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WRONG NOTES: a blog of ear reverence

Wrong Notes collects posts on music, art, culture and fun stuff. Also included: news about the Ear Reverends.

Steve Reich, Philip Glass on UbuWeb

Wishing I could take a vacation where I mainly watch all the videos on UbuWeb.

It's one of my favorite sites—and I've always been a huge fan of their incredible sound collection. I guess my first choice vacation would be mainly listening to all that audio. But, I skipped into some of the video this past week, and just watched a couple great ones:

Ensemble Modern Plays Steve Reich in Tokyo is a somewhat recent (year unknown) 2 hour concert, filmed for a Japanese TV broadcast. The performances and sound quality are excellent, and it's great to watch (or, close your eyes, and listen). Steve Reich is one of my absolute favorites, but I've never seen his music performed live—so I was super super into this.

I also recently watched this documentary, Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera, from 1985. I am also a big fan of Einstein on the Beach, but, again, have never seen it performed live. It's amazing to see footage of it. And, the interviews with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson are very interesting.

There are more sound recordings and videos of Reich, Glass and Wilson on UbuWeb. And, there's just a metric shit-tonne of other amazing stuff on there.

Lately, I've been keeping-up more with new stuff that's posted on UbuWeb via @UbuWeb on Twitter.

Recommended. 10,000 stars.

Band practice

I've got a little side project going with some hairy-handed gents, and I just got back from band practice.

I've played with a lot of people over the years. Of course, there are shows and being in the studio. And, there's jamming and sitting in and coming by and laying down a track. But band practice is like a special category within which whole floras and faunas of rituals manifest.

There's always some relationship between band practice and food. This band always practices around dinnertime, so food is always part of getting there or getting home. And, during practices, there's either the part where we talk about what we ate, or where we talk about what we're going to eat.

Tonight was tacos at Taqueria La Fondita #2—and it was on the way to practice. Yes, it was discussed at the predestined moment of practice.

In the year 10,000, the history museums will describe band practices as if they were the staging of operas. They begin with a procession of characters showing up, gradually coming together to perform the overture. Then there is the plot development through recitative, solo and group instrumental interludes, and, of course, the songs that tell the heart of the story. At some point, a meal is discussed with great enthusiasm.

And, finally, there's a closing number that resolves the whole event. Then the characters exit, and the stage goes dark.

Surprise gift of the year: a quilt made of t-shirts from rock shows I went to as a kid, circa 1980–1985 (made by Anastasia)!

· · · good things come to those who click · · ·

Music streams, files and artifacts of enjoyment

CDs had a good run in my life—there were many years where I bought CDs at least once a month. Now, CD purchases are pretty rare.

Most of my life, I've listened to music on LP, CD, cassette tapes and the radio. (For this post, I am writing about only recorded music, not "live" music.)

It's really not too different now: just add mp3s (and digital files) and streaming over the Internet to the above formats. But, I've definitely crossed a line where CDs are the least used format of all of the above. I actually have listened to more cassettes lately than CDs (in the putting-a-CD-in-a-player sense).

But, I do love to collect music. So, I am still buying some CDs—they just get immediately ripped to the computer, and then subsequently played via iTunes (which, as a music library interface, totally annoys me). And, regardless of whether I get a shiny disc or files, I enjoy the whole experience of acquiring / collecting the music.

I am not buying CDs for a few reasons, beyond the above. One of which is physical space: the 1,000+ CDs I already have are more and more getting packed away in storage, and I have no interest in buying CDs just to store them. Given the choice, I am tending to buy a few LPs rather than a lot of CDs—if they're going to take up space, they need to be something I want to take out and hold regularly. And, that's part of what this post is about.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we're currently trying out the MOG music service. We're listening to a lot of music this way, which is accompanied by the least-physical collecting of all of the above formats. My MOG collection is "in the cloud"—maybe. I am not sure I "hold" anything when I get music from MOG—that's good and bad, I think.

