Monday, February 12, 2007

Making the most of digital music

O recently asked me for advice regarding digital music. I provided some comments (actually in person) but since then there's been a few other occasions that suggest I should write some of this stuff down.

Finding music

Read this blog. Well that's an ok start if you like the same music I do, otherwise here are a few ideas:
  • Hardcopy. Music mags, local entertainment weeklys, etc. My fave is Q Magazine.
  • Your local record store. Most have sample stations these days and a great way to hear stuff on the way home from the subway. Most will let you listen to a CD if you're still unsure.
  • Full content streaming audio. 2 flavours - online radio stations (my fave is Virgin Radio) and streaming music sites like Pandora. I just found (via a tip from the Post) a new one of this type called finetune that I've been spending too much time on today. Check out pjmixer on filetune to listen to an extended collection of my best of 2006. This may now be the best way for me to share music with friends and family.
  • Radio and satellite radio. Make note of those tracks that you hear on local radio rotation every 60 minutes (if you can stomach the advertising) or tune you cable box or satellite radio receiver to one of hundreds of finely tuned stations.
  • Online sample sites. This is your last stop before your online or full reality CD purchase. Most music download sites offer 30 seconds of high quality sample of any track you can buy (if 30 secs is enough of a sample for you) or some offer lower quality full samples. Some online music sites like Q also offer samples.
Format and quality

There are a plethora of formats to make your digital life confusing these days, incl. music. I prefer to keep it simple with mpeg (MP3). AAC and WMA are the others you bump into and are typically associated with specific vendors, AAC with Apple/iPod and WMA with Microsoft/Windows Media Player. MP3s will play on all personal players and on home/car systems when burned (copied from the computer) on CDs.
More info for geeks. Once you pick a format, then choose the quality that fits your listening style. I choose to rip (copy music from CD to the computer) and download at 192 kbps. Some say 128 kbps is CD quality but I disagree. Test the quality differences out yourself wherever you listen to music. Note that the higher the quality the bigger the file, the slower the download, rip and burn. Interestingly ACC offers better quality at smaller file sizes (better compression I imagine) and some download sites vary the cost with the quality you choose.

Buying music

I've covered this topic on quite a few controversial blog posts already, so I don't think I need to say much more. Usual suspects are: iTunes (although there continue to be
problems with the proprietary nature of their downloads); Napster and Puretracks (in Canada). However most put DRM in effect and limit your sharing and copying. As one cynical person said, it's like buying a CD and about a year later they come into your home and take the CD back. No big secret that I buy my music online from the controversial Russian site (which has no such limits and is much cheaper that other big players, although it's tagging is a little weak), and honestly, I don't feel too guilty about it. I go and see a lot of concerts, I buy music DVDs blah blah blah...

Organizing your collection

This is easy for some people, but very difficult for me. A few things I do in keeping my music organized:
  • When ripping your favourite older albums to your computer, I only pick the tracks I've come to loved over repeat listening - say 5 or 6 tracks. If you always skip track 11 on that Flock of Seagulls classic, then why rip it and have it pop again when you're least expecting it.
  • Make sure track, album and artist are correctly tagged.
  • Choose a limited set of genres that make sense to you. For instance, I am way too heavily weighted on Rock/Pop. Note that genre tagging on the file does carry between players.
  • Rate your music so you can create best ofs easily and remember which tracks you like more than others when tackling more obscure named album tracks.
  • Add one more categorization - upbeat and mellow. You may need to dig a little deeper into the player to find out where to do this, e.g. I use Grouping within iTunes.
  • Start creating playlists, then begin to combine them for more intelligent mixing - this could itself turn into a whole other subject in efficient and effective playlist management.
A few years ago I was using Musicmatch but I moved to iTunes when I got an iPod. Both are very good players with their own pros and cons. If you're a iPod user, then iTunes it is.

[finishing this up on day 2 - taking a little longer than planned to get thru this one, and I'm still probaly going to miss some crucial element - drat !]

Playing digital music

There are many possibilities these days on how, where and when to play and listen to digital music from iPod equipped family cars to mobile phones to the comfort of your very own living room couch.

One simple, and key piece of connectivity gear that is a must-have is a micro-RCA cable. On the micro jack end it plugs into the headphone thingie on all digital music players (incl. a computer itself) and on the other it has stereo white/red RCA jacks to plug into your your existing home hi-fi system.
Note that you don't necessarily need all those special cradles and base stations to have digital music playing through your hi-fi.

The variables of home design, budget, equipment, technical savvy will come into play when trying to optimize your own digital music listening system. My solution at home is quite simple and reasonably effective:

My home computer with about 3,000 tracks of digital music is located at the back of the house on the main floor. The living room with my hi-fi system is in the front of the house on the main floor. I have a second pair of hi-fi speakers mounted high on the back wall of the kitchen connected to my hi-fi
with speaker cables partially hidden under the floor when the basement was renovated. I have a long (20' perhaps) micro-RCA cable connected to the sound card jack on the back of the computer to my hi-fi. One trick here is I have a "y" connector between the cable and the computer so you can simultaneously hear the computer speakers and the hi-fi. Note that this isn't usually possible if you just use the front headphone jack on the computer. I use iTunes to manage the music and Suze uses Musicmatch to create playlists against the same source music.

Problems: Windows alarms, email notifications etc will be heard on your hi-fi. And if the kids want to play a computer game, you're out of luck. This is where you may also need a more portable back-up plan. Burn come MP3 CDs from your computer on a regular basis and play them directly on your newer model DVD or CD player (most newer model portable CD even play MP3 CDs) connected to your hi-fi. Or synch your portable music player and connect that using the same cable or a handy second one directly to the hi-fi.

Next move for me is adding a third pair of speakers for the deck at the back of the house this spring. The neighbours will love it ! However, complexity comes when adding a third pair of speakers to a standard hi-fi receiver. Extra box probably involved to handle the connections and potential circuit overload.

My home theatre is a completely separate system in the basement that has no connectivity to the computer but does include a DVD player that can play MP3 CDs. It's currently pining for a sexy HD TV.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Why music is better than the movies (and maybe TV)

With music, it can be all around you. Especially if you're an iPod or you're home wired. You groove, you dance and you sing (badly) while doing important stuff like doing the dishes or tidying or filing a mound of financial receipts.

With movies, to get the most out of the experience you really need to "buy in" to the movie. That means focus, that means few distractions. Hence the problem, you need to set time aside for a movie.

Well, some TV can be enjoyed "in the background" (especially repeats of Seinfeld or Friend) or "a glance every 3 minutes" for the less intense shows.

And if you've been reading the blog who'll appreciate how important music is (in my life).
But then again, don't most of my grand visions come from movie inspirations ?

Q.E.D music is better than the movies.