THE NEXT BIG THING IN OLD TIME RADIO?
WHAT IS FLAC?
FILE SIZE COMPARISONS
BENEFITS OF FLAC
WINNERS AND LOSERS
WHO CAN USE FLAC?
WHERE CAN I CATCH SOME FLAC?
WHY CAN'T I TELL THE DIFFERENCE?
For some time now (several years!), sound purists of the musical persuasion have engaged the use of lossless audio codecs as a means of archiving, listening, and distributing sound files. Of all the formats used for such purposes, the FLAC codec is perhaps the most popular. As with other things, old-time radio collectors aren't exactly on the cutting edge of anything. It is expected that the last strongholds of MP3 collecting will be found amongst enthusiasts of golden age radio shows. We'll deal with MP3, its pros and cons, throughout this article as we compare and contrast FLAC with lossey formats.
WHAT IS FLAC?
In brief, FLAC stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. Like the WAV codec, it represents the full spectrum of sound that we are capable of capturing, in an accomodative way of speaking. WAV files are often used as an intermediate staging area before conversion to FLAC, although with some recording software this intermediate stage is not necessary. The MP3 format relies on psychoacoustic trickery, tossing out a majority of the data in hopes that your brain will not miss hearing it. (This is a simplified explanation of course. There is a valid argument that all digital sound is lossey, and for that matter, all recorded sound in ANY format is lossey. It is not the purpose of this writing to argue these matters or to discuss digital sound quality beyond the typical 16 bit/44.1 kHz "CD quality".)
More than just a compression format, FLAC is simply more efficient at representing waveform data than its WAV counterpart. A gallon milk jug makes for a good analogy. Let us suppose that a milk jug represents a WAV file and a refrigerator represents your hard drive. No matter how full or how empty that milk jug may be, it still takes up the same amount of space in your fridge! On the other hand, we have another sort of collapsible container which represents a FLAC file. If the quantity of milk is a gallon, then that container is a gallon in size. If there is only a pint of milk, then the container is only a pint in size. With FLAC, less data equals less space.
A little experimentation will further illustrate this point:
FILE SIZE COMPARISONS
For comparison, let's examine an "empty jug." A WAV file and a FLAC file are created (44.1 kHz, single channel), each containing 60 seconds of silence with the resultant file sizes:
WAV = 5,292,044 bytes (5.04 MB)
FLAC = 13,616 bytes (13.2 KB). That is KB as in kilobytes, not MB as in megabytes.
* Zipping a Flac file will not yield smaller file sizes. It will, however, contain it such that if it does not extract, then you know the download is corrupted.
For giggles, let's look at a 64 kbps / 44.1 kHz MP3 file of the same data. Whoa Nelly! 480,235 bytes, or 468 KB! That's a bit heftier than the Flac representation.
For our second example, let us compare "full" jugs by examining files of 30 seconds in length (44.1 kHz, single channel) containing generated white sound, which will on average fill up the frequency spectrum for the duration.
WAV = 2,646,044 bytes (2.52 MB)
FLAC = 2,597,339 bytes (2.47 MB)
If the files were indeed "full," both WAV and FLAC file sizes would be more equivalent. A 64 kbps / 44.1 kHz MP3 lossey representation of this data is only 234 kb.
More intriguing than the math, a visual spectral frequency analysis may best show what you are hearing (or not hearing). The following pics are spectral view snapshots from the same 1.8 second area of a song in various formats. By the way, this snippet was generated from a CASSETTE copy of a 1943 Fibber McGee and Molly show, proving the superiority of some tapes over some feeble attempts at digital restoration and remastering.
WAV FILE SAMPLE
FLAC FILE SAMPLE
MP3 FILE SAMPLE, encoded at 64/44
MP3 FILE SAMPLE, encoded at 32/22
*Audio for the above four samples (each are 1:46 minutes in length) may be downloaded for comparison by clicking the link for this mediashare folder.
If you think the mp3 samples look bad, have a gander at a 1.8 second spectral analysis from a Gunsmoke episode (below). Here's the kicker: The show aired in 1961, was "restored and remastered" in 2003, and released on COMPACT DISC by perhaps the most well-known commercial old-time radio enterprise of our time. Yep, you're unlikely to hear tape hiss, or much of anything else for that matter. During that period of the company's existence, they stripped away so much sound in an effort to improve quality, that their shows are an unbearable listening experience. There's a lot that could be said about overprocessed audio being surpassed in quality by MP3s which come from better sources, but that is another ballgame from what I wish to deal with here. I only bring it up to support this observation: When you see the phrase "restored and remastered," take it with a grain of salt. The statement has become marketing code to make you buy into the idea that the audio sounds better than what you'll find elsewhere. In very few cases the phrase is applicable and truthful. The majority of the time it is a con job. If excellent sound quality appeals to you, sample a company's products first before making any major purchases from them. Quality workmanship builds a reputation. Sources for excellent material are out there, and your fellow collectors can point you in the right directions (which typically are not the biggest and most expensive business ventures associated with the hobby).
