You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Music’ category.

In the last few months I’ve become a fan of Rick Beato’s YouTube channel. I appreciate his “What Makes This Song Great” videos and his lessons about music theory. When his “Audiophile or Audio-Fooled? How Good Are Your Ears?” video was suggested to me by the algo, I watched it and was disappointed by one of its premises: that hi-res or lossless audio files don’t need to be sold because 320kbps (kilobits per second) MP3 files sound great and double-blind listening tests have proved it.

I’ve been listening to digital music for a few decades now, and I know that the MP3 and AAC encoders of the last decade are excellent. I listen to lossy-encoded files regularly and don’t worry that I’m missing any details. However, as more of my music purchasing becomes digital (I own lots of shiny discs), I don’t want my choices to be limited to formats that aren’t flexible. Purchasing lossy-encoded music is a push into a corner.

MP3 and AAC are well-supported formats; let’s assume they are universal and will be supported forever. I will concede that for the sake of this argument. However, what I won’t concede is that if I want to squeeze a lot of lossy-encoded music onto a limited amount of storage, I’ve got a problem. Let’s say I’ve purchased a lot of iTunes Plus (256kbps AAC) or high-bitrate MP3s. I know that the quality of 128kbps AACs and MP3s is fine for my listening. I also know that if I transcode my lossy-encoded files to a lower bitrate, there is a much greater chance of losing details and quality than if I transcoded from a lossless file.

I choose 16-bit, 44.1 kHz (CD-quality) or higher FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) as my preferred music archival and listening format. I transcode to AAC or MP3 as required to move music to portable devices. Well-mastered CD-quality audio sounds great; I don’t hear a different with higher-resolution formats of the same mastering. However, some record labels release hi-res recordings (or vinyl) with greater dynamic range than they release on CD, so I will seek those out for music I really care about. As a consumer of music, I should be given the freedom to make an informed choice as to whether I want to buy lossy, lossless, or hi-res formats.

If a baker refused to sell you an unsliced loaf of bread, wouldn’t that seem hostile? I appreciate sites like Bandcamp that allow the artist to offer and the customer to choose lossy or lossless formats without penalty. It would be great if all digital music vendors and artists felt this way.

I recently purchased my first dedicated headphone amplifier: a FiiO E10 USB DAC. I found that FiiO had a vendor forum on, and FiiO representatives were gathering feedback about a new guitar headphone amp they were developing. When they offered to ship review units to guitarists, I took them up on the offer. Full disclosure before we get any further: FiiO has provided this review unit to me at no cost.  I’d like it even if it wasn’t free, and would buy it to keep it.

The FiiO G01 Guitar Headphone Amplifier

The FiiO G01 Guitar Headphone Amplifier on my small mixing board,

The FiiO G01 is a small, metal box (70 x 47 x 23 mm) with 3mm headphone and “aux in” jacks, a USB Micro-B connector for charging (USB-A-to-USB-Micro-B cable is included), a power switch, and three dials for Drive, Tone, and Volume. It features a pop-out 6mm instrument jack that, when retracted, fits snugly in a recessed area. It has an LED that indicates power and/or charging state.  There are black silicone bands around it that act as bumpers, and another set of red bands was included in the package.

The G01 is powered by an internal battery that’s charged over a powered USB connection. I plugged the included USB cable into an Apple AC adapter to charge the G01. I’ve used the unit for about 1.5 hours and haven’t had to recharge it yet.

I’m primarily a bass player, so I first tried the G01 with my Fender Geddy Lee Jazz Bass. I usually play through a SansAmp Bass Driver DI with a little overdrive; I found the Drive control on the G01 to be a bit powerful on the bass.  I only used it a little bit.  The Tone control acted on the higher frequencies; I dialed it in to about halfway.  Unfortunately, there are no numbers on the dials – they would be useful as one might use the G01 with different guitars or want to practice with different settings for multiple types of music.  The adjustments must be made by ear alone.  The sound I got out of a pair of connected Sennheiser HD203 headphones was pleasing, and I practiced for a while, forgetting that I wasn’t playing through an amp or DI.

I connected the Aux In to two audio sources for testing: a Google Cr-48 Chromebook playing songs from Google Music, and a iPod Nano.  There are no controls on the G01 for that input, so level-setting must be done on the source.  It was easy to dial in a nice blend of bass guitar with the music for practicing.  I practiced along with songs for about 30 minutes at a time during the review, and didn’t ever feel uncomfortable with the sound.

