Posts Tagged ‘Music’
So why didn’t I think of this!
An idea so blindingly obvious that music lovers everywhere will be kicking themselves senseless. mflow takes the ‘follower’ paradigm from Twitter and applies it to music. The users get to publish a track, or an album, with a comment. Their followers can listen to the track and optionally buy it, in which case the referrer gets a commission, which they can spend on other tracks.
It’s not just about cash though, this is about sharing and recommending music. The library is far from comprehensive, but decidedly not mainstream. I uncovered tracks by Alan Vega, The Creatures and Neu! for example. This is more personalised than Spotify and has a better interface than lastFM. They promise widgets for embedding in blogs, Facebook connectivity and more and more music. Well worth keeping an eye on. Launches on 15 April.
Who killed the recorded music industry? In the light of Apple’s veiled threat to shut down iTunes in the face of demands from the music publishing industry for a larger slice of the pie, this question is suddenly a lot more relevant. The central issue is not about Apple, it is about the way that society rewards artists and the failure of the free market to keep up with technology.
Before the gramaphone (ignoring the wax cylinder) there was no recorded music industry. Musicians made a precarious living by playing real instruments, live, in front of real people. Songwriters had a share of the sheet music sales from popular songs. as I said, the living was precarious.
The music industry as we know it, evolved during the sixties – by this I mean the infrastructure of the industry, the distribution channels, the manufacturing, recording and marketing instruments, the fundamental structure of a recording contract that tied an artist into promoting records on tours underwritten by the record companies, ultimately paid for by the royalties on successful records. and by records, I mean the physical vinyl artifact.
This arrangement suited the record companies very well, so well that when CD’s and digital file formats arrived, they completely failed to see the writing on the wall. It was abundantly obvious to anyone with the wit to look, that recorded music would be passed from person to person via computer networks. In one fell swoop, the record companies lost control of the medium and some would say, the industry.
Napster, the peer to peer file sharing service was the first to really get under the record companies skin – hugely successful, the companies invention, a peer to peer music sharing system created a model for a decentralised distribution channel that has proved impossible for the traditional industry to control. It took a federal government to close down Napster, but there are a host of similar enterprises still in semi legal business.
This is why it has been so difficult for the industry to deal with. For each track there is an owner of the sound recording, the record company. There is also a separate work, the musical composition – the song the artist sings. By law, each track of the CD is also considered a reproduction of the musical composition. On a typical CD, there may be 12 sound recordings and 8 separate music publishers. Multiply that times 3,000 record companies in the US, and 25,000 music publishers, times 27,000 new CDs per year. Separate individual negotiations for all these rights are simply not a viable option.
With CD sales falling last year by 20% to ($7.4bn (£4bn)), the record companies now have a major problem. The artists do too, but the good ones are now making up the shortfall by playing live – this has to be good for the long term health of the art. By which i mean that new technology has been seen by the record companies as primarily a means of reducing recording costs – to the detriment of the quality of the product, as the art of songwriting took a back seat to the art of sampling. In the current climate, forcing acts to play live may encourage the use of technology to entertain the audiences again. But it’s not that simple.
Traditionally, the audience / society, pays the piper – prices are hiked and artists, record companies and publishers all live happily ever after. Now however there is a problem. Apple don’t own the medium, they are just the de facto owners of the largest share of the market. Rivals include Sony, who as a record and hardware company themselves, would be very well placed to mount a strong competitive alternative. So Apple will not want the price of recorded music to rise. The record companies, watching their profits dwindle daily are unlikely to want to take the hit, which leaves the publishers and the artists themselves.
Interesting times ahead. Should songwriters be paid for writing songs? Is it reasonable for the record industry to seek to sustain its profit levels when they no longer own the medium? What does the record industry do in these days of digital recording technology, to justify its profit? Should Apple simply raise the price of digital music?
What if the artist retains control of the recording? Is there any point in recording 12 song albums any longer? What are the implications of selling less songs? Would a tour the size of Madonna’s for example be sustainable on the back of the profit gained from a couple of singles? Actually the answer to that one is yes, ditto The Rolling Stones, but what of the middle ranking acts that depend on touring to shift albums?
