Tag Archives: audio

WAV format preservation assessment

The British Library’s Digital Preservation Team has issued a report on WAV Format Preservation Assessment. It cites the broad adoption of WAV and its extension BWF (Broadcast Wave Format) as a positive for preservation purposes and offers only a few cautions. I’m flattered by the recommendation, “Wherever possible and appropriate to the workflow, submitted content should be validated using JHOVE.”

A link roundup on file formats

3D printing is an exciting new technology, but the formats to choose from are an alphabet soup.

A call for “PDF 2.0” or an “Analytical File Format.” The description is vague, but it sounds like something analogous to the Semantic Web for documents.

BW64, a new RIFF-based audio format. The article describes it as a “3D” format, but more significantly it’s a metadata-rich interchange format that supports really big files.

And just for bitter laughs: I need a ‘file’ format.”

Honda MP3 player defect

Recently Eyal Mozes hired me to determine why the sound system in his new Honda Civic wouldn’t play some MP3 files. This was a chance to do some interesting investigative work, and I’ve found what I think is a previously unidentified product defect.

He sent me twenty MP3 files, ten of which would play on his system and ten of which wouldn’t. First I ran some preliminary tests, establishing that iTunes, QuickTime Player, Audacity, and even my older Honda stereo had no trouble with the files. Then I ran Exiftool on them and looked at the output to see what the difference was.

The first thing I looked for was variable bitrate encoding, which is the most common cause of failure to play MP3 files. None of them used a variable bitrate. Looking more closely, I saw that all the files had both ID3 V1 and V2 metadata. This is legitimate. In the files he’d indicated as non-playable, though, the length of the ID3 V2 segment was zero. This was true in all the non-playable files, while all the playable ones had ID3 V2 with some data fields. I verified with a hex dump that the start of the files was a ten-byte empty ID3 V2.3 segment.

I continued looking for any other systematic differences, but that was the only one I found. It’s highly likely that the MP3 software in Eyal’s car — and, therefore, in many Hondas and maybe even other makes — has a bug that makes a file fail to play if there’s a zero-length ID3 V2 segment. (Update: Just to be clear, this is a legitimate if unusual case, not a violation of the format.)

Eyal had gone to arbitration to get his vehicle returned under the warranty; Honda’s response was unimpressive. Initially, he told me, Honda claimed that the non-playing files were under DRM. This is nonsense; there’s no such thing as DRM on MP3 files. They withdrew this claim but then asserted that “compatibility issues” related to encoding were the problem, without giving any specifics. The ID3 header in an MP3 file is unrelated to the encoding of the file, and I didn’t see any systematic differences in encoding parameters between the playable and non-playable files. Honda claimed to be unable to tell how the files were encoded. They may not have been able to tell what software was used, but the only “how” that’s relevant is the encoding parameters.

This problem won’t make your brakes fail or your wheels fall off, but Honda should still treat it as a product defect, come up with a fix, and offer it to customers for free. If they can upgrade the firmware, that’s great; if not, they’ll have to issue replacement units. The bug sounds like one that’s easy to fix once the programmers are aware of it. The testing just wasn’t thorough enough to catch this case.

If anyone wants to hire me for more file format forensic work, let me know. This was fun to investigate.

Pono’s file format

I’ve been seeing weirdly intense hostility to the Pono music player and service. A Business Insider article implies that it’s a scheme by Apple to make you buy your music all over again at higher prices. Another article complains that it will hold “only” 1,872 tracks and protests that “the Average person” (their capitalization) doesn’t hear any improvement. I wonder if some of these people are outraged because they’re confusing Pono with Bono and thinking this is the new copy-proof file format which he said Apple is working on.

In fact, Pono isn’t using any new format and isn’t introducing DRM. Its files are in the well-known FLAC format. FLAC stands for “Free Lossless Audio Codec.” The term technically refers only to the codec, not the container, but it’s usually delivered in a “Native FLAC” container. It can also be delivered in an Ogg container, providing better metadata support and slightly larger files.

The “lossless” part of the name refers to FLAC’s compression. MP3 uses lossy compression, which removes some information, sacrificing a little audio quality to make the file smaller. FLAC delivers larger files, giving better quality and a larger file size for the same sampling rate and bit resolution. According to CNET, “Pono’s recordings will range from CD-quality 16-bit/44.1kHz to 24-bit/192kHz “ultra-high resolution.” 96 kilohertz (dividing 192 by 2 per the Nyquist theorem) is way beyond the threshold of human hearing, so it’s understandable that people are skeptical about whether it offers any benefit over a lower sampling rate. Frequencies that high are normally filtered out.

FLAC is non-proprietary and DRM-free, and it has an open source reference implementation. Someone could put FLAC into a DRM container, but then why not use a proprietary encoding? Using FLAC is a step forward from the patent-encumbered MP3, with license requirements that effectively lock out free software.

iTunes doesn’t support FLAC files, so the Business Insider claim that Pono is Apple’s way of making you buy music over again is idiotic. It’s like saying Windows 8 is an Apple scheme to make you buy new software.

As the number of gigabytes you can stick in your pocket keeps growing, the need for compression decreases. For many people, amount of music storage takes priority over improved sound quality, but some will pay for a high-end player that gives them the best sound possible. I don’t get why this infuriates so many critics. At any rate, the file format shouldn’t scare anyone.

For more discussion of FLAC as it relates to Pono, see “What is FLAC? The high-def MP3 explained” on CNET’s site; the headline is totally wrong, but the article itself is good.

The return of music DRM?

