Monthly Archives: December 2007

The Age of Mid-Fi

I love music. I listen to it pretty much constantly; play a couple of instruments (some even competently!); and have bought about a bajillion CDs in my life. But I’ve never truly been a hi-fi purist like some of my fellow music-lovers—at least when it comes to listening to it outside of a recording studio control room.

A few years ago (a referenced in my earlier Tech Carnage post), I decided to “rip” my walls full of CDs to MP3 format in order to remove three entire storage racks of them from my living room, as well as be more easily able to listen to them when I was in different rooms or at my computer. At the time, I used a bitrate 50% higher than standard: 192KB/s, because cymbals in particular tend to fall apart on 128 KB/s MP3s. (Like most musicians, I tend to automatically tune in to my own instrument when listening, so as a drummer, 128 KB/s MP3s are pretty awful for me. 192 KB/s MP3s, on the other hand, hang together pretty well in all but my best listening environments.)

And that was part of my big realization when undertaking that project. Sure, if I close my eyes sit at the point of an isosceles triangle with my best speakers at the other corners, I can usually detect the difference between a low-bitrate MP3 and a CD, particularly on music with some subtlety and dynamic range. But when the heck do I listen to music like that anymore?

Let’s face it: 99.8% of the time I’ve got music on, it’s either coming from 1.5″ speakers under my computer monitor; the set of headphones which came with my iPod; amidst the road noise and weak speakers of my car stereo; or—if I’m lucky—on a slightly less weak set of speakers mounted to the walls of my study. An audio engineer would bust a blood vessel pointing out the huge ranges of frequency in all these environments which are either over-accentuated, obscured, or missing entirely.

Worse yet, most of the time I’ve got music on, I’m not listening to it: at least not in the sense that I’m blocking out all other external stimuli and really focusing on it. Sure, there’s some part of my brain that’s busy grooving along and memorizing every insipid lyric on the latest White Rose Movement album, but the rest of my brain is usually working on other things, like…err… blogging.

While closing your eyes and bathing yourself in the aural splendor of true high-fidelity music is a wonderful (though tiring) experience, we live in the age of “mid-fi”: music that sounds reasonably good, delivered with no irritating skips, scratches, or tape hiss…to distracted people listening in noisy environments on bad speakers. And we’re OK with that.

Rolling Stone has an excellent article on this in their latest issue (thanks, Hud for pointing it out!), including talk about how heavy use of volume compression has made virtually everything we listen to on the radio sound louder than in the past. It’s fascinating stuff.

The Tech Carnage Continues

I’m taking a perverse pleasure in going through my closets and storage areas this Christmas break, and chucking out huge piles of tech gear that just isn’t doing anything for me anymore. In addition to the previous carnage, here’s a fresh list of victims:

Destroyed: DAT tapes (lots of them!)
Cause of Death: Insufficient capacity.

Once, I was able to make multiple copies of every single file I’d ever created on a single 2 GB DDS1 DAT tape. For years, I stayed with DAT as my backup medium of choice, suffering through multiple $1,000 DAT drive failures, and upgrading from DDS1 to DDS2 to DDS4—ostensibly with 40 GB capacity per tape (but in reality, more like 25). DAT was also one of the only reasons to keep investing in SCSI cards, since (for reasons I still can’t fathom) none of the DAT drives I’ve ever owned ran on Firewire or USB. Still, hard drives continued their geometric increases in capacity, and by the time it became clear that I had to leave DAT behind, it was taking something like 45 DDS4 tapes to do the first full backup of the network (involving almost a week of tape switching). Although I like the idea of being able to stick a copy of my network backup in an offsite safe deposit box, I eventually had to switch to hard disk backup. A couple of years later, I decided it was time to destroy the boxes and boxes of DAT tapes I used to use for what now fits on a couple of hundred dollars worth of hard drives.

