Posts tagged ‘FLAC’

Why Modern Music Sucks

Boy, do I sound like my parents with that headline, or what?

Apparently, two kinds of compression are changing the sound of recorded music.  The first is digital compression, such as we use to get a bunch of mp3's on an iPod.    I still buy CD's, and then rip them myself so I can control the bit rate and compression, but a lot of folks are buying mp3's online of all kinds of quality.  (I actually rip every CD twice -- once as a VBR MP3 for my iPod and once as a loss-less FLAC file for my home audio server).

The second type of compression, perhaps more insidious because it is impossible for the individual listener to control, is use of audio compressors that reduce the dynamic range of music - basically making soft parts louder and vice versa.    NPR discusses it here, via Flowing Data. While the second form of compression is as old as vinyl (the revenge of Phil Specter?) these two types of compression are related as apparently louder music gives more room to hide digital compression artifacts, so producers are compressing music and increasing loudness.

The best test I have of dynamic range is listening to music in a noisy car, say with the windows open.  Many classical disks can't be listened to this way, as the variation from soft to loud causes one to keep having to fiddle with the volume knob.  I have a few old rock disks that have the same kind of range  (some old Genesis albums come to mind) but most of my newer disks will play just fine in a loud car, probably meaning that they indeed do have much narrower dynamic ranges.

To some extent, this is counter intuitive to me given the prevalence of headphone listening, since headphones are great for listening to music with big dynamic ranges.  But what do I know?  I grew up listening to 8-tracks so it all is an improvement for me.

Here is a very good, succinct example of how compression works and why it makes music suck:

My New Favorite Audio Device

About two years ago I made the time investment to rip all my CD's to digital  (this was a real death-march, at 20 CDs a night for a month).  In doing so, I actually ripped every one of them twice:  once into a small, variable bit-rate MP3 file for my iPod, and a second time into a much larger FLAC digital file  (this is an open-source lossless compression format).  All the FLAC files sit on an old computer on my network that does nothing but act as a file server for these music files.

Now, having lots of nice, high quality digital files, the trick is to play them through my home audio system.  My first solution was an iPod dock on my home audio system, but I found this awkward.  Next, I added a Squeezebox from SlimDevices, a small inexpensive box that hangs on the network that basically takes the digital files off the network and puts then in an analog or digital signal my stereo system knows what to do with.    SlimDevices has always been a favorite among audiophiles, because of their open-source approach and their willingness to continue to improve their product with user feedback.  And, they are pretty reasonably priced.

Both of these solutions suffered from one problem.  My living room is fairly large, and while each system had a remote, the menu screen I was navigating was way over there, either on the small iPod screen or on the larger squeezebox screen.  Either way, I still did not like the ergonomics.

In their new version of the Squeezebox
, Slimdevices has come out with what I consider the near perfect streaming audio device.  The product consists two pieces.  First, the audio device, which is pretty small, that hangs on the network (either by cable or wireless) and does the same job as the old boxes I had, converting digital music files to a format my music equipment can handle.  The key area of improvement is in the remote control.   The remote communicates with your wireless network, and allows one to scroll through his whole music collection right on the remote in an interface nearly identical to the iPod, including album cover art if one so chooses. (click for larger view)



I have had this new Squeezebox for over a month now, and I love it.  For those of you with a lot of CDs, like I have, it is just amazing how much more I listen to my music collection with this setup.  In the old world of shuffling through CD cases in a rack, I would tend to get the same five or six in a rotation.  Now, I listen to much more.  The remote also has a headphone jack so it can operate like a portable music player  (as long as it is in range of your wireless network).

By the way, I know there are devices like this that are all-in-one, meaning that they have their own hard drive so you don't need to network it to a computer.  I find those boxes to be a) way expensive and b) difficult to upgrade.  The cost of a cheap computer (it does not need much of a processor to just serve digital files up to the network) with a good size hard drive is cheap, and is the perfect use for an old computer you have upgraded.  The only real flaw of this device is its inability to do video, but SlimDevices has always focused on audio and will probably stay that way.

Uh, Hello, Fair Use?

More absurd legal theories from the RIAA:

an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has
fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal
fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one
step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey
Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000
music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.

