Wednesday, April 29, 2009

allow me to explain myself: how i became an audio nerd

I'm an enormous nerd. In lots of different ways, too.  I'm a computer nerd, a book nerd, and a philosophy nerd, among many other sub-species.  One of my biggest areas of nerdity is music and audio.  The technical term for it is to say that I'm an "audiophile."  I love all things that involve enhancing the experience of listening to music.

[Warning: This blog post is very long. Just skip it if you're in a hurry.   -Jake]

You might think that this affection comes directly from my personal work as a recording technician and sound designer, but it has deeper roots.  I was conditioned at a young age to become the way I am.  My dad was a casual audiophile himself, and I grew up in a home where the central element of the living room was a modular, analog stereo system, complete with speaker cabinets my dad had built himself (with four-way crossovers!!).  In the age before the $99, 5.1 surround-sound home theater system - or any surround-sound home theater for that matter - I watched Star Wars on a s0-s0 television, but with front-and-back, dual-stereo speaker cabinets, each of which being about 5 feet tall.  That's 16 individual drivers (speakers) throwing sound at me with every swipe of a lightsaber and every footfall of an imperial walker (yes, I'm that kind of nerd too).  So you see, my ears were kind of spoiled.

Thus began a long, complicated, and often frustrating love affair with recorded sound.  Over the years, my tastes and preferences matured.  My preference for lots of bass (due, I'm sure, in large part to the fact that teenagers' ears are less sensitive to low frequencies), was gradually replaced with a preference for clear bass.  My preference for loud stereos and speakers was replaced with a preference for accurate ones.  I became pickier, yes, but at the same time, I appreciated the good stuff so much more.

A History of Formats
The first recordings I ever listened to were on cassette tape, and on vinyl.  Tape was obviously easier and more convenient, so expediency conquered and I was a tape man for years.  CD was a definite step-up, as it reduced many of the limitations of tape and, let's be honest, it sounded better.  I had never listened to an mp3 until I was about 16 or so, and by then, I'd kind of lowered my audio standards, or rather I'd forgotten my roots, and I accepted mp3 quality at face-value.  It was a moot point really, because any listening I did to mp3's at that point usually was done through cheap little computer speakers, thus filtering out any fidelity that might be there to begin with.

Before I go on, let me explain a couple things, and hopefully dispel a couple myths.  Tape in general, is not a bad format.  To this day, tons of professional studios use reel-to-reel tape machines in conjunction with digital media, because of it's fidelity and because of certain sonic properties that tape naturally has.  Tape cassettes, however, no matter what the pimply kid in the skinny jeans tells you, are a terrible medium.  Cassette, because of it's physical limits, necessitated frequency manipulation when mass-producing, producing that well-known high-frequency hiss.   Also, due to the magnetic nature of audio tape, over time it is subject to a process called "print through," in magnetic information on one part of the tape bleeds over onto whatever part of the tape it is pressed up against, and vice versa.  Ever listen to a tape you've had for a long time, and hear stuff going on in the background at a silent part?  Or hear what the guy is about to say get said really quietly right before he says it? That's print through. Yes, this happens with all tape, but in studios, they minimize print-though by storing the tape with the reels wound tail-end out, so that any echo happens during the sound and not before it.  Also, unlike studio tape, cassettes get information recorded to both sides of the tape, making it possible to wind it in such a way as to avoid print-through issues.  In general, cassettes suck for anything besides digitial information, but that's a completely different can of worms to be discussed in a later post (keep your eye out for a post on digital audio).

Getting Serious
I became obsessed with recording when I first got a tape recorder when I was about 6, but I started getting serious about it when I was 16.  I did a bunch of research, reading books and magazines and picking this guy's brain.  I took out a loan from my parents and bought my first recording setup.  I got way into it, even though I had no idea what I was doing and sounded like boiled poop half of the time.  But it had become a quest for me.

After returning from a 2-year mission for my church, I started working at Guitar Center and assembling my rig in a piecemeal fashion.  As I started listening to digital formats like mp3, wmv and wav through nice (well, at least nicer equipment) I discovered that yes, in fact there was a difference between them, and yes indeed they were almost always lower quality than CD's.  It wasn't until a couple years later, while studying music in college that I discovered that vinyl, that format I'd never really become attached to, and which I had just assumed was inferior, was actually higher in fidelity than all of the rest of them...  And it blew my mind.

