. S0 is converted from binary to String S1 in base-3, transforming each 24-bit sample to a sequence of 18 trits.
  3. Add length information (20 trits) and zero-padding to produce a string S2 whose length N is a multiple of 25.
  4. Convert S3 to a DNA string S3 of nucleotide (nt) characters {A, C, G, T} according to a mapping based on the last character written and the next trit in the sequence, such that there are no repeated nt.
  5. Split S3 into overlapping segments of 100 nt, each offset from the previous by 25 nt. This step provides decoding redundancy for error correction. Each nt is contained in up to four segments. For a string S3 of length N, N/25 − 3 segments are produced.
Encoding high-resolution digital audio as a DNA string.

According to this method, 1 second of 24/96 digital audio comprising 576K bytes would generate a DNA string of more than 16 Million nt, a 28x size expansion that seems inefficient. (Digital aduio is typically compressed for storage, not expanded.) But DNA is incredibly dense. Even with the data size expansion, DNA encoding achieves a data density of 2.2 Million GB/gram, which translates to more than 1200 hours of high-definition digital stored in a single gram of DNA barely visible to the human eye. (That's twice the size of my entire library.)
Goldman and Birney proved the viability of their method by encoding digital files of all the Shakespearean sonnets into synthetic DNA, then using standard DNA sequencing software to recover the string for decoding to the original texts.
A media player based on DNA playback is not in our immediate future. The current price of DNA storage is estimated at $7.5 Million per GB, as opposed to $0.05 ("five cents") per GB for magnetic disc space. Furthermore, the speed of DNA sequencing and subsequent decoding to audio does not support real-time playback. The technology is on a 50-year horizon.
            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #53            

Artist: Dan Fogelberg & Tim Weisberg
Title: Twin Sons of Different Mothers
Genre: Rock
Year: 1978

You wouldn't have thought to put the late folk singer/songwriter Dan Fogelberg with jazz flutist Tim Weisberg, but the collaboration worked well, even producing the hit "Power of Gold." A fitting title for our discussion of DNA. 70's hair aside, the two musicians don't really look like twins, a fact they conceded on their followup 1995 release, No Resemblance Whatsoever.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

That Was the Day Before Love Came To Town

It's an established tradition at In Aurem A2D to use holidays as opportunities for Surface to Air Full Circle music challenges. Our last was on Thanksgiving.

[Photo credit: Yehia-elal​aily]

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 (as I always do).

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 Valentine's Day in the USA, our starting/ending song is U2's "When Love Comes to Town" (featuring B. B. King).

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

A worthy effort at almost exactly an hour (within the margin of error on the published running times). However, it makes more use of direct song title to song title transitions than previous lists, something to watch in the future. Previous lists can be found in the Surface to Air 2012 Retrospective.

While you listen to any or all of the tracks along our journey, check out this Brain Pickings thought piece,  Calculating the Odds of Finding Your Soulmate. Happy Valentine's Day!

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #52            

Artist: U2
Title: Rattle and Hum
Genre: Rock
Year: 1988

Music buyers who only know an industry dominated by iTunes can't imagine a time when you needed to buy an entire double LP set just to get the one or two tracks you really wanted. The feature film Rattle and Hum may have been negatively characterized by some critics as "an accidental mockumentary," but the performances are solid. For me, the highlights are "When Love Comes to Town," a hard-charging blues duet with B. B. King, and the equal-parts plaintive and haunting "All I Want Is You."

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Funky Space Reincarnation

High resolution digital audio is big data. For any sizeable collection, we aren't talking gigabytes of data, more like terabytes (1 TB = 1,000 GB = 1,000,000 MB). Where do you store it all, and is your solution reliable?

I'll admit to hard drive paranoia — too many moving parts, too many failure modes Flash drives are my preferred storage solution.

But the 1TB flash drive housing my WAV library of nearly 1,000 full-length titles is nearly full, and my other drives are also maxing out. What's next?

