What’s the big deal with this iTunes DRM-free thing?

Zzzzzzz...OK, so I missed the keynote today — client meeting. Sounds like the client meeting (or just about anything else in the world) was preferable to the Jobs-less snoozefest of the Macworld keynote.

I’m still trying to make sense of the announcement about iTunes. Everything’s going iTunes Plus, DRM free, new pricing levels, and 3G (and, rumor has it, EDGE) downloads. I guess the new pricing levels are cool. At least the cheaper one — who would be excited about the opportunity to pay more? Besides Ned Flanders? And the 3G (and EDGE, if it’s true) downloads are also cool and overdue (you’ve been able to download apps under 10 MB over-the-air from day one of the App Store). But I don’t quite understand the hoopla over the DRM-free iTunes Plus tracks, or, more specifically, the criticisms over the “upgrade” charge.

Either the complainers, or I myself, don’t understand something. iTunes Plus has been DRM-free since it debuted. And upgrades, to music that is newly available as iTunes Plus, have always been 30 cents per song or 30% of the album price, again since the beginning. The only thing I can see that’s different is that Apple is now pushing to convert the remainder of the entire, expansive iTunes music offerings to all become available in the iTunes Plus format. But the nature of iTunes Plus itself has not changed at all. Am I wrong about this?

Ultimately, I suppose this might make me slightly more interested in buying music from the iTunes Store, which, a year or so ago was my #1 destination for music. But only if I absolutely can’t wait to buy a song from my computer. The availability of the song purchases directly from the iPhone is really the only thing iTunes has going for it now as far as I’m concerned, and it’s all about format. I went all Apple and re-ripped most of my music in AAC format back when I got my first iPod, because its quality is better at any given bitrate compared to MP3. But… it’s not MP3. Amazon MP3 is a great service, better prices and often a better selection than Apple’s, and because it uses MP3, you have a lot more options for how you use the music. In my case, it means I can burn MP3 CDs that will play in my XBOX 360 or my car stereo. Can’t do that with AAC, DRM’ed or not.

So, until Apple switches to MP3, which will… not… happen, I’ll stick with Amazon MP3 whenever possible.

My iTunes Plus upgrade optionsUpdate: I just went over to the iTunes Store to check out the status of my iTunes Plus upgrade opportunities. I’ve been upgrading my library as I went along since the feature debuted, so over time I’ve upgraded… I don’t know, maybe a total of a dozen albums. There are definitely more options available now (and I thought I read this wasn’t coming until April 1???). Not sure I want to bother upgrading all of these; some I’d be better off waiting, checking Amazon every day, and hoping they’ll eventually make them the $1.99 album of the day. Some, I’d prefer to deny ever having bought in the first place. (Steve Perry? Really?)

Of course, Apple only lets you upgrade all or nothing. Lame. (And yes, that’s how it’s been since the beginning… but the availability of “upgradeable” songs was an intermittent trickle and, probably, will continue to be over the next several months.

Know the difference between BPM and kbps

And it’s not just type case.

As I’ve mentioned, I have taken a shine to Amazon MP3 as my primary source for music downloads now. Sorry, Apple. You know I love you, but Amazon’s just doing it better. Better selection, better prices, and usually better quality. Plus everything’s MP3, not AAC. And no DRM, ever.

And while I don’t anticipate ever switching media players (the iPod and iPhone have served me well, even if you’ve been stumbling a bit lately). My new car’s CD player supports MP3 (and, ugh, WMA) CDs, but not AAC. And yes, I keep an iPod nano in the car (note to potential thieves: no I don’t), but it’s still convenient to load up several albums’ worth of music onto a single CD and pop it in. No annoying cords or dangerous behind-the-wheel iPod fiddling.

So anyway… yeah, Amazon MP3. And MP3s in general.

I’ve ripped my entire CD collection multiple times. First, back in 2001 or so, I ripped it all as 128 kbps MP3s. Then I got to the jazz CDs and noticed how bad 128 kbps actually sounded on some music. So I re-ripped the whole collection as 192 kbps MP3s. That was the smallest size where I didn’t really notice bad audio artifacts.

Then in 2004 Apple introduced the iTunes Store, and with it everything was 128 kbps AAC, Apple’s own, semi-proprietary format. Better compression-to-quality ratio, so 128 kbps AACs sounded as good (to me) as 192 kbps MP3s, at 2/3 the size. So I went back through and started ripping my CDs again, this time as 128 kbps AAC format.

Then last year Apple introduced iTunes Plus, with 256 kbps AAC format. Sure, they’re twice the size, but now I really can tell almost no difference between the compressed versions and uncompressed CD quality. So I started ripping again, but honestly I could not tell the difference between 256 kbps AAC and 160 kbps AAC, but I could tell the difference between 128 and 160. So 160 was my new standard. I only made it through about a quarter of my CDs at this new level though.