Discarded: Virtually all of my analog telephone equipment
Cause of Death: (1) For voice: a complete switch to cell phones in the house, rendering useless all those phone jacks, extensions,  and splitters. (2) For data communication: a combination of wireless, Cable modems, and a Sprint PCS card for road use.

I still keep simple test phone around for testing lines around the office, but for home use, analog POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) is dead.

Decimated: Data CDs
Why: There’s virtually nothing stored on a five year old CD which isn’t easier to find new, and in a more appropriate format, on the internet.

Particularly hard hit by this phenomenon was my old collection of clip and stock art. As designer, I’m a packrat for interesting images, backgrounds, and textures which I can either use directly, or get inspiration from. Once, stock photography was like precious gems: doled out in 75-image chunks per $300 CD. Today, it’s easy to find incredibly high quality images of any description either in giant collections (such as Digital Juice’s fantastic Juice Drops), or on a per-image basis for a few dollars per use.

Moreover, images, like anything else, have a fashion to them, and older ones tend not to be very useful either in terms of content and style, or in the image formats and resolution themselves. After being spared several previous purges, dozens of such CDs hit the bin this time around—so many that I actually was able to remove an entire storage rack from one closet.

What about audio CDs? A few years back when I ripped my CD collection, I boxed up all 800 or so CDs I own and stuck them in storage boxes in the garage. That way, I figured, I could always go back to the original source material whenever it was needed, and preserve my karma—and the license—to the original music as it was played on my various MP3 players I own. Although I currently rip my CDs at a higher bit rate than before (usually 320 KBs or lossless these days), I’ve never really felt compelled in the years since to revisit the original CDs that I ripped at 192 KBs. They sound just fine as is.

I’ll be moving my CDs into a series of smaller boxes and hauling them up to the attic soon. The temperature extremes up there can’t be good for them, and I may be condemning them to a slow death, but at this point I think I’m OK with that. If I were gutsier, I’d just dump the originals now, but I’m not quite there yet. Still, CD’s are really just a distribution media for me at this point: the actual music is always played from some other media: usually a hard drive.

Tech Gear: Out With the Old…In With the New

As part of my end-of-the-year tidying up, I’ve been doing a big sweep of the house and posing Janet Jackson’s immortal question to my various pieces of tech gear: “What have you done for me lately?” If the device in question doesn’t have an answer (or more frequently, if it has a 1/4″ layer of dust on it), it gets sent on a trip to either eBay, Craigslist, Goodwill, the curb (with a big “Free!” sign on it), or my quickly overflowing dumpster.

Sure, a lot of these things were the cats pajamas in their day, but as often as not, that day was when I walked around in my Sisters of Mercy T-shirt. (OK, fine, I still walk around in a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt, but you’re missing the point…)

For the sake of posterity, here’s a partial casualty list of End Of Year Cleanup 2007 (and what replaced the device in question):

Discarded: The TV and FM antenna on top of the house (and about a mile of coax cable that used to connect it to various rooms.
Cause of Death:
DirectTV—and the realization that the 3 weeks I spent commuting with only Bay Area AM and FM radio to listen to was enough hell for one lifetime. Plus, the entire analog TV spectrum is due to go off the air in February 2009. What better time than the present to clean up my roofline?

Discarded: My Opcode Studio 5 MIDI Interface. An impossibly complete (and complicated) 16-port MIDI interface that was once the heart of my home recording studio.
Cause of Death: The end of serial ports, the death of Opcode Systems, and the lack of compatibility on anything past a PowerPC 8100.
Survived By: A new, USB MIDI interface with about 10 times the speed and half the cost. Oh, and it works with computers manufactured this millennium.

Discarded: A Lexicon LXP-5 Reverb and MRC (MIDI Remote Control)
Cause of Death: Modern digital effects and computer plug-ins. There’s just not the need to waste the cables and rack space (not to mention signal path noise) on outboard signal processors like we used to. I’ve kept a few of my better effect units for now, but the writing is clearly on the wall for these as well—at least in any situation where a computer is part of the mix. The LXP-5 was expensive as heck in its day, and it did one trick—reverb—really well. But it had no interface to speak of, requiring a whole separate unit (the MRC) to program the darn thing. The garbage can claimed both of these.

