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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 3 November 2015

Quick Guide to Online Classical Music

by Camilo Lanfranco / November 1, 2015

Version française...

One hundred and twenty years ago in England, Australian soprano Nellie Melba, a musical icon of the time, made a recording using the period’s newest technology: the phonograph cylinder. Today, classical music collections of stars such as Yo-Yo Ma and Luciano Pavarotti populate the globe with high-definition recordings through worldwide distribution of records, CDs and DVDs.

Technology, however, hasn’t always been well received by classical musicians. Melba, after hearing that first recording, promised to never record again. “Don’t tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island,” she protested. Classical music’s rich, layered sounds, together with its complexity and dynamics, demands more from technology, and until recently the Internet was not able to properly deliver. Nowadays, however, online music services are leading the industry – undermining physical products (CDs, DVDs, etc.) – and giving way to a new paradigm: sharing high-quality music instead of owning it.

Here is a quick guide to this new era of music sharing. As Plácido Domingo recently said, “It is only if artists, and those who invest in them, have their rights promoted in the digital environment that they can continue to make the music we all love.”

Musical Selection: For connoisseurs wanting to access their favourite music whenever and wherever they want, paid services are the way to go. For the casual listener, online radio directories, which are mostly free and vast in variety, are more suitable.

Limited Internet Access: If Internet access is not available, you can download podcasts for free to enjoy later when offline. Also, you can purchase online albums to download and enjoy at your convenience.

Quality of Sound: In the digital era everything is measured in bits and bytes (8 bits). The higher number of bits per second, the higher the sample rate, which translates into better sound quality. If you play music on high-quality speakers, while having a low kbps (kilobytes per second) sharing system, the sound may not be satisfactory. Similarly, if you play high-quality sound with poor speakers, the quality won’t be noticeable. Find and assess which is right for your needs. As a reference, high-quality sound (CD quality) is 320 kbps or more, medium (radio) quality is around 128 kbps, and low quality is 32 kbps. Make sure your Internet connection can support the standard you desire.

Budget: Match your yearly budget for buying recordings to the available services and albums. Online paid services systems cost from $4 to $32 per month, or $50 (basic) to $385 (premium) a year. Free services usually include ads and have less quality and selection.

Mobiles Phones/Tablets: The popularity of smart phones and tablets/iPads has also revolutionized the music industry. Besides listening to podcasts and downloaded tracks, one can use the device’s cell data and Wi-Fi connectivity, which allows direct streaming through specific apps. Make sure you are familiar with the app’s interface and, more importantly, their data use. Whenever possible, use Wi-Fi, especially at home. Some mobile internet providers include discounted data use or free packages for selected music streaming services.

Free services

The main free services online for classical music are radio stations and radio directories. They come in a worldwide selection of themes and characteristics. Check out these radio directories and free platforms: Shoutcast Radio Directory, Classical Web Cast, Last FM, ABC ClassicFM, BBC Radio 3 (highly recommended and good sound quality), Classical DJ (no ads nor commentaries; there is a choice of 5 stations), All Classical.

Secondly, “podcasts” are music shows or playlists that you can download and play later. They usually come with commentary and narratives, or at least, with some curating effort: Classical-music.com/podcasts, Classic FM Podcast, Classical performance podcast, Classicalpodcasts.com, and the NAC Orchestra podcast.

Don’t forget that YouTube is a great resource archive as well.

Paid services

Classical Music has been slow to enter the Internet music train, mainly because of its demand for high-quality sound as well as the complexity of most works, which consist of multiple movements. Some options out there are: Spotify Premium ($10 a month, general music, with a classical section), Grammofy.com (Free for now ... check it out!), Classical Archives ($79.90 per year, $7.99 per month), Classics Online HD ($14.99 per month, run by Naxos), Naxos Music Library (from $21 to $32 per month depending on sound quality. It is one of the largest and consolidated collections of Classical Music online), and Apple Music ($9.99 per month; proving not even this giant could stay away from music streaming).

Finally, however, I would like to recommend Qobus, which costs between $10 to $20 per month with a “sublime” pricing category at $219 per year. Qobus has high quality MP3 (320 kbps) for songs, you can download albums with FLAC quality (CD quality) and it works for Windows and Mac, as well as tablets and phones, through their apps. You can access and share playlists as well as download and listen to music offline. Importantly, it is the only one that comes in both French and English, and with a great music selection and design.

Write us at subscriptions@lascena.org for more tips.


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