Regarding Audio

How Much Does Fidelity Matter?

Recorded on January 2nd, 2017

With each passing year, as we all hurtle towards our eventual deaths, I keep coming back to this idea that it may (may) be an unwise use of one’s time to obsess over the bit-perfection of their lossless digital music library, or the neat and tidy suspended-animation state of RAW files in a Lightroom library. It seems to be a problem of math, where almost all of the factors are weighted heavily in favor of just doing what’s “good enough” to enjoy what we have for as long as we’re alive.

These are the factors I mean:

  1. Time to spend on maintaining these libraries. Finite and scarce. We don’t know how much time any of us has left. Cataloging FLAC files and RAW photos and their associated non-destructive metadata files is only for the nerdiest, with the most discretionary time available.
  2. Time to enjoy viewing or listening to the libraries. Also limited. Is in a zero-sum relationship with, and directly lessened by, #2.
  3. Hard drive space. Cheap and plentiful. Possibly the one thing that tilts in favor of spending too much time and attention on curating our collections.
  4. Usefulness to future generations. Inestimably low. No one after me will want to take care of, duplicate, back up, and tend to my digital libraries of crap, much less listen to or view them.
  5. Aesthetic value. I can totally hear the benefits of FLAC files. I can sometimes see the difference between a RAW file and a high-quality JPG.
  6. Size of collections. Growing faster every year, especially with photos. As more photos and audio files get added to the piles, the worth of each of those files — well into the tens of thousands now — decreases proportionally.

The alternatives? Living with iTunes Match as a primary library source for digital music, and dumping copies of your photos in Apple iCloud and Google Photos, since that’s where you’re probably going to look at them anyway. The beauty of this method is that you have so many tons of crap to lug around that if some small fraction of it gets corrupted, oh well — you have 98% of the rest still fine. Not a great way to go through life, but neither is feeling overly attached to digital data, spending precious hours being ruled by your computer and the file systems that house this stuff. If I knew I were going to die in six months, how much would I care about all this shit?

But who am I kidding? It’s not like I’m going to burn down my Lightroom library and my FLAC folders. I may never view or hear some of those things again ever, but I just keep adding to the piles like a fool.

Mag-Lev Turntable

Recorded on December 17th, 2016

I can’t stop watching videos about the levitating turntable from MAG-LEV Audio. I have so many questions:

  1. How long does it take to get up to speed?
  2. How solid can the floating platter be against the downward force of the stylus?
  3. How long does it take to recover from wobble?
  4. Do you balance it only by balancing the turntable plinth?
  5. What are the wow and flutter measurements?
  6. Does any pulsating from the magnets or drive system transfer to the cartridge?
  7. What’s the platter made of?
  8. How does the platter react against skating/antiskating force?
  9. When can I hear one???

Price Drops on ELAC Debut B6 and Wharfedale Diamond 10.1 Speakers

Recorded on December 11th, 2016

If you’ve been waiting for the ELAC Debut B6 to get cheaper than the already low regular price of $279, go to Amazon or Needle Doctor where you’ll find them for about $230. I don’t know how long that sale price will last.

And if you’re in the market for something in that ballpark, also consider the beautiful Wharfedale Diamond 10.1, which is about five years old by now, but has dropped from $350 to $250 as newer Wharfedale models have come out (See Amazon/Music Direct or just directly at Music Direct).

Note: None of the above are affiliate links. I’m just having hotbrain about speakers today after learning about the sale prices.

The Plangent Process for Retrieving Everything from Analog Tapes

Recorded on September 28th, 2016

A few years ago I ran across this article in Tape Op about something called the Plangent Process, a crazy and elegant method of harvesting the rock-steady ultrasonic bias signal originally recorded on an analog tape and using it as a wow and flutter correction signal. If you can capture the reproduced bias tone and measure how far off it is at every instant of playback, you can do some insane math to realign the audio signal in time and get an eerily steady playback from something that was purely analog before. Wow and flutter are effectively gone. That’s what Plangent Processes does with proprietary wideband tape heads and preamps and some fancy FM DSP. Once you grasp it, it seems so obvious that you wish you’d thought of it.

