Ask AudioStream: How About the ABCs?

Reader Warren P. offered:
Dear Michael,

I recently found your site, and just in time too. I just started getting interested in computer audio. A nice feature idea that I do not see would be computer audio for the complete beginner like me - including simple definitions of key and common terms and what they mean in real world terms. (For the record I currently have the most recent iteration of the Mac Mini with the Core i5 and 8 GB of memory.)...

And I responded in part, "...What would you say are the top 3 things you find most confusing or would like an answer to (or have since found an answer to)?"

Here's Warren's response which I thought worth sharing in its entirety:

Hi Michael,

Good question. My apologies as I'm writing this somewhat "stream of consciousness" and my thoughts are evolving as I consider it. It has also turned out longer than I intended. It is one of those "How many grooves on a record?" questions. Starting though would seem to be an answer to the question, "What is Computer Audio?", a basic bedrock definition of what is meant by the term without any technical specifics. And that could be the sole topic for a first introductory article. I suspect most people are more interested in music than geekiness. Taking the complexities and reducing them to essence. Very simple essence.

(As an aside: "What makes it desirable?" It took a radical downsizing and having to get rid of my vinyl collection to get me looking seriously in this direction. So for me the answer was portability and the compact space requirements of a much reduced living space.)

The field has grown from nothing to something rather explosively. As a beginner I can tell that some of the considerations now beginning to gel have long been matters of interest to the vanguard of hobbyists and the inner circle but it built to critical mass below the level of awareness for everyone else, and then suddenly emerged seeming to have gained full form overnight. Of course it didn't but I digress. I know for myself that as recent as 18 months ago my attitude toward the subject was dismissive. "Computer audio? Harrummph! A bunch of kids with iPods and low quality mp3's with earbuds and crummy plastic speakers. Certainly not worth fussing with." Such a growth is likely to make a fair mess of things.

What constitutes the minimum necessary equipment to achieve acceptable sound quality? Something beyond basic low grade mp3s. Where is the entry point and how do the different pieces interconnect in the reproduction chain? What is the minimum chain for a computer based system? (A basic block diagram would be handy in explaining it.) That of course leads to my next thought which in turn intimately affects this one (and is one of the areas where I am still very dim). What does software such as "Pure Music" do for you that iTunes doesn't? Not the mechanics of it but what does it do for you that makes it worth having? What other software tools are handy and why? Again from my own experience - when I first began using a Word Processor I was thrilled, but now I have "Scrivener" - a specialized software tool designed with the fiction writer in mind.

Also off of the top of my pointy head related, I think, is sorting out the different formats. What the initials mean and where do they fit in the taxonomy of computer audio? As a former digital tech I understand the concept of sampling rate in reproducing an analogue wave form but most people do not. While I know that has been covered elsewhere in CD terms I would guess that for most people digital sampling is still "Greek". I know I've explained the concept more than once to others. Where my confusion now lies is sorting out the different standards in plain English - what a person needs to know to start to understand their significance in real audio terms. There of course it gets tricky again because you have to assume some common knowledge but for a beginner's guide, for dummies like me, it needs to begin at a rudimentary level much like a children's book. You don't assume a child knows what a "verb" is before you have taught them that there is such a thing as grammar. It is a gradient of short steps which eventually gets you to the next floor. Kind of like rebuilding a wave form (rimshot).

What is the optimal storage solution? Is it an expensive server or something else? With the introduction of Terabyte flash drives the picture suddenly becomes a bit more blurred. All hard drives eventually die (something I can vouch for from personal experience) so is solid state storage a better solution? While it has no moving parts to wear out there is the problem of cost and organization. As well you can only write and read from it so many times. I've thought of having a series of sticks organized by genre, but am not far enough along to have decided for myself. I know a small box of thumb drives takes up a lot less desk space than my CD collection. Which of course suggests - what is the best way to "rip" a CD?

Well, I've waxed overlong, but you did set "the little gray cells" to agitating. ;-)

Best Wishes,

Warren

As I said to Warren, each time I start in on any kind of beginner guide, I go off in too many directions to make sense of it. But I have renewed vigor and direction thanks to Warren.

If you have any ideas or suggestions related to a Beginner's Guide to Computer Audio, I'm all ears.

In the mean time, here are few "How To" articles that I have managed to eek out:

Getting Started With Computer Audio Part 1: Hardware
Getting Along With Streamers 101
Network Attached Storage (NAS)

COMMENTS
Boy Howdy's picture

Michael:

Asking users is a powerful way to develop an understanding of how they see whatever it is you're interested in (here, the ABCs of computer audio).  After all, who knows more about a user's experience than the user him-/herself?  And asking several will give you a reasonably good understanding of how their experience compares with yours.  So asking users about their experience with ______ will give you a realistic assessment of what they know and what they don't know.  

