Tuesday Feb 17, 2009

Start Believing in Artists, not the Music Industry

A few months ago, while driving home from the in-laws, we heard Normcast episode 119, a German podcast full of nice little fragments, pieces of music and other fun stuff. In this episode, Norman played Matthew Ebel's song "Everybody Needs a Robot" (lyrics, YouTube video) and, being the geek that I am, I liked it a lot.

Goodby Planet Earth Album CoverI asked Norman whether the song was podsafe, it turned out it was not, so I asked Matt directly for permission to use his song in a podcast. He kindly agreed and so we played it during HELDENFunk episode 22 around September 2008. As a way of saying "Thanks!" I bought Matt's latest album "Goodbye Planet Earth" off of CDBaby.com, a website where independent artists such as Matt can publish their own CDs without the need of a traditional record company.

Later, during an event called "Mission Future", which was part of Ars Electronica 2008, I watched a presentation from Pim Betist about a cool new website called "Sellaband". Sellaband is a crowdfunding website that brings musicians together with their fans (called "Believers") and help them raise real money ($50,000) to record an album in a high-quality studio, with professional producers and market it using a real distribution chain.

Now, the two powers have collied: Matt recently joined Sellaband and he's on his way to financing his next album there!

Why am I telling you all of this? Because this is the biggest shift in the entertainment industry since the introduction of recordable media.

Think of it: Now artists can create their own CDs, all by themselves, from writing the lyrics, writing the music, producing demos, connecting with fans, raising funds, managing production and selling their work, all without a single mention of what was formerly known as "the recording industry". While the RIAA and their likes are still behaving like little kids who have lost their toys, music artists have started to take control over their carreers and simply optimized away unnecessary intermediaries out of the equation.

Beer and Coffee Album CoverSo how does this work? A little bit like owning stock, but with more fun and better "dividends": The $50,000 budget that is needed to produce an artist's album is split into 5,000 "parts", at $10 each. For as little as $10 (1 part), you can become a "Believer" in an artist that is listed on Sellaband. Being a Believer gives you the right to receive a limited edition of that artist's album, once it is recorded. Think of it: This is cheaper than most regular CDs, so there's nothing to lose here. Actually, this is just where the fun starts: Each part entitles its owner to 0,01% of the album's revenue. So if you have a good "nose" for finding successful artists, you can even get some money back out of your investment! You can own more than one part and the more parts you buy, the nicer the perks become. From "Believer" (1 part) to "Promoter" (2 parts), "Publisher" (5 parts and you start earning publishing revenue), "V.I.P." (10), "Crew" (50), "Music Angel" (100) all the way to "Executive Producer" (1000 parts, free trip to the studio baby!). Check out the full "what's in it for me" list.

Back to Matt: His music is a modern version of songwriter-style piano rock. A little bit like Billy Joel, maybe with some Elton John thrown in, but with a modern twist: He likes to add loops, electronic sounds or samples into his songs to add to the atmosphere without them becoming distracting. The lyrics are insightful, full of life, spirit, humor and a little irony. Check out his bio for a much better description of him and his music.

But Matt is more than that: He is a leading example of how an artist can connect to his audience using Web 2.0: He has his own paid subscription service, sells his music online on iTunes, CDBaby and MySpace, including online merchandise on Spreadshirt.com, he blogs, has over 100 videos on YouTube and you can follow him on Twitter. His concert calendar is online and if you can't make it to one of his shows, you can watch him online on UStream. To me he's simply the Piano Man 2.0.

And now you can enjoy a part of his next album, too! Check out his profile on Sellaband.com and feel free to invest in his work.

BTW, Sellaband is a social network, too: You can check out my profile and add me as your friend there, too. Then we can together check out other great artist and change the way the music industry works, just by Believing in the artists we like.

Friday Oct 05, 2007

Getting Ready for Vegas: My Favourite Travel Gadgets

Tomorrow I'll fly to the CEC 2007 event in Las Vegas, like so many of my colleagues. CEC is Sun's annual Customer Engineering Conference where Service People and SEs from Sun gather to learn about the latest and greatest of technology.

Contrary to many of my colleagues, I love Las Vegas!  And I'm not a gambler... Over the past 10 years or so, I happened to be in Las Vegas for a couple of times before and I can assure you, it can be great fun if you just accept it for what it is: A place to have fun. My wife's and my favourite TV show CSI takes place in Las Vegas and every time I see those camera shots from the "Strip"

But work comes before fun and so I've spent the last weeks preparing a lot of stuff for the conference. Together with Dave, Franz, Matthias, and some others' we'll be backstage and act as message aggregators. For this project, I've been digging deeply into JavaFX Script and NetBeans. A most interesting experience, but more on that in a future blog entry.

