Listening to New Stuff with Alexa

Back in February, I reported on my attempts to get Alexa to play the albums in our music collection. I’d found the following:

Coverage: about 80% of our albums were present in the Amazon Music Unlimited library.

Specifying Discs and tracks: for albums consisting of more than one disc, there appears to be no way of specifying that Alexa should start playing Disc 2 as opposed to Disc 1; and, similarly, there’s no way of getting Alexa to play a particular track number.

Voice Recognition: Alexa couldn’t recognise about 10% of the Artist/Title combinations even though I had checked that they were actually available in Amazon’s Music Unlimited library.

Since then I’ve been using Alexa and Amazon Music Unlimited to listen to newly issued albums reviewed in the Guardian/Observer newspapers, and now have a further substantial set of experience to compare with my original findings. The first thing to say is that being able to listen to complete albums, as opposed to just samples of each track from Amazon on my laptop (as I have been doing previously), is, obviously, a far more rewarding experience; and to be able to listen to a range of new releases from start to finish, regardless of whether or not they suit one’s inate preferences, is a real luxury. Most I will never listen to again – and some I have cut short because I really didn’t like them; but there are a few which I’ve really liked and have made a note of at the back of our ‘Sounds for Alexa’ book. At least I now feel a bit more in touch with what sort of music is being produced these days.

Now, to get back to the topics I covered in my earlier findings; below are my further observations on each of the points:

Coverage: Since last February I’ve checked out eleven lots of review sections comprising write-ups of 121 albums. Fourteen of these albums were issued in CD format only, and all the other 107 albums were available in Amazon in MP3 format. All but nine of these 107 were advertised as being available for streaming or available to ‘Listen with your Echo’ (the latter being the Alexa device); and of these nine, six did actually play through the Echo device.  Of the three that didn’t, two would play only samples (Bob Dylan’s ‘Triplicate’, and The Unthanks’ ‘The songs and poems of Molly Drake’); and for the other one (Vecchi Requiem by Graindelavoix/Schmetzer) Alexa repeated “Vecchi Requiem” perfectly but said she was unable to find any album by that name. Given that only three items were actually unavailable, I conclude that a lot of the new albums that are being issued in digital format are available in the Amazon Music Unlimited service.

Specifying Discs and tracks: It still appears to be the case that it’s not possible to specify that Alexa play the 2nd disk in a two disk album, nor to play a particular track number. To get round the multiple disks problem, a number of people in the Reddit noticeboard suggest creating a playlist in which the two discs are listed separately. As for the track number, Alexa will step through the tracks if you keep saying ‘next track’; but, if you really do want a particular track played, the best way to achieve that is to use the name of the track when requesting it – both of the following worked for me:  ‘Play Kashmir by led Zeppelin’ and ‘Play Cromwell by Darren Hayman’.

Voice Recognition: Of the 121 albums I checked out, Amazon claimed that 98 of them were available to play through the Echo, whereas, in fact, I could only get 85 of them to play. For eleven of the other thirteen albums, Alexa just couldn’t understand what I was requesting; and in the remaining two cases, Alexa a) insisted on playing “Rock with the Hot 8 Brass Band” instead of “On the spot” by the Hot 8 Brass band, and b) played Mozart‘s Gran Partita by the London Philharmonic instead of by the London Symphony Orchestra. Turning to the 85 albums that did play through the Echo, it was significant that only 59 of them played at the first time of asking. For the other 26, I had to repeat the request at least twice and as many as six times (these details are included in this Recognition Analysis spreadsheet). Naturally I was trying out all sorts of combinations of all or part of the particular album title and artist. After much trial and error I have taken to first asking for both the album title and the artist (play me X by Y); then, if that doesn’t work, to ask for the album title on its own (or even just parts of the album title – for example, 1729 for the album title “Carnevale 1729”). Finally, as a last resort, to just ask for the Artist. This strategy proved successful in all but 3 of the 26 instances that didn’t play at the first time of asking. These figures indicate that Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities haven’t improved much since my last write-up in February. This view is reinforced by my (undocumented) experiences of trying to get Alexa to tell me about various golf, rugby and cricket events. Her responses have usually been either about a completely different event or just that she doesn’t know. Perhaps I’m not asking the questions in the right way….. at least Alexa is usually able to provide a weather forecast at the first time of asking. In her defence, I should mention that my son seems to have no trouble in adding all sorts of outlandish things to our Alexa shopping bag (which, I should add, we don’t use – Alexa just provides it if you want to put things into it).

