Crestmont 4/5 Sound Science Fair

Wonderful watching and hearing the fourth and fifth graders explain their audio science projects this morning – such a broad topic, and every kid had a completely different take. Recorded some random audio samples this morning while meandering from theremin to echolocation demo to analog amplifiers to oscilloscope to homemade stethoscope to foley demo… the variety was fantastic.

For a taste, start the audio, then start the slideshow and choose the Full Screen option.

Flickr Set

Cloud Drive: How Big Is Your MP3 Collection?

Update: Apple has now released their iTunes Match service, which also places a ridiculously small limit on the number of allowed songs. As with Amazon, music lovers with larger collections – the very customers most likely to pay for the service – are excluded.

Much hay is being made over Amazon’s new Cloud Drive music storage system, which lets you upload your music collection to the cloud so you can listen to it from almost anywhere without having to carry it with you or worry about backing it up. Most of the articles I’m seeing, including David Pogue’s NY Times piece, are calling the service “Almost Free” or “Very Cheap.”

Huh? After 30 seconds of surfing around their FAQs, I had already determined it was way too expensive. While most articles about Cloud Drive claim it costs $1/GB, the rate chart at the bottom of this page makes it clear that that’s not quite true. It’s a tiered pricing plan, which means that if you own 250GBs of music, you have to pay for the 500GB service plan, which costs $500/year!

Collection size polls follow after the break.
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The Compleat Guide to Digitizing Your LP Collection

For anyone over 40 (or maybe 30), having a music collection probably means that, in addition to racks of CDs and ridiculous piles of MP3s, you’re also sitting on bookshelves (or “borrowed” milk crates) full of vinyl LPs. Hundreds of pounds of space-consuming, damage-prone vinyl. LPs were music you could touch, with glorious full-color 12″ album art, meandering liner notes, and the practical involvement of lowering needle to plastic. Long-playing records represent an era when music was less disposable – we actually sat down to listen, rather than treating music as a backdrop to the rest of life. Dragging a rock through vinyl was not some kind of nostalgic love affair with the past – it was just the way things were. The cost of admission was pops and scratches, warped discs, having to get up in the middle of an album to flip the disc, cleaning the grooves from time to time, and getting hernias every time you moved to a new apartment.

We loved our vinyl despite and because of its warts, but we also didn’t hesitate to go digital when the time came – first with CDs, and then with MP3s and other file-based formats. We complained that CDs lacked the “warmth” of vinyl, but CD technology got better over time. We complained that the typical MP3 was encoded at bitrates too low to do justice to the music, but we learned to encode at higher resolutions, or to use uncompressed/lossless formats. Eventually, most of us gave in to temptation and started listening only (or mostly) to files stored on a computer somewhere in the house. Over time, many of us stopped listening to LPs altogether – but that doesn’t mean we got rid of them.

I personally held onto around 700 records made before the 90s, in addition to a few boxes of records my parents left in my care. Most of my CD purchases from the 90s and 00’s had been ripped long ago, but the LPs were locked in limbo – wasn’t listening to them, but couldn’t bear to let go, either. In 2011, I finally decided it was time to hunker down and digitize the stacks, to un-forget all those excellent records.

Digitizing LPs has almost nothing in common with ripping CDs. It’s a slow process, and a lot of work. But it can be incredibly rewarding, and going through the process puts you back in touch with music the way it used to be played (i.e. it’s a great nostalgia trip). In this guide, I’ll cover the process of prepping your gear, cleaning your records, and capturing as much of the essence of those old LPs as possible, so you can enjoy them in the context of your digital life.

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NuForce uDAC

A few weeks ago, during a spell of unusually dry winter weather, I went to unplug a pair of Grado SR-80 headphones from my iMac. A spark of static electricity leapt from my fingers, I heard a brief crackling sound, and then… [silence]. From that moment forward, the headphone/speaker jack on the back of the Mac has refused to work, and only “Internal Speakers” showed up in the System Preferences Sound panel. My trusty work Mac had gone mute.

My only options were either to send the Mac in for repair or switch to USB audio output. I couldn’t afford to be without the Mac, and I was interested in hearing what kind of audio upgrade I’d get by bypassing the Mac’s internal Digital Audio Converter (DAC), so I hit up an audiophile friend for recommendations. Hit the jackpot when he suggested the NuForce μDAC (aka microDAC) – a handsome $99 outboard DAC smaller than a pack of smokes.