My father-in-law brought over a guitar he built with neck and bridge Carvin “Allan Holdsworth” pickups, and I used the G01 with it.  The guitar had all the pickup mode selections available, so I was able to play in many different modes (single-coil, double-coil, neck only, etc.).  I thought the clean sound was impeccable.  I’m not an electric guitarist (when I play guitar, it’s acoustic), but I cranked up the Drive setting to the max to see what kind of a sound I could get out of the G01.  It was a pretty pleasing overdrive with a bit of distortion that sounded neat cranking out some of the metal riffs I know.  I can see electric guitarists liking the G01’s sound.

In summary: I’ve never been in the guitar headphone amp market, but now I see the utility of the devices.  I recommend you check out the FiiO G01 before you buy anything else.  I’ll be incorporating headphones into my practice regimen now, which should allow me to practice at odd times where it’s not practical to play thorough my amp.  I can also see it being useful for the traveling musician to use during downtime.

Check out my set of G01 pics out on Flickr.

I cross posted this at Head-Fi.

For the past few years I’ve usually bought CDs that are “special edition” or have bonus material. I have also bought DVD-Audio discs to get 5.1 mixes (mainly Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree stuff). These formats get archived as tagged FLAC files on my home server. FLAC is my lossless codec of choice because it is an open specification, supports a wide range of resolutions and channels, has good metadata support, and is supported by a wide range of software. I don’t currently own any FLAC playback hardware, but that’s not critical to me. I play back FLACs on the computer using Foobar2000. It’s also my main ripper/converter and librarian. The only gap it has for me is that it doesn’t support writing album art metadata natively. I use either Album Art Downloader, MP3tag, or iTunes for that. Speaking of metadata, in addition to the essential metadata, I make use of album artist, disc number, and ReplayGain tags.

When I buy music online, I prefer to buy FLACs. I also prefer to buy music that has moderate dynamic range. I’ve found that I enjoy music that has a ReplayGain value of -8dB or less the most. When I see ReplayGain values at or above -10dB, I usually have a bias against the mastering, which probably used at least some brickwall limiting to produce such a high volume. Unfortunately ReplayGain values aren’t a primary specification prior to purchasing music, so I usually have to purchase on reputation. I probably shouldn’t display ReplayGain values in my primary view on Foobar2000, but I do. It’s mainly to make sure the files are tagged with it, but like I said, it does color my anticipation of the music.

My FLACs get transcoded to LAME MP3 v2 (~190kbps) for normal playback, which could be on the computer, an iPod or iPhone, or to an Airport Express via Airplay. If I’m at a computer that has access to my FLAC archives and Foobar2000, I’ll listen to those.

I rarely purchase iTunes Plus (256kbps AAC) or MP3 files (190kbps or better), but when I do it’s with the expectation that I will not transcode them into another lossy codec or to the same codec at a different bitrate. I will burn them to CDs with a note like “from AAC” or “from MP3” to let myself know not to rip the CD later expecting a lossless copy of the original. Sometimes if I’m using a playback device that’s storage-constrained, I will transcode down to AAC or MP3 at ~128kbps. These files aren’t anything I would archive – they’re for playback only.

Speaking of burning CDs, I do burn discs to listen to stuff in the car with a little more quality than just plugging my iPod or iPhone into the aux jack. Like many, I have quite a few CD playback systems around the house and at work. One little quirk I have is that I like to write CD-TEXT on my burns; my car stereo and a few of the players I use support displaying that info. When I burn CDs, I don’t apply ReplayGain or any volume processing. I burn CDs with Nero, CD Architect (rarely, if I want to do some limited mastering, crossfades, or track adjustments), or Foobar2000 (if I don’t want to write CD-TEXT).

As a corollary to my last post, here’s an analogy for you:

The difference between 16-bit (CD-quality) and 24-bit (“HD”) audio is 8 bits, and 2**8 = 256. That means that 24-bit audio can provide up to 256 times the amplitude “depth” of 16-bit.

Let’s compare audio bit depth with water depth. The surface of the water is analogous to unity gain, 0 dB. Unity gain is the loudest representation of sound a digital audio signal can provide. When multiple successive samples hit unity gain, the signal isn’t describing anything during that time. It’s just being loud. Severely brickwall-limited audio can have lots of samples whose value is 0dB. Think of this audio as a swimmer that stays on the water’s surface. They always swim on the top of the water, regardless of the depth.

Let’s say 16-bit audio is like a part of an ocean where there’s a 16-foot-deep coral reef. If a swimmer holds their breath, they can swim down below the surface and explore a bit, and find lots of neat stuff. There’s probably more interesting stuff under the surface of the water than at the top. When audio waveforms steer clear of unity gain (i.e. by not being clipped), more of their original resolution is present.  They can be heard more accurately, just like diving below the surface of the water helps the diver to see the objects that are under water more accurately.