From this summary of my recent experiences with Alexa, it seems that little has changed. Whilst Alexa’s voice recognition capabilities don’t seem to have improved much, the usefulness of the device compared with having stacks of CDs around, is undiminished. So much so, in fact, that we have replaced our last remaining CD player, which was in the conservatory, with  another Echo device; and we’ve upgraded to Amazon Music Unlimited for 10 devices at £9.99 a month.

There are undoubtedly many other uses that we could be putting Alexa to – the weekly email from Amazon always suggests several new things that one can ask her or get her to do. We haven’t really followed any of them up. Perhaps I’ll get to printing out the email each week and putting it next to the echo as a prompt. Or maybe I won’t  – we’ll see.  One thing’s for sure: what with all our CDs in the loft, and no stand-alone CD player, Alexa is going to be with us for the indefinite future.

Binding Sounds – Part 2

When I last wrote about creating the Sounds for Alexa book, I’d finished sewing the text block. The next step was to glue the mull (thin gauze) to the spine, then to glue some Kraft paper on down the spine on top of the mull, and finally to glue the blue and white end bands, as shown below.

Next, the colourful end papers I had selected were folded in two and glued with a thin, 3mm wide, line of PVA to the inside of the text block – one at the front and one at the back. Cardboard was then cut to the size of the text block plus a 4mm overlap all the way round, and glued to the mull and the tapes as shown in the picture below.

I’d elected to have a leather cover (as opposed to cloth) which is longer lasting and has a more luxurious appearance (see the picture below). However, the downside of leather is that it is thicker and less pliable and so it produces unsightly bulges when it is turned over the edges of the cardboard frame, and noticeable ridges at its edges. To solve this problem, the leather is pared down to a much reduced thickness at the points where it is to be turned and along its edges – in effect all but the central area as shown in the picture below .

Paring leather is a task easier said than done. Doing it manually involves using a very sharp blade and shaving off thin layers over and over again until the requisite thinness is achieved. This is a very messy process which produces lots of small fragments of leather which get everywhere. It took me a couple of hours to complete the task and the particular tool I was using caused me to lose the feeling in my thumbs and forefingers. No doubt it gets easier as one becomes more proficient, however, if I ever use leather again, I shall be investigating using a Paring Service which I’m told can be hired to do the same job much faster and to a better quality than I could hope to achieve, by using machines.

Once the paring was done, the leather was glued to the cardboard frame, the end papers were stuck down to the front and back boards, and the dust jacket was printed and cut to size and folded around the book. Finally a protective plastic cover was fitted to the dust jacket. The completed book is shown below.

Sounds for Alexa has now taken its place next to Alexa in our kitchen diner, as shown in the picture below. We will see whether it gets put to use as originally envisaged over the coming months.

Cover Art

The Sounds for Alexa book is nearly finished now with its leather cover on and only the end papers to stick down. I’ll describe these final stages in a subsequent entry when it’s completed. In the meantime, with the outside dimensions of the book fixed, I’ve been able to get on with the cover.

The dimensions of a book cover pose a bit of a problem since they are much longer than the normal paper that you can buy to print on. This particular cover will need to be 21 cm high and some 53 cm long. I was able to solve that problem by remembering the roll of surplus wallpaper lining paper that I had stored away in a poster tube for our grandchildren to draw on at some point in the future. It turned out to be sufficiently strong for a book cover but pliable enough to go through the printer – a delicate balance I’d fallen foul of before when trying to print things for weddings. Setting up the printer wasn’t a problem – you just set a custom page length (of up to a maximum of 676 mm in the case of my printer) and the printer will chug away and print the length you desire.

I decided to create the cover in Powerpoint and started off by setting the page size to be about a centimetre each way larger than the actual dimensions I needed because the printer usually leaves a blank border area of at least half a centimetre around the edge of the page. I figured that if I made the picture a little bit bigger than I need I’d be able to cut off these blank edges to get the exact size required.

Ever since deciding on the book’s sub-title – ‘A listing of Su and Paul’s digitised LPs, Cassettes, Tapes and CDs for use in the marriage of Alexa to Aye Fon’ – I’d had a picture in my mind of a wedding ceremony between our Amazon Echo and my iPhone surrounded by the turntable, ghetto blaster, and laptop, and all the digitised LPs, singles, cassettes and CD’s which I now retain in the loft for proof of ownership purposes. I took a look around our house and decided our patio would be the place to take this photo, and took some experimental shots to see where things should go. This transpired to be very important because the title down the spine turned out to be in a part of the photo which had a brick wall in shade and consequently the black of the title was lost in the black of the shade.