GUNSMOKE SAMPLE, 1961
BENEFITS OF FLAC
First let us contemplate the status quo.
Simply put, file size is file size. The smaller a file is, the more files you can place in the same amount of space.
So goes the argument for MP3s. It is a valid point. However, the facts surrounding that particular format's present prominent existence has little to do with our present need. Due to bandwidth and speed considerations of the internet dial-up era, the compromise in size and consequent sound quality was necessary for the efficient transport of sound. The MP3 format was an expedient compromise necessary in a low-tech era. Much has changed; MP3s are increasingly becoming shackled deadweight.
Although file space will remain a factor in how we store and listen to sound, it is a factor which becomes more negligable over time. Consider the advance in media storage in the past few years. From floppy disks we've gone on to widespread use of CD-R, DVD-R, terabyte hard-drives, RAID servers, and even USB flash drives which can hold several uncompressed dvd movies. Rewritable Blu-Ray discs capable of 25 to 50 Gigabytes are here now. Solid state drives are already available, with expected gains in storage capability in the future. Blu-Ray and Solid State drives may not be within the economic grasp for many of us presently, but like every other technology, they are expected to become affordable for the masses. Sometime within the decade they should become downright cheap. Also consider the state of the internet. For America to become more productive, high-speed internet is necessary in all areas of the country. Stunningly, our Congress can even see that. Look for access to be made to all citizens in the near future, and with it an eradication of dial-up services. Spread it man, spread it. Yes, dial-up is still the only way some people can access the net. But, the bells toll for it like an epileptic Salvation Army Santa.
FLACs will never fit in the amount of space that MP3s do. But does FLAC fit our present and future needs better? Given our current storage capabilities and taking the future into account, I would have to answer YES!!! Here are some benefits:
1. See the subtopic on FILE SIZE COMPARISONS above. File size is compressed, but sound quality remains intact. It efficiently represents a digital waveform without loss of data. It is not unusual for mono spoken word audio, such as most of OTR is, to be only 38% to 46% of the size of an original WAV file. I have seen some cases where a flac file was only 34% of the intermediate WAV file. Storage-wise, approximately THIRTY HOURS of the best quality single-channel audio will fit onto one 4.7 GB DVD-R. (How many stereo OTR shows are there? Yup, all you need is mono.) A 50 GB Blu-Ray disc should hold approximately 300 hours of mono audio in this format. Is that enough for ya? So what if a Blu-Ray disc will hold 1,800 hours of crappy sounding MP3s. If you listen to OTR with the intention of understanding what is being said, and only expect to listen to the BEST sounding OTR for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, then one Blu-Ray disc of full-quality radio shows in FLAC format will keep you busy for 12.5 days. Thirty disks (30) for a full 'round-the-clock year of audio won't take up so much room that you're forced out of house and home will it?
2. Flac files support tagging. Yes, one of the nice things about MP3 is the ability to insert text information into the file that can be displayed by your media player. This too is available for Flac. Both formats have the upper hand over WAV in this regard. (If wavfiles support tagging info, I haven't seen it.)
3. Flac files can be converted into other lossless formats. Here is a definite advantage. Nothing is given up in the conversion. In contrast, anything converted to MP3 becomes significantly inferior, and the lost data can never be replaced.
4. If you can play MP3s, chances are excellent that you can play FLAC files TODAY. Depending on your preferred media player, you may instantly be able to play FLAC files. Or, you may simply need to download a small plug-in to help your media player decode the files. At the very most you will have to download a new media player, and you can likely get a good one for FREE. Apparently many portable players such as ipods can also take advantage of Flac with software or firmware upgrades. As the momentum of this format mounts, expect to see support from more devices such as stand-alone CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray players for homes and horseless carriages. See the subtopic "Where Can I Get Flac?" for more info.
5. Digital restoration is possible with Flac. Lossless by definition, new enhancements can be applied when they are developed. With lossey format files such as MP3s, so much is damaged or missing that digital restoration is virtually moot.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
So who are the real winners and losers in the audio format wars?
As individual collectors, we fall into one or the other.
Those who are so resistent to change that the inevitable swallows them up before they can upgrade their collections will not be the winners. Witness the digital revolution. Collectors who ignored it and hoped it would go away got caught with their pants down. Most OTR cassette dealers went out of business. Piracy has just about finished off what complacency couldn't.