U2, already the most hated band in the world thanks to its invading millions of iOS devices with unsolicited files, isn’t stopping. An article on Time‘s website tells us, in vague terms, that

Bono, Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr believe so strongly that artists should be compensated for their work that they have embarked on a secret project with Apple to try to make that happen, no easy task when free-to-access music is everywhere (no) thanks to piracy and legitimate websites such as YouTube. Bono tells TIME he hopes that a new digital music format in the works will prove so irresistibly exciting to music fans that it will tempt them again into buying music—whole albums as well as individual tracks.

It’s hard to read this as anything but an attempt to bring digital rights management (DRM) back to online music distribution. Users emphatically rejected it years ago, and Apple was among the first to drop it. You haven’t really “bought” anything with DRM on it; you’ve merely leased it for as long as the vendor chooses to support it. People will continue to break DRM, if only to avoid the risk of loss. The illegal copies will offer greater value than legal ones.

It would be nice to think that what U2 and Apple really mean is just that the new format will offer so much better quality that people will gladly pay for it, but that’s unlikely. Higher-quality formats such as AAC have been around for a long time, and they haven’t pushed the old standby MP3 out of the picture. Existing levels of quality are good enough for most buyers, and vendors know it.

Time implies that YouTube doesn’t compensate artists for their work. This is false. They often don’t bother with small independent musicians, though they will if they’re reminded hard enough (as Heather Dale found out), but it’s hard to believe that groups with powerful lawyers, such as U2, aren’t being compensated for every view.

DRM and force-feeding of albums are two sides of the same coin of vendor control over our choices. This new move shouldn’t be a surprise.

Audio and video in HTML5

I’ve been studying up on streaming audio and video and related issues, so lately I’ve been playing with the <audio> and <video> tags in HTML5. It’s possible to put them to good use, but there are more issues than their proponents will readily admit.

A good piece of news is that both tags do exactly the same thing except for their appearance. You can play video with the audio tag and vice versa, and they implement the same DOM model. (Of course, you won’t see anything interesting if you use <audio> for video.)

The main limitation is that these tags support only progressive streaming, which differs from “true” streaming in some important ways. Progressive streaming means downloading a file and starting to play it almost immediately, rather than after it’s finished downloading. Its disadvantages are that the bit rate can’t be adjusted while playing, you can’t keep the file from being grabbed in its entirety with a simple HTTP call, and the download continues to completion even if the user pauses the player. These aren’t always significant problems, but they mean that the new HTML5 tags aren’t the full replacement for Flash which they’re sometimes claimed to be.

There’s enough interest in true streaming that various parties have developed protocols to do it over HTTP. These include HTTP Live Streaming from Apple, HTTP Dynamic Streaming from Adobe, Smooth Streaming from Microsoft, and Dynamic Streaming Over HTTP from MPEG (which its proponents insist isn’t a protocol). There are more details on streaming on my website.

The other problem with the HTTP tags is that there’s no one encoding that all major browsers support. This problem is well known on the video side, but I was surprised to discover it’s even true for audio. The current version of Firefox doesn’t natively support MP3 in the audio tag, and the QuickTime plugin isn’t used in this case (or at least I can’t get it to work). The reason for this is software patents. There’s a good discussion of the state of MP3 with Firefox on Stack Overflow.

You can specify several <source> elements within an audio or video element, and the browser will try each one in turn till it finds one it can play. Two formats or at most three will cover all major browsers. For audio, including both an MP3 and an Ogg Vorbis version should cover all the bases; for video, MP4/H.264 and Ogg Theora should do it, though you might want to add WebM.

Specifying the type attribute as the MIME type of the file (e.g., <source src="song.mp3"
helps the page to load faster, since the browser can determine without examining the file if it can play the file in principle. Make sure, however, to use only the canonical MIME types. From experimentation with various browsers, these include:

  • audio/mp4
  • audio/mpeg
  • audio/ogg
  • video/mp4
  • video/ogg
  • video/webm

If you specify application/mp3 rather than audio/mpeg for an MP3 source, the browser may decide it can’t play it even though it really can.

Another issue is the AV API for HTML5. There’s a pretty decent DOM API to go with the audio and video tags, allowing you to override the player controls and dynamically change content. Some implementations (e.g., Mozilla’s version) have added private extensions. Some people want more power, so there are third-party plugins and JavaScript libraries such as MediaElement.js that extend the API.

It’s a minefield, except that the mishaps come from the absence of an earth-shattering kaboom. Still, using the HTML5 tags is much simpler than Flash or HTTP streaming.

Streaming protocols

Last week I was doing some consulting work on Wowza Media Server for the Harvard Library, and I noticed there are some issues about streaming protocols which often aren’t well understood. To help clarify them in my own mind, and hopefully provide a useful resource for others, I’ve put a page on Basics of Streaming Protocols on my business website.

If you notice anything that’s wrong or confusing, please let me know.

New audio format from Apple?

The Guardian reports that Apple is developing a new audio file format.

Apple is working on a new audio file format that will offer “adaptive streaming” to provide high- or low-quality files to users of its iCloud service.

The new format could mean that users can get “high-definition” audio by downloading to an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Alternatively, it could offer a streaming service – like that of Lala.com, the music streaming and online storage company, which Apple acquired late in 2009.

No technical details are available yet as far as I can tell. This part is weird:

“All of a sudden, all your audio from iTunes is in HD rather than AAC. Users wouldn’t have to touch a thing – their library will improve in an instant,” said the source, who requested to remain anonymous.

This presumably refers to your music files on iCloud, not the ones you’ve downloaded. It seems a bit disturbing to me that Apple would just replace all the music you’ve paid for with a new format, but maybe I just don’t understand iCloud.