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Eric Larson

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Lately I've been trying to rid my life of as many physical artifacts as possible. I'm with Merlin Mann on CDs:

Can't believe how quickly CDs went from something I hate storing to something I hate buying to something I hate merely existing.

Although I'd extend that line of thinking to DVDs as well. The death of physical media has some definite downsides, but after owning certain movies once on VHS, then on DVD, and finally on Blu-Ray, I think I'm now at peace with the idea of not owning any physical media ever again, if I can help it.

My current strategy of wishing my physical media collection into a cornfield involves shipping all our DVDs to Second Spin via media mail, and paying our nephew $1 per CD to rip our CD collection using Exact Audio Copy and LAME as a summer project. The point of this exercise is absolutely not piracy; I have no interest in keeping both digital and physical copies of the media I paid for the privilege of owningtemporarily licensing. Note that I didn't bother ripping any of the DVDs because I hardly ever watched them; mostly they just collected dust. But I continue to love music and listen to my music collection on a daily basis. I'll donate all the ripped CDs to some charity or library, and if I can't pull that off, I'll just destroy them outright. Stupid atoms!

CDs, unlike DVDs or even Blu-Rays, are considered reference quality. That is, the uncompressed digital audio data contained on a CD is a nearly perfect representation of the original studio master, for most reasonable people's interpretation of "perfect", at least back in 1980. So if you paid for a CD, you might be worried that ripping it to a compressed digital audio format would result in an inferior listening experience.

I'm not exactly an audiophile, but I like to think I have pretty good ears. I've recommended buying $200+ headphones and headphone amps for quite a while now. By the way: still a good investment! Go do it! Anyhow, previous research and my own experiments led me to write Getting the Best Bang for Your Byte seven years ago. I concluded that nobody could really hear the difference between a raw CD track and an MP3 using a decent encoder at a variable bit rate averaging around 160kbps. Any bit rate higher than that was just wasting space on your device and your bandwidth for no rational reason. So-called "high resolution audio" was recently thoroughly debunked for very similar reasons.

Articles last month revealed that musician Neil Young and Apple's Steve Jobs discussed offering digital music downloads of 'uncompromised studio quality'. Much of the press and user commentary was particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of uncompressed 24 bit 192kHz downloads. 24/192 featured prominently in my own conversations with Mr. Young's group several months ago.

Unfortunately, there is no point to distributing music in 24-bit/192kHz format. Its playback fidelity is slightly inferior to 16/44.1 or 16/48, and it takes up 6 times the space.

There are a few real problems with the audio quality and 'experience' of digitally distributed music today. 24/192 solves none of them. While everyone fixates on 24/192 as a magic bullet, we're not going to see any actual improvement.

The authors of LAME must have agreed with me, because the typical, standard, recommended, default way of encoding any old audio input to MP3 …

lame --preset standard "cd-track-raw.wav" "cd-track-encoded.mp3"

… now produces variable bit rate MP3 tracks at a bitrate of around 192kbps on average.

Encspot-omigod-disc-3

(Going down one level to the "medium" preset produces nearly exactly 160kbps average, my 2005 recommendation on the nose.)

Encoders have only gotten better since the good old days of 2005. Given the many orders of magnitude improvement in performance and storage since then, I'm totally comfortable with throwing an additional 32kbps in there, going from 160kbps average to 192kbps average just to be totally safe. That's still a miniscule file size compared to the enormous amount of data required for mythical, aurally perfect raw audio. For a particular 4 minute and 56 second music track, that'd be:

Uncompressed raw CD format51 mb
Lossless FLAC compression36 mb
LAME insane encoded MP3 (320kbps)11.6 mb
LAME standard encoded MP3 (192kbps avg)7.1 mb

Ripping to uncompressed audio is a non-starter. I don't care how much of an ultra audio quality nerd you are, spending 7× or 5× the bandwidth and storage for completely inaudible "quality" improvements is a dagger directly in the heart of this efficiency-loving nerd, at least. Maybe if you're planning to do a lot of remixing and manipulation it might make sense to retain the raw source audio, but for typical listening, never.

The difference between the 320kbps track and the 192kbps track is more rational to argue about. But it's still 1.6 times the size. Yes, we have tons more bandwidth and storage and power today, but storage space on your mobile device will never be free, nor will bandwidth or storage in the cloud, where I think most of this stuff should ultimately reside. And all other things being equal, wouldn't you rather be able to fit 200 songs on your device instead of 100? Wouldn't you rather be able to download 10 tracks in the same time instead of 5? Efficiency, that's where it's at. Particularly when people with dog's ears wouldn't even be able to hear the difference.

But Wait, I Have Dog Ears

Of course you do. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Personally, I think you're a human being full of crap, but let's drop some science on this and see if you can prove it.

