Friday, May 26, 2017

The Death of the MP3 Format

With progression comes the inevitable. The format known as mp3, used to listen to music on iPods and iPhones, which some collectors use to store their old-time radio programs, is considered dead. That's the official statement from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the German research company that licensed the mp3 patent to software developers. There can be no dispute that the mp3 format, a form of compression for audio files, when joined with the Apple iPod, changed the way millions listened to music.

What is mp3? The simplest way to describe it without going into scientific jargon is to compress an audio file from one size down to a smaller file size and maintain as much of the original sound as possible. Storage was, for over two decades, an issue when it came to collecting record albums and compact discs. A CD could only hold 70+ minutes so for collectors of old-time radio programs only two half-hour recordings could fit onto a single CD. When compressed to mp3 format, 18 half-hour programs could fit onto a single CD. 

How does this work? The simplest way to explain this is imagine taking an five-minute audio recording and breaking it down into one million bits of info. One long string consisting of one million bits. Now take away every other bit away and play it back and you'd never notice. As a friend of mine once explained, it would be like running an old movie from a 16mm projector with one out of every ten frames removed. Considering a projector plays back a movie 24 frames a second, would you notice the difference? Probably not.


There are many rates of compression for mp3 and some are much better than others. Collectors of old-time radio programs for years used software on computers to compress recordings of radio programs into mp3 files, many unaware that they used the wrong compression causing digital artifacts to the soundtrack. As far as they were concerned, the smaller the file -- the better. In fact, most of the radio programs you download off the internet are horrible because of the terrible rate of compression. Not a month goes by someone isn't on Facebook asking where they can find better sound because what they downloaded sounds terrible. From an archival standpoint, wav format (which is what is used on standard CDs) is considered the required format. Last year at a preservation conference with more than 300 librarians across the country gathered in the same spot, it was voted unanimously that mp3 was not an archival format.

All of which led to a dispute among collectors of old-time radio. Which format is the best? Almost everyone agrees wav format is essential from an archiving standpoint but the smallest fraction in the hobby believed mp3 should be the norm. (I would like to note that supporters of mp3 were in favor because wav format took way too long to download off the internet for free, especially if they used dial-up, and they justified the horrible sound quality for the money they did not pay. As one was quoted last year of saying, "It's old, so shouldn't it sound old?")

In a statement from Fraunhofer, "there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today." As I mentioned, technology advances and what was a starting point for Steve Jobs and his revolution that 300 songs could fit on a single iPod device and thus eliminate the bulky portable cassette players, is now considered obsolete.

There are multiple new formats that collectors have been experimenting with. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is considered the successor of MP3, used for iTunes and other music-streaming services. When someone uploads a video on YouTube, the audio is also converted to AAC, to ensure a smaller audio file (thus quick download to stream), then synched with the video. Collectors of old-time radio have been re-shifting their focus on Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) but there are again a number of critics. As one remarked recently, "It is still a compressed file using less kilobytes so I cannot understand how an audio file of smaller size can maintain the high standard of wav. There still has to be something missing. After all, I can only load so much into my car before the windows break. A compressed pillow loses something after being squished in size over time."


All of this does not mean mp3 files are no longer going to work. It simply means that all the major companies that license the mp3 technology for use on their websites and products have moved on to a better format. For the few who use an mp3 player, a CD player or DVD player to listen to their audio files... sound systems that are capable of playing mp3 format may eventually vanish over time. 

Me, I prefer to maintain wav format. Not only is it archival but the fact I can have a little more than 10,000 wav files on a 3TB external hard drive the size of a VHS video cassette is a blessing because that is 5,000 CDs on my shelves that are no longer taking up room. If I want to listen to old-time radio programs I merely connect the drive to my computer and burn a copy onto a blank CD, transfer them to my smart phone to listen to whenever I want, or stream it from my computer to any device in and outside of the house. A friend last month saw my twelve external hard drives and insisted I should take the thousands of man-hours to convert the files to mp3 or FLAC so the amount of material on three drives would fit onto two. (Yeah, I don't think that is going to happen. Really? All that work to lose sound quality and save eight inches of shelf space? Nah.)

Commentary
Last week someone wanted their VHS videos of family home movies converted to DVD. I asked if they still had the Super 8 reels because transferring from those reels to DVD would be better than converting from 30-year-old VHS videos that already suffer from magnetic breakup. No, they threw the reels away after they had them transferred to VHS. I mention the futility of this story as it leads to a question I now ponder.

