Apr 21, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

From Home Theater Review’s mouth to God’s ear

Jerry Del Colliano, the publisher of Home Theater Review, writing on the prospects of Blu-ray audio:

Computer software companies and Hollywood studios make their vast fortunes selling the same basic data over and over again, each time with new twists and performance enhancements. The major record labels used to follow same business model until the mid-1990s. As much as the major labels want to blame Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing for their ills, that’s not the issue. The issue is that the compact disc isn’t an HD format and consumers want everything HD today. Blu-ray is HD on all levels. Blu-ray is good for surround sound in HD resolutions, it’s copy-protected and it’s cheap to get started. It’s a stunning value proposition for audiophiles, as well as for consumers far more mainstream in the marketplace today.

Emphasis added. Del Colliano is writing to audiophile labels, which is why he’s stressing the copy-protection, which is obviously not a consumer attraction. But there is half of a clever point here.

The appeal? The chance to hear the master tape of, say, Abbey Road in your living room—an actual perfect copy of it.

If only we had the equipment in those living rooms to hear it the way it was meant to. That’s the beauty of his point: In any house with either a Blu-ray player or a PS3, with an accompanying decent home theater speaker system—and that’s an massively expanding demographic—there’s a potential convert to Blu-ray audio.

Blu-ray audio isn’t going to replace a generation’s infatuation with MP3s, and the music industry is never going to see the CD gravy train again. But we are long overdue for an audiophile revival.

The one I’ve been expecting is a conversion of the old terrestrial pattern to the online music-selling realm. It hasn’t happened yet, but at some point, as iPod storage capacity grows, iTunes is going to tell us that our MP3s have crummy sound, and that we should rebuy our music in some lossless format.

Del Colliano is onto another tack: The economy’s going to turn around at some point, and again, ever-more aging baby boomers and, soon, Gen-Xers, will start to make a little too much money and get a little too bored.

The prospect of, for the boomers, buying one last copy of Sgt. Pepper or Electric Ladyland or Hotel California and just sticking it into their Blu-ray player or their kid’s PS3 (i.e., without having to buy a new piece of hardware) may be hard to resist.

———–

Previously in Hitsville:

A lossless backlash, already?
T-Bone Burnett on the drawbacks of digital sound

More dispatches from the Going to Hell in a Handbasket dept. 

Going to Hell in a Handbasket dept.
Sell it again, Sam

Jul 28, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Sticking it to the labels: The used CD gambit

With all the talk about MP3 sound quality, Cnet’s Crave blog turns to audio expert Steve Guttenberg, who offers up some audio-quality tips.

While a 192 kbps MP3 is not going to disappoint many listeners, as I’ve said before the growing use of a lossless format of one sort or another will resolve even the minor issues that remain. Guttenberg’s suggestions are all OK, but it’s suprising he didn’t articulate the most obvious one. If you’re still ripping your CDs to your computer, go inside the iTunes preferences and tweak your settings. If you’re importing as MP3s, make sure you’re bringing them in at 192 kbps.

Anyway, this was the most interesting suggestion:

 *Buy used CDs. Though CDs probably aren’t Neil Young-approved, it’s a vastly better quality experience than MP3s. Plus, it’s kind of a deal, Guttenberg says. “It’s cheaper than buying iTunes (songs) and certainly sounds a million times better.”

Leaving aside the audio-quality factors, this brings up an overlooked issue: Why buy catalog stuff on iTunes for $10 an album, when it might be available at your friendly neighborhood used-CD store for half that or less? You can rip it and pass it along to a friend.

Story idea: What’s the used-CD market like these days?

I took a look at Amazon, to see what the market was like. Why are people buying digital albums, when a hard copy in many cases is so much cheaper? Examples:

Dark Side of the Moon for $7. (With shipping, this is close to being a wash.)

Steel Wheels for 98 cents! *

Their Greatest Hits by the Eagles, $3.99

Pearl Jam’s Ten for $1.49. (Insanely, Amazon’s offering Ten as an $8.99 download as well!)

Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory for $2.23.

Kingdom Come by Jay-Z for 1.69! (Here too, Amazon’s selling a digital version for $9.29.)

Blonde on Blonde for $6.29. (It was a two-record set, back in the day, but a single CD now.)

Jul 26, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

A lossless backlash, already?

While the digital era has compromised the music labels’ ability to resell their catalogs in new physical formats, there is the opportunity for at least one such iteration going forward.

It might seem that once you’ve bought a song digitally, that’s it—why would anyone buy it again? But most people don’t really understand what they are getting when they buy an MP3 or its rough equivalent, like the AAC format you get on iTunes.

