The Bitstream Blog :: Posts

Put Another Nickel In

Well, fellow Americans, it’s Super Tuesday. Here in California, I’m waiting to see what effect my visit to the Log Cabin, my local poling place, will have on our nation’s future. The polls closed less than an hour ago and, from the look of it, it will be an interesting election. On to today’s topic… :: Several times each year, I walk west on Market Street, past the Fed Bank, past the funky round building formerly occupied by The Sharper Image, past Lotte’s Fountain. Situated unobtrusively hard by a parking garage exit ramp is another landmark, a brass plaque sheltered under a tree. It marks the site of the former Palais Royal Saloon where, on November 23, 1899, the world’s first jukebox commenced operation. :: A Mr. Louis Glass created his new invention, the ‘Nickel-in-a-Slot’, by grafting a coin operated actuator mechanism onto an Edison phonograph. For their nickel, listeners could hear a two minute recording. That first year, the machine took in more than $1,000 in only five months. :: A nickel was a fair amount of dough in those days. In comparison, were you to stop by Delmonico’s in New York that same year, a cup of good coffee would have cost you 15¢. As with another runaway entertainment success story, that of television, the Bay Area hosted the start of the MOD (music on demand) movement that has resulted in the current success, the iTunes Music Store…which brings us to MP3. :: I hear lots of audio practitioners whinging about Those Damn Kids, The Death of Fidelity and othersuch  nonsense. Many of these same individuals are old enough to know better, having lived through such formerly popular distribution formats as the 45 rpm phonograph record and the ever popular 8 track and Philips cassette. The difference between those hideous formats of old and today’s MP3s is, the old stuff started out bad and only got worse with each play. Can someone tell my partner that her cassettes are not aging gracefully? Sorry, I digress…Lossy compressed audio files are a constant. As good or bad as the moment they were encoded. :: Also consider that MP3 is a scalable codec. Throw more bits at the data and, golly gee, it sounds better. The Complainers always seem to forget to mention that iPods can play uncompressed LPCM files just as easily as the lossy stuff. Back to the codec, the MPEG folks defined an asymmetrical process, with most of the burden placed on the encoder, with the file format specifying the resulting file spec but not how one arrives at that end point. That way, the encoder can be computationally “lightweight,” fast and sloppy, such when it must to run in real time or, as slow and precise as possible. This approach also allows for post-standard improvements to the encoder. :: I recently did some listening tests — iTunes best quality versus LAME’s best quality and, if you let the LAME encoder spend about twice as long on the encode, it does a noticeably better job. The result is a higher fidelity file with a slightly smaller file size. So, next time someone starts ranting about how crappy MP3s sound, tell ’em to increase the data rate of their encodes then, smack ’em upside the head for me.  😉

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