the other theo

There is no dark side of the moon really… as a matter of fact, it's all dark.

Category: Technology

Sometimes When Things Go Right, They Still Go Wrong

One of the trials of having a small child is the button pushing.  Thankfully, the Peanut is not too much of a trial in this regard.   He pushes buttons occasionally, but not enough to be a serious problem.

We have a dedicated file server in the house.  It sits under my desk in the “office”.  It’s only got one button on it, the power/reset button.   The Peanut hit it last week.   That normally shouldn’t be much of a problem.   In this case, powering the system on caused one of the fans to sound like a small kitchen appliance.   Worse yet, it was one in the power supply.

So, I took an hour or two last weekend and replaced the power supply.  Now I can barely hear the system, but there was another problem.

I decided to put a monitor on the computer to verify that everything started correctly after the new hardware was installed. When I did, I discovered that there were some errors worth bothering about:
godzilla smartd errors

This was not good.  It was one of the disks that hold my iTunes library and the collection of SVG files that the Missus uses for crafting.

The good news that the disk is part of a two disk mirror using the ZFS file system on FreeBSD.   While the disk itself was reporting errors, the ZFS file system reported no errors whatsoever.

The disk in question was only(!?!) 1TB and getting a little on the full side anyway.

So, I bought two 2TB disks and replaced the defective disk and then the other disk in the mirror in two separate steps.   ZFS faithfully copied the data from the existing disk in the mirrored pair each time.  Easy.

Well maybe not so easy because I had this problem when I was done:

zpool data status

This happens because newer disks organize data in 4KB sectors, not the traditional 512B.

Fixing it required me to do what I’d hoped to avoid: backing up the data, wiping out the data zpool, and restoring it from backup.

Thankfully, ZFS doesn’t make doing that terribly difficult.   Thanks to eSATA it only turned out to be a morning’s worth of work.

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Ready For My Closeups, Mr. DeMille

I got an e-mail from Match.com that included this today:

Match is turning 20 this year (Class of ‘95 baby!) and to celebrate, we’re taking a look back at the original site when it first launched in 1995. Our records indicate that you first registered on the site back in 1995, and I’d love to chat with you about your experience.  We’re looking for some great, original adopters of online dating to feature in our 20th anniversary PR launch and to possibly speak to a few media outlets.

So yes, I am considered to be a “founding member” of Match.   Talk about the past coming back to haunt you.

Pono Blues

With announcements by Neil Young (about the Pono player) and Sony (about the $1200 Walkman) at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, it seems that high definition audio is back in the news.

Speaking as someone who started out being schooled in the Electrical Engineering arts, I’m somewhat skeptical about the whole thing.  As others have noted, the term high definition audio doesn’t specify anything.  An an analogue to high definition video, it presumably indicates a digital standard that is to compact discs what the Blu-ray disc is to the DVD.  I find that inference to be somewhat ironic since digital music players started out using low bit rate MP3 files that employed lossy compression which produced sound with far inferior fidelity to the 44.1 kHz/16-bit uncompressed audio available on compact discs.

Time and technology have improved the quality of digital audio that can be purchased online or ripped from compact discs at home, but how much is too much?  Bigger sampling rates, higher bit resolution, and less compression translate into bigger digital files.   The values selected for compact discs were not selected randomly as others have discussed extensively, and to my mind, quite convincingly.   The Red Book compact disc spec was not designed to be a compromise when it came to the quality of sound it reproduced.

There will always be those who quibble about the quality of the compact disc standard.   Sony and Phillips even went so far as to develop a successor standard, Super Audio CD (SACD) and this case is instructive.  The specs of SACDs are in every way superior; frequency range, dynamic range, and capacity are all better than Red Book CD and should exceed the human capacity to hear.   Yet, double blind testing by the Audio Engineering Society (AES) shows that SACDs do not sound better than CDs — in tests with about 550 people (many of them professed audiophiles,) slightly less than half correctly identified the SACD.    If SACD truly was better, the results would show something substantially better than the 50/50 outcome of a series of random coin flips.