The unit arrived a few days later, and turned out to be even smaller than expected (around 3″x1″). The two-tone rust and flat-black anodized aluminum casing looked distinguished, and well-crafted; NuForce really put some effort into the aesthetics on this one. The design is simple, with no unnecessary controls. Just a volume knob and a headphone output jack, nothing more.

I was blown away from the moment I plugged it in and enabled it in the Sound prefs Output panel. Digital audio has never sounded better on a computer I’ve owned. But since the original analog jack was fried, I had no way to directly compare the quality of the Mac’s native DAC with the new outboard. Today I sat down at someone else’s work Mac and did some A/B testing.

For the test, I chose two recordings:

  • Sonny Rollins: “I’m an Old Cowhand” (from Way Out West)
  • Beatles: “Because” (from Abbey Road 2009 Stereo Remaster)

(I chose these two because A) I love them and B) I had them on hand at 256kbps AAC, for best possible resolution).

Note: I appreciate great-sounding audio, but I’m far from a hardcore audiophile. For a balls-out audio tweak’s perspective on the μDAC, see HeadphoneAddict’s review at head-fi.org.

Just a few minutes into Cowhand, I noticed something I’d never heard before: The sound of the cork linings of the valves of Rollins’ saxophone tapping away as he played. It was subtle, but it had been there in the recording all along – I had just never noticed it. And that’s exactly the point – the differences are subtle, and you may not notice all of them unless you’re listening for them, but they’re present. And that subtlety adds up to an overall experience that’s simply more realistic, more nuanced than what you get with the cheaper DAC built into consumer PCs. It’s all about presence.

Likewise, I found the harmonies in Because fuller, richer, more bodied than they sounded through the Mac’s native DAC. The French horns far more alive and breathy, the harpsichord more twangy. Virtually everything about these two tracks sounded more engaging.

Another thing I noticed: Usually, near the end of a long day writing code, I feel the need to take the headphones off and rest my ears. I didn’t have that sensation today. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that more natural sound is less fatiguing to the ears (and the brain’s processor).

One caveat: Because there’s no longer an analog sound channel for the computer to manipulate, you’ll lose the ability to control volume or to mute from the Mac’s keyboard. Apparently this is not true of all DACs – the driver for m-audio boxes does allow volume and mute control from the Mac keyboard, so the issue must rest in the generic Mac USB audio driver (the NuForce unit doesn’t come with an installable driver – it’s plug-and-play). In any case, the keboard habit has been ingrained for so many years I don’t even think about it, so retraining myself to adjust audio from the μDAC’s volume knob took some getting used to. However, you can still use the volume control in iTunes itself, and it may be possible to re-map the keyboard’s audio control keys to tweak iTunes’ internal volume directly.

It’s no secret that you can get better sound quality out of almost any computer by routing around the built-in audio chipset. There’s just no way Apple (or Dell, or anyone else) is going to spend more than a few dollars on high-end audio circuitry when most people are perfectly happy with 128kbps MP3s played through cheap-o speakers, and every penny counts in manufacturing bottom lines. But using an outboard DAC for signal conversion can be an expensive proposition, not to mention involving bulky, inelegant, desk-cluttering plastic boxes. The NuForce μDAC gives you high-end computer audio that’s both affordable and elegant.

Another benefit: If you’ve been considering using a dedicated digital audio file player like an AudioRequest connected to the home stereo, you’ll end up having to migrate and store another copy of your audio library, not to mention add more cabling and componentry to your entertainment center. With something like the NuForce μDAC, you can leave everything on your main computer and just route high-fidelity audio to the stereo.

In any case, the NuForce μDAC is one of the best c-notes I’ve dropped on audio gear over the years. Recommended even if you haven’t fried your analog port.

Update: This article has been republished at Unclutter.com.

Amendment Song

As much as we’re all enjoying the endless Obama/McCain character assassination circus, there are other important things to think about before November 4.

Here in California, one of the most important propositions in state history is on the ballot — Proposition 8 — which aims to enshrine bigotry in our state constitution, so that it can never be challenged again. It was written by people who so cherish their bigotry, and who so fear fairness, that they want to be able to stop thinking about it.

In one corner, people who believe marriage is a contract between a man and a woman, who often intend to create a family.

In the other corner, people who believe marriage is a contract between two people, who often intend to create a family.

It all comes down to “a man and a woman,” and an irrational reluctance to accept that marriage can be anything but.

There are no non-religious arguments against gay marriage. And religion has no place in government. If you support Prop. 8, then you support the idea that tradition and religion — not reason — should be enshrined and enforced by government. Even though our Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and says nothing about tradition.

