Music’s future sounds terrible

Most of the criticisms levelled at digital download services have been about price and digital rights management technology, and while both issues are important – for example, the Legacy Edition of Jeff Buckley’s Grace is £15.99 on iTunes and comes with copy protection, whereas the CD is £12.99 in Amazon and my local supermarkets – I reckon there’s a bigger flaw: sound quality. To be blunt, the sound quality of legal downloads is terrible.

For many people it isn’t an issue – the popularity of MP3s at a frankly unlistenable 128Kbps never fails to amaze me – and the headphones supplied with most music players are awful anyway, but when you start listening to your digital music collection on decent speakers or through decent headphones the problem couldn’t be more obvious if your iPod displayed “this sounds crap!” in fifty foot letters of fire.

The problem is compression: whether you’re buying from iTunes or Napster, the music you get is compressed to make it a small file size, so downloads are typically 1/12th of the size of the original track. That’s great for portability, but file sizes aren’t really an issue now that even the cheapest MP3 players come with massive amounts of storage. And what you gain in portability, you lose in sound quality. To make the files smaller, some of the information has to be thrown away; the lower the bitrate the smaller the file, and the more that’s chucked out.

Different compression technologies work in slightly different ways, so for example there’s a noticeable difference between songs encoded with Windows Media technology and songs encoded with Apple’s AAC. But what they both have in common is that when you buy downloads, the songs you get are encoded at 128Kbps – which means that there’s a stark difference between the download and the CD version. There’s noticeable “swooshing” in the high frequencies, and if you like your music hard and heavy, you’ll discover that walls of distorted guitar sound positively weedy. It’s a problem with dance tracks, too: with downloads, the all-important low end thump is conspicuous by its absence.

I mentioned Jeff Buckley earlier. I did an experiment using his music: I downloaded Grace and Last Goodbye from the iTunes Music Store, and I compared them to the MP3s I’d already ripped from my CD (192Kbps, variable bit rate encoding). Compared to the MP3s, the iTunes downloads sounded positively anaemic: tinny, metallic and painful to listen to at high volumes. If you’re into making music, the best way I can describe it is that it sounds as if someone’s slapped on a compressor and turned it up to eleven.

The problem isn’t the format – it’s the quality. Both AAC (Apple) and Windows Media (Microsoft) formats are better file formats than MP3, so a 128Kbps iTunes or Napster download will sound better than a 128Kbps MP3. However, no matter which of the three file formats you go for, 128Kbps still sounds rotten. I’ve found that 160Kbps MP3s are better, but higher bitrate MP3s are better still.

There’s no reason why iTunes, Napster et al can’t offer higher bitrate music, and apparently Microsoft is promising to do just that with its MSN Music Store. I hope Apple does the same: now that high capacity MP3 players and broadband connections are commonplace, there’s no need to squish music files down to the point where sound quality suffers. Until then, I’ll keep buying CDs from Tesco and ripping them into iTunes, boycotting the discs whose copy protection won’t let me play them on my PowerBook.

Music boss can’t wait to sue file sharers, says Orlowski

Writing for The Register, Andrew Orlowski presents a typically entertaining demolition of recent comments by John Kennedy, boss of Universal Music Group and the next man to chair the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

The implication was clear: the success of an artist was down to the Shock and Awe bombing of the record company’s marketing team, which is very expensive.

(Alert readers will be wondering why, if the songwriter’s contribution is so ephemeral, UMG doesn’t score a number one hit with every record it releases. John could then write all the hits himself, on a toy piano).

There’s more – lots more – in the article.

iTunes: shooting the messenger? [update]

According to The Independent, in the US Apple makes just 4 cents from each download sale while copyright owners get 62 cents; music publishers take a further 8 cents. As the article notes:

With the sites, the copyright owners have doubled their share of royalties, even though the marginal cost of manufacturing has fallen to almost zero.

…Phil Evans, a spokesman for the Consumers Association, said the data suggested record labels would have to change – or strangle the nascent market. He said: “Unless the record labels look at new [distribution] models, they’re bringing about their own demise.”

Michael Robertson, the founder of MP3.com, is blunter. He says commercial downloading is so unprofitable it is “a race where the winner gets shot in the head”.

