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Essential Movies: Almost Famous

Almost_famous_poster1.jpgGrowing up in the 1970s, music was an important part of my life. My friends and I went to concerts dozens of times each year. Sometimes these were big concerts in Madison Square Garden, one of the best arenas for rock music. Others were in smaller venues in New York City, such as The Palladium, Radio City Music Hall, or The Bottom Line, as well as local colleges, and some other venues on Long Island.

I saw bands large and small, ranging from Genesis to Yes to the Grateful Dead at Madison Square Garden; I saw Dire Straits on their first US tour at The Bottom Line, where I also saw Lou Reed and the Steve Reich Ensemble; and at Radio City Music Hall, which was just starting to hold rock concerts, I saw the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull. The Palladium was where we went to see all the bands that were on the cusp of stardom, the ones that were almost famous. I saw groups such as The Grateful Dead (their spring 1977 tour, one of the last in smaller venues), Lynyrd Skynyrd, Be-Bop Deluxe, Joe Jackson, Jorma Kaukonen and dozens of others. And in summer, we’d hang out in Central Park, on a hill overlooking the Wollman skating rink, where there were several concerts a week. We were close enough to hear the music, though the stage was small. Music was, for me and my friends, one of the essential elements of our lives.

I can think of no other movie about music that resonates with me as much as Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film. (Get the “Bootleg Cut, the extended version, on Blu-Ray: Amazon.com, Amazon UK.) While this movie looks at music from behind the stage – it’s based on Crowe’s experiences touring with bands in the early 1970s – the atmosphere it creates matches up with what I new back in my teenage years.

The movie is, at heart, about music; about the love of music; about fans and how much they love music.

To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.

Almost Famous is also about how music brings us together. One of the pivotal scenes in the movie takes place when William Miller has managed to get Russell Hammond away from a local party, where he took acid, and back onto the bus. Everyone on the bus is angry, upset with Hammond for taking off, and the music on the bus is playing Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. Slowly, one after another, each person on the bus picks up the beat of the music, until they all sing along with the words. They are united by that “silly little piece of music.”

During this, Miller – the 15-year old kid who talked his way into an assignment from Rolling Stone to write about the band – says: “I have to g home.” Penny Lane, the groupie – or Band-Aid – turns to him and says, “You are home.”

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On the surface, Almost Famous is a story of a boy growing up; it’s a love story; and it’s the story of “a mid-level band struggling with their own limitations in the harsh face of stardom.”

But above all, it’s a story about how music can move us.

Why Journalists Fall for the High-Resolution Music Scam

Yesterday, the UK newspaper The Guardian published an article about high-resolution music. The article – entitled How much difference is there between MP3, CD and 24-bit audio? – starts with a leader:

“Debates rage over whether hi-res music is a gimmick. Three Guardian writers put four music formats – and their ears – to the test”

This is another example of The Guardian’s shoddy tech reporting. They take a hot-button item that can get them a lot of hits, and approach it in the worst possible manner.[1]

If The Guardian were to examine, say, the quality of meat sold in supermarkets, would anyone consider it valid if they had Tesco (the leading UK supermarket chain) provide the samples for their test? Probably not. But when they examined high-resolution music files[2], they went to Linn Records, a purveyor of such products. (I have nothing agains Linn Records; I have a number of their classical releases, many of which are wonderful.)

And, rather than perform a blind test – a bit of research on the internet would have shown the journalists that this is the only valid way to compare different music formats – they had someone from Linn Records play them in order from the most compressed file (128 kbps MP3) to what was expected to be the best (the high-resolution file). And they listen to them on a “high-quality system and speakers.”[3]

While their conclusions were mixed – they made it clear that they couldn’t always distinguish between the different formats – one comment stood out: “there’s a distinct quality difference between the kind of compressed, middling MP3 commonly downloaded from the major platforms.” This is disingenuous; if the person here is talking about 128 kbps MP3, not one “major platform” uses that bit rate any more, or has in many years.