I did some more experimentation and finally fixed upon an appropriate angle to take the shot, and waited for a sunny day. I knew it was going to be quite a big job laying out all the technology, LPS, cassettes and CDs on the patio and wanted to minimise the time they were left in the sun in case they got heatstroke, so I enlisted the help of my son and his wife to help in the photo-shoot and get things laid out and back inside as quickly as possible. We did the shoot on the 2nd July which turned out to be particularly hot so we really did need to work as quickly as possible. However we managed it and got several shots and got all the stuff back in the house and packed up in its boxes ready to go back in the loft.  Quite a palaver – too much of a palaver to have to do it again – so the pictures had to be right.

Well the pictures were OK and I did manage to get a cover – but, in the heat of the day and the moment, I made some errors which I guess a professional photographer would have picked up on straight away. I thought I would be able to enlarge and move the picture in powerpoint to get the exact position for the text for the spine. However, this proved to be very difficult without cutting off a substantial part of the key elements of the photo. What I should have done is taken the picture from further away. My experimentation had not been detailed enough and my photography had been inexperienced and rushed. Such are the differences between the amateur and the professional.

Nevertheless, I was able to choose a photo which minimised the problems and which I was able to get the spine title in what seemed to be a fairly readable position. For the inside flap texts I lifted some extracts from previous posts in this blog, and then I was all set to print out a copy and see how it looked and fitted. The result was OK but there were some issues with the position of the title down the spine (it still went into some shaded areas where the black text wasn’t as clear as I would have liked); and the text on the back flap was a little too far away from the edge of the flap. I made the spine text smaller and adjusted the position of the back flap accordingly. However, a more intractible problem was that the picture simply wasn’t high enough; there would have to be a few millimetres of white space at the top and bottom of the cover because the print had been produced with a border.  I started to explore the print options and eventually came to the conclusion that borderless printing – which is what I needed to get the height I required – is unavailable for anything other than smaller Photo Papers. My printer simply does not support Photo Papers of 220 x 570 mm  (which is what I required); and does not support Borderless printing for anything other than Photo papers.

I compromised. I abandoned the quest to enable borderless printing and elected instead to go for High Resolution Paper and High Quality. The result still had a few millimetres of white border at the top and bottom of the cover, but the title was now clear and the print quality was noticeably better. I decided to quit while I was ahead. So my final print settings were:

  • Media Type: High Resolution Paper
  • Print Quality: High
  • Page Size: Width 200mm, Height 570mm
  • Printer Paper Size: Width 215.9mm, Height 570mm
  • Orientation: Landscape

The image I printed is shown below.

Sometimes Books Are Sound

Although this Journey is named Music Management, it deals with all the recorded material in our collection – including spoken word books. I first started listening to books on tape when I was commuting an hour and a half each way to and from work. My local library had a couple of bookshelves of titles which cost about a pound or two to hire for two weeks.  I can’t remember the first time I took a spoken word book out of the library, but I think I was inspired to do so after being given some abridged novels to listen to in my car – I particularly remember a Geoffrey Archer thriller and the amazing ‘Mind Over Matter’ by Ranolph Fienes. Abridged novels are a fun way of passing a few hours, but it’s not the same as reading a complete book; that is a much more involved, longer, experience in which you become immersed in the world that the author creates.  It is an experience that I found was a perfect way to alleviate the tedium of my long commute. Even traffic jams, accident delays and diversions became less of an irritation with a book being read out in the background.

As I got into the swing of it, I began to realise that listening to a book being read by a professional reader – or, better still, the author – was a different experience from reading it. I was finding that the reader was imparting atmospheres and nuances that perhaps I wouldn’t be generating myself. I found myself hooked – and so embarked on a period of about ten years when I listened to far more novels and non-fiction books than I could ever have read while working a demanding job.

