High-Resolution Audio: About to Go Mainstream, or Just a Pipe-Dream?

Two articles, approaching the same question, that of the future of high-resolution audio, came across my radar this week. They arrived at opposite conclusions. This often happens in the tech industry, and it’s interesting to examine them and see why the two authors disagree.

First, let me define some terms. High resolution audio is any digital audio files that are of a resolution higher than that of CDs. The CD is defined as containing audio at 16-bit, 44,100 Hz. The sample rate – that’s the 44,100 HZ, or 44.1 KHz – is the number of samples per second. Think of this as the way film has a number of frames per second; the 24 frames per second of a movie are enough to trick a viewer into thinking that the picture is moving, and not a series of stills. With audio, it’s a bit more complicated, but the sample rate needs to be twice the maximum frequency of the audio. You’ve probably seen that most audio equipment maxes out at 20,000 HZ; so 44,100 is a bit more than twice that. The bit depth – that’s the 16 bits – is the number of bits of data in each sample, and defines how much detail is in each sample.

High-resolution audio is any audio file that exceeds either of these limits. So this could be a 24-bit, 44.1 KHz file, or a 16-bit, 96 KHz file, though in most cases, the bit depth is higher than 16.

High resolution audio files are available from a number of venders, and it can range from 24/44.1 to as high as 24/192. To listen to these files, you need a digital-analog converter (DAC) that can handle these resolutions. You don’t need any special amp or speakers, though if your speakers, like most, don’t go much higher than 20 KHz, they won’t play back the high end of the music. In fact, your ears certainly won’t go that high; mine go to about 13 KHz.

So, why do two authors come up with contradictory conclusions? Macworld’s Jon Seff, writing for TechHive, points out that it’s easy to see the difference between SD and HD video, but says, ” I fail to see a future in which the masses invest the time and money necessary to take audio to the same level as video in people’s minds. […] sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.”

Seff points out that music is an area where “people have gotten used to convenience over sound quality,” and this is clearly the case. Since it’s very, very difficult to hear the difference between standard audio files and compressed files (at, say, 256 kbps), hearing the difference between a CD and a high-resolution file is unlikely. There’s certainly a placebo effect involved; when someone pays twice as much for a hi-res file as a CD, they’ll be likely to want the music to sound better.

The second article is by Andrew Everard, Gramophone magazine’s hi-fi writer. For Everard, “We’ve been peering nervously over the edge for too many years: now’s the time for the audio industry to take its next great leap.” He tests audio equipment, and it’s possible that his ears are more sensitive than Seff’s, or than mine. But I’d like to see him do a blind test with some CD-quality files and hi-res files.

I’ve got a bunch of hi-res files, and a DAC, and I’m hard pressed to hear the difference. It’s hard to do a blind test, and that’s the only way you can tell. If you know what you’re listening to, then it’s not a test; it’s a test of the placebo effect, perhaps, but nothing more.

I think Jon Seff has the right answer. We listen to music in a variety of settings, and only in a perfect environment would it be possible to truly appreciate high-resolution audio. The number of people who have a perfectly configured listening room – and the funds to outfit it – are few and far between. Music can certainly sound better with better equipment; when I upgraded some of my hi-fi equipment last year, especially speakers, I was impressed by the difference. But there’s a law of diminishing returns, and the few people who spend thousands of dollars on cables and wires should seriously consider their investments.

This is an issue that can’t have a firm answer. As long as people are prepared to spend more money on audio equipment and media, the market will happily serve them. But whether or not it’s worth spending what these files cost, and what is needed for equipment to correctly play them back, well, that’s up in the air. If you can’t do a blind test, don’t believe what you read.

On Album Covers, Downloads and Textual Pragmatics

Andy Doe likes to poke fun at bad album covers on his blog Proper Discord, but in an article on NewMusicBox, he gives practical advice to those responsible for designing and selecting covers for classical (and other) recordings. He says, “A lot of customers will first experience an album cover as one of those little thumbnail images on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, or some other website. Getting them to click on it is the first step in the process of getting them to buy it, so the cover should make them want to see it bigger.”

