audio: music reproduction in reverse

TheScraper mused in response to Gizmodo’s post about reconstituting an early recording:

I sometimes wonder if current audio recording techniques will ever improve. When we think we’ve hit a brick wall, something else comes around. I remember when I first saw a film on DVD, I was engulfed by a feeling of amazement, thinking that it was the best thing ever; then BluRay came around…

Sadly music reproduction hasn’t just hit a brick wall, it is actively getting worse. But “it” means several things:

  • Recording techniques are unquestionably going downhill. The “breathy singer recorded in her bedroom” music in TV commercials, and Katy Perry 130 digital tracks overlaid on a laptop are both in a different universe from quality recordings made by professionals armed with dozens of microphones and a deep understanding of getting the best sound out of musicians in a custom-built studio room. There’s a reason people sample Led Zep drum breaks.
  • Producing techniques are a disaster. The ridiculous compression introduced by the loudness war wastes the dynamic range of CDs, and producers consciously aim for lowest-common denominator earbuds in noisy environments. (Although Motown was perfecting their recordings for crappy transistor radios, and many of their recordings come staggeringly alive on a good stereo.) Go to Amazon and read reviews from fans sobbing that the 20th anniversary edition of their favorite recording sounds like crap because the re-release producer couldn’t help tweaking the sound mix.
  • Recording formats are fine. Hardly anyone can reliably distinguish high-bit rate 320kBs MP3s from CD. Higher bit-depth and bit-rate recordings are available: a trickle of DVD-Audio and SACD disks continue to be released and you can buy higher-rate digital downloads online at places like In my opinion the reason to go for vinyl or hi-def digital recording is not that CD or 320kBs MP3 is a bad format, but because the mixes for vinyl and hi-def are less likely to have the life compressed out of them in the %$#@! loudness wars (hear the proof here).

Audiophiles are simultaneously seeking better reproduction of treasured vinyl and the ultimate playback of high-res digital files. But most music recorded nowadays is not recorded or produced in a way to make it worth bothering. If you like any music from the 50s through 80s then try to hear it on a top-notch stereo in a good room, it can be a thrill.

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music: Steve Howe phenomenal guitar work

Yes were boxed in around Tales from Topographic Oceans, repeatedly moving back and forth between pastoral – martial! on long compositions, as you can still hear on the sprawling “Gates of Delirum” on side 1 of their follow-up Relayer. But side 2 they went nuts, veering off into crazy rhythmic shifts on “Sound Chaser” and straight folk meets symphonic overload on “To Be Over.” Maybe it was Patrick Moraz joining, maybe it was the water, but it’s the most eclectic and satisfying side they ever made. You can get both songs, over 18 minutes of music, for only $2 (yet self-entitled whiners still complain about evil music companies to justify piracy).

Throughout Steve Howe is a tireless whirlwind of guitar. Check out just the 90 second from 2:54–4:26:

A beautiful lick, that slide guitar, gorgeous pealing pedal steel lines, a rip-the-strings off flamenco-ish solo, his trademark clattering wail (and some immaculate bass counterpoint from Chris Squire), then he collapses down the neck in a deft jazzy sequence. He owes much to Jeff Beck and Hendrix is beyond all, but Steve Howe is undeniably one of the greatest, and more dextrous in more styles than anyone else. PUT Yes IN THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME!

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buying a new bicycle

After years of service, my Univega bike gave out. The gel seat (long since turned to solid foam) is disintegrating, the wheels can’t be trued any more, the crank grinds in the bottom bracket, the brakes squeal more than they bite.

I need basically the same thing: a decent bike to pedal the streets and hills to work and around the city. It’s tiring to look around on dropped handlebars and I wear regular shoes so I don’t want a road bike; I don’t need heavy mountain bike features like disc brakes, suspension, and knobbly tires; and I want something more efficient than an upright cruiser

For this market, everyone sells “urban” or “hybrid” bikes with oversized aluminum frames, flat handlebars, and decent components for $500-$900. Cannondale Quick, Giant Escape,  Marin Fairfax, Scott Metrix, Specialized Sirrus, Trek 7.x, etc. They all use almost identical Shimano components: Tektro brakes, Acera and Avila gears, etc. I quickly settled on a carbon front fork for a smoother ride, then it was just test rides trying to figure out what was most comfortable and solid. But so much depends on the way the shop adjusted the seat to me and how well they set up the bike. When I commented after test rides some places said “We can adjust those spongy brakes/rattling gears” — set the bike up perfectly before I try it!