For the few people in the hobby who kept scolding me about not converting my recordings to mp3 like "the rest of the world," not understanding I have superior sound quality from archival masters and never entertained the thought of compressing audio files to something inferior (and now obsolete), I guess they have to reconsider the next phase of audio formats. But are they going to be working from a compressed file (mp3) or from archival transfers (wav)?  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Association for Recorded Sound Collections, 2017

Matthew Barton, president of ARSC
Last year ARSC (The Association for Recorded Sound Collections) celebrated their 50th anniversary and I absent-mindedly forgot to make a mention of recognition on this blog. This past weekend ARSC held their 51st annual conference so I hope to rectify that oversight with a brief review. Every year the event is held in a different city in the United States and this year's conference, May 11 to 13, was held in San Antonio, Texas. As this was an opportunity for me to see The Alamo which was located across the street from the hotel (literally), and try authentic Texas steak, I took advantage of the conference by sight-seeing as any tourist would do.

The conference plays host to more than 250 attendees, the majority are curators of special collections for recorded sound across the country. Syracuse University, Indiana University, the University of Texas and the Library of Congress are all represented, among many others. Here the casual attendee can hobnob with special collectors who conduct online auction houses, editors of national magazines and scholarly journals, and private collectors with extensive databases of warehousing. As expected when I attended the Radio Preservation Task Force last year, I was probably the only old-time radio researcher at this conference. Almost everyone was an archivist or wholesale collector. Just attending one of these events is a chance to make connections and exchange contact information with good folks who are trying to make an effort to transfer archival holdings to digital form. For the few people in this hobby who research old-time radio programs of the 1930s through the 1950s, I am shocked I am the only one in attendance. 


Many of the slideshow presentations report with status updates on the digitization efforts of major holdings in academic institutions. Very uplifting, for sure. Presentations included such subjects as "Expert Transfer Techniques: A Special Focus on Mechanical Discs," "Analysis of Audio Restoration Software Plugins and Programs" and "Modeling Metadata for Sound Archives." Geeky stuff for those who know what metadata is, but there were some fascinating subjects such as John Tefteller's presentation of long-lost Marx Brothers recordings, with samples and snippets of recently discovered "list" recordings, and Steve Smolian's recent discoveries of Victor Herbert's recording career. 

Of extreme interest, with video captured on my smartphone, was the slide show presentation by Tim Brooks who discussed the limitations and restrictions of how to deal with copyrights in the age of digital scholarship. Tim laid down the basic ABCs and rules for use of copyrighted audio materials in videos, presentations and exhibits, for digital dissemination of musical scholarship. I shared this video on a number of Facebook groups with the hope that it clarifies the misconceptions collectors have with copyrights.

Attending the conference was beneficial for a number of reasons, besides exchanging contacts (i.e. networking). Here I discovered archives I did not know existed, including what vintage radio broadcasts are housed at archives across the nation, how some libraries are using Amazon web services for streaming and storage, the question of speed is variable, conversation of scale, the recent processing of such collections as the Gloria Swanson papers/recordings and the Fulton Lewis Jr. collection, preservation assessments and intellectual value, how libraries create subclasses of performance, and (for me, at least) the acquisition of copies of a radio program titled Bill Scott, Forest Ranger (1946-1947) which I never knew existed.

(Left to Right) Tim Brooks, Sammy Jones and Bruce Epperson

I met William Robert Vanden Dries, who was kind enough to share with me his 2014 dissertation, "Collaborative Practices Employed by Collectors, Creators, Scholars and Collecting Institutions for the Benefit of Recorded Sound Collections." A superb 140-page scholarly analysis between the diversity and collaboration between collectors and archivists, a must-read for anyone who is into the hobby of old-time radio. As verified in his thesis and during one of the seminars, librarians do not look at collectors as vultures, but as custodians and are appreciative of their efforts. That said, at fan gatherings consisting primarily of collectors there seems a sense of animosity against library archives that (in the minds of collectors) are hoarding recordings and restricting access. Many collectors with large collections have at one time or another considered donating their vast holdings to a university or college library but then hesitated with the fear that such collections will gather dust for centuries. One of the slideshow presentations this weekend clarified, from a librarian's view, the necessity of a detailed inventory and cataloging system. The setback to vast holdings is the lack of proper labels or inventory needed to process the collection so they can be made available for researchers. As stated by Allison Bohm McClanahan of Indiana University, "If there is an inventory, they will be made available quickly. Your stuff will be processed efficiently."