But back to the central issue – we have an audience, millions of music hungry people with money to burn, who are quite happy to spend it. We have a computer company, Apple, capitalising on the digital format to charge the audience for the music at 99 cents per track. We have a music industry desperate to play ball with Apple because they no longer own the medium. We have a music publishing industry asserting its right to gain a higher percentage of the digital rights – so who loses?
Answers on a postcard please!
With the notable exception of Laura Barton, who impresses me more with every article she writes, I have declared the practice of Music Journalism to be dead.
The game was effectively up when the first sinister rustlings of electro made their entry some time during the late seventies. Practitioners struggled manfully on, filling pages with turgid hagiography on Kraftwerk and god forbid, Amon Duul, but the death knell was effectively sounded by one of the best electro records ever made – ‘Set it off’ by Strafe. To a lyric consisting entirely of the repeated phrase
“Set it off on the left
Set it off on the right
Set it off”
With the occasional interjection of “Let’s Get This Party Started!” Strafe ushered in the ecstasy generation – the air now well and truly let out of the ‘rock criticism as cultural commentary” balloon, scribes had to fall back on their writing skills. Predictably the few that could actually write – Jon Savage springs to mind, shifted their attention to writing books and journalism proper, the rest shrivelled and died.
So what has this to do with MiniBlogs?
I write, a lot, I also listen to music a lot and have collected records for nearly forty years. However mindful of Frank Zappa’s comment that “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, I have studiously avoided any sort of comittment to writing about music. I’ve no doubt I could fill pages with turgid dross, but frankly what’s the point?
So the miniblog – it occured to me that if I restricted the length of the review to say 150 words, it would focus the pen and might even make the whole exercise useful – so my newest blogging venture is Chimera Obscura. This will consist of mini reviews of albums that I feel fall into the category of cult or wilfully obscure. It will inevitably reflect the contents of my own collection to an extent, and will also feature books, films and photography in the fullness of time.
The miniblog provider I’m using is Tumblr, a setup of such startling simplicity that posting a new article takes minutes or even seconds. So far I’m impressed, it’s not a blog, it’s a tightly themed litany. Let’s see how it goes…
So, at this point, we have set up our equipment and cleaned the record – now to capture that music and digitise it!
The output from the record deck will need amplifying before it gets to the PC. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has set up a mid range hi-fi, those amplifiers carry a separate circuit to deal with record players.
I use the ART accessories USB Phono plus – this is extremely simple to set up, phono connections out to the sound card (1 Nikkai Stereo 3.5mm Jack to Twin Phono Lead), or USB connection out to the PC, select Phono and Flat output on front panel and adjust output to the top end of the green signal – it should flicker red on loud passages. Solid red will result in the signal being clipped and the recording compromised.
If the equipment is properly set up, you should be able to hear the output coming though the PC sound system. We now need to use some software to capture the signal. Art Accessories kindly package Audacity with the pre-amp, however Audacity is fiddly to use, particularly when it comes to splitting the tracks.
I use Vinyl Studio, available from AlpineSoft – this excellent utility allows you to capture the signal from the LP, store it as two .wav files (one for each side), filter any scratches, clicks and pops, and finally split the two files into individual tracks. It will also retrieve song titles from the internet!
First job is to create a project and an album in Vinyl Studio – this sets up a directory structure for the recorded files.
Create the project using the file – New menu, then in the ‘Record’ tab, select ‘Prepare to record a new album’.
Fill in the Artist and Title – take care as it will use the content here to search for the track titles.
Click on ‘Create Album’.
The next step is to check levels. Again, we don’t want to overload the signal.
Note that the software has worked out that we’re using the USB Audio codec to digitise the analogue audio stream. It is a feature, so I’m told, that certain devices are listed as microphones – the Art Accessories USB plus being one!
Adjust the volume from the USB plus (preamp) until the peaks are registering red, but not butting up against the top of the scale. This is quite fiddly with some records – set the level on the loudest part. Also be aware that back in the seventies, mastering technology was not what it is today, so it’s not unusual to find two sides of the same record mastered at different volumes – set the level for each side to be sure of getting the best results.