2013 specialized Sirrus Elite bicycleI bought a Specialized Sirrus Elite. I added a rear rack and transferred the bell and toe clips from my old bike. The fancier Sirrus Comp with endo bars had fewer gears, and I never tried the full carbon fiber Sirrus Limited at twice the price.

I got tired of test rides before I got to the GT Tachyon and Raleigh Cadent. My one unexpected find was the Novara Express, REI’s in-house brand, which had significantly better components for only $849. Its molded grips have a weird bulge that hurt my hands! I could have swapped out components, but I’m not that kind of bicycle tweaker. The one that got away was the Giant Escape 0, it seemed ideal based on riding the comfortable smooth Escape 1, but no store had one in stock in my size.

Bicycling to work and the shops is great, you should do it and skip the cost and hassle of parking! Away from main roads are quieter streets where you can pedal safer.

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software: TurboTax lameness

After a long break I bought TurboTax to do taxes. Intuit has had 20+ years to get this software right. Let’s see how they’re doing.

Re-enter contact info

I have to enter my name, address, and phone number to register TurboTax. Then TurboTax makes me re-enter this stuff when filling out “Personal Info.” Why not assume the first return I create is for myself?

A browser text field remembers all previous entries so that you get field memory for free… but this sadly isn’t a browser.

Importing confusion

I began by assuming I have to request an extension. But part-way into filling out the form for an extension, it starts asking me (note the ^%$#@! program won’t let me copy and paste text into this blog post, unlike a browser) “Enter Your 2012 Federal Tax Payments”. I’m running Quicken 2011 Deluxe, the info is already in that program. I had to abandon filling out this form to Import from Quicken. TurboTax knows where Quicken is on-disk, it should detect it during installation and offer to import before getting started.

The import from Quicken includes dividend and interest income that Quicken downloaded from from my financial institutions. Some of the dividend information is from an IRA. The IRA money should not be taxed, yet in TurboTax it shows up as dividend income. Why doesn’t the ^%$#@! import from Quicken ask about the tax status of the account? I named it “Rollover IRA“, that should be a clue to say “We imported this information, but let’s see whether it really applies”? So much for trying to save me money.

The left download doesn’t know what the right download did

Meanwhile TurboTax can also contact my financial institution to download tax information. I let it do so and it grabs my 1099 information, very nice. But now I have two sources for the same financial data, “Name of account” from Quicken and “Name of Financial Institution” from TurboTax. Mindblowingly, Quicken and TurboTax have no way to tell each other “this is the same information, don’t count it twice”, even though the same company wrote both download modules! The TurboTax summary screen doesn’t indicate which info came from which import, nor does My Tax Data (it only shows “Import”, but not what kind). There’s no way on the summary screen to say “These two sources of information overlap, guide me what I should do”

Every time I deal with this imported information I click [Edit] to see the details, then when I decide I don’t need it, I need to go Back and [Delete] it. But unlike a browser, this ^%$#@! software does not have a reliable Back button.  I have to click buttons at random to resume my Easy Interview and then click Next and Done a lot to skip ahead to the place I was just at. A browser is a better way to navigate.

It turns out that deleting the import didn’t actually get rid of the information. I had to go into File > Remove Imported Data and choose the Quicken items that conflicted with the Financial Institution import items. and remove them. But this left a bunch of “Untitled” transactions in “Investment Sales Summary”, which I then had to [Delete] by hand.