So why bother with new standards like SACD?  I believe the biggest gain is in digital mastering.   Sony developed Direct Stream Digital (DSD) that substantially simplified and improved the equipment mastering chain for converting music on analog tapes or directly storing data from digital mixing boards.  As a next generation format supposedly superior to CD, Sony and other labels also took the time to make sure that SACD releases were re-mastered carefully to DSD instead of rushing crap out into the marketplace as was done with CDs in the 1980s.   I’d be curious to know if the sample loops in the AES study were taken from the same DSD master (e.g. different layers in the same hybrid-SACD.)  Proper experimental method suggests that they should.   A meaningful follow-on would be to compare the DSD version to some previous re-master in double blind tests.   My bet is that the mastering is a big part of the thing.

(That said, I own some SACDs.  I love the format and the sound.  Perhaps it is confirmation bias.)

As for the quality of the hardware itself, Apple sets the standard in the personal digital player domain and I’m going to guess that they would want to set it reasonably high.   Steve Jobs was partially deaf, and he could not demand audio perfection completely out of personal experience.   Yet he was known for making products into art, and I’m sure he did not want to put the Apple logo on a product that did not meet a fairly acute listening standard given the state of technology at any point and time.   Is an iPod/iPhone a true audiophile device?  Probably not.  I’d guess that it’s good to excellent, but not mind blowing.  Better circuitry for a dedicated listening device is a niche something like Pono could fill.

Where the Apple player and its competitors really fail (if you can call it that) is the ear buds or earpods.   There is only so much you can do with such a small volume of space.   They look cool, sure.  Apple also tries hard to create a product with real substance, but an over ear headphone can provide much better sound reproduction.   I recently acquired a pair of Grado SR60e headphones, and the improvement in listening experience is significant.

Finally, more and better options for digital data files are a welcome development.   A link in the sound reproduction chain that not too many people talk about is the file format and conversion software.   The initial popularity of digital music players was fanned by MP3 files — a format whose digital audio output is only an approximation of the input in order to get real size savings (i.e. lossy compression.)    Apple devices use AAC files with some some well understood software to create them, which is clearly a step up while still using lossy compression.

A number of audiophiles say that better fidelity and detail requires files that use loss-less compression — the reproduced output is identical to the digital audio input.   The price for that fidelity is file size — I recently started using Apple Lossless Audio Compression (ALAC) files for CDs I rip and they take up 8-10 times the amount of disk space.   I couldn’t fit my whole CD collection on my current iPod using ALAC files, but I should do some a head-to-head comparison one of these days to investigate what the differences are like.

Given much more economical fixes I can make to my music listening, I’m going to give Pono and its ilk a pass, for now at least.

I recall hearing Neil Young say that “we are living in a sonic dark age” in an interview or at a press conference sometime about 20 years ago.  At that time, he extolled the virtues of vinyl and analog sound in an industry that was milking the upgrade to compact disc.  I’m glad to see that he now sees that it’s a largely digital landscape. Trying to raise the level of expectation from the listening public is a laudable goal.   I’m just not sure that sound engineers would agree that he’s going about it in the best fashion.

And now… the television works again.

One of the many wrinkles that required smoothing in the last few weeks involved our television.   The Missus and I are both admitted TV junkies of one sort or another.   She likes to watch DWTS and the TGIT line up on ABC (with some Real Housewives of The Garden State on another network for good measure.)  I’m more of a PBS man: Antiques Roadshow on Monday, Finding Your Roots on Tuesday, and the This Old House hour on the weekends.

We pay dearly for the privilege as well.   Our service includes a DVR and a ton of HDTV channels.  Our cable bill is high enough I’m tempted to about once a week to “cut the cord” and go completely to Internet streaming services (we are subscribed to a few,) but I never quite do it.   The Peacock Cable Company must love me for this.

The DVR began to malfunction a few weeks ago.   Sometimes it would be there, and others it… wouldn’t.  After calling the Peacock Cable Company on the phone, giving my name, address, and the last four of my social three separate times, and being assured that a visit to the house might cost us money but wait no it won’t, I arranged for a company employee to investigate.   His prognosis was fairly quick: after seven years, we needed a new cable box.

