RealAudio, AAC and Archivy

A few months ago I happened to read a Pitchfork interview with David Grubbs about his book Records Ruin the Landscape. In the interview Grubbs mentioned how his book was influenced by a 2004 Kenny Goldsmith interview with Henry Flynt…and Pitchfork usefully linked to the interview in the WFMU archive.

You know, books linking to interviews linking to interviews linking to archives, the wondrous beauty and utility of hypertext.

I started listening to the interview on my Mac with Chrome and the latest RealAudio plugin but after a few minutes it went into a feedback loop of some kind, and became full of echoes and loops, and was completely unlistenable. This is WFMU so I thought maybe this was part of the show, but it went on for a while, which seemed a little bit odd. I tried reloading thinking it might be some artifact of the stream, but the exact thing happened again. I noticed a prominent Get Help link right next to the link for listening to the content. I clicked on it and filled out a brief form, not really expecting to hear back.

As you can see the WFMU archive view for the interview is sparse but eminently useful.

Unexpectedly, just a few hours later I received an email from Jeff Moore who wrote that playback of Real Audio had been reported to be a problem before on some items in the archive, and that they were in the process of migrating them to AAC. My report had pushed this particular episode up in the queue, and I could now reload the page and listen to an AAC stream via their Flash player. I guess now that it’s AAC there is probably something that could be done with the audio HTML element to avoid the Flash bit. But now I could listen to the interview (which, incidentally, is awesome) so I was happy.

I asked Jeff about how they were converting the RealAudio, because we have a fair bit of RealAudio laying around at my place of work. He wrote back with some useful notes that I thought I would publish on the Web for others googling for how to do it at this particular point in time. I’d be curious to know if you regard RealAudio as a preservation risk, and good example of a format we ought to be migrating. The playback options seem quite limited, and precarious, but perhaps that’s just my own limited experience.

The whole interaction with WFMU, from discovery, to access, to preservation, to interaction seemed like such a perfect illustration of what the Web can do for archives, and vice-versa.

Jeff’s Notes

The text below is from Jeff’s email to me. Jeff, if you are reading this and don’t really want me quoting you this way, just let me know.

I’m still fine-tuning the process, which is why the whole bulk transcode isn’t done yet. I’m trying to find the sweet spot where I use enough space / bandwidth for the resulting files so that I don’t hear any obvious degradation from the (actually pretty terrible-sounding) Real files, but don’t just burn extra resources with nothing gained.

Our Real files are mostly mono sampled at 22.04khz, using a codec current decoders often identify as “Cook”.

I’ve found that ffmpeg does a good job of extracting a WAV file from the Real originals – oh, and since there are two warring projects which each provide a program called ffmpeg, I mean this one:

We’ve been doing our AAC encoding with the Linux version of the Nero AAC Encoder released a few years ago:

…although I’m still investigating alternatives.

One interesting thing I’ve encountered is that a straight AAC re-encoding from the Real file (mono, 22.05k) plays fine as a file on disk, but hasn’t played correctly for me (in the same VLC version) when streamed from Amazon S3. If I convert the mono archive to stereo and AAC-encode that with the Nero encoder, it’s been streaming fine.

Oh, and if you want to transfer tags from the old Real files to any new files, and your transcoding pipeline doesn’t automatically copy tags, note that ffprobe (also from the ffmpeg package) can extract tags from Real files, which you can then stuff back in (with neroAacTag or the tagger of your choice).


Here is Googlebot coming to get the content a few minutes after I published this post. - - [23/May/2014:10:36:22 +0000] "GET HTTP/1.1" 200 20752 "-" "Googlebot/2.1 (+"

So someone searching for how to convert RealAudio to AAC might stumble across it. This decentralized Web thing is kinda neat. We need to take care of it.

Broken World

You know that tingly feeling you get when you read something, look at a picture, or hear a song that subtly and effortlessly changes the way you think?

I don’t know about you, but for me thoughts, ideas and emotions can often feel like puzzles that stubbornly demand a solution, until something or someone helps make the problem evaporate or dissolve. Suddenly I can zoom in, out or around the problem, and it is utterly transformed. As that philosophical trickster Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote:

It is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.