What I find interesting is that this article looks at something that I postulated, back in the day when I was studying applied linguistics (I’m a Master), called textual pragmatics. In linguistics, and in particular sociolinguistics, pragmatics is “the ways in which context contributes to meaning.” (Wikipedia) My hypothesis at the time was that visual elements of any text we read – not just the font, but everything that we see, such as the type of book or magazine, the title of a publication, or the type of paper – help define our reaction to it, in particular the level of importance, status or value we assign to it.

You will most likely think more highly of an article in a national newspaper than on a blog like mine, but if an article from my blog were published in the New York Times, you would likely have more respect for the same text in the latter publication. Not because the words would be any different, but simply because its context – the place where it’s published – has higher status.

The same is the case for books (hardcover versus paperback), magazines (glossy versus amateurish newsletters), and other texts. Just look at academia and science: it’s far more important to publish your findings in a prestigious journal than some up-and-coming publication from a small university. And if I print out a text for someone to read, it will make a difference to the reader if they see a header showing a publication with prestige, rather than an unknown source.

This also applies to CDs. Andy Doe’s article discusses covers and packaging, but it’s worth considering what the textual pragmatics are that affect music downloads. Are all downloads the same? Are downloads from iTunes or Amazon “better” in some way than downloads purchased directly from an artist or label? They often are. I’ve bought music from smaller vendors that is poorly tagged or lacks album art. On the other hand, many labels offer digital booklets, that you can’t always get from iTunes or Amazon.

Are downloads considered to be a “lesser” product? Many people think so. Record labels don’t want to stop selling CDs, but since downloads are the future, they should make downloads high-status items. Since you don’t have a physical copy of a record, you’re getting less value from a download; if it’s just the same as the CD.

Downloads should be as good as CDs, or better. At a minimum they should contain everything that a CD does: that includes digital booklets and sung texts, for vocal music. The metadata should be perfect. And they can also contain bonus tracks, videos, extra texts, and, since they’re not time-limited, they can hold much more content than a single CD can hold.

As music shifts increasingly to downloads, record labels need to stop treating downloads as inferior products, and start making digital packages that include music and other content. It’s not hard to make a download a compelling product. Start with good covers, as Andy Doe suggests, then move on to the rest of the added value that is so easy to provide digitally.

Bach’s Sacred Cantatas: Recordings and Resources

One of my favorite parts of the classical canon is Bach’s sacred cantatas. These are vocal and instrumental works that Bach composed to be performed in church during services, as well as some which were written for secular occasions. Some feature a choir, others just solo singers, and most are based on texts from the bible and hymns. Many composers wrote cantatas, but the more than 200 cantatas that Bach composed are considered to be the finest.

Cantatas are generally small-scale works, unlike Bach’s passions, oratorios or masses. (Though the Christmas Oratorio is actually a group of six cantatas meant to be played on six consecutive days.) Bach didn’t have many musicians available, so these works feature generally no more than about 20 musicians, and a choir that can vary according to the performance style. The smallest number of singers can be four – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – in what is called “one voice per part” performance, where these four soloists make up the choir. Other performances may have a choir of 30 or more singers, depending on how the conductor wishes to present the works. The OVPP approach, which is controversial, was first advocated by conductor Joshua Rifkin. The texture of these performances is interesting, but while evidence can be presented for its use in Bach’s time, it has not been universally adopted.

A number of recordings of Bach’s cantatas have been made over the years, and for a body of work of this scope – the sacred cantatas take up some 60 CDs – there are a surprising number of complete sets. The first complete set was recorded by Gustav Leonhardt and Nicholas Harnoncourt from 1971 through 1990. It stands out for its use of boy sopranos, which is how Bach performed these works. This set is is available for around $175. Helmut Rilling also recorded the complete cantatas, which are now available in a budget set. (Both of these sets are available in box sets of Bach’s complete works.)

