June 2008 issue

Deciphering Digital Audio

Ever since home computers first started dealing with audio recording and playback there has been confusion over terminology regarding formats, sample rates, etc. Some of us have to get into the nuts and bolts of digital audio everyday, but many more are simply end-users who find it all very confusing. Here’s my attempt to simplify digital audio for you.

Computers record audio the same way cameras record film or video… taking a bunch of “snapshots” every second and then stringing them together and playing them back as a recording of an event over time. Most film or video is based on anywhere from 15 to 32 snapshots, or “frames” per second. But digital audio uses thousands per second, each one a coded record, or “sample”, of the sound frequencies found in that split second. The code, called binary code, is a string of “1”s and “0”s.

The more “1”s ad “0”s there are in each sample, the better the sound quality. This is the “bit rate”… usually 16 bit, the rate used in CDs. Also, the more samples the better. CDs use 44,100 samples per second! But many other recordings, such as digital audio for video, are done at 48,000 samples per second. It would take a very discerning ear to be able to detect the difference between the two. Radio generally uses the 44.1k sample rate, and most video systems use 48 k audio. The problem is that the higher the bit rate and the more samples used, the bigger the demand on computer memory. A stereo CD recording (44.1k, 16 bit per channel) will eat up about 10 meg per minute.

There are three basic professional audio formats that have become the conventional standards, and many more consumer grade versions that also enjoy substantial popularity, but are not as ubiquitous. The three biggies are “Wave”, “Aiff”, and “MP3”. Wave and Aiff are uncompressed formats, meaning you get the full spectrum of recorded audio. MP3 is a data compression format that removes frequencies, not heard by the human ear, to reduce the demand on memory without significant loss of audio fidelity. However, if you compare an MP3 recording with either Wave or Aiff of the same recording on a good sound system, you can definitely hear the quality difference. But it is subtle.

Other popular audio formats include RA (Real Audi0), WMA (Windows Media for PCs), AU (from Unix), MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), and Quicktime (from Apple) just to name a few.

Wave audio was developed mostly for use in PCs. Aiff began as the format of choice for Macs. MP3 is the format used in most portable personal audio devices such as Apple’s iPod.

Books have been written on this subject, but this short article should at least help you understand what they mean when someone asks, "Wave or Aiff, and do you want 44-1 or 48k?"

Try requesting a Nokia ringtone format and see what happens!

Featured Client of the Month

It's logical to follow last month's featured client, "Williamson Evans", with "The Creative Edge" this month. It was at the WE studios that I met Ralph Hillsman. Ralph liked to start around 9 am over coffee, giving me the basic fact sheet for his automobile dealer's radio spots. He would then go shoot pool or return phone calls... stay busy with other stuff while I furiously tried to crank out a half dozen radio scripts for his client.

Around noon he'd read the scripts, make minor changes if needed, and then we'd break for lunch... after which I would pech myself in front of a microphone and record the scripts I had just written! This schedule went on almost every month for 15 or 20 years with a succession of dealerships around South Carolina, the latest being Bob Bennett Ford in the state's capitol city, Columbia.

These days, it's all done through the internet, and I don't always have to write the spots, now that The Creative Edge has a staff of writers. The truth is, I still love the challenge each month and am delighted to have a long-term client like The Creative Edge.


End Car Payments!

As I continue to make payments on a car that died two years before the payment book ended, I keep thinking about something audio engineer Mark Williams told me years ago.

Mark was working in chigaco, and his strategy was to buy two cheap "beaters", park one in his driveway, and put the other on the road. He'd drive the one old car until it broke down. He would pull the title out of the glovebox, sign it and spike it on the radio antenna. Then he's go get the other car and start using that one for daily transportation.

Whoever hauled the first car away got the title as compensation and Mark would go find another cheap ride to ieep as his "spare".

He never had to pay for repairs... He just didn't do any. He never had car payments because he would just buy what he could afford to pay cash for. Bottom line... He averaged very little expense per year for personal transportation!

Bizzare? Or Brilliant? I don't know, but the more car payments and repair bills I have to make the smarter it sounds!


Arstotle Quote:

"Mothers are fonder than fathers of their children because they are more certain they are their own."

Thanks to Fran Taylor, super voiceover gal, for that one!

Anyone who has an interesting story, quip, quote, or quest, is encouraged to send it to me so I can rip it off and put it in a future edition of the "Punch-Ins".

The U.P. Way

My family has deep roots in Michigan's "UP"... the Upper Penninsula... where the state bird is the mosquito and the Everly Brothers are still in the Top Ten. They're a tough, self-sufficient bunch of folk from Northern European stock.

My cousin, Sam, sent me an article from Marquette's "Mining Journal". It was written by a county emergency manager in the Western part of the state after a big snowstorm last winter, and it pretty well sums up the character of most "Yoopers".

"Up here in the Northern part of Michigan we just recovered from a Historic event--- may I even say a "Weather Event" of "Biblical Proportions" --- with a historic blizzard of up to 44" inches of snow and winds to 90 MPH that broke trees in half, knocked down utility poles, stranded hundreds of motorists in lethal snow banks, closed ALL roads, isolated scores of communities and cut power to 10's of thousands.