There are a crapload of ear-opening example clips, if you can get past the tiny text and cramped layout. Actually, not just ear-opening but shockingly great. Besides the obvious immediate advantages of removing wow and flutter distortions introduced by stretched tape or inexact tape transports, the Plangent Process restores high-frequency sounds that were just smeared and absent before. All the claims you read about space around the instruments and a solid sound-stage are 100% true. The Bruce Springsteen “Born to Run” 30th anniversary remasters used Plangent and they sound incredible.

In fact, it’s so good that it makes me wonder if it could be too much of a good thing if applied to some older rock records that are already deemed “good enough”. Maybe “Immigrant Song” would be even more impressive if run through this setup, or maybe it would be robbed of its heft — I don’t know. But it sure is fun to play through all those samples and hear the before and after.

John Baccigaluppi of Tape Op on Leaving the Mac Environment

Recorded on September 28th, 2016

John Baccigaluppi of Tape Op magazine has had it with the new Apple strategy of constant updates and the effect it has on his studio sessions. His contention is that the Mac is fast becoming a non-pro platform that doesn’t serve a professional recording scenario. The operating systems and the machines they run on are all so entwined with each other, but also ephemeral, that it seems like you’re only renting anything you buy anymore. Combine that with Apple’s tendency to incrementally remove input/output ports with each successive generation of the Mac, and you have a studio-hostile environment. I’m sad because I’m still firmly in the Apple fan-boy camp.

Earlier this year, OS X was rebranded macOS (to better align with Apple’s iWorld-centric vision). I’m currently running four macOS versions — 10.5, 10.8, 10.9, as well as the newest “El Capitan” 10.11 — spread across six different Macs. I need the older versions to open archived sessions, as well as to ensure that I have a stable recording platform for my clients. During the recent upgrade process mentioned earlier, our main DAW was repeatedly getting error messages in the middle of recording, and we lost performances as a result.

I don’t have much experience here, but it’s illuminating to hear him (and Andy Hong, also of Tape Op) now endorse PC-based DAWs like RADAR, which has always seemed like a cool rig. I sure wouldn’t want to be in the business of recording bands and also trying to keep a stable software/hardware setup going these days.

Importing Fairlight CMI Samples Into GarageBand

Recorded on September 12th, 2016

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I’m sick, so tonight’s post is very short.

For keyboard practice just now, I needed a specific choral sample, something like the famous “ARR1” sound on the Fairlight CMI. I found just what I needed on the Karma-Lab Forums. Someone had posted a ZIP file with a handful of WAVs collected from a Fairlight library. I opened the ZIP in GoodReader, extracted the files, saved the ARR1 file to Dropbox, and imported that into the Sampler instrument in GarageBand on the iPhone. I tweaked the ADSR a bit and presto! Breathy, early-80s vocal sample goodness.

Bye, Headphone Jack

Recorded on September 9th, 2016

IPhone 5S bottom

Well, they did it. Everyone knows by now that the iPhone 7 will have no traditional 3.5mm headphone jack. I hope that its absence on that phone will not mean we see it in fewer places on future audio/video devices. I was pleasantly surprised that in addition to wired Lightning headphones, Apple chose to include the Lightning-to-3.5mm dongle with every iPhone 7, and that they’ll sell extras for $9. This will certainly help people like me, who don’t want the AirPods and who wouldn’t have seriously considered jumping to Android anyway. (No matter how much of an audio nerd I am, was I really supposed to abandon iTunes Match, iCloud Photos, the zillions of iOS apps I rely on, and the vastly better security of iOS just because of the absence of an analog jack?)

I don’t want the AirPods because I don’t believe their transducers will sound as clear as my cheap Sony wired earbuds. Even if they manage to make them sound good, I haven’t heard anything about their special flavor of Bluetooth being lossless. I wouldn’t count on them for any serious music listening, although they’d be more than fine for podcasts.

