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Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Reripper, or "Rip it Again, Sam."

The Reripper

I was listening to a weekend radio show - a combination tech advice/infomercial half hour on audio video. 

I don't often agree with their suggestions like $40-a-foot speaker cable (the stuff that in true double-blind tests showed no significant difference from good old #12 stranded).  But they got to talking about ripping instead of ripping off.

Their point:  Everyone is going back and ripping their audio and video.  New, faster technology, better compression and greater flexibility are the main reasons.
I had to smile.

I'm betting we're all reripping our media.  I never was a fan of lossy recording but I have to admit that my initial rips of CD's were in mp3.  The reason?  Most radio automation is centered on that format.  Hey!  Don't let the word out.  If people start figuring out that CD's go to mp3 then to iBoc, they may abandon HD forever.

A little balance:  I know a lot of non-tech folks who loaded their iPods with music at 64, or worse, 48 kbps.  I feel a tinge of guilt even calling that music.  But they did get thousands of songs on their players.  Some still listen that way.  Those folks won't recognize the artifacts that come with the signal path that I described above.  Many of us, though, will and do hear the difference.

So, to the ultimate end of best quality audio, I'm reripping everything at full bandwidth, uncompressed.  I practiced this with vinyl to hard drive, giving Adobe Audition its best shot at working when I applied corrections.  Then, I started with CD's some time ago after laying a big fat scratch down the side of Patricia Barber - well, a CD of hers, that is.  When you realize that even the best mp3 has something missing - even though at my age, I may never notice - you feel like you're cheating yourself.

So I'm one of their unwashed...feeding them all in again and doing the full processing.  Those of you who have done so all along (I can only name one person), feel free to send me the Bronx cheer.  Anyone else, get 'em stacked up and let the reripping begin.
I only have a couple of suggestions:

Vinyl:  Don't transfer on a bad stylus.  Don't transfer on a "DJ" stylus.  Don't increase the stylus force to try to track a warped or scratched record.  Think first.  If the record's a mess, move it to last in the pile.  If it's gummy or dirty, clean it.  There are some great vinyl washers still floating around. 

Some folks say, no, transfer it first, that way you'll have something.  True enough, if you can afford to replace a stylus damaged by gunk or from being rattled out of a record's grooves.  If you want to ensure that you at least get something, switch to that conical stylus and have at it.  Then clean the record and get back to the elliptical gem.  But remember, a vertical, conical stylus tracking at 6 grams is a lot like dragging a 10 penny nail around the grooves and future passes will have reduced quality.

After recording, I keep two copies - the dry or unprocessed right-from-the-disc copy and the Audition-processed one.  It's fun listening to the processed version and the clean sound that comes from click, pop, and surface noise removal.  But I have some great stuff that is filled with noise - parties 40 or more years ago where an out-of-uniform gorilla was flipping records on his Garrard grinder - and I guess I'm just used to that sound.  In fact, We're only in it for the Money sounds shallow without the wushes and ticks.  Keeping that in mind, sometimes you can add a little processing without destroying the sound.  Duh.

CD's:  Check out the CD for scratches.  If you're reading this, you know how to clean one.  Here again, you may want to try an initial transfer without cleaning to see what you get.  However, if you're monitoring errors and see a lot, a second pass, after cleaning, is a good idea.

Cassettes: Cassettes can be fun to transfer.  First, demagnetize the heads.  A straight pass works first time around, provided the tape hasn't been stretched.  If it has, try this - unspool about 50 feet onto the ground.  Carefully pull it across an ice cube at abouts one foot per second.  This should shrink the tape.  Then carefully wind it back... OK, listen.  DON'T do that!  Toss the tape. 

But if it's generally OK, do a pass and see how it sounds.  Do a full fast-forward/rewind to exercise the cassette.  From there, you can EQ it, apply noise reduction or whatever you please.  There are some who will tell you to EQ it going in to the computer.  You sure can but what you get is what you get and you can't go back without hauling out the cassette player again.  Yeah, I have a couple of tricks for jammed cassettes or those with high friction or bad tape paths...lemme know if you want them.

I'm almost done with the CD's.   Full resolution, full backup, even for the stuff I don't even like.  Hey! Tastes change.  Then, you bet, I'm cloning the drive and storing it somewhere else.  Remember the story about the guy who bought a suit with two pair of pants - and burned a hole in the coat?

Photos:  I don't think anyone has imported stills at a lower resolution than the original digital file.  If so, you may want to go back and redo those...if you still have them on the camera disc.  Where the big change has come is in scanning flat art.  Really high quality scanners and big drives have made way for 1200, 4800, even 9600 dpi and more.  (Check if you're going to buy.  Is that true resolution or interpolated?) 