One of the authors I particularly enjoyed in the car was Dirk Bogarde. His fine writing, gentle stories, fascinating autobiographies, and easy voice were very enjoyable; so, when I started collecting first edition books, he was one of the authors I started to acquire. Early this year I completed my set of  Dirk Bogarde first editions, but there were still a few of the volumes which I hadn’t actually read, and I started to think that It would be nice to re-experience the joys of being read to in the car (I stopped doing so when I retired). However, to do that I would have to acquire the relevant audio books.  A search on the net, established that, although all of the books had been produced on cassette tapes, only 6 had been subsequently converted to mp3 format on CD. If I was to listen to the books with only cassette tape versions, in my car (which does not have a cassette player – only a CD player),  I would have to buy the cassette versions, convert them to mp3 and put them on CD.

While I was pondering the technological intracacies that would be involved, I was also toying with the notion that perhaps my Dirk Bogarde first edition collection wouldn’t be complete without the spoken word versions; and that that, for completeness, would entail collecting both the cassette versions and the mp3 versions. After all, it was the spoken word versions that I’d enjoyed; and there was something special about having Dirk himself read out some of his books.

After mulling it over for a few weeks, I decided to go for it and to augment my Dirk Bogarde paper book collection with the digital equivalent. I duly set about trawling Ebay and Amazon for second hand versions of the cassette volumes, and soon acquired 4 of the titles in very good condition for between £8 and £20 each. They were not ex-library copies of which there are several available on Ebay – I knew what state they could be in from my experience of library loans. Two of the titles I bought were also available on CD for £8.99, so I bought those and had a very pleasant couple of weeks listening to the first of Bogarde’s autobiographies (A Postillion Struck By Lightning) in my car. The other two were not available on CD so I retrieved my Panasonic portable CD and Cassette player and my Numark TTSB turntable (which digitises the output from the cassette player and is designed to interface with a computer), from the loft, downloaded the Audacity software from the net and set about digitising the 16 sides of cassettes in each of the two volumes. It took an age – well, as long as it took the cassettes to play – between 8 and 9 hours in each case.  Then it was matter of using the Audacity functions to reduce the background noise levels and to eliminate unwanted material at the start and finish of each digitised tape, and then exporting the data to mp3 files.

I shall continue to collect the cassette versions of the other titles, and to, one way or another, obtain the equivalent mp3 files. I’ve decided I shall listen to all of the titles in the car – even the ones I’ve heard or read already. After all, this won’t impinge on anything else I’m doing – it’s just empty time in which I’ll be doing something I positively enjoy. However, this time I shall read (well, listen to) the autobiographies in the chronological order of the times they deal with (the publication dates of the autobiographies do not always correspond to the order of the events described); and I’ll read the novels in the order they were written.

I’ve taken the time to write about all this for two reasons: first, because I believe the joys and huge potential of listening to spoken word literature is not appreciated widely enough; and second, because I think it’s an interesting question as to whether a collector of an author’s novels also needs to acquire the spoken word versions to have a truly complete collection.  On the former point, I would encourage people who’ve never tried it to give it a go – it could enable you to experience huge amounts of great literature that you might never have the time or inclination to read. As to the latter point – well you’ll have to judge for yourself: but, for me, Dirk Bogarde’s books, and his autobiographies in particular, will always be intricately bound to his words lilting in my ears.

Binding Sounds – Part 1

I’m a novice bookbinder with only 7 tuition sessions under my belt, so the following description of the creation of the Sounds for Alexa book may not use the correct terminology or reflect bookbinding best practice. However, this is how I’ve been going about it: there are 7 main stages to the work – create the content; print the pages in sections; sew the sections together; cut the edges and shape the spine; create the hardback cover; attach the sewn sections to the hardback cover; and mark up the cover with the book title.

The book was created in Microsoft Word using a two column format and the ‘Book Fold’ Page Setup. Book Fold produces double sided landscape A4 pages which, when printed, are arranged so that the pages appear consecutively when all the pages are laid flat one on top of another and then the whole set is folded in half. This produces a bookbinding Section. I elected to have sections containing 16 pages i.e four A4 pages each with four half pages – two on the front and two on the back – and I ended up with 10 sections as you can see in the picture below.Sections are sewn together using linen thread and linen or cotton tape. A template is made to match the height of the book. The positions of where the thread will be sewn is marked on the template as shown below.

Excluding the extreme left and right positions on the template above, the space between where the thread is passed through the top of the section to the underside and then passed back up to the top of the section is the width of the tape. Each section is placed in a cradle in turn and, using the template, holes are pricked through the centre of the section at the positions marked on the template – if you expand the image below you’ll be able to see the pinpricks.

