Splitting audio files in the terminal

I have recently played with AudioStellar, a great tool for “sound object”-based exploration and musicking. It reminds me of CataRT, a great tool for concatenative synthesis. I used CataRT quite a lot previously, for example, in the piece Transformation. However, after I switched to Ubuntu and PD instead of OSX and Max, CataRT was no longer an option. So I got very excited when I discovered AudioStellar some weeks ago. It is lightweight and cross-platform and has some novel features that I would like to explore more in the coming weeks.

Samples and sound objects

In today’s post, I will describe how to prepare short audio files to load into AudioStellar. The software is based on loading a collection of “samples”. I always find the term “sample” to be confusing. In digital signal processing terms, a sample is literally one sample, a number describing the signal’s amplitude in that specific moment in time. However, in music production, a “sample” is used to describe a fairly short sound file, often in the range of 0.5 to 5 seconds. This is what in the tradition of the composer-researcher Pierre Schaeffer would be called a sound object. So I prefer to use that term to refer to coherent, short snippets of sound.

AudioStellar relies on loading short sound files. They suggest that for the best experience, one should load files that are shorter than 3 seconds. I have some folders with such short sound files, but I have many more folders with longer recordings that contain multiple sound objects in one file. The beauty of CataRT was that it would analyse such long files and identify all the sound objects within the files. That is not possible in AudioStellar (yet, I hope). So I have to chop up the files myself. This can be done manually, of course, and I am sure some expensive software also does the job. But this was a good excuse to dive into SoX (Sound eXchange).

SoX for sound file processing

SoX is branded as “the Swiss Army knife of audio manipulation”. I have tried it a couple of times, but I usually rely on FFmpeg for basic conversion tasks. FFmpeg is mainly targeted at video applications, but it handles many audio-related tasks well. Converting from .AIFF to .WAV or compressing to .MP3 or .AAC can easily be handled in FFmpeg. There are even some basic audio visualization tools available in FFmpeg.

However, for some more specialized audio jobs, SoX come in handy. I find that the man pages are not very intuitive. There are also relatively few examples of its usage online, at least compared to the numerous FFmpeg examples. Then I was happy to find the nice blog of Mads Kjelgaard, who has written a short set of SoX tutorials. And it was the tutorial on how to remove silence from sound files that caught my attention.

Splitting sound files based on silence

The task is to chop up long sound files containing multiple sound objects. The description of SoX’s silence function is somewhat cryptic. In addition to the above mentioned blog post, I also came across another blog post with some more examples of how the SoX silence function works. And lo and behold, one of the example scripts managed to very nicely chop up one of my long sound files of bird sounds:

sox birds_in.aif birds_out.wav silence 1 0.1 1% 1 0.1 1% : newfile : restart

The result is a folder of short sound files, each containing a sound object. Note that I started with an .AIFF file but converted it to .WAV along the way since that is the preferred format of AudioStellar.

SoX managed to quickly split up a long sound file of bird chirps into individual files, each containing one sound object.

To scale this up a bit, I made a small script that will do the same thing on a folder of files:

#!/bin/bash

for i in *.aif;
do
name=`echo $i | cut -d'.' -f1`;
sox "$i" "${name}.wav" silence 1 0.1 1% 1 0.1 1% : newfile : restart
done

And this managed to chop up 20 long sound files into approximately 2000 individual sound files.

The batch script split up 20 long sound files into approximately 2000 short sound files in just a few seconds.

There were some very short sound files and some very long. I could have tweaked the script a little to remove these. However, it was quicker to sort the files by file size and delete the smallest and largest files. That left me with around 1500 sound files to load into AudioStellar. More on that exploration later.

Loading 1500 animal sound objects into AudioStellar.

All in all, I was happy to (re)discover SoX and will explore it more in the future. I was happy to see that the above settings worked well for sound recordings with clear silence parts. Some initial testing of more complex sound recordings were not equally successful. So understanding more about how to tweak the settings will be important for future usage.

What is a musical instrument?

A piano is an instrument. So is a violin. But what about the voice? Or a fork? Or a mobile phone? So what is (really) a musical instrument? That was the title of a short lecture I held at UiO’s Open Day today.