If you scanned in photos at 300 dpi that may be OK, depending on use.  But if you have some good 8x10 publicity shots or news photos, you may want the highest case Angie Harmon wants to blow up the digital version to check a license plate number.

Video:  It's software/hardware combination. I've found a couple that really work.  And I ingest videos at the highest rate possible (I mean, my machine ingests them).  I have a high quality VHS player and commercial interface and hardware.  But even with somewhat lower quality acquisition software, you can get HiDef files. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Judge Greene May Have Been Right

I'm talking about the telco breakup...

First – if you don’t care about the topic, skip to the end for some fun telemarketer pranks.

Ya’ know, for years I was angry at Judge Harold H. Greene – for breaking up AT&T.  I think it was mostly the broadcaster in me and all the wailing and crying and gnashing of teeth that came from dealing with multiple carriers in the aftermath as they all elbowed under the basket for control of territories and services.

Maybe it was because the change was so radical and rapid.  Tens of new carriers, new services, regions.  Made the day-to-day guy’s life pretty interesting and gave a whole new meaning to, “It looks good leaving Denver.”

We can discuss whether the breakup was done right, whether AT&T came out ahead another day.  Regardless, we all wound up with a bunch of different companies vying for your service.  The operative word: vying.  Some of the overzealous ones slammed us and we had to go ranting and raving to get back the service we really wanted.  But, for a time, prices dropped.  Long distance fell like a rock. 

Concurrently, we were discovering the use of POTS for audio remotes.  Ordering dialup lines for remote broadcasts became a regular occurrence.  Of course, the mixing of new carriers with AT&T’s copper made for some great finger pointing.  And sometimes, that was more important to the telcos than the service, itself.  Nonetheless, with the competition came service – and people who actually listened when you had a question, special need, or an idea.  What a refreshing change from the conglomerate days when, at one point, I bought a T-shirt in Westwood, California that said, in polite robin’s egg blue letters, “No, we don’t care!  We’re PacBell.”

The proverb goes, “This, too, shall pass.”  And it did.  Like cannibals, they all slept with one eye open as they grew their respective regional and long distance businesses.  Don’t forget the manufacturing.  Western Electric got hit with the judicial mace, too.  Slowly, the also-rans, often those with poor customer service, fell by the wayside.  Their customers got gobbled up by others until at the end of the fest, one company was standing.  Yes, others survived.  But the namesake – AT&T became king again.  And with that, somehow, came the attitude.

Cards face up, I will tell you that I do business with AT&T.  If you live in and have a business in Chicago, you don’t have much of a choice.  I also have business and clients in Tennessee – Bell South land (AT&T, too.).  So let me relate two stories.

AT&T in Chicago nodded and agreed when I talked to them about changing an account.  Keep the number, keep the location.  Change the name on the billing from one of the companies I work with to another.   “No problem.”  “No penalties.”  “No interruption.”  The first four months following saw their fine billing folks, well, in the vernacular, screw it up royally.  Company name wrong.  Fix that and screw up the address.  Add penalties which had been waived, and on it went.  Each month I went through the wonderful AT&T “I really don’t care” phone tree to get to a live person. 

Note that before you get to talk to them, you’re advised that, “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality control purposes.”  As they finally introduce themselves, they ask, in the same breath, if, in accordance with federal privacy laws, they may use this call to make me aware of additional products or services. Sure.  My calling customer service, spending forever getting to the sorta-right person about a problem brought about by their ineptitude – makes me the perfect candidate to pitch some upsell product to.

Let me take a little detour.  This is fun.  When you get to a live person, announce to them that, “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality control purposes.  The reaction varies by company.  T-Mobile will throw a hissy-fit and say you can’t do that.  Then when you ask them why you can’t while they are, they stammer and stutter.  You can imagine where it can take you.  From “Go ahead.” which generates quite the polite and obliging CSR to an immediate hangup.  Hey, it’s worth it for the laugh.

Now back to story number one.  It actually took five months to straighten out their mess.  It coasted for about 5 months until I got a renewal notice.  And when I called to check the various programs available, the sales guy offered me a bundled Internet price: business local and long distance plus AT&T’s super fast fiber Internet.  The rate he quoted would save me about $30 a month – even though I had DSL with them coming into the same place on another number.  Nope.  I had to switch to this number – like the DSL signal cared whether it was coming in on yellow/black instead of red/green.

