Saturday, March 29, 2008

audio: record scanning not a fantasy

It turns out my armchair fantasy of digitizing my records by visual scanning rather than dragging a stylus through the groove has been done by researchers, including project IRENE, the visualaudio project, and other attempts. Carl Haber at IRENE in a long interesting presentation (80MB! PDF) says
We study the use of new, optical measuring and image processing methods to create a digital representation of the complete record surface, on the computer, and then “play” it with a virtual needle.
He points out in another paper that a 10" side becomes a 300 MB processed image scanned in 2D (so an LP might be a few GB), and, just as I perceived, that “[the process] can archive images for future re-analysis with new algorithms.” Awesome, ship it!

Alas, the sound-to-noise ratio is poor. It's a vital technique for non-destructive archiving of sounds from rotting wax cylinders, cracked shellac transcriptions, and broken 78s, but doesn't come close to top-notch vinyl playback. The Swiss visualaudio researchers comment
Reaching the same quality as with a good 33rpm record played on a modern turntable probably is probably utopic.
Oh noooes, say it ain't so.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

audio: thoughts on digitizing vinyl

I have quite a lot of vinyl records. I play them on a Rega Planar 3, a fairly high-end turntable.

I'm not dogmatic about analog vs. digital. My well-recorded CDs sound great, though the loudness war means many CDs are tiring to listen to. And many of my vinyl records sound fantastic, though some are warped or have irritating pops.

The thing about vinyl playback is the headroom for improvement is vast. Decent CD players sound very similar, but a better turntable solves real engineering problems and sounds much better than lesser turntables.

A big motivation to get a better turntable is to make better digital copies of my albums and singles. The digital library I cart around on music phones and PCs currently only has songs from my CDs

On that subject, I was struck by this review of a super-exotic Rockport Sirius III turntable:
I made two demo CD-Rs of various tracks using the Rockport, to A/B with the LPs in real time. Of course, the "live" LPs creamed the CD-R, which sounded slightly brighter and edgier but less immediate. Nonetheless, the CD-Rs did capture the Rockport's essence.

When I A/B'd the CD-R with the "live" LPs on the Yorke [a merely good turntable], the CD-R topped the LPs in overall presentation, dynamics, and especially solidity.
In other words, a digital recording from a super-exotic turntable sounds better than vinyl playback from a merely good turntable.

So, do I really want a $5,000 turntable? Not when there's someone with the same vinyl who plays it through a cartridge hand-made by the 90-year old sensei, mounted to a gazillion-dollar 1000 kg turntable hand-calibrated by its engineer, in an isolated underground vault, connected to the discontinued $25,000 Boulder phono preamp — I'll take his digital files instead of playing my own records!

The next issue is what kind of digital file to make. MP3 isn't enough, even FLAC lossless is only CD quality. I want future-proof. The consensus is zeroing in on DSD. The latest Absolute Sound has a review of the Korg DSD recorder capturing vinyl playback and makes the points of how close the DSD sounds to the original and how it's the best format for archival. Again, I want someone else's superb digitization of their vinyl. Her DSD archival file will be better than mine.

(This still locks in the playback of the vinyl record on a particular turntable, cartridge, arm, and digitizer. What about future improvements to vinyl reproduction? So my most radical thought is to capture the record and read it in software. It should be possible to make a detailed scan of the record surface itself. Then software can reconstruct the audio waveform without the primitive mechanical operation of dragging a diamond along an undulating spiral valley. As long as the initial scan is high enough resolution, software can do a better job knowing what kind of cutting head made the vinyl, how vinyl deforms when stamped, where best to read the undulations in the walls. I have no idea if a 100 square inch microscopic 2½-D scan is remotely practical.)

Returning to reality, if the record companies were smart (OK, that's still unreality), then they would meet the demand for very high quality digital copies. From a rant
My concern is that we get every possible historical recording archived to DSD as soon as possible, AND that the artists (both performance and recording) can and should make DSD the authoring medium of choice, REGARDLESS of what happens to it subsequently.
Definitely! The DSD file becomes the fabled "master tape" that is the source for every released version of the music. But unlike a reel-to-reel tape, the music's owner can sell me the master DSD file, charging me more than a $0.99 MP3.

Here's Pete Townsend of the Who on DSD, from a great interview about recording music:
Genex DSD [was] what my Mastering Supervisor Jon Astley preferred. I preferred the sound of analog tape (1/2", Dolby SR at 15 ips) but they sounded so close it was almost impossible to tell the difference. ... It’s hard to tell whether going to tape would have produced better sound on CD. A CD is pretty difficult thing to get to sound “warm” (whatever that means, such a hard word to define in audio terms).
So the ultimate sound would be to play Pete Townsend's analog master tape. But even an analog fan like Pete Townsend says the original DSD file sounds fantastic, then gets mucked up when you turn it into a CD. So sell us that master file! 2L is one label offering this, as a test: a DXD file, as well as several lesser formats.

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Thursday, April 28, 2005

music: Scritti Politti, B-sides and other hidden gems

I post a lot about overlooked music from the 70's, but everybody knows music peaked in the 80's.

I found and joined the Scritti Politti group on Yahoo to try to track down a quote about Green and David Gamson having the microscopes turned to 100x for "Cupid & Psyche 85" and "Provision", but only to 10x for "Anomie and Bonhomie". Unfortunately no one came through, but it's interesting to follow the upswing in interest on the 20th (gulp!) anniversary of "Cupid & Psyche 85".

Another topic that came up was "World Come Back to Life", my favorite B side of all time. There's no experience finer than discovering a hidden gem. I always wonder what other songs got away, transcendant songs I'll never hear because I didn't buy the 12-inch import single or the rarities compilation or whatever. It's easy to get obsessive and track down obscure tracks just in case one turns out to be the one; in the case of Scritti Politti I bought Al Jarreau's distinctly average "L is for Lover" album just for the Green/Gamson track, and it's not that good despite Nile Rodgers production.

In no particular order, here's a list of killer B sides and rarities. These are why God and Roy Gandy created the Rega Planar 3 turntable, so you can flip the vinyl over and unearth buried treasure.
World Come Back to Life, Scritti Politti
B side of "Boom! There She Was". The nastiest kiss-off lyrics Green ever wrote, probably why it wasn't on "Provision".

(Don't) Turn Me Away, Rexy
I heard it twice on Radio One, I had to special order it. The saddest strangest song, ending with the chant "It's a fact. that I live. with" Their album has another great song, "So you wanna be alien too".

Love's Taboo, Cube
An Italian 12-inch. Amazingly atmospheric

The Yearning Loins, Prefab Sprout
I got this as an extra track on the USA CD of Two Wheels Good (aka Steve McQueen). Buy that record! for Paddy McAloon's songs and the masterful Thomas Dolby production, then keep listening for this insanely syncopated and energetic track. And it's from 1984, the high point of Western civilization.

Don't Throw My Love Around, Cooly's Hot Box
This is on a fine compilation of acid jazz tracks, "Giant Steps, Vol. 1". The funkiest percussion (timbales?) I've ever heard. I've bought several really average acid jazz compilations since, hoping for the same magic.

Radio Arabesque, Arabesque
Goofy, vaguely atmospheric song, I heard it once on the radio and it stuck in my mind. I think it's by Arabesque, but there's no clip available.

The sad thing is that no extant rating system can find these songs. By definition they're unpopular because of their rarity, meanwhile Amazon has degenerated into 90% 5-star ratings from rabid fans, 5% 4-star ratings from honest fans, and 5% 1-star ratings from people who never liked the artist or have a grudge.

The sweetest sounds you've never heard... sounds like a Green lyric.

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