On-the-internet-nobody-knows-youre-a-dog

When someone tells me "Dudes, come on, let's steer clear of the worst song ever written!", I say challenge accepted. Behold The Great MP3 Bitrate Experiment!

As proposed on our very own Audio and Video Production Stack Exchange, we're going to do a blind test of the same 2 minute excerpt of a particular rock audio track at a few different bitrates, ranging from 128kbps CBR MP3 all the way up to raw uncompressed CD audio. Each sample was encoded (if necessary), then exported to WAV so they all have the same file size. Can you tell the difference between any of these audio samples using just your ears?

1. Listen to each two minute audio sample

Limburger
Cheddar
Gouda
Brie
Feta

2. Rate each sample for encoding quality

Once you've given each audio sample a listen – with only your ears please, not analysis softwarefill out this brief form and rate each audio sample from 1 to 5 on encoding quality, where one represents worst and five represents flawless.

Yes, it would be better to use a variety of different audio samples, like SoundExpert does, but I don't have time to do that. Anyway, if the difference in encoding bitrate quality is as profound as certain vocal elements of the community would have you believe it is, that difference should be audible in any music track. To those who might argue that I am trolling audiophiles into listening to one of the worst-slash-best rock songs of all time … over and over and over … to prove a point … I say, how dare you impugn my honor in this manner, sir. How dare you!

I wasn't comfortable making my generous TypePad hosts suffer through the bandwidth demands of multiple 16 megabyte audio samples, so this was a fun opportunity to exercise my long dormant Amazon S3 account, and test out Amazon's on-demand CloudFront CDN. I hope I'm not rubbing any copyright holders the wrong way with this test; I just used a song excerpt for science, man! I'll pull the files entirely after a few weeks just to be sure.

You'll get no argument from me that the old standby of 128kbps constant bit rate encoding is not adequate for most music, even today, and you should be able to hear that in this test. But I also maintain that virtually nobody can reliably tell the difference between a 160kbps variable bit rate MP3 and the raw CD audio, much less 192kbps. If you'd like to prove me wrong, this is your big chance. Like the announcer in Smash TV, I say good luck – you're gonna need it.

So which is it – are you a dog or a man? Give the samples a listen, then rate them. I'll post the results of this experiment in a few days.

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Walt's People

Over the last seven years, with quiet persistence and unwavering dedication, French animation historian Didier Ghez has been publishing one of the most important animation history documents of our time. His book series, Walt’s People: Talking Disney With The Artists Who Knew Him, is an incredible accomplishment that casts new light onto the operation of the Walt-era Disney Studios. Each edition of this ever-growing interview anthology series reprints rarely seen and unpublished interviews with Disney artists, both famous and unknown.

Didier’s newest volume, the eleventh in the series, is also the largest to date, weighing in at over 600 pages. The historians who have contributed interviews are a who’s who of Disney research royalty. The volume is expansive and extends to a handful of contemporary figures who didn’t personally know Walt (Ed Catmull, Brad Bird, Glen Keane), but who have absorbed the Disney tradition into their work.

In fact, the sheer scale and scope of this volume guarantees something for everybody. The interview subjects are Ray Aragon, Frank Armitage, Brad Bird, Carl Bongirno, Roger Broggie, George Bruns, Ed Catmull, Don R. Christensen, Andreas Deja, Jules Engel, Joe Hale, John Hench, Mark Henn, John Hubley, Glen Keane, Ted Kierscey, Ward Kimball, I. Klein, Mike Lah, Eric Larson, Ed Love, Daniel MacManus, Tom Nabbe, Carl Nater, Dale Oliver, Walt Pfeiffer, Jacques Rupp, David Snyder, Iwao Takamoto, Shirley Temple, Frank Thomas, Ruthie Tompson, and Richard Williams.

Walt’s People #11 is available for $25 on Amazon and you’d be wise to add the rest of the series to your library as well. Didier has provided us some excerpts from the new book, offering a glimpse of the hundreds of stories that can be found in the book. Read them after the jump.

Ruthie Tompson by Didier Ghez (Dec. 21, 2007)
DG: There is a famous anecdote about Snow White that the girls who were painting Snow White would apply real makeup on her cheeks.

RT: Oh! That’s right, they did. We had one girl, her name was Helen Ogger… They all tried it, and she was the only one that was really successful at it, so she got to put the blush. Before she came to work at Disney, I understand that she was a cartoonist, like cartoon strips and things like that, in the newspaper. We had quite a few talented girls, but they were relegated to the Inking Department. Girls didn’t animate at the time. It was all a man’s game.

John Hubley by John Culhane (c. 1973)
JC: Do you remember when Frank Lloyd Wright came to the Studio? Did you see that film he had with him?