For the wired option, I still think Lightning is a terrible headphone plug replacement. Like I’ve written before, the plug isn’t cylindrical, so it can’t rotate inside the jack to neutralize forces on the cord. Also, they could have at least used a right-angle Lightning plug for the included Lightning headphones and dongle, to keep them from sticking so far out of the phone when plugged in. The wire on that straight Lightning plug is going to suffer a lot of strain in peoples’ pockets.

I also don’t know yet about the quality of the DAC and amplifier in the $9 dongle. That’s a lot to pack into such a small case, and I assume that Lightning doesn’t carry analog audio, so something outside the phone has to do the conversion to analog. For real listening to high quality sources, I recently learned about the very promising AudioQuest Dragonfly (Black or Red) USB DAC, which works when connected to a Lightning-to-USB adaptor. That could be the best cheap-ish way to listen to iPhone audio yet.

A Lightning Port Headphone Jack Is an Awful Idea

Recorded on June 23rd, 2016

photo of old-timey 3.5mm headphone plug

Mini stereo plug, we barely knew ye.

The rumor going around is that Apple will remove the standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and make the Lightning port serve as a headphone jack. I bristle at this idea for many reasons:

1. Replacing the 3.5mm jack is not “inevitable”

Some people say “Well, Apple has to do this at some point, so it might as well be now, like they did when they left the 3.5-inch floppy out of the iMac.” I don’t believe that. Too often in technology, we think about what’s a good idea next month, next quarter, next year. We rarely think enough about things at the time scale of say, 10,000 years (see the Long Now Foundation). I’m not saying we have to dig up an iPhone in 10,000 years and expect it to still work, but it’d be nice if you could still get analog audio out of one if it happened to last 100 years. How easy will it be to dig up a Lightning-to-analog adaptor at that point? Yes, I’m saying that this piece of technology that’s 100-plus years old is still good enough.

2. How is it an improvement over an analog audio jack?

What does it do better? Does it pass digital audio and analog audio out through the same connector? If it only passes digital, I could see the argument that you could use a better outboard D/A converter of your choosing. But even if that’s the case, we know that audiophiles are the exception. In the vast majority of cases, we’re going to end up with even more severely underpowered headphone amps and converters bound up in external dongles or embedded in expensive headphones that drain the iPhone’s battery (which, by the way, negates the whole “more space for a battery” argument).

If the Lightning port passes analog audio out, it’s even more of a mystery, because we already have a perfectly good connector for that.

3. Including a pair of Apple Lightning earbuds with every iPhone doesn’t help

Everyone knows that Apple earbuds always suck worse than the lowest-end Sony earbuds. Al-ways. I only use the Apple earbuds when I want to make phone calls hands-free or in a noisy environment. They are and have always been shit and life is too short to listen to them for music, or even podcasts. We did not evolve from fish just to get this far and drink bad beer and listen to Apple earbuds.

4. Cylindrical plugs handle tangential forces better

A tangential force (like a “moment arm” in Statics in engineering school) acting on a right-angle 3.5mm headphone plug just causes the plug to rotate harmlessly in the jack, keeping its connection all the while. A similar force applied to a right-angle Lightning plug puts undue strain on the wire, the joint, and the tiny Lightning connector itself.

5. How much more space do we need inside the iPhone, really?

I hear the argument that even if they don’t need to make iPhones thinner, that the space taken up by the 3.5mm jack requires too much depth inside the phone. I don’t believe that reclaimed space will be used for more battery power if we go Lightning. I think Apple will increase battery power just enough over the last generation, like they always do, and use that space for something else we don’t need. If they’re really running out of battery space, stop making thinner phones. Leave them where they are. They’re getting too hard to grip anyway.

6. Don’t even get me started on Bluetooth headphones

Bluetooth headphones are needlessly complicated, further compress the audio, and are one more thing to charge. Bluetooth AptX Lossless is supposed to be better, and I believe it is, but in its current implementation, it’s like saying, “well, he doesn’t beat me as much as he used to”. I haven’t read anything that says AptX Lossless is 100% lossless. It dynamically falls back to lossy when there’s not enough bandwidth to be faithful to the original signal.

As is it now, even though the D/A converters on the iPhone aren’t world-class, they’re pretty good, and if you play Apple Lossless or FLAC out of them through the analog port to a decent pair of headphones, you get real lossless audio.

