Classical music has many futures, including Internet and MP3-Part Iby Tom Holzinger
/ June 1, 2000
Like many of you, I was sceptical about classical music as
MP3 music files. I have downloaded and saved music on my computer
for several years, but until recently this had been pop or novelty
music. The sound quality of Internet-delivered classical music
was simply not good enough to warrant listening to, much less
saving. Not to mention that there were almost never liner notes
about artists and performances.
That said, I am happy to report that within the past six weeks
digital technology has surged ahead again. Now several kinds of
computer-stored classical music may be recommended.
What are the best music formats?
There is a bewildering array of file formats in use for Windows
music - likewise for Macs - for composition, editing, file compression
and listening. (La Scena recently discussed music composition
and the MIDI music format). Most compression/listening formats
have been designed either for downloading followed by playing
or for streaming, when the music starts playing as it arrives.
Less compressed files generally deliver better quality sound but
have to be downloaded, whereas highly compressed files have noticeably
poorer sound but can easily be streamed.
The most common digital listening and compression formats today
· the non-compressed file types CDA (compact
disk) and WAV (editing for compact disk). These are very large
files that are rarely downloaded and never streamed. They are
what we hear from a compact disk - a sampling of the original
sound rich enough for our ears and brain to fill in the missing
frequencies, so that we hear a faithful reproduction of the original
· WMA - Windows Media Audio, a compressed Microsoft
format especially useful for streaming. More about this in a later
· RealAudio - another proprietary compressed streaming
format that has the advantage of inaudibly switching between different
levels of compression to yield unbroken sound. Most Internet radio
is currently encoded with RealAudio.
· Liquid Audio - the first proprietary format to
build "copyright protection" into its code to prevent
copying, and thus unpopular.
· MP3 or mp3 - the free coding format which has
captured the public imagination because of its superior sound
quality, compression ratios, and zero royalty payments.
After much fascinated listening, I believe compressed music
formats generally afford a satisfying listening experience in
most musical genres, but not often in serious classical
music. Despite the hype to the contrary, my ears tell me that
serious classical music demands 160 kilobytes or more of data
per second to be of "CD quality". This density of data
is currently available only in MP3 format, most often in MP3 files
that audiophiles make for themselves.
Why and how to obtain MP3 files?
The rationale for high-quality MP3 files is that they are a
convenient and flexible form of storing music. They reside equally
comfortably on a computer hard dive, on a compact disk (where
6 to 10 times as much music can be stored as on a traditional
audio disk), and on a portable MP3 player (more convenient to
use than a Walkman or a Diskman). The files themselves are far
easier to copy and share than the music on an audio CD.
Unfortunately, the technology is still in its infancy as far
as liner notes are concerned. Only the most basic labels like
"author", "genre", "name of album,"
and "name of song" is incorporated into today's MP3
files and read by digital music players. I assume that the programming
community is working on the question, but for the moment you have
to store your Dvorak's Cello Concerto in one place and
the name of the soloist, orchestra, conductor, etc. in some other
place. Not yet user-friendly!
A more important drawback is that not all MP3 files are created
equal, far from it. On the Internet they range from 16 kbs (kilobytes
per second) all the way to the desired 160 kbs or more. Most importantly,
none of the established websites for classical MP3s gives
you the option of 160 kbs; the available data densities are 56,
96, and 128 kbs. This is equally true of the free sites, the for-pay
sites (eClassical and MP3.com), and the sharing communities like
Napster. If you do wish to build a collection from the Internet,
and if you do not mind the slight loss of quality implied by 128
kbs (or your sound system doesn't deliver all the nuances anyway),
then two of the places to go are http://www. eClassical.com
Based in Sweden, eClassical.com's approach is to license less
well known performances, encode them at 128 kbs, and offer them
for downloading at Cdn $.50 to $.75 per file (you need a credit
card for this). The website offers basic information about artists
and performances. One weakness is that its system may develop
glitches when you download multiple files in a single purchase.
Another weakness is that its catalogue is still limited, heavy
on Scandinavian artists but including very little sung music.
Although MP3.com is a vast music website, it was only at the
beginning of May that it finally added a "classical channel".
You can download to your heart's content for $15 Cdn per month,
and you get a 2-week free trial. Downloading is trouble-free,
with multiple simultaneous downloads if you have a fast connection
like a cable modem. Also with a fast connection you may stream
the MP3 files like a continuous radio program - the only website
I know of to stream MP3s at 128 kbs. And you can choose exactly
the stream of classical music you want to hear, taking quality
FM radio to a higher level.
The bad news is that MP3.com does not offer high-quality recordings.
Their catalog - larger than eClassical but still limited and mostly
instrumental - seems to have lots of music that was recorded in
the pre-digital era and later re-mastered. Few gems there, and
no liner notes either.
That's the official part of MP3.com. The unofficial
part is in some ways more interesting, because here composers,
artists, and aficionados post their own MP3 files, downloadable
for free, many of them demonstrating remarkable creativity. At
the present time this may be the strongest reason for becoming
MP3-capable: you'll hear music that you can hear nowhere else.
But be prepared to listen to lots of dross to find the occasional
jewel, and don't hesitate to delete files once you've realized
that it isn't immortal music after all.