FYI: George Bush did not come. FEMA did nothing.
No one howled for the government. No one blamed the government.
No one even uttered an expletive on TV. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton did not visit. Our Mayor's did not blame Bush or anyone else. Our Governor did not blame Bush or anyone else either CNN, ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC did not visit - or report on this category 5 snow storm. Nobody demanded $2,000 debit cards. No one asked for a FEMA Trailer House. No one looted.

Nobody - I mean Nobody demanded the government do something. Nobody expected the government to do anything, either.
No Larry King, No Bill O'Rielly, No Oprah, No Chris Mathews and No Geraldo Rivera.
No Shaun Penn, No Barbara Striesand, No Hollywood types to be found.

Nope, we just melted the snow for water. Sent out caravans of SUV's to pluck people out of snow engulfed cars. The truck drivers pulled people out of snow banks and didn't ask for a penny.
Local restaurants made food, and the police and fire departments delivered it to the snow bound families.. Families took in the stranded people - total strangers. We Fired up wood stoves, broke out coal oil lanterns or Coleman lanterns. We put on an extra layers of clothes because up here it is "Work or Die". We did not wait for some affirmative action government to get us out of a mess created by being immobilized by a welfare program that trades votes for 'sittin at home' checks.

Even though a Category "5" blizzard of this scale has never fallen this early, we know it can happen and how to deal with it ourselves.
In my many travels, I have noticed that once one gets north of about 4 8 degrees North Latitude, 90% of the world's social problems evaporate.
It does seem that way, at least to me.

I hope this gets passed on.. Maybe SOME people will get the message. The world does Not owe you a living."

Well, for what it's worth, I'm passing it on!

Cookin’ The Books

No, this isn’t about larceny… it’s about saving money on the food budget by cooking good food for yourself instead of paying someone else to do it or using prepared packaged stuff. You can eat really well, really healthy, and really cheap if you just use fresh ingredients and a little extra time.

Here’s an example. It’s a dinner I cooked recently. I call it “Black Bean Snapper”. And before you scream about paying $12 a pound for fresh fish, let me point out that fish isn’t full of fat and bones, so it doesn’t shrink when you cook it. The pound you buy is a pound you get to eat. Generally one pound of fish, or a little more, will yield generous servings for two. And you can use cheaper varieties like Tilapia, Cod, or whatever is on sale if the budget is really tight.

Ingredients: 1/4 cup Black Bean sauce (in the oriental foods section of the store)
1 tbsp. Sesame oil
1/4 cup finely sliced green onions
fresh ginger
1 pound (or a little more) fresh fish (Red Snapper, in this case)
1 large head of fresh broccoli
2 cups fat-free chicken broth
1 cup brown or Basmati rice

Pour chicken broth and rice into a pan, bring to a boil, stir once, then cover and simmer 45 minutes. While this is cooking, mix Black Bean sauce and Sesame oil together and brush generously over the meaty side of the fish. Put four or five finely sliced pieces of fresh ginger on the fish and add onions. Wrap fish in tin foil, sealing well.Start water heating in a steamer, and pre-heat the oven to 350.

20 minutes before rice is done, put the foil wrapped fish in the oven (on a baking sheet to catch any leakage) and put the cleaned and de-stemmed broccoli in the steamer. The fish should cook 15 – 18 minutes, at which time the broccoli and rice should also be ready to serve.

A delicious and slightly spicy meal, low in calories, high in nutrition, easy on the budget, and attractive enough on the plate to serve to company.

Gas Pains!

If you haven't noticed the way gasoline prices have been skyrocketing, I want some of whatever your drinking!

I know gasoline is a non-renewable resource, there is a finite amount of it in the planet, and we've got to find an affordable alternative soon. But you can't convince me that we're about to run out of it, or that prices aren't being manipulated to the benefit of Big Oil... be it drillers, refiners, suppliers, or whomever. Face it, we, John Q. Public, are being screwed at the pumps!

Want to look at one of the more subtle ways we're getting the shaft? Look at the price signs at every gas station. What's the most expensive fuel? Diesel. Why is that?

One barrel of crude oil yields about 28 gallons of gasoline (along with many other products such as asphalt and kerosene.) Those 28 gallons go through a great deal of refining, treatments, additions and modifications to become Premium fuel. A little less processing and it's Mid-Grade. Even less, and you have Regular. And the one that gets very little processing, additives, or other treatment, and is thus the cheapest to make? Yep... the one that costs the most at the pumps: diesel! Even the tax on diesel averages more than 7% higher than other gasolines

This country's economy runs on the commerce that is impelled by tens of thousands of big trucks and heavy equipment that all run on diesel fuel... a captive consumer base that has no alternative but to pay whatever the fuel costs, or go out of business.

And who winds up paying for the extra cost of that diesel fuel? The people who pay for all the stuff that is delivered, or built, by those trucks and equipment... You and me!

Don't blame the gas station... they have to pay whatever their price is, too. Blame Big Oil. Blame Opec. Blame the oil barons. Blame the people getting rich while the rest of the world suffers. Because if anyone tried to tell you it's just the way of free enterprise supply and demand, it's bull. That's like saying that a ransom note is simply a case of supply and demand!

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