So that’s what we got.  Being the gadget geek that I am, I like to immediately look up the specs of such devices online for less than well advertised features.  This box, like many of the cable boxes used by the Peacock Cable Company, had a pretty neat one that I’d never heard of: there’s an eSATA port on the back and you can connect a DVR Expander (an external hard drive) to it that triples the amount of DVR space.  Of course, the Expander the Company approved is made by a hard drive manufacturer that has a “not if it will fail, but when it will fail” reputation with me.   Fortunately, a more reputable maker also produces a unit that seems to fit the bill.  I ordered one.

Problem is, it didn’t work.  The cable box recognized that the Expander was connected, but kept asking that the drive be disconnected and reconnected.  At first, I thought this might be because of the different manufacturer.   So, I got the approved unit as well and no change.   I consulted the online forum that discusses such things.  After about a week, there eventually was a verdict: we needed to swap the cable box.

We did the box swap on Saturday.   Setting up or resetting a cable box effectively takes about an hour because the thing wants to download new schedules, etc…  I hooked it up and had the cable company authorize it.  An hour later, it didn’t think we had a DVR.  After ten minutes on the phone with the Peacock Cable Company, a reset signal was sent.  An hour later, it thought we had a DVR but was really skeptical about this whole DVR Expander business and didn’t want to recognize the drive at all.  Before wading through another ten minute phone call, I figured that I should just power cycle the box because that’s what the company suggests about half the time anyway.    An hour later, that worked because we had a DVR with three times the recording space, even with the non-approved Expander.

Since then, it’s worked without complaint.  I’m sending the approved unit back… with the hope of using the refund for a related project.

 

The Price Of Inclusion

I’m trying to get back up on the personal blogging horse and ride again.   The last 6-8 weeks have been busy and my blogging has suffered.   When I have been writing, it’s been a series of TV episode reviews for a web site that some friends have operated for better part of a decade.   While that remains a worthy effort, it does little to document what’s been going on in my day to day life.  There have been some ups and downs there, and I’ll need to write about them, hopefully shortly.

In the mean time, I want to comment about a rather contentious subject of the moment: GamerGate.   That’s a tough bronco to ride first time out of the gate in a while.   Anyway, here goes…

In the autumn of 1993, I had just received a Masters in Computer Engineering and was just embarking on a Ph.D in Computer Science.  I also spotted William Gibson on the cover of issue 1.4 of Wired, and bought it.  Leafing through its pages, I read articles aimed at the general public on topics that I had previously encountered in grad school computer labs (fractal compression, wavelets, Kibology.)  After years of occasionally referring to myself as a geek and nerd, I remember thinking “Wow.  Someone has decided that what I am doing with my life is cool.  What does that mean?”

There have been a lot of different answers to that question in the intervening two decades.   The short answer is that geek culture won, and got a seat at the big table of cultural influences and national priorities.   STEM degree holders are seen a pathway to a prosperous future for the United States.  The big summer tent pole movies are now based on comic books.   Video games are ubiquitous.  World of Warcraft took FRPGs out of basements and back rooms to the tune of 100 million accounts created over the lifetime of the game.  From Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg, the geek billionaire inventor is now a type, and more importantly an aspirational target.   Television shows like Big Bang Theory and Scorpion are full of characters that embrace geeky or nerdy characters in a largely positive ways.   The terms “geek” and “nerd” have changed in the last few decades.  Someone I know is creating a line of Pilates Nerd merchandise, and she (if memory serves) was a high school homecoming queen.

