Tech Talk - Audio
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This page was last updated on July 15, 2016.
I've been asked how I do my digital audio recording, especially during the last six months of 2013 when I was digitizing over 80 vinyl albums of railroad sounds, as well as my own collection of vinyl albums, which includes numerous music albums as well as additional railroad sounds.
I use a program called WavePad to capture the sound from either a separate cassette deck for cassette tapes, or from a separate RCA-brand turntable for vinyl LPs. Both are connected to the computer via a stereo miniplug that is adapted from RCA plugs from the separate components.
I use WavePad to do the initial recording, which is a single file that I leave running as I either turn the vinyl disc over, or flip the cassette over to record in the other direction.
I save the recorded file as an uncompressed WAV file.
I was using Adobe's Audition 3.0 for all the editing, but mostly use WavePad now. Audition was formerly known as CoolEdit 2000 or CoolEdit Pro. I first used CoolEdit 2000 back in 2001 when I did my first conversion of LPs to digital files.
Sample Rate and Bit Rate
I use a sample rate of 44,100, which is CD-quality audio. Since I'm recording for both high quality and for digitial preservation, this high rate seems like the best option.
The same concept applies to the bit rate. CD-quality audio uses 16-bit rate. Audio for high definition video is 32-bit. (Read the Wikipedia article about bit rate)
In both cases, 44,100 sample rate, and 16-bit rate recording is usually the default settings for most recording software.
Separating The Recorded Files
I then also use WavePad to break the large initial file into its proper segments. I was previously using Adobe Audition for this, but the bookmark function in Wavepad is a lot easier to set the markers, then split the large file into its separate pieces.
After the separate segments have been saved as separate files, I then do some manual removal of the big and more obvious clicks and pops, and add fade-in and fade-out. Then I do an overall removal of clicks and pops, using the hiss-click-pop filter in Adobe Audition which is the best noise filter I have used, and I've tried several. I also use the "Normalize" function in Audition, then save the final version as an uncompressed WAV file.
WavePad comes from NCH Software in Australia. I also use their SoundTap program to capture streaming audio, and its does a great job. Although the programs from NCH are a bit too self-promotional (they continue ask me to upgrade, even though I have already upgraded), their programs are very nice and actually work. If they need the continuous self-promotion to fund improving their software, I'm willing to accept and ignore.
Making MP3s For MP3 Players
On my computers, I listen to MP3 files, since I like having all the descriptions and album art as part of the experience. To listen to MP3s, I create the MP3 files by converting the WAV files.
I use the dbPoweramp suite from Illustrate Software to convert from one format to another. It does a great job at MP3 tags, which I use for all my music, and the railroad sounds that I listen to. Adding album art to the MP3 files is why I scan the album covers. (Previously I was using NCH's SoundSwitch program.)
Editing MP3 Tags
I use MP3Tag to keep my MP3 files all properly meta-tagged, including album art.
Making Album Art
I used a FlipPal portable scanner to scan the album art.
Examples of some of my album art (about half of the album covers were scanned with the FlipPal)
Since they are 12 inches square, LP covers won't fit on any flatbed scanner. I tried separate scans, then stitching them together, but the color quality varied too much between scans, making the stitch line too obvious. Over the years I had cobbled together a workflow to take digital photos of the covers, either out in the sunlight, or using various attempts at copy stands and indoor lighting. These photos are always skewed, so I've taught myself to fix skewed images in Photoshop, which they call Transforming.
Back in May 2013, I bought a Flip-Pal portable scanner, a nice little battery-powered scanner to scan portions of railroad maps that are in large and long rolls. The scans are only 4x6 inches, but their stitching software is the finest I have ever seen. In early August, I tried the Flip-Pal on album covers, and it worked great. I scan each cover as 12 overlapping 4x6 scans, and the stitching software creates a beautiful full-sized image, scanned at 300 dpi. The Flip-Pal will do either 300 ppi or 600 ppi. I use the 600 ppi setting for the railroad maps so that I can zoom in to see the details, such as whether or not there were coaling facilities on the old LA&SL as far south as Caliente.
I found that digital cameras were not high enough resolution, and it was difficult to light the albums properly. And then there is the skewing problem, which is not a concern with the FlipPal scanner.