I made the switch.  What’s that you say?  “Len, you idiot?”  Yeah.  Go ahead.  Say it again.  First when the installer showed up, I told him where I wanted the new line routed.  He said, “What new line?”  I told him that the sales guy said he had to install fiber into the house.  The installer laughed out loud.  “There is no fiber anywhere around here.  You’re gettin’ copper DSL.  Then he proceeded to install a new modem on the line and remove the old one from the other red/green line. 

And it didn’t work.  Well, it did – it was just that about half the time, the modem would decide not to let programs access the web.  That’s not a good thing when part of what you do includes automatic uploading, FTPing and the like.  It’s not so good to wake up and see that half the files your automator was to handle are still on the left side of the page.  And the following two days were filled with, “Yes [name] I’m sorry.  I know they didn’t go up overnight.  But I did get them up first thing.”

Two days later, a service person came to the door.  He apparently fixed what the initial installer had done wrong.  At least that’s what he told me.  {Note to service guys:  when you sell out your partners, I think less of both of you.]  So I chugged along for almost a week.  Then I saw it.  The dreaded AT&T truck in the alley. I went inside and tried to get online.  Nothing.  The neighborhood was down.  When it came back, I so did my problem.

Ah, that’s not the clincher.  That’s when the bill came.  Instead of saving me $30 a month, it was going to cost me about $20 additional.  AND they billed me for the service call.

I called the sales guy.  [Another note:  tell whoever it is you have to call him/her back.  Get a number].  I was told he was on the phone and that he’d call me back.  He didn’t.  Two days later, I called again.  Didn’t get him. Talked to a supervisor.  Laid out the case.  Son of a gun, the sales guy called me back.

I told him how I felt – the problems, the fiber deception, and the price.  He was adamant about not having said any of those things till I said, “Let’s go to the tape.” 

“What?” he said.

I reminded him that when we did the deal on the phone, he asked me if he could record it and I said yes.  And I also made sure he remembered how I stated specifics as we agreed – stating the price, the fiber, and adding that if there were any billing errors or if what we talked about wasn’t delivered, AT&T would return everything to the way it was prior.

The guy backpedaled like Lance Armstrong down a French mountain.  The sad thing here is that it took that to get satisfaction.  He doesn’t care.  I doubt the marketing or ops folks care.  I’m just a number, and only ten digits at that. The best part, in closing – after he recorded us agreeing to get rid of the new services – he told me that if I had friends who needed service, he’d appreciate my recommending AT&T and him.  I told him I’d definitely give his number to my competitors.

And the second story?  Not important.  Take the above, plug in Bell South where you see AT&T and add a lady who asks you to hold while she pulls up your account then acts surprised when, after 12 minutes of holding, you dial on your cell phone and tell her you’re still holding, and another who asks how long it would take for me to connect the modem and I tell her one minute and she says she’ll call me back in exactly one minute.  And she never calls back.

Through the recent economic morass we’ve heard “Too Big to Fail” a lot.   Well, guess what?  Some companies are too big to succeed.  They trample themselves as marketing doesn’t tell sales what it’s doing and operations hasn’t a clue about what’s being sold while sales can’t tell you how anything works.  But they all promise the world and, if they’re big enough, they fold their arms and expect you to accept their definition of what that promise really means.  Their only success is in taking advantage of customers because of their size.  And what do we get?  Lost time, lost money, and in many cases, lost hair. 

So Judge Greene, we probably didn’t need you back then.  You just traded one form of insanity for another.  Sure need you now.  Especially if you’re any good at customer service.  

Fun telemarketer pranks.  In dealing with telemarketers, of course there are the trieds and trues…like, “Oooh.  Just one second!” then setting the phone down, returning a few minutes later just to hang up.  Or the barking dog/singing bird.  And I’m guessing more people than not have heard of the murder witness prank which can be seen here.

Here are mine:  Direct the caller.  When he/she starts reading the script, take charge.  “No. No. No.  Not like that.  Give it more meaning!”  Or, “You see, that’s not the important part of what you’re saying.  You want to tell me how…”  or just, “C’mon.  You can’t sound like you’re reading.  Now.  Look at the sentence.  Get it in your mind.  OK?  Now tell me.  Don’t read to me, just tell me.”

A second option is to begin selling them something.  An easy one is, “Hey, are you using a headset?  How comfortable is it?  Because, I have one that’s soft, light, and I can really hear you great.  I can let you have it for XXX$$$$.  And keep on selling.

Personally, the one I like is reserved for repeat callers.  The second time someone calls, just answer with, “Tourette hotline. What in the *$)^*&$  #*%&() #^*%_ do you #&*%* want?”