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!)


  1. high-five for nerdery! and NEAT info on the itunes!! i so needed that! i too <3 apple. :)

    also, i must admit i have a very special place in my heart for cassette tapes. i KNOW i know, they sound HORRID, but it's what i grew up making. tapes made me the music nerd i am, which is why i have one tattooed on my right arm. screw all those hipsters. they know nothing! get off my bandwagon, you meddling kids!! i've always been behind the digital times anyways (just got my first ipod in february). i still love my epic tape collection (my car has only had a cd player for a year), and i love that P.O.S. format. don't get me wrong, i definitely prefer quality, but lo-fi has it's own charm. ;)

    - stef

  2. Hey Bro...thanks for the mention. :)

    Vinyl does indeed rule. To this day I still have a nice collection of vinyl, mostly the 80's crotch-metal stuff I bought as a kid. I've also managed to score a few "collectibles"; Hendrix Axis: Bold As Love, Beatles Rubber Soul and SPLHCB.

    Thanks for the Songbird tip. I'm downloading it as I type this. I'm going to listen to your "rewards" through it the minute it is installed.