Monday, March 21, 2005

Classical Music on the iPod

by Tom Bozzo

Apropos of Brayden King's thoughts on the "democratization" of pop music via internet technologies, and my own ancient musings on the limitations of the iTunes Music Store's alternative music catalogue, the Wall Street Journal's Marketplace section today took on the travails of classical music fans seeking to populate their iPods online.

The problem is ironic in that the iPod and (presumably) kindred music players are vastly superior to portable CD players for material such as opera, where unabridged recordings typically span multiple discs. Indeed, being able to listen to a whole opera in the car without swapping discs is a major application for the iPod adapter therein.

But the WSJ is right in at least one way: the classical department of the iTMS is woefully inadequate, between forcing me to remember to look for Donizetti under "G" and failing to carry relatively recent gems like the Renée Fleming/William Christie/Les Arts Florissants "Alcina." I realize this puts me in part of another niche market, but is there really more of a market for Section 25 (not that I'm complaining) than for opera?

Update: Joe Malchow notes a significant limitation of the iPod for some opera recordings, a brief but currently unavoidable pause between tracks. I would note that I was mainly intending to address portability aspects of listening to opera on the go, and I agree with him on the virtues of making one's music listening an "occasion" where possible. Which reminds me, I have to send my Lyric Opera subscription renewal in ASAP.
I am apalled at how my 8 track tapes inspire such visions of grandeur, and such pristine recollections of pastoral pastures in green mountain meadows where little goats and piglets and calves still frolic amist wild flowers. (Bill W.)
I have heard some writers complain that audio compression doesn't suit classical music very well because of ... well, something. Any thoughts on that?
Alan, I've heard/read about similar issues. They are somewhat more fundamental as I understand some of the issues have to do with the resolution of the quantization itself and not just further lossy compression.

My overall take is that in the car, or other typical portable player applications, someone would have to have much more sensitive ears than mine to pick out compression artifacts from background noise sources. That said, I have set a higher data rate (192kbps AAC vs. 128kbps) for my home encoding in iTunes than is used by iTMS.

There are also lossless audio codecs, but they offer ~50% compression ratios and I don't have that kind of disk space.
Just do what I do--buy CDs and then turn them into mp3's using i-tunes itself. Or by from magnatune and download both the wav format and the mp3. Ipod users are not limited to the I-tunes catalog.
Anon #2's point is implicit in the import-quality-settings note in my response to Alan. Sadly, it won't help for material never available on CD, or out-of-print material not likely to be re-issued conventionally (part of the subject of my prior post).

I'm very curious as to the iTMS encoding cost compared to that of a minimum economic run of physical CDs, and on a slightly related note, what would be involved in providing higher data rate tracks such time as distribution and storage constraints allow.
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