The sections are then sewn one after another with the thread being sewn around the tape. As the thread is taken from one section to another, the thread is knotted to bind the sections securely together.  Once all the sections have been sewn, a coating of EVA  glue is applied to the spine. The picture below shows the completed sewn sections.

This is where I got up to in my last bookbinding class. The next term of classes start in May, so I hope I’ll be able to recount how I made the covers, attached them to the sewn sections, and completed the book, towards the end of June.

Testing Alexa and Icon Allocation

Our Sounds for Alexa book includes 335 albums, of which 43 are self-made recordings, special promotional productions or audio books. The remaining 292 were deemed to have been commercially produced and widely marketed and therefore to have been reasonable candidates for inclusion in Amazon’s Music Unlimited library (which apparently contains some 40 million songs) which we now subscribe to. I successfully requested Alexa to play 189 of these, but the remaining 103 proved more problematic; either Alexa couldn’t understand what I was asking for or the album didn’t exist in the Music Unlimited library.  By searching the Amazon web site I determined that while 62 were not available in the library, 41 were present and should have been accessible via Alexa. I tried requesting these 41 a second time, but could only get 14 of them to play. This leaves 27 albums which Alexa should be able to play but which I have been unable to make a successfull request for.

These statistics hide an extensive and sometimes extremely frustrating set of interchanges with our new house lodger. An example at the straightforward end of this spectrum was a request for the album ‘The Carpenters’ by The Carpenters  which consistently resulted in the album ‘Carpenters Gold’ being played. On reporting this foible via the feedback mechanism in the Alexa app, I received a very prompt reply from Amazon Customer Services confirming that this was incorrect and advising that the technical team had been informed.  Perhaps less easy to understand, however, were the 8 albums which Alexa seemed to have understood what I had requested  (she repeated the words back to me correctly), but said she couldn’t find the albums despite the Amazon website saying they were available in Amazon’s streaming service.

For the remaining 18 albums, Alexa just couldn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Sometimes she got close as, for example, with East of Eden’s ‘Mercator Projected’ album, she repeated ‘Mercato Projected; and for the album ‘Fongo’ by Los Chinches, she repeated ‘Fungo by Les Chinchillas’. For other albums, she was just way off as with Peter Sellers’ ‘Fool Britannia’ which she repeated as what sounded like ‘full returning to bratamella’.

For most of the problem items I had at least two or three goes each time, and sometimes Alexa simply got worse and worse rather than better and better. For example, Alexa’s first attempt at Tom Russell’s ‘The Rose of Roscrae’ was ‘rossel rescit’ and the second time around she moved on to ‘the runners of roscrae’. Likewise her first attempt at the album ‘Let Spin’ by Let Spin was ‘ led span by led spain’; followed up with a second attempt in which she started playing Felice Civitareale’s album ‘Let’s go to Spain’.

Such interactions in the end become rather tiresome because the exchanges are all one-sided. Alexa doesn’t pick up on cues like a hoot of laughter at what she is saying, or the tetchiness in one’s voice as you say the same thing yet again. Of course, in normal day to day use, one wouldn’t be going through a whole list of problem items, so its unlikely that one would experience so many consecutive unsuccessful interactions. After all, Alexa’s overall success of playing 203 of the 230 albums that I believed she should be able to play, seems pretty good. However, this exercise has clearly highlighted the fact that the system has not yet been perfected. Furthermore, as well as the basic voice recognition issues, there are also a couple of other functionality shortcomings which Amazon hasn’t addressed – first, for albums consisting of more than one disc, there appears to be no way of specifying that Alexa should start playing Disc 2 as opposed to Disc 1; and second, there is no way of getting Alexa to move directly to a specific track number.

All the above insights came from my attempt to get Alexa to play every commercially available album in our book. Having completed all that testing, I was now in a position to allocate a colour coded icon to each of the albums. I ended up with the following three icons:

This item is part of the digital collection and can be heard by playing it on the iPhone; or through Alexa’s speakers by setting up a Bluetooth connection between the iPhone and Alexa. It is not available through Amazon’s Streaming Service.

This item is available in Amazons streaming service and can be listened to by requesting Alexa to play it.

 

Even if this album is not available in Amazon Music, it may be possible to get Alexa to play individual tracks from the album because they may be present in other albums which are available in the Streaming Service.