Now, let’s say 24-bit audio is water that’s 256 times deeper than that 16-foot section: about 4100 feet deep; almost a mile. Again, the swimmer could stay on the surface, but they’ll be able to find much more life underneath. Putting on some scuba gear or deep-sea-diving equipment, they’ll be able to go even deeper than when they hold their breath, and potentially find lots more stuff. When audio waveforms don’t hit unity gain and can use at least some of the extra resolution that 24 bits provide vs. 16, they can be played back with even more accuracy. However, if the swimmer (in the case of recorded music, the mastering engineer) stays near the water’s surface, they won’t find much.

Mastering engineers need to learn to swim below the water’s surface before the music industry moves to 24-bit formats by default.

With the CD medium nearing its 30th birthday, I’ve been thinking about what formats and tactics much of the recording industry is using to pull us away from it.

When originally introduced, I don’t think the industry expected that less than 15 years later, it would be possible for users to digitally extract the audio data from the media and compress, tag, and file it on computers. Because there’s no security in the format, the CD is a great compromise of potential audio quality, durability, and accessibility. The only things that hold it back are its resolution (which isn’t as limiting as some in the industry make it seem) and the fact that it’s a stereo format. Since multi-channel, higher-resolution, secured formats like SACD and DVD-Audio haven’t taken off in the market, I think it’s fair to say most users are happy with what the CD delivers. I think if either of those newer formats didn’t include copy protection, more users would embrace them. Especially SACD, which can include a CD-compatible layer.

But the industry shows contempt for the CD and its users. Originally introduced at a higher price point than LPs and cassettes, presumably due to higher quality and to subsidize investment in new manufacturing capabilities, their average price has never decreased. Many of the CD’s of the 80’s were mastered with the ideal of preserving the dynamic range of the original recordings, but over the years, the loudness war has made the audio quality of most popular music a joke.

They’ve tried to kill the jewel case with the Digipak and its ilk for years. The only way that cases with less plastic can be sold as a sustainability issue is if it’s assumed that CD cases are throwaway items. I don’t know anyone that ever bought a CD with the intention of throwing it or its case in the garbage.

Listening to the excellent Home Theater Geeks podcast the other day, guest Steve Guttenberg (no, not the actor) made the point that the industry is building up a catalog of high-resolution masters of up to 24-bit, 192kHz quality. I think they’re hedging their bets on possible successors to the CD. Think about it: in many cases, they’re not even trying to use the full resolution of the CD format. Brick-wall limiting shaves significant chunks of available dynamic range off the content. Many users have migrated from home, speaker-based listening to mobile car- and headphone-listening, which makes the dynamic range issue less noticable. Those are noisy environments. Instead of leaving the dynamic range intact on the recording and letting playback devices handle dynamic range compression (DRC), such as what is available on DVD players, TVs, and set-top boxes, the industry chooses to dumb down the product for the greatest audience.

I think this is all a play to upsell the next disc-based and digital-file formats. Higher quality will be available and may actually be realized, but at a higher price point. Blu-Ray discs with high-res stereo and multi-channel audio along with videos are going to be sold at a premium, probably at least 25% more expensive than the comparable CD. This will help drive up the cost of digital-file versions of the higher-definition content that will most likely use some form of DRM. Even though the industry might have convinced consumers that it caved in when it allowed the sale of unprotected MP3, it didn’t. MP3s aren’t of equal audio quality to CDs, but they’re priced similarly. The industry has the opportunity to make a lot more money selling single digital tracks as well: those offer less profit in physical form. Consider the case of a multi-channel lossless file of the future, with DRM, purchased from a service that restricts the applications or hardware it can play back on. It may be cheaper than its physical counterpart, but the lack of playback flexibility will cripple the benefits of not having to worry about the media.

Via Scott: Slashdot: Apple in Talks to Improve Sound Quality of Music Downloads:

Apple and music labels are reportedly in discussions to raise the audio quality of of the songs they sell to 24-bit. The move could see digital downloads that surpass CD quality, which is recorded at 16 bits at a sample rate of 44.1kHz. It would also provide Apple and the music labels with an opportunity to ‘upgrade’ people’s music collections, raising extra revenue in the process. The big question is whether anyone would even notice the difference between 16-bit and 24-bit files on a portable player, especially with the low-quality earbuds supplied by Apple and other manufacturers.