Let me be blunt: If you don’t think gay people should be allowed to marry, you’re a bigot. And your attempt to amend the Constitution is an attempt to inject religion into politics. Worse, it’s an attempt to make unfairness into law.

If you’re a Republican, you supposedly believe in small government. That means the government stays out of people’s business, as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. Gay marriage doesn’t hurt anybody. Therefore, if you’re a Republican, you should oppose Proposition 8.

If you’re a human, you probably believe government should be fair at the most basic levels. Not discriminating on sexual preference counts as “fair at the most basic level.” Therefore, if you’re a human, you should vote NO on Proposition 8.

If you don’t want to help set a precedent that government has a business in controlling individual freedoms that have no ill effect on society, then you should vote NO on Proposition 8.

Pretty simple, really.

Maybe this song from a long-ago Simpsons episode will help to illuminate:

Podcast Diet

Podcastlogo Podcasting changed my life.

There, I said it. Melodramatic, but true. When free time is whittled down to razor-thin margins, something’s gotta give, and media consumption is often the first luxury to go. And, speaking for myself, when I’m tired at the end of the day and give myself an hour of couch time, I’m not exactly predisposed to turn to the news. “Man vs. Wild” is more like it.

The one chunk of time I get all to myself every day is the daily commute (by bike or walk+train), which amounts to just over an hour a day. A few years ago, commute time was music time, but podcasting changed all that.

With a weekly quota of five hours consumption time, didn’t take long to subscribe to more podcasts than I could possibly digest before the next week rolled around. But I continue to hone the subscription list. Here are some of the podcasts I’ve come to call friends:

Links are to related sites – search iTunes for these if podcast links aren’t obvious.

This Week in Tech: Tech maven Leo Laporte used to do great shows at ZDTV, now runs his own tech news & info podcasting network. I appeared on his TV show a few times back in the BeOS days; now I’m just a faceless audience member. Show gets rambly and too conversational at times, but they do a good job of traversing the landscape, and there are plenty of hidden gems. Frequent co-host John Dvorak drives me crazy, despite his smarts.

Podcacher: All about geocaching, with “Sonny and Sandy from sunny San Diego, CA.” Great production values. Love it when the adventures are huge, but get bored with all the geocoin talk (unfortunately fast-forwarding through casts and bicycling don’t go well together, especially since losing tactile control after moving to the iPhone). Still, lots of tips, excellent anecdotes, and occasional hardware reviews.

Radiolab: I’ll go with their own description: “On Radio Lab, science meets culture and information sounds like music. Each episode of Radio Lab. is an investigation — a patchwork of people, sounds, stories and experiences centered around One Big Idea.” I love what they do with sonic landscapes. I can’t think of a better example of utilizing the podcasting medium’s unique characteristics. The shows are mesmerizing, and welcome relief from my tech-heavy audio diet.

This American Life: Everyone’s favorite NPR show. Excruciatingly wonderful overload of detail on the bizarre lives or ordinary Americans. Your soul needs this show.

Slate Magazine Daily Podcast: They say it would be a waste of the medium’s potential to just have someone read stories into a microphone. I beg to differ. I don’t have time to read Slate, but love their journalism. I’m more than stoked to receive a digest version of the site through my ear-holes.

FLOSS Weekly: Another Leo Laporte show, but in this one he gets out of the way and lets his guests do the talking. All open source, all the time. Usually interviews with leaders / founders / spokespeople for various major OSS initiatives. Great interviews recently with players from the Drizzle and Django camps.

Stack Overflow: Who woulda thunk a pair of Windows-centric web developers would have captured my attention? But great insight here into the innards of web application construction. Geeks only.

NPR: All Songs Considered If you’re old-and-in-the-way like me, feeling like your musical soul isn’t get fed the way it should, you could do a lot worse than subscribe to All Songs Considered – annotated rundown of recent (and sometimes not-so-recent) discoveries that remind you why music is Still Worth Paying Attention To.

This Week in Django: Part of the reason I’ve been so quiet lately is that I’m deeply immersed in Django training, having inherited a fairly complex Django site at work (more on that another day). This podcast is pretty hardcore stuff, for Django developers only. Can’t pretend to understand it all, but right now it’s part of the immersion process, and is helping me gain scope on the Django landscape.

The WordPress Podcast: I spend more of my time (both at work and at home) tweaking on WordPress publication sites than anything else, and this is a great way to stay abreast of new plugins, security issues, techniques, etc. Wish it was more technical and had a faster pace, but it’s the best of the WordPress podcasts.

Between the Lines: Back in my Ziff days, I worked for the amazing Dan Farber, who’s still going strong at ZD. This is my “check in with the veteran tech journalists” podcast, and is a serious distillation of goings-on in the tech world. Always a good listen.