(July 2016 Update: I now have a 20MP digital SLR camera, and using it with my existing copy stand allows me to digitize album art as 300dpi images.)
Making CDs For CD Players
To create a CD, I leave the files as WAV files.
To burn the CDs, I use the open-source CDBurnerXP. It's free, and they update it regularly.
Labels For CDs
I use Neato's MediaFace labeling software and gloss labels.
Data For CD Case Inserts
The higher resolution scans from the Flip-Pal allow me to capture the text on the back of the albums to help build the track information for each album. Depending on how busy the text-art-photos are on the back of the album cover, I first try converting the digital image, either TIF or JPG, to PDF using Adobe Acrobat, since Acrobat has the most accurate optical character reading (OCR) I have ever used. If the image is too busy, confusing Acrobat's attempt at OCR, I then do a screen capture of just the text using Snag-It, which is saved as a JPG. I then convert the JPG to a PDF using Acrobat. The text is then copied to a Word file, and edited to fix the few characters that did not OCR properly. I then build the insert for the CD case.
A quick side note about Snag-It, a screen capture program from TechSmith. Since buying the program back in late 2008, it has become an important part of my digital tool set. It allows me to capture images, or text that display on my monitor. The most important feature is that I can combine separate captures into a single image, then I can add a quick citation so that I don't forget where the information came from, which can be amazingly useful while doing newspaper research.
iTunes and Foobar
(January 22, 2013)
Previously, I have mentioned listening to music as I scanned my passenger car reference books. I had my music running in the background while scanning, thoroughly enjoying many of the 11,000 songs in over 1,000 albums. I use iTunes on a separate computer that is dedicated to music and videos, and I have written before about my learning curve with digital music. Right in the middle of December, there was an update to iTunes 11 that changed the interface and some of the function; changes that I am not comfortable with. Also, I was getting nagged by a program that watches for duplicate files. I decided to combine the two projects and make December a month of music. After spending a week or so getting rid of those duplicates, and after the iTunes update, I decided to change my music player over to a program called foobar2000.
After downloading and installing foobar2000, the player itself is a very basic interface, meant for use on a desktop, with a simple default set of features. It is highly (!) customizable, and after tweaking it a bit just to see if I liked it afterwards, I decided to reel it back in and I settled on just the Columns UI component plugin, using the simple NG Playlist panel. I also installed the "file operations" component so that I can directly delete a song if I decide to.
I did, however, use the customization in foobar2000 to set the player columns, which in turn required a small amount of minimal scripting in foobar2000, for which I found samples on their forums.
Here are three really nice Youtube tutorials produced by the Tek Syndicate that will help setting up foobar2000.
Synching My iPod
I tried the "idop" foobar2000 component for iPod management, but it really screwed up the foobar2000 database, so I removed it and reinstalled iTunes 10.7 to use as my iPod manager. I don't want to maintain two song databases (foobar2000 and iTunes) so I found a program called iTunes Library Toolkit, for people like me who don't want , or need, iTunes' help in managing our music collections, especially that silly compilations folder. The iTunes Library Toolkit does a nice job comparing your source folder, in my case /Music/Library/, with the iTunes database, and removes dead links and adds new additions. So now, I am able to add and delete to my heart's content.
(November 2015 Update: I have made peace with iTunes and updated to version 12. The iTunes Library Toolkit still works, allowing me to sync my music library as I add and remove songs and albums by simple copy or delete in Windows. But I still use foobar2000 as the primary desktop music source. My biggest complaint for iTunes is that it does not remember where I left off in the previous listening session; starting every time at the top of the album list -- every time, which became extremely frustrating very fast. I hate iTunes, but it is the only thing available that is easy to use to sync between desktop and portable player. Once again, crappy programming by people who obviously don't use their own product.)
(October 2019 Update: I continue to use iTunes and its latest version. Instead of using the iTunes Library Toolkit, I am now pay closer attention when adding entire folders to the music library. I continue to use MP3Tag to clean up the wide variety of crappy metatags, and to add proper album art. I use Windows Media Player as my click-and-play player of choice for single tunes. I use iTunes for general listening sessions, and to sync with my iPod Touch for listening away from home. I still hate iTunes, but it is the only program that actually works to sync my desktop library with my iPod Touch.)
