Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Music You Can Sink Your Teeth Into

One of my favorite CDs for some time was a recording of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, with soloists Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, playing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. It's a great recording of a great piece. The problem is, that my CD now has tooth marks in it -- little bites that go all the way through the media surface and make it unplayable in any CD player except (for some reason) our Sony DVD player, which somehow manages to oversample enough not to even skip. But I can't get the CD into iTunes or play it on any of my work computers or the stereo.

Thus I found myself looking for a new copy the other night. Amazon sells it for $17 (a bit less used or through resellers) and iTunes sells it for $10.

Now, these days, we pretty much exclusively end up listening to music via iTunes. The stereo is hooked up to the computer, and if we're not listening to things outloud, I'm listening to them over headphones while at work. Yet my first reaction was, "I guess I better shell out the extra money so I can get a real copy."

However, as I thought about it, a CD is just another digital format. It's not as if the CD is somehow more a product of the musician's craft than a digital file. There's nothing "crafted" about a CD, it's just a piece of write once/read many digital media. And with the baby (whoever fills that niche in our ecosystem at the moment) having a tendency to go through the CDs -- they have a pretty limited life around here lately. (Which is unduly annoying to me, as I always priced myself on keeping CDs in pristine condition.)

For all that people have often talked about digital books taking over from their hard copy forebears, I've never been able to imagine collecting electronic copies of books instead of the real thing. There's something about the book form that has far too much history to be abandoned at this point. Call me old fashioned -- even call me a "crunchy con" but I'll remain a book collector as long as my days last.

Now I think about it, though, all collections of recorded music are collections of a secondary source anway. We have CDs or cassettes or 8-tracks or LPs because we can't actually be present and hear the artists perform a piece of music every time we feel like hearing it. But does the recorded medium itself have any particular value? Is there any reason to cling to CDs rather than switching to digital files? (I already keep backups of our recorded music, of course -- but that can much more easily be done via USB hard drive.)

iTunes still seems like a rather transient means to be your only way of owning a piece of music. But I'm not sure that there's any reason behind that, or if it's just my reflexive conservative suspicion of "the new".


Anonymous said...

We are no experts, but my husband says that technically the itunes format (aac or mp3) has a lesser quality compared to a CD format. I suspect you could find out the details and whether or not it matters to you on way too many tech websites online!

Thanks for your site.

Unknown said...

I'll second Chris, here.

ITunes sells tracks typically encoded in m4a, mp3, aac ... which is problem one (very lossy formats!) and compounds the error with pretty low bitrates (128k is some 10-15 times lower than 'CD quality'. No one of this really matters much given that most commerical music these days is typically compressed to death to begin with ('loudness') so listening to stuff with little dynamic range at a negligable bitrate and loudly! isn't going to be much of an issue.

The difficulty is with music with a wide dynamic range (most Classical, Jazz etc. not excluding more leftfield rock) is that all that subtlety and depth is put in the bin and, sonically, what you've got left is processed Cheese.

Not that I'm a Vinyl facist or CD hoarder: pure digital is cool (if you've a good soundcard) ... go to Magnatune, for example, and you can download music in .wav format (uncompressed) or in lossless formats such as .flac. Apple even have a lossless format: .alac. So why don't they offer stuff on Itunes in .alac? Simple: an album in mp3 is going to be 90mbs tops, one in .alac (with a high setting) is going to be about 600-700mbs (at least). Thus more, much more, server costs to Apple ...

It's a vale of tears, it really is.