A while back a friend was was working as a janitor in a recording studio in L.A. During a session, another janitor walked in and exclaimed “Great cahooostics in here!”

Our new living room also has great cahoustics. Same gear. Same music. Way better audio. We rock.

1000 dB

Friend baald passes this on from a mailing list currently speculating on the actual loudness — and energy requirements of — a hypothetical 1000 dB stereo system.

They were discussing what 1000 dB really means in real world terms. As one guy said “it’s about the entire energetic output of the universe…” If you take a 100-dB-per watt speaker (like a horn speaker – that’s something pretty efficient, speaker wise…), to make it play at 130 db would require 1000 watts. Assume that the highest power audio amps currently available are 1000 watts. Want to play at 190 dB? You’ll need a million of those honkin’ amps strapped together. Lets call that a mega-amplifier. Strap a billion of THOSE mega amplifiers together and you still won’t crack 300 dB. After a while, one guy started speculating on the necessary mass of a planet that had a dense enough atmosphere to sustain 1000 dB sound pressures. Actually, most things would be disintegrating long before you got up to 1000…

Music: The Carolina Tar Heels :: Peg And Awl


Endless debate with audiophile friends over whether “perfect” or “CD quality” audio can be achieved via MP3, regardless of bitrate. offers the best collection I’ve seen of facts, data, explanation, tests, and observations on the nature of “perfect” digital sound as it relates to compression and commonly available encoders/decoders, etc. I do disagree with the author on some points – I’m still no fan of VBR, which he advocates, and his Myths page would probably send chills down the spine of most hardcore audiophiles. Still, lots to learn at the site. Their Quality page points to the largest real-world MP3 quality test I’ve heard of, involving 300 audiophiles and conducted by c’t magazin. Conclusion: Transparency (inability to distinguish between CD original and compressed MP3 versions on $15,000 worth of audio equipment) happens at around 256kbps. Wish there was a good English translation of the test page.

Thanks to David Huff for the pointer.

Junior Brown

Went last night to Slim’s with friends to see the righteous Junior Brown. Holy mother of pearl, this was the most exhilarating show I’ve seen in a long time. Didn’t really have any expectations – just thought it was going to be good country music. So was totally unprepared for the range of this guy. First of all, he plays the “guit-steel” – a double-necked combined guitar and pedal steel guitar in one body. Apparently, the idea for this thing came to him in a dream, and put him on a quest to find a master guitar maker. Sounds great, looks great. He rests it on an elementary-school music stand rather than around the neck.

Four-piece band, all in sharp-fitting silvery suits (suits make such a difference). The bassist a wirey Alabama (?) nerd, flat-top rhythm guitarist, and the drummer an apparent cousin of Samuel Clemens – about 60 and playing a single drum and cymbal. “No city of drums on this stage, ladie and gents – when you know how to play, you only need ONE drum.” And he proved it, too.

They play Johnny Cash / Ernest Tubb-style country – honest stuff. But the thing is, it’s not just country. This is what happens when you grow up hearing Peter Frampton and the Moody Blues and watching Jello-brand gelatin commercials and make country music. It’s not fake country, not camp country – it’s the real deal, but it’s also, like, late 21st century or something. Just stomping, but with these breakout guitar solos that border on freaky, super staccatto hammer-on stuff, Hendrix blues. Like 7 degrees of camp, no more. Maybe a little more. I kept thinking Eugene Chadborne was going to take stage and turn the whole thing inside out.

Towards the end they went into this medley of TV and movie theme songs. It was relentless, punishing, hilarious. Hawaii Five-Oh, Secret Agent Man, Bonanza, I forget what else, but at one point you’re suddenly hearing the five-note aliens theme of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” played on the guit-steel. The audience busted a gut. Then it got way out – like lightning, he detuned his E string down about three octaves and played the mothership’s part. Back and forth between the human and alien parts, slick as snot. Then suddenly he comes out of Close Encounters and into Dueling Banjos. Like WTF?!!! Just amazing.

Ear Wax Express

When I took that motorcycle trip to Canada last June, I came back with a pretty bad ringing in my ears. My motorcycle is pretty quiet and I wear a good helmet and earplugs. But I was using a Suzuki fairing on the BMW, and it set up this weird relationship where there was tons of turbulence in the face mask. It was really loud.

I came back and had the accident a few days later, which distracted me from the fact that the ringing did not subside. Well, it started to subside after a few weeks, but not entirely. There has been a high-pitched buzz/hum going on ever since. It’s been getting less pronounced, but seemed to stop tapering and plateau’d at a certain point. Most noticeable in quiet moments, like bed time and waking up. Lately it’s been surging on strongly for 30-60 second bursts, much stronger in the left ear. Finally decided to see a doctor about it because it became clear it wasn’t going to go away on its own. It’s really depressing when the body doesn’t heal itself. Makes you feel old and not invincible anymore.