Sold: SliMp3 Squeezebox: the coolest streaming music device I’d ever seen, and which let me put my entire 800 CD music library at my fingertips.
Cause of Departure: The arrival of the iPod Classic 160 (which finally can hold the same amount of data as my old dedicated music server), as well as the streaming music capabilities built in to the Playstation 3. No matter how I look at it, or what situation I can think of to play music, it just became totally redundant. (Which is shame, because it really is a wonderful device in its own merit. It just no longer had any use for me).

Donated: My upconverting DVD player
Cause of Departure: The arrival of the similarly upconverting Playstation 3. A man just doesn’t need two DVD players hooked up to his TV.

Discarded: The last of my SCSI hard drives
Discarded: About a million cables for converting the 4 different standards of SCSI devices I once had, terminating various ends both actively and passively, and diagnosing signal loss from when things weren’t connected, converted, or terminated properly.
Cause of Death: Like you need to ask…

Are People Meaner at Christmastime?

Do you think people are nicer than usual, or nastier than usual during the holidays?

Weigh in and let me know what you think, but I sort of suspect it’s a little of both.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen some real moments of impromptu kindness: like the guy who Air-Jordan’d the sales receipt which the wind had sent flying out of my hand at Fry’s today, chasing it to ground as I was weighed down by packages. Then there was the guy in front of me at the drive-through who jumped out of his car in order to dash across the way and help a stranger he’d just spotted attempting to push his out-of-commission truck up a hill to safety into the parking lot. There have also been some great moments with people I know, or know only vaguely, who really seem to be doing their best to be nice to everyone they meet during Christmastime.

At the same time, I’m agog at some of the random bile that I’ve seen being spewed—particularly at support and customer service folks. (Hint: If you need to send a message asking for someone’s help… on a weekend… on something you admit you did to yourself: it’s a Really Good Idea not to begin the message by tossing F-bombs.)

It’s almost as if the nice people try to make that extra effort to spread good cheer at Christmas, and the nasty people use “holiday stress” as cover for launching attacks at anyone who ticks them off (which is pretty much everyone).

What do you think? Does Christmas bring out the best in folks? Or is it just an excuse to throw elbows without penalty?

Best Year Ever

It’s probably not all the surprising given all the activity and new products we launched this year, but even without counting Atomic Avenue or the Christmas season, we’ve already had our biggest year ever for ComicBase. A big hand to everyone who worked so hard this year, and thanks again to all our customers for your continued support. Here’s to making next year even better!

Great Gifts for Comic Fans (Besides ComicBase!)

I went to the mall this past weekend and let me tell you, it was a real horror show: the harried faces of the cashiers… the desperate visages of people who were starting to think they’d just made a terribly mistaken purchase…

…and that was just the folks lined up to see the Celine Dion movie.

Look, I’m just going to assume that you’ve already upgraded your friends to the best comic book collecting software on the planet. (Otherwise, you’d be over at ordering it now so that it can be under the tree for Christmas, right?)

But what if you want to do even more for the comic-lover in your life? Here’s my list of sure-fire gift suggestions, broken down by price range:

$25 and under

Comic Display Frames


($19.95: less in quantity. Bill Cole Enterprises)

Turn comics into wall art with these archival-quality frames. Mounting takes just a couple of minutes, and the book will be protected behind UV-inhibiting Plexiglas with acid-free mattes. It’s a great way to decorate your comic room, or just get some of your most prized books out from those dusty long boxes (without locking them away forever in comic-slab purgatory!)

Marvel Essential…’s or DC Showcase Presents… Compilations

($14.95 –$16.95)


Pound-for-pound, these huge, black-and-white compilations are some of the best comic-reading values ever. For the price of four or five modern comics, you can read dozens of the most important (and expensive!) issues of yesteryear from your favorite characters.