I go for days and days where I listen to music non-stop, from the time I get up until I go to bed. And, radio is a good option for this, if you're lucky enough to have a good radio station handy. We have KEXP here in Seattle, which is both good and handy. But, by a coincidence of convenience, we listen to KEXP via it's online streaming more than via over-the-air FM broadcast. So, KEXP is everywhere via the web—it's actually the primary "streaming" service we use, in that sense (and, I'm listening to Larry's Lounge as I write this).

I'm enjoying MOG and having it fill a similar role as radio. I spent an afternoon and picked out about 700 tracks I wanted to hear, and now have been playing album after album. In this way, it's more like collecting CDs. It's like a hybrid of radio and collecting, which I'm liking.

I am a big fan of Television & Tom Verlaine, and I found his 1992 album Warm and Cool on MOG. I've listened to it twice now—this is pretty much the point where I'd own the CD if this were 5 years ago.

So, now the big question: can I just collect this album on MOG, and feel like I have it? And, in particular, will that feeling of having it "work" like it does with physical albums?

This week, I also have been listening to the Thelonius Monk LP, Epistrophy. It's a recording from a concert in Paris, November 1970 (almost exactly 40 years ago), and the LP came out in 1979—I bought it used a few years later. It's maybe the first jazz album I bought when I was a kid.

(Here's Monk playing the song, "Epistrophy" in Paris, 1966)

So, this Monk album has all this meaning to me. Yet, I hadn't listened to it in years, and it's meaning was invisible to me—out-of-sight, out-of-mind. But, when I picked up the album this week, and actually pulled the vinyl out of its sleeve, and heard the first notes: total magic.

Obviously, the music is the main magic. And, music we've had in our life for 30+ years and/or since our childhood might have more meaning to us than music we've heard for the first time this week. But, I wonder how and where (and, thus, if) I am going to collect the music "in the cloud" such that it fulfills this important role of being an artifact of life—my life, our lives, our time & place?

It's been 6+ years since I posted The future of music playback on Wrong Notes, and I can't help but revisit this notion that we'll need to create physical embodiments of our music collections, even if those collections are purely digital, or even in the cloud on a streaming service like MOG.

And, with the Ear Reverends, with works like Err or Man, I can't help but want to attach my own music to some physical artifacts that might help it have a life in our places and times.

Halloween for a Shrinking Head

In the garden today, mulching, rather than writing something original for here.

But, I couldn't forsake you on Halloween. So, a little magic trick: Bruce Kalver's Growing and Shrinking Head Illusion:

In Light Leaks

One of my photos was just published in Light Leaks.

It's actually not just my photo, but it's an Ear Reverends' photo. Not a photo of the Ear Reverends (that'd probably be a photo of me), but a photo from the Ear Reverends.

Maybe. Probably. We'll see. But, since it's probably so, I am holding off on posting the photo here, for now…

Light Leaks is fantastic magazine of "Low Fidelity Photography." It features work of photographers who work with plastic, toy, pinhole, and homemade cameras. If you enjoy fine art photography and/or like to immerse yourself in low fidelity / DIY alternative universes (to our otherwise big-brand digital society), then you'll buy this magazine now.

This current issue, Light Leaks 17: Ebb and Flow, is full of interesting photos—it's a quite cool collection. Totally coincidentally, there's also a feature on my friend / Vancouver, B.C. artist, Rachael Ashe, whose art (including altered books) I really enjoy and admire.

I used to be really into the Holga 35mm camera—it's the camera I used to take the picture that appears in the magazine. (See also, on this site: Sasquatch Crowd Panda Girl.) It had become my main camera, but it's this remarkably flimsy little thing, and it broke—on the first day of a visit to Paris. Fortunately, but of course, there's a Lomography store in Paris, which quickly enabled a Diana Mini (also 35mm) to enter my life. It's the primary camera I use these days, and I really love taking photos with it. It's more sturdy, too.

Anyway, my photo may be part of something in the future from the Ear Reverends. But, if you'd like to see it between now and then, or otherwise, you'll want to get yourself a copy of Ebb and Flow.