Called up and they had me come in for “urgent care.” Uhh… it’s been eight months. It’s not that urgent. But whatever. Explained the whole thing to the doc. He took a look and said he couldn’t see my left eardrum — it was all waxed up! I had noticed that my motorcycle earplugs always came out dirtier than other people’s.

So an assistant came in for an irrigation (ear-igation?). Big 2″ syringe with a soft tip. Warm water. I held a basin under my ear and she plunged three syringefulls through it. Little pieces came out, but nothing major. Then she grabbed a long tweezer and plucked out something the size of a large pencil eraser — dark brown and hairy / fuzzy. I could not believe that thing came out of me. Unbelievable it could have been there all this time.

She said that some people just generate more wax and there’s nothing to be done about it but to irrigate occassionally. We can do it ourselves at home. Cool! Amy loves this kind of stuff, so we’ll get a kick out of it. She was fascinated by the story when I told her later.

Anyway, this doesn’t guarantee a resolution to the problem. I won’t know till bed time whether it attenuates the problem. And I still have to schedule an audiogram for full testing, to determine whether i have tinnitus or not. But this experience was like getting a hair cut and taking a dump all at once. Ecstasy!

By the time we were done I had seven minutes to get back up to campus for a meeting. Rode like the wind, and had the weirdest sensation of air rushing past my left eardrum. Didn’t even realize it hadn’t been there all this time, but I knew it was different.

Speaking of the motorcycle, I ended up with a big black toenail from the crash in June. I’ve been watching it grow out, and I just trimmed off the last of the black part. Now I know how long it takes my toenails to grow.

So busy listening to my own MP3s that I never get around to checking out all the great radio stations built into iTunes. Found this great Dr. Yo station tonight. Wow – one amazing track after another. I could listen to this for days. In fact, I think I will.

iTunes Needs Streaming

Have changed my mind about iTunes. Was using Audion, but iTunes2 fixes a lot, and I’ve gotta say – it’s playlist manager is really great. It’s as meticulous about ID3 tags as I am, and its search makes it super easy to create custom playlists like I did in BFS with queries on any criteria. Most impressive though is that you can rename files in the filesystem and the playlist references don’t break – must be something like Tracker’s node monitoring going on, sending apple events to itunes. Very nice. But OSX is seriously lacking something like Live Encoder and/or HTTPUI for BeOS. Want to listen to my home collection at work, but have 128kbps upstream. Most of my music is 160 and 192kbps, so it has to be dowsampled before broadcast. Can’t find a single tool for OSX that can downsample before broadcasting. Installed the mp3_mod apache module and it works, but it doesn’t downsample either. Would kill for a LiveEncoder plugin for itunes right now. Tried to get set up with the mpg123 | lame | icecast trio but can’t figure out how to get icecast to take stdout from lame. Anyone?

MP3 Fidelity Results

Spent a few hours last night at Mike’s house listening to the MP3 fidelity test discs I burned the other day. The discs included these tracks:

Coltrane – Resolution (the Michael Cuscuna – produced version of A Love Supreme)
Alban Berg: Three Pieces for Orchestra, Ostinato (on RCA Living Presence)
Rob Wasserman – Angel Eyes (cello / vocal duet – superb recording)
Klip – Dyslexiana
Theresa Anderson – Summertime (my fave female vocals test and fave cover of this song)
Gerry Hemingway – Endpiece 1 (from Special Detail)
Tim Buckley – Hullucinations (from Live Dreamletter)

We did not get around to listening to all four versions of all seven pieces. The system we used was:

Audio Alchemy CD transport with DTI Pro jitter reduction
Audible Illusions Modulus 20 pre-amp (heavily modified)
Muse 100 amplifier
NHT 3.3 speakers

System value approximately $20,000

I’m still trying to figure out what we learned from all of this. First of all, I can unambiguously say that I have never heard MP3s sound this good in my life. Second, this is the first time I’ve ever been able to distinguish between 256kbps MP3 and the original source material. However, I also learned how much the mind plays tricks on you in tests like this, and hence why audio mags often avoid them. The only valid test is really to live with the material, doing what you do normally, whether that be sitting down and doing concentrated listening or playing it in the background while going about your business. In other words, if we listened to these tracks over and over again, and if we lived with them and subsumed their presence into the subconscious, we would be able to discern additional differences we didn’t notice yesterday.

I also have to say that Mike has a lifetime of intensive experience and training in audiophile listening environments, and in building hifi audio equipment. I care a lot about fidelity, but don’t have ears as well trained as his. He was able to discern more differences than I was.