The recording industry can’t even use 16 bits effectively, and they want to make consumers think that 8 more bits is automatically better in quality. I can just see the ads now: “New 24-bit iTunes HD; it’s 8 louder!”

Louder is not better. Demand better quality CDs. Take a seat and listen on speakers or nice headphones every once in a while. There’s still music out there that sounds great; purchase it and perhaps the industry will realize there are still people who demand a quality product, not just one with higher resolution. A brickwall-limited recording won’t sound any better with 8 more bits.


Update (2012-Mar-10):  Chris Montgomery (Monty @ posted a fine essay about this that blows mine away.  Go read his take!  Monty is a personal hero of mine, having developed the Ogg Vorbis codec.

As noted here several times since it’s release (and most famously by Rip Rowan on ProRec), Rush‘s 2002 comeback album, Vapor Trails, was poorly mixed and mastered compared to their earlier albums.  In certain circles it became the poster child of the downside of the loudness war; in fact, it’s referenced as an example on that Wikipedia page I just linked to.  Many Rush fans have begged for a re-release with more dynamic range that’ll allow the music to “breathe” as opposed to being just a wall of sound.

The 2009 release of Retrospective III featured remixes of “One Little Victory” and “Earthshine” from Vapor Trails that showed the benefits of re-treating the album.  To my ears, much of the mud from the mix has been drained out.  I think the individual instruments can be heard better and there’s a bit more ebb and flow in the different movements of each song.  They are more of a joy to listen to.

Here are some short samples of the original and remixed songs that might help the reader to compare:

One Little Victory (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC
Earthshine (30 second sample): Original MP3 | FLAC; Remix MP3 | FLAC

Now that there’s concrete news of a remixed Vapor Trails from Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, the promise of the 13-song epic being cleaned up for good is palpable.  I will gladly buy the new CD and keep the old one as a collector’s item.  However, based on the two remixed songs from R3, I’m concerned that a reissue with Richard Chycki‘s mixing and Andy VanDette‘s mastering might not be as optimal as it could be.  A few humble suggestions:

1. Don’t master the reissue with any digital clipping whatsoever.  Audible or not, clipped waveforms are a symptom of audio that’s had it’s amplitude increased beyond what should be the maximum.  The Replay Gain values of the already-remixed tracks are less than 1dB different than the originals, which indicates that their overall loudness is similar.  I’d rather the loudness and dynamic range resemble the Rush albums of the 90s, the Rush MFSL releases, or Porcupine Tree CDs.  Heck, use Steven Wilson as a sounding board.  Which gets me to my next point:

2. This CD is for the fans.  It’s to right a wrong.  It shouldn’t be meant to compete with other CDs in a changer or other MP3s on an iPod, both in terms of loudness and price.   Release it cheaply, without a bunch of marketing.  Rush has one of the largest audiences on the internet; believe me, the word of the re-release will get around with much advertising.  And the tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands of us that want to buy it will think twice if it’s priced like new material.  $10 seems good.  One suggestion to keep the price low: offer a packaging that’s just a cardboard sleeve, meant for owners of the original CD to swap the replacement CD into the original case.  Also, consider an online release option that uses losslessly-compressed FLAC files.

3. Please use this an opportunity to reassess what “quality sound” means when associated with Rush music, whether it’s on CD or DVD.  Using the “Caravan” single as a harbinger of what we can expect from the next Rush album, Clockwork Angels, it’s due to be just as loud as the original VT was.  We have volume knobs and aren’t afraid to use them.  Radio stations and many playback devices have dynamic range compression.  Geddy, Alex, and Neil, please use your influence to improve the audio quality of your band’s product going forward.  I’m looking forward to the next decade of Rush music.

Update (2011-Feb-07): Rich Chycki comments on the issue [via]:

A while back, I remixed ‘One Little Victory’ and ‘Earthshine’ from RUSH’s 2002 release ‘Vapor Trails’, to be included on their 2009 release, ‘Retrospective 3’. The remixes were very well-received so the band has decided to let me move ahead and remix the remainder of the CD.

To put rumors to rest, there was no re-recording or performance correction done on the first two tracks and that will continue for the remainder of the CD. The reason ‘new’ details may seem to have appeared in those songs is due to the fact that I listened to the multitracks and interpreted the mix structure without first analyzing the original [deliberately] — so tracks either muted or turned down in the original mixes may shine through differently (the acoustic guitars in ‘Earthshine’ might be a good example of this). As well, the same technical tweaks will continue for the remaining songs and I still will not have a buss limiter on the mix set to stun.