A few months ago, a tweet from Matt Kirschenbaum had this effect on me.

It wasn’t the tweet itself, so much as what the tweet led to: Steven Jackson‘s Rethinking Repair, which recently appeared in the heady sounding Media Technologies Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society.

I’ve since read the paper three or four times, taken notes, underlined stuff to follow up on, etc. I’ve been meaning to write about it here, but I couldn’t start…I suppose for reasons that are (or will become) self evident. The paper is like a rhizome that brings together many strands of thought and practice that are directly relevant to my personal and professional life.

I’ve spent the last decade or so working as a software developer in the field of digital preservation and archives. On good days this seems like a surprisingly difficult thing, and on the bad days it seems more like an oxymoron…or an elaborate joke.

At home I’ve spent the last year helping my wife start a business to change our culture one set of hands at a time, while trying to raise children in a society terminally obsessed with waste, violence and greed…and a city addicted to power, or at least the illusion of power.

In short, how do you live and move forward amidst such profound brokenness? Today Quinn Norton‘s impassioned Everything is Broken reminded me of Jackson’s broken world thinking, and what a useful hack (literally) it is…especially if you are working with information technology today.

Writing software, especially for the Web, is still fun, even after almost 20 years. It keeps changing, spreading into unexpected places, and the tools just keep evolving, getting better, and more varied. But this same dizzying rate of change and immediacy poses some real problems if you are concerned about stuff staying around so people can look at it tomorrow.

When I was invited to the National Digital Forum I secretly fretted for months, trying to figure out if I had anything of substance to say to that unique blend of folks interested in the cross section of the Web and the cultural heritage. The thing I eventually landed on was taking a look at the Web as a preservation medium, or rather the Web as a process, which has a preservation component to it. In the wrapup I learned that the topic of “web preservation” had already been covered a few years earlier, so there wasn’t much new there … but there was some evidence that the talk connected with a few folks.

If I could do it all again I would totally (as Aaron would say) look at the Web and preservation through Jackson’s prism of broken world thinking.

The bit where I talked about how Mark Pilgrim and Why’s online presence was brought back from virtual suicide using Git repositories, the Internet Archive and a lot of TLC was totally broken world thinking. Verne Harris’ notion that the archive is always just a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of a window into process, and that as such it is extremely, extremely valuable is broken world thinking. Or the evolution of permalinks, cool URIs in the face of swathes of linkrot is at its heart broken world thinking.

The key idea in Jackson’s article (for me) is that there are very good reasons to remain hopeful and constructive while at the same time being very conscious of the problems we find ourself in today. The ethics of care that he outlines, with roots in the feminist theory, is a deeply transformative idea. I’ve got lots of lines of future reading to follow, in particular in the area of sustainability studies, which seems very relevant to the work of digital preservation.

But most of all Jackson’s insight that innovation doesn’t happen in lightbulb moments (the mythology of the Silicon Valley origin story) or the latest tech trend, but in the recognition of brokenness, and the willingness to work together with others to repair and fix it. He positions repair as an ongoing process that fuels innovation:

… broken world thinking asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change, rather than innovation, development, or design as conventionally practiced and thought about are the key themes and problems facing new media.

I should probably stop there. I know I will return to this topic again, because I feel like a lot of my previous writing here has centered on the importance of repair, without me knowing it. I just wanted to stop for a moment, and give a shout out to some thinking that I’m suspecting will guide me for the next twenty years.

linking spoken quotes of quotes

An ancient buddha said, “If you do not wish to incur the cause for Unceasing Hell, do not slander the true dharma wheel of the Tathagata. You should carve these words on your skin, flesh, bones and marrow; on your body, mind and environment; on emptiness and on form. They are already carved on trees and rocks, on fields and villages.”

From Gary Snyder’s reading of The Teachings of Zen Master Dogen (about 1:26:00 in).

His delivery is just a delight to listen to. The puzzling strangeness of the text are made whole in the precision, earthiness and humor of his words.