John Eliot Gardiner, with the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, recorded all the sacred cantatas during a “cantata pilgrimage.” Since I first wrote this post, a box set has been released. Limited to 3,000 copies, it’s more affordable on Amazon UK – less than £140 – than Amazon.com, where it’s just shy of $300. (There is also an excellent set of earlier recordings of Bach’s Sacred Masterpieces and Cantatas, containing 22 CDs of passions, oratorios and cantatas, that is worth getting, and is available at a budget price. It’s worth noting that this set contains four discs of cantata pilgrimage recordings that were not released in individual volumes by SDG, but that are in the box set. (Also available from iTunes.)

Ton Koopman, with the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra & Choir, recorded a complete set of the sacred and secular cantatas which is, unfortunately, quite expensive, so I have not heard this one yet. Finally, Maasaki Suzuki is in the process of recording a complete set, and is currently up to volume 53; he has also recorded some of the secular cantatas.

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Listen Different: Add Silence to your iTunes and iPod Playlists

I’m reposting this article, as it is a perennial favorite. I find that several people a day find this through Google searches, as apparently a lot of people want to know how to add silence to playlists. I can imagine that this is useful for more than the reasons I mention below; I would think DJs and performers might benefit from this technique, but if you find it useful, I’d be interested in knowing how. Several people in the comments mention music for weddings or fitness routines; how do you use these bits of silence? Feel free to post a comment saying how you use these silent files.

iTunes and the iPod are all about music, but as composer John Cage once said, “The music is in the silence between the notes.” In fact, Cage is famous for one of his works, 4’33”, where a pianist sits at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and does nothing. The music is in the silence; or rather the lack thereof. For true silence does not exist on our planet. Any performance of this work brings out the ambient noises of the concert hall, the coughs and rustles of the audience, and all the other noises we usually never hear. (Download a performance of 4’33” here, or buy Cage Against the Machine, an album featuring a recording of this work and a number of remixes.)

You can have thousands of songs on your iPod or iPhone, providing you with hours of listening pleasure, but sometimes you just want to listen to silence. Not that you want silence for any long stretch of time – that’s easy; just turn off your iPod – but you may want to have certain playlists, or even albums, with a bit of a pause between certain songs. A time to take a breath, to appreciate the beauty of the music. So why not use silence in your playlists? After an especially poignant song, add a few seconds of silence – 15 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, or even a minute. Let yourself absorb the song, the world around you, the people with you…

Unfortunately, iTunes does not allow this, nor does the iPod. But there is a simple solution: I’ve created a few tracks of silence that you can download and add to your iTunes music library. You can use them in any playlist, or copy them and add them to specific albums. Here is a zip archive of files that are 10, 15, 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 5 minutes long.

Download.

Note: the zip archive also contains a .1 second MP3 file, and a .1 second iPhone-compatible ringtone, as per this hint on the Mac OS X Hints web site.

Each of these tracks is a very low bit rate MP3 file; I encoded them at 8 kbps mono so they take up very little disk space. Each track is tagged with its name, and with the artist, album and genre marked as “Silence” so you can find them easily.

So, what can you do with these tracks? When you’re making a new playlist, think if you really need all the songs to follow each other in a mad rush, or if you want some of the music to sink in before the next song. Insert a Silence track and appreciate the music that you’ve heard before the next track starts. This is especially useful with classical music, where you want enough time for one work to fade away before another – which may be quite different in form or instrumentation – begins. (Many classical albums are engineered with long bits of silence at the ends of works for that reason.)

If you want to insert silence into an album, take one of the Silence tracks and copy it. Then, change the tags so it has the artist, album and genre for the album you want. Finally, you’ll need to edit its track number tag as well as edit all those that come after it on the album. (For example, if you want to insert it at the 3rd position, you’ll need to change track 3 to 4, track 4 to 5, and so on.)