Editing MP3 Tag
I use MP3Tag to keep my MP3 files all properly meta-tagged, including album art. After removing the duplicate files, I used the scripting feature in MP3Tag to set the track number in each file, such as 14 of 27, or 14/27. Although iTunes does it for its own database, internal to its program, having the track and total tracks as part of the MP3 tags is a permanent fix. I have a lot of trailer and production music that is presented in multiple versions (full length, usually about two minutes), 30-seconds and 60-seconds, and with and without choir, so it's nice to know how many songs were offered, although I may only have five or six of the original 30 or so songs on a particular album.
Converting and Ripping
Another tool I use a lot is dBpoweramp from illustrate. It is a very nice set of tools for converting and maintaining your music files. It also has a very good CD ripper. Using the codecs that are offered, you can convert any audio format to any other audio format, all in very high quality. The cost is minimal, so there's no ad-supported crap to deal with like in so many of the "free" converters.
Capturing The Music
One last tool that I should mention… I have written previously about capturing music from web sites that don't sell their music. I use a set of Bose Companion Five speakers, which have a USB connection. This means that traditional capture software does not work, forcing me to use a mish-mash of hardware and software to capture music that I can hear through the speakers. I recently found a program that works great through the USB speakers, so now I don't need the patch cords. It is called NCH SoundTap, and comes from NCH Software in Australia. It does a great job, and I highly recommend it.
Making More Music
(March 19, 2011)
Ever since I was a teenager, I've liked soundtrack music. One of my first albums was the soundtrack for television's Rawhide, a birthday present upon turning 13. When I got a job and an apartment, one of the first purchases was the soundtrack for The Hawaiians, by Mancini. Record stores were in every mall, but unlike most people who went for the hits, I always headed for the soundtracks. That lasted for over 20 years. Then about ten years ago, I've discovered a whole new type of music, known as "production music," made up of short bits of orchestra music, meant to serve as background music in television programs and commercials.
It's hard to describe how much I like production music. The most recognizable subset is separate and distinctive and has become known as "trailer music," because of its major use during movie trailers. Trailer music usually includes choirs that climax at the end, as does the music itself. Like its bigger brother, production music, the original orchestrations can be absolutely stunning. The music is written for a purpose, to serve as background for other media, including movies, movie trailers, television shows (National Geographic, Discovery, and History channels), television commercials, and now, computer games (the Halo series has some of the best gaming music).
The composers write what sells, and right now, trailer music sells. But occasionally, the composers break the trailer music mold, and simply make good music; music that easily stands alone, simply as music that makes you close your eyes and let your imagination fly away. I have noticed that each song is usually offered full length, 1-minute length, and 30-second length, and with and without choir. I prefer full length, without choir. A current favorite is the recent Defining Moments from APM, with Brian Brasher and Veigar Margeirsson as composers.
The whole production music industry is apparently based on licensing fees, because the music is used in commercials and in television shows, and in movie trailers. But when the music is used, these original compositions are likely never seen or heard again, which makes it all the more frustrating. Way back in 2001 (or thereabout), Mitch Lijewski of X-Ray Dog wrote a little ditty called "A&E Theme," which was likely used for a few promotions for the A&E Channel, and was promptly forgotten. It is two minutes of goodness that combines piano, percussion, and strings. I came across it in when I discovered XRD's Gothic Power, used in the Lord of the Rings trailers. At the time, the A&E Theme and several others were offered as sample cues on XRD's web site. I soon figured out a process to capture the music as it played, and those are some of my most prized WAV files. Over the years, I have gathered together several of XRD's collections, and eight of those originals are not on any collection. I have them in an album called X-Ray Dog, Scraps. (Because of copyright issues, I can't share. Don't ask.)
This is music meant to be licensed by the performance, or to use a term from the pre-digital days, paid for by the needle drop. That's the business plan, and that's the way the music is marketed. The variety is truly amazing, and covers every type of music imaginable. I prefer the drama and epic style, but like I said, the variety is amazing.