Mike also pointed out some problems with the methodology of my experiment. Because each track can last 5-10 minutes, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to make meaningful comparison notes without a standard of reference. IOW, I wanted for us to try and pick out the reference track blind, while he felt it would be more meaningful to know in advance which one was the uncompressed WAV, so we could compare the other bitrates to it. His point made more sense after we listened blind for a while – your mind really does play tricks on you. For example, you might hear more air in a cymbal splash in one track, but you could be unsure whether that “air” is in the reference (a good thing) or an artifact of the encoding process (a bad thing). So in the end we did most of our listening with knowledge of which track was the WAV reference.

Neither of us had any difficulty picking out the 160kbps tracks, which was disappointing knowledge for me, as I’ve encoded tons of music at 160kbps. From here on in, I’ll use 160 only for crappy old recordings, 192kbps for average stuff, 256kbps for stuff I really love or that’s really well recorded, and 320kbps for those amazing gems that are stellar both as music and as recordings.

Mike is going even higher. His argument is that disk space is just so cheap now, there’s no point in compressing at all. Why risk it? It’s interesting because this is the same argument I made in the intro to my MP3 book – that the only reason we even talk about compression is because storage is too expensive and the internet is slow. But think about it – 40GB drives are under $100. It’s possible to fit around 60-70 albums on a 40GB drive in uncompressed WAV format. That’s about $1.50 per album in storage space. If you care enough about your music to have a system like his but you still want the flexibility of soft storage for your collection, why compress at all? Then you just build an array of 10 or so IDE drives to house your collection, which would be like spending a grand on an important new stereo component – worth it.

I counter that by saying that the difference b/w 256kbps and WAV is so incredibly subtle, and 320kbps would be virtually indistinguishable in every important way. You still get around 4x compression at 320kbps, and you have the advantage of ID3 tags. Why not take advantage of it?

I could tell there was a difference between the 256 and the WAV in the Wasserman duet/vocal, but had trouble putting my finger on the difference. Mike nailed it down, and had me focus on the spatial relationship or distance between the vocalist near the middle of the room and the cello in the rear left of the room. At 256kbps, there is a sort of “veil” that enshrouds the vocals, and ties it spatially to the cellist in the rear left. It’s subtle, but he’s right – the spatial distinction between them is just not as pronounced at 256kbps as it is with the WAV. But the fact that it had to be pointed out to me, and that I had to concentrate to find the difference even then, tells me that this is a difference I can live with, even if he feels he can’t.

However, the same effect at 160kbps is atrocious. It sounds like there’s a blanket thrown over the whole production – like you’re listening through a thin layer of gauze that sort of erases or diminishes the space between musicians. However, it requires a system better than most people own or have even heard in their lives to reveal some of these differences. On a standard Japanese consumer stereo, 160 might be adequate for most people.

My problem is that I haven’t followed my own advice. I have professed that people’s MP3 collections would eventually migrate to their home stereos, and have warned that they shouldn’t trust their computer sound systems to tell the whole story. Nevertheless, I’ve encoded almost everything at 160kbps, and now have a collection that will translate to the home stereo with less than stellar results. Hrmmm…

Two-armed typing, MP3 fidelity testing

The arm is slowly healing. Have discovered that if I take off the sling I can use the right arm to hoist the left onto the laptop keyboard, where it receives enough support to allow me to type two-handed. I can’t do it for a long time, but it will help me dig out of the backlog and start getting productive again. One-handed typing is NOT 50% of two-handed typing, because you have to move your arm back and forth over the keyboard and have to look at all the keys. Two-handed is about four or five times faster for me.

Mike and I have been talking about finally coming to an unambiguous conclusion about optimum MP3 bitrates – we want to find the rate at which MP3 is indistinguishable from the source CD. Neither of us are tolerant of MP3 compression artifacts and neither of us care about keeping files small enough to trade over the net – we just want as much compression as we can get without compromising a drop of fidelity.

I’ve done some experiments before, but we’re going to do this one right. He brought over some of his best hi-fi selections, including some of the RCA Living Presence stuff. I contributed three of my own favorite fidelity test tracks, and used my little TestEnc script to encode six sample tracks at a variety of bitrates with the lame encoder. Then I burned those tracks back to audio CD. This returns them to PCM, but with the compression losses now built in.

The weak link in the chain is Be’s built-in decoder which I’m forced to use to translate from MP3 back to PCM when burning the disc. It’s based on blade, which is OK, but definitely not the best, and certainly not what I would use for a test like this given my druthers. If I suspect it’s getting in the way, I may have to do this in Windows with CDex or something that lets me choose the decoder.

Before burning, I randomized the track orders and printed out a key listing all the actual bitrates. Folded this up and sealed it. I also printed out track lists w/o bitrates and we’ll use those to write notes about our impressions. Tonight I’ll take these to his house and listen to them on his system, skipping around between the track variations and making notes. We’ll see how the notes compare to the key page.