The Marvel “Essential…” series features everyone from The Avengers to the X-Men, as well as lesser-knowns like Godzilla or disco-era mutant diva Dazzler. There’s something here for everyone, and it’s really hard to go wrong with them.

292155.jpgDC’s Showcase Presents… series of black and white anthologies also pack in the value, typically presenting two dozen or more stories featuring a given character from DC’s Silver Age in each volume. The stories are typically not from the legendary series Showcase, but from various other anthology titles such as The Brave and the Bold, World’s Finest, and so on. It’s a great blast of nostalgia an earlier era, and one which would impossible to duplicate without spending hundreds of times as much on the original comics. You can also choose from numerous volumes featuring everyone from space hero Adam Strange to The Unknown Soldier.

$55 and under

74045.jpgMarvel Masterworks, DC Archive Editions, or E.C. Archives

($49.95 – $54.95)

Whereas the previous anthologies go for quantity, the emphasis on these beautiful Archive editions is on quality. These are uniformly gorgeous hardcover volumes meant to be the definitive reference copies of the issues they cover, complete with restored art and introductions by the creators and comic historians.

The price on these books has been creeping up a bit in recent years (thus the fudging on the category breakdown), but on the bright side, they’re typically reprinting comics which would cost tens of thousands of dollars or more each. The Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Captain America pictured at left, for instance, reprints the seldom-seen Captain America Comics #1–4 in their entirety: something that would cost over $135,000 if you were determined that you had to read them in the original. These editions are guaranteed to impress—without requiring a new mortgage on the house.


(5-pack for $48.95, The Collection Drawer Company)

singlebox.jpg They’re super-strong comic boxes which pull open like a file drawer, allowing you to avoid shuffling 40-pound comic boxes every time you want to get to a box that’s underneath another one. You can get a five-pack for $48.95 straight from the company (or from various comic stores around the country—see their store locator), but I won’t kid you: once you start using these, you’re going to want to replace virtually every comic box you own with them. They make that much of a difference.

The minute I saw creator Rich Vincent demonstrate these by setting one on the floor, standing on it, then having someone pull out the drawer without causing the box to collapse, I knew we were going to be dropping some serious cash his way. The reality is, we simply couldn’t file the hundreds of comics that come our way each week without them—and even folks with more sensible collections will have their backs thank them which you’re relieved of the constant stacking and restacking which has been part of comic collecting for far too long.

$100 and under

Absolute Watchmen, Absolute Sandman


295359.jpgWatchmen is widely hailed as “the Citizen Kane of Comics” with good reason. More than any other, it’s the series that established writer Alan Moore as a comics legend, and you could teach a film school course with the fine level of visual storytelling on display here. The Absolute Watchmen edition is an oversized, hardcover, slip-cased edition collecting the 12-issue series, complete with restored art, notes, and more.

The Absolute Sandman is a similar effort to collect the series which cemented writer Neil Gaiman’s position in the comics pantheon. Loved equally by male and female readers, Sandman is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic series of the past century, garnered inordinate numbers of awards and praise, and was the only comic to ever win a World Fantasy Award. As a bonus, the Absolute Edition has, in its autographed form, a 100% record so far as a way to get your beloved to say “Yes” to your marriage proposal.


Original Art

($5–125… possibly more… possibly much more)


OK, if you’re looking for the splash page to Amazing Fantasy #15, you need to talk to Sotheby’s, not be reading somebody’s blog for advice. On the other hand, one of the best-kept secrets of the art world is how really affordable original comic pages can be. Art for most contemporary comics can often be bought directly from the artist at a comic show—sometimes for as little as $5 per page. Splash pages usually start at around $100 or more, and covers run from a few hundred dollars to…well, a lot, depending on the artist and title.