In the book, I have placed these icons directly between the album’s name and it’s cover art – as shown in the example below. Note that an album can have all or none or some of these icons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I decided that I would allocate a Cloud icon to those 27 problem items which I have been unable to get Alexa to play, on the basis that they are available in the Streaming Service and that one day Alexa may be able to play them.

With all the allocations complete, it was time to complete the printing of the book and to take it into bookbinding – more of this in my next entry.

Sounds for Alexa

Having decided to create a book listing all our albums, I soon realised that there were a couple of other things that could be included. First, there are several albums that I no longer have but which I have fond memories of. Second, for the last 4 or 5 years I’ve been reading The Guardian reviews of new albums and listening to samples of their tracks in the Amazon site and including those I particularly like in my Amazon Wish List. By subscribing to Amazon Music Unlimited, all these albums should be available to listen to through Alexa, so I’m going to include these in the book as well.

Since every album in the book would be playable either directly by Alexa or on the iPhone through Alexa, I decided to create simple colour coded icons for each of those mechanisms and to allocate one or both to every entry. To make it a bit easier to use the book in conjunction with Alexa, I’ll top and tail the book with some guidance about using Alexa, and with an index to the artists listed in the book. I also decided to leave some blank pages at the very end of the book so that there will be space to handwrite new entries as we discover new music that we like. All these elements combine together into the following Contents list:

  1. Su & Paul’s Digital Sounds Collection (Individual Artists, Various Artists, Singles, Sountracks, Spoken Word)
  2. Albums that Paul has sampled and likes
  3. Albums that Paul likes but hasn’t got
  4. Albums that Su likes but hasn’t got
  5. Index
  6. Additional Entries

The title of the book has to reflect the fact that it contains more than just music, so in the end I decided to go with ‘Sounds for Alexa’ with a sub-title ‘A listing of Su and Paul’s digitised LPs, Cassettes, Tapes and CDs for use in the marriage of Alexa to Aye Fon’

With this structure in place I set about populating the sections. For our digitised collection I was able to draw on the digital folders and files for the titles and album art. I also included the track list underneath each album picture, by using Microsoft’s ‘Copy as Path’ function (select all the sound files in an album, hold down the shift key and right click the mouse). If the result is pasted into excel, it’s a simple matter to copy the whole of the standard path in front of the actual track names, put it into the Find and Replace tool, open up the replace section with zero contents and do ‘Replace All’. This deletes all the path information. The ‘.mp3’ extension at the end of the file names can be removed in a similar way. This leaves just the track numbers and titles which I then copied into the Word document.

The Amazon Wish List material was simple enough to copy and paste into the book – though I didn’t attempt to try and find track titles for each album – that would have been a step too far! The final section – albums I would like but haven’t got – was again populated by finding the album concerned within Amazon and copying and pasting the relevant information.

Although this initial population of the book was very time-consuming, it was at least relatively straight forward. The next phase – finding out what Alexa could and couldn’t play – was considerably more demanding.

Alexa’s Arrival (and I Start Bookbinding)

Alexa arrived at our house last December accompanied by glowing references regarding her musical abilities and her speaking skills. Within an hour or so she had found a spot in our kitchen-diner and had settled in.

Alexa is, of course, Amazon’s Echo product who’s main feature is that you use it by talking to it – no screens, no keyboards, just the word ‘Alexa’ and then whatever you want to request. For example, ‘Alexa, play BBC Radio 2’, or ‘Alexa, play the album 25 by Adele’.

Su had seen an advert and I had looked up some reviews on the net which were pretty complimentary. We realised that, as well as enabling us to play our digitised music, Alexa would give us access to radio stations. The sound quality was reported to be very good, and the device itself was a relatively small cylinder which would take up very little space. We found a good deal from John Lewis (reduced from 149.99 to £119.99) and duly placed our order.

At first, we just relished the ability to call up UK radio stations (and I even managed a station from as far afield as Singapore); and then I figured out how to get Alexa to play the music on my iPhone using a Bluetooth connection. Following some suggestions in the weekly ‘What’s new with Alexa’ email, I tried Alexa’s multiple choice adventure game, asked her to tell me a joke, and set up the Jamie Oliver add-on (or ‘skill’ as add-ons are known in this Amazon world) to get some advice on recipes. Finally, when we realised that Alexa could play just about any song or album, we took advantage of Amazon’s offer of a free month using Amazon Music – and then just rolled over and took out the £3.99 a month subscription.