Your music library is the medium

Complaints about mp3s / file sharing hurting music sales always miss the elephant in the room: it's the music library that is now the medium, not the individual files.

I'll leave it to someone else to write about this in terms of the record industry, business models, how musicians make a living, etc. I feel it's worth my saying something about this topic because a lot of people, a lot of the time, are getting their recorded music only via digital files—and I think this is limiting our experience of music in a negative way. So, I think it might be useful if musicians say more about this—and I'll try to kick it off here.

The big deal about recorded music is that it's a constant invitation to deeply experience and explore a world beyond your immediate locale. Traditional music—which existed purely in "live" performances, was always immediately local. A lot of people heard the same music a lot of the time—the music of their own people and their place and their time.

Throughout history—actually, from prehistory, there were nevertheless amazing experiences people had, beyond what they knew locally, through the surprising performances of traveling musicians who carried with them old traditions as well as new tunes learned on the road.

(here's a clip from Tony Gatlif's amazing movie, Latcho Drom — this is such a great music film and expresses a lot about musical roads that connect across people, places and times:)

Through recordings, we have access to so much music from so many times and places. And, as much as the primary experience of music is always visceral and emotional, we almost always have access to text and information of all kinds (including film footage, as above), about the recorded music we hear—importantly, this often helps us hear more music / hear more in the music.

A Music Library

A "music library" is just one basic way to describe the music in our lives in terms of this world of information we have around what we hear. Our lives as music lovers are spent in the music libraries that we inherit from our families and teachers, that we share with our friends and lovers, and that we craft ourselves in and around our other daily activities.

One way to talk about record labels, record stores, radio stations, streaming music services, digital download sites, etc., is that each is itself a music library. Even as recording artists, we implicitly create libraries of our own music that tend to known as our "catalogs" of recordings.

Prior to the digital distribution of music, all of these different library creators / curators used various physical and/or analog broadcast media to share their libraries with others. And, the record album or radio show were important not simply as bags of random music tracks, but as collections where the collection itself had some kind of meaning.

If you collect LPs still, or regularly listen to radio shows still (I do both), you probably have a good sense that you get something else, beyond just listening to music, through these experiences. I think it's handy then to talk about that larger experience as "the medium." In this sense, LPs are a medium not because individual LPs hold audio tracks, but because they are part of how one creates a music library made up of audio, liner notes, the way you order your records on the shelf, what records you share with whom, how you know you want to listen to Elvis Presley's greatest hits on a sunny Saturday morning, etc.

The Limit

So, what's going on with our shift to digital music libraries is not a matter of the audio on vinyl vs mp3s or other digital formats. What's going on is that the format of the library is no longer your record shelf, but it's the user interface of iTunes and the iPod. That is the big change that totally changes how people relate to music—specifically, how people hear music (the thing I am more concerned about) and how people buy music / pay musicians (which is also relevant, but a topic I am leaving for someone else to write about).

Put bluntly: the user interface for iTunes and the iPod—that is, how you interact with music through those interfaces, is optimized for mostly a superficial and disjointed experience of music. That's fine in the sense that it's perfectly fine to sometimes listen to music in a superficial or disjoint fashion. And, it's also fine in the sense that one can, with not much effort, be a bit better librarian than iTunes expects—it doesn't punish you much for trying.

But, given how readily we can create digital interfaces (e.g., web pages), it's stupid sad that we don't have digital music libraries that really blow our minds in terms of how deeply and widely they invite us to explore music.

An Ideal Scenario

In an ideal scenario, there would be digital music libraries / players / devices that provide an interface to music not just as a list of media files, but as webs of information, including videos, photos, art graphics, visualizations, info graphics, games, social network info, educational / informative text, creative writing, lyrics, alternate takes, live versions, cover versions, etc.

Every track itself shown as a cool interface to a lot of good stuff, not just a file!