I’ve seen many studies that involve blind testing of music formats, such as this study that I recently reported on, and they all conclude that, even among experienced listeners, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between CD-quality music and high-resolution files. The study I link to above even includes a number of people who are musicians, or people who work with audio; in a survey after the study, those people were no better than the others, even when they felt relatively sure of their choices.

There’s a big difference between the high-profile investigative journalism The Guardian publishes – such as the Snowden leaks – and the tripe they pass off in the rest of their newspaper (and website). Much of The Guardian today looks like a blog, with a lot of stories about dating, weight loss and cooking. Their tech reporting often looks like that as well. Interestingly, they have an excellent classical music critic, Tom Service, who could have been a part of this test; I wonder why he wasn’t. Did he already have an opinion on the subject that went against what The Guardian wanted to publish?

This Guardian article reads like an advertorial. Lazy journalists didn’t want to take the time to examine the questions around high-resolution music files objectively, so they got a company who sells the product they’re reporting on, and pimped that company’s products, saying:

“…listening a very high-quality set of Linn speakers…”

“…on Linn’s superb hi-fi equipment…”

It’s clear what the agenda was here; this was not an article about high-resolution, but about Linn Records. The Guardian took the wrong approach to an issue that concerns (an admittedly small number of) consumers, and, rather than try and be objective, just wrote what would please a specific company. Take it for what it’s worth.

Read why I think that high-resolution music is a marketing scam.

Update: As a reader pointed out in the comments, the Guardian podcast allows Gilad Tiefenbrun of Linn Music make several misstatements. He suggests that MP3 or AAC are proprietary formats that are not “open.” Discussing one service that, on shutdown, led to the loss of music by purchasers, he equates the non-openness of specific formats as being an issue.

Unfortunately, he’s quite wrong. The Virgin Media service he discusses didn’t cause problems for people’s music libraries because of a format, but because of DRM. Any MP3 or AAC files you have now – at least since Apple dropped DRM – will be playable for the foreseeable future. He talks about being “tied in with either certain equipment or certain service providers.” Nope, unless there’s DRM, that doesn’t happen; and DRM is almost entirely gone for music.

But, it’s fair to say that high-resolution files do tie you in with certain equipment; if you don’t have something that can play the files, then you can’t listen to them. But this person conflates a number of issues in a few sentences: open source, DRM and a variety of formats.

Let us not forget that Linn Records is trying to sell a product; and a higher-priced product at that. So it’s clear that any person from a company like this is giving a marketing speech, nothing more. Technically, there’s no real reason for these files to cost more. If there is a premium for bandwidth, let them charge a pound or a buck more. Not £8 more per album, as here, compared to downloads in CD format.

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And, while I’m at it, why does Linn sell a 24/96 disc for £18, and Hyperion can sell files of their records, at the same resolution, for only £10.50, the same price as a CD? (Some of Hyperion’s high-resolution releases are the same price as CDs, some are cheaper, and some are more expensive.)

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I think Linn is gouging the market, because the only people buying these files are those who have already invested a lot of money in their audio systems.


  1. A nit-pick, but an example of the lack of seriousness of the article. They didn’t look at “four music formats,” but only three; they listened to MP3 files at two different bit rates.  ↩

  2. The Guardian article states the following: “There is even debate what actually constitutes hi-res. As Linn’s managing director Gilad Tiefenbrun explains, “there’s confusion over what is and isn’t hi-res music. Is CD hi-res? Perhaps a high-quality MP3? Or does it have to be 24-bit music? For us, hi-res music is the 24-bit studio master – the original recording the artist made, from which all other files and formats are made.”” There’s no confusion at all. High-resolution music files are files at a resolution higher than that of CD; technically, the Red Book CD format, which is 16-bit, 44,100 kHz. They could be 16-bit, 48,000 kHz, which could be studio masters, in the case where a recording was not made in 24-bit. And studio masters can be higher than 24-bit; they can be DSD – Direct Stream Digital – which is used for SACD.  ↩

