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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


For Classical Music - To iPOD or not to iPod?

About five or six years ago, a relative, who was a computing consultant, showed me a flat little box and said to me you’ll soon be able to put all your thousands of CDs on a little thing like this. I shrugged and dismissed the idea as science fiction. Then the hype about Apple’s iPod started up. But it was all beamed at the young, and the ‘Pop’ cultured, and how they could use it to store thousands of songs. This thing, I thought, might be OK for rap, rock, heavy metal etc., but could it satisfy the hi-fi demands of classical music?

Then in April 2006, the respected lecturer, cellist and broadcaster, Michael Jameson, came to the Salisbury Recorded Music Society to give us a presentation. He had recorded all his 90 minutes of music excerpts (of works by Mendelssohn, Wolf, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss) onto his 60 Gb Apple iPod which he connected straight into our amplifier and thence to our Mission speakers. I will admit that I was amazed at the quality of the reproduction; so much so, that I was eager to learn more about this slim little gadget especially when he said that he had downloaded all the Haydn symphonies onto it.

[For the record the Salisbury Recorded Music system comprises: the CD Player: Marantz CD6000KI Signature; the Amplifier: Marantz PM6010 KI Signature; and the Speakers: Mission 752].

Now come reports of new collaborations between major classical music recording companies like, Deutsche Grammophon, and iPod’s iTunes to provide concerts [See Marc Bridle’s Seen and Heard review of this new phenomenon appended at the foot of this article]

So faced with such temptations, and through Len Mullenger, I asked MusicWeb International reviewers to let me know about their iPod experiences. The response was gratifying in terms of numbers and the replies enlightening. Some of these are appended below. Now I will admit that my level of techno-competence is low and my level of techno-fright high so being nonplussed after reading some of the more technical replies, I decided that I really needed to get a grasp of some of the basics. So I decided to investigate some of the ‘iPod help’ books that are available.

Here is a selection of what I found:

The Rough Guide to iPods, iTunes and Music by Peter Buckley and Duncan Clark
Amazon Price £4:78

iPods and iTunes for Dummies by Tony Bove and Cheryl Rhodes Amazon Price: £8:99 [I took a look at a copy of this book in Waterstones, Southampton, but was deterred by the lack of colour and the thickness of the book feeling this might be too thorough for me at the beginning of my learning curve]

Hacking iPods and iTunes by Jonathan Accarrino Amazon Price £11:21

My iPod by Jeremy Case Amazon Price: £4:99

Amazon offer a special deal if you buy the above book with –

iPod Fan Book by Yasukuni Notomi Amazon Price: £6:56

In Waterstones I flicked through and was impressed with

iPod Book: Doing Cool Stuff with the iPod and the iTunes Music Store by Scott Kelby, Peachpit Press, Amazon Price: £9:23 (so I ordered a copy)

But over the last week or two I have been studying:-

40 iPod Techniques by Troy Silver and Rand Miranda Which I purchased from British Bookshops for £6:99 Amazon - This book assumes you have no knowledge and it has colour illustrations to help one grasp the fundamentals (some illustrations are a little small but then they are depicting complete computer screens)

Additionally, a visit to Apple’s iPod site may be useful http://www.apple.com/uk/ipodf.html

and then there are a few articles Kirk McElhearn

Getting the Most out of Classical Music with iTunes and the iPod

Classical Music on the iPod and iTunes

Tagging Classical Music

Now, here is a selection of the inputs received from Recorded Music members and MusicWeb contributors:

Robin Lim, Programme Secretary, Salisbury Recorded Music Society:-

1. The iPod is not the only product of this kind on the market, it just happens to be the one with the best marketing (not necessarily the best technically).

2. Most of these devices (including the iPod) are capable of storing and playing back different grades of quality, from exact copies of CDs (no compression, but takes up a lot of storage) to quite highly compressed files (lower fidelity, but takes up less room so more "albums" can be stored.) In the case of iTunes, and similar download services, the amount of compression is pre-set by the service operator, and the consumer has to accept what is provided. No online commercial operator offers uncompressed audio files.

iTunes is both the software to "organise" files on the iPod, and a website (the iTunes Music Store) where you can download music at 79p per "track". This is one area where classical enthusiasts stand to gain, as there are usually fewer tracks on a classical CD. On the debit side the choice is less than wonderful, the music is supplied in a compressed format, and there are no liner notes supplied.

