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December 17, 2005

To iTunes, or Not to iTunes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Wayne Bremser wonders if the iTuning of all recordings will have a good or a bad effect on the fortunes of jazz. (Link thanks to Design Observer's Michael Bierut.) Alan Little is exasperated with the way iTunes handles -- or doesn't handle -- classical music. I complained recently about what using an iPod Shuffle does to my experience of listening to music. Alan points out a fascinating article about the joys of high-end audio. Great passage:

The difference between typical high-end audio imaging and the musical presence of a single-ended amp is the difference between listening to somebody type a manuscript and listening to them read what they've written.

Still: iTunes and iPods are damned convenient, no?



posted by Michael at December 17, 2005


Yes, very convenient. Over the last three years since purchasing my first Apple PowerBook I've ripped my entire 800+ CD collection to iTunes, and when buying CDs I only touch them once when copying the songs to iTunes and then to one of my various iPods. The last few months I realized that I had a heck of a lot of money stranded in CDs that I never touched anymore and so I've been selling them on Amazon and recovering a nice bit of capital that otherwise would have remained stranded in storage bins of CDs in my garage. As far as sound quality goes, my age (57) and corresponding hearing abilities fit just fine into the iTunes model as any better quality would be mostly unheard. Since I have over 11000 songs in my iTunes library, my favorite iTunes feature is the "Party Shuffle" playlist which eliminates the need for me to decide what to play. I enjoy being surprised by what comes up next in the playlist and not having to expend any energy deciding what to play is a bonus. A long time ago I was the music buyer for a chain of record stores and I had a collection of several thousand LPs and I used to spend such long periods of time deciding exactly what album and what particular song I wanted to hear next that quite often I simply gave up and didn't play anything and just read my book in silence.

Also, Since I don't have the physical CDs anymore, I make sure that I have multiple backups of my iTunes library on various external disks in case of when the computer crashes sometime in the future. I'd really hate to lose all that music.

Posted by: Texas Bubba on December 17, 2005 6:21 PM

I think that what is killing jazz is the tremendous decline in live performance venues to support artists and recordings, along with the odd and inconsistent treatment of many jazz CD re-issues (which affects digital releases as well). For example, I recently bought Carmen McRae’s “Great American Songbook” only to find that all of the between song conversation, song introductions and audience response had been eliminated from what had been a live 2 disc LP. What’s left can be comfortably uploaded into iTunes but no longer accurately reproduces the sense of communal intimacy of the original recording.

I can totally relate to the crap way that iTunes handles classical music. It’s worse when you have multiple versions of some classical recordings.

I found the discussion of high-end audio interesting, but I would rather spend money on concert tickets than on a fruitless attempt to duplicate the listening experience in my living room.

Parenthetically, I have recently been saved from iTunes and the purchase of an iPod nano to replace my iPod shuffle because I had problems installing an update to Quicktime and iTunes and support has not been very useful (it may be me and not Apple, so I am not dumping on anybody).

Posted by: Alec on December 17, 2005 11:42 PM

In theory, iTunes (in the form of the iTunes Music Store, mainly, not the software application that sits on the front of it) should be a boon for recorded jazz, or any other form of music with a vast, interesting and largely out of print back catalogue. Online music stores eliminate the cost of shipping and housing vast amounts of physical inventory, and should in theory therefore make it possible to have anything anybody might want to buy readily available.

Ain't happening yet, mainly due to the tight-fistedness and generaly myopia of the record companies. Apple brag about the hundreds of thousands of tunes available in their online store, but I hardly ever find what I'm looking for buried among all the reams of big-label high-commerce tedious crap.

And then there's also the question of whether having a vast recorded archive looming over you is a healthy thing for live music anyway. Big symphony orchestra music, for example, was supposed to be a Big Deal - even if you lived in Vienna you might still only hear something like the Eroica a couple of times in a lifetime. Now I have about a dozen recordings of it (haven't counted lately) sitting three feet away from me in my living room. Good thing or not, it's there and our current generation of jazz, classical or whatever musicians have to find a way of living with it.