How you engage users is just as important and is not straightforward as the computer industry (for example) has repeatedly failed to understand.  They talk to users but only after they (the experts) have finished the design and then they ask if the user is "satisfied."  The user, who probably doesn't understand the context of the question will most likely respond that s/he is satisfied as that's clearly the desired answer and the user doesn't know enough to judge anyway (and most likely doesn't know enough to care)...  

"Why?" questions are also very unproductive because the user (remember - the person who has limited experience) will respond with something that will not make him/her look stupid or else will will say something that s/he thinks is what you are looking for.  I would recommend:  'What was it about ______ that led you to think _____?'  is a way to get the user to focus on his/her experience or feelings which is what they arre expert in, and that's what you are interested in finding out. 

So, in our expert culture, even though it is common practice, you shouldn't ask users 'what do you want?' because you make an assumption that the user sees the problem/issue sililarly to the way you see it.  The odds are strongly against any such congruity between you and a user especially if we are talking about a user with little or no experience in the problem/issue.  I think that Warren made a heroic effort to express what he doesn't know and I'll bet he did quite a bit of research beforehand so that he came across as serious and interested.  Bravo Warren!

I'll stop preaching, but there are many ways to engage users in conversation (as opposed to 'messaging') that will generate very interesting and useful insight into how users can help experts 'apply' their expertise effectively.  The most useful model is a conversation among interested and intelligent people.  The conversations evolves over time and more people (both experts and novices) engage.  

Mike

Michael Lavorgna's picture

For the thought-provoking comments.

So, in our expert culture, even though it is common practice, you shouldn't ask users 'what do you want?' because you make an assumption that the user sees the problem/issue sililarly to the way you see it.

...

The most useful model is a conversation among interested and intelligent people.  The conversations evolves over time and more people (both experts and novices) engage. 

I've found that having open Q&A sessions at hi-fi shows to be a good way of getting to know the kinds of issues people are interested in.

Cadfael's picture

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the kind words.

Yes, I have been doing a fair amount of research and the picture is beginning to clear a bit - I'm up to the point to knowing some of what I don't know, and that is progress. I'm at the point where all of the stuff I thought I was going to buy for my system is going on hold because, as I am sure you know, decisions require knowledge and I am learning how much I don't know.

Unlike my previous audio adventures this time around I'm doing more than just reading a few reviews, doing a little listening, and then buying the best my budget would allow. I'm also finding, as already alluded to, that digital/computer audio is a different game and one that is evolving rapidly under my feet. On one level that is fun and frustrating on another.

It is fun because it holds the promise of simplifying things (despite the RIAA) - not that we're there yet.

Frustrating in that the elements, and constant stream of new entries into the field, still holds for me the semblance of a whirling Kaleidoscope. With analogue I have a better idea of what I am doing. A turntable is in essence a simple device. I can listen to one and give a thumbs up or thumbs down or an "OMG". Not so yet with digital.

Oh, and having worked in Data Processing I understand users - except when I'm one myself. ;-)

whell's picture

The picture of a Michael Fremmer-type "how to" book on vinyl comes to mind. Only rather than releasing new editions every few years, you'd need to release new editions every few months!

Vincent Kars's picture

Using a computer as an audio source, you need programs to build and maintain your audio collection. Common task are: 

  • Ripping - transferring CDs to the hard disk.

    In general this requires 2 stages

    • ripping your entire CD collection
    • re-ripping it because now you have found out how to do it

    You have to choose an audio format. As a hundred buys you a terabyte of storage, I wouldn't settle for anything less than a lossless format.
    You have to choose your ripping software. EAC and dBpoweramp are the big names but popular players like WMP11 or iTunes can do the job too.

  • Tagging - adding information describing the music like title, artist, album, composer, etc.

    In general online databases provide this information.
    If you are tagging classical music using these databases, you have a problem.

  • Synchronizing - transferring your songs to a portable music player. Check if the player software supports transcoding.
     
  • Burning - transferring your songs from your HD to a CD.

    You can burn a true audio CD (Redbook audio) but a lot of CD players also support the MP3 format.

  • Recording - digitizing LP's, tape or live recordings, editing, mixing, etc.
     
  • Converting - there are many different audio formats. If the player of your choice doesn't support a certain format you must convert it.
     

  • Backup - Perform regular backups of all of your media. If you don’t, someday you’ll wish you did. Lots of people think they don’t need a backup because they have RAID. RAID protects you against a failure of a hard disk. It also stores all your user errors redundantly. No, RAID is not a backup.

  • Playing - navigate your collection, filtering, searching, building playlist, select the songs you want to hear.

Sounds impressive.

We even haven’t talked hardware yet

However, is it?

Is it really different from using Word, Excel, etc?