There is a darker side.   Geek culture is still largely male and some of those men are not making women welcome as equals at the table.   That’s shown up in a news item I read last Spring, about the failure of a pilot for a TV reality show called “Game Jam” in which two woman game developers (Zoe Quinn and Robin Arnott) walked out over hostile, sexist comments made by a member of the production staff to promote on camera “drama” (among other professional concerns.)   It came up again when I heard about verbal and physical harassment of women who cosplay at San Diego Comic Con this summer.    And this week, I’m reading a lot about GamerGate.  At the heart of that scandal, Zoe Quinn was forced to move from her home due to threats and harassment after an ex-boyfriend claimed that she slept with a member of the game press to get better reviews of one of her creations, and Anita Sarkeesian also moved from her home due to threats because she created a YouTube video series entitled “Tropes vs. Women In Video Games” that leveled some intelligent feminist criticism against video games and the video game industry for their portrayal of women.  More recently, Ms. Sarkeesian also had to cancel a lecture at Utah State University when she discovered that the University could not prohibit hand guns (when the owners had permits) in the lecture hall because of Utah state law, in spite of death threats made against her person.

The levels of vitriol aimed that these women baffle me.   The nerd culture types I’ve generally encountered are scientists and engineers, who despite the Steve Jobs hippie image, are a little more often social conservatives than flaming liberals.  That tendency has got to do with some of it, but it only goes so far.   My mother and her sister were both professional chemists when second wave feminism was happening, and there’s at least one female computer programmer among my cousins in the years since.   My sister has degrees in biology and library science… so I come from a very women-in-science-positive background.   Geek culture is a better place with more women in it, in my opinion.

The one explanation that’s really resonated with me is a commentary on GamerGate called Why I Feel Bad For – And Understand – The Angry #GamerGate Gamers by Devin Faraci.  The crux of his analysis of why there is such hostility and misogyny in the gamer community boils down to a consequence of the notion from over 20 years ago that geek culture was now cool:

Let me tell you where these kids are coming from, because I used to come from there. The first thing that’s happening is that they’re mostly males who are socially unaccepted. They’re outsiders, losers, weirdos and freaks. And most of them aren’t just male, they’re white males. What’s happening is that these men are feeling powerless in their own lives, and then along comes someone like Anita Sarkeesian telling them that as white men they are the MOST powerful group in the world. And that they should be aware of this privilege and they should be careful how they exert it.

Imagine the confusion this causes. These kids feel like the bottom of the heap, ignored and hated and mocked and here comes this woman – who is successful and admired and gets Joss Whedon to retweet her videos – telling them that they’re actually part of an invisible system keeping her down. This simply can’t compute for these guys.

What was once a safe haven for the socially marginalized members of a privileged group has now become mainstream enough that a) some of the people who previously ostracized members of geek communities now want to visit them and share in them, and b) geek communities are big enough and powerful enough that they are legitimately open to examination and criticism from other stakeholders in society.

While I can’t say that I have ever been an outcast, I’ve always felt I’m better with machines than people in certain ways.   I’m a pattern introvert, and not blessed with a life of the party personality.  My approach to life is more about understanding and using the rules of human behavior, than demanding attention or preference through physical dominance.  Interacting with people can be draining at times, and at those times I can feel completely alone in a crowded room.   People and their motivations can feel opaque.   Machines don’t have these problems for me.   If there’s something I don’t know, I just figure it out… and when I build something that works, that achievement speaks for itself.

So, I get how geek culture can be a bit of a refuge.   I can see how you can get invested in the world of comic books (though I didn’t) and rejoice that you’ve got an event like San Diego Comic Con that celebrates what you love.   I can also see how you can get anxious about losing something unique when Comic Con becomes so mainstream that Paris Hilton now puts in a media appearance there.  I can even see why if you’re an awkward guy that’s had nothing but romantic rejection from women suddenly get nervous when women suddenly start showing up in your mostly male community.

None of this is an excuse for what is going on now.

Things change, and more inclusiveness ultimately means there are less people telling you what you should do and how you should act.    This exchange from the West Wing comes to mind:

Major Tate: Sir, we’re not prejudiced toward homosexuals.

Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: You just don’t want to see them serving in the Armed Forces?

Major Tate: No sir, I don’t.

Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: ‘Cause they impose a threat to unit discipline and cohesion.

Major Tate: Yes, sir.

Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: That’s what I think, too. I also think the military wasn’t designed to be an instrument of social change.

Major Tate: Yes, sir.