It was a significant moment. In the space of about 6 weeks we had overcome two of our longstanding problems – a) not having a decent sound system with our record collection sitting next to it, and b) not being able to get good quality radio reception. However, there was still one facet of this arrangement which falls short – it’s not possible to glance across a shelf of CDs to look for inspiration about what to play.

It was a completely fortuitous coincidence that around this time I had enrolled on one of the very few Bookbinding courses in the UK at the Bedford Arts and Craft Centre some 20 minutes away from where I live. As I started creating my first book – a 160 page A5 notebook with blank pages – I started to realise how that final shortcoming of our Alexa setup could be resolved: I could create the ‘bookshelf’ of all our LPs, tapes and CDs in a book which we could keep next to Alexa. The book would include the album covers so you could flick through and let your eyes be caught by familiar images; and it would specify whether each album could be played by Alexa or would have to be played on the iPhone through Alexa. Having recently completed the digitisation of all of our albums, I knew that I had all the information and album art in my laptop; and with my rudimentary knowledge of book binding, I was pretty sure I could assemble the material in a Word document that could be printed out in the form required to create a book. With a growing sense of doing something rather interesting, I embarked on structuring the book and setting it up in Word.

Ripping Yarns

I completed ripping (copying) the second batch of our CDs (about 80 of them) a couple of days ago, and am now working on the order of service for Alexa’s wedding. But before we go into that, I’ll recount some of my experiences of digitising CDs.

The ripping software I’ve been using is Windows Media Player (WMP) – an easy choice since it comes bundled and free with the Windows operating system. WMP provides an option to require it to automatically rip any CD that’s inserted into the computer’s CD player. So, ripping 80 or so CDs is not such a difficult job. You just push the CD into the slot, let the software get on with it, and do nothing else until the tray is ejected and you can replace the CD with another one.

WMP places the contents of a rip into a folder that you pre-specify as another option (I’ve specified the ‘My MUSIC’ folder). It creates a main folder for the artist, and then a sub-folder for the album into which the actual track files are placed. There are some exceptions to this structure: compilation CDs are placed into a main folder labelled ‘Various Artists’ and film or stage music is placed into a ‘Soundtrack’ main folder. WMP is able to pick this information up from the ‘Properties’ of the track files (more of this later). I have added a few other main folders to accommodate some of the material that I have digitised from tapes and LPs – a ‘Spoken Word’ main folder for tapes of friends and family talking, and for audio books; and a ‘Singles’ main folder for our old 45 singles record collection and other singles compilations. To give you an idea of volumes, I now have 283 ‘album’ folders within 135 main ‘artist’ folders, and this whole set of material takes up about 22Gb.

The quality of the information that WMP puts into these folder names and into track file names when it rips a CD, is entirely dependent on the quality of the information on the CD. For CDs issued by large commercial record companies, the information is usually complete and correct. However, I have come across CDs with a variety of problems such as incorrect album date, information for a completely different album, and no information whatsoever. When WMP encounters missing information, including missing album art, it will automatically try and find it on the net (provided you have accepted this default WMP option). Should it be unsuccessful the only thing you can do then is to manually input the missing information into the Properties of each track file.

To adjust the information in a track file, the standard file Properties box is opened in the normal way, and then the Details tab is selected (see examples below).

The Details tab contains a large number of information fields, however the ones I’ve found to be worth getting right are:

  • Title (it is this Title and not the file name that appears in WMP)
  • Album Artist
  • Album
  • Year
  • Genre (I think you can specify anything in here)

In cases where there is no information on the CD and WMP hasn’t been able to find it on the net, I’ve just had to take the information from the CD cover and manually type it in. Of course, for tapes created at home of people talking etc. all of this material has to be created from scratch – including the Album Art jpg file which WMP uses to display the album in its library. However, once the relevant files have been populated, the album and its individual tracks will appear in the WMP library. If WMP can’t find an Album Art jpg file it will display a blank icon with a musical note in it. I find this unsatisfactory and go out of my way to provide a  picture of some sort or another. In my experience, much album art is available somewhere on the net, however, if I can’t find any, for music CDs I scan the covers that come with the physical CD; and for LPs (which are too big for my scanner), I take photos of the sleeve and then crop it to the exact size. For tapes that I have created myself of people talking etc. I have tended to either use a relevant photo or to construct an appropriate picture in PowerPoint.