Silence is especially useful if you make playlists for romantic situations; for mellow music that you want to listen to when meditating, doing yoga or simply watching the grass grow; or just to change the way you hear your music. You can also use them when you listen to your iPod in shuffle mode. Make copies of each of the tracks; make a few dozen of each, so you’ll get random silence from time to time, and discover the sounds of the world around you in a new way.

Here’s one practical example. If you meditate, rather than using a meditation timer, create a playlist with as many copies of the one-minute Silence file as you want, followed by a piece of music. So if you meditate for 20 minutes, add the one-minute file to a playlist twenty times, then add a piece of soft music at the end to alert you that the time is up. Start this playlist when you meditate, and let it tell you when you’ve sat for twenty minutes. (Download a 20-minute Silence file, or roll your own, using the precise number of minutes you wish to use.)

Or you can use these silent MP3 files as ringtones or notification sounds on an iPhone or Android phone. Some phones don’t have a silent option, and if you choose one of these files as your notification sound, for example, you won’t hear any sound when you get notifications.

iWant: A “Music Videos” Library in iTunes

iTunes’ library contains a number of sub-libraries for the different files it contains: there’s Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and others. (There are also libraries for non-media content, such as apps, and ringtones, which are only meant to be used on an iPhone.) But one thing that’s missing is a Music Videos library. Music videos get mixed in with your Music library, under the genre, artist and album (if any) they are tagged with.

You can set any type of content to reside in a specific library. For audio content, you can choose Music, Podcast, iTunes U, Audiobook or Voice Memo. For video, you can choose Music Video, Movie, TV Show, Podcast or iTunes U. You can do this for any track by selecting it, pressing Command-I (or Control-I on Windows), then clicking on the Options tab. Choose the library where you want to store the file from the Media Kind menu.



I can understand the idea behind having music videos mixed in with music; they are often part of an album, or if they are pop songs, most iTunes users probably want to play them when they’re listening to music. But it would make more sense if they were in their own library, especially if you have a lot of them.

I have a number of music DVDs that I have ripped, along with some music videos that I’ve gotten with iTunes Store purchases, and I have them as Movies, because it’s just more logical. But they’re not movies; they may actually be TV shows (technically), or simply videos of concerts, operas or other performances. I put many of them as TV Shows, because they have multiple discs, such as the Barenboim on Beethoven set in the screen shot below. Organizing this with each disc as its own movie wouldn’t make sense. The same would be the case for, say, a long opera that is on two discs, or the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland, which is on three discs.



I would like to see a Music Videos library, and give users the options, somewhere in iTunes’ preferences, to either store music videos there or in their Music library. For those who have a lot of videos, it makes sense.

(Note: you can create a Music Videos genre if you wish, and still keep these files in your Music library. Instead of being sorted with the albums they come from, or the artists on them, they’d be in their own genre and easier to spot. But having a separate library is still one step easier.)

Grateful Dead to Release Sunshine Daydream, 8/27/72 Film and CD Set

Sunshine day dream bluray 1200 exclusive

Deadheads, get out your credit cards! This September will finally see an official release of 8/27/72 and Sunshine Daydream. After more than 40 years, we’ll finally get a crystal-clear recording of this iconic show, and a DVD or Blu-Ray of the Sunshine Daydream movie, shot that day.

Most Deadheads know that this show, from Veneta, Oregon, is one of the best the band ever played. Performed as a benefit for Ken Kesey’s family creamery, The Field Trip, as it was advertised, was played in a field in front of 20,000 sunburned Deadheads, as temperatures passed 100 degrees, and water was scarce. There was magic in the air, that day, though; or at least good acid. Because the Dead played one of their best, tightest shows, with amazing renditions of Playin’ in the Band, China > Rider, and one of the best versions of Dark Star ever.

