Introducing the Room 34 Music Player

OK, I didn’t create the music player myself. It’s the freely available, Flash-based XSPF Player. But it’s a pretty slick tool to create a custom music playlist on your own website.

So now I have a convenient link you can click on to open up my music player in its own little pop-up window. It’s preloaded with all 23 tracks from the five LP/EP releases I’ve put out this year. (Yes, five! I’ve been quite prolific. I’ll leave it to you to weigh the “quantity vs. quality” issue.) And, for future reference, there’s a link to it right under the “Room 34 CDs and MP3s” heading in the sidebar on every page.


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.

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!

Rolling Stone on “the death of high fidelity”

Hearing protection requiredI’m certainly no audiophile: although I can tell the difference in quality, the fact is I’m too cheap to pay for high-end equipment, and I know I’ll rarely have the time to immerse myself in the kind of sensory isolation necessary to really appreciate it anyway.

That said, I still want things to sound good, and I notice when they don’t. I’ve observed with frustration the ever-shrinking dynamic range on CDs over the last decade, as the mastering process has been refocused on the singular goal of making everything absolutely as LOUD as possible.

Rolling Stone has recently published an interesting article on the phenomenon. Hopefully this bit of negative publicity will mark the turning point where we return to quality.

But I think blaming MP3 compression (as the article does, at least in part) is misguided; the problem predates the iPod and seems only tangentially related to the MP3 phenomenon. Although MP3 does drop certain details at the dynamic and frequency extremes, higher-quality MP3s sound indistinguishable from the uncompressed original versions on all but the highest-end equipment. And the loss of quality that comes with MP3 compression — data compression — has absolutely nothing to do with the dynamic compression being applied during the mastering process. The former removes data that will likely not be missed; the latter actually changes the relative loudness of different parts of the recording, making everything sound more homogeneous.

A good example of dynamic compression gone horribly wrong is in the new remixed versions of classic Genesis albums, released in 2007. (Of these, I currently own Duke and A Trick of the Tail. While I’ve got mixed feelings about the new stereo mixes — or more specifically, the masters of those stereo mixes — these CD/DVD sets are worthwhile for the rare archival concert footage alone.)

While overall I find these recordings to be a fascinating reinvention of the originals — with fine details originally lost in murky analog mixes suddenly brought back to life with bristling vividness — they also suffer to an almost incomprehensible degree from the current trend in excessively loud dynamic compression, particularly in sections of the music where the band is rocking out in full. The more delicate passages in the music sound wonderful and are a joy to discover, but the louder sections are compressed to such a degree that I can hardly pay attention to anything else.

Part of the problem may reside in my listening to the stereo mixes; these albums were remixed primarily for the purpose of creating 5.1 surround versions. Since I don’t have the equipment to listen to the 5.1 mixes, I have no idea what they might sound like, but I’ve been told that surround mixes rarely suffer from the mastering compression flaws that so severely plague the CD market today. Presumably that’s because the record labels don’t care about slapping the listener upside the head with the music in the surround mixes, whereas that’s apparently their primary objective with stereo CDs. Either that, or this is part of a long-term strategy to convince the public that stereo CD technology is woefully inadequate compared to 5.1 surround (which is true, but not to such a large degree), in order to get us all to invest in new audio equipment.