2011-11-29

Sound, dynamics, and such

This morning I came across a newspaper article trying to describe difference between current and former mastering practices for records.  And of course with generous helpings of confusion.  Most records today are mastered in a way that leaves very little dynamics.  For those of you not familiar with what "dynamics" means in this context;  high dynamics means that there is a bigger difference between the loud and the silent parts of a recording.

There are lots of tricks to boost silent parts and dampen the loud parts, but the most important tool in the arsenal to accomplish this is various forms of compressors.  For more information on dynamic compressors the article on Wikipedia might be helpful.

While over-zealous use of compressors makes the sound somewhat dull and uninteresting it might be useful to point out why this is done.  It is an adaptation to make recordings sound a bit better in challenging listening conditions.  Most of us do the majority of our listening (to music and other content) on crappy earbuds in noisy environments.  By compressing the dynamic range you don't have to ride the volume controls on your device when you are listening to music in your car, for instance.

This is nothing new, but it is, and has always been, a balancing act.  There have always been devices and listening conditions where dynamics is a challenge.  For instance, a lot of mastering engineers will have multiple sets of loudspeakers, some of which are rubbish, to test their settings.  In an interview I read years ago, one mastering engineer pointed out that he used the crappy stereo in his car to test his work.  If it worked there, and on his high end studio monitors, it was probably a good final master.

As a consumer I've long wished for compressors to become part of the player -- so that you can choose to what degree content should have its dynamic range compressed.  For instance, if I am listening to a record at home, on a decent'ish stereo, I want the full dynamic range and as little compression as possible.  However, if I am in my car, I might want the dynamic range to be as narrow as possible so the faint parts are not drowned out by noise and the loud parts do not burst my eardrums.

Some movies have awful sound mixing.  The silent parts are too silent and the loud parts are too loud. If you are watching a movie in a noisy environment you end up riding the volume buttons and being annoyed.

Some devices have very simple compressors.  For instance I had a CD player years ago that had a built-in compressor.  (Generally you want to perform any compression on the digital signal, not the analog signal).  However, this is not a very wide-spread feature.

Learning how to use a mastering compressor takes time.  In fact, they can be quite complex beasts, featuring different compression parameters for different frequency bands etc.  It is going to take a while for fully automated detection of adequate compression parameters is going to sound good.  This is why I would love if the sound industry could come up with a reference model for compressors and encode the parameters into an automation track delivered with the content.  This way the consumer could turn compression on when desirable -- or even be given a control that lets the consumer decide the severity of compression.

2011-11-10

The lost art of mending.

A couple of years ago one of my Alesis M1 speakers stopped working.  These are powered studio monitors, which means they have a PSU in each speaker and an embedded amplifier.  This is a known issue for these speakers.  The problem is a 2 watt resistor that is mounted too close to an electrolytic capacitor, so the resistor heats up and over time ends up frying the capacitor.

At the time when this happened I didn't bother googling it, so I just noted the problem and dropped the speaker off at a company that my local dealer of sound equipment recommended.

It took them a couple of weeks to fix and the bill was for about $500-600.  The guy had just thrown out the PSU, ordered a brand new one and put it in.

Of course, the other PSU failed shortly after.

Not wanting to spend another chunk of cash, this time I researched the issue a bit.  All in all it took me 3 minutes of googling to figure out what was wrong.  At the time I didn't have a selection of components lying around, so I had to spend 3-4 minutes online finding and ordering the components.  They arrived 2 days later and then it took me all of 10 minutes to get set up, replace the components (with somewhat uprated components) and verify that the repair worked.

Total component cost was something in the area of $2-3 and then I had nine spare sets of components, so if the problem returns I can fix it easily.  Any idiot can fix it.

What depresses me is that people don't know how to fix things.  The dude in the shop apparently had no useful skills.  Because if he did he could have saved himself the hassle of ordering (and waiting for) a new part, and he could have saved me a huge bill and perhaps seen some return business.

I see the same thing with my car.  Every spring and every fall I switch to or from winter wheels and I stored the other set at this company.  The last time I picked up my car, one of the wheel nuts was missing and about 4-5 of the remaining wheel nuts had been over-torqued thus destroying them.  You would think that when you pay someone to do this, and they do this for a living, they would be able to do a better job.  Even I know that you can't apply arbitrary amounts of torque to the wheel nuts, and I am not a mechanic -- I don't do wheel changes for a living.

About once per year I go to the local landfill to get rid of things I don't need.  Thankfully, they have various recycling stations there so I can at least hope that some of the things I get rid of there actually are recycled responsibly.  But I am still depressed when I drive home.  So much STUFF.  And most of it still usable -- and a lot of the stuff that is broken should be easily fixable.

If you care about the environment you should care about the fixability of your gadgets.  You can buy carbon offsets or take part in all manner of feelgood environmental nonsense,  but the fact is that the device you are using to read this blog posting will end up in a landfill when it breaks or when you get a new gadget.  Because you are not going to fix it, and I am pretty sure you do not know of anyone capable, willing or qualified to fix it either.  It might end up in some third world country where some kid is going to set fire to it to get the metals out of it -- releasing noxious gases.

If you have kids or you want a hobby: lots of gadgets have cool components that you can scavenge. Rather than throwing away that useless printer, rip it apart and have a look inside.  There's lots of fun stuff inside that you can build interesting toys from.  And it isn't hard.  You don't have to be a genius to play with these things.  Get an Arduino and learn.

I think we need to make it cool to know how to fix stuff again.

2011-11-02

Lightbulbs, why isn't this a solved problem?

With all the new regulations that require lightbulbs to be of some energy-saving design, buying lightbulbs has become a major pain in the neck -- as well as an overly expensive affair.  Here are some suggestions for both manufacturers and groups that advise consumers.

  1. Many of the new types of light bulbs have physical dimensions that are not within the envelope of the traditional tungsten counterparts.  Lightbulbs that are outside this envelope should be clearly marked as such since it is very hard to judge while you are standing there in the store without ripping open boxes and comparing light bulbs.
  2. The type of socket should be clearly marked on the box.  One would think that this piece of information would be prominently displayed on the packaging, but quite often it is tucked away somewhere in the fine print.  I've even come across packaging that doesn't print the socket type at all. The result is that to be sure you have to rip open the packaging to inspect the socket.
  3. The lifetime figures printed on the box are nonsense.  Exactly NONE of the power-saving lightbulbs I've purchased have lasted anywhere near as long as it says on the box.  Not even after I moved into a brand new house.  Quite obviously the manufacturers either lie outright or the standards for testing are inadequate.  Many of the energy-saving lightbulbs boast of longer life (to justify their high price), but in reality they have only somewhat longer life-span.  If it is longer at all.
Points 1 and 2 should be easily fixable for manufacturers.  The fact that many major manufacturers don't do this just means they have figure out what on earth the people who design their packaging are doing.

Point 3 is probably never going to happen.  Lightbulbs have limited life-span by design so manufacturers are incentivized to make sure their bulbs stop working as soon as possible -- but not so soon that consumers catch on.  If they wanted to they could make nearly unbreakable bulbs that would keep functioning for decades, but they won't.  Fine, we know this, but I think some manufacturers have become a bit too greedy and it is time to introduce some balance.  Perhaps some regulatory action is needed.