In this kind-of scenario, imagining someone wants to share Come Together with me: they may send me a media file, or they may send me just a link into to the web of that song. But, with either, the library / player / device itself would give me not only audio, but also a window into a lot of other, related / extra stuff I could access. Some it, I would already have. Some of it, my friends would have. Some of it I could get for free. Some for one-off purchase. Some as part of a subscription, etc.

Ongoing, the library / player / device would always keep a view of that extra stuff very handy for me—even advertising it to me in some contexts. This kind-of library / player / device could, by design, highlight the compelling-ness of lots of stuff beyond the audio.

What's Next

Who wants to make me a better digital music library? I think that's the question we music lovers should ask more vocally. And, I think we music producers should keep pushing for people to build music library interfaces that support the works we want to release—that combine audio and video and images and text and, most importantly, links and collections and musical relationships.

There are both business and artistic potentials around the design of better music libraries. As I've said before, at some point, we musicians won't just need to release mp3s instead of CDs, we'll need to release our own players / libraries / devices.

Get beyond mp3: go lossless now!

Over the past few years, I've gotten more systematic about ripping my CD collection. And I've finally filled one hard drive—with lossless files, not mp3s.

I remember how, about 10 years back, I was doing the math to figure out how large a hard drive I would need to rip my entire CD collection. I don't recall the exact number, but let's approximate things and say it was something like this: 1,000 CDs turns into at 640 GB of .wav (or.aiff) files (that's 1000 CDs X 640 MB per CD).

At that time, 640 GB was seriously expensive and required multiple physical discs. But, today, one can buy a single 640 GB drive for only about $60. And, it's an even better deal (cost per GB) to get the now more common sizes in the 1+ TB range.

So, practically, a few years ago, we saw how quickly drive sizes were growing vs cost, and switched from ripping mp3s to ripping Apple Lossless (ALAC is the common acronym, with m4a being the common file extension). ALAC cuts the file size almost 50%, so the above equation ends up being more like 1,000 CDs turns into about 350 GB of m4a files.

The main point I want to get to is this: if you are ripping music from CDs, you should consider switching to a lossless format now—there's almost no reason why you'd want mp3s instead of a lossless format. If you already use iTunes and have a lot of drive space (or can afford larger drives), you can just flip a switch in iTunes, and all new CDs you rip will be ripped as lossless.

(In iTunes, it's Preferences / General / Import Settings and then switch to using Apple Lossless Encoder. That's it.)

And, one other point: if you buy digital files from online stores, please join me in pestering these stores to offer lossless versions, rather than mp3s, which are, in several ways, an inferior format, as I'll describe below.

Now, in case you're unfamiliar with the file formats and lossy vs lossless, let me explain a bit more:

Some Basics: Lossy vs Lossless

CDs store sound as digital information—when we want to get at that information on a computer, we see digital files that usually appear as wav or aiff format files. Basically, you can think of each track on a CD as being a wav file. And the large size of the wav files corresponds to the high quality of sound on a CD—they are big files (a 5 minute song is about 50 MB) because CD audio is pretty high quality audio. Generally, in this context, higher quality = more information = bigger file sizes.

When you get an mp3 file, you're getting a file where the sound quality has been reduced to make the file smaller (a 5 minute song can end-up around 6 MB—a lot smaller size!). High quality mp3s actually do a good job at sounding similar to the original sound by removing just the parts of the sound that humans tend not to notice. But, this kind of translation between CD and mp3 is called "lossy" because sound / information is always removed to make the file smaller.

Note that some lower-quality mp3s sound obviously lower quality. But, even with very high-quality mp3s, some people can hear the difference on some songs between an mp3 and an original CD. With the Ear Reverends, I've actually had several people tell me that the Err or Man CD sounds noticeably better than the mp3s, and I certainly hear differences that make me prefer the CD quality version over the mp3s.

With a "lossless" format like m4a, no sound or information is removed. Instead the file is made smaller only by using the file space more efficiently (to put it really simply). This is very similar to how ZIP files work, if you're familiar with those. Instead of removing parts of the sound, a lossless file removes only internal parts of the file that in no way alters the sound. The original 5 minute song / 50 MB wav file gets shrunk, with all of the audio fidelity preserved, to a m4a file that's about 25 MB.

