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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 9

Classical music has many futures, including Internet and MP3-Part I

by Tom Holzinger / June 1, 2000

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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 include:
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 waveform.
WMA - Windows Media Audio, a compressed Microsoft format especially useful for streaming. More about this in a later article.
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 and http://www.MP3.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.


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