Admiral Percy Fitzwallace: The problem with that is that’s what they were saying about me 50 years ago – blacks shouldn’t serve with whites. It would disrupt the unit. You know what? It did disrupt the unit. The unit got over it. The unit changed. I’m an admiral in the U.S. Navy and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff… Beat that with a stick.

The Music of the 80’s Lives Again

I am one of the Walkman generation.  Though my Mom had some great heavy classical vinyl albums in our house, I never developed much affection for the medium.  I’ve always seen vinyl for its utility (or lack thereof) and fragility.  Vinyl warps and scratches.  It gets dusty.   It is also decidedly not portable.

So, I started with a General Electric portable tape player, graduated to two or three different Sony Walkmans, and purchased something on the order of 80-100 cassette tapes before finally jumping over to Compact Discs in March of 1989.   I pretty much haven’t looked back to analog media since then, though I have branched out into SACD, DVD-Audio, HDCD, and Dual-Layer Discs in recent years.

I got a decent Fisher Boombox in the late 80’s, one that was good enough to support stereo “Line In” that allowed me to play CDs on it well into the 1990’s and digital music from an iPod since then.  It also allowed me to reach back into my tape library for anything that was out of print on CD or things like mix tapes for many years, until finally the belts on its dual tape decks finally gave out.

By then, it was after the year 2000 and I owned a decent 5.1 surround sound entertainment system, and while the boombox was worth repair, something more permanent seemed in order if I ever wanted to play any of my tapes back.  After talking with a friend who also had some archival interest in cassette tapes, looking at what was available in the mall electronics stores, and checking out e-Bay, I discovered that cassette deck manufacture peaked between about 1988-93 and that I really needed to look at a used deck from that period.  Eventually, I won an Onkyo TA-2058 on e-Bay for about $30.  It’s not absolute top of the line, but certainly good enough for my needs… and goodness knows how many hundreds of dollars it was new.  Knowing that maintenance would be an issue, I also found the English language service manual for the unit on a Russian web site for a few dollars shortly after I got it.

That deck served my needs whenever I intermittently felt the need until a few months ago.   At that point, it began to show some serious symptoms of failure.  It would play tapes, but only for short periods that ended with the tape slowing to a stop.  Consulting the exploded view of the playback unit itself, I saw that it had two belts (a main drive belt, and a counter belt) and deduced pretty quickly that they were the likely source of failure.

Finding the necessary parts took a while.  Original factory parts were rare, and had been sitting in plastic bags for nearly 20 years.  Finally I stumbled on an audio forum thread which recommended a guy by the name of Fred Marrs who manufactures (or has others manufacture) and sells belts for a bunch of good and great old tape decks.  Since he’s a one man operation, it took a few weeks to get the necessary replacement belts from him.

I was finally able to take some time today to install the new belts.  It went pretty well and the deck sounds great after the repair.

The TA-2058 with the cover off and belts replaced.

The TA-2058 with the cover off and belts replaced.

The work was tedious and cramped for space but did not require removal of the whole mechanical playback unit.  I was able to remove the plate that held the main drive motor from the back of the playback deck.

IMG_1481

The main drive motor with replaced belt.

I was then able to remove the front bezel (though that was not necessary), the front door, the door supports, and a front plate of the playback deck to reveal and replace the counter belt.

The counter belt runs between the left capstan and geared post that functions as the mechanical counter.

The counter belt runs between the left capstan and geared post that functions as the mechanical counter (here partially obscured by the left support for the door.)

Replacing the belts and reassembling the unit took surprisingly little time, and I was able to test the tape deck using my venerable boombox as a bench amp.

Here’s the repaired tape deck playing a mix tape that a friend sent me in the early 1990’s.  The video shows the mix tape, the partially re-assembled deck, the service manual, the boom box, and the old, removed belts.

Technology Marches On For Old Film

Old home movies have very much been on our minds around here lately.  A couple of the Missus’ great uncles were Roman Catholic Monsignors and went on a trip around the world in 1938 to the 34th International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, Hungary and finally returned to Manhattan via the HMS Britannic.    They took over 3000 feet of home movies on the trip.   We recently showed the films to an auction expert in the collectibles field.  He said the movies have an interesting “Forrest Gump-like quality” because the film shows a number places that changed radically not that long after the films were shot: Pearl Harbor, China, Singapore, Fascist Italy (Rome, Florence, Venice), Paris, and London.  Others, like the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx, sit almost outside time.   Some of the movies are in color.