Digital? No.... Well, Ok
Did I go out and buy a turntable with an expensive needle cartridge and a super-sweet analog stereo system?  No.  Unfortunately, expediency (coupled with an empty pocketbook) once again took me away from vinyl.  I do plan, in my future home to have a study / listening room in which I will have vinyl records and a super-sweet hi-fi setup, but in the meantime I'm a digital man.

Let's face it.  Analog will always be nicer, but digital will always be more accessible, transferable, and generally more convenient.  So, is there a place for us audiophiles in the digital realm? You betcha.

I first really started listening to mp3's in earnest with the purchase of my first iPod back in the summer of 2005.  It was a 20GB iPod Photo.  I loved it with all of my heart.  I began ripping CD's to mp3 left and right.  My ears were still relatively immature at this point, and I still hadn't really discovered the limitations of the mp3 format for myself.  And I didn't for another year or so. As I accumulated more and more high-end equipment via my employee discount, I was surprised to find that I was hearing more problems with sound quality.  It was ironic, but more importantly it was skin-itchingly frustrating.  What it actually took me about 2 or 3 years to discover is that the sound quality problems had always been there, they were just more obvious because of the quality of the equipment they were being played on and through.  Turns out that 128kbps mp3's weren't quite as acceptable as I'd thought they were.

By winter 2006/2007, I would only create mp3's at 192kbps, and it was acceptable most of the time, but still, certain songs, usually loud ones, would drive my ears crazy.  It got worse.  And worse.  Soon, I was thinking that all my equipment was going bad.  Nice equipment, paired with ears that were being given a college education, combined to create a constantly uncomfortable and unsatisfied Jake.  Then, just a couple months ago, it occurred to me.  Could it be that iTunes sounds bad?  No way, I mean, it's APPLE for goodness sake!  It should be great.  So, to test out my theory, I opened up the same mp3's in iTunes and in that ugly, clunky old program, Windows Media Player, and I did an A/B comparison.  Result: Holy crap,  iTunes is distorting my music!

The Sweet Melody of the Songbird
Just weeks before discovering this malady, I was introduced to a fantastic-sounding, free mp3 encoding format called LAME, and to variable bit-rate mp3's.  They sounded a ton better than normal mp3's, but iTunes was still distorting my stuff, so one day, while visiting one of the audio/music snobbery websites that I browse, I came across a forum thread where a bunch of snobs were discussing what media players they used.  I did a google search for every one of the players they mentioned.  Eventually, I came across a wondrous little gem of potential awesomeness by the name of Songbird.  I went through the mp3's that had distorted the most when listening in iTunes, and not once was there an ounce of distortion.  Not one crackle!

Some of the other players were more critically acclaimed, and a couple of them - Foobar, for example - are renowned for being the highest fidelity media players, but I chose Songbird for a couple reasons.  Firstly, it serves my needs as pertains to audio fidelity.  Secondly, it is completely modifiable.  It's made by Mozilla, and it's doing for media players what Firefox did for web browsers.  Like Firefox, there are tons of add-ons you can install into it, like a window that displays the lyrics of your songs, or a pane that displays recommendations based on your current selection, or even the ability to tweet about the song you're listening to.  In this day of the iPhone, desktop widgets and the Google Android mobile OS, any software that doesn't let you customize is quickly going obsolete.  Customization is the future, so I'm a big fan of Songbird.

So, there you have it.  My nerd-history (nerdstory?)  in a digital nutshell; How I got to where I am and how I justify it.  There you go.  I want to reward you for getting all the way through this post if you did, so since there is no way to dispense candy via the internet, here are the download links for two LAME-encoded variable-bitrate mp3's (at maximum quality: V0), of two recent songs of mine:
Enjoy! (Just don't listen to them in iTunes if you want to get the most out of them!)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

'The Sandwich'

Recently, I did some music for a video made by Projectline, Inc., a creative services / marketing firm (I'm probably describing them incorrectly)  based in my beloved Seattle.  It's a funny video promoting their company, and was written and directed by my lovable big brother Ben.

I made sort of a big beat kind of track, and tipped my hat to Dr. Dre with some low brass.  I tripled-up the bassline with brass, synth (GForce impOscar) and piano, and added a screaming synth lead (Native Instruments Pro-53) near the end.  I had a lot of fun doing it, and I think it turned out well. Check it out for yourself.