Tony Haywood, speaking of another Recorded Music Society’s experience, says

No-one's used an iPod yet at our Recorded Music Society meetings (I tend to use minidisc, as do a couple of others) but I don't think it will be long. I have a friend who's sold on them - he has most of his considerable collection stored, so the booklets can be neatly housed in an album for reference, and he just plugs the iPod directly into the amp via a decent jackplug to phono lead. And yes, I agree, the sound is superb, especially if you use the Apple lossless, i.e., no compression, but even on medium compression the sound is good, and it means you can store an awful lot more.

Rob Barnett said: -

I have not played with an iPod but I did buy another amazing MP3 device - a 40Gb IRiver. Probably my neanderthal skills but I found it VERY awkward to use, converting CD files to MP3 took forever and the gaps between movements of symphonies etc sound unnaturally silent; that will seem like a very odd comment but until you hear a whole symphony or multi-movement work etc it is difficult to describe how odd and disorientating the silence sounds.

I successfully transferred Atterburg 3rd and 6th Symphonies onto the machine (which my son now has and which he uses to store music and digital photos which it displays with superb definition) and the music itself sounded superb on the supplied headphones.

 
Marc Bridle says:-

As it happens, my last Seen and Heard editorial as UK editor is on this subject (the premise of the editorial is change in music since I became editor). 

Briefly, I have all the CDs that I want to listen to on my 60GB iPod - and that includes two complete Ring cycles, and Stockhausen's complete Aus dem Sieben Tagen, Bruckner symphonies, Mahler symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets and so on. I have also downloaded videos of Callas to watch (I suppose South Park doesn't count as classical). I haven't finished transferring everything yet, but it equates to 1959 tracks, 12 days of complete music and 19GB of space. Although it imports in Apple's mp4 format (which, incidentally, is CD quality) it shrinks the disc size to one tenth of its size. When you come to burn that music it expands it so you get an exact copy of the CD you originally burnt. 

I've had an iPod since the second generation scroll wheel 3 or 4 years ago - and have now upgraded via the Nano to the Fifth Generation ipod Video. I often use an Airport (wireless) connection (using supplementary software) to  broadcast through speakers in the main living room and when I took it to America earlier this year I was able to broadcast from it. 

Originally it was not built for classical use - long tracks would skip and not play to their conclusion. That is not the case now - they play seamlessly.

Euan Bayliss contributed:-

I have an iPod Shuffle, which is excellent for the train to
work. It's been a boon as I can fit about 8 hours of music on the iPod, it's
easy to change the music on it too.


Paul Serotsky wrote:

I may well try to find out a bit more about iPod, though I'd still like to
hear opinions and (more usefully) objective assessments and hard facts from
others - I can still remember the suspicion with which I greeted MD and its
ATRAC compression when it first came out, and that suspicion was based on common sense and a lack of hard knowledge about what it was and how it worked.

And in connection with degrees of compression in the transfer from CD to iPod, Paul added :-


To my mind, the important question is: what is the recording format
used to store the music? - specifically, the type and degree of compression? If for example, it was MP3 at even a moderate bit-rate (say, 128 Kbps), then the sound would be "mind-blowing" only in relation to 78s, whilst ATRAC at the same bit-rate would at the very least have people thinking they were in the CD ball-park! Unless you use a very modest compression (no less than about 25 to 50%, which significantly reduces the "store thousands of songs" PR boasting), MP3's handling of wide dynamics is pretty execrable -and this is a function of the compression used, not the iPod hardware.


Paul later wrote:-

After a bit of rummaging I discovered that the iPod, somewhat in line with its DVD counterparts, supports a multitude of recording formats, so it is possible to choose a format and bit-rate that suits your needs for sound quality and dynamic range.

Of particular interest, you can store recordings in uncompressed WAV format, which means that the original recording is stored "bit-for-bit". The catch with this format is that it actually takes up quite a bit MORE disc space than does CDA, the format in which CDs are encoded! Yet, curiously - although I may simply have missed it (well, it was rather late!) - the iPod does NOT seem to support CDA itself!

