Digitized Music

January 13, 2011

Just a warning, the nerd factor on this post is very high…

Shortly, I will finally – FINALLY – be purchasing a new laptop. I am very excited about this, however I am being caught unawares by a particular development: optical (CD/DVD) drives are starting to be phased out. It’s not widespread yet, but it seems to be coming. This is problematic for me because Cate and I buy nearly all of our music (and books and movies) in hard copy and import it onto our computers.

I realize, of course, that this makes me a dinosaur, but I have my reasons. For one, I do rather enjoy the idea of owning a physical disc that holds the music. I like album covers and lyric booklets and all of that stuff. It does strike me, however, that this is an historically odd notion. Recorded music that can be readily purchased hasn’t even existed for a hundred years. Before that, you pretty much had to be at the performance to hear music. So, the whole concept of the album (and the cover and the booklet) is relatively recent when compared with the history of music. Further, if I’m being honest with myself, I don’t really spend much time with those covers. My music collection sits neatly organized on an enormous shelf with only the spines visible. I probably see the covers more when I’m poking around iTunes.

Of course, the big issue with me has always been the concept of sound quality. I have always maintained that CDs sound better than compressed files. Compression is fine for in the car or mowing the lawn, but sometimes, I want to sit down and listen to music in all its glory and I can’t do that with compressed files. Neither can I store my fairly enormous music collection in uncompressed form on my computer.

So it is time, I think, to solicit advice. If you have an opinion at all, tell me what you think. Am I nostalgic for a time that is quickly passing me by, or is there really value in continuing to hold on to these things?

Additionally, sometime this weekend, I am going to conduct and experiment. I have wondered for a while how much difference I can really hear. I have a couple of good stereos and some pretty excellent speakers and so, I am going to test the different formats in different environments with different musical selections and see what I think. I will of course, write another post about that because I am a nerd.

5 Responses to “Digitized Music”

  1. Mike said

    As far as quality goes, it’s all about bit rate. I would contend that if you’re encoding at a high enough rate (320), it is unlikely that you can hear any difference between the compressed file and a CD. Of course, this all depends on the listening environment, the stereo, the program used to encode the music, the type of music/the production, etc. In most cases, for most people, I’d say there’s no difference. Obviously, this does not hold true for lower bit rate compression, and you’re probably going to catch something more quickly in a nicely recorded classical piece than in, say, a garage rock record. I think you would find a more pronounced difference between digital music and nicely made (that’s key) vinyl records played on a good system.

    As far as the whole physical versus digital problem in terms of ownership, there are arguments to be made for both. There is certainly no compelling reason why someone who prefers a physical copy should be forced to switch to digital-only. However, if you want to move to digital-only, you can certainly contain all of your music in a loss-less or uncompressed format in an external hard drive. They’re selling terabyte drives for pretty cheap now, and there are even ones that are specifically meant to be media servers on your home network. So, going all digital is an option if you so choose. Just have to plan it out.

    Oh, and to really address your question of nostalgia versus real value: it’s all personal. I like liner notes, too, and I really miss them since moving to an all-digital library. The internet just doesn’t make up the difference. That said, for me it’s an acceptable loss for what I consider to be the benefits. Now, if you decided (like the younger hipsters have) that you want to go back to cassettes simply because they’re old an no longer in use, then I’d call you a nostalgic idiot.

    • jason461 said

      I was counting on you for a reply, thankee. I am interested to see what a close listen yields on my different systems. I definitely have some albums (think jazz) where I’m really word about potential quality loss. I’ve got a couple of nice systems hooked up in the house, so I guess we’ll see.

      Also, we have started looking into external hard drives for video, picture, and music storage (there’s an electronics makeover coming to the house soon). If I were to go straight loss-less, I’d probably need at least two terabytes to account for the other file types we’ll also be storing, but it’s certainly an idea.

      One of my real concerns is the availability of high-quality downloads. I know they are out there in spots, but they also seem to be really expensive, in which case, I might as well stick with buying CDs. It’s a conundrum.

  2. Justin Dohoney said

    I think for me it’s probably more psychological than anything. The idea of paying ten bucks for a physical item somehow “feels better” than paying the same amount for digital copies. That said, I essentially only spend money on digital music anymore, and usually only buy CDs when I can get one of those four for $10 deals that a lot of used record stores have. I guess this is the same mentality that allows people to steal online music with less guilt, but whatever.

    As far as the sound quality, I’m poor and don’t have a nice stereo or nice speakers, so that hasn’t been much of an issue for me. But maybe int the future…

    For my part, I’ll probably hang on to most of my CDs, if only for nostalgia’s sake. It seems like they are quickly turning into the type of item that vinyl albums have been for the past decade or so.

    • Mike said

      Justin, you mentioned something I forgot: there definitely is a growing collector/enthusiast base for CDs, particularly early CDs, usually that have not been remastered (i.e., squashed and amplified). I used to lurk the Steve Hoffman forums, which are full of people debating the quality of various CD releases (of mostly classic rock/pop, though there were some metalheads and Radiohead fans there). Kind of interesting to peek into that world as it develops. Almost everyone there would tell you that you’ll hear huge differences between compressed music and CDs, but they’re mostly critical listeners with really high-end stereos.

  3. Matt said

    I find that CDs are useless. I don’t like them at all, and I only buy them when they are the only option. I don’t even have a CD player in my house unless you count my computer and DVD player.

    That leaves two real options: vinyl and digital. I use both for different reasons. I love that most labels now provide free downloads to customers who buy vinyl. That makes it easy for me to enjoy music in my house and elsewhere. Of course, if they don’t offer a free download, then I just “steal” it for my mp3 player.

    While I enjoy digital music’s portability for the car and gym, I think that these benefits are vastly overstated. Personally, I don’t need to carry around 50 gigs of music at all times. I have more than that on an external drive, but I don’t need to walk around with every song I’ve ever heard in my pocket. It’s hard for me to imagine that such access would encourage anything more than the worst parts of my nature.

    Whenever possible, I buy records. Do I think that the quality is that much better? Honestly, my ears aren’t that good. Neither are my speakers. I’d guess that some of my records sound better than CD and digital formats. Then again, I have a lot of records that were printed in the 50s, and some of them really show their age.

    The real reason that I buy records is that I like them, and I want to show musicians (and record companies) that I like them. I like the way they feel. I like the way they look. I like that most people consider them outdated and fringe. That only adds to the appeal.

    I have zero faith in CDs. I can’t imagine that people will use them a decade from now. But I do think that vinyl will persist for its niche audience because it is a much more tactile format than CDs ever could be. Unlike digital music’s capabilities, I think that the vinyl format gives a boost to parts of my nature that I like – the parts that want physical things and tactile experiences rather than convenience.

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