13 July 2010

Misadventures in Sound and Vision II

What's Wrong with my Sounds?

I'm quite happy listening to my CDs, but would much rather be listening to DVD-Audio (DVD-A).

Back in 1999 when I was studying to be a multimedia engineer there was a lot of enthusiasm for the new DVD-A format, and for good reason. CD-quality audio is delivered by sampling and reproducing sounds at a bit-depth of 16 bits (that's the amount of data recorded per single sample), at a rate of 44.1 kHz (44100 samples per second).

DVD-A uses 24-bit samples at sample rates of up to 192 kHz (192000 samples per second). This is all rather dry data, but if you ever get a chance to do an A-B comparison you'll be blown away by the extra clarity (due to the increased sample rate) and dynamic range (due to the increased bit-depth) of DVD-A.

So what went wrong? Record companies didn't release very much in the DVD-A format. I don't really know why. Unless, of course, they were already thinking in terms of sending us in the opposite direction, away from quality and towards quantity. Oh yeah, maybe they were looking at the possibility of using the lossy MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 format (an outmoded and noisy method of compressing sound in digital movies) which we now all know as mp3.

I guess there was a high-level meeting of multinational company executives that went something like this:

A: This DVD-A thing really rocks, eh?
B: Have you any idea of how much it's going to cost us to resample all our top-sellers in the required format?
A: No, but the quality...
C: Never mind the quality, look at these forecasts...
B: Yes we see much better profits using this dodgy mp3 compression and just selling the lower quality item online - the files are really small!
C: And they'll all want these new wee mp3 players that will make them so deaf they won't notice the difference...

Misadventures in Sound and Vision I

What's Wrong with this Picture?

I cropped the image above to the aspect ratio 16:9, which is fine, I think, for a small still image. But what if the image was projected onto a wall and was 6 metres wide? And what about this crop (2.39:1)?

The image above is cropped to one of the more common aspect ratios now being used by the movie industry, and it's getting rather abstract, don't you think? Widecreen was invented by Hollywood when cinema audiences started to plummet due to the increasing popularity of televisions.

Televisions used to display at 4:3, movies were made to the same format, and stills cameras shot film to this very same aspect ratio. Why? Because 4:3 is the best approximation of how we actually see the world. It's the most natural, realistic aspect ratio you'll ever see.

I love movies made in this format. 8mm and 16mm films were shot at 4:3, Dogme 95 movie-makers continue to use 4:3, and I still shoot video in the same format.

Millions of recent Home Cinema System owners will disagree, but widescreen is a con. It's another step away from reality.

12 July 2010

What's that Noise?

Yesterday evening I arrived home from a weekend at the Scottish Healing Centre to find several messages on the telephone answering machine from my wife Genie. She's in Holland at the moment and I'd forgotten to mention that I'd be out for the weekend. Picking up the phone all I could hear was loud static. I fiddled with the leads and then tried plugging the unit directly into the telephone socket in the wall, bypassing the splitter for the broadband line. More white noise, so I used my mobile phone (which I hardly ever use) to send a clumsy SMS to Genie explaining the problem with the land line, and went to bed.

This morning during a meeting with Robin (of Robin Baker Architects) I mentioned the trouble I was having with the telephone. What was bugging me was the fact that Genie's messages on the answering machine were clear, so it seemed that the "line in" was good but the "line out" was noisy, and I didn't know whether it was the telephone itself or the line to my house that was at fault. Robin let me borrow his fax machine, which has a telephone handset built in, in order to test the line at home.

Plugging in the fax machine at home I found the telephone line to be clear, and as the outside line was obviously fine, I resolved to buy a new pair of cordless phones online, once I'd finished the work I'd started on my trusty Mac. But as I was about to send an email...

There was a power outage. Even as the computer was shutting down there was an almighty crash of thunder. Heavy rain. Time for lunch, I thought.

After lunch I turn the Mac back on. No wireless connection. Of course, this always happens after a power cut. It's a drag but I know it's only a question of resetting first the router and then the wireless hub and all will be well, although Robin had to replace his router after it got fried by a lightning strike just a couple of weeks ago...

Finally I get the network up and running and am at the stage where I'm ready to order a new phone online. Now something prompts me to check the phone one last time and lo and behold I have a clear line! Everything works.

I'm guessing that the problem with the phone was due to the fact that it's a cordless system that uses radio signals. The signals were probably being messed up by atmospheric static which was cleared by the electrical storm. But at the same time I'm wondering whether simply turning the power to the phone off and on might have fixed it.

If you've had similar adventures with your cordless phone, please let me know.