Then this year we had the release of my own music on some download sites, and I went with 256 kbps MP3 for those. Combine that with my new embrace of Amazon and their use of 256 kbps MP3 as well, and that pretty much sealed it. 256 kbps MP3 is my new format of choice, and I’m going through my entire CD collection and ripping it yet again in this format.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post. When you put a CD in your computer, iTunes (or whatever ripping software you’re using) grabs CD track information from CDDB. This data is submitted by users. Sometimes if you insert a new release or a really obscure album into your computer, it will tell you that track info could not be found, and it presents you with the opportunity to submit information you’ve entered. Which means any typos or other idiosyncrasies in your own personal way of entering this information will now become what anyone else who inserts the same CD into their computer will see, provided they’re lazy enough not to fix your dumbass mistakes. I’ve grown accustomed to fixing band names, correcting spelling, normalizing title cases (You Don’t Capitalize Articles, Conjunctions or Prepositions in Titles, but It Is Correct to Capitalize Pronouns and Verbs, Even If They’re Only Two Letters Long, Thank You Very Much), etc.

But something I’ve noticed from time to time, and never quite got, really bothers me. First off, I think the BPM field is pretty much useless. Unless you’re a DJ and you actually know the tempo of the songs you’re working with, you have absolutely no need for this field. But sometimes I see it filled in, and with the same value for every track on an album. Highly unlikely. It’s just finally dawned on me over the past few days why this is, though, and it’s because I’ve only ever seen two values in that field: 128 or 192. The same idiots who can’t spell also can’t tell the difference between BPM and kbps.

So, let’s have a little acronym lesson, shall we?

BPM (Beats Per Minute): The “tempo” or, if your musical knowledge is severely lacking, “speed” of a piece of music. How many beats (you know, the part of the music that helps you dance) there are in a minute.

kbps (kilobits per second): This is the amount of data in the compressed (MP3, AAC, WMA or whatever) file per second of music. In other words, it’s the compression quality of the audio file, quantified.

And now you know… the rest of the story.

OK, Amazon MP3, I love you.

Although I had for the past several years been an unabashed devotee of the iTunes Store (it’s Apple, after all), lately I’ve been finding myself buying more and more of my digital music on Amazon MP3 instead. Why? Let me enumerate the ways:

  1. No DRM. (OK, surprisingly enough that one doesn’t really matter to me that much, but I definitely prefer not having DRM.)
  2. Higher quality. iTunes does have “iTunes Plus” which, at 256 kbps AAC, is higher quality than Amazon’s 256 kbps MP3. But 256 kbps MP3 beats 128 kbps AAC, and it’s not tied to Apple. (Again, not that I care on the last point.)
  3. Cheaper. Yes, cheaper! Almost always! Individual tracks are sometimes 89 cents instead of 99 cents, but I usually buy the whole album, and so far I’ve found that if the album has less than 10 tracks, they almost always just charge the per-track price instead of $9.99. Sometimes it can be a lot cheaper, such as when I downloaded the remastered version of Bitches Brew for $7 instead of $20!
  4. Selection. Early on Amazon’s selection was paltry, but I’ve been finding more and more obscure ’70s stuff lately, such as what I sought out tonight: the first two Greenslade albums. Well, OK, I just looked on iTunes and they have them both now too, for the same price… but at the lower bit rate.

Room 34: Unnatural Disasters now on iTunes (and Amazon MP3)

I’m pleased to announce that my 2008 RPM Challenge album Unnatural Disasters is now available on iTunes!

I worked with CDBaby to get the album on iTunes, Amazon MP3, Rhapsody, and several other digital distribution sources. So far, I am very pleased with the results. So please, if you’re considering buying my album digitally, support my presence on iTunes with a purchase… and a review!

Update June 18, 2008: The album is also now available for download on Amazon MP3.

Stirring up the “Bitches Brew”

Miles Davis - Bitches BrewThere are some albums in my collection (such as Relayer by Yes, of all things) that I have purchased multiple (and I mean many) times over the years as new and improved versions have been released. But for some reason, after 15 or so years, I’m still stuck with the quiet, murky, horribly mastered original CD release of Bitches Brew, one of the most influential of all Miles Davis albums (all of which are influential in their way). Why? Well, that’s a good question, especially now that I’ve ripped off paid tribute to it with a track on my latest CD, Unnatural Disasters.

The price has probably been the biggest deterrent. Since it’s a double album, and most versions now feature copious bonus tracks, it’s almost impossible to find for less than $20. Even for download. iTunes has it priced at $19.90, and since all but one of the tracks are at least 11 minutes long, you can’t just scoop up the 7 individual tracks for $6.93.

Amazon MP3 Downloads has it priced at a more reasonable $16.99, but here’s the catch: you can still buy all of the individual tracks, even the 27-minute title track, separately for 99 cents each. It requires some more cumbersome clicking around (since ease of use has never been Amazon’s strongest suit, strangely enough), but it’s worth the extra calories burned by your right index finger, and the minute or two all of that takes, to save ten bucks!