Digital Audio that is Good Enough
Another airplane flight, another blog post. This one is about the “new modes” of audio delivery. As many of my readers know I work in the audio industry, I do not often blog about it as I am concerned about the impact my comments could have. Not that I would get in trouble with my employer, heck I was looking for a job when I got this one; but more that people would take my comments and opinions as if I was speaking for my employer. So let my blog, my domain, my opinions, written in my nonworking hours and me unequivocally state that these are my personal thoughts and opinions.
The new mode of delivery I am thinking of is digital distribution of audio products. I purchase music as a digital format less often than most people think. The reason is that most delivery methods are compressed. I believe that compression should be applied judiciously. Not all compression is bad, as I sit listening to music on my iPod on a plane. I decided the quality of music is the item I want for this application.
That is the key; the application is that I want to travel with a large selection of music. It does not have to be pristine as the listening environment is less than pristine. I do however want for airplane flights and time in hotels to be able to have music. I do not always know what kind of music I am going to want to listen to three days from now. I would rather have the selection at a compression ratio that I find appropriate.
I am purposefully omitting numbers, as too often when numbers are listed it becomes a contest by numbers, such as one saying that they will only listen to music at 96kHz sample rate. When I ask why, the answer is often well it is a higher number it must be better. I wonder if that person would be able to tell the difference between 48kHz and 96kHz recordings in the listening conditions I am currently in; a tin can traveling through the air at 300mph with an internal ambient noise of 70dB SPL A weighted through noise canceling ear buds. Probably not so easily, I am not going to say it is impossible; I am going to say it is improbable. I believe and can hear that there is a difference between sample rates in other environments.
At the same time, other listening environments that are acceptable applications for compressed audio for some people are not for me. In my car I have CDs loaded in the changer and a smaller election of non-compressed audio files on the attached iPod. In that environment I can hear a difference between the full quality and the compressed audio. I do not listen to satellite radio music channels in the car often as that compression annoys me and I can hear it. For other people they do not find it objectionable.
The key is that I am deciding. I can control how much compression and the amount of data that is important and acceptable to me. Often buying audio products as digital downloads that decision is someone else’s and I might not agree with it. Paying 99 cents for a compressed piece of music that is just for “fun” can make sense. Paying $15 for a digital download of a CD that is compressed as 11 separate songs versus buying the CD for $15 is something I will not do.
Why you may ask? I have done it, and I have regretted spending the money. The digital download has some audio artifacts that the CD does not. I then can also decide if I want to compress the audio to put it in another format. Not only that, I get to decide the compression protocol as MPEG3 is not always the best. If more people had uncompressed delivery methods I would buy more audio via digital distribution.
The key is to use the best test equipment that we have, our ears, to make the decision for yourself. The way I approach it, is your source should be as ideal as possible and then you have the control to decide what is acceptable compression tradeoffs.
Also please remember that one answer is not the right answer for everyone. The amount of compression that I find objectionable might be perfectly acceptable to someone else. So don’t turn your nose up and ruin other people’s enjoyment just because it doesn’t meet your standards. If people are having fun or the message is getting across isn’t the most important parts of audio being accomplished.
And yes my photographer friends the same thing can be said about JPEG compression. I start with RAW and then I decide how to impact the image as I process it to JPEG or other formats.
Making the interface work for me
Often times the controls for a piece of software are not the friendliest locations for one-handed operation. By one-handed operation I mean one hand on the keyboard, one hand on the mouse. When working in graphic programs I find myself working that way quite often. It could be as basic as a drawing program where I need to use the Z key to initiate the zoom function and then using the mouse to decide where to zoom. Other times it is more complex, such as selecting an image, zooming into a one pixel to one pixel rendering, panning, and then marking the image as a keeper or a chucker. It could just as likely be a drawing program where I am documenting an idea. For my #AVTweeps, just think AutoCAD.
Recently I found myself being sore at the end of an image review session from unnatural movements. My data management workflow is outlined at previous blog post. However looking at the actual process I began to find lots of moving of the hands. My review process is based around the use of Adobe® Photoshop® Lightroom® (quite the mouthful so Lightroom for short). The program itself is very powerful and does help me manage my images, pictures, and photos. The program lacks some ergonomics for the one handed user.