Without actually knowing someone in the industry, I can only guess that once a piece is used, the license likely includes a limitation by both parties that it not be used again. If I were to produce a commercial for Ford, I suspect that they (Ford) would be a little upset if the same music were to crop up in a Chevy commercial six months later. But there really needs to be some way to preserve these pieces for people who appreciate good music; admittedly, generic music, but good original music none the less. Maybe someday someone will figure out a way to sell these pieces by the CD and song; there is some truly great music being set aside after a single performance. These pieces are usually 1-1/2 to 3 minutes in length, a possible limitation, but not for me. Music is music.
Some of the production houses are starting to make their albums available on sites such as Amazon (search on "trailer music"). There are a few on the Epic Score label, and some from APM. All are well worth the money. Sadly, companies like Immediate offer different pieces from what they offer as production music. Other names include AudioGrave, Sound Adventures, Machine Vandals, Two Steps From Hell, Position Music, and Audio Network. Most, if not all of it good stuff, except the works where the artist's finger seems to become glued to a single key on the keyboard. Those get deleted right away. I like the full orchestra pieces, with maybe a subdued choir in the background, which are becoming more common, versus the all-keyboard pieces from 5-10 years ago.
As for my own private use, I capture what plays from the web sites, and save what plays as a WAV file. The challenge is what to do for the album art, which gets cobbled together from the company logo and some sort of album name. Then I build a separate folder with WAVs and MP3s, and album art.
I still use iTunes because it continues to help me manage my collection. The interface is the best available, and the easiest to use. The other media players seem to want to be everything to everybody. I use Windows Media Player for when I double-click a file name. It loads very quickly, and plays easily. In the Options settings, I have it set to ignore all the folders except the one I added manually where I keep all my music files, which is in /Music/Library with a separate folder for each album. All the WAV files, and purchased music is in /Music/Source Files, which neither iTunes or Media Player are allowed to monitor. Purchased MP3 files are simply copied over to the Library. WAV files are saved as MP3s, which are then loaded with applicable tags and album art, then also copied over to the Library. And everything gets backed up daily, on two separate hard drives.
Music, Music, Music
Posted to Facebook, September 5, 2009
What's On Your Mind? -- Music. Music. Music. Especially soundtrack and trailer music. The newest find is Pinar Toprak's music for Behind Enemy Lines II: The Axis Of Evil. I found her web site and ripped the music into iTunes, including creating an album cover. It all serves as the soundtrack of my life as I do the history stuff; the current project is massive and covers all Union Pacific steam locomotives, 1864 to 1962.
Getting Good At Album Art
(August 8, 2009)
I recently realized that my digital music collection was in a sorry state. Scattered here, there, and wherever. Album art was scattered even worse. Some research helped me better understand MP3 tags, and what goes in and what stays out.
My scattered collection became obvious as I recovered from a strange bug between an iPod formatted for a Mac, and iTunes running on a PC that caused iTunes on a PC to scramble the catalog data. It still hurts, so I'll be keeping Apple's "helpful" management at arm's length.
I have resolved to make my music as future proof as possible. It's all in a single Library folder with hundreds of subfolders, named for the artists or the movie title for the soundtracks. The Library folder is completely away from iTunes, and I don't use that silly, silly "Compilations" folder. The music is all in MP3 format.
I've read lots of remarks about the reduced quality of MP3 versus the many, many other uncompressed formats ("My format's better than your format."), but I have yet to detect any difference between an MP3 and an uncompressed version. I guess I remember too well the sound quality of cassettes. MP3 songs are great! On the plus side, using MP3s allows me to embed the album art. I like the album art because I don't like the generic music note that Apple uses.
Don't let iTunes "Find Album Art." I gave it a one-time try, but its choices were remarkably silly for about a third of the songs. I guess I'm not mainstream enough in my music choices.
I have owned hundreds of vinyl albums since the early 1970s. I kept a few after the big sell off about eight years ago, and I have now digitized them, along with several audio books on cassettes. All of the digitized albums and cassettes are kept as uncompressed WAV files, along with matching album art that I either photographed with a digital camera and a copy stand, with full bright sunlight as the light source, or scanned using Photoshop. These albums have never been offered on CD, and include the one-man Broadway shows of Hal Holbrook's "Mark Twain Tonight", and James Whitmore's "Give ‘em Hell Harry", along with Mancini's soundtrack for "The Hawaiians", Roger Miller's "Waterhole No. 3″ ballad and soundtrack, and the soundtrack from "Vanishing Point". The rare stuff also includes the 1972 Warner Brothers 50th Anniversary, three-disk set of movie dialogue, along with several old radio programs on cassette. [October 2009 Update: Less than a year ago, Vanishing Point both as a CD of the soundtrack and a DVD of the movie became available on Amazon.]