I only use Bluetooth earbuds when I’m mowing the lawn. Otherwise, they’re for people who don’t know or don’t care.

7. Obviously, the incompatibility with a universe of existing audio equipment

As mentioned in the BBC article above, mountains — MOUNTAINS — of electronic waste would result. “Just get a dongle”, you say. I don’t want a Lightning-to-analog dongle in my pocket to scratch up my phone, or be another point of failure between the phone and the headphones. And I don’t want to buy an expensive new pair of Lightning headphones or earbuds. I like my cheap, incredible Sony MDR-E10LP earbuds. I am old. Get off my lawn.

Lossless Purchase of Julia Holter’s “Have You In My Wilderness”

Recorded on May 20th, 2016

front cover of Julia Holter album

I can’t tell you how much it pains me to buy lossy music. It feels wrong, like I’m short-changing myself, short-changing life. I will pay more and go to way more trouble to buy a FLAC version if I’m not going to get an LP of an album. So when I wanted to buy Julia Holter’s “Have You In My Wilderness” today, and I didn’t want to buy it on iTunes, I was so happy to discover that Technics now has a hi-res/lossless music store, where they sell that very album.

Except! Except you can’t buy those tracks in the U.S. — only in the U.K., Germany and Canada. Whyyyyyyy. Khaaaaaan.

But if you scroll down to the bottom of their site, you’ll see where it says “A service of 7digital”. Hmmm. So if you google “7digital” you get to 7digital.com, which does offer that Julia Holter album for lossless sale in the U.S.

Whew. Close one.

The Kenton Audio Walk in Portland, Oregon

Recorded on April 18th, 2016

My friend David in Portland, Oregon writes an enchanting blog called The Portland Orbit (part of the collective behind the equally great Pittsburgh Orbit and Osaka Orbit). With the Portland edition, you never know if you’re going to read about local frogs, local nuts on the Trimet, or local art. This time, David treats us to a highlight on Disjecta’s current exhibit “The Music That Makes Us”, an installation/festival that focuses on the Kenton neighborhood’s wide array of musicians.

For me, the hook is their Kenton Audio Walk, which we can luckily enjoy long-distance, although I know it would be even better in person. Its various voices and music tell a great story and put you right in the Kenton musical environment. I can imagine myself walking down those streets as it unfolds.

You can listen to it in the car or play it on computer speakers, but I believe it’s better with earbuds/headphones. Take the time and dig it!

Kenton Audio Walk, Part 1:

Kenton Audio Walk, Part 2:

The Dual 1219 Likes the Stock Mat

Recorded on April 4th, 2016

photo of LP on Dual 1219 turntable

After the inner-rim polishing experiment last night, I was able to do more listening today. Without a doubt, the noise floor is vastly lower with the polished inner rim. I’ve finally nearly achieved the same inky-black background with the Dual 1219 that I loved with the Thorens TD-165. When I crank up the volume, I can faintly hear the rubber idler driving the inner rim, but it’s way quieter than it was in the past. And when I put my ear up to the platter to listen to it “airborne”, the only thing I can hear anymore is the motor. No whirring/turning from the idler + rim interface.

With that improvement in the bag, the other big a-ha moment today was going back to the stock Dual mat. Until now, I had a thin strip of drawer-liner mesh from Target lining one of the voids in the mat, to deaden the space underneath a record and give it some buffer from the metal platter. With everything quieter in the first place, I thought I’d remove that strip of mesh. Immediately, everything got brighter and more alive. It was like night and day. A vinyl record must want to have the solid, hard foundation of the the stock Dual rubber mat. Even better than that, as shown in the photo above, I made a “clamp” from a wine bottle cork, a small sheet of mesh, and a circular scrap of leather. I put that on the spindle and it pushes the disc down to the mat. The important thing to remember is that stereo grooves are not just lateral. Half of the groove wall information is contained in an up-and-down axis, so you really want a hard surface supporting the record. It might have been quieter having a more squishy mat underneath, but I’ll take a hint more rumble if it means crystal-clear highs come with it.