In any case, both the band and I are really excited to re-visit ‘Vapor Trails’ and hope you’ll all enjoy the remix.

The “buss limiter … set to stun” quote gives me some hope, but the mastering engineer needs to play along as well to get better quality than the mixes that were on R3.

Mark, Scott, and I headed out in the early afternoon to Allentown; finding that parking wasn’t yet open, we stopped at a TGI Friday’s for an early dinner.  Taking a different way back to the Fair, we found a Boy Scout Troop selling parking spaces for $5, less than the $8 the fair was charging, with much better street access.  It was appropriate, because when the show was done I wanted to get the hell out of that venue.

I hated the seats at Allentown Fair, but I always love seeing Rush.  Their films before, during intermission, and after the show were better-produced than ever, and very funny.  They came out with a strong “Spirit of Radio”, and highlights in the first set for me were the new single “BU2B”, the first live treatment of “Presto” (probably among my top 15 personal favorites), the triumphant return of “Marathon”, and “Workin’ Them Angels”.

Set two was led off by the seven-song “Moving Pictures” set, and it was the first time I got to see “The Camera Eye” performed live.  It was quite satisfying, although there were some awkward (to these ears) edits that took about 1.5 minutes out of the song.  I enjoyed the new single “Caravan” as well, and Alex’s new 12-string intro to “Closer To The Heart” was transcendent.  I actually played part of that on 12-string acoustic myself performing at Mark’s birthday party last Saturday.  Nowhere near Lerxst’s talent, that’s for sure, but it was heartfelt.

The encore of La Villa Strangiato (with a carnival-themed keyboard intro) and Working Man was a satisfying end to a great show.  Songs from many albums were represented, and I didn’t miss the drop of “Dreamline” from the set.  Looking forward to getting the new album “Clockwork Angels” next year and seeing Rush live yet again!  Next time I’ll be more careful about what seats I purchase!

I attended last night’s Rush concert at the Allentown Fair.  TicketMaster asked me for a review.  Here’s what I entered.  I’ll be surprised if it’s approved:

[1 of 5 stars given]

This review isn’t about the show; at least, what I saw of it.  Rush always rocks and they’re my favorite band.  However, this is the first Rush show in 20 years of seeing them where I didn’t have a view of Neil Peart.  Unless you count the times they showed him on the video screen.  When I purchased tickets to this show, I got third row in section A, which was the reserved-seating ground section furthest to the right.  The seating chart didn’t show the stage, so I went ahead on faith that TicketMaster was indeed giving me the best seats available.  They didn’t.  We arrived at the venue and were amazed to find that our seats were nowhere near the stage.  We were at least 30 yards away from stage left’s edge and were at such a bad angle we could just see Geddy and Alex.  Neil’s drumkit and the video screen behind him were completely blocked from our view.  From my point of view, the Allentown Fair and TicketMaster conspired to rip me off.  Everyone around me felt the same way.  It was shameful to charge us the highest ticket price for seats that were worse than the general admission grandstand.  I won’t be coming back to this venue and I’m going to recommend against patronizing the Allentown Fair.

I can’t stress how disappointed I was when we were seated.  Of the more than 20 times I’ve seen Rush I’ve been seated in many positions, but none made me madder than last night.  I didn’t even have a decent view of the video screen we were near:
Rush at Allentown Fair

I could say more, but I think I’ve made my point.  Don’t patronize the Allentown Fair.  They are ripoff artists just like TicketMaster.  Rush, please don’t play there ever again.

Update (9/2): The only place I see for TM reviews to be filed is under the band, not the venue.  (How very convenient.)  The reviews for Rush are here.  My review was submitted last night (9/1) and it’s not there yet.  There are several other low-star reviews of the show submitted yesterday, but none criticizes the venue as much as mine did.  It was probably declined by the site admin.  Thanks for the comments so far.

Rush-Caravan-Squished, originally uploaded by aharden.

Please Geddy, Alex, Neil, and Nick, don’t produce another album that has the sonic imperfections of Vapor Trails! Please remember that we have a volume knob!

Your Fan Always,

HSDC 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

HSDC 40th Anniversary of Woodstock

Come up to Camp Reily just north of Harrisburg for a late afternoon of music from my band, the Durable Goods.  We’ll be playing Woodstock-themed sets for the Historical Society of Dauphin County‘s annual “Blast From The Past” show.  We’re looking very forward to this gig and are hoping you’ll join us from 3pm-8pm on Sunday, July 19th for food and fun.  Rain or shine.  Tell your friends!  Hope to see you there.  All the details are at the HSDC website.