At some point, the labels will make the judgment that they have reached a critical mass in unloading those catalogs once again as MP3s. Then, I am sure, will come a new PR campaign.

We’ll be told that MP3s are an inferior audio product!

But the labels will have a solution for us: It is called “Lossless.”

Boilerplate background:

  • The genius of the MP3 was that it could compress a large audio file down to a fraction of its normal size.
  • It did this partly by losing some—not a great deal, but some—audio quality.
  • In very crude terms, an MP3 is about a tenth the size of a CD-quality audio file, coming out to about one MB per minute.
  • It’s pretty easy to compress a song down to half its digital size and lose no audio quality; that’s what Apple’s “Apple Lossless” codec claims to do.
  • The size of iPod storage, leaving aside computer hard drives, has grown exponentially
  • A casual music fan can now store a very large collection of music on her 160-gig classic—nearly 1000 albums in lossless format.

I think the labels themselves aren’t ready to embark on this stategy yet, because the digital sales market isn’t close to tapping out. (The trick, remember, is not sales, but re-sales!) But some artists are already looking at the future, among them T-Bone Burnett and Neil Young, who has been talking about bringing his long-delayed Archive project out on Blu-ray discs, which are large enough to contain an enormous quantity of CD-quality sound.

Anyway, there’s an interesting post here detailing some of the treats in store. Blu-rays hold 80 gigs of data, it says:

But Hollywood has seen the light and is putting lossless audio formats on Blu-ray. The HD video contained on a Blu-ray Disc is still massively compressed (in a lossy kind of way). How massively? It would take about 21 Blu-ray discs to store an uncompressed two-hour film. The soundtracks are actually getting a pretty good deal, since their compression is at least lossless. DTS-HD Master Audio is a lossless format that’s a bit-for-bit match of the original audio track, and Dolby TrueHD is also a 100% lossless coding technology. Of course, these formats are still compressed — they save space compared to WAV files — but the compression doesn’t affect audio quality.

But a column on Wired News is moving to debunk lossless fetishism before it even gets started! Writes Eliot Van Buskirk about the above commentary:

According to the article, lossless codecs will “destroy” the MP3 format because hard drive and media capacities are on the rise, Blu-Ray movie soundtracks are encoded losslessly, iPod docks are showing up in high-end home stereos and Apple could flick a switch and have iTunes start encoding into Apple Lossless by default. Balderdash, I say!

He’s got five reasons, Nos. one and five have some validity, I think, but he’s still far too ahead of the game. You can’t start debunking lossless unil it gets a seat at the table, and it’s not there yet.

Jul 22, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

George Martin, the Beatles, and iTunes

I’ve written before about the mysteries of why the Beatles haven’t allowed their catalog to be sold digitally. With the songs being ripped by the billions in any case, why isn’t the band getting a piece of the action?

Here’s a hint, from a Billboard interview with George Martin:

Billboard; Speaking of iPods, do you know when the Beatles will make their catalog available online?

Martin: It’s still under discussion, and nothing has been determined yet. I think it’s inevitable that sooner or later the Beatles will be available, but it’s got to be on their terms, really. I think that’s the essence of it. There’s so much piracy, there’s so much illegal downloading. In that way, we’re devaluing our history. Young people now say to themselves, “This stuff is free and it should be free. Why should we have to pay for music? Music is free, isn’t it?” And that in itself is a belief that shouldn’t be there and is encouraged by Internet downloading.

Emphasis added. Isn’t Martin betraying a fundamental misapprehension of the issue? Of course there’s illegal downloading. What is the band doing—petulantly sitting the transition out in retaliation?

The key, I think, is that line about “on the band’s terms.” He and by extension the band is still living back in the CD age, where holding the catalog back built up demand. That’s not true any more.

Martin’s lack of understanding doesn’t make this likely, but here’s an alternative argument: It’s possible some high-level calculations are going on behind the scenes. The group’s last repackaging, the 1 album, sold more than eleven million copies in the U.S. alone. Accountants for the band and EMI could have crunched the numbers about digital sales versus another bonanza like that and concluded that iTunes would cannibalize the income for the next such outing in a way that made it the lesser option.

It could be that the band at this point makes more money from hard-copy sales than it would from digital ones. (Or it could be the label figured out that CD sales are more profitable for it.) As I’ve noted before, the band sells about a million and a half CDs in a normal year.

(All of this speculation, incidentally, takes it for granted that both EMI and the Beatles or their respective estates have an equal say in the decision-making. Even if by the letter of whatever contracts are at issue in making the recordings available digitally EMI can basically do what it wants, which is probably true, one assumes that to avoid a public battle the band members have effective veto power.)