You may want to say, “But why don’t you just put a hockey puck or a weight on the record if you want to press it against the mat?” Ah, yes, I have a hockey puck. But it’s a little too heavy, and anything with enough mass to use gravity to press the record down is also going to drag the platter. I’ve done it, but the sound loses its life, and sometimes I can even hear it slow down. The trick with the cork + mesh scrap + leather scrap is that it weighs almost nothing, but it hugs the spindle cap and pulls the record down close to the mat, so there’s no air gap, no give, and no resonance. The vinyl stays coupled to the mat radially, and up and down.

I also fixed the tonearm wire so that the side forces on the arm were more equal from either side of the pivot. It’s not perfect – I need to get some more lightweight Litz wire from England to replace the relatively stiff, shielded, cannibalized FireWire arm wire – but it’s better.

The result for now: The Doobie Brothers sound like they’re in the room. Totally hallucinatory.

Dual 1219 Inner Rim Polished with Good Results

Recorded on April 3rd, 2016

photo of Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish

I couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to get out the metal polish tonight. I was inspired by this old post from Seth (a.k.a. NoTransistors) on AudioKarma, where he recommended polishing the inner rim of Dual idler turntables to a mirror finish. I liked the idea of it for reducing rumble, but was afraid it would make the idler rubber less grippy. Well, I should have done it long ago, because it sounds excellent. I didn’t get it quite as smooth as mirror-shiny, but after a bunch of times around it with some Mothers Mag & Aluminum Polish and some pieces of old t-shirt, it’s way smoother now than when it came out of the factory.

It must be something about the tiny contact area where the idler meets the rim that likes a buttery-uniform transfer of power through the whole revolution of the platter. The high-frequencies were unleashed and I could hear the actual tip of the drumstick on the hi-hat in the right channel on “Here to Love You” by the Doobie Brothers. That definitely didn’t come through before. It’s like the detailed goodness of a belt drive combined with the underlying force of an idler. I think it’s quieter now, but it was so windy tonight that it was hard to evaluate background noise. I’ll listen more tomorrow.

Unfortunately, my hands were too dirty to take any in-process photos of the polished rim. I was too excited about getting it done to think about taking pictures anyway. The gross photo above shows what cotton rags look like after polishing the platter.

A Plexiglas Top Plate for the Headshell

Recorded on March 26th, 2016

photo of tonearm and cartridge

I took the brass plate off the top of the headshell and moved it underneath, sandwiched between the wood and the cartridge. I did that because the top of the cart (which is rather narrow) was digging into the wood of the arm, and I figured the surface the cart presses against will be more rigid if the pressure is distributed across a harder material over a bigger area.

On top now is a futuristic-looking piece of Plexiglas I scored, cut and drilled. Now that I’ve learned how easy that process is, I’m gonna be cutting and drilling plastic all the time.

In the process of ham-fistedly moving the cartridge around, I of course broke one of the tonearm wires. It’s bothering me to have to go to bed, but it’s too late at night to re-solder it now. I’ll get to it in the morning. At least I had the presence of mind to pull the stylus off first and set it aside.

Baerwald, the Conrad Hoffman Arc Template Generator, Wine, WineBottler, and Perfect Alignment

Recorded on March 24th, 2016

screenshot of Conrad Hoffman arc template generator software

Things have reached a new level of crazy in this house.

I had been using 1/4” of underhang on the DIY tonearm, with the AT120Eb mounted parallel to the arm, but with yesterday’s listening tests, I could hear that the cart was way out of alignment on the first couple of tracks on most albums. I could see it, too, but initially chose to ignore it, thinking that the trade-off in reduced side-force on the stylus would be worth it. It wasn’t.

Thus began what we call “hotbrain”, where I would do rapid-fire research on the iPhone and append every promising page URL to one entry in Drafts. That draft got quite long by the end of the hotbrain.