Obviously, the main merit of the iPod is its computer and internet connectivity, making music more "mobile". However, as far as I've been able to ascertain, it will - like an MD recorder or cassette deck - operate as a hi-fi peripheral. This leaves the Big Question - are the electronics up to hi-fi standard? From the reaction of the folk at Salisbury RMS, it "sounds" as if they are.

One other thought: at present, the obvious target for a hi-fi recording/playback device is to do away with moving parts. It is therefore odd that the iPod seems to be developing AWAY from the use of static memory like flash card and TOWARDS the use of hard drive, which has both moving parts and a higher battery power consumption. Will this trend reverse in the face of the dizzying rate that memory card capacities seem to be increasing? I certainly would like to see the iPod and its ilk incorporate memory card alongside HD, because the HD is fixed - once it's full, you have to delete something to make room for more. The memory card, though, would be exchangeable, so "record collectors" could continue to enjoy their lifelong hobby, albeit using up rather less in the way of shelf-space!

Paul Shoemaker says:

For a long time now I have stored music in MP-3, flac, and OGG compressed formats on my hard disk and on 5 inch disks, CD and DVD, and many of my musical friends do as well.  But I do not know anybody who uses a portable player, and in fact I have never heard or seen one.  I have a clamshell type portable MP-3 player for 5 inch CD disks and have thought about putting it in my car, but never have done so.

If I have a music file for someone, I either bring it on a CDR, or load it on my Sony microvault and transfer it to their computer hard disk.

As I write it is Sunday 4 June 2006 and I am still researching but becoming clearer in my mind as to the benefits of iPod. I am now resolved to acquire an iPod at the end of June to help me organise lectures and classical music appreciation music holidays that I lead. Then, after I have had a chance to use it for a spell I will report back to MusicWeb on my findings and incidentally pass an opinion on some of those books listed above (and any others I come across).

Watch this space….

Addendum

Seen and Heard Review


The Global Concert Hall: Marc Bridle takes a look at DG Concerts, a new musical innovation between Deutsche Grammophon and Apple’s iTunes.

 


In my recent editorial, I briefly touched on Deutsche Grammophon’s new musical arrangement with iTunes – DG Concerts. On paper this looks like a fascinating concept – concerts are recorded, and a few weeks after the event are released for music download on iTunes. At the moment this is an exclusive arrangement between the record company and the iconic computer developer, Apple, but sometime during the latter part of this year DG will broaden its retail base to include Real’s Rhapsody and Napster. In their press release DG mention the possibility of releasing one of the concerts on disc at the end of each year – but the principle is that the concerts are available only as downloadable content.

The benefits of this collaboration are clear. As Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and one of the first orchestras to be part of this new initiative, said, "Downloading is the relevant channel for music distribution in the 21st century. It provides a very important and significant opportunity for classical music listeners to discover, experience and appreciate new music through the latest technology." The New York Philharmonic, DG’s other current American partner, said, "Thanks to this new collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, the Philharmonic is helping to pave the way for classical music into the digital age. Our music will reach fans around the world in a format that is accessible, portable, and very personal."

Creating a new model for symphonic listening, with the technology available to make for CD quality sound, the crucial point of this venture is that it revolutionizes the financial and logistical challenges that have latterly made conventional recordings problematic. Via the download market, DG all but eradicates the expensive manufacturing cost of CDs and by broadening the scope of what is recorded (a full concert) repertoire is expanded. In the case of the LAPO, one of America’s most forward-thinking orchestras when it comes to concert programming, this makes for some thought provoking couplings. The third LAPO release, from the orchestras current ‘Beethoven Unbound’ series, couples Beethoven’s Second Leonore Overture with the Fifth symphony and Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony, a Salonen speciality. The Fourth release, in June, and from the same series, will couple Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies with a new work by the Swedish composer Anders Hillborg, Eleven Gates.