You may have seen footage of the Sunshine Daydream movie, filmed by John Norris, Phil DeGuere, and Sam Field, who caught the music and the vibes, but never had the money to get the footage edited correctly. Mediocre quality transfers have circulated for years, but finally, the Dead have restored the film, and the 16-track soundboard tapes, to create what looks and sounds amazing. Here’s a clip:

After the amazing Europe ’72 and May ’77 sets, this amazing show is yet another wonderful release from the Dead. Now, if they can only find a tape of 5/8/77 and release that…

Essential Music: Music for 18 Musicians, by Steve Reich

Among the composers whose music I’ve been following for more than 30 years, Steve Reich is at the top of the list. I own all of the recordings he has made, and most of the other recordings of his works. (Fortunately, his music is not recorded very often.)

I still remember the very first time I heard Reich’s music. I was at a friend’s house, and my friend pulled out a three-LP box set from Deutsche Grammophon, which contained several early works by Reich: Drumming, which took up four sides; Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ; and Six Pianos. We listened to Six Pianos, with its hypnotic rhythms and shifting phase effects, and when it got to the end, I was a changed person. I had been listening intently to this music, perhaps with some chemical enhancement, and little happened; but over time, the changes became apparent, bolstered by the compelling rhythm of the work, and I realized just how powerful such subtle changes could be over time. From that moment on, I was hooked on minimalist music, and Steve Reich in particular.

The Deutsche Grammophon set was released in 1974, and following that, Reich went to ECM records, where he recorded a number of albums that made him a familiar name among those interested in new music. The most important of these was the nearly hour-long Music for 18 Musicians, composed from 1974-76, which is one of the seminal works of minimalism. In this work scored for percussion instruments, pianos, strings, clarinets and voices, Reich explores pulses, phasing and the relationships among short melodic patterns, and, while that may sound academic, the melodies of the work are memorable, and even get me tapping my foot and humming along. In the liner notes to the work, Reich says, “There is more harmonic movement in the first 5 minutes of ‘Music for 18 Musicians’ than in any other complete work of mine to date.”

This is a difficult work to perform – in part because of the length – and while Reich’s ECM recording is probably the gold standard, a recent recording by the Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble is also excellent. It’s worth noting that the original LP of Reich’s recording was flawed, because it broke the work into two parts; this work simply cannot be listened to with a break, because, unlike most symphonies, there is no pause between sections. Fortunately, the CD came along, and it became possible to play works of that length without a gap.

I was fortunate to see Reich in concert a number of times over the years. The first was a show at the Bottom Line, a “cabaret” in New York, where the classical instruments were slightly out-of-place on the small stage, and where the “large ensemble” playing one of the works on Reich’s second ECM album barely fit. Both Music for a Large Ensemble and Octet are classic works as well, and the ECM period was very rich for Reich’s music. I later saw Reich’s ensemble perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1983 retrospective, where most of Reich’s works were performed in a number of concerts. Seeing Drumming performed live was very impressive, as the musicians move around from instrument to instrument, and there is an element of dance in the process.

Reich has written dozens of compositions over the years, but Music for 18 Musicians remains the ur-Reich work for me, together with Six Pianos, the first work that converted me. If you’re not familiar with Reich’s music, you couldn’t go wrong with any of these pieces, but Music for 18 Musicians is probably the best place to start.

Listen to a 12-minute excerpt of Music for 18 Musicians on Steve Reich’s website, and read Steve Reich’s notes on the piece on his music publisher’s website.

Bonus trivia tidbit: Steve Reich attended composition classes given by Luciano Berio at Mills College in Oakland, California, and one of his classmates was Phil Lesh, who would shortly thereafter become the bass player for the Grateful Dead.

Music Notes: Einstein on the Beach, The 1984 Recording (Update)

As Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach is currently undergoing a revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I’m reminded of when I saw it there in 1984, the second series of performances after its initial run in 1976. This 4 1/2 hour “opera” is a combination of music, dance and visuals, and was truly unforgettable. Over the years, I’ve collected the different recordings of the work.

First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, Later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire work.