And the Consumers Association wants *Apple* investigated for profiteering?

The giant awakes: Sony to support MP3

Sony’s boneheaded refusal to make MP3 players that can play MP3s is one of the key reasons why the firm is little more than a footnote in the world of digital music. However, it looks like the firm realises its insistence on its own ATRAC-3 file format (and nothing else, unless you want to convert your entire music collection into ATRAC-3 so you can use it on a portable) means it’s getting spanked in the portable player market: according to C|Net, Sony has changed its strategy and will start to include MP3 support in forthcoming players.

The change won’t happen overnight – Sony will start with its flash memory-based players, and there’s no word on whether its hard drive-based players will also support MP3 – but it’s a significant move. To date, Sony’s attempts at digital music have been laughably bad: the conflict between being a hardware firm and one of the world’s biggest record labels means Sony has had something of a split personality towards digital music, and while its players are often excellent (great sound and very long battery life are the rule rather than the exception), nobody in their right mind is going to shell out on an MP3 player that doesn’t support MP3.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out for Apple: the iPod rules the roost partly because it was the right product at the right time, but also because companies such as Sony haven’t made compelling iPod alternatives (Creative and iRiver kit is lovely, but it doesn’t have the iPod’s cool factor or intuitive design). However, it looks like the sleeping giant of Sony is finally waking up. Things are about to get very interesting.

Quiet iPod? Blame the French.

If you’ve got a European iPod or iPod Mini, it’s crippled: thanks to various European countries’ attitudes to music players and their potential for hearing damage (apparently it’s a big issue in France), the volume output on EU iPods is much lower than it is on US models. The simplest way to address this is to get in-ear headphones, like these:

However, you’ll still encounter problems if you’re trying to listen to Mazzy Star on a main road, or if you want more volume when your iPod’s hooked up to your stereo or an iTrip*.

The easiest solution (on the Mac, at least) seems to be iPod Volume Booster.

This nifty bit of freeware enables you to boost the volume of the songs on your iPod and works flawlessly, although if you’ve got iTunes set to automatically sync songs with your iPod you’ll need to disable that feature or run iPod Volume Booster after every sync. It’s not perfect – if you add new songs and forget to boost them, you’ll end up with a mismatch of volume levels – but it’s a big improvement.

[Thanks to David for the tip]

* Not in the UK, of course, because the iTrip’s illegal under the Wireless Telegraphy Act.

If it ain’t broke, don’t ditch it

I was using one of these at the weekend:

The actual model I used was a graphite one, but I can’t find a photo. In technological terms it’s positively archaic (we’ve had two generations of iBook and a whole new generation of processors since then), but when it’s fitted with a Wi-Fi adapter it’s a lean, mean blogging machine that’s perfectly capable of handling day to day tasks such as web, email and a bit of word processing. It also possesses one of the finest keyboards I’ve ever used.

It’s something you should keep in mind when faced with the relentless hype about bigger, better, faster hardware and software. The weak point in Word has always been my typing speed, and a 1GHz jump in processing power won’t make any difference to that; the weak link in most web wandering is the speed of your connection, not your computer’s processor. Of course, there are exceptions – inadequate RAM makes even the simplest task positively painful; don’t even think about video editing on really old hardware – but for home computing, expensive new kit isn’t significantly better than older kit.

The one exception is in gaming: even a reasonably recent PC will struggle with some of the current crop of shooters, such as Doom 3. Then again, if games are important you don’t need to shell out £2,000 on a state-of-the-art PC: £99 will get you an Xbox, and you can use the money you’ve saved to invest in Wi-Fi and a ridiculously fast broadband connection, with enough left over for an iPod or two.

Remove cable clutter! Buy a desktop!

So much for laptops freeing up desk space and removing cable clutter: despite using wi-fi, my Powerbook’s currently sitting at the centre of a spaghetti junction of cabling. There’s the adapter for the second monitor, the firewire cable to the ipod, a line-in for the phone recorder, the USB connection for the digicam, the power cable, the firewire cable to the external hard disk, the line-out to the speakers, and the usb cable to the hub, which in turn hooks up to the printer, the keyboard and the wireless mouse.