I still use iTunes because the user interface is the best I've tried (and I have tried several since the Crash of Late May). With everything as an MP3 file, iTunes' sticky fingers are kept at bay. It does a real nice job at embedding the song information, and the player is very easy to use. Just don't let iTunes manage your music collection.
iTunes completely lost all of my trust when I connected my Mac-formatted iPod to the new Dell PC for the first time. Instead of asking to reformat the iPod, which is what I expected, some kind of glitch made iTunes scramble the iTunes music catalog data. I ended up with over 3900 songs with truncated titles and no other information. Since I had already moved all the music to the new Library folder, and arranged the subfolder names by artist and album (or by movie name for the soundtracks), the only saving grace was that the location was still shown on the iTunes' Summary tab. So if anyone wonders what I've been doing throughout June and July, there you go. Three words: music collection recovery.
The basics: as of today there are over 600 albums and over 8000 songs, and it takes over 38GB of hard drive space (2018 update: 14000+ songs/tracks; 1100+ albums; 70GB disc space). The music is all MP3s, including the DRM-protected songs purchased from the iTunes store that I have since converted to MP3s. Apple's AAC format are always converted to MP3s.
I use a combination of dbPoweramp and MP3Tag to edit MP3 tags. dbPoweramp is great at viewing all the tags, and editing the tag information for individual songs, allowing me to simply delete the iTunes proprietary tags. MP3Tag is great at batch editing, and showing me what album art is already embedded, including those crappy little 75×75 and 200×200 thingys that Windows Media Player stuffs in the MP3s. Today I only use Windows Media Player as a single-song player when I double-click an MP3. I don't like the way it "manages" my music.
The album art is being kept in a separate "Album Covers" folder in the Pictures system folder. The original images are archived as TIF files in a separate subfolder. The album art is in the form of 500×500 JPGs embedded in the MP3s. For songs with embedded images smaller than 500×500, I use MP3Tag to export the image and save it to the separate album art folder. I then open it in Photoshop, save it as an uncompressed TIF and adjust the canvas size to be square. I'm getting good at using Photoshop to fill in the backgrounds of the now-square image, and using layers, background colors, the clone brush, and the healing brush.
After making the image square, I adjust the resolution to be at least 96 pixels/inch (I scan my own at 300 pixels/inch), then let Photoshop up-sample it to 500×500, then do a single unsharp mask filter. It then gets saved as a JPG, and that's what then gets embedded. For missing album art, I'm having pretty good luck at finding album art on the web, and adjusting the image to match my criteria.
My Audio Life
(July 12, 2009)
It all started with my brother's return from his Vietnam experience in 1969 with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Along with the reel-to-reel recorder, the setup included an amp and a couple big-bass floor-speakers. We spent time recording our (mostly his) vinyl collection, recording songs from the radio, and listening to music. Loud music, mostly surf music, such as The Ventures and other guitars-and-drums groups of the 1960s.
I bought my own setup within the year which included a Pioneer amp, a Garrard turntable, a Sony cassette player that auto-reversed (cool stuff in those days), and two big Pioneer speakers that are, almost 40 years later, still mounted up high on my walls.
Music has remained a part of my life ever since, through all the various moves and upgrades. Components have come and gone, and the current component setup uses those same big Pioneer speakers, plus a couple great sounding book shelf speakers at the other end of the room, and a AIWA combination CD/cassette player, together with what was literally hundreds of CDs and vinyl albums. That was until I purchased my first iPod in late 2005, which forced me to rethink of my audio life, with my computer becoming the focal point.
I soon began loading the vinyl albums and CDs into iTunes, and scanning my own album art. Within a short period I filled the 30GB iPod. A concurrent review of the vinyl and CD collection revealed several that were not really keepers, and several that were one-trick ponies with a single song being the reason for the original purchase. While keeping a realistic collection of vinyl and CDs, a local used-CD store bought the rest at a fair price, and I walked out with enough cash to buy a new 80GB iPod, which as I write this, is still only half filled with over 6000 songs.