Enter the LaCie Blade Runner, a 4TB USB 3.0 hard drive in a physical package by designer Phillipe Starck that is both beautiful and practical. (See photo, above.) The series of ribs will be immediately recognizable to anyone in the automotive audio business. They serve as a heat sink, dissipating the heat generated by the internal mechanism over a large surface area, eliminating the need for a cooling fan. The sealed enclosure also dampens vibration, and the raised rubber feet prevent vibration from being transferred to the desktop. The result is cool and quiet operation at state-of-the art transfer speed.
Where does all the space go? CD-quality WAV audio (16-bit/44.1 KHz) consumes 1GB for every 95 minutes of material. High-resolution lossless (24-bit/96 KHz) will cost you 1GB for every 29 minutes of audio. (Lossless compression — e.g. FLAC — will cut down the storage requirement, but not all media players support it as a native format and decompression is an additional step in the playback pipeline for those that do.) I prefer keeping material uncompressed.
In my weightless digital library I have 677 titles (600 hours) of 16/44.1 audio, and 300 titles (212 hours) in 24/96. The former is, not surpisingly, source from CD. The latter is almost entirely mastered from vinyl. Together they occupy more than 800 GB of disc space. Factor in album art and miscellaneous other audio and you can see that a 1TB drive will run out of space before I can add ten new 24/96 titles. The 2 TB drive holding the backup copies of mastering projects and FLAC downloads (compression is good for transport) is nearly full as well.
I see a Blade Runner in my future.  
            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #51            

Artist: Marvin Gaye
Title: Here, My Dear
Genre: Soul and R&B
Year: 1978

Ordered by a judge to turn over the profits from two albums to the first wife he'd left, Marvin Gaye produced this bitter, sad, bewildered masterwork. [N.B. The album includes the track used as the title of this piece.] Over sprawling funk tracks, he questions her, himself, love, family, and, of course,  asks, "Why do I have to pay attorney fees?" Both incomparably smooth and incontrovertibly twisted, Here, My Dear is Gaye with the mask off: even the multiple vocal overdubs can't hide his pain and his weariness. — Rickey Wright

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

All Things Must Pass. Maybe.

Atari has filed for bankruptcy in the USA. The filing was not nearly as surprising as the realization that the company, a pioneer in arcade-style video games, is actually still in business in 2013.

[Image credit: Rijk-Jan Koppejan]

Atari is not alone. The downward arc of the PC technology cycle is bringing about exits by several former industry leaders.
Dell is considering going private, perhaps funded by Microsoft. Intel — whose eponymous 'Intel Inside' ad campaign created consumer demand for branded CPUs where none existed — announced it was phasing out manufacture of branded desktop motherboards. HP CEO Meg Whitman, whose company's stranglehold on the business of printing on paper did not lead to innovations in 3D printing, said in an interview, "We've ultimately got to be in the smartphone business."
No technology remains dominant forever. Neither does any music delivery format. Jan Koltai published an extraordinary graphic summarizing the four technology cycles in the music industry 1975-2007. (See below.)
  • Vinyl record sales peaked in 1976 at $344 Million, trending down to near-zero by 1991.
  • Cassettes peaked in 1988 at $450 Million, with demand bottoming out in 2004.
  • CDs peaked in 2007 at $942 Million and are on a steep downward trajectory, falling another 13.5% in 2012.
  • Digital downloads are still on the rise, up 9.1% to a new high in 2012, but are threatened by the growing popularity of streaming audio services.
While technologies fade, they seldom go away completely. Atari's backruptcy filing is intended to shield its US operations from the financial woes of French parent company Atari S. A., so that its assets can be sold to continue a now-profitable line of Android and iOS games. The resurgence of vinyl is well-documented, with double-digit annual sales growth in each of the last five years (though vinyl still represented only 2.4% of physical album sales in 2012). Cassette singles still have a following in the UK, while sales of pre-recorded cassettes fuel the growth of the music industry in Africa.
What goes around.

            Vinyl-to-Digital Restoration #50            

Artist: Old and New Dreams
Title: Playing
Genre: Jazz
Year: 1980

Jazz continuously evolves. Old and New Dreams, founded in 1977 and composed of trumpeter Don Cherry, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden (a personal favorite), and drummer Ed Blackwell, made for a mighty team, performing high-quality free bop in the tradition of the Ornette Coleman Quartet (of which they were all alumni). This Austrian concert CD features the quartet stretching out on three of Ornette’s tunes, plus a song apiece from Cherry, Redman and Haden.

© 2013 Thomas G. Dennehy. All rights reserved.