Digital Music from Vinyl to Pocket Jukebox
After a tortuous process lasting 20 years we now can enjoy digital music in a way that makes perfect sense. This even applies to the record companies who have done little to facilitate this change. Of the plethora of products now available, Apple’s stable deserves a close look and has contributed to the author’s system of choice. If you like listening to music read on.
It all started with CDs
Remember the first CD you bought? It was quite a while ago and at the time this seemed to be just another audio format. The detractors complained about the audio quality but physical aspects won through. I remember wondering what would happen to all that old (scratched) vinyl. In practice very few of those disks got replaced although it was annoying to have to re-record them for listening in the car. Nevertheless people began to buy their new material on CD and digital music took off.
Change is in the air
I always had a problem when buying recorded music. I usually like a few tracks but not all - yet I had to pay for all of them – and pay a lot. It was time for things to change.
The first signs of that change were in the enormous success of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Kazaa. Kids don't care about copyright law and most are unconcerned about the fortunes of record companies. They seized the opportunity to build up much larger record collections than we had ever enjoyed at virtually no cost. If they wanted to support a band they could always go to see them live.
The MP3 music format was important in facilitating this phenomenon. Prior to that a music track would be 50-70Kb – too large to download. MP3 compression became the format of choice, followed by others seeking to improve on MP3 including Windows Media File, Quicktime, Ogg Vobis, MP4 etc. There could have been a format war in the manner of VHS and Betamax. However, the players are smart enough to support multiple formats so that’s not really an issue.
Many of us with a few miles on the clock were not as sanguine about file sharing. First was our concern about opening our networks to unsavoury viruses etc. We’ll never know whether this was a real threat but it seemed unwise to try and there were plenty of horror stories about. In addition, although many of us think record companies have been greedy and deserving of a slap, I personally would not wish to take food from the mouths of musicians – even the highly successful ones.
They didn’t like it
The record companies responded aggressively to file sharing, complaining that the practice was wrecking their industry and was “cassette tape revisited”. Initially they showed little or no recognition that they had been less than fair and had to an extent precipitated the major change that was in progress.
Throughout the file sharing boom, these guys seemed to ignore the fact that many of us would be perfectly prepared to pay for music downloads, especially track-by-track. This was evidenced by their focus on copy protection as opposed to a genuine response to the file sharing phenomenon.
At the same time PC-based digital “jukeboxes” came onto the market and matured. Microsoft legitimised this sector - kicked of by the venerable WinAmp - with their Windows Media Player. File sharing had caused this change in the same way that the advent of the web gave rise to Netscape and Internet Explorer.
MP3 players were initially pocket devices with very low capacity (as few as 5 tracks). I still have one but it only holds so little that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. The newer, higher-capacity ones that our kids have are a lot more useful as they are dual-purpose - you can also store computer files on them. However, you still have to load them up which can be tedious.
Next came the first attempts at legal music downloading services. These included bands wishing to launch themselves without a recording contract or those continuing to record when dropped by their record companies on the basis that they had not yet “made it”.
A moderately general successful service, OD2 , was set up by Peter Gabriel whose industry contacts were sufficient to wear down some of that record company intransigence. OD2 and its competitors such as MusicNet have enjoyed some success but have probably not reached critical mass commercially. Buy.com is one that has a good range of material at a sensible price.
Finally, portable jukeboxes came onto the market. These are not pocket devices but they are portable and they can hold your entire record collection, unless, of course, your name is Elton John. (He may have to wait a little longer.) These are attractive devices but are most attractive to serious PC users who can mess around with file format processes and arcane user interfaces. Creative Labs make one that’s worth a look. For a price you can get a Wurlitzer, albeit not portable.
Enter Mr Jobs
Steve Jobs returned to the phenomenal Apple corporation that he had founded in the 70s. By this time he had also created the successful motion picture animation company Pixar. Apple’s designers looked at this new world of downloadable music and came up with the iPod and the iTunes downloading service.
When I first heard about these products I thought they were more of the same. However, a closer look reveals a number of differentiators that, together, should make Apple the “gorilla” of the digital music market:
- Design: The iPods, proud members of the Apple stable, speak for themselves. They are both functional and highly attractive.
- Usability: Both products are impressive in their simplicity. iTunes, in particular, really stands out against other downloading services. No clutter and no annoying adverts.
- Compatibility: If you use both together the whole arrangement (not surprisingly for Apple) is seamless and designed for music enthusiasts as opposed to IT anoraks.
- Music range: Arguably the most important property of any music system is the range of music available. CD players took a while to become ubiquitous for just this reason. It is most probably that Jobs’ credibility in the business has been a significant factor in attracting music to the service. iTunes may have a way to go on coverage of the music market but it's not half bad.
- Price: A reasonable 99 cents per track makes iTunes a good alternative to going out and buying an album – particularly if you do not really want to whole thing. As to iPods, although not cheap they are not overpriced for what they offer.
Recent news is that Apple's credibility has been so boosted by these products that they are gaining marketshare in computers too. One up for good design!
I’ve yet to invest in an iPod because I prefer to listen to music at home. (Although I wouldn’t mind having one for the beach!) However, the iTunes service is most definitely the one for me. I am already using it to buy music and plan to switch to their jukebox because it’s so nicely integrated with the downloading service.
A jukebox is a great way to listen as you can conveniently access albums, pick specific tracks or create play lists – like your own radio programme without the talking (and certainly no Ads). You may want to dedicate a PC (better still a Mac) for this and make sure it’s clean from a technical sound point of view.
Useful PC audio gadgets also include a recordable DAB radio to save your favourite programmes so you can listen to them at a convenient time. I have the Modular Technology unit which costs around £100 plus a roof aerial. With this you get the same kind of functionality as a TiVo TV recorder (in which we have yet to invest and the UK arm of which seems to be in the doldrums).
Finally there’s all that Vinyl not yet consigned to the attic. You can plug your old turntable into your PC, transfer the music you own to digital format and put it into your jukebox. I had a few problems doing this at first. I tried various ways to match the record cartridge to the audio input of the PC and faied to get the quality I wanted. I finally purchased a special Preamp from Terratec and this does the trick. It comes with filters to clean up the scratches but I’ve got used to them anyway.
My only regret: those 78s that got broken years ago, especially the first I ever bought. Maybe I will find it on eBay one day?