Anyway, even if all of that were true about the calculations it’s likely the people involved are not taking into account the myriad new business opportunities in the digital sphere. They could sell special editions, complete digital catalogs with some physical crap souvenirs, various assemblages (John songs! Ringo songs!), new graphic covers that come up on your iPod screen … and all sorts of other things.

And then they can remaster the songs and up the bit rate to a lossless format and sell the darn things all over again. Slogan: “The greatest music ever made, finally available digitally the way they were meant to be heard.”

Speaking of which, Martin’s a pro, so it’s unlikely he would give secrets away, but it sure didn’t sound like he was involved in a remastering effort of the band’s catalog.

 

Jun 11, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

T-Bone Burnett on the drawbacks of digital sound

 WNYC’s Soundcheck talks to T-Bone Burnett, who waxes nostalgic about audio quality:

BURNETT: Between 1949 and 1952 […] the sound organizations finally published the RIAA equalization curve, which equalized all recorded music. […] Before that, every manufacturer had its own set of standards, so broadcasters and listeners were constantly having to adjust their sets to try to guess what the artist intended. And from about 1950 until the mid 1980s, everybody was speaking the same language. The audience and the artists were speaking the same language. And this extraordinary musical culture developed out of it—Elvis Presley came very shortly after that and the Beatles and on and on.

INTERVIEWER: So literally the sound of the industry was standardized.

BURNETT: That’s right. So everyone had two speakers and a turntable and an amplifier and we were all plugged in, we were all together. With the advent of digital sound all those standards were thrown out the window.

And the inertia from those old days, of making things louder to get over surface noise and brighter to mitigate the effects of the characteristics of tape or vinyl, caused people to make things brighter and louder and brighter and louder and more compressed until music’s gotten to a place where a lot of records are hard to listen to more than a song or two.

And from then, it’s step down and stepped down from tape to digital to compressed digital till now people are listening to a Xerox of a Polaroid of a photograph of a painting.

[…]

I got to the point where I did not want to put records around anymore in the way they were being put out because they didn’t represent what I wanted to hear. So I solved the problem for myself.

And the way I solved this problem for myself […] is to release all our records multi format. So that we’ll put on DVD and on the DVD will be a version that you can just put in a DVD and play on a DVD and there will also be WAV files […] that you can download on your computer. There’ll also be AAC files and MP3 files  We’re gonna sell people multiple formats for the same price as whatever people are paying now.

(Link via Cnet.)

This is all interesting, and Burnett is obviously a sophisticated guy, but isn’t a lot of this hooey? Sound quality (and, incidentally, the quality of playback equipment) has improved imeasurably for decades, with only occasional slight steps back. (The cassette era, for example.) The MP3 era that we’re in is arguably another step back, but it’s plain that it’s just temporary. Burnett’s idea about using DVD audio isn’t new or radical or anything else; it’s just the logical extension of the power of the digital convergence.

Listening to him talk confirms for me the impression of him as a nostalgist, with all the accompanying tics, the world-weariness, the wacky historiography. (“The RIAA published a paper and then … the Beatles appeared!”) Radios have static. Car radios had tinny speakers. Forty-five players sucked. Vinyl was just so-so for the vast majority of its audience and had inherent sound reproduction limitations brought on by its design as the needle moved to the center of the turntable. And then came cassettes and 8-tracks! (And he’s concerned about generation loss in the digital age?!)

Things are far better today, with CD quality being the standard and pretty good, after a few years where engineers learned to deal with the form. You can make an MP3 ripped from a CD sound slightly less good if you save it at 128kbs, or just about fine if you go to 160 or 192. And the vast increases of storage space means we’ll all soon be using the equivalent of full CD-quality WAV files in any case, with even better quality coming.

Burnett is saying that the world is about to change, again, for the better. So why does he sound so mopey and defensive?
———

There’s even an upside in all this for the industry, as I wrote some time ago:

The good news for Apple and the music companies is that now they can embark on a new campaign, telling us that all our digital music just isn’t up to audio snuff—but fortunately we can now rectify it by buying from the fabulous new “Lossless Store” on iTunes!

In a few years, mp3s will be the 78s of the digital age. The genius of this is that the music industry has made a big chunk of its money the last few decades reselling us music we already have. But how can they resell us digital tracks? This is one answer. And they might even get some money back from the poor souls who digitized their CD collections into mp3s and sold off their discs; they can be guilt-tripped into buying some of it back once again.