The way I cull images is I go into the library mode and review the images at a resolution to fit onto the screen. I then quickly look at it and decided if it is a Pick, Unmarked, or a Reject. These selections are done using the P U and X keys. Notice how they are laid out on the keyboard.
Not very easy to navigate with one hand. Now let’s say I want to zoom into an area, one can either use the mouse to enter a 1:1 view or press shift and spacebar to enter the same mode, then use the mouse to zoom to areas. I do this to see how much aberration is viewable and if it is in focus, once again I decide if it is a pick, unfledged, or rejected. Lightroom has a setting to advance to the next image after assigning a value to the image.
That setting seems like it would save time, and it does quite often. However if I want to assign two things to an image, I have to back up to the image. If I find an image of the same subject later in the batch that is better than a pick I decided on, I go back to unmarked the previously picked image. So now I have a few options. I can expose the filmstrip at the bottom of the application window and click on it with the mouse and then press U. If this image was just the previous image I can use the arrow keys. If you notice both of these options require me to take my right hand off the mouse and place it on the right half of the keyboard. Now I could also just use my left hand on the right side of the keyboard however that still means changing positions.
Let’s say I want to see if a crop makes an image better. An example of a crop changing an image happened at the baseball game I took pictures at, since I was sitting in the stands some of the images have the back of people’s heads in them. Cropping the heads out made the pictures better, but some were still chuckers not keepers. In Lightroom I enter crop mode by pressing R, this would enter Develop module, where I would use the mouse to make the crop. I would then finish with the crop. I would then want to mark the image as a keeper or chucker. I cannot do that in the Develop mode, I have to be in Library mode. To return to Library mode I would either take my right hand off the mouse to do the keyboard contortions or move the mouse away from the work area. Neither solution is very ergonomic.
There are keyboards available that are designed to fix some of these issues by changing the keyboard layout and having labels on the keyboard. However some are more expensive than the program itself. Also they are dedicated to the program, so I would still need my regular keyboard for such things as entering text. Not really an idea I was looking for.
I started thinking about it more and more and came up with a more practical solution in my not so humble opinion. I purchased a customizable gamer keypad, a Logitech G13 Programmable Gameboard with LCD Display as it is Mac compatible – yes it is also Windows compatible. (If you decide to buy one after reading my blog, using this link will give me a little commission.) This would let me decide how the keystrokes would be used. I could lay them out to my satisfaction.
I then determined what keys I used most. They are both left and right handed, and some of them require multiple hands, such as entering Library Mode (Command + Option + 1).
These main keys were then assigned to the keypad as I found would work best for me. (Drop me a line if you would like to copy of the configuration file.)
I had 200 plus images from a business trip and figured that would be a great way to test it out. So I went through the images, did the rating, cropping, and keywording in about an hour including uploading to a SmugMug gallery. There was another benefit that occurred that was unexpected, I was able to hide all of the tool palettes in Lightroom so the images were bigger on the screen during the review, remember bigger is better. I do not have exact times for similar tasks using the “standard” keyboard commands but the important thing is I was not sore and it was not as tiring to me.
The keypad allowed the thing that I think all tools should do, get out of the way and let me work. It did just that. Other than when I had to type in keywords, I used just the keypad and the mouse. I did not have to move my hands around the keyboard and mouse.
I also learned a couple more tricks in the process. I can use the keypad in more than one program, but keep the key functions the same. By key function I mean that the same key that sends an R to enter Crop mode in Lightroom can be configured to send a K in Photoshop or Command + K in Preview to perform the crop functions. The same key press to me, sends different keystrokes to the application. Much easier than having to remember all the different commands, similar to Cut, Copy, and Paste being the same in almost every program. That is a fine example of what I was trying to accomplish; cut (Command + X) copy (Command + C) and paste (Command + V) are not great mnemonic devices at first blush but the arrangement of the keys makes it very easy to use.