Until it died, the iMac had been kept just for the tunes, connected to a set of Bose Companion 5 speakers. The combination of iTunes and the Bose speakers, along with the iMac (now replaced by the Dell PC) is essentially a great stereo, with edit capability, with more music readily available from several on-line sources including iTunes, Amazon, Jamendo, Last.fm, or whatever else strikes my fancy.
I can still crank up the volume and feel the music. The sound is so great that I haven't had my four-speaker component stereo even powered-on for over a year. And I can pick and choose the songs I want on iTunes, by artist, by album, by date added, by least played, by title, or completely random.
I use iTunes, but to be fair, a couple days ago I tried Zune, having noticed the recommendation given it by the newest Maximum PC magazine. It took Zune well over two hours to import the 6500 songs in the music collection, and after trying to use it to play particular songs, I think I'll stay with iTunes. I don't much care for Zune's look and feel. I have also tried using Windows Media Player, and MediaMonkey. [Update 2013: Although I liked it back in 2009, MediaMonkey has become so bloated and broken, that I uninstalled it and have begun using foorbar2000.]
The recent iTunes 8 for Windows update is giving me pause about continued use of Apple's product, and replacing it with MediaMonkey. I only need to figure out how to keep using my iPod as the portable player. With the silliness of Windows Media Player's whole "folder.jpg" and "AlbumSmallArt.jpg" thing, versus embedding the album art as part of the MP3 files, I know that I'm staying as far away from Windows Media Player as possible.
(First written in June 2009, as part of Mac and Me, It's Over; June 26, 2009)
(Update, 2013: This combination of hardware and software is no longer needed with the use of SoundTap from NCH.)
As expected, due to the changes in Vista versus XP and the way each handles sound, Total Recorder doesn't play nice with the integrated sound on the Dell, so I installed a Soundblaster X-Fi Extreme Audio sound card.
After numerous tries, Total Recorder still would not work as easily as I would prefer (too many senior moments in which I forget how I got it to work in the first place). Finally after reading numerous postings to various tech support groups, I decided to use the no-cost method of a miniplug patch cord between the speaker output on the Sound Blaster card, looping back to the motherboard's integrated microphone input plug.
The patch-cord fix works great, especially with the open source Audacity sound editing software. To use either Audition ($$$) or Audacity (free), I have to disable the Bose Companion speakers since their USB connection seems to confuse all other sound programs. I then enable a set of speakers connected to the Soundblaster sound card, and it all works as needed. I use a Y-adapter cord that allows use of the single speaker output to both the speakers and the patch cord for the input plug. As I said, it works great, all for the cost of a $6 patch cord.
When I'm done being creative, I disable the standard speakers, and enable the Bose speakers. (One small quirk: whatever sound application is running remembers which speakers are being used, no matter if they are disabled or enabled. So to change speakers, I need to shut the application down and restart it.)
I started out with my digital audio efforts back in January 2000, when I purchased a program called CoolEdit 2000, from Syntrillium Software Company. It was shareware, and I paid them a very minimal license fee. When I started recording from vinyl LPs in April 2001, I purchased their Audio Cleanup Plugin for filtering clicks and pops. In February 2003, I upgraded to the most recent versions of both the program and the plugin. In May 2003, Syntrillium sold the program to Adobe, who renamed it as Audition. I have version 3, but I doubt I'll be upgrading it. The program is still available, for a much higher price.
In May 2001, I wrote to the Observation Car discussion group:
Recently, I have been converting my Howard Fogg LPs into audio CDs. As I record the tracks into the computer using CoolEdit 2000, and set the cues for the tracks on the CDs, I get the opportunity to listen to each track numerous times. Fogg's narration for his tapes from the 1950s is great, and the sounds are truly treasures of the mind. I am also doing my Mobile Fidelity LPs, and listening to Mister D's Machine for the first time in many, many years brings back some great first generation memories.
Railroad Audio -- Information about the variety of vinyl LPs, cassettes and CD products that have been available, reproducing the sounds of railroading. It's all nice, but I especially appreciate the stuff from before all the excursion locomotives.
Working With Digital Video
Tech Talk -- Video -- How I do video.