The last piece of work before Vegas is the flight over the Atlantic. It'll be a 14 hour flight with a stop-over in Denver. Being a good Sun employee, I packed a couple of useful gadgets:

  • My iPod. Well, no surprise there. It'll have some of my favourite podcasts and all of my music. Don't worry, it only has music that I ripped myself from CDs I own. That's still more than 30GB, so why bother with more music than you can hear before the next generation of iPods becomes mandatory?
  • A pair of Shure in-ear headphones. Trust me, this is the best way to enjoy your iPod in an airplane and I've tried many. Sound-canceling headphones can be good, but they are bulky and I don't like killing the problem after the fact. I find it much more efficient, elegant and easy to not let the problem in in the first place. That's where in-ear headphones come in: They sit inside your ear canal and won't let the outside noise in. Plus, they are made from a company that usually deals with musicians, so the audio quality is really good, too. Really good. I can listen to soft music at a low, comfortable volume and hear a lot of details even though I'm on an airplane with all that noise around me.
  • A Nintendo DS Lite game console. I'm an old-school gamer, but I don't have much time for it. So why not play computer games on a long plane flight? Coach seat trays are just too small for laptops and Laptop batteries don't last longer than a couple of hours anyway, so game on! Some of my favourite games include:
    • Anno 1701 DS: A real-time strategy game. It places a lot of emphasis in the build-up aspect and less in the war&destroyment which is typical for the german computer game market. In other words: It feels much more like Sim City and less than Command&Conquer.
    • Pokemon Diamond: No, I'm not a 6-year-old kid, but this game is still fun as an adult. It has some RPG elements in addition to the typical round-based combat of the series and there's an incredible amount detail and complexity built into the game.
    • Elite Beat Agents: This is the funniest game I've seen in a long time. I think it may be better than Guitar Hero in many aspects, and it is portable. Check out one of the many videos on YouTube to catch a glimpse of how funny it is.
    • Nanostray: A classic space shoot-em-up. What can I say? I'm an old-school gamer...
  • A Zoom H2 portable audio recorder. I'll use it to interview people and produce a podcast from CEC. Watch this blog for details...
  • A Nokia E61i mobile phone. I finally submitted to peer pressure from my colleagues. And I must say, this is a great business phone! And the best thing is: It comes with SIP VoIP support over WLAN. This means I can call home from one of the CEC 2007 hotspots for free. Using my provider Sipgate, I can call to the US very cheaply. Imagine: Calling from the US to Germany back to the US for a couple of cent per minute thanks to the magic of VoIP...

This is it for now. It's 11:28 PM and the alarm clock is set to 5:00 AM. Gotta catch some sleep before I go...

Monday Aug 13, 2007

So, where's the future of HD Audio?

Gerald Beuchelt gives a nice overview of the two HD Audio formats SACD and DVD-Audio in his blog "Web Services Contraptions".

IMHO, the audio industry has two big problems with HD Audio:

  1. Too few consumers/retailers/publishers care about HD Audio turning it into a small niche,
  2. this niche is scattered across many different formats.

Let's look at the first point for a second: Since the introduction of the CD, the consumer has been conditioned into thinking that 16 Bit/44.1 kHz is "good enough" to present audio to the human ear in a quality that is indistinguishable from the real thing. At the time (the 80s) it made sense from a marketing perspective as a successful industry effort to introduce a major new medium. But the truth is that neither 16 Bit dynamic resolution nor 44.1 kHz frequency range is really enough:

  • According to this table (though this other table is more fun), A symphonic orchestra reaches a sound level of 110 dBA, a rock concert 120 dBA (which is the threshold of pain). Yes, a good classical piece of music at high volume can be a lot of fun, I recommend Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" for your first steps into classical pogo-music, but I digress.
    The CD's 16 Bit of resolution allow the representation of signals with up to 96 dB of dynamic range, so emulating a symphonic orchestra is out of the question. Ok, your comfortable volume may be less than 96 dB, but if you want to listen to a highly dynamic piece of music (a piece of music that both contains very low-volume and very high volume pieces) and enjoy a good SNR, then the CD is pushed to its limits. Most professional audio equipment therefore agrees to use 24 Bit encoding.
  • 44.1 kHz of sampling frequency allows the accurate representation of sounds up to 22.050 kHz which is indeed beyond the human auditory range, but this is not enough: The more a high-pitch tone approaches the sampling frequency, the less possibilities there are to encode it's phase. Phase differences between the two stereo channels are very important: Your ears and your brain use them to derive the exact location of the sound. The CD resolution of 44.1 kHz only allows for the accurate representation of phase difference in the range of .05 milliseconds, which is less than what your ears can actually measure. In other words: If you listen to your classical favourite CD, but can's quite make out where on the stage a flute is playing, it may be that you need more than 44.1 kHz sampling rate.
    Another problem with 44.1 kHz sampling rates is that they do not allow to represent overtones higher than 22.050 kHz. This affects the fine nuances that distinguish high quality instruments from regular ones. That Stradivari might sound like a cheap replica if you're listening to it from a regular CD.
  • In addition, CDs only allow to store 2 channels (stereo) of audio. Anybody who has enjoyed a live concert, either rock or in a music hall, can experience that real life has more than two front channels.

The bottom line: Your ears and your hearing system in the brain is a remarkably accurate measuring system for audio signals and the CD does not do it justice. Check out this great article on "Music and the Human Ear" for some more amazing insights.

