Charles Petzold

ArkivMusic Asking Interesting Questions

January 12, 2007
New York, NY

I am a one-time customer of the Apple iTunes Store. Some time ago, I needed a recording of the Mahler 6th Symphony fast. I needed to play it on an audio CD-only car stereo, and I was up in the country — probably an hour's drive from any store that might sell classical CDs. So I subscribed to iTunes, paid some money, downloaded a Boulez recording of the Mahler 6th, and burned it to two audio CDs.

It sounded like crap. And of course I knew why. I've experimented with ripping my own CDs, and I've concluded that the minimum acceptable compression bit rate for the type of music I listen to is 256 kilobits per second. (And believe me, there are much more discerning listeners who now believe me to be half deaf for finding 256 kbps to be acceptable.) The industry standard for sites such as is 128 kbps.

And mostly everybody seems to be happy with 128 kbps. Apple needs to devote only half the server space as they would using 256 kbps, both Apple and end-users benefit from the reduced download time, and users can fit twice as many songs on their iPods. If the few remaining fans of classical music can't stomach the results — well, it is easy to ignore us. (I don't feel that Apple is giving me the finger exactly, but I certainly detect a smirk about my totally uncool taste in music.)

The "digital revolution" wasn't supposed to be like this. Compared to analog storage and reproduction, digital was supposed to offer us near-perfect fidelity. With digital there's no degradation, there's no transmission loss, and everything is rendered exactly as it was sampled. But lossy data compression (like MP3 and other algorithms) negates all that. Lossy compression attempts to save space and transmission time through degradation of the original signal. The lower the bitrate, the more fidelity is compromised, and it seems as if bitrates are universally set on the low side, so that only "most people" find the results "acceptable." But many of us do not. We see this not only in music, but in DVDs, digital television broadcasting, and telephones. I sometimes feel like the proverbial frog in the boiling water, subjected to progressively lower bitrates in the hopes I won't notice.

The whole experience with iTunes soured me entirely on the prospects of downloading music in lieu of buying CDs. Unless somebody is going to make a strong commitment to doing a music downloading service correctly — which means caring about audio fidelity rather than the number of fuzzy-sounding "songs" you can store in your iPod — I don't want to hear about it.

Enter I don't know if this glorious beacon of civilization has experienced an upsurge in activity since the closing of Tower Records, but I wouldn't be surprised. This is a site totally devoted to classical music CDs, and their browse engine is so finely attuned to this particular market that I have never found it necessary to use the search engine. (The site's not perfect, of course. I've love to see the backs of the CD boxes, for example, which are usually much more informative than the fronts.)

Recently ArkivMusic invited its customers — or at least those who subscribe to their email newsletter — to participate in a little survey about music downloading. The 12 questions began with "Do you listen to classical music on your computer?" and went on from there. The last 5 questions were interesting enough to list here, and obviously struck a particular chord with me:

These are certainly the right questions, and it'll be interesting to see how this pans out. An uncompressed download would require about 635 megabytes per hour of music. The result could then be listened to directly on the computer, or it could be compressed at 256 kbps or higher for an MP3 player, or it could be burned to an audio CD for the home or car. (And yes, the liner notes are very important.)

I think there's a different mentality among people who listen to classical music that makes it less likely the music will be treated as "disposable" — that is, erased and replaced with this week's hits. I think most people would want to burn every uncompressed download to an audio CD, and print out the liner notes and stick those in the box, and put it on the shelf with the rest of the CD library. Whether this process will be significantly cheaper than just buying a CD, I don't know.

If downloading and saving uncompressed audio turns out to be economically unfeasible, then so be it. We'll still be able to buy CDs and rip those in whatever way we want. But at least we'll know that ArkivMusic has explored the alternative — and done so in a way that clearly demonstrates love and respect for the actual music.