Audio F(ph)iles

The M4A File Type.

The M4A File Type.

Music

We all have our favourite bands, genres, styles and even musical sub-cultures that we all enjoy experiencing on a daily basis.  Unfortunately for many of us who enjoy using our computing devices to store and playback music our choices are limited when it comes to the legal sources for retail digital music. Currently the choices extend to a range of stores like Apple, Amazon and 7Digital who sell the majority of their musical catalogues in a compressed digital format. There are even fewer retail outlets that sell uncompressed lossless studio master quality files directly and those that do are restricted to sell only in a specific territory. 7Digital sometimes sells an occasional studio master version of an album but they are only licensed to distribute in the United Kingdom. Qobuz.com carry a much larger range of high quality recordings but they are restricted to France. HDTracks have quite a good range of music and high quality audio recordings but they are restricted to the US. There are still some older bricks & mortar stores that sell music on CD’s (which by definition is still a digital format) and even analogue Vinyl LP format recordings but they are slowly but steadily failing.

The history of Music and its storage and playback devices is a history of technology, however as technology has changed and the capabilities have improved sound quality has been at a near standstill due to sales of compressed lossy digital file formats. But before we get too far ahead let us look into some of the history of recorded audio.

Recorded Audio Media

Edison Wax Cylinder Recording

Edison Wax Cylinder Recording

Audio recordings are a history of technology onto themselves. But the facilities for controlling not just simply the process of recording the musician’s work but also fabricating the physical media which would contain the work were controlled by a handful of corporations who built their reputations on the musical explorations of the artist’s who were exclusively signed to them. But even before then Audio recordings were hosted on a storage device known as a wax or phonograph cylinder offering around 2.5 minutes of recorded sound.

The wax cylinder was introduced in the 1800’s and enjoyed their greatest period of popularity from 1885 to the early 1900’s. The storage medium (as pictured above) was simply a cylinder that had a recording etched onto the surface of the cylinder that could be replayed by mounting it on a wax cylinder phonograph.

An Edison Wax Cylinder Phonograph

An Edison Wax Cylinder Phonograph

Wax Cylinders were often simply referred to as records, simply implying that the content of the cylinder was a recording. The Phonograph was invented by Thomas Edison in July of 1877. His original concept used tin foil wrapped around a hand cranked cylinder which was hardly suitable for everyday use but proved the basic concept. Within a few years Edison developed wax cylinders licensed by Charles Summer Tainter, Alexander Graham Bell and Chichester Bell, as the American Gramaphone Co. which was later absorbed by Columbia phonograph Co.

Early cylinders were produced using a mixture of paraffin and beeswax, which unfortunately wore out after a few dozen plays. It was however possible to ‘shave’ the surface of the cylinder so that a new recording could be made and early machines of the 1880’s-90’s were sold with a recording attachment. Over the years the type of wax was hardened so that they could be played hundreds of times then in 1902 Edison records launched improved cylinders known as ‘Gold Moulded Records.’ This involved a process that allowed a mould to be taken from a master cylinder which permitted the production of several hundred cylinders. The ‘Gold’ in the title referred to the fact that the master cylinder was coated with gold as part of the production process.. To this day the phrase ‘Gone Gold’ refers to the launch of a new recording or product even computer games.

In 1893 Henri Lioret of France was producing celluloid (an early form of plastic) cylinders but it wasn’t until 1900 that Thomas B Lambert was granted a patent for the production process. The Lambert Company of Chicago began mass marketing cylinder records made from celluloid that remarkably, did not break when dropped and could be played 1000’s of times. An advantage that resulted in a near permanent recording, however the drawback was that the material could not be shaved and recorded over by the end user. Unfortunately Lambert’s company was put out of function by Edison who filed a number suits against the Lambert company. Although the suits for patent infringement where technically not correct, the cost of defending them were too great for Lambert whose company shut its doors in 1906.

Interestingly Edison bought all of Lambert’s patents and immediately launched a run of unbreakable products. Improved manufacturing techniques also enabled Edison to double the length of the record to 4 minutes.

However Edison’s Lambert victory may have been short-lived as the cylinder was about to encounter serious competition.

The Gramophone

A Victor Phonograph Player from 1907

A Victor Phonograph Player from 1907

For a short while Disc type records competed against and with their cylinder based counterparts. The primary difference between the two could be summed up in two words… Cost and complexity. Simply put the disc based device media was very cheap to produce as were the players themselves. Discs were also easier and cheaper to store in bulk and as such could be stored in greater density than cylinders.

A major technological difference between cylinders and discs lies in how they are replayed. A disc relies on the grooves etched into the disc’s surface to pull a stylus across the surface of the disc. Many cylinder players of the time used a worm gear to move the stylus in synchronisation with the grooves of the recording, this increased the expense of cylinder players. Additionally cylinders were dependent upon belts to rotate the cylinder and the belts were prone to slippage introducing more frequent pitch variations.

The death knell of the cylinder was really sounded in 1908 when Columbia Records introduced mass production of disc based records with a recording pressed into each side. This became the standard for the industry. Purchasers of disc based recordings could now purchase two recordings for less than the price of a single cylinder recording.

