Tag Archives: Audio engineering

Portability Over Quality: The MP3 Scam

I happen to be a new fan of Alva Noto, whose minimalist bleeps and hisses may not be everyone’s cup of tea. (My wife thinks we have mice.) Anyway, I’m also testing headphones so I’m sitting outside by the communal pool taking in his second album with Ryuichi Sakamoto (my hero; I once interviewed him in such a grovelling fashion I couldn’t bring myself to watch the recording of it afterwards. I think my toughest question was “What do you think makes you so talented?”) with a pair of Logitech noise-cancellers (I’d have to take them off to tell you which make, and I’m not going to do that.)

But all this reminded me of an interview I read recently between Alva Noto (real name: Carsten Nicolai) and Robin Rimbaud, in which they discussed, among other things, how music is listened to, and treated, differently in the age of MP3. Rimbaud, himself a performing artist, asks Nicolai about the influence of “mobile listening” on him and his audience:

I listen to music more in a mobile situation because there isn’t much time to just sit down and listen anymore. I now have this obsession for headphones, which is probably born from this way of listening! I have a set for every situation!

Kind of interesting, I reckon. Reduced time available, and technology, has made music much more of a mobile activity now. I personally love listening to music or speech when I’m walking, hiking or jogging because I love the subliminal associations the mind makes between what one sees and what one is hearing. Views become associated with songs, or ideas expressed, with whatever you were listening to when you saw that view for the first time.

But there is a downside: Do we ever sit still and listen to music? Do we ever give it our full attention? Worse, perhaps, is that fact that the emphasis on portability has reduced the emphasis on quality — when was the last time sometime stressed the quality of a music device over its storage? As Rimbaud points out:

For digital cameras we are sold a machine that exploits quality — it’s sold on the strength of how many mega pixels each camera offers, whereas with MP3 players it’s never on the actual quality of the music but the quantity.

Nicolai agrees:

I think this shows a problem for our time — compression has taken over the quality in sound. Transmitting and distribution of the sound file is more important than the quality and I wonder if next year the industry will pick up on this and tell us “listen, last year you bought compressed audio, now you need to buy the real thing”. We’ve already re-bought our LPs as CDs, then as digital versions. Now quality will come back as a marketing strategy.

Could be. Perhaps as storage becomes meaningless — when your iPod can store your music collection many times over –  we’ll be told that 128 kbps is not enough and we need to buy all our MP3 files all over again. And so the circus continues.

The Hidden Channel on MP3s

Why don’t MP3 files contain ‘hidden’ channel like DVDs do? Or do they? It would be a great way to cater to the modern remix culture, the podcasting revolution, the audio commentary and soundseeing movement.

I wrote a few months back about podentaries, my ridiculous term for what I later found was already a thriving, if somewhat limited movement. The idea is basically to offer an audio accompaniment to more or less anything, not just confined to washed-up ex-directors pontificating on their old movies (parodied imperfectly by Rob Brydon), but also to music (take it to a Beethoven concert, an alternative to the stodgy guided tour, to TV series).

But surely it’s easy enough to add an extra channel to an MP3 file, that, with some software, can be released and mixed into the original music or sound? This would solve all sorts of problems of synchronization, and allow musicians, commentators or anyone who likes to include their tuppence worth to the recording. (“Now, if you listen carefully in the background a few bars ahead, you can hear me fluffing the first few notes of my ukelele solo”).

Of course, it needn’t stop there. You could capitalize on the already burgeoning Remix Culture by releasing songs that can have their drumtrack, say, removed by listeners to turn it into a bit of chilled out ambient fun, or have the voice track mutable so karaoke enthusiasts could have a go. I’m sure this kind of thing is already available in some format or other. I just haven’t seen any.

In short, when is the MP3 player, the iTunes of our age, going to become a mini mixer so we ordinary folk who might not want to remix from the bottom up can at least redesign songs to our tastes, and, perhaps more interestingly dig into some hidden channels that tell us more about what we’re listening to?

Bluetooth Jackets For The Hip – And The Hip-Replaced

Thanks to Martin Herfurt for this: A jacket that, via Bluetooth, doubles as an entertainment centre, complete with (1) hands-free set with microphone in the collar and voice recognition, (2) integrated headphone connection, (3) flexible keyboard embodied into the material and (4) docking station for an MP3 player with a Bluetooth headset:

The HUB-Jacket comes with 128 Megabyte memory offers enough storage capacity for two hours of music. The MP3 files are loaded into the module from a PC via a USB cable. The fabric keyboard woven into the jacket’s left-hand sleeve “can be comfortably operated even when wearing gloves”. All the electronic connections “are sewn directly into the textile material. They are thus out of sight, robust and enable total freedom of movement”. If this is not enough for you, a “helmet with integrated headphones is also available as an option”. The Bluetooth module in the player allows the user to operate a mobile phone. And, in case you’re wondering, the electronic hardware “is tough enough to withstand repeated falls and washing sessions”. The HUB is part of O’Neill’s Winter Collection and costs 500 euros.