Posted by: Alan Little on December 18, 2005 7:08 AM

Or perhaps Jazz is dying because the audience is leaving it behind. I don't know anyone other than myself and one neighbor who even knows who Dave Brubeck is, much less Miles Davis. And, do we have any current Jazz greats pushing the envelope like those guys did?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 19, 2005 1:19 PM

Yahmdallah took the words out of my keyboard. Last really good, forward thinking, exciting jazz I heard was what Steve Coleman and his circle were doing in the late 80s/early 90s. Josh Redman (who I played with in high school) is an incredible musician, but he's basically a revivalist. Don't get me started on Wynton Marsalis and his campaign to fossilize jazz. There is still some good stuff being played, but it's a dying genre and I don't even think that's a bad thing considering the MASSIVE amount of genius the artform produced in the last 100 years, more than enough for a lifetime of listening. No need for artificial life support as that is diametrically opposed to what jazz is all about.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 19, 2005 2:12 PM

I think the existence of vast archives of recordings is part of the fossilisation problem. Look at classical music when it was a living, vital artform: Liszt never heard Beethoven play(*), he had no choice but to do his own thing. Sure, he was probably intimately familiar with what Beethoven wrote down, but that's not the same as having every nuance of how the previous generation's greats sounded burned into your memory from childhood.

(*) I wrote that and then thought I should check. He probably didn't, although Beethoven did hear him - Liszt as a teenage prodigy in Vienna was trotted out to perform in front of Beethoven a couple of times. So wikipedia tells me.

Posted by: Alan Little on December 19, 2005 4:07 PM


You do not need such flowery language to explain the performance of a tube based amplifier. Real amplifiers are not ideal devices so their inherit non-linear performace introduces distortion (THD-Total Harmonic Distortion). Tube amplifiers as well as those created from Bipolar Transistors have an exponential characteristic that results in only odd numbered harmonics in the distortion. Normally this is a nasty characteristic but these odd harmonics sound good to our ears because of psycoacoutics. This is the 'warm' sound everyone talks about.

Modern amplifiers use FET based transistors that have a square law non-linearity so the distortion sounds much worse. This is why people rave about a tube amp with 20% THD over a high fidelity FET amp with .1% THD.

Opinon: I say get rid of the distortion. If the recording is not 'warm' why try to improve it through the distortion of your $4000 amp.

Posted by: Sean Price on December 19, 2005 5:08 PM

I have to chime in on the tube amplifier thang.

In my experience, tube amplifiers are like fine, expensive wine compared to a decent wine that rates, say 91 points from Wine Spectator (or whatever that wine snobs mag is called).

Yes, if you pay close attention, you can tell the difference in sound reproduction on a tube amplifier (as long as you are standing far enough away from it so the sounds IT makes are drowned out, and as long as you are standing far away from your electric meter, which is whizzing around faster that Clark Griswold's at Christmas time), compared to a decent "standard" amplifier. But, that 1 to 3 % difference, while sweet, just doesn't pay off that much or that often. It really only comes out on a digitally recorded classical piece, or other music that has a wide variation in dynamic range and volume. And, even further, most people - with the possible exception of Quasimodo - would find the transition from a quiet little flute to a tremendous bell toll a little jarring, to say the least. Ask any stoner who's recently endured the alarm clocks on "Dark Side of the Moon." (I've convinced they put those in there to revive fellow potheads for the second half of the album.)

So, tube amps are great for classical aficionados (or classic jazz aficionados) who want to be able to tell if the cellist (bassist) is wearing cotton, wool, or polyester, but for the rest of us, we would hardly ever notice.

In other news, I've begun to notice something about MP3s that are ripped at the standard sample rate (128kbps - 44KHZ). It seems the limitations of that sample rate can "warm up" a song that's too bright or harsh when it's played in it's original, uncompressed form. (You can rip MP3s at a variable rate, where it will ratchet up the sample rate if it detects that a higher sample rate is needed to properly represent the range, but the files are larger by about 1 to 2 MB, and those don't seem to have this effect.)

At casa Yahmdallah, we've almost exclusively moved to listening to music I've burned on MP3 CDs, which play in our new DVD player. Since a typical CD will hold about 180 songs, we can put it in, hit shuffle and hear songs for the better part of a day. (That's roughly 12 hours of music, if no song is repeated.)

At first I thought that being in another room than the stereo was creating the effect (carpets, drapery, etc.), but then I could still detect this "warmth" when right in front of it. I put on a couple of the CDs I'd ripped the songs from, and while the original CD had greater resolution (I could hear individual instruments more clearly), the MP3s just had this nice blended warmth. Maybe this is the audio equivalent of Vaseline on the camera lens.

Anyone else noticed this when they've played their MP3s through the good stereo?

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 20, 2005 9:56 AM

I don't see the problem with iTunes and classical. I have hundreds of works ripped, they are titled like this [title]String Quartet No. 8 - [artist]Fitzwillian Quartet - [album]Shostakovich: String Quartets. I rip pieces as whole works, rather than tracks (opera as acts) and have no problem. Smart playlists can be used for further organization by words in the comment field, I have classical chamber, modern, piano, baroque concerto, etc. playlists for using party shuffle.

Posted by: jack on December 29, 2005 3:50 AM

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