In the 1910’s the commercial battle between cylinders and discs was won by the disc. It was in this decade that Columbia switched exclusively to disc based recordings. Edison continued to sell cylinders through to 1929 but his latest cylinders were merely dubs of disc recordings, which produced lower quality results.

The Greatest Period of Musical Expression.

The simple disc became increasingly refined into the common Vinyl LP as the 20th century progressed, but it wasn’t until the 60’s that an absolute peak in musical creativity was reached. Originally, LP records were simply a product targeted at an adult market. If your parents went to a show they would sometimes buy the soundtrack. This meant that Soundtracks were the preserve of the LP marketplace. But the youth of the 60’s were listening to a different beat.

The Concept Album

Rock and Roll was the preserve of the 45 RPM vinyl record. Cheap to mass produce but also short, most LP’s produced by artists of the day contained little more than a list of tracks that they had made including covers of other artists work and maybe a couple that were good enough to be released as singles. It wasn’t until the early 60’s that one musician changed the way albums were not only conceived, but bought.

Bob Dylan Freewheelin LP Sleeve

Bob Dylan Freewheelin LP Sleeve

Here was a record were every track was an original piece of work written and produced by the single artist behind the album. Bob Dylan saw the LP as a method for reaching his audience with an album that was more of a dossier of the times. The LP offered 22 minutes of uninterrupted music on each side, which meant that Dylan and other artists were not constrained by the limitations of producing short songs for the sake of a 45RPM single. Freewheelin’ contained such strong statements that it fed back into the culture of the era with songs like ‘Masters of War’ still as relevant now. The Folk Rock of artists like Bob Dylan paved the way for the drug fueled psychedelic bands who would come next.

The Doors

The Doors - Debut album

The Doors – Debut album

Following the path laid by Bob Dylan The Doors self-titled debut album allowed the band to explore theme’s that where not possible in the world of the 45 RPM single. Under the influence of LSD which purportedly opens up entire sections of the unconscious mind bringing them into the light of consciousness, the album explored different musical scales and keys. No longer simply constrained by length, music itself became unhinged from the standard 12 bar blues. With obvious Indian influences that stretched the artform The Doors used the album to its maximum potential with the final song on the album ‘The End’ spanning 11 minutes. The Psychedelic sub-culture fed back into the music of the era influencing the bands of the day including a small 4 man English band who went on to produce what is arguably the first concept album.

The Beatles

The Beatles - Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles – Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band

Here was a piece of technology opening a gateway for an artist to explore, fuelled in part by the drug culture of the time and the incredible capabilities of the recording studio The Beatles produced an album that gave birth to an entire genre of music. The Concept Album. Tired of touring, The Beatles entered the recording studio under the proviso that they would create new sounds that would stem from the imagination. They decided to stop touring and this freed them to explore the facilities of the studio. With Sgt. Peppers the listener is the virtual audience here to witness the performance of Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. This was only possible with the development of the LP. Sgt Peppers paved the way for other forms of music that required the scale of the album to explore concepts. Eventually Rock and Roll gave way to Progressive Rock and one of the most influential bands of all time, besides The Beatles, took the concept album further…

Pink Floyd

Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon

Pink Floyd – Dark Side Of The Moon

Frankly (and in this writer’s humble opinion) one of the most significant and important piece’s of music ever written and recorded. Released in 1973 Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon stands as a musical high point. A slice of perfection etched onto each side of the surface of the disc of this LP. Albums like this were only possible because the LP made it possible. Technology led a cultural revolution allowing artists to explore and release stunning works. In the 70’s however things headed somewhat southward.

Tired of the increasing complexity and self-indulgence of the Progressive Rock artform, an entire counter-culture was born. Giving rise to artists like Patti smith and Television who influenced one of the greatest counter-culture acts of all time..

Sex Pistols - never mind the bollocks

Sex Pistols – never mind the bollocks

Bringing music and musicality back to their roots The Sex Pistols unleashed what is quite possibly the greatest concept album of all time. Never Mind The Bollocks was a watershed moment in musical history washing away the indulgence, pairing back the exploration and producing songs that summed up the anger of a generation. Despite it’s counter culture demeanor the underlying technology of the LP is what made albums like this possible. But a new era in musical fidelity was calling only a few short years later.

LP’s had a fundamental flaw, and this flaw is common to all technology that drags something solid across the surface of the media being played back. The act of playing it degrades the quality of the recording slowly but steadily. LP’s grow… fuzzier with increasing background noise with each play. If only it where possible to play music without physically touching the surface….

The Birth of the Compact Disc

The Compact Disc

The Compact Disc

In 1974 (one year after the release of Dark Side of the Moon) an initiative was taken by L. Ottens a director of the Philips Technology group in the Netherlands. A project group was formed to develop an optical disc with a diameter of 20 cm with a sound quality that was superior to that of the LP. The engineers at Philips recommended moving to a digital standard as this would permit the inclusion of error correction technology. In 1977 the group decided to focus on the creation of a smaller optical disc and player they chose the term Compact Disc in line with another Philips technology the compact cassette. This disc would be 11.5cm in size.