First was research into whether a 12” tonearm really needed an offset cartridge, or if straight would be good enough. I found a very religious, heated thread about “Tonearm without off-set” on Audiogon, where I learned that:

The sonic benefits of highly accurate alignment are huge. Search this forum for “Mint” or “MintLP” protractor for a wealth of information and testimonials across a wide range of tonearms and cartridges. You’d be shortchanging yourself not to have the best possible alignment, which won’t be feasible without a properly angled headshell.

This led to a hunt for the Mint LP protractor, a rather expensive custom-generator protractor they mail you after getting your turntable and tonearm model numbers.

Ah, but then this post about the Mint on the Steve Hoffman boards:

I own a Mint but prefer to use an arc protractor generated by Conrad Hoffman’s software, which is what I was using before I purchased the Mint.

Now I was fully converted to abandoning underhang in favor of using overhang + Baerwald alignment. The only problem was the highly-regarded – and free – Conrad Hoffman custom arc generator only ran on Windows. All I have are Macs.

This is where the crazy starts. I didn’t want to deal with downloading a copy of Windows and then a trial of VMWare to install the Conrad Hoffman software, so I was actually this close to signing up for a free trial of a Microsoft Azure hosted virtual machine. But then I read about the hurdles you have to go through to install third-party apps on such a service, and kept looking.

I thought later, “What’s the simplest thing that could work?”, and re-discovered Wine/WineBottler, a way to run some Windows programs on a Mac without installing Windows. I tried it, ran the Conrad Hoffman generator, and was surprised when it ran!

Only thing to figure out was what I wanted my spindle-to-pivot distance to be, since that’s the only parameter you enter about your own system. If I wasn’t doing underhang anymore, I had to come up with a suitable overhang for a roughly 12” straight arm. I found a post mentioning one of the Nanook 219 iterations, and someone said they designed theirs to have 14mm of overhang, and their arm was a similar length to mine. That seemed good enough, so I moved the arm pivot, measured the spindle-to-pivot distance as 308mm, and plugged it into the generator. Conrad’s readme file said that if you didn’t want to make a research project out of it, to just go with the DIN setting and Löfgren A (Baerwald). Those inner- and outer-groove measurements looked close enough when I measured a real LP.

I held my breath and clicked “Print Arc Template” and was relieved to see our wireless printer listed in the Windows print dialog. I clicked “Print” and heard printing noises starting up in the next room. I had to print one more copy after correcting for the Y-axis scale. I put it on the turntable, temporarily taped down the platter (per the instructions), lined everything up, and pretty easily got the cart aligned with the arc and the guides. I moved the stylus over a real LP and could see that the stylus was actually very closely aligned with the grooves all way way through the arc. Never got that close before.

I tightened it back in the headshell, put on Minute By Minute by the Doobie Brothers, and was carried away by the sound of perfect alignment all the way through the album side. It was involving and suspenseful, like a live performance that I didn’t know the outcome of. Every voice and instrument perfectly defined and weightless. I heard ambience cues that I never noticed before, and at the end of each song, lots of details that were masked previously. I’m a believer.

If you suspect you need alignment help, go for the Conrad Hoffman custom arc generator. And don’t be scared off if you have a Mac!

The Tonearm Is Stained

Recorded on March 23rd, 2016

photo of DIY tonearm

Five coats of PolyShade later, the tonearm is back in business. I think I’ll need to twist the cartridge relative to the arm by a few degrees, but that will be for tomorrow. The AT120Eb is mounted with 1/4” underhang and parallel to the straight arm, which means it’s going to be the most out of tangent at the beginning of a record. When I play one, I can hear the image lock in by about the middle of the second track. That must be where the tracking error starts to decrease below some soundstage threshold. The rest of the album side is rock solid. At times it sounds positively holographic.

I had to switch to a lighter top weight/washer plate on top of the headshell, because the first test tonight sounded too dark. It was good, but it was a little too much like the cartridge was swimming in molasses. Once I put the thinner plate on, the sound got its airiness back. I must have added quite a bit of mass with all the varnish, so something had to give for it to balance out.

I also changed the unipivot bearing to be the glass scriber tool. It acts more like a gimballed bearing, but without the chatter, I think. It sounds focused and deep, in any case.

Cosmetically, it needs a proper finger lift. The nylon wire ties look pretty awful.