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06 Dec. 2006
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DR Madness and the Sacred Waveform

Yesterday I touted a "Jukebox" that a gentleman kindly put on the web, one that offered a large selection of music from my youth.  Hopefully it's still there today and will remain thus for all to enjoy.  One of the things I somehow avoided mentioning yesterday is that all the music sounds like crap.  The technical quality is relatively poor.  This will come as no surprise to the owner.  He writes, in part:

Please NOTE that we have made every effort to make these sound files as small as possible, for easy playing on your media player via even a 56k connection. The songs here are provided at a quality level which is adequate for computers, but cannot compare to the outstanding quality of the remastered originals on CD, when played on your stereo. We hope you will like these samples enough to thank the artists - by BUYING their CD's. They have all brought us so much pleasure through the years with their music... Let's tell them "Thank You!" by buying their CD's & albums!!!

Without disputing the manifest truth of the above, the fact that the technical quality of the cut is poor doesn't detract at all from the listening experience!  I'm entirely satisfied to hear "The Wayward Wind" with a little distortion and maybe some of the highs removed.  When it was originally recorded, tape machines were lucky to beat 5% harmonic distortion and 60dB dynamic range.  The "outstanding quality of the remastered originals" may eliminate the artifacts of the extreme digital compression used to make small files, but it can't compensate for a 1956 recording studio.  That was the year that they finally removed all the "US Army Signal CorpBeat the Kaiser" stickers.  But even if it could, when I originally listened to "The Wayward Wind" it was on a Philco dial radio that I had to keep adjusting and turning to get a proper signal.  I'm not sure I ever heard the song on AM radio without a burst of noise until just yesterday.  That was part of the experience!

Am I alone in the feeling that quality can take a back seat to other musical considerations?  Not at all.  I just read that a recent report of the consumer electronics manufacturing trade organization gave such short shrift to "audiophile" considerations that DVD audio and SACD weren't even discussed!  The big rage, of course, is the MP3 player, typified by the iPod.  Do they sound like crap, too?  To a small group, yes.  Are they "good enough?"  Many would agree that they are.  Don't get me wrongI do like a great recording.  I have on many occasions found myself a "sweet spot" and carefully adjusted the equipment and listened to Steely Dan or Pink Floyd or some Kate Bush oddity.  But on far more occasions I have grabbed my MP3 player with the cheap earphones and gone for a galumph in the local park, with cars, trains, and the deafening roar of jets taking off at nearby Teterboro airport in the background.  I kind of like the din.  I can crank up the player and sing without my fellow walkers being able to hear my caterwauling to the music from more than a few paces away.

All of which brings me back to the title of this blogitem, which, unabbreviated, reads Digital Rights Madness and the Sacred Waveform.  Before the current unsustainable hodgepodge of digital rights management "solutions" came on the scene, someone had a clever idea:  He would "encode" all recordings, digital and analog, with information about the recording, including the name of the owner, and the permissions that the listener could exercise.  If you are wondering how you could do this with an analog recording, you're not alone.  Details of two of these schemes finally leaked out: 

  • The first:  There are a lot of common characteristics of musical waveforms.  What was proposed was that when a certain waveform came up that was very similar to one in their coding scheme, it would be modified to be exactly the one in their coding scheme.  Barely audible difference, but now with information encoded.

  • The second:  A tiny band of frequencies of the music would be notched out and replaced with very low-level coded information. 

If you think I caterwaul, you should have heard the objections to these schemes!  You're going to change the sacred recorded music by adding inaudible codes or distortion?  Are you crazy?  Both schemes fell by the wayside due to the ease of digital encoding, and also what appeared to be the ease of defeating them.  The current DRM schemes, by the way, have not yet fallen by the wayside.  Patience!

I occasionally think of these false starts as I listen blissfully to music, distortion, artifacts, and background noise on my portable doohickii.


NP:  "Silhouettes" - The Rays

2006
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