TurboTax questions don’t match Quicken categories

Quicken has a category for tax refund. But stupidly, it isn’t separated into State Tax refund (1099G) and federal tax refund. So TurboTax gets the combined info for both. And stupidly, TurboTax doesn’t let you drill into the individual payments that it imported from its own sibling product. They should be in a supporting statement where I can copy and paste lines, instead there’s just a summary total from Quicken Deluxe. There are many other places where Quicken’s categories don’t match TurboTax’s questions: medical expenses, property taxes, etc. In every case I have to modify the info from Quicken, add it up again, and then worry if the numbers appear somewhere else in TurboTax. TurboTax can handle individual transactions, e.g. for charitable deductions it creates separate information for each payment in category Charity from Quicken.


Whenever I enter a number in Quicken there’s an instant calculator available. In TurboTax there’s no such thing.

To be fair, TurboTax calculated my tax, upgraded butter-smooth to Premier, and is pretty well cross-linked between interview, summaries, and forms. But I expect perfect integration with Quicken 2011 Deluxe, and I didn’t get it.

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music: “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”

This documentary about Chuck Berry‘s 60th-birthday musical performance and tribute was surprisingly enjoyable, considering that I only ever want to hear four straight-up rock ‘n’ roll songs in a row. His songs all tend to chug along the same way, but his willingness to dismantle his own songs with economical scratchy stabbing solos is impressive; Keith Richards is far better and yet less compelling. A bunch of other famous musicians play in the concert, but the stand-out is his modest piano player Johnnie Johnson. More than the concert, I love his relaxed rehearsal takes on standards like “A Cottage for Sale” and the movie ends with him playing some wistful pedal steel, alone.

Chuck Berry precisely talks about his life, his music, and his money, yet he’s a cipher. He knows where he came from.

They say “That’s a Chuck Berry song because it’s Ba-du-ba-dada [scat-sings a Roll Over Beethoven riff].” Well, the first time I heard in that was in one of Carl Hogan’s riffs in Louis Jordan’s band. We have T-Bone Walker, I love T-Bone Walker’s slurs and his blueses; so put a little Carl Hogan, a little T-Bone Walker and a little Charlie Christian, the guitarist in Tommy Dorsey’s band, together, look what a span of people that you will please. And that’s what I did in Johnny B. Goode, Roll Over Beethoven — And making it simple is another important fact, I think, that resulted in a lot of the artists understanding, and being able to play, my music. If you can call it my music, but there’s nothing new under the sun.

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music: Shutter falls, all in 3D, foreign movie, Peg!

I enjoy and admire Steely Dan’s Aja, but I don’t quite love it to pieces like Gaucho. Then an afternoon watching drummers on YouTube (Jo Jo Mayer’s stickwork, Buddy Rich’s impossible drum solo) took me to Bernard Purdie and two revelatory videos about the side 2 opener “Peg.”

First off Donald Fagen walks through the chord changes to “Peg.”  Sadly I don’t fully understand musical theory, but hearing the chords compressed from the full studio group onto a single piano makes you hear them anew.

At 6:00–6:23 there’s a phenomenal bridge from 4ths to blues to a “bebop turnaround.” It’s fifty years of 20th century musical development restated in twenty seconds. Gershwin and Ellington could not do better. In the second part of the video Fagen and his interviewer Warren Bernhardt play through and it’s lovely.

Then you can geek out on the making of the album track, from the Classic Albums series on DVD. Rick Marotta’s hi-hat, Chuck Rainey sneaking in slap bass, the insane time and money it took to bring in “three or four, five players, six or seven, eight [guitar] players” before Jay Graydon nailed it, and Michael McDonald (Doobie Brothers frontman and surely one of the best harmony vocalists in the world) triple-tracking those close background harmonies. After hearing the song for an hour straight, his unearthly background vocals are locked into my head, just beyond comprehension of how they add to the song.

The discussion of making the other songs is great too, especially “Deacon Blues.” Dean Parks plays a beautiful hidden acoustic part at 4:36, there’s a subtle F.A.O. Schwartz department-store synth part at 6:30 to perfect the horn line, the swooping complex harmony vocals at 8:38

Dean Parks sums it up best. “It was like a two-step process. One was to get to perfection and then the other is to get beyond it, and to loosen it up a little bit.” Most bands forget that first part :-). Steely Dan are not godlike, it’s not rocket science, it’s just a huge amount of work by masters. (And Roger Nichols who was a rocket scientist.)

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a retrospective as Grand Theft Auto V nears

The approach of Grand Theft Auto V makes me reflect on the series.

  • Highest and purest style: GTA: Vice City
  • Ridiculously gargantuan sandbox: GTA: San Andreas[*]
  • Best damn radio patter: GTA: Liberty City Stories (Dan Houser and Lazlow’s finest moments)
  • Craziest car stunts and most engrossing side missions: GTA: Vice City Stories (Infernus and Empire building).

I bought a PS3 and a new TV and stood in line at midnight to buy GTA IV, but it wasn’t that great. Rockstar upped the detail so you could feel Nico’s gritty lifestyle, but they dropped dozens and dozens of features from San Andreas.[*] The story is sweeping and well-told, but a dreary bummer. With “The Ballad of Gay Tony” Rockstar did a solid job of coming up with a story and characters that work better in the constricted game world, but once the story wraps it’s a realistic but dull place to be, far short of GTA:SA. No triathlons, paramedics, fire missions,.. meanwhile there’s an entire Coney Island funfair that doesn’t work.

  • But GTA IV has the best radio ads. El Chamuco Roboto! Dan Houser and Lazlow are brilliant writers and parodists.

On the basis of that arc, it looks bad for GTA V. Developing the 3-D assets for the level of detail demanded by the latest consoles seemed to exhaust their creativity and fun. Maybe a less ambitious cartoon like Saints Row is the way to go (I liked SR2, I haven’t played Saints Row The Third). But then, a non-GTA game restored my faith in Rockstar:

  • Best storyline, characters, cut scenes: Red Dead Redemption by a mile.

[*] 70+ features in this list, not to mention that San Andreas comprised most of California + Las Vegas. The change in the light and haze in the different areas is phenomenal.

“Masculine in the front, feminine in ze back.”
“Music is life and we snort it until we O.D., again und again”
“At least in the 80s they could play their instruments and there were two ambiguously gay men beating a synthesizer who were up for a go”
– Reni Wassulmaier, transsexual film director turned DJ on Flashback FM in GTA:LCS

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non-support: PayPal can’t help itself

Another day, another company that won’t let me tell them what’s wrong with their site. Same as it ever was. This time it’s PayPal. Their interface to Subscription payments is poor. Firstly, you can’t find it under Send money, or under My account: I had to find a recent subscription payment, click on it for Details, then you see a link “You can see all of your recurring payments on the My preapproved payments.” (sic, these people can’t write properly). Follow that link and you see your subscriptions, but you still have no idea how to get to this from the menu system. Then, all this list does is show you your subscriptions and a scary set of merchants that are allowed to bilk you at will. You can’t change the amounts and you can’t reduce the maximums (eBay can drain me of $300,000.00 USD (per month) for “sellers fees” any time they want?!). OK, I’ll look for support then, and I want to help PayPal improve its site by surfacing “Preapproved payments” and letting me change subscription amounts. On every subscription page, there’s a (Questions about this subscription? Contact us.) link, that sounds promising! But of course SPage’s law kicks in:

the part of every Web site with the most problems is the feedback form for reporting problems.

Sure enough, that helpful-sounding link takes me to an utterly general “Email Us” form that makes me guess all over again where find Subscriptions! PayPal is too stupid to pre-select the right Topic and Subtopic?

I also clicked the general “Contact Us” link at the bottom and tried PayPal’s “Chat with Sarah” helpful bot, but SPage’s law is still in effect and it is comically bad. The bot didn’t understand “How do I give feedback on your  web site”, “Where do I give feedback?”, “How do I change a subscription payment”, “I want to change a subscription”, “reduce subscription”, etc.  The only thing she was good for is “I want to reduce preapproved payment.”, in response she told me how to navigate PayPal’s menu system to find the list of payments. In other words this hunk of junk doesn’t seem to understand the term “subscription”, I have to type “preapproved payment”, even though the web site still uses the term “subscription”.

And then when I tried to tell PayPal about these four defects in its web site, after spending 20 minutes typing this in, when I clicked [Submit] I got “Your session has timed out, please log in again.”

Your session has timed out, please log in again.

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cars: Fisker Karma, Hot Wheels brought to life

I saw a Fisker Karma on the street for the first time. The car is huge, and insanely distinctive. It swells and bulges all over the place, making a BMW 6-series look like a bland Hyundai. It’s a Hot Wheels vision of the future brought to life.

People will buy it just for the looks, and if they’re able to drive around partially electric, good for them.

(as I wrote)

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music: piracy is wrong, copyright matters

The Trichordist tore into an NPR columnist who admitted to having 11,000 songs but hardly paying for any of them. Now Free Software guru Richard M. Stallman wades in, and gets it wrong. I criticize him thusly (originally on Slashdot where I got a ‘5: Informative’!):

Emily White violated the copyrights on the music she acquired (“I’ve swapped hundreds of mix CDs with friends. My senior prom date took my iPod home once and returned it to me with 15 gigs of Big Star, The Velvet Underground and Yo La Tengo”). You’d think RMS would be against that, since his GPL software license expresses (admirable IMO) restrictions on what you can do with it under those same copyright laws. His arguments why Emily “did nothing wrong” are mostly the lame tired crap that piracy apologists have trotted out for decades now

After all, how can we support musicians? Buying recordings from record companies won’t do it. For nearly all records, the musicians get none of that money; the record companies keep it. See this article and this article.

Untrue. Artist royalties are often ~20% of the sales price; this chart says $.09 for an iTunes download, and artists self-releasing through CD Baby keep 75%. The meme that artists don’t get money seems to be a deliberate misunderstanding of the money record companies advance against royalties so artists can make a quality record (The Trichordist explains this well). Regardless of the percentage it is not the consumer’s right or job to decide if that’s a reasonable or obscene deal from the record company and online store. For f***’s sake, if you don’t like a song enough to pay $0.99 for an unprotected DRM-free legal copy of it so that the artist gets some money in exchange for your enjoyment of her creative endeavor, then:

1. Skip it and enjoy the zillions of free songs out there — under CC share licenses, out-of-copyright, in the public domain, live performances from trade-friendly artists on Internet Archive, etc.! As RMS knows well from software, there are great free alternatives to restricted paid works, so go support those!

2. If you whine “Waahhh, this song I want ought to be free like all those others” so you pirate it anyway, then your parents raised you badly and you’re an ethical fail.

RMS goes on

Practically speaking, the only effective and ethical way you could support musicians was through concerts.

Not true. Paying for the copyrighted recordings you want and love works great and delivers money to artists so they can make more! It’s insulting to suggest artists should instead try to collect money for something completely different — “touring and T-shirts”. (No Sgt. Pepper for you, John Paul George and Ringo are going deaf on another tour that only their teenybopper fans attend.) The idea that artists should not charge for a quality studio recording has been immensely damaging to “the Progress of Science and useful Arts” (as the US Constitution’s copyright clause puts it) in the area of recorded music, it’s a big reason why today’s songs are recorded in bedrooms on laptops instead of in quality studios with crack session musicians. And as RMS later acknowledges, touring doesn’t even work for those bands that do perform live, because they can’t afford to travel to all their fans, and then only a fraction of fans in an area can make it to the show.

RMS is on better ground with the first of his two ways to support artists

Put a tax on Internet connectivity, and divide the money among artists.

Great idea, let’s hope it happens. But his second is a fantasy:

Give each player device a button to send 50 cents anonymously to the artists.

It’s been tried, the Fairtunes service during Napster’s golden era. I ponied up money for a song I shared, but in several years of operation I think they only received $50,000 (when there were 25 million Napster users). Jane’s Addiction succinctly expressed the reason: “When I want something, I don’t wanna pay for it”

Another fantastic commenter tries to analyze the ethical vacuum where Emily will pay for fair-trade coffee, but can’t imagine compensating artists who toil for her gratification.

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