Finally we’re ready to go – select record, place the needle on the record and move on to the ‘Split Tracks’ tab while the music is being digitised. Here you can send the software off to retrieve the track listing from a variety of sources, chosen from a drop down list. Again, be careful as different editions of a record may have extra tracks. You can also fill in the track listing by hand. Once this is done, return to the ‘Record’ tab, when the record ends, hit stop, flip the disk and repeat the process.
Once we have the LP digitised, then we need to split the tracks. Remember we currently have one huge .WAV file for each side of the album. Return to the ‘Split Tracks’ tab.
In this screen, hit ‘Scan for Trackbreaks’ – the software will make a pretty reasonable stab at finding the breaks between tracks – it will warn you if you have more breaks than tracks, or less – if this happens, chances are you have a quiet passage which has been mistaken for a track break – simply locate it in the graph and delete the break. This is made simple, by being able to play the track from the software – just put the pointer in the place you think may be mistaken for a break (you can zoom in on the graph), and press play.
If you accept the default sensitivity settings, you will find it gets 90% of track breaks right, but will need adjusting to deal with fade outs. Same principle as above – navigate to the beginning of the fade out and press play, then move the beginning of the break to the place where the music becomes inaudible.
In the next tab, we can clean up the audio – you can utilise the automatic scan which locates every pop, crackle and click on the record and zaps it, or you can painstakingly locate each audible blemish and zap it – your choice!
So now we take the final step – converting our two large files into several smaller ones. nothing easier! Select the ‘Album’ menu (top of the screen) and choose ‘Save Tracks as MP3′ or ‘Save Tracks as WAV’.
Personally I choose to save the tracks as WAV, on the basis that I can then convert them into FLAC for Hi-Fi and MP3 for mobile listening, later. That will be the topic of the next article!
After many false starts, blind alleys etc, I think I’ve more or less got this sorted so – this post and several more will attempt to document the exact process, hardware and software used to create high quality digital audio files from vinyl.
- VP1 Record Cleaner
- Technics SL 1210 MkII Turntable
- ART Accessories USB Phono plus
- 1 Nikkai USB A to USB B Cable
- 1 Nikkai Stereo 3.5mm Jack to Twin Phono Lead
- 1 Soundblaster Live! Sound Card
- Dell Dimension PC 256mb Memory
- Altec Lansing Multimedia Speakers
- Vinyl Studio (www.alpinesoft.co.uk)
- dbPowerAmp Music Converter
Most of the hardware I already owned – but I heed the words of a wise old sound engineer from my DJ’ing days – ‘Garbage in, Garbage out’ he would mutter, as I insisted on soundchecking the newest Alien Sex Fiend 12 inch… he had a point, though it took me quite a while to appreciate it.
The VP1 record cleaner is therefore first on the list. You might think £450 is a lot to pay for a record cleaner, but this device is the closest thing to magic I’ve come across – the secret is in the vacuuming, using conventional bristle or cloth cleaners on a recored simply moves the dust around or worse, pushes it deep into the grooves. Unless a record is actually scratched, this device will pretty much restore vinyl to its original condition. As an ex DJ, much of my vinyl is severely manhandled, nightclubs are not the most vinyl friendly environment, so this device is worth it’s considerable weight in gold.
The Technics SL1210 is similarly a souvenir of the DJ’ing days – still the turntable of choice in the DJ’ing trade due to extreme robustness and simplicity – you simply can’t go wrong with a deck of this quality.
Art Accessories USB Phono+ is the pre-amp that the record player requires to amplify the signal enough to make it usable. This handy device is very straightforward to set up – connect the deck to the inputs, the outputs to your sound card using the Nikkai Stereo 3.5mm Jack to Twin Phono Lead, which takes stereo output from the Technics into a single stereo input for your soundcard. The Device can be powered from the USB port of the PC.
The Art Accessories product comes with a music editing package called Audacity. This I found to be effective, but tedious to use. I elected to use Vinyl Studio instead, for the simple reason that Vinyl Studio will estimate the track breaks, edit out the ‘thump’ of the needle dropping and download the track listing from amazon if it’s available. The reason this is important is that recording the vinyl gives you two humongous .wav files – one for each side. These need to be split into individual tracks before converting to the format of your choice. Vinyl Studio outputs to .wav and .mp3 only. This is where dbPowerAmp Music converter earns it’s crust.
That explains the components – next post will start detailing the process.