Having completed all this work, I can now see all my album covers in the WMP library; can search on album titles, artists, track names and genre; can play all this material on my laptop; and have downloaded it onto my iphone for listening to when away from the laptop. However, it still hasn’t really solved the problem of not having all the physical CDs next to a CD player in a room where you can look through the collection, choose something to listen to and slot it into the CD player. However, it was the arrival of Alexa that spurred this final batch of ripping, and it is the marriage of Alexa to my iPhone (using some surprisingly old technology) that I’m hoping might go some way towards addressing this shortcoming. I’ll describe how in my next entry.

How the technology escaped us

It was back in 2008 that I started to digitise our tapes and remaining LPs. Now we’re on the final leg of this digitising journey and soon will be up to date with the technology after we’ve finished arranging Alexa’s marriage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First let me describe how we got started.

Like everybody else, we were left with large collections of LPs and cassette tapes when CD’s started to make their mark. We replaced those which had Compact Disc versions and which we liked best, with their CD counterparts. However, by 2008 we still had some left, as well as a reel to reel tape and a number of cassettes with recordings of events, family and friends. It was clear that unless they were digitised we would eventually have no equipment to play them on. So I acquired a Numark TTUSB turntable with a USB audio interface, downloaded the free open source Audacity recording and editing software, plugged in an old ghetto blaster cassette deck, and set about digitising the remaining LPs and cassettes. It wasn’t particularly difficult – though it did take a while to establish how to set the most appropriate recording levels, and to become familiar with Audacity’s editing functionality.

The 9 inch reel-to-reel tape was a different kettle of fish. I had no such equipment of my own and didn’t know anyone who had one. However, I did have a friend who used to work in BBC radio and she put me on to an ex-BBC sound engineer who retrieved the contents and put them onto a CD for me for a small fee (which my friend very kindly paid – thank you, Vanessa!).

It was about a year after this that my daughter gave me an iPod Nano for Christmas and that was the spur for me to rip all the CDs in my study (as opposed to the household’s collection of CDs downstairs) and to download them, as well as all the other music and spoken word material I had previously dealt with, onto the tiny device. I took great pleasure in being able to bring all this material to life by having the ipod play random selections using its ‘shuffle’ feature whenever I turned my laptop on in my study.

In the meantime our main household music collection was now held entirely on CDs and was played on either the TV’s DVD box in the lounge or on a wall mounted CD player in the conservatory.  The main CD collection was held in a separate downstairs room, and a small subset of CDs was kept on the conservatory window ledge. This wasn’t really a satisfactory arrangement since a) we didn’t use the TV’s CD player capability very much at all; and the main CD collection was stored well away from our only CD player; but it worked for when we needed to play some music.

Meanwhile the world was storming away with new hand held devices designed to, among other things, play music; with new music services like the Apple Store; and with new (quite expensive) digital music systems, such as Sonos, designed to store digital music and play it on dedicated speakers throughout the house. In 2012, I acquired an iPhone and put some music onto it – though I can’t say I listened to it a great deal. I also set my laptop up to act as media server and acquired a dongle for our lounge TV so that we could select music residing on my laptop and play it through the TV. Again, we only used that capability infrequently for parties and the like because, apart from having to ensure the laptop was switched on and not in sleep mode, the search and retrieval facilities through our TV are very cumbersome).  There was no further change in our household music situation until we moved house in 2015 and moved the CD player into our kitchen-diner room – though the CD collection was still held separately.

For the last couple of years I’ve been hearing more and more about Spotify – mainly from my son-in-law and daughter who use it as their main music source. They seem to have done away with the notion of a music collection and just call up whatever they want to listen to. I’ve been impressed by what you can call up, but not enough to actually decide to sign up for such a service and to install the necessary speaker systems in the house.

In actual fact, we’ve just been left behind by a series of technology changes that we don’t fully appreciate or understand. We started out in our youth by listening to our favourite LPs over and over again on music centres which also played cassettes and the radio; and, despite all the technology advances, we now listen to music much less often – and probably watch more TV than we used to. I suspect it’s not an uncommon story. If we’d had lots of spare money I would have been inclined to just install a Sonos-type system throughout the house; but we haven’t got unlimited funds and somehow music has never been at the top of the priority list while we’ve been able to play what we want to listen to in some way or other.

However, everything changed for us towards the end of last year when Alexa arrived….. to be continued….