Next year's event will be held in my back yard, Baltimore, Maryland, so I look forward to attending next year's event. For those curious to attend such a conference and cannot wait until May, there will be another Radio Preservation Task Force conference in Washington, D.C., in November. Details can be found here:

For more information about ARSC, including information about becoming a member, click here:

Friday, May 12, 2017

BLOOD 'N' THUNDER: The Final Issue

Winter/Spring 2016 issue
Over the years I probably subscribed to more than 100 fanzines and magazines, most of them now defunct as a result of an aging fanbase. I still receive subscriptions to five magazines and six club newsletters but it appears one of those magazines has closed the books. Blood 'n' Thunder, whose aim was to appeal to collectors of pulp magazines, old-time radio, cliffhanger serials, film noir and other retro pop culture just released the final issue, number 49/50, Fall 2016. Edited and managed by Ed Hulse, whose prose and skill at writing and presenting the facts is academic and pleasing to the eyes, provided fifteen years of pleasurable reading. Whether it be exploring the origins and roots of Tarzan in The All-Story magazine, or exploring a silent cliffhanger serial such as The Diamond from the Sky (1915), there was plenty in each issue to keep me reading for hours. Long flights on an airplane or a few hours to kill on the back porch... I always had an issue of Blood 'n' Thunder on hand.

2013-2014 Special Edition
In the final issue, Ed Hulse provides a fascinating story of how the magazine came to be, the good folks who invested money into the production, and the tens of thousand son hours Ed devoted to researching a subject for articles. A two-part article on Street & Smith entailed reading hundreds of issues which gobbled up his spare time for months. As Ed explained, numerous factors including a busy life prevented him from releasing the latest issue of his magazine at each of the pulp conventions, which he did routinely for years. So he decided to throw in the towel. As Gary Larson once remarked, better to quit while you are still on a roll than to run dry and thin.

I could not speak enough about Ed's magazine. While I manage to read all of the club newsletters and fanzines (average 16 pages) that come through my office every month, magazines (average 102 pages) Blood 'n' Thunder was the only magazine that I would read from cover to cover. For one magazine (which I will keep nameless because I do not want to disappoint the editor) I have two years of issues piled up and the motivation to read the articles is not strong enough for me to challenge through them. I will one day. 

Summer 2016 issue
On the plus side, many back issues are available on Amazon.com and from Ed's site, muraniapress.com, and I recommend you buy a few. The latter issues are "bookazines," which are referred to in the industry as books with multiple contributors to simulate a double and triple magazine issue. While they may cost $14.95 and $24.95, you are buying what is essentially a book. And Ed Hulse disclosed his intentions of releasing such "bookazines" in the future, each resolving under a single theme and with no steady release date like a magazine subscription. I look forward to his one proposal about the Crime Club series (a series of movies based on mystery novels).

I look forward to reading magazines and fanzines when they arrive in my mail box. That thrills has not diminished in decades. My question is this: even while clubs and organizations make the switch to offer digital copies of their newsletters and magazines, which also diminishes my need for additional bookshelves, just when will print magazines become a thing of the past? 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Actor Don Gordon, Dead at Age 90

This one almost flew below the radar. Actor Don Gordon left us on April 24, 2017, at the age of 90. A proper death notification for celebrities is usually provided by a family relative or the executor of an estate. The fact that someone has not yet come forth to provide an official statement about Gordon's untimely passing is not uncommon. At least a dozen celebrities pass away and with no one making the effort to issue a formal statement, news can take days or weeks until it catches wind. Only now word is getting out but at the time of this posting if you visit Google you will not find any obituaries in any trades. 

Don Gordon was a character actor who worked alongside Steve McQueen in a number of movies including Bullet (1968), Papillion (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Gordon appeared in numerous television programs ranging from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Peyton Place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West, Cannon and Barnaby Jones, among others. It was his appearance on Wanted: Dead or Alive that supposedly generated their strong friendship in the industry. His guest spot on television's The Defenders won him an Emmy nomination.

I would like to point out a factoid that hopefully will prevent an error that I can easily see occurring on the Internet. This is the same Don Gordon who played a recurring role on TV and radio's SPACE PATROL but he was not the same Don Gordon who was an announcer for radio's TOM MIX and CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT.