Category: Nerdy Music


One of the best Kickstarter projects I contributed towards in 2011 (and easily the fastest to go from Kickstarter to my mailbox) was Jack Stratton’s “Funklet: Graphic notations of twenty classic funk beats.” (My full Kickstarter history is here. Looks like I’m going to be getting approximately one documentary in the mail every day in Q4 2012.)

So yes: drummers, coded music, and unwieldy and inconvenient print and recording projects, all rolled into one – there was no way I was not giving them my money. Normally, a sentence like “A funky beat is a great design” would make me want to die, but in the context of the Kickstarter pitch, I can almost not even cringe when I read it:

I want to make a book about drumming that looks good. A funky beat is a great design. Some great designers:
– Bernard Purdie
– James Gadson
– Herman Roscoe Ernerst III
– Zigaboo
– Roger Hawkins
– Clyde Stubblefield

Not long after the project was funded, I got an email with a zip file containing new recordings of 20 isolated funk beats; and shortly thereafter, the Funklet itself showed up in my Mailbox:

The best part: the writeups that accompany each beat are a perfect mix between informative, insightful, and hilarious: what could have been dry dissection and analysis is instead another key part of the package. Listening to the beats while reading the backstory and following along with the graphic notation was the closest thing to a “following along in the liner notes” experience I’ve ever had with an MP3.

If this seems awesome to you, you’re in luck! While the Funklet is now out of print, Stratton has encouraged his backers to pass around the PDF version, and a website presenting interactive versions of roughly half of the beats has been launched at While the website doesn’t echo the “liner-note-iness” of the print version, it does allow you to slow the beat down to more readily pick it apart, which is nice.

A seemingly random byproduct of this whole project came in the eighth and final update message sent to the Funklet’s Kickstarter backers: several Bernard Purdie beats (including one transcribed in the Funklet) mashed up with Beatles songs, to create “The Funky Beatles” (It’s probably worth noting here that Purdie apparently overdubbed drums onto several Pete Best-era Beatles tracks for US release in 1964 – I didn’t know that). The full four-song playlist is here, but my favorite is “Little Something:”

Ok, that’s all. Its probably a safe bet that I will never use the word “Funk” this much ever, ever again.

Crossword Puzzle as Musical Notation

     As a part of my ongoing effort to become indistinguishable from a senior citizen while still in my early 30s, I’ve been doing the New York Times Crossword lately. In order to protect myself from feeling like an idiot, I usually only attempt the Monday and Tuesday puzzles. Occasionally I’ll try the Wednesday. Often Sarah and I will work on the puzzle together at a restaurant, intimidating other patrons with our coolness.

     Anyway, it should come as no surprise that my very favorite puzzles are the ones with some sort of “high concept” built in. The best is when the answers not only follow a theme, but when something about that theme is echoed in the visual structure of the puzzle. The NYT recently ran my most favorite concept puzzle of all time. SPOILER ALERT: if you plan to do the March 15th NYT crossword – STOP READING NOW!

     Below is an image of the completed puzzle. The theme answers, in green, are as follows:

  • Composer of 20 across: Beethoven
  • Work by 16 across: Ode to Joy
  • How the circled letters of 20 across are played: In C Major
  • Items you might play 20 across on: Piano Keys

Coded Joy.


     So, yes: the theme is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Ok, ready to have your mind blown? The circled letters, highlighted in yellow, denote the key musical phrase from “Ode to Joy,” with the letters moving up and down within the crossword grid corresponding to notes moving up and down the keyboard.

     Awesome, right? I know, I was pretty excited. If you’re into stuff like this (And really, who wouldn’t be?) the special features section of the DVD release of Crossword documentary Wordplay has a great collection of theme puzzles being described by their authors. Nerd alert!

The Case of the "Audiosonic Identiglyph"

Updates are at the bottom: update 1, update 2, and update 3. Also: an interview (of sorts) with those responsible for the record.

Sometime last week, I became aware of a new 7″ vinyl release called “Greetings from the World Wide Web,” which appears to be a split release between Detroit band Fawn and eCommerce-centric digital agency Brand Labs. The record was described in the Facebook event invitation for its release thusly:

“Greetings from the World Wide Web is a bold experiment in 21st century consumer outreach protocol by Brand Labs of Rochester, Michigan. By utilizing the Audiosonic Identiglyph (AI), the modern businessperson is no longer limited by the archaic constraints of print and digital media when the time comes to seek out new markets. Using the AI allows the businessperson in question to access as yet unreached customers by promulgating the most critical information about their operation in an easy-to-use, algorithmically encoded audio file that is ready-made for broadcast over the public airwaves – ripe to be captured, decoded and interpreted by any clients within range of the transmission. When you think next level ecommerce, think Brand Labs.”

So yes, encoded audio on vinyl: laser targeted to the confluence of my interests. I’ll bite. With full knowledge that I may well be indulging a wild goose chase dressed up in an attempt to “go viral,” I tracked down a copy via a friend, and have since spent a fair amount of time digesting it.

Before I dive into the nerdy bits, though, I’ll say that the Fawn song is good and you can listen to it here.

The Sleeve

The front cover is decorated with a nicely-executed parade of unlabelled illustrations referencing the high points of internet meme-dom, some more obvious than others. The last one in the second row is my favorite – deceptively understated!

Parade o' Memes.

The back cover sports the ‘Audiosonic Identiglyph, surrounded by several paragraphs of purposely stilted-sounding copy. The text claims that the audio on the Brand Labs side of the record is created using the following process:

“Using dual-tone multi-frequency signaling technology and the Goertzel algorithm (s(n) = x(n) + 2cos(2πω)s(n-1) – s(n-2)) our in-house image processing division converts the Identiglyph to a series of tones which are then converted to a single unbroken groove of varying depth, which is subsequently transferred to a vinyl disk that can easily be read by a common phonograph.”

A scan of the back cover is below, clicking it gets a larger file.

The 'Glyph' in question w/ associated patter.


While I originally recorded the encoded audio onto my laptop for de-nerding purposes (see below), Brand Labs have since uploaded an MP3 of the encoded “Identiglyph” here. A note about the mp3 – while this comes directly from Brand Labs, the right channel is a solid square wave of noise – not sure if that’s part of the puzzle or an oversight. Either way, I’ve isolated just the left channel as an MP3 below. You can download the file here.

The finest in nerdy home decor.

[audio:|titles=Left Channel]

After doing some preliminary googling and wikipediaing, it was clear to me that just as the liner notes had indicated, the audio was indeed a high-speed series of DTMF tones (An example that sounds similar can be found in this youtube video). Despite downloading and experimenting with all manner of DTMF decoders, however, I never found a reliable, reproducable decoding of the audio.

Worried that I might be chasing down a joke, I took to twitter to see if I could wrest any clues out of Brand Labs:

@Brand_Labs @Kay_Aitch_Eyy Is your “audiosonic identiglyph” actually decodable? A first pass at DTMF decoding is yielding “99999999” for me.

@adamkempa Via the Director of Marketing: The process of encoding is proprietary, but it involves both the DTMF and the Goertzel algorithm.

.@adamkempa Via our Director of Marketing: “We have a high confidence level that most consumers will meet with decoding success.”

So… that didn’t yield much in the way of new information, and at this point, my “This-is-just-a-dumb-stunt-and-there-is-nothing-encoded” spidey sense was tingling. I tried following up one more time for a hint or at least direct confirmation that there was something to be found:

@Kay_Aitch_Eyy Would your director of engineering agree with that statement? Any recommended decoding method? #keeptrying? #foolserrand?

.@adamkempa Via Marketing Director: “There are no fool’s errands. Work is noble in each case.”

Hm. I still can’t tell if I’m being toyed with, but prefixing every response with ‘Via Director of Marketing’ tends to instill the opposite of confidence in me.

The next night, I did a bit more meddling with DTMF decoders and then I had to call time on the whole ordeal, as I’ve got other projects that are demanding my attention. If it were simply a DTMF encoding, I would think the Brand Labs folks would be counting on a reasonably simple method of decoding it, but I haven’t yet found one. I still believe there’s something encoded there, and in my experience the best way to figure these kinds of things out is to post them on the internet (Case in point).

My suspicion is that there’s some missing piece to the puzzle in the changing numbers of lines in each section of the outer ring of the ‘Identiglyph,” especially as there is a clearly identified ‘Start’ point.

Better quality 'Glyph.'

In the days since I stopped digging, Brand Labs has put up two additional pages here and here, each continuing the pseudo-official tone; and has seemingly issued a press release, which all the copy & paste newswire business blogs have dutifully reposted. I leave this in your hands, internet nerds. Godspeed.


Lo! Already, the great internet is yielding results! After seeing my plea for help on Twitter, Scott David Herman swiftly deduced that the Identiglyph encodes the latitude and longitude of Brand Labs:

@adamkempa: The identiglyph lines = GPS coords. Outer ring: 42.676409. Inner ring: -83.126796. It’s Brand Labs’ address.

This explains the decimal point on the right, and the inverted black and white of the inner ring could even be meant to reflect the ‘negative’ of the longitude.


Punching the decoded latitude and longitude into Google Maps…

The encoded latitude and longitude...

…we get a location in Rochester, Michigan…

Brand Labs on the map...

…which matches up exactly with Brand Labs’ address! Progress!

But where to next?

9/29/10: Another update!

Two more answers regarding the visual Identiglyph:

1.) My co-worker Karl Tiedemann was the first to posit that the three rings of dots around the central icon represented the atomic configuration of silicon:

@adamkempa The dots orbiting the strange nucleus represent the atomic configuration of Silicon:

2.) Commenter “Lazenby” reinforces the Silicon hypothesis and also adds that the center-most symbol is the astrological symbol for earth:

So… we’ve got the location of a digital agency, Silicon, and Earth. I guess that kind of holds together? Still nothing on the audio front…

10/3/10: The final chapter?

I’ve been away from email all weekend, so there’s tons of stuff pieced together into this update. Let’s start with some refinements to the interpretation of the imagery we’ve arrived at thus far.

Early on Friday, TheHarmonyGuy noted in the comments to this post that the angular cross / circle shape that surrounds the symbol we had previously identified as representing ‘Earth’ is used in typography to signify ‘Currency:’

Now THIS is a symbol I did not know about.

Soon after, Sid dug further into the symbols at the center of the glyph, noting that the ‘Earth’ symbol at the center has held many varied meanings, and further pointing out that the ‘Currency sign’ can also denote a Hexadecimal number, which was much more likely to be applicable in this case:

Both the above-mentioned Sid, and another commenter on this post, ASDR, made valiant attempts at decoding the DTMF tones, but ran into very much the same results as I did in my efforts: each DTMF software decoder they attempted to use arrived at different results.

Late on Thursday night, I had posted a question on Ask Metafilter, seeking recommendations for ways in which to attack the DTMF decoding. There, a poster recommended slowing down the recording but maintaining the pitch, so that slow decoders might perform better on the recording. I tried this without any luck and at this point it dawned on me that since resolving a DTMF tone to it’s respective data is heavily dependent on accurately reading the frequencies, any change in pitch could make the recording almost impossible to improperly decode. I compared the MP3 with the original audio I pulled off the vinyl, and noted a noticable difference in pitch, so I was rapodly losing faith in the decodability of the audio.

Late last night, Metafilter user Rhomboid posted his findings to the Ask Metafilter thread. His description of the encoding and how he cracked it is meticulously detailed, based on a string of smart solutions compensating for the frequency inconsistencies. He even shared the source of the custom Perl script he ended up writing to do the decoding.

Decoding the tones with adjusted frequency expectations resulted in 22221 symbols, which were then converted to binary and renamed as a JPG, producing the 216×216 Identiglyph image below:

While there are still some unanswered questions (Earth -> Currency / Hexadecimal -> Silicon -> Brand labs?), I was mostly interested in the encoded audio, so I’m satisfied. I’ve inquired about talking to the team who put this together, so an epilogue to this whole affair may appear at a later date.

In the meantime, a HUGE thanks to everyone who played a role in cracking this: Rhomboid for doing the heaviest lifting in walking the audio all the way through to an image; ‘ADSR’ for spending time further exploring the DTMF angle after I’d given it up; Scott David Herman, Karl Tiedemann, ‘Lazenby,’ Sid, and ‘TheHarmonyGuy‘ for providing bits of the visual Identiglyph Puzzle, and Andy Baio for helping get the word out to the nerds of the internet (The number of seemingly automated Twitter accounts that simply retweet his link feed truly surprised me, though it shouldn’t have – as it has remained the gold standard for so long). Oh, also the internet, for always making any question I post on it get answered, except for in enterprise software support forums. Even the magic of the internet doesn’t work there.

1/2/11: The creators speak (But never break character)

After the dust settled on the decoding excitement, I emailed Brand Labs in an attempt to speak candidly about the project. They agreed to answer any questions I had, but never broke character in doing so. I’ve pasted the full exchange below for the curious.

What were the origins / inspirations of the project?

As we began to dig below the candy-colored surface of today’s social media and digital marketing, we began to see an entirely untapped source of consumer outreach: namely, algorithmically-encoded analog audio. It was so very obvious that we nearly tripped over it. As for our inspiration, we drew from a classic: NASA’s Golden Record from its Voyager missions. It bore the fundamental elements we felt were lacking from current marketing outlets and its mission was simple – tell the audience who you are, what you do and where you may be found. From that inspiration, it was a clear, straight line to our final product. Even the inclusion of popular music as a cultural touchstone for anyone who came upon the artifact (in this case, “Hip Parade” by FAWN) was directly inspired by NASA’s inclusion of Charles Berry’s composition in their project.

Was the intent that the audio would actually be decoded, or was this meant as a “No one will ever do this” exercise in absurdity?

It has always been (and continues to be) our assertion that the public would be able to easily discern our intention, and that they would certainly have a basic understanding of the Goertzel algorithm and dual-tone multi-frequency signaling technology (we did all go to junior high school, after all).

Were you surprised at how quickly the audio was decoded?

We believe the speed with which the audio and the Identiglyph were decoded simply proves our original assertion that the public’s interest and aptitude in amateur cryptography must never be underestimated. In point of fact, had it taken longer we would have been sorely disappointed in mankind in general.

Were you surprised at some of the variance that got introduced, and how involved the decoding got?

A great man once said that one man can never fully know the mind of another. If one accepts that as an ultimate truth (as we do) it follows that a certain amount of unpredictability must be engineered into any given process, as was the case here.

So… “Audiosonic Identiglyph…” …really?

We occasionally and arbitrarily disdain the contemporary trend of assigning “catchy” or “clever” names to items that may be better described in a clear and straightforward manner. In this case, we chose to call a spade a spade.

Encoded audio on vinyl, speaks to a very niche market – was that the target?

Our target is universal and our goal was to ensure the durability of our message. The vinyl “record” offers many durability benefits that digital media does not. As for the encoding element, the simple fact is that languages die (e.g. Esperanto or Canadian) and we’re in this game for the long haul. We intend to be offering online commerce consulting and marketing services long after the English language is nothing more than a quaint memory.

Has everything encoded in the record been properly deciphered? Or are there still a few details we’ve got wrong?

To the best of our knowledge, the lion’s share has been fully decoded with the possible exception of the precise location of D.B. Cooper and the remainder of his ill-gotten gains, however, as that portion of the project wasn’t central to our goal, it would be fair to say that the decoding is complete.

What has the feedback been like so far?

To this point, the feedback has been equal parts amazement, ennui and rabid consumerism, which, in the introduction of any bleeding edge technology, is an entirely predictable result.

Instant Albums

     Yet another website for a nerdy musical project I was involved in: The gist was to throw a party where random ‘bands’ would be drawn from a hat and tasked with writing and recording a song in an hour. Below is the latest version of the ‘rules:’

  • Invite a bunch of ‘music people.’
  • Write names of all participants on slips of paper, which are then folded and placed in a bowl.
  • Draw ‘Bands’ of a predetermined number from the bowl
  • No more than 2 bandmates on any team, only 1 if they’re regularly a trio.
  • Once the first band is drawn, they will descend into the basement, where they will have exactly one hour to write and record basic tracks.
  • No further names will be drawn until their hour ends, so no one gets a head start.
  • Each band will be granted an additional half-hour for vocals following the subsequent band’s initial hour.
  • Strict clock enforcement!

     We did this on three seperate occaisions. Our findings are available on the website, which exists in order to encourage others to duplicate the experiment / event.

     I meant to link to this awhile ago, but I somehow managed to completely forget about it. Only upon seeing this Pitchfork news story, detailing a forthcoming live composition gameshow pitting members of the Shins against SNL’s Fred Armisen was I reminded that it existed. Now seems like a good enough time to link to it. The article mentions that this event may eventually be developed into a TV show, which would be very, very great.

Coded Cover: Kate Bush

     The Cardhouse robot recently pointed out this article, which discusses the cover art for Kate Bush’s forthcoming album “Aerial,” correctly asserting that it is “right up my alley.” The central image of rocks reflected in water is also clearly representative of an audio waveform. While this has been mentioned on Kate Bush message boards, I wasn’t able to find any investigation into what exactly the content being represented was, so I decided to poke around a little bit.

Aerial Thumb

     I found a relatively high resolution version of the cover online (click the image above to download), then used Photoshop to adjust the contrast until I had a relatively distinct image of the waveform. Obviously, this isn’t the best method to use if you’re attempting to preserve the integrity of the waveform, so I definitely lost some resolution by doing it this way.

     At any rate, I ended up with the image you see below. Click the image to obtain a higher resolution version for your own experimentation.

     The next step was to turn the finished image into sound. To accomplish this, I used a windows program called Bitmaps & Waves. This required that I cut the image of the waveform in half – which produced the image below. Same ‘click for higher-res’ standard applies for the whole of this article.

     Feeding the image of the half-waveform into Bitmaps & Waves resulted in a full audio file, as seen below.

     Here’s an image of the finished audio file. Close enough, right? So what’s it sound like? Download it here, or click on the player below.

Kate Bush – Aerial Cover Waveform

[audio:Kate Bush – Aerial Cover Wave.mp3]

Admitting Defeat

     So why does it sound like that? I should first preface this with the fact that I didn’t retain very much of the soundwave stuff I learned in various physics classes, and everything I say from here on in is based on stuff I’ve picked up while using audio editing software. In short: take everything with a grain of salt.

     My understanding is that the file I produced emulates only the volume envelope (variation in level), and position with respect to time (rhythm) of the recording, and not the actual sound waves (oscillations) being produced. Bitmaps & Waves appears to use a simple Sine oscillator to generate the soundfile based on the image you provide. Based on this, I don’t think it’s possible to retrieve the actual audio content being displayed on this cover, so rather than stay up any later thinking about this, I’m handing off my work as it stands to the internet at large. Maybe someone with more insight will devise a way to figure out what the damn sound is.

     My current theory is that it’s a clip of the lyrics from the album, and that some obsessive Kate Bush fan would be able to determine which bit of the album is represented by comparing the Waveforms of the album audio with the image on the cover. Believe it or not, even I’m not that obsessive. No, really.

Update: Mystery Solved

     Well, if you read far enough down into the comments on this post, you’ll see that someone has, in fact, located the bit from the album that appears on the front cover. Turns out it’s a bird call, which is available as an MP3, here.

Kate Bush – Aerial Bird Waveform

[audio:Kate Bush – Aerial Bird Wave.mp3]

Bird Call

     As many suggested in the comments, speeding up the MP3 I originally produced several hundred percent was indeed the way to go — doing so actually produces a pretty convincing match to the rhythm of the source audio. Here’s an MP3 consisting of both the source ‘bird call,’ and my original recovery effort played together, for the extra inquisitive among you.

Kate Bush – Aerial Cover Waveform Comparison

[audio:Kate Bush – Aerial Cover Wave Comparison.mp3]

Playback Device within a CD Case

     A Link to Tristan Perich’s forthcoming ‘One Bit Music‘ project made the rounds of the nerdy music blogs last week. If you mouse over the image below, you can see my assumptions as to the basic breakdown of the circuit — it’s nearly identical to a circuit I used in a music box two years ago, though the IC doesn’t appear to be one of the ISD series of Record / Playback chips I’m familiar with.