 I simply recommend starting.

Rip a couple of CDs, throw in some MP3s, hookup your PC to the stereo and fool around.

Media players aren’t that complex.

 Anyway my take on getting started can be found here: http://thewelltemperedcomputer.com/Intro/Starter.htm

PS: Micheal, if you object to the direct links to my site, let my know.

I will gladly remove them

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Giving people access to useful information is fine by me.

But thanks for asking Vincent.

digitalJam's picture

Hi Michael, I think what is daunting for beginners is the prospect of what initial gear to get. Especially since you have to buy sight unseen in most cases. What is the cheapest way, or the simplest way to start. And file types. It's difficult to know "Best Quality" and it is TOO EASY to end up using low quality, compressed files when you don't mean to, and then form a bad opinion of the sound. I have friends with good gear set to suboptimal performance. CD is easy. Get player, Get CD. Nothing else to worry about. With digital, What is the file format? What compression rate? Is it being upconverted, downconverted? After all the stages of the playback chain, what is the final actual resolution of what I'm hearing?

It's nice that newer DAC finally have incoming and outgoing signal indicators. Otherwise there would be no visual indication of what is going on.

To many people, these are hurdles they would rather just skip. Pandora w/ 64kbs is just easy. Press play, get sound.

For many that I've talked to, the hurdle to get to the last word in resolution is just to difficult.

A useful, beginning HOWTO guide needs to explicitly get a person going from ground zero even if it means recommending a certain product(s). It's comforting to know, buy this, do this, it'll work. Don't be afraid to put a stake in the ground.

The NAD 3020 and Sennheiser HD414 were once a great recommended pair of gear from Stereophile. Buy these together, you'll be happy. And it was true. They were quality kit.

If there is a way to recommend a setup where a user simply does not have to care about file type(wav, mp3) and compression(lossless, lossy, bitrate), and just focus on playing the music, that would be very good.

Most software setups I've seen start with lossy, MP3, initial setup and users have to know and figure out how to reset settings for highest quality.

Why do I need to know about WASAPI? The percentage of users who will never take this series of steps to ensure bit perfect playback is almost everyone.

Please: one button. "Press here for complete high quality playback chain" :)

Thanks for all the great articles Michael.

DigitalJam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cadfael's picture

You've hit the nail on the head. It is not just getting started it is "where do I begin". There is no one place I have found that gives a basic primer on, "What do I need to do to get started?". And certainly nothing in non-technical language. What is missing is "Step O" i.e., "This is what computer audio is at its most basic level". In essence an overview that provides simple explanations that can then be expanded upon as a person learns - the framework.

One minor quibble. I think that by definition anyone coming here to AudioStream is looking for more than just a different way to play MP3's. I know that is what got me looking. I'm not willing to settle for lossy MP3 when I know that there is much better to be had. It is getting to where I can do it that has been frustrating.

diehardindesert's picture

My hi res files will play on my Android phone ( and in my car via AUX ), as well as play on my computer via its soundcard. But I often like to play music, that is on my HDDs, over my network into the Oppo BDP-95 and let that machine's DACs output a signal to my stereo/HT setup.

The problem is, though, that I cannot seem to play 24-bit files,over the network. I'm thinking it must be a limitation of my computer; specifically Windows itself. The Oppo is certainly capable of handling those files, but for some reason when I go to play them the Oppo just won't.

Is there some driver or something that I need to install/or configure, on my PC, in order for me to make this happen?

Also, since we are talking about computers and OS's, would it be better, sonically, to install Linux instead of the current Windows 7? Out of the box, does one OS have any advantage over the other in terms of making the PC a better source for digital file playback? I know their is tweaking, etc that can help, but is there an OS optimized from the get go that would be the best suited for music.

Thanks, in advance.

Scott

Michael Lavorgna's picture
If not, this article may help.

In terms of OS, there is not best for audio.

diehardindesert's picture

Yes, it plays the majority of my files. They sound great. Lately, however I've been focusing on 24-bit FLACs. So far I haven't gotten it to play those. I'll check out the linked article. Thanks, Michael.

diehardindesert's picture

Let me clarify. I haven't gotten the Oppo to play those 24-bit files from the PC's HDDs, over the network. They definitely play from a USB drive attached directly to the Oppo. Sound great.

I looked over that link from oppodigital's FAQ. Currently, I use Universal Media Server. but I'll try oShare and see if that gives me any expanded capabilities.

Philippe's picture

I just bought a Simaudio Moon 360D CD player with a sole single coaxial digital input. I now wonder what's the best interface to connect my MacBook Pro to it. Using a mini-toslink to coax converter ? Using USB to coax converter ? Extracting audio info from the HDMI output ? I mean, where should I start ?

Thanks !

PG

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