The industry's lawyer in the case, Ira Schwartz, argues in a brief
filed earlier this month that the MP3 files Howell made on his computer
from legally bought CDs are "unauthorized copies" of copyrighted

"I couldn't believe it when I read that," says Ray Beckerman, a New
York lawyer who represents six clients who have been sued by the RIAA.
"The basic principle in the law is that you have to distribute actual
physical copies to be guilty of violating copyright. But recently, the
industry has been going around saying that even a personal copy on your
computer is a violation."

I guess I am guilty too, as I have ripped all 400 of my CD's twice to computers, once in MP3 format for my iPod and once in FLAC format for my home audio system.  All for my own, personal, fair use, because I prefer random access memory over 400 physical discs in boxes as a storage medium for my music.  I used to just listen to four or five CDs at a time, and rotate them for a month until I got up the energy to change them out.  Now, I listen to much more of my own music now that it is in a more accessible format.

More on Sqeezebox

I bought myself a squeezebox digital music server for my Christmas present to myself.  I absolutely love this thing.  I have finally ripped about 400 of my CD's onto my computer in my office at home, using a FLAC loss-less compression.  I chose FLAC because it was supported in firmware by the squeezebox (which thereby reduces the load on the network and the server) and because it was loss-less.  Hard disk space is just too cheap nowadays - for home use, there is no reason to use anything but loss-less ripping of your CD's. 

The really cool part, though, is that the music menu and server controls can be accessed over the network.  That means that you can choose music, change the volume, etc from any PC on the network.  OR, even better, from any handheld.  I have a Dell Axim with wifi capability now sitting on my coffee table.  To pick any of my 400 CD's, I just scroll through the menu on my Axim, or search via the search function, and hit play, and the music starts.  Love it!


My wife, who has about 400 CD's of her own, has resisted the whole digital thing, in large part because of the process of selecting music.  Up until now, she could find a CD on the shelf (which she keeps much more organized than I do) and pop it in a CD faster than she could find it using some front-panel menu on a server.  But she loves this setup now and browsing on the handheld, and I may soon be getting to enjoy the fun of ripping another 400 CDs.

Right now, we are going to buy 2 more of these things to put in other rooms.  The server software will control any number of the Squeezebox devices in different rooms, and all the rooms can have different music playing or the same thing playing.  Highly recommended for those looking for a music-only server (you will have to look elsewhere if you are also looking to serve pictures and streaming video).

PS-  By the way, I described previously the little blogger vanity function that comes with this device.

Streaming Music, Plus A Blogger Vanity Toy

I wanted to stream digital music from my main computer in my home office to my main stereo system in the den.  After some research, I chose version 3 of Squeezebox from Slim Devices.  They have taken an open architecture approach that I like, and have a proven history of steadily improving their product.  Most true audiophiles I sought advice from use this device (this is an audio-only device, no video or jpegs streamed).  I am currently converting my entire CD collection to lossless FLAC format audio files using EAC, which seems to be the audiophile favorite for ripping (and it is free).  FLAC compression seems to result in albums 250-450 meg, meaning my 400 CD's will need about 140 gig, which I have available.  I will ditch most of my mp3 files, saving only a subset for iPod rotation.  New mpg files, or whatever rules in the future, can be made directly from the FLAC.

The box itself is small and well-designed.  Setup was a breeze, once I fixed a setting on my firewall.  Now I can point my remote at this box and scroll easily through my music collection (along with a number of Internet radio stations).  No flipping through CD's or yelling at the kids for not alphabetizing them right.  You can browse or search by title, artist, or album.

In addition to controlling it with a remote, I can control it with any computer on the network.  Right now, I choose songs on a laptop in the kitchen, which sends music from the computer in the office to the amp and speakers in the den.  Awesome.  Their web site says that you can also browse your music and choose what's playing from a web enabled PDA, but I have not tried it yet.

Here is the blogger vanity part:  In addition to an array of other screensavers, you can have the device connect to any online RSS feed and scroll the contents marquee-style across the screen.  All day I have had my blog feed scrolling across the device, interspersed with NY Times and ESPN headlines.