     It seems this concept could easily be expanded into an even more self-contained object by enclosing some ultra-thin speakers in all that open space.

     Perich plans to release the objects with his music encoded onto the IC’s, you can sign up for his mailing list at the link above for more information.


     Yep, those are volume potentiometers. More here.

     MP3’s of the music accompany this Wired article about the project.

More on (Moron) Runes

     Awhile back I wrote a post on albums with coded messages hidden in their liner notes (here). One of these was an Ozzy Osbourne LP (‘Speak of the Devil’) which I was unable to find reference to deciphering on the internet. The image I posted was duly deciphered in the comments, but I’ve since recieved an email detailing a more ‘humorous’ message coded on the interior. I can’t take credit for the title of this post – it was the subject of the email I recieved from Jeff Broderick. He writes:

     “I don’t know whether you’re still interested in this whole thing or not, but some time ago I translated all the runes I could find on that Ozzy album, and the result is kind of humourous, if less than profound. The cover: “Rock and Roll Madman Ozzy Osbourne” The inside: “Dial a Demon Productions in Conjunction with Graveyard Graphics Proudly Present the Madman of Rock Dumping in El Satanos Toiletio Real Tasty Howdy.” Now, I only have this on a scrap of paper, since I don’t have the album itself anymore. Can anyone verify this translation?”

     That’s about it. I’m not particularly compelled to go searching for Ozzy Osbourne Live LP’s in order to confirm that this is accurate, so take this with a grain of salt, I suppose. If you happen to own a copy of the ‘Speak of the Devil’ LP, and are willing to put in the time to confirm this, the ‘key’ can be found here. Now then, if you need me I’ll be dumping in El Satanos Toiletio.


     Turns out the reason I wasn’t finding any reference to the translation at the time was because I was missing the key word ‘runes,’ which popped up in the comments. Without further ado, here’s the complete translated text from the liner notes of ‘Speak of the Devil,’ courtesy of The Complete Ozzy Osbourne Biography.

     “Howdy! Dial-A-Demon productions in conjunction with graveyard graphics proudly presents the madman of rock dumping into El Satanos toiletto. A tribute to Randy Rhoads, the axeman. That kid was my lifeline, you know? He was such a dynamic player and I’d rather not talk about it anymore because it cuts me up every day of my life. Randy Rhoads rest in peace and love.”

     Wow! Totally sincere! Also: worth the effort!

Another Coded Cover

     Several months ago, I gathered a bunch of examples of coded messages hidden in liner notes. Presuming that such passing involvement qualified me to identify examples of such, I was positive that the hideous coverart for Coldplay’s latest album contained a coded message – there was simply no other possible explanation for a cover that bad.

     Turns out I was right – Coldplay fans recently ‘cracked’ the meaning of the colored mess.

     The coded message is “loosely based on a binary code known as ‘Baudot’, which generates a base5 binary representations for each letter or character in the western alphabet.” The Wikipedia entry for Baudot Code is here.

     I found it interesting that the color plays absolutely no role in the code whatsoever – the code would have the same meaning if it had been printed in black and white. This fact implies that tappingofton – the designers responsible for the cover, thought that the color made it look better. Hm.

     Once decoded, the actual content of the message isn’t terribly exciting:

     “What is rather strange though is that … this code actually depicts ‘X-Y’ based on the General version of Baudot’s code (there was no & in the original version) and ‘X9Y’ in the new amended versions of the code.

     UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the key to this code is included in the actual CD booklet (LAME). I’m also told that there is an additional coded message on the back which (predictably) reads: “Make trade fair.” Meh.

     If this sort of nerdery interests you and you missed it the first time around, here’s a link to my previous collection of coded covers.

The Future: Theft

     Kim Stahr, the person whose copy of Shellac’s ‘The Futurist’ LP recently sold on EBay for $810 emailed me the other day. You can read about the reasons this was percieved as significant in my previous post. Kim wrote:

     “Found out on Sunday night that my Futurist LP was stolen and sold on ebay for 810.00 and afterwards found all these websites discussing the sale and “how dare she” type comments. Just thought the fact that it was taken from me and sold might add a little spice to your archives.

Kim Stahr”

     Vindicated! More in the Electrical Audio thread.