We got the films transferred to DVD several years ago, shortly after they came into our possession.   We looked at those DVDs for the first time in a good while before going to see the expert.  We weren’t particularly impressed with the quality of the transfer.

When a friend recently got some slides from the 1970’s of hers transferred to digital by a different outfit and liked the quality, we decided to see what they could do with our movies.

The results look promising.   There is some additional family footage in the last can of film of what we think is the 50th wedding anniversary of the Missus’ great grandparents, sometime around 1940.  Here is a frame from that footage on the older DVDs of a group of Sisters touring the Missus’ Great Grandmother’s flower garden:
old_film_transfer

The transfer really isn’t very good.  The contrast and saturation levels appear to be set to try to highlight all the color still present in the film.  It looks like bad color television from the days before cable.   Most of the details are lost in darkness.   Taken out of context, it would be hard to know exactly where this image was taken.

Compare that with approximately the same frame sent to us by the company doing the new transfer:

new_film_transfer

This frame was sent to us in both “original” and “color corrected” forms.  This is with color correction; the original is a little more sepia-toned.  The colors, where present, are more muted compared to the earlier transfer.  Yet, that loss utterly pales in comparison to the amount of other visual information gained in the new transfer.    You can tell who is in this frame, and where it is, without much trouble at all.   I also resized the new image to match the older one here.  It’s actually about four times larger, with much more detail, since the new transfer will be Blu-ray-quality MPEG4.

The new transfer will not be cheap, but I think it will definitely be worth it.

Listening at 78 RPM

I’ve come to have a greater appreciation for the music of the first half of the 20th century over the years.  It’s crept in slowly, first by listening to bands like the Asylum Street Spankers, who consciously create modern music in the style of the 1920’s and 30’s.    More recently, it’s come out of listening to some of the early music itself after a blogger friend turned me on to the 1920’s Radio Network (a live radio feed near Norfolk, VA and online digital stream.)

Having heard a few 78 RPM records in person over the years, I have always wondered how much information ever went onto those grooves in the pre-vinyl days of shellac from before 1948.   The records that come down to us now are often worn and the playback equipment is tired.  Digital transfers often do not help much, because the aim too often is “hiss free playback” not “proper fidelity” (something that made early CD remasters of much more recent music inferior to their analog counterparts in the 1980’s and 1990’s.)

So, it was a very pleasant surprise to happen upon the YouTube archive of Ade Gregg, an Australian sound engineer with a love of Big Band Era and earlier recordings who spends a lot of his free time figuring out how to get the most sound off of a 78 RPM record.   He posted much of his material online between 2010-2013, some of it during a period when he was unemployed and trying to see if he could do work with 78’s for a living somehow.  From what I can see, he’s evidently got a two part system: a phono pre-amp that’s he’s put together himself to best reproduce the sound envelope of the era, and some custom and stock digital plugins that he uses with whatever digital mastering software he’s got.   Most to all of the stuff he’s posted is from records he’s picked up at junk and antique shops for cheap.

I initially found out about him while looking up some online sources for Hawaiian slack key and steel guitarists:

 

From there, I jumped to Jussi Bjorling singing one of the great tenor arias of all time:

 

There also was some of the cleanest Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli I believe I’ve ever heard (and apparently only playable from a computer because of some arcane Youtube permissions):

 

Finally, I heard some proto-Dixieland jazz:

 

I guess it turns out that there’s a lot of information in those grooves, if you know how to get it.

I don’t know what happened to Ade Gregg in the last few years, but I hope he gets his dream job.  If he can get sounds like this off consumer pressed records bought for cheap, I’d like to hear what he can do with surviving metal and acetate masters.

Check out his YouTube channel.  He’s got a ton of stuff (well, at least 100 other recordings) there.

