Percussa micro super signal processor

The explosion of interest in filtering out sounds of the vuvuzela has spawned some interesting discussions. Most amusing to me is the notion of some sort of anti-vuvuzela bias. The simple matter of the fact is, recorded (and broadcast) sound are not the same as the sound you hear when you’re physically in a location. If you’re at a sporting event, you hear all kinds of noise. Your expectations are differently calibrated, and you have 360 degrees of (real world) sound spatialization. Watching TV is different. You want background sound, yes, but not to the point that it drowns out commentary. In effect, you want the broadcaster to create an artificially well-balanced soundscape. What’s really striking about the World Cup is that the planet’s largest broadcasting companies all seem to have been caught unprepared for the vuvuzela cacophony.

Which brings us to Waves. So, yes, I took some cheap shots at Waves’ pricing on their plug-ins in yesterday’s massive round-up, and yes, I did actually … hear about it.

First, I want to be clear that in the avalanche of responses to the vuvuzela, there are a number of different techniques – not all notch filtering, though, as my headline hinted, the fact that “notch filtering” is a phrase coming up in mainstream media, blogs, and sports coverage is itself newsworthy.

Waves’ approach involves their noise suppressor. What I said about pricing may have been unclear in regards to the presets: the custom-developed preset chain, made by Waves for broadcasters (and apparently in collaboration with one, specific broadcaster Waves has not named), is entirely free. The cost to which I referred is the noise suppressor itself (US$2900) and the parametric EQ ($300).

And no apologies here for pointing out the gap: compared to most audio software, $2900 is indeed a lot to pay for a plug-in. One of the strange things about audio is that there are sort of parallel dimensions of value/cost equations and markets. In this case, I’m sure the broadcasting market is absolutely willing to pay $2900 for audio software – looking at the cost of, say, a World Cup license, the cost of the equipment used for that broadcast, the human hours that go into plug-in development, and the limited number of potential broadcast customers, Waves’ pricing is actually pocket change. But that further illustrates the disparity: it’s pocket change to the BBC or ESPN, whereas an individual, home audio producer might well use tools that are entirely free as an alternative.

Waves isn’t even, as [someone] pointed out to me, the pricey end of that spectrum – not by a longshot. France’s Canal+ hired an entirely private commission to do what, for Waves customers, at least, was free. [article in French] The result: a non-TDM custom effect solution from a local developer with what was likely a very, very high price tag.

But you can also judge this for yourself: if you’re curious to try out the Waves solution, both WNS and Q10 provide a 7-day demo. It’s definitely the posh steakhouse of plug-ins, to the “street vendor sausage cart” alternatives I mentioned. Pricing is economics, not a quantification of value – such is the nature of the beast. But you can determine how much that market-driven pricing translates to the software. What Waves gives you is certainly a friendly interface, some sophisticated tools tailored to the task, and what’s likely, out of the box, to come closest to producing broadcast-quality sound. Naturally, I also think that delivering that broadcast-quality sound ought to be the job of the broadcasters, not someone at home with a TV set. The question of which tools are relevant for music production, rather than covering the World Cup with an entire network TV crew, can be saved for another day.

While we’re clarifying, I think the most interesting of the long list of solutions I mentioned, apart from Waves’ solution, is the plug-in from the Centre for Digital Music (C4DM) at Queen Mary, University of London. Dan Stowell notes that, while some of the other techniques mentioned do indeed involve notch filtering, what’s at work here is “a bit cleverer, kind of tuned median-filter.”

The C4DM plug is truly free software, under an MIT-style, open source license. It’s actually a pleasure to browse through the code – bless you, digital signal processing, as mathematically, tasks like this look pretty readable in C and C-style code. No, such things aren’t comparable to, say, a Waves plug-in. At the same time, at their heart, they are fundamentally the same animal. We’ve seen this basic technique (digital signal processing) packaged in wildly different forms. We have academic research centers, which one might argue should engage in open code if they’re publicly funded. We have free code that comes from people who aren’t in academia. We also have businesses that naturally spawn around catering to a very different customer, for whom value is easy to justify given the potential revenue from the product (a sports broadcast), and who likewise have higher expectations of user interface, real-world performance, and support.

But such is the broad spectrum (ahem) of sound software today. Take something as simple as filtering out a drone at a particular frequency, and you see a broad set of potential uses, an audience literally as large as the entire planet’s sports fans, tools on every conceivable platform and operating system, and markets that range from interested academic researchers and programmers to broadcasters with deep pockets.

All over a cheap plastic horn.

It’s a reminder of all kinds of disparities. There’s the economics of sound software, scaling from hobbyist to academia to business, from code that people give away to highly-priced custom services that make Waves plug-ins look like $2 iPhone apps. But more important than that, while specialization in sound software remains the domain of a tiny niche of society, but the ultimate market – human ears – is in the billions. Perhaps while we hide out in our blogs and trade magazines, we forget that.

Oh, vuvuzela. Look at the fuss you’ve caused. The kazoo never caused this much of an issue. Photo (CC-BY) Mark Kobayashi-Hillary.