But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass’s Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. The first, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of “highlights” of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute “complete” recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.

The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it’s a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.

I’m certainly looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it’s not too “smooth,” that the years between the first productions and the present haven’t led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.

(See also an older article, Listening Anew to Einstein on the Beach.)

Update: I received the “highlights” disc and watched the documentary today. If you care at all about Einstein on the Beach, you simply must see the documentary, with interviews with Glass and Wilson, and extensive footage of the 1984 production.

iTunes 11 and Classical Music

With the arrival of iTunes 11, classical music fans – and anyone with a large music library – have lamented the removal of certain features and views that help organize large amounts of music. I touched on some of these in my extensive review of iTunes 11 for Macworld, and in my discussion of iTunes 11 on the Macworld podcast. But I would like to summarize here the problems that iTunes 11 has brought specifically to classical music listeners.

First, there is no Composers view. In the iTunes window, you can view your music by Songs, Albums, Artists Genres and Playlists, but Composers has been forgotten.



Next, the Column Browser has been removed. This was a very practical way of viewing your library by drilling down from, say, Genre to Composer to Album. Previously, the Column Browser was available either on the top of a window or on the left side, allowing for two different ways of viewing music. It’s still available, but only in one view: Songs. The Songs view is sterile and hard to use, because there is no artwork displayed, and because there is no visible separation between albums.



Album List view was also removed. This allowed users to display a list of their music with album art, and the artwork delimited each album, making it easy to spot an album at a glance. Also, this list view would display whichever columns a user wanted to see, and users could sort by any column, such as Date Added, Composer, Artist, Album, etc. The new Albums view only shows track names, ratings and times, and sort options are limited.



In the iTunes Store, there is no longer a Composer column when you view an album. So if you see a recording with several works of the same name, but by different composers, there’s no way of knowing which is which, if you want to buy one or several tracks of work by a specific composer.

And in the iTunes Store, the Power Search feature was removed. You could use this to search for items by multiple criteria, including composer. If you were looking for an album with a work by a specific composer, played by a specific artist, this was a practical way to find it.

iTunes is clearly targeted at those listeners who consume songs, not those who collect classical music, or who have large libraries. But what chagrins me is that it would have been simple to keep the above features; they don’t specifically clash with the overall interface. Their removal makes iTunes much harder to use with classical music, and with large libraries. I can only hope that Apple makes some changes so those users who need these features can feel comfortable with the program.

What Is the Gapless Album Tag in iTunes For? (Update)

Update: I’ve reposted this article because with the release of iTunes 11, the Gapless Album tag is no longer available in the program. However, many people don’t understand this, and think that the removal of this tag means that iTunes no longer plays music without gaps. This is incorrect. Read on and understand what this tag was for.

Following a comment from a Twitter friend, asking how to find which of a number of albums require gapless playback, I pointed him to an old article on this website. (I won’t link to it, as it was written in 2006, and addressed the problem of gapless playback on the iPod.) I realized that many people don’t understand what that Gapless Album tag is, so here’s a brief explanation.

If you select a number of tracks in iTunes, then choose Get Info, and click on the Options tab, you see this:



And if you choose a single track, you see this:



That tag at the bottom of the first screenshot, Gapless Album, or at the bottom of the second, Part of a Gapless Album (thanks for being consistent, Apple), has one, and only one usage. This tag only matters if you have Crossfade Song turned on in iTunes (Preferences > Playback), and it only affects playback from iTunes. All gapless albums are automatically detected and played as such on iPods and other iOS devices. You may even see iTunes “Determining Gapless Playback Information” when you add new files to your iTunes library; this is simply to find whether the music ends at the end of the file or not. (Not actually at the end, in fact; there’s a brief bit of silence no matter what, but it’s a set length, so if the silence is that length, iTunes knows to ignore it.)

So, unless you use Crossfade Songs, you never need to worry about this tag.

See Apple’s technical note about gapless playback.