JH: Czar Durandei. It had a big influence on us guys who later became UPA. It was Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s first film, one of his early films. He was a young rebel in those days. He made this very avant-garde kind of thing, highly designed. It was in the, I suppose you can call it expressionist style, the kind of style from the Twenties and Thirties. It was so modern and fresh and violated so many of the totems. Shostakovich score, too, that was modern, exciting. It was a two-reeler. There was a marvelous eating scene, a big banquet, a long pan and all kinds of different types of faces, all eating in different ways. That was so funny. There was a minimum amount of animation.

You remember John Rose? He was a P.R. man and he was also working in and out of story meetings, but essentially his job was cultural relations. He’s the guy who, if somebody visited, he would show them through. So he had heard about this film that Frank Lloyd Wright got. He’d read or heard somewhere that the Russian government had given him a print of this thing when he was a guest over there. Wright went over there in the early Thirties. And so [Rose] wrote him and said, “We at the Disney Studio have heard about this and are very much interested if you would see your way clear to lending us the print.”

So next thing he knows he gets a telephone call, “This is Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Rose. I’ve just arrived in Los Angeles. I have the print with me. I would like to come out and show it to Mr. Disney. I’ll be out this afternoon.”

Now the rumors were around that Disney was going to build a new studio. Wright got wind of that. It made a lot of sense to him that he should design it. Rose was frantic. He went to see Walt’s secretary. She said, “He is in a big meeting and nobody goes in there.” But she let him go in there and Walt is in the middle of a story conference, which is sacrosanct. [Rose] kneels down next to Walt’s chair and says, “We’re gonna get a visitor coming this afternoon. Frank Lloyd Wright is coming up.” And Disney says, “Jesus Christ, who’s Frank Lloyd Wright?” So he had to explain who Frank Lloyd Wright was and Disney says, “Oh, yeah!”

So [Rose] set it up. [Wright] came out, the big man himself, white hair, and Disney said hello to him. And they had this projection with all the story guys and the top brass. They ran Snow White footage for him, pencil-test stuff. They had a reel of Fantasia, too, and they had Sorcerer’s Apprentice in pencil test. And he went, “Well, that’s magnificent. That is exactly the way you should do it”. And Disney said, “You have a film to show us?” “Oh yes, yes.” “Put the film on.” The lights came up and nobody said a word. Frank said, “Walt Disney, you too can be a prophet!” And Disney said, “What, Jesus Christ, you want me to make films like that?!” [Laughs]

Ray Aragon by Didier Ghez (Feb. 23 and March 5, 2009)
DG: Did you interact a lot with Walt Peregoy?

RA: We were close friends. I can tell you [a story] right now. I can tell you for sure. I was there and I saw it. We did the drawing on paper and that drawing was transferred to the cel, as you know, by Xerox. We had to layout in line drawing on the cel. The idea was to paint on a board the color. Then put the layout drawing, which was on cel, over the painted background, which was on an illustration board. We couldn’t find the answer. The answer that we got at first looked like a comic book. It looked like a cheap comic book. Then the Background Department tried this and they tried that. It didn’t work. This went on for some time. Then finally Walt Peregoy took the painting style of Raoul Dufy. Walt Peregoy took the style where you paint beyond the line. Where you just ignore the lines and paint over and beyond. It looks like nothing. But when you put the line on the thing, there it is.

So what Walt did was he took an illustration board and he made color swatches this way and that way and every which way. But of course using the line drawing as the guide, but never going right up to the line of the drawing. Sometimes overlapping the line. If you look at Walt Peregoy’s color on the illustration board, you saw this crazy stuff that almost makes sense. But it didn’t really make sense. But when you put the cel with the line drawing, it was beautiful. Walt Peregoy was the man who discovered and styled the background technique for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. That I know because I saw it. I saw it happen right before my eyes. He solved it.

Ed Catmull by Didier Ghez (April 20, 2011)
DG: If I move up quite a few years, in 1972 you are studying with Professor Sutherland. And I think that is when you really have your first contact with Disney. Right?

EC: Yes, Ivan [Sutherland] wanted to send a student to go to Disney and then have an animator from Disney come to Utah. I was sent as the student because of my interest in animation. I went out to Burbank and met with Bob Gibeaut, who was Head of the Studio. I remember they had to clear the Studio that day because there was a bomb threat.

I also met Frank Thomas in his office. I remember seeing his old typewriter which I thought was there as an antique, but it was actually the typewriter that he still used. This, of course, was in the Animation building.

It turns out the Studio was not terribly interested in making the exchange, because they didn’t see any relevance of computer animation to them. What they were really interested in was hiring me at WED (now Walt Disney Imagineering).

Cartoon Brew: Leading the Animation Conversation |
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