Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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An Introduction

Some items
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Free classical music concerts by Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

British composers

  • Today's leading<br>clarinet-piano duo
  • Stellar debut<br>piano recital
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  • Jonathan Cohler & Claremont Trio
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  • Today's leading<br>clarinet-piano duo

Shostakovich Symphony 10 Nelsons

Verdi Requiem

Dvorak Opera Premiere

Grieg, Mendelssohn sonatas

Download (commercial)
Download (free)

It seems inevitable that the future of music, at least as far as obtaining it in recorded form goes, is online.

The days of the specialist shop are numbered, unfortunately. It is not just the Tower Records that have disappeared as a shopfront presence. How many of you can would report that their local CD shop is a shadow of its former self, or is no longer there? Here in Newcastle (the Australian one north of Sydney with a population of 500,000) there is no specialist classical music shop, and classical CDs barely rate a presence on the shelves of the CD retailers that do exist.

Even in Sydney, the situation is fairly grim, though there are a few specialist shops, but the new releases are ones I've seen on Musicweb a couple of months earlier, and as for getting older releases by back order ... well, don't get me started!

As a consequence, I've hardly bought a CD from an Australian shop in the last two years, and have gone down the path of ordering them from the United Kingdom - in 99% of cases, they arrive within a few weeks and about two-thirds the price that they would be in a local shop (if they were obtainable at all).

But buying CDs as a physical entity is not what this article (and its associated pages) are about. We are now in the early stages of the next step away from buying our music in a shop: where the physical entity of a disc (black or silver) is no longer part of the process. Our purchases will be in the form of data transmission through our modems (I will refer to the area as digital music, which is the industry term, even though we all know that CDs and DVDs are digital as well).

The evidence is already very clear that this is the future. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry recently released a report titled "Digital Music Report 2007" (January 2007), the relevant points for classical music devotees of which are:

• online sales of digital music doubled in value from 2005 to 2006, reaching an estimated $US2 billion
•  the share of online sales of digital music also doubled in 2006 to 10%
•  the number of tracks (all music) also doubled to over 4 million
•  the number of providers of digital music is over 500
•  the classical music genre is the fastest growing at 23% (albeit from a lower base than popular music) (see a Gramophone article on this aspect)

It should be noted that at the same time, CD sales have continued to decrease, showing a 25% decrease in units sold between 2000 and 2005 (in the United States).

An explanation of the types of services available
The majority of services offer download of the music as files which you save to your computer's hard disc. These become your property to do with as you will.

The most common format is MP3, a compressed file format for audio. There is a loss of sound quality which some people will say is unacceptable It is dependent on the amount of compression: 192 kilobytes per second is common, and it gets as low as 48 and as high as 320. I'm afraid my 50-something year-old ears have got to the point where the difference (between full CD quality and good mp3, 192 say) is not enough to worry about.

Full CD quality (lossless) is gained by the WAV format, but unless you have a very fast internet connection and a large monthly download allocation, you will find this rather burdensome (see file size comparison in Table 1 below).

There are three other less common formats: the lossless FLAC, and the compressed AAC, WMA and OGG.

manages to do both reduce the file size without information. It works in a similar way to Winzip and other such programs, and is able to achieve lossless compression of around 50%.

AAC is considered to be sonically superior to mp3 at the same compression rate, and is the format used by Apple with iTunes and the iPod.

WMA is the Microsoft entry in the field. Obviously it is supported by Windows Media Player (among many other PC media playing software), but the format is also supported by many portable devices. It too achieves a more efficient compression at the same sound quality as mp3.

OGG is something known as a container format (the precise meaning of which, I freely admit, escapes me). There is a Wikipedia page which "explains" this, and I direct the curious reader to that.

Table 1. Comparison of file sizes (in Mb) for a music track of 5'40 duration

mp3, aac, wma
128 kbps
mp3, aac, wma
256 kbps

What if I want to play my downloaded music on my CD player?
WAV are the direct computer equivalent of the CD track, and as such, can be converted to a conventional CD with a program such as Nero. Audio management and playback programs such as Winamp and iTunes are capable of burning other formats to CD, and in the most "desperate" of situations, files of "difficult" format types can be converted to a "burnable" format and then across to CD using freely available (and free) software. The "lossy" formats (mp3, wma, aac) will create a lesser quality sound (though unless the compression is very substantial eg 48 kbps, it is not too intrusive; while FLAC files will generate sound of identical quality to the original CD.

Also bear in mind that most DVD players will play mp3 files directly, as will many newer car CD players, where the loss of sound quality is not so noticeable.

Downsides of some download sites
With some download services (eg emusic), you are limited to a certain number of downloads per month, the number not surprisingly depending on how much you are paying. Unfortunately, this system is not designed to suit the classical listener. Why not? One download is one CD track, regardless of duration.

This is fine for pop/rock where most tracks are of a similar length, but is rather a problem for something like the Goldberg Variations, where your entire month's downloads (and more) would be used up by the 32 tracks. Mind you, if your taste runs to Mahler, then you could get the 20+ minute first movement of Symphony 3 as one track download! This is clearly an issue for classical subscribers.

The other issue is that, for Byzantine copyright or distribution reasons, you may not be able to purchase downloads from particular sites because of where you live. You need to live in the UK to puchase downloads from Amazon UK, though it is perfectly OK to buy the physical CD form Amazon UK and have them ship it to your overseas address - make sense of that if you can! iTunes has "stores" in different countries - an absurd concept if you think about it - and what is available in the US store is not necessarily available in the Australian store, for example. If you live in Australia, you can't buy from the US store. All very frustrating.

In this instance, the bytes of musical information being transferred through your modem are being immediately translated into sound. Once you press the stop button or the music finishes, it is gone: it is not stored permanently on your computer. It is, therefore, the 21st century equivalent of the distinction between listening to a recording on your player versus listening to it on the radio.

You will need specific software (generally free) to play the music, since the form in which it is being sent down the connection will have been determined by the webcaster. Normally, the webcast page will specify which software you require, and if you don't have it, will provide a link to a site from where you can install it.

Fortunately most people will already have the three most common programs that webcasters use: Window Media Player (if you have Windows you have WMP whether you want it or not), Real Player or Quick Time.

To allow this to happen without interruptions requires a relatively fast, but more importantly reliably consistent, broadband connection. If not, you will face regular breaks in the sound (and a message in the software along the lines of "Buffering ....". The buffer is a "bucket of data" which the software that generates the music on your computer uses. If it is emptying the bucket faster than it is being filled from the internet connection, then you will get the annoying break.

Technologically, this is just streaming, but the distinction being made here is that the content is live radio or a concert, rather than a recording of your choice, hence the name: the web equivalent of a radio broadcast.

Other terms
DRM - Digital Rights Management; a copy protection system devised by the big labels to safeguard against piracy. Needless to say it didn't work for very long. In most cases, there is no DRM (or any other form of protection) on downloaded files purchased from the commercial sites. Fairplay is Apple's proprietary protection code, there are others.


David J Barker





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