Want to make a big impact on a budget? Pick up a page of art from one of your loved one’s favorite comics, then have it framed next to the final, colored version of the same page. (But get a spare copy of the comic for this, please—this otherwise brilliant plan could go horribly wrong if you razor apart one of their favorite books in order to frame the page). Art shops like Michael’s or Aaron Brothers can compose custom mattes for such a project, or just buy pre-made original artwork frames for $25 or so.

A Trip to Comic-Con International at San Diego

($30–$1,800 depending on the need for hotels and airfare)


Like Porsche: There is no alternative. The San Diego Comic-Con (officially “Comic-Con International: San Diego”) is the most insane, crazy-huge gathering of comics and pop-culture in North America—many would say, the world. Last year, over 125,000 fans, dealers, industry-luminaries, and showbiz-types filled the San Diego Convention Center to capacity in a four-day spectacular of everything comic-related. These days, you’re as likely to bump into Jessica Alba or Joss Whedon as a famous Golden Age artist, since Hollywood has started viewing Comic-Con as a great way to tap into fandom for both new ideas and as testing ground for new projects. You’ll also run into the full cross-section of fandom including Star Wars, manga, indie-publishing, small press, gaming, anime, and much more. If you like pop-culture, it’s like taking a long drink from a firehose.

If you live in the area, the main caveat is that tickets do sell out, so order online early. If you’re coming in from afar, the biggest problem is hotel rooms. The convention-arranged hotels are affordable, but sell out of even the huge stock available in a matter of hours. By convention day, expect hotels to be sold out in a 30 mile radius of the convention center. So book early, enjoy the show, and expect to leave exhausted. (And stop by our booth while you’re there! We’re usually the ones with the huge rocket ship overhead).

If you love comics, you owe it to yourself to go to San Diego at least once: there really is nothing else quite like it.

Merry Christmas!

Hey, Let’s Call Our Band “The Rhythm Mafia!”

Engadget reports that thieves hijacked a shipment of 1,000 or so copies of Rock Band in LA last night.

Look, I know you organized crime guys are as frustrated as the rest of us over the lack of availability for extra controllers, but really…

Neil Gaiman: Romantic Conspirator

This is cool (from Boing Boing):

Activision blocks release of Rock Band compatibility patch

In case you missed it: Guitar Hero III’s controller for the Playstation 3 doesn’t work with Rock Band—a real problem in a world where no stand-alone controllers exist, and an extra controller is needed in order to play with a full “band” on the Playstation 3. Harmonix, the developer of the guitar controllers for Rock Band announced last week that they’d developed a patch to allow the Guitar Hero III controller to work with Rock Band, causing widespread rejoicing.

But the patch was never released. Today, Rock Band fans found out why:

From Harmonix:

The [PS3 Guitar Hero] compatibility patch was submitted, approved and had been scheduled for release by Sony on Tuesday, December 4. Unfortunately, Activision objected to the compatibility patch’s release. The patch remains with Sony, but we have been told that it will unfortunately not be released due to Activision’s continued objection.

read more | digg story

For the life of me, I’m trying to figure out how sending over a legal team to block a patch which allows your controller to work with somebody else’s incredibly popular game is a smart idea. I mean, what’s the upshot to Activision if they let Harmonix’s patch go out: they sell more Guitar Hero III sets and controllers! I don’t see a downside for them. Harmonix even did all the necessary engineering work and will suffer any technical support woes that come along as a result. All Activision has to do is sell product and make money.

Usually when companies go on legal crusades like this, they’re either sacrificing money to make a (hopefully popular) moral point, or they’re sacrificing popularity in order to make money. Here, Activision seems to be taking the rather unusual tack of sacrificing money in order to become more unpopular. Am I missing something, or is this one of the stupidest business decisions of 2007?

Free Old Time Radio Christmas Shows

Free Radio shows

Old Time Radio Fun, an online purveyor of public domain old radio shows, is letting visitors have free access to a bunch of old Christmas episodes from shows ranging from Jack Benny to Dragnet(!) to George Burns and Gracie Allen. It’s a real blast from the past, and a lot for fun for the holiday season.