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Entries in Music (13)

Tuesday
Feb032004

Streamin' the Tunes

WMSEOne thing that I must have around while I work from my home office is music. As a designer, it can be even more critical for getting creativity flowing and keeping it at high levels. While my iTunes music collection is reasonably nice and large, there comes a point at which it's very nice to hear someone else spinning their favorites.

Fortunately, the web has provided many options for music listening via streaming stations. With such a variety out there, you can always find something to suit your mood any time of the day. This is a huge deal (for me at least) since I can bring up music from anywhere in the world right from my home computer system and tailor it to the work I'm doing (creative or technical), or my frame of mind, or to change my mood.

Usually I take this blessing for granted, but today while listening to one of my favorite streams at KEXP Seattle 90.3 FM and their on-air drive, I was reminded how wonderful streams can be. This got me thinking about how I came to independent stations -- the precursors to all of the streaming stations we have available today. I was so moved I decided to donate a few dollars to KEXP as a thank you. :-)

Now, Here in Milwaukee we're very fortunate. We've had a great college radio station that's non-commercial, called WMSE 91.7 FM, at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) since at least the early 80s. Back in my college days, I loved "MSE" because they were the place to hear "new wave" and "alternative" music all day long, without commercial interruption. I can still recall cruising around town with friends, jamming to The Cure or U2, R.E.M., They Might Be Giants, Talking Heads and many, many unusual artists I would have never heard otherwise.

I used to tape songs from live MSE broadcasts and build my own mix tapes from them, first for myself and then later in my college and early work career, for far-flung friends. Then I bought CDs of my favorite music (often heard on WMSE) and built tapes from them. It was great fun mixing music and doing a few voice overs... I almost felt like a DJ. But the foundation of these tapes was always the local WMSE low-power FM radio station, spinning odd, off the wall stuff. What great memories those are.

WMSE has a stream available now, though their format has changed a little since I used to listen all the time. The mix of music is much different now and more varied, which in some ways is good but in other ways means I never know what's on, unless I consult their schedule online. I have a very wide taste in music, but there are occasionally times when the music is just not that appealing on WMSE.

But with the net and streaming it's very easy to locate just what I might be looking for. If WMSE is playing stuff I may not be in the mood for, in iTunes, I can click on KEXP's stream and hear a very nice blend of new and old tunes. I especially like the morning people (John in the Morning, Stevie Zoom) but it seems they're always playing great stuff.

A few other favorites include SomaFM's Groove Salad, a nice down tempo techno stream for times when I don't want any talking. SomaFM has many other stations as well, all nicely done.

And there are others as well, all gathered in various places like Live365, through iTunes or as suggestions by friends of mine. I find it wonderfully amazing that these resources are out there... as a music lover who grew up with a station like WMSE, it's very good to see these kinds of stations available for people all around the world.

Thursday
Jun192003

The Ultimate Mix Tape

iPod SharingThis morning I came across an intriguing article at Wired.com called IPod Muzak Isn't Same Old Song. The article details similar ideas being used by two different entrepreneurs; one who rents out iPods with electronica music playlists as Hip Muzak for upscale clients, and another who lends iPods to potential clients for no charge, as a music promo tool for his Philly music store.

Then, I read this article in TiBITS called Internet-Guided Offline Recreation (IGOR): Database Rituals which talks about the phenomena of sharing things between groups of people. The article discussed Geocaching, where groups of GPS users 'hide' artifacts and provide general coordinates for others in the group to locate the item; and BookCrossing, where book readers paste an ID tag on a book's inside cover and leave it in a public place for others to pick-up, read, comment on at a website and then leave in public for another reader to discover. Cool stuff!

These two articles got me thinking... what if a casual iPod trading service got started? For instance, two or more friends with iPods could organize a bunch of their favorite songs and cycle their iPods between the other friends? It'd be kinda like creating your own ultimate mix tape club where your friends could hear your favorite music and you'd get to hear their musical selections in return. When your iPod returns, build a new playlist and send it out again.

I remember having great fun making mix tapes for friends of mine back in my college days; it was a blast to find cool new songs and then share them, and to hear tapes my friends had made of their favorite tunes. I even did a little DJ work between songs back then, which by the way, sounds incredibly cheesy to me now.

I'd love to create a month-long mix collection on an iPod and share it with a small circle of friends with somewhat similar tastes in tunes, though with anywhere from 5 to 30 Gigs to fill up, getting playlists together might take some time to compile! :-)

Tuesday
May132003

MP3 & Critical Mass

iPod & iTunesBeen having some good discussions with a few Mac friends who are both very interested in the new iTunes Music Store and more particularly, the AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format. This is the format Apple is using (with DRM features enabled) to distribute $0.99 tracks. AAC can also be used to burn personal music files from CDs, using Quicktime 6.2.

Matt is currently in the process of converting his entire music collection from MP3 to AAC, mainly because it takes so much less space on his drive. In our last discussion about his conversion Matt estimated he might save upwards of 10GB on his drive going to AAC from MP3. That's nothing to sneeze at!

Another friend, Andy, is also contemplating conversion of his music collection to AAC. Last week he told me that the quality of AAC is much improved over MP3 files with much higher bit rates. He claims AACs rival the quality of the original CD tracks even at 128 bit rates. He's also interested in space savings, as his drive space is limited and his music collection is quite substantial.

I can't comment on AAC sound quality vs. MP3, since I've not yet heard a comparison, though Matt posted an interesting tidbit on his weblog today questioning if there is any real difference between sound quality of an MP3 vs. AAC file, other than file size.

What I will comment on is this: the quality of AAC, even if it proves better sounding than MP3 is still not compelling enough to convince most regular people to re-rip their entire MP3 music collection. Here are my reasons:

MP3 has achieved critical mass. MP3 decoding can be found on more and more electronics items -- Craig Froehle mentioned buying a MP3 CD player with FM tuner for $40 at Best Buy just last week. MP3 players are now even available in mobile phones and car stereos. I fully expect to buy a fridge in the next two years with a 500GB MP3 player and Wi-Fi networking capabilities built-in. :-)

Most music players support MP3 and not AAC. Music players like my trusty Rio Volt SP250 can't play AAC files, so I'm out of luck whether I've burnt the AACs myself or bought from the iTunes Music Store. If my RioVolt and other devices like it offer a software or a firmware update, I'm pretty sure most regular users will not perform the upgrade. This leaves only the Apple iPod (an excellent bit of hardware) and Macs or PCs with Quicktime 6.2 for AAC playback.

Locations where you most often listen to MP3s are really noisy. Ambient noise surrounds any listener in a bus station, on a train, in an airplane, in your car or even your home office. Because of this ever-present ambient noise, any quality benefits of an AAC are going to be lost anyway.

MP3 is good enough for most listeners. I think of MP3 music as my own FM radio -- it has high enough quality to sound good in most locations, even with good quality headphones. FM radio is nowhere near the quality of CD music, but it has millions of happy listeners worldwide, because it is good enough.

So, if you're a stickler for better sound quality (which is still up for debate), you need more drive space, you have an iPod or only play converted music on your Mac or PC (with Quicktime 6.2), then it makes sense to consider AAC. Otherwise, AAC falls a bit short for those without a way to play tunes on a portable device, like me and millions of other people who use MP3s.

I do hope the iTunes Music Store does well. However I fear that until AAC reaches a wider audience and gains more users, it is destined to remain a cool yet minor niche format compared to the ever-popular MP3.

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