The pitfalls of pioneering

I’ve listened to my music via an mp3 player of one sort or another for more than 10 years now, starting with a 6GB Creative Jukebox before the first iPod made its appearance. I still buy music on CD, but immediately rip it for listening, the idea being that I can always redo this if I lose the player or PC library. I don’t use the CDs at all other than that as I hate them.

In the UK our first sight of CDs was on the weekly technology show “Tomorrow’s World” where they were compared to scratchy, low-fi, easily damaged or warped vinyl as the robust and superior product of the future. As I remember it we were shown a CD being played after being smeared with jam or honey or some such as an illustration of how the surface we could touch was irrelevant as the laser in the player focussed on the aluminium disc within, ensuring that even surface damaged discs would play. This has not been my experience with barely visibly scratches causing skips or rejection. Things were compounded when the music industry magnates, who had just made unbelieveable and surely unexpected sums selling us our entire lp collections again at considerable cost (CDs initially cost between 1.5 and 2 times the cost of an lp), realised that CDs were being played on people’s PCs and could therefore be copied to the PC and written out again. Because we could do this, they assumed that most of us were, and that this was costing them money. Various types of “Digital Rights Management” (DRM) techniques were then employed in an attempt to make CDs that were playable on CD players but not copyable on PCs. In a further bout of greed, a levy was suggested on blank CDs which would be given to the Music industry as they were capable of being used to copy music CDs. (Imagine if publishers demanded levies on paper and ink on the assumption that we were to copy down extracts from copyrighted works). DRM techniques made many of my CDs unreliable on my audio CD player so I had to upgrade that, as well as making some impossible to rip to mp3. By what peculiar route have we got here, where the seller of a piece of entertainment can determine the circumstances under which you can consume what they have so expensively sold you? Do book publishers try to stop us reading their books in the bath or WC? Anyway, most DRMs are now abandoned or functionally invisible so that’s all right.

The misery was further compounded when the CD was packaged in the “Jewel Case”, possibly the most vile and unfit-for-purpose piece of industrial design of the modern age. They chose a material which :-

a) Would scratch if a spider walked across it, so that the cases were always scratched when you bought them.

b) would crack if it received anything stronger than a harsh look, and

c) would shatter if you dropped it.

They used this material in a case which held the booklet so tight it would crease or tear as you tried to get it out, and would hold the CD with horrible little teeth which would break in a strong breeze and then rattle about in the case waiting for an opportunity to scratch the face of the CD.

Why nobody has ever been publicly vilified for the whole CD concept is beyond me.

Anyway as I said, I have long preferred to access my music via mp3 players, so I have a library which has been through three iterations, Creative’s player manager, Microsoft Media Player, and now iTunes.

Creative’s manager only used the Artist, Album and Track names, Media Player added more info and cover art, but because the player I had didn’t show it I used the minimum resolution to save space. With iTunes and the iPod touch / iPhone these were shown to be inadequate and shabby, so I have been though the library sprucing them up, as time and temperament allow. Of course many of the files themselves are the original rips I made all those years ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with iTunes match, the basics are that for some £20 per year you can include up to 25,000 songs in iCloud. If the immensely clever and mysterious matching process recognises your song, it is “matched” i.e. just added to you library in the cloud as available for download to any of your devices. The download you get on your device is not your old mp3 file, it is the m4a file you would have got if you had bought the song from Apple. In my case this is at a rather higher bit rate than I originally ripped at and there is a noticeable improvement in quality. If your file is not recognised, it is uploaded and then delivered to your devices as your file. You are allowed 5,000 of these as part of the standard deal, you can pay more for more.

Because the matching process compares with the currently available version of your song, and many of mine have been superseded by digital revamps of one sort or another, and because much of my music is somewhat esoteric, nearly 4,000 of my songs failed the match and had to be uploaded. In addition, some songs within an album will not match while the rest do. Apart from the personal affront this engendered (See later post on Halo Effect), it meant that I had to wait while these 4,000 or so songs were uploaded into the cloud. On my connection (See later post on rural broadband) this was slow, and halfway through Apple made 17 other countries live slowing their servers dramatically, so it has taken the best part of two weeks to complete.

Had I started buying my music later, much of it would have been the later, matchable releases or just bought as downloads so immediately available anyway. I did waste some time re-ripping some unmatched CDs at higher bit rates to see if this improved the matching rate but not once did this work. As i said, the matching process is very clever at passing even a low bit rate rip of the correct song, but not a high bit rate copy of the wrong song.

For most of my music I now have a stable off-site back up, so I can get rid of all those dreadful CDs. Hooray.

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2 thoughts on “The pitfalls of pioneering”

  1. I wish I’d read this more closely the first time around – having bought an iPhone and Apple TV this week and realized quite how impressively useful the cloud could be, I didn’t appreciate that the 2,000 song upload would still be going after three solid days. I charitably put this down to my collection being the more impoverished for esoteric quality than simply that it is ten years more modern and thus much more likely to have found a match on iTunes. I have a very fast connection in a fairly large city and a fairly powerful dual processor iMac and it is still chuntering through the uploads like an elderly postman pushing his glasses up his nose at each envelope before clambering on the wobbly bike for delivery.

    That said, despite the annoyance of having to switch in and out of the Family Share on the iPad and iPhone, the cloud is the dogs. And yes it confirms how ludicrous the whole CD thing was – expensive shaving mirrors no one ever really wanted to own for their intrinsic value, unlike LPs.

  2. Robert, couldn’t agree more. I also bought an Apple TV this week and love it so am now ripping DVDs and moving movie files about as well. It sometimes feels like compounding a folly, but when I use it, I love it.

    As to the uploads it may not be your mail service or the elderly postman, Apple’s mailroom might have too small a letterbox and an overworked post room behind it. Uploads are not generally converted in any way, but the id3 metadata (Which is in your upload file and in the library catalogue on your PC) has to be uploaded, catalogued, added to the millions of others in the iCloud, and along with the music file replicated over all their live servers. Keeps them busy I guess and may, at times, be the limiting factor. The benefits of keeping the metadata separate from the uploaded music, even though they are usually also embedded in the file, come when we update artwork or song titles and the whole song doesn’t have to be re-uploaded, just the catalogue entry. On downloading the song data is combined with the new metadata.(AFAIUI). Clever eh?

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