Obviously there’s no way to fit all of these into the weekly commute hours, but I try. No time to digest more, but dying to know what podcasts have you gripped. Let me know.

Music: Minutemen :: Storm In My House

Songza

Songza: Dang near any song you can think of, at your fingertips. Amazing, in many ways (not so in others – almost everything is low-fi, and you can’t download anything). But amazing that it exists. Get obscure as you want – it’s probably there. Where is all this audio coming from? Watching the status bar, seems like a lot of is being hoovered out of YouTube videos, but there must be many other sources as well. What a time we live in.

Music: Kid Koala :: Roboshuffle

Want a Danish?

This week at Stuck Between Stations:

– Me, on Van Morrison’s 1967 contractual obligation, in which he “mails it in” like no one has ever mailed it in before:

I can see by the look on your face
that you’ve got ringworm.
I’m very sorry to have to tell you, but you’ve got ringworm.
It’s a very common disease.
You’re very lucky to have … ringworm
because you may have had … something else.

Audio at the site.

– Roger, on the unlikely roots of Jamaican reggae and soul in Canada.

Canadian reggae and soul, eh? If you expect that combination to go down as easily as curried goat with a side of Canadian bacon, you may be surprised.

The LP, Unspun

Groove200 Is a record not spun a record not played? Dragging a needle across old, brittle vinyl records or wax cylinders can damage them — not something you want to do with rare historical recordings. At the Library of Congress, researchers have developed a scanner that can extract audio from records by scanning them digitally – no spinning required. Images are analyzed and transformed back into audible sound. “Stuck” records magically become unstuck, while physically broken records can be pieced back together with great results.

How does it sound? “The machine is not adding its own color. It’s not adding anything of its own nature,” says the device’s developer. The samples on the NPR site are low-res internet audio, but the comparisons to the original are impressive, despite a persistent background hiss.

The technology could eventually become available to general consumers, meaning that the daunting task of MP3-encoding piles of vinyl would become way less daunting. It’s a strange and beautiful world.

Thanks Jeb

Music: Haruna Ishola and his Apala Group :: Ganiyu Ajimobi

MaximumPC Puts 256kbps AAC to the Test

Now that Apple has begun to release tracks in DRM-free 256kbps AAC through the iTunes Store, the listening tests are on. MaximumPC gathered 10 people, and had those people select 10 familar tracks, which they then encoded at both 128kbps AAC (which is the current iTunes Store offering), and at 256kbps, which is the new DRM-free bitrate. They then asked their ten subjects (in a double-blind experiment) whether they could tell the difference between the two tracks after repeated listens.

But they also threw a twist into the mix, asking subjects to listen first with a pair of the default Apple earbuds, then with a pair of $400 Shure SE420 phones. Their theory – that more people would be able to tell the difference between the bitrates with the higher-quality earphones – didn’t quite pan out.

The biggest surprise of the test actually disproved our hypothesis: Eight of the 10 participants expressed a preference for the higher-bit rate songs while listening with the Apple buds, compared to only six who picked the higher-quality track while listening to the Shure’s. Several of the test subjects went so far as to tell they felt more confident expressing a preference while listening to the Apple buds. We theorize that the Apple buds were less capable of reproducing high frequencies and that this weakness amplified the listeners’ perception of aliasing in the compressed audio signal. But that’s just a theory.

Also interesting is that the older subjects (whose hearing is supposedly less acute) did a better job of telling the tracks apart consistently than did the younger participants. Could it be that the younger generation has grown up on compressed music and doesn’t know what to listen for? Or it could be an anomalous result (the sample size was so small).

Readers who feel, as MaximumPC did going into the test, that 256kbps is still too low for anything approaching real fidelity, will likely cringe at the results. I’m not cringing exactly, but do wonder why they didn’t bother to give the subjects uncompressed reference tracks to compare against.

Notes: Remember that 128kbps AAC is roughly equivalent to 160kbps MP3, since the AAC codec is more efficient. There’s apparently some suspicion that the iTunes store uses a different encoder than the one provided stock with iTunes. Testing for both bitrate and headphone differences throws variables into the mix that shouldn’t oughta be there – would have been better to give everyone the good phones and focus on the bitrates, without confusing the matter. 10 people is a pretty small sample group – not small enough to be meaningless, but not large enough for substantial findings. Not that we need MaximumPC or focus groups to tell us how to feel about codecs and bitrates…

Music: Les Chauds Lapins :: Ces Petites Choses