Some Pros of Lossless Files / m4a

  • 100% true to fidelity of the CD
  • fitting an entire collection of music on a hard drive is do-able
  • m4a is easy to use in iTunes and on iPods
  • m4a is also supported by some open source music players and devices
  • you can burn a full-quality CD starting from m4a
  • you can transcode from m4a to other lossless formats at 100% true fidelity
  • several lossless formats support even higher quality audio, beyond CD quality (see below)
  • you can always transcode down to mp3 (or other lossy formats), and get the best lossy results

Some Cons of Lossless Files / m4a

  • lossless files are larger, so you can fit only 5-10 days of music on an iPod, which may be less than your complete library
  • lossless file formats are less universally supported than mp3s: almost everything supports mp3, not everything supports m4a
  • m4a is not a patent free / unencumbered format (see below)

"Free and open" formats

My original plan has been to use the "more open" Free Lossless Audio Codec / FLAC format. I like FLAC in every way, but, at this point, with much of my music listening happening via the iTunes / Airport Express / iPod universe, ALAC was just way more convenient to use.

Note that mp3 is also not a free format. But, both mp3 and m4a are widely used and are available at no cost to us, the so-called "consumers." However, if you are committed to using open / free formats for any reason, e.g., you already use ogg instead of mp3, then you should look to FLAC, rather than ALAC. Again, I think FLAC is awesome and I can totally recommend it. And I certainly will look to converting all my m4a to flac in the future of my dreams where there are many better music player / libraries than iTunes, that nevertheless support iPods, etc.

A couple tips

The hard drive I just filled is 250 GB (we bought it many years ago). I also backup that drive onto a couple other drives, one of which is always kept "offsite." You don't want to have to re-rip 1,000 CDs just because a hard drive crashes (which it will). So, keep a complete backup of all of your music files. For a couple hundred dollars, you can get two 1 TB drives, which would be enough for a 2,500+ CD collection and a complete backup.

Beyond CD Audio

Finally, it's worth mentioning that most of the music recorded today, when it's digitally processed, is done at a higher quality than CD audio. Technically, CD audio is 44k / 16 bit, and many people work at 96k / 24 bit (what I use), or higher.

This higher quality difference is most important during the digital tracking / mixing / multitrack summing / mastering portions of the recording process. It's not a difference that's easy to hear on a final stereo recording, like we find on a CD. For this reason, when we want to listen to music, it's not super important that we strive to replace our CDs with higher quality audio.

That said, higher quality audio is and will be an option for much of the music produced today and into the future. And, if you are interested in getting more fidelity out of the recorded music you listen to, at some point, you may want to get higher than CD audio quality files. Why not, right? Some artists and labels are already offering this—I / HereJam would certainly do so if there more demand for it.

While this is a step beyond just moving from mp3 to m4a, it's actually a step that can happen with the same m4a (or flac) format: these lossless formats can support much higher quality audio. And, as with the changes in hard drive prices over the past 10 years, you can expect that you'll have more and more space to store higher quality audio. (As an example, the wav file version of Err or Man, which is about 70 minutes in length, is about 700 MB of files at CD audio quality, and about 2.2 GB at 96k / 24 bit. The m4a version would be about half those sizes: 350 MB / 1.1 GB.)

Conclustion: switch to lossless!

So, I hope, if you haven't already switched to using a lossless format, that you will make the change now. The time has come. I've realized, in talking with friends, that not enough people know that they can make the change so easily in iTunes. So, I thought I'd write about it here—please pass it along to others.

Also, again, please help me pester stores who sell mp3s, like Amazon and eMusic, to offer lossless files as well. And, while you're at it, ask them to make PDFs of the liner notes available with every album! (Yeah, that's a whole other post…)

***

Have you switched to lossless yet? Are you ready to switch now? If you aren't going to switch now, why not?

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. . . the new music player is very coming soon and such . . .