Actually, the HUB-Jacket ain’t alone. There’s the Memswear prototype from my Singaporean neighbours up the road which senses when the owner — presumably an elderly person — has taken a fall and puts in an emergency phone call via Bluetooth. (Here’s the original CNN story). And Nike has developed a Comm-Jacket which, according to DPA, “fitted with an integrated microphone and earplugs and a plug for a walkie-talkie”.

Play Your MP3s Underwater

I’m told that Korean MP3 manufacturer iRiver and waterproof audio specialist H20 will later this month launch what they’re calling the “First Personal MP3 Player for Action Sports. Enthusiasts can for the first time enhance their experience with music while participating in sports such as wakeboarding, surfing, snowboarding and waterskiing.”

I don’t have any pictures or URLs yet, but an early copy of the press release quotes Kristian Rauhala, CEO of H2O Audio as saying that “combining music with high-energy action watersports is a natural fit now all sports enthusiasts can enjoy iRiver music players just as cyclists and runners have for years.”

The H2O Audio SV i700 includes H2O Audio’s waterproof housing and is designe for iRiver’s iFP-700 Series MP3 player. The H2O Audio SV i700 housing and headphones will cost $100, and $130 with the watersport armband.

Belkin’s New iPod Microphone Adapter

In an earlier column I mentioned the excellent Belklin Voice Recorder microphone that plugs into an iPod. Now they’ve gone one step better: The Universal Microphone Adapter, that connects to your iPod and to any audio microphone with a 3.5mm plug.

You can use the iPod player’s abundant storage capacity to store hundreds of hours of audio, and easily review your audio notes using the built-in 3.5mm jack with headphones or your computer. Copy recordings to your computer for easy storage, editing, or to send in e-mail.

The Universal Microphone Adapter, iPoding reports, costs $40 and is expected to begin shipping on March 17th in North America. It

•  Attaches securely to your iPod with remote/headphone connector
•  Records 16-bit audio at 8kHz
•  Includes real-time recording-level LED indicator
•  Adjusts microphone sensitivity easily with 3-level gain switch
•  Works with iPod software version 2.1 or later

(Thanks to Buzz Bruggeman of ActiveWords for pointing this out)

A Way To Record Lectures, Interviews and Stuff To Your PC

I have long been looking for a way to record interviews and whatnot to my computer. Here’s a program that might help: LectureRecorder, from Cyprus-based XemiComputers

 

LectureRecorder “allows you to record lectures and write summaries for them. To make a lecture summary the program provides several rich-text fields: course, subject, date, lecturer, digest and notes. There is also an option to print the summary. “

The built-in audio recorder uses real-time OGG audio compression, includes an editor and records in 8-bit, mono, with sampling rates of 44KHz down to 11KHz. The files can be converted to standard sound files.

The program costs $20. They also do some interesting other, but roughly similar software, such as Minutes of Meeting Recorder. What’s not quite clear in either is whether you can alter playback speed — a must for transcribing — and assign function keys for easily pausing the recording (a great feature of the software that comes with Olympus voice recorders.)

News: Legal Eagles in MP3 format

  Interesting story on Wired about how a university is taking the original recordings of Supreme Court cases, converting them to MP3 and putting them online — for free.
 
 
The Oyez project, run by Northwestern University, is aiming to convert nearly all the oral arguments recorded since 1955. So far it has done about 2,000 hours. May not beat listening to U2, but it’ll make a change from an e-book.
 

News: Don’t Laugh, Your Email’s Coming

 
 Not sure whether to laugh or cry at this one. Or tiptoe quietly away. Researchers at Australia’s Monash University, the New Scientist reports, are working on software that would that automatically log you onto the nearest computer by listening out for your voice, or laugh, or footsteps. Microphones on each computer, Rachel Nowak writes, would pick up a person’s voice, or listen for familiar footsteps coming or going. The software would then recognise them and calculate where they are, using flocks of ‘intelligent agents’ – pieces of computer code that move from computer to computer. “The agents,” she writes, “close in on those computers where the person’s voice is loudest, until they pinpoint the nearest one.”
 
The agents — or sneaky little tattletales, depending on your point of view — would, upon realising that you were heading towards the Mars Bar dispenser, deliver your email to the nearest computer, or, upon hearing your rich baritone laugh by the water cooler, administer a pithy reprimand and remind you that your expenses are horribly overdue. I’m not sure I’m ready for this kind of life. We already have an accounts department.