The 15-minute lecture is a very quick version of some of the concepts I have been working on for a new book project. Here I present a model for understanding what a musical instrument is and how new technology changes how we make and experience music.

The original lecture was in Norwegian, but I got inspired and recorded an English version right afterwards:

If you rather prefer the original, Norwegian version, here it is:

And, if you do want to learn more about these things, you can apply for one of our study programmes before 15 April: bachelor or master of musicology, or master of music, communication and technology.

INTIMAL Documentary

I think it is nice to share this new short documentary about the project INTIMAL: Interfaces for Relational Listening – Body, Memory, Migration, Telematics today on 8 March. This project ran from 2017 to 2019 at RITMO, under the direction of sound artist Ximena Alarcon. It was funded by a Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant from the EU, and I was fortunate enough to mentor the project.

The main aim of INTIMAL was to explore the body as an “interface” for keeping and transforming the memory of place in migratory contexts. This was done through the development and exploration of a physical-virtual “embodied system” for relational listening. The short documentary excellently describes the project and explains its outcomes.

Some more information about the project from the INTIMAL web page:

The project invites people to listen to their migrations, in order to expand their sense of place and sense of presence. In its first stage, Ximena proposes two questions: 1) how the body becomes an interface that keeps memory of place, and 2) how to improvise and transmit the experience of an embodied migratory journey using non-screen based interfaces. As a case study, she involved Colombian women who have migrated to European countries, in the exploration of their migratory journeys, via listening, improvised voice and body movement, in co-located and telematic settings. She used Deep Listening practice and Embodied Music Cognition methods to develop the INTIMAL System: a physical-virtual “embodied” system for Relational Listening, to be used in telematic sonic performance, in the context of human migration.

“Flatten” file names in the terminal

I am often dealing with folders with lots of files with weird file names. Spaces, capital letters, and so on, often cause problems. Instead of manually fixing such file names, here is a quick one-liner (found here) that can be run in the terminal (at least on Ubuntu) to solve the problem:

rename 'tr/ A-Z/-a-z/' -- *

It is based on a simple regular expression, replacing any spaces with hyphens, and changing any capital letters to lower case.

Some thoughts on microphones for streaming and recording

Many people have asked me about what types of microphones to use for streaming and recording. This is really a jungle, with lots of devices and things to think about. I have written some blog posts about such things previously, such as tips for doing Skype job interviews, testing simple camera/mic solutions, running a Hybrid Disputation, and how to work with plug-in-power microphones.

Earlier today I held a short presentation about microphones at RITMO. This was during our informal Food & Paper lunch seminar, where people eat their lunch while listening to presentations about different topics (usually something academic, but sometimes also other things). Here is a cut-down version of the presentation:

The presentation starts by drawing up the main things to think about: microphones and speakers and the environments that people use these devices within. When we stream or record, we don’t really control other people’s speakers and environments. So the two things we should think about are (1) the microphone we use and (2) the environment we are in.

A very brief summary of microphones, speakers, and room acoustics.

The make a long story short, here are my general advice:

  • Place yourself in a “dry” and quiet space, if possible. A small room with carpets and curtains is much better than a big and empty space.
  • A headset with a boom microphone will usually give the best sound overall, without feedback, and allow you to move your head around. I have many USB headsets from Logitech, Jabra, and Poly, and all of them are fine. The more expensive ones are more comfortable to wear, but the sound quality doesn’t really differ that much. I generally try to avoid Bluetooth headsets since they need to be charged and paired to function. If you can live with a cable, you will get better sound for a lower price.
  • A “podcast-style” condenser microphone will give a more pleasant and radio-like sound. You can also avoid sitting with headphones on all the time, which is very tiresome after some hours. However, condenser microphones are usually relatively large, need a stand, and you may get into feedback problems. There are many options here, but I have been very positively surprised by this cheap Marantz USB microphone.
  • A lavalier microphone is the best choice for making video recordings. They are small, pick up sounds nicely, and some (like the Røde Smartlav+) can be connected directly to a mobile phone or laptop.

There are always better, more expensive, and more complicated solutions out there. However, I am very impressed by some of the newest products that have arrived on the market. The products highlighted above are reasonably priced and will greatly improve the audio of both streaming and recording.