Click HERE, or watch below:

UPDATE (4-27-09):
I also did the "theme song" for their Ask Larry segment (Larry being their IT guy), which can be seen HERE.  It which  also uses track 4, "Want and Should," from my album Fragments in Abstract, which you can listen to on the sidebar of the blog:  --------->

Thursday, April 9, 2009

new track: 'Making the Grade (A Robot's Lament)'

Once again, my songwriting class prompted me - out of necessity - to take an old song idea (this one from last summer) and finish it up.  Well, finish it enough to turn it in.

For this project, we had to collaborate.  Our professor - who always stresses the fact that in the music business, writing music by one's self is the exception rather than the rule - assigned us into groups of 2-3 people.  Now, up front, this filled me with terror.  Let's just say that I would rather stuff angry hornets under my eyelids than collaborate with some of the people from this class.  Most of them are decent songwriters and cool people, but there are a handful that I just can not stand.  That said, there were several times while he was naming off groups, that my bowels froze in fear of a painfully forced collaboration of contradictory styles and artistic philosophies.

I was pretty much exhausted by the end, because my group was named last.  I lucked out and got put with my good buddy Sage Min.  He's a fantastic musician, has a great ear for chords, plays the keys like a maniac and we have similar tastes in music.  When we got together to collaborate, we had lots of ideas but weren't sure which direction to go.  In a moment of goofing off, I showed him a track I had started last summer which I'd decided needed to go back into the oven for a while.  Like I said in my last post, this is par for the course for me.  My typical progression happened here as well.

Sage liked it and decided to help me finish it off.  The chords were kind of chunky and disconnected, and Sage helped me to smooth them out and transition more nicely.  Also, the song didn't have a bridge.  I came up with the first chord, and Sage basically finished it off.  Since I haven't reinstalled all my old synthesizer plugins yet, we actually took slices of the audio from the bass line from the verses and re-sequenced and re-pitched them to create a bassline for the bridge that matched the rest of the song.  Sage also laid down a perfect keyboard solo with which to end the song.

I wrote the lyrics for the verses last summer, and couldn't come up with lyrics for the bridge until I this project.  The impetus for the song was that I was newly married and I felt like I wasn't very good at it.  I loved my wife so much and I wanted to do everything perfectly for her, but I was learning about shortcomings and inadequacies that I never even knew I had.  Not because she was pointing them out - certainly do not take it that way - but because I was devoted to her and wanted desperately to be everything she'd ever need.

I often think in metaphors, because I'm usually thinking of ways to phrase my thoughts in such a way that they'd be convincing if pressed to defend them.  I guess that's what I get from growing up with a brilliant older brother who is a master of rhetoric and argumentation.  Or maybe it's because about 5 or 6 years ago, I realized that lyrics were far more important than I had previously given them credit for, and that since I was terrible at writing them, I should start working on the art of lyricism.  I think it's about six of one and a half-dozen of the other.  But anyway, the metaphor that came into my mind as a result of the newest addition to the pantheon of my shortcomings, was that of a machine that wasn't very good at doing the the main thing it was built to do.  I thought it a simultaneously amusing and sad thought and began considering how that machine would feel if it could feel.

The result of my musings on that silly idea are the lyrics to this song.  I realized that the verses made it appear that my marriage generally saddens me, which couldn't be further from the truth.  I've never been happier in my life.  So, since the bridge of a song usually represents a shift in thinking or some sort of catharsis, I used it as a vehicle to demonstrate the happy meliorism that my original chain of thought eventually led me to.

Now, after being a blowhard for several paragraphs, I'll let you listen to it. The lyrics are below.

Verse 1:
I'd like to hold her hand
but sadly, I don't have one
I've come so wrongfully equipped.
All my components were
just makeshift substitutions
and when she ordered, I was shipped.

Verse 2:
I know the purpose in my blueprint
was to love her
and all specifics that entailed.
I came with all the right intentions
but was missing
the knowledge needed not to fail.

Not everything that serves our purposes
and needs is tailor made
and even less-than-perfect tools
can even prove to make the grade.

Oftentimes we find that we prefer
a move we wouldn't normally play
even with things we think that we are certain
that we want another way.