Scientific Perspective

Surplus energy for blog posts is in short supply these days.   I am recovering from a couple physical injuries that I hope to document in an entry here shortly.   The Missus is also at an “off site” meeting held by her employer for the last few days, and I am “solo parenting” the Peanut in her absence with minimal day care help from friends (who are angels, in the best sense.)  I consider solo parenting to be nothing particularly remarkable, except that halving the workforce requires twice the energy from me, and I am tired.

I will therefore keep this entry short.  I happened upon the little essay entitled The Jargon Trap about writing technical articles for the general public in the New York Times the other day.   In it, the author notes:

Scientists who want to pluck out the most important findings from a body of research and contextualize them for a mass audience need to step back from wallowing in minutiae and transform themselves into an outside observer of their own field.

This should not be hard for most scientists skilled at writing to do.   Being somewhat familiar with technical writing in both academia and industry, one of the first things one must learn to communicate effectively is cultivate such an observer perspective.   That perspective allows an author to effectively describe what makes his or her work novel to other experts in the field.   Is it such a big leap then to step a little further back and draw “the big picture” for someone who knows nothing?

I wonder if it is.  Science is both terrifically exact and inexact.  We construct experiments to test small things we can measure, and then extrapolate them to the world at large.   We do so, knowing that new results are often disproved, and interpretation of those results amounts to opinion until they are confirmed numerous times by multiple experiment.

Yet, to the general public, this uncertainty tarnishes the notion that scientists are Promethean “bringers of fact.”   It also confuses terms; what a scientist calls a “hypothesis”, the public would call a “theory”.   What a scientist calls a “theory”, the public would in many ways call a “fact”.

The Non-Divinity of Vinyl

Sometimes it warms my heart when “everything old is new again”.   I read words and whispers on the Internet that a generation raised on lossy, downloaded MP3s and M4As and $20 ear buds has discovered that music can sound better than they’ve previously heard it.   Sales of vinyl record albums are up for the first time in years.   Bloggers, musicians, and other observers are waxing poetic about the experience of going to shops solely dedicated to the sale of music, checking out the artwork on physical media, and meeting people in person who share a love for music at least equal to their own.   Heck, Neil Young, Mr. “we have entered a sonic dark age” himself, recently decided “if you can’t beat’em, join’em.”  He is now promoting his idea of a portable audiophile music player called Pono.

While this is generally a good thing (except possibly the Pono part,) I’m going to pick up my cane, walk out on my porch, and clear my throat in preparation for letting the neighborhood kids know not to come on my lawn and tell me that it all sounds so much better on vinyl.    Vinyl isn’t a perfect medium for reproducing sound, dear readers.   The fact that it became as good as it did took decades of engineering and innovation.   As Jay Leno likes to say about steam cars, “the last days of an old technology are almost always better than the first days of a new technology.”   While I believe we are now well past the “first days” of digital music production and consumption, undue nostalgia can still overwhelm the unwary listener.

Here are a few reasons why I can’t get overly enthusiastic about vinyl albums:

