Blasting Mastering

I recently purchased my copy of Imagine Dragons Night Visions.  I know, it’s two years old, but I’m a careful music buyer.

After ripping the CD to ALAC, I was enjoying listening to my new jams when I started getting a little concerned.  It sounded like my speakers were being over-driven by the tracks, which makes me a little nervous.  Nervous enough to look into it.

What I found was tracks that were recorded using methods that produced large flat runs of full-volume waveforms.  This is what you might call “almost clipping” and is a fairly serious problem for audio hardware. 

Portion of ALAC file from Radioactive.Here are a couple of screenshots, the first is of a portion of my ALAC file.  It shows the volume levels are constantly pounding the limits.

I’ve seen this in several recordings over the last decade or so.  It is a technique used, I think, to produce a certain fat sound that sounds pretty cool. 

Here’s the other screenshot I wanted you to see.  It’s from Amazon’s MP3 rip that was made available to me when I bought the CD.  It’s almost the exact same place in the track.Same place in Radioactive from Amazon MP3. 

The red color in this one shows places where the signal is clipped.  Both screenshots show levels that are unusually high.  Amazon’s ripping process, because it re-processes the signal, actually introduces clipping where the lossless ALAC process does not.  However, both files produce an almost identical physical effect on hardware.

The dark blue areas in these screenshots represent the peak volume levels in the music.  These levels relate to the amount of power the amplifier is sending to the speakers as well as how long those power levels are kept up.

Here is a third screenshot to help illustrate what I’m saying.Zoomed in to see square wave in Radioactive.  Here I’ve zoomed way in to show the waveform and you can see the broad flat area in the line.  That can be called a square wave or it could be called clipping, depending on whether it runs past the edge of the window (which represents the limits of reproduction of sound, to a major degree).

Is this necessarily bad?  It depends.  If your audio system is well balanced, meaning the speakers and the amplifier are right for each other, and if you have good heavy gauge wiring which can handle the increased duration of higher power cycles, you’re probably OK.

If, on the other hand, your amp is under-powered or you’re using cheap, thin wire, you might suffer some damage if you play this at a high volume level. 

The bottom line: I wish there was some better way of getting the cool fat sound without pushing my hardware this way.  I’m inclinded to think this sort of stuff is the result of lazy or uninformed sound engineers being pushed by artists who maybe don’t know what they are doing to the equipment.  Or maybe they just don’t care.  Either way, I wish professional audio people would stop doing this.



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A Mac in My Linux Office – Three Weeks In

It’s been over three weeks since I bought this Late 2013 MacBook Pro.  I thought I’d jot down a few impressions.  For any Apple fans, this will be a lot of ‘duh’ and ‘ye-ah’.  For some of you who have never owned an Apple product, it might offer an insight or two.

Things I Really Like

The Display – There is no doubt but that this Retina Display is a winner.  I want to call it ‘balanced’.  For me, the pixel density is the beginning point.  The backlighting, contrast and even the material used in the transparent layer I look through all work together to make the display easy to look at.  This 15″ version is big enough to make it easy to see small fonts and details without straining.

The Form Factor – This machine is incredibly light and thin for such a full-featured computer.  For the first few days I thought it didn’t have any moving parts at all.  There’s no hard drive (500GB SSD) and no CD/DVD/BD drive.  It made no noise at all for the first week I had it.  It was only when I was pushing the graphics doing some CAD work that I heard the whisper of a fan.

The placement of hardware inside the case puts heat toward the display and away from my wrists.  On some laptops I’ve owned over the years, a lot of heat was generated right near the front edge where my wrists lay when typing.  (I know, not good typing form.)  Not so on this Mac.  The front edge stays cool.

Good decisions were made about what to add and what to leave off.  Instead of loading the machine down with every kind of interface possible, Apple decided to go with fast and flexible interfaces, and leave specifics for dongles to handle.  Two Thunderbolt 2 connectors, which are physically the same as the Mini-DisplayPort connector, allow me to connect hardwired Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, DVI, external disk drives, and who knows what else.   Two USB 3.0 ports take care of anything I have that needs USB.  A combination mic/headphone jack, HDMI and a SD card slot round out the ports on the machine.

The Integration – In 1991 a friend and co-worker introduced me to his weird little square computer called a Macintosh.  I was put off at first by the odd shape and tiny display.  But I was impressed by the graphical interface and its ability to connect to so many peripherals so easily.  Of course, I couldn’t let on, but I was a little jealous.  I had MS-DOS computers and had access to a copy of Windows 1.1 (free to me because nobody else wanted it).  Like all good DOS geeks, I firmly believed anything I needed to do, I could do in DOS.  My buddy could too, and he could do it more easily.  He knew it, and I knew it.

Since then, the Apple product line continued to earn a reputation summed up in the phrase, “it just works.”  That is true, and spending time with this machine over the past few weeks has brought to me a fuller understanding of what that means.  I get the sense that nobody at Apple ever says, “that’s good enough.”  That helps explain why these things are so expensive.  Again . . . duh.  Mac users are spoiled by the fact they can just do things without worrying about compatibility, interoperability and such.  If it’s Apple certified, it just works.  Of course there are ocassional hiccups, but nothing in life is one hundred percent.

Terminal – The fact that OSX is based on BSD makes it a Unix cousin to Linux.  I find it very easy to move around and work in the Terminal.  Many of the commands and utilities I rely on are present and work the same way.  That’s just freakin’ awesome!

Things I’m not so Crazy About

The Keyboard – After decades of using the ‘standard PC’ keyboard, I am still finding it a little irritating to use this one.  The lack of PgUp, PgDn, Home and End keys frustrates me.  I am learning to use the key combinations to do these things, but it’s irritating.

Default Apps – To be honest, mainly it’s just Numbers that I don’t like.  It looks like something PlaySkool would make for children to use in first grade.  I have LibreOffice installed now, so it’s really a moot point, I suppose.  Safari is OK and the text editor is fine.  Mail works great, as does iMessage.

So Then . . .

There’s a lot to love about the Late 2013 MacBook Pro with Retina, except maybe that moniker.  My list of not-likes sounds more like whining than actual complaints.  This machine is going to be a strong member of my computing staff for the next five years or so.  So, don’t worry friends.  Once I get over the price, I’ll be fine. 

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