 


The New York Philharmonic, a different kind of orchestral animal to their West Coast online partners, have so far offered a more conservative and mainstream choice of repertoire. The first disc, of Mozart’s Symphonies 39, 40 and 41, conducted by the orchestra’s Music Director, Lorin Maazel, established that orchestra’s less ground-breaking approach to concert programming. The NYPO’s second release will feature Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Kodály’s Dances of Galanta and Dvořák’s Symphony No.7 from the orchestra’s 14,244th concert given on 31 March.

 

What of the performances themselves? Captured live, all of the downloads I have listened to so far are in excellent, well balanced sound, with rich dynamics and superb musical clarity. If the LAPO recordings sound better focused it is because their new Walt Disney Concert Hall offers a richer acoustic than the New York Philharmonic’s drier Avery Fisher Hall. Lorin Maazel’s Mozart has always been on the weightier side of HIP, and the three symphonies programmed are no exception to that. But they stand together as a superbly played triptych, even if the musical insights are few. Their second concert offers a richer musical experience. Maazel’s Dvořák beams with confidence and in the case of the Seventh Symphony he offers the kind of refined performance that balances the work’s rhapsodic and rigorous musical ideas succinctly and dramatically. In the case of the Kodály, orchestra and conductor revel in the dripping colours the score throws up.

 

The first two LAPO downloads were both of contemporary music concerts from the orchestra’s Minimalist Jukebox season – the first coupling Arvo Pärt (Tabula Rasa) and Louis Andriessen (Racconto dall’Inferno, in its US premiere, and De Staat). The second concert featured works by Steve Reich – Variations for Wind, Strings and Keyboards, Three Movements for Orchestra and Tehillim. The latter concert, especially, has the kind of echt American synchronicity of music to insight one would expect, and in the case of Reich’s Tehillim, the Los Angeles players give the music a genuine sense of discovery through an orchestral voyage that is frequently breathtaking in its scope.

 


Less satisfactory as single concert experiences are the two Salonen downloads; they very much come across as indistinct musical ventures. The performances of the three Beethoven symphonies suffer from a sense of the routine: there is nothing in Salonen’s Beethoven to make you feel you are hearing anything new or revolutionary in the music. The orchestra’s playing is embalmed in a world of tranquillity too, and in the case of the Seventh and Fifth orchestra and conductor gesture towards a world of innocuousness rather than searing revolution. The Hillborg and Lutosławski, however, are an entirely different matter. Here both orchestra and conductor find themselves on much safer territory. The Lutosławski Fourth Symphony is a definitive performance: both Salonen and the orchestra have played the work so frequently with each other that its secrets seem to open up preternaturally. The juxtaposition of the work’s lyricism and mercurial faster sections are well sustained and the orchestra plays magnificently: unison strings and brass in the second movement are superb, as is the symphony’s ending as the orchestra dissolves into a kind of dreamy recollected silence.

Anders Hillborg’s music usually stretches itself between extremes of contrast: there is the mechanical with the almost human, the static with the active, and the brutal and violent with the noble and transfigured. There is often something surreal about his music, and the notion that hearing a Hillborg piece is rather like looking at a Dali painting or seeing a Cocteau film is forever present in the mind. Eleven Gates falls neatly into this Hillborgesque soundscape: the work opens in stasis and disintegrates into feverish, raucous, energetic dissonance before dissolving into silent quiescence before ending in shattering clusters of density. Running for almost 17 minutes, Salonen and his Los Angeles players give Eleven Gates a virtuosic and physical workout.

 

So far, DG have concentrated only on the NYPO and LAPO but they intend recording concerts from most of the world’s major musical capitals. I hope this will include Thielemann in Munich, but DG have yet to announce publicly who its non-US partners are. If the idea itself is one that is invigorating and adventurous, with its scope for introducing new audiences to classical music, there are a few quirks that are inexplicable. DG states in its press release that tracks will be available for individual download. This is not strictly true if one visits iTunes where individual tracks are not available for individual download. This would make the prospect of the Salonen/Beethoven concerts a better financial investment if one could just download the Hillborg or Lutosławski pieces and not the Beethoven. And why has iTunes provided booklet notes for download on its US site but not on its UK one? No doubt these small problems will be addressed but they should neither detract from nor render this important project less important than it is for the future of classical music.


Marc Bridle

 



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