Meanwhile Sony mounted a demonstration in 1976 of an optical digital audio technology that had a playing time of around 150 minutes and a resolution of 16bits and 44Khz sample rate. These specifications are very close to what became the de-facto compact disc standard.

In 1979 Sony and Philips set up a joint engineering task force to design a digital audio disc, the research pushed forward laser and optical disc technology that began independently by the two companies. After a year of work they produced the Red Book CD-DA standard. Ratified in 1980 the standard was formally adopted by the IEC as an international standard in 1987.

The transition from Analogue to Digital was complete. In doing this the companies at the time did not anticipate that this move to digital would undermine the very foundation of the music industry.

The Decline

The Compact disc was planned to be the successor to the Gramaphone record for music playback rather than simply as a data storage  medium. However Hard disk capacities in the early 80’s were a paltry 20-40 Megabytes. It wasn’t long until the storage potential of cheap optical disc’s was combined with early computing technologies to give birth to the CD ROM in 1990. But the real challenge to CD’s would come, not from the physical world of storage devices, but the world of mathematics.

The Motion Picture Experts Group

MPEG. This was an initiative founded in 1988 formed by the ISO and IEC to initially set a standard for audio and video compression and transmission. Seizing on the compact disc as a ready source for cheap storage the MPEG group managed to create a mathematical algorithm that reduced the motion and colour information contained in a moving image to mathematical formulae that allowed them to compress the audio and image data. It is the compression of audio that led to the downfall of the music industry.

MP3

MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3 or MPEG 2 Audio Layer 3 is a patented encoding technology that uses a set of mathematical equations to convert music from one source usually a pre-recorded CD or a digital file into a lossy format that occupies less disk space than the original would require.

By lossy I mean that much of the information from the source is sacrificed to reduce the footprint of the resulting file. An average audio CD contains 650mb of data with MP3 it was possible to convert this to less than a tenth of the original size. Of course this means that the quality is also sacrificed and this is noticeable when listening to music with a good pair of headphones.

Copy Protection

Music playback fidelity has stagnated since the introduction of MP3. The major selling point of MP3 was two fold, you could store your precious CD music as a file on your computer and because of the compression the files were small enough to be easily trade-able. MP3 contains no restrictions on the number of copies that are possible and the fidelity of the resulting files was good enough to warrant action by the industry against the largest MP3 file exchange system of the time.

Napster

Napster

Napster

Napster connected software clients installed on computers across the planet and allowed the free exchange of music without payment to the recording company or the artist. Viewing this as a threat the music industry and in particular artists like Metallica sued Napster out of existence. But the damage was done. Physical media sales of music would never recover. Services like iTunes have taken over from where Napster left off selling highly compressed versions of music that actually sound worse than the CD equivalent of the album. Originally selling music that was heavily restricted with Digital Rights Management features, they retailed music for the same price as the CD. Even though you could do less with the files they sold and the quality was sacrificed. Apple has never brought the standard of their retail audio up to that of what those of us who love music would like.

However, the birth of the digital age of music is even now an on-going evolution. Storage capacities of Hard Disks are now soaring over the 4 Terabyte mark which is opening the door to perfect studio quality fidelity in music at home. As disk storage capacity soars a new group of engineers have in their own time devised a new lossless format that is open to all. It is not patented, it is free to all and contains no Digital Rights Management controls it is also focused solely on the lossless preservation of music.

Free Lossless Audio Codec.

FLAC - Free Lossless Audio Codec

FLAC – Free Lossless Audio Codec

FLAC preserves all the waveform information of the music it contains and compresses only the resulting data. Much like Winzip it can reduce the size of a file and restore it perfectly during playback. However, unlike MP3 and M4A FLAC is not restricted to 44.1Khz Stereo in 16 Bits. FLAC offers full multi-channel support in ranges up to 192Khz, with a 24 Bit Linear range. FLAC recordings are of a much greater fidelity than those offered by Compact Disc’s and even more so than those offered by Apple.

To offer some insight, the classic rock album ‘Tommy’ by ‘The Who’ is available from Apple’s online store, once downloaded the album occupies around 79.8mb of space. The same album as sold by HDTracks.com which specialises in high fidelity audio is 1.3GB in size. I can personally attest to the difference in fidelity.

The End.

Music when it was protected by restricted recording mechanism’s underwent the greatest exploration and explosion in artistry in history with the evolution of bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and artists like Carole King and Patti Smith. We are unlikely to see the like of this again. Record companies are unwilling to take risks with music and artists since the costs of nurturing an artist to maturity can be enormous. When they were protected by restrictive measures and practices they could afford the expense. Now it is not that easy.

Despite that, many bands who push the envelope do exist and are thriving in the new era of digital reproduction. on Bancamp.com many of these artists sell their albums directly to you in the highest possible quality so that you can enjoy what iTunes and their ilk are preventing you from doing so.

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