  • There was crappy vinyl manufactured back in the day.   There could still be now.  My Mom has a pretty significant classical vinyl collection from the late 50’s and early 60’s, and while I’m willing to stack a lot of those thick vinyl RCA Victor Red Seal and Living Stereo albums against any ever made,  we also had a few late pressings of pop albums from the 70’s that were much more poorly manufactured.   Some records existed, straight out of the factory, that just skipped no matter what you did because the grooves were poorly stamped into the discs.   There is no way to know whether this is true prior to opening the package and playing the album.
  • Aspects of the vinyl mastering process that could affect playback were never standardized.   Vinyl record masters are cut on lathe that uses a sharp cutter driven by supercooled magnets to create the groove.  The shape and angle of the cutter affect the shape of the groove.   That shape affects the angle (called the Stylus Rake Angle or SRA) that the record needle should use to best play the  music back.   This was never standardized, though some values may have been common.  Properly setting up the SRA is a somewhat involved process.
  • Vinyl imposes some real limitations on how you sequence tracks on albums because of the physical geometry of the disk.   The disk turns at a constant speed and the needle travels from the outer edge to the inner edge of the disc at a constant rate.   This produces a long groove in one turn of the outer edge of the disc and a much shorter groove in a turn of the inner edge of the recorded part of the disk, but both grooves must contain about the same amount of music.    How does that affect the music?  It’s easier for a lathe to cut the high frequency squiggles made by voices and cymbals at the outer edge of the disk than it is at the middle because more record is passing under the recording stylus as it cuts.   You get much better high frequency fidelity at the outer edge, and mastering engineers recommend putting louder,  more dynamic music there.  This effect is exaggerated because of RIAA equalization — a process where bass is lowered and treble increased during record mastering and the opposite actions taken during playback.   RIAA equalization has the net effect of increasing the amount of usable space on the side of record and reducing surface hiss, but it significantly increases the size of high frequency squiggles in the groove.
  • The total amount of music on a side of a vinyl record is driven by its volume and amount of bass present on the recording.   Both cause the squiggles in the groove to become wider and deeper.   Wider and deeper grooves need to be spaced further apart, or the record skips.   If the music on a vinyl side needs to be longer, then it needs to be softer or have less bass or both, so that the grooves can be cut closer together.
  • Stereo reproduction in vinyl records also affects how music is mixed and engineered.   The two stereo channels are cut into the disk at the same time, each at opposing 45 degree angles (the Westrex “45/45” system, see here).   This has the net effect of causing each side of the groove to behave somewhat differently.  If the bass is doing different things in the left and right channels in the Westrex system, it’s like a car passing over potholes in the road that alternate between the driver and passenger side tires. The amount of bounce created can be enormous and bounce can cause skips.   Therefore, engineers routinely recommend mixing the bass track of a song down to mono (same on both channels) before the vinyl mastering process.
  • Vinyl records cannot play back more than two audio channels well.  Quadrophonic sound on vinyl was attempted in the 1970’s but wasn’t very effective.  It had more technical success in the world of reel-to-reel tape.   It’s not a big thing now either, but there are some very nice 5.1 editions of classic albums on DVD-Audio and SACD.
  • Playback of vinyl records degrades the medium as it plays.   Record playback means putting a sharp object in a groove (unless you’ve got a laser turntable, whose effectiveness audiophiles debate and which has never meaningfully caught on.)   Since the groove contains information in the form of bumps, the sharp object will eventually wear them down.  As the bumps wear down, the character of the playback changes.
  • It’s a fragile medium, with little in the way of automatic error correction.   Digital media are essentially streams of numbers.   It’s mathematically possible to verify that all those numbers are correct, and include redundant information that can correct errors automatically.  The same can’t be really be done with vinyl.  Cleaning of the disk and correct positioning of the turntable needle can minimize the effects of a scratch, I suppose, but that process is guided by the operator manually.   Dust, scratches, and warping can all affect the fidelity of vinyl recordings.

Now before someone starts yelling “vinyl hater!” at me, I think vinyl can sound great.  Generations of men and women smarter than me and with better ears than me spent a LOT of time learning how to make vinyl playback sound “just so”.    That effort has likely affected both how the disks sound and expectations of how we want them to sound.   Should Shakespeare or the King James Version of the Bible be rejected because they use archaic English?  Of course not.

My point is simply that I reject the blind belief in the superiority of vinyl records.   Vinyl can sound great!  It can also sound like crap!  The same two statements can be said about digital media.   If we can’t figure out a way to make digital media sound as good as or better than vinyl, that’s not the fault of digital media.  That’s the fault of the engineers for not trying hard enough, and the consumer public for not demanding more.

References:

  1. Producing Great Sounding Records by Kevin Gray, Record Technology Incorporated, 1997
  2. Why CDs Sound Better Than Vinyl by James Cruz, Rock Edition, 2012
  3. Myths(Vinyl), HydrogenAudio Wiki
  4. Disadvantages(Vinyl), HydrogenAudio Wiki
  5. RIAA Equalization, Wikipedia
  6. Mastering For Vinyl (video), Criminal Records
  7. Setting Up A Phono Cartridge, The Abso!ute Sound