  3. Any such statement should tell us: a) how much that system cost, so we can compare it to our own audio systems; and b) whether it used oxygen-free, unidirectional speaker cables.  ↩

Make Sure to Back Up Audiobooks Purchased from the iTunes Store; You Can’t Re-Download Them

In this week’s Ask the iTunes Guy column at Macworld, I discuss an issue with audiobook chapters, and I close by recommending that audiobook listeners buy from Audible.com:

Audible’s books can be cheaper than the same books from Apple—you can get a book-a-month plan for $15 a month, and other plans can cost even less. If you’re a big audiobook listener, Audible is the better deal.

It’s a better deal, but there’s something else I hadn’t realized. Unlike other content on the iTunes Store, you cannot re-download audiobooks. I never noticed this, never needing to re-download the couple I bought from the iTunes Store.

But a reader wrote me today, pointing this out, saying that he had some issues with getting his large audiobook collection onto a new iPod.

Audible iosI now strongly recommend that audiobook listeners avoid buying from the iTunes Store. Not only is it more expensive, but if you lose your files, you can’t even get copies. Audible provides you with a Library page where you can download your books at any time, and Audible’s iOS app shows you all your books, and lets you download them at any time.

There’s no excuse for Apple’s not allowing you to re-download audiobooks. It’s worth noting that Audible provides audiobooks to the iTunes Store, so they’re the only one with the content anyway. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Amazon owns Audible?

Use the Mac App Store Debug Menu

This isn’t new, but my son stumbled on something today. His Mac App Store app displays a Debug menu. When I looked this up, I find traces of it as far back as this 2011 post on the Red Sweater blog. Daniel Jalkut’s article ends with this statement:

“Enjoy it while you can. I’m sure it will be gone in the next update, especially if anybody at Apple sees this post.”

Well, three and a half years later, it’s still there.

App Store001.png

To display this menu, open Terminal and enter the following command and relaunch the Mac App Store app:

defaults write com.apple.appstore ShowDebugMenu -bool true

(My son never entered the Terminal command, so I suspect there’s also a secret keyboard shortcut that turns on this menu.)

To remove the debug menu, choose Debug > Enable Debug Menu, which unchecks that menu item. Relaunch the Mac App Store app and it will no longer display.

So what can you do with this menu? Well, you might want to clear cookies, if you’re having trouble downloading items, or you might want to view the download folder, to delete it, again, if downloads are not working. And the Reset Application menu item might be a last resort if you can’t download apps, get updates, or purchase apps.

Much of the rest of the menu is about debugging and logging, and these might be useful for Apple’s tech support team.

So this menu doesn’t offer many useful commands, but some might help if you’re stuck trying to purchase or download apps from the Mac App Store.

The iTunes Guy Looks at Magic and More

itunesguy-thum-100004188-gallery.jpgIt’s easy to forget that some of the technology we use is, to paraphrase a great author, nearly indistinguishable from voodoo. One reader wrote in asking for some clarification about lossless compression, and I explain the magic in this week’s column. I also look at a question about iOS device backups, and one about missing audiobook chapters in iOS.

Read this week’s Ask the iTunes Guy at Macworld.

The Guardian Looks at High-Res Music, and Gets a Lot Wrong

An article in the Guardian today, How much difference is there between MP3, CD and 24-bit audio?, examines a question I’ve looked at here often: can you here a difference between high-resolution music and CD-quality music?

They discuss “24-bit audio,” without talking about sample rates. Most “high-res” music is 24/96, or 24-bit, 96 kHz, but they treat the subject as though the 24-bit depth is all that matters. [1]

They go on to test high-res music, and to do so, enlist a purveyor of such music, Linn Records. Now, one could argue that it’s best to examine a product by a company that sells it, but Linn Records is interested in proving a certain outcome in any such tests. This company set up tests, using their own “high-quality system and speakers.”