Those who adhere to a dead digital format will not be winners. Those who switched to MP3 and dumped their original tapes and transcriptions are about to be left out in the cold. Why? Because there is no room for improvement in that house, and it could stand much renovation. Cutting off one-twelfth of the Mona Lisa, making mimeograph copies of that small portion, and then passing them out to one billion art patrons, does absolutely NOTHING to preserve that work of art! Those who properly converted their materials into a lossless format such as WAV, or retained their first and low generation reel-to-reels, transcriptions, and cassettes, have the best chance for evolving with technology. Some series on cassettes which could be found in abundance a few short years ago are now in short supply, or just impossible to find today in good quality. Many of us well remember the beginnings of MP3, when folks who had very lousy lossey realaudio files transcoded them into MP3. What an outcry!! How dare they foist their inferior copies on us?! As the acceptance of Flac and other lossless media blossoms, you know a flood of lossey MP3s will be transcoded over to the newer standard formats. Once again, collectors will have to weed out the bad from the good. Sellers and trading collectors who pass off inferior materials will be known as mud.
Is there any doubt that MP3 is a dying format? One only has to look at what is being traded online. MP3 sound groups on usenet are dying off, being replaced by very active lossless groups. Movement within the OTR MP3 groups on usenet is slow as molasses. Much of that can be explained by the yahoo and other snail-mail distro groups and a 'permanent' home for some mp3s readily available on the archive.org site. The fact remains that OTR collectors are saddled with MP3 while the rest of the world is slowly but surely moving on... and they're picking up speed. Where will you be when the lights go out?
Yes, the winners will be those who look ahead and make viable plans for the future.
Collectively, the hobby of old-time radio collecting will be both a winner and a loser. Some withered portion will survive for future audiences. Sadly, the skeletal remains of many radio shows will only be found in mp3 files. Sufficient preparation for preservation will have been overlooked for many shows. The best copies that will EVER be available of certain series will be icky poo poo MP3s, because some dimwit destroyed the original copies!!!
WHO CAN USE FLAC?
Do you use Linux, Mac, Windows? Flac decoders are available for you.
Do you use Winamp? It has native Flac support. VLC media player? No problem.
Do you use Adobe Audition for editing? There is a free plug-in available for you.
Although Microsoft has yet to officially support Flac at the time of this writing, there are third party plug-ins and tag support which allow Flac to work with Windows Media Player.
A host of plug-ins are available which will allow you to use Flac on virtually any computer.
Do you have an Apple ipod, Archos, iriver, or other mp3 player? www.rockbox.org may have open source firmware for you.
WHERE CAN I CATCH SOME FLAC?
Go to http://flac.sourceforge.net/ for the codec, links to plug-ins, news of artists who release digital downloads in this format, etc.
WHY CAN'T I TELL THE DIFFERENCE IN SOUND QUALITY BETWEEN MP3 AND FLAC FILES?
There may be several reasons why you can't distinguish the best sound.
1. You may have hearing loss. Age can be a deciding factor. However you can also ruin your hearing by listening to crappy music. Sorry, but there may be no help for you.
2. If a Flac file has been transcoded from an MP3 or other lossey format file, it will not sound any better than the original.
3. If an MP3 is encoded at a sufficiently high bit-rate, it may retain just enough data that you can't tell the difference. More often than not, people who can't tell the difference are those who don't have the originals for comparison. The question remains, why destroy 9/10 of the data when it is unnecessary and time consumptive to do so?
4. Your equipment makes all the difference. Are you listening via computer desktop speakers? They may not be sufficient to reproduce the true quality of the sound file. Connect your soundcard to your stereo equipment's inputs. Remember component stereos? Whether you consider your stereo to be a peripheral of your computer, or the other way around, linking the two should be as natural as attaching a television to a dvd player or vice versa. Stereos and computers are star-crossed; they're fated to be together. If that isn't a good solution for you, try using headphones. Headphones, however, may reveal more detail than you're comfortable with hearing.
5. Your environment affects how you listen. Clickety-clack ---- If you're riding on a train or public transportation, quality sound doesn't matter so much when you can't hear above the noise anyway. Although, it can also be said that in a noisy situation, a good clear-sounding file stands a better chance at being understood than a muddy low bit-rate MP3. Good music and other forms of audio entertainment are best enjoyed where there are fewer distractions. In this wireless age, you should be able to listen to what you want in any part of your house. With wireless transmitters and speakers, you can move from one room to another without missing a beat.
That's all the meanness I got for now, Hoss.
The contents of this article are copyrighted 2009 by Alan Johns,
and may not be reproduced in whole or part without consent.