So, issue #1 is that the average consumer thinks CDs are good enough, CDs are it and why should they invest money in something that claims to sound better? Especially when people today are using MP3 to massacre their sound save valuable storage space. They don't know what they're missing!

Issue #2 is non-technical, non-biological, but purely business-related: High definition audio formats have been at war with each other since a long time. Here is a selection of what's available today:

  • Vinyl: Yes, they are still alive and there's a big community of people who will swear that their vinyl records sound much better than CDs when played on proper equipment. Some factors here are related to the limitations of CDs vs. analog recordings, some are purely psychological, but altogether, the Vinyl market is still there (just search for "vinyl" on Amazon) and it apparently is worth doing business with.
  • SACD: SACDs go beyond traditional digital PCM encoding by using a form of encoding called DSD, which essentially means using a very, very high sampling frequency (2.8 MHz) and recording a single bit that tells you if the wave has been going down in amplitude or up since the last sampling. Hybrid SACDs are backwards-compatible to CDs and they can store music both in stereo and in surround sound.
  • DVD-A: DVD-Audio is a format that competes directly with SACD. It goes beyond the 16-Bit/44.1 kHz specification of the CD and offers up to 24 Bit/192 kHz of pure audio pleasure. Both stereo and surround sound are available but there's no backward-compatibility with CDs. DVD-Audio discs may have an additional channel with Dolby Digital encoded music that makes them backward-compatible with regular DVDs, at the expense of audio quality.

All three of the above enjoy a small niche market where any particular music piece may or may not be available in one or more of the above formats. But the future is even more flawed:

  • Media choice: The war between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD has only just begun. Both media types offer HD-Audio using a variety of codecs (see below), but there is no agreement on which one has to be present on each disc. Consumers therefore are confused on what kind of player to buy and most will probably wait and see who wins.
  • Codec choice: Assuming there was no Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD war, the next level of confusion is what HD-Audio codec to choose from: Dolby and DTS are fighting for the better HD codec adoption, while other alternatives include Sony's DSD (see SACD) which is rumored to be expanded and Meridian Lossless Packing (MLP), the codec behind DVD-Audio.
  • Audio Connection Hell: We haven't talked yet about how to connect your media player to your multi-channel amplifier/receiver. With good reason: This article is already becoming longer than I intended it to be. Suffice to say: Connecting a high resolution media player with an amplifier is a non-trivial task. You either have to use standard analog connections (which is difficult to do properly and kinda makes the whole point of digital high-quality music moot) or you may or may not be able to use a digital connection (depending on the proprietaryness of the codec, or the HDMI version, or whether your media player is from the same manufacturer than your receiver). The reason here has mostly to do with copy protection: If high resolution audio travels over a digital cable losslessly, the media industry wants to make it 100% sure it does so in an encrypted form to prevent copying.

So, issue two can be summarized as: The market for high resolution audio is already a small niche, and thanks to media wars, codec wars and connection/copy-protection wars, it split up into many confusing and even smaller sub-markets that make the hen-and-egg problem of introducing a new standard an unneccessarily hard factor, if not impossible.

Bottom line: So you've learned that the grass beyond 16-Bit/44.1 kHz can be greener, but the fence to overcome is unneccesarily high and thorny.

Gerald and I both love music in high resolution formats. Hell, we're even willing to spend more money on equipment and media because we know we'll get better quality, while our ears still can hear it. We may be part of a small niche, but I would argue that high-end niches are good and offer a nice business opportunity to both equipment vendors and content companies. So why, oh why is the industry making it so hard to hear your favourite music at a better than average sound quality?

Gerald's latest post is about Linn records, a company that offers high resolution, high-quality audio recordings on DVD-A, SACD, Vinyl and, tadah! as an electronic download. Kudos to them for being truly open and war-independent and forward-thinking in how they try to serve their customers. This evening I'll go to their website and download some music from them only for the sake of supporting this effort.

Happy listening! 


Friday Mar 30, 2007

Xing is Crossing

When creating our CSI:Munich ZFS Video, it became clear to us that music was going to play an important part. The unpacking Thumper scene and the building of the USB-Stick-Cluster scenes clearly demanded some fast paced techno music and the whole command-line session would have become quite boring without some light background music. All of this was quite easily done thanks to Garageband and as a result of this experience I ended up upgrading to Logic Express and an M-Audio Axiom 49 USB Keyboard Controller so I can try doing some real music for future projects.

But the title music had to be real. We needed a good, hand-made, progressive rock track that transports the spirit of ZFS. So I asked our colleague Tom Henzen who happens to be a drummer for a band called Xing. Xing is a new progressive rock band based in Munich that recently played together with  the good old-school rockers from Nazareth.

We listened to a couple of tracks from their latest CD "Independence", which is a great album. There were a number of candidates that really stood out becuase of their great sound and spirit, so we had quite a difficult choice. In the end, we went for their song "Don't want to live without you". What better way to describe ZFS in just 7 words!

Again, many thanks to Tom and Xing, you did an awesome album!


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