The problem with the test is, according to the way it was described, it wasn’t blind. One of the test subjects says:



…listening a very high-quality set of Linn speakers, going from low quality MP3, to high-quality MP3 and finally the high resolution studio master,

If they know what they’re listening to, their confirmation bias enters into the equation. But the same person goes on to say:



My impression at the end of our listening session was that yes, there’s a distinct quality difference between the kind of compressed, middling MP3 commonly downloaded from the major platforms and the 24-bit high-res studio master. But mostly I found the CD-quality track on Linn’s superb hi-fi equipment to be the overall best listen for my particular ears.

When vendors of these products run tests, they generally start with a crappy MP3 rip; the kind that no one listens to any more. I don’t know what the “middling MP3 commonly downloaded from the major platforms” is, because the test claimed to also include a 320 kbps MP3 file, which is not “middling.”

But the article does point out one thing that I’ve often mentioned:



But that difference wasn’t always a good thing. It was disappointing to hear a recording of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma sound worse in studio master, as it exposed the fact that the orchestra and the tenor’s tracks were recorded separately in different environments. They sounded disconnected – something that is masked in the CD version.

A bad master can sound worse in a higher resolution; however, this is likely only to be noticeable on a very high-end stereo. And what the person heard is likely not a different environment, but different miking. It’s possible, however, that either the singer or the orchestral parts had a slightly different amount of reverb applied to them.

So the Guardian articles did three things wrong: they got someone interested in proving that high-res music is better to run a test (who chose which recordings were tested); that test was done on high-end equipment, that none of them could probably afford; and the test wasn’t blind. At least their comments weren’t astounding praise of the music quality, but they’ve misled readers by falling into a test using the conditions that a retailer wanted, rather than truly objective conditions.


  1. I wasn’t going to niggle about the “44 kHz sample rate” they discuss, but after an email from a friend, I decided to add a comment. It’s not hard to get a number right: it’s 44.1 kHz, and it’s easy enough to find out. But it’s typical of The Guardian’s tech reporting that they get the details wrong too. (I’m reminded of an article about Android phones they ran a couple of months ago, illustrated by a photo of an iPhone.)  ↩

Save Disk Space by Moving iOS Device Software Updates to an External Disk

If you’ve got an SSD in your Mac, you probably have limited storage. With most SSDs only 256 GB, you can quickly run out of disk space, especially if you have lots of music or videos. Every gigabyte may count with an SSD.

There are some files you can easily offload to an external hard drive; assuming you have one. One type of file is iOS device software updates. Unless you download iOS software and updates directly on your devices, you’ll have some pretty large files hanging out on your SSD.

First, check and see how much space they take up. In the Finder, choose Go > Go to Folder, and type ~/Library/iTunes. You’ll find one or more folders here which contain software updates:

Finder001.png

Each of these Software Update folders may contain just the latest update to the software for the device(s) you own, or it may contain several. If you’ve never looked in these folders, you may be surprised how many updates they contain, each of which – for iOS devices – is more than 1 GB.

You can safely move all of these folders to an external disk. If you even need to restore an iOS device, you can either re-download the software (if you have a fast internet connection), or choose one of the files on your external disk; the software doesn’t need to be on your startup disk. To do this, hold down the Option key and click Restore. A dialog will ask you to locate the software; navigate to it, select it, and restore.

In the future, it’s good to remember that these folders can hold large files. If space is at a premium, think about moving or deleting them.

The Committed Podcast Discusses Travel and Tech Gear

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01You know how, sometimes, you take a trip and you have all this stuff to take with you? On this week’s episode of The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I discuss the way we each plan for trips – local and international – and which gadgets we take with us. Rob tells us more about his drowned and resuscitated iPhone. And we briefly discuss Apple’s Enterprise Developer Program. We also find out that my pick of the week is one of Ian’s faves.

Listen to The Committed, Episode 46: Minimum Viable Backpack.

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