Friday, August 15, 2008


Graphs can visually demonstrate a lot of things. I found this site called GraphJam where people submit their funny ones, so of course I had to make one myself. Here is mine. Thanks Coolio!

Sounds Good Enough?

About a year ago, and shortly after I got my car that has an integrated XM Satellite Radio tuner, XM did some processor upgrades that greatly improved the sound quality on their music channels. With the built in radio in my Hyundai Santa Fe, they even sound downright good. The talk and information channels are another story altogether. The traffic and weather channels are barely listenable, but that doesn't bother me since they are not meant to be listened to for more than a couple of minutes at a time; and they don't have a Denver station anyway.

So, I have to wonder, what will the newly merged Sirius XM Satellite Radio service do to XM? Will the quality go in the crapper? If it does, I likely won't resubscribe, as why should I pay for junky sound? I will say, I loved having XM during April's trek across Texas on the road trip to Houston. Even in the middle of nowhere, I had 170+ channels of reception as good as I get in town. Also, the leftie political channel was a welcome relief, as finding something on the order of Air America in the heart of Bush's home state over the air is an exercise in futility.

But lets get back to sound quality. I believe that rather than even knowing what quality sounds like, Americans are getting used to "good enough" sound. Yes, there are conveniences to compressed MP3 files, compressed satellite radio, voice over internet protocol services (ala Vonage), and iffy cellular phone services. It appears we are willing to trade audio quality for ubiquity and convenience. To some extent, so am I. However, I am wondering if there is a place left for the audiophile. A harbor for someone who knows what an analog recording pressed on high quality vinyl and played through a quality amplifier and speakers even sounds like? Even with the inevitable pops that happen when a record gets scratched, there are no bit sample rate issues with analog, which renders a perfect waveform. After all, our ears are analog, not digital. And do the younger folk of today even know where the idiomatic expression, "He/She sounds like a broken record" comes from? (Of course, this way of describing someone who repeats themselves incessantly comes from a scratch or break that causes the stylus to jump back to the previous groove and constantly replay the same loop).

Am I the only one who misses the experience of pulling a pristine vinyl 33-1/3 RPM record album out of the cover, smelling the fresh vinyl, and reading the liner notes that had ample room on the cover of those 12" disks? Even the manufacturing process was quite an amazing thing. An analog wave was cut into wax which was used to mold a metal "mother" disk. The mother had grooves that were ridges standing up, and when pressed into hot vinyl, could replicate thousands of freshly-minted recordings. One groove could contain stereophonic sound since each side of the groove contained one channel of information, and the stylus cartridge could detect the difference in motion as the surface of the record passed by.

This also makes me wonder if there are very many radio DJs left working in the business who remember queuing up a record on a turntable. You would spin the turntable to find the point in the groove where the music started, then back off a quarter turn so that the table was up to its play speed before hitting the first note after you hit the switch. How many would even make sense of the neophyte mistake and horrifying sound of queuing up a record at the wrong speed and not noticing until it went out on the air?

During the Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s, many records began to be pressed on cheaper plastic rather than quality vinyl. The material was more like Bakelite than vinyl, as it was hard, brittle, and overall poor quality. Usually it was the 45 RPM singles that had this issue. These records were very susceptible to "queue burn", or scratching up the record where the music started during the queuing process, causing the song to start with an audible scratchy background. During this time, it became more common to copy a fresh record to a broadcast tape cartridge, or cart. I remember having to go out and buy new copies of hit records at the music store due to queue burn.

Now where did I put my Spirit of '67 album by Paul Revere and The Raiders?