The Cloud Bursts its Bubble

The cloud has been in the news lately. Prices are starting to drop for a number of cloud services – those online, in-the-ether file repositories. Google and Amazon have both lowered their prices recently, by about 50% for Amazon, and 68% for Google.

But iCloud still only offers you 5 GB storage, no matter how many Apple devices you have, upgrades to iCloud are expensive, and Dropbox is holding back for now on reducing its prices.

I’ve got storage on several cloud servers:

  • Dropbox: I have 25 GB; the initial free 2 GB, plus another 23 GB I earned by referring people to Dropbox, by using their camera upload feature, and some other promotions.
  • Google Drive: I have 65 GB on Google Drive. There’s a free 15 GB, and I earned another 50 GB – good for two years – when I bought my Motorola Moto G smartphone.
  • Box: I’ve got 50 GB with Box, which came from a promotion the company ran a few months ago.
  • iCloud: I’ve got a measly 5 GB on iCloud, even though I own a Mac mini, a MacBook Pro, an iPhone, an iPad air, an iPad mini and an iPod touch. (I also have a few other iPods that can’t access the internet.) You’d think they’d give me a bit more to be able to back up all those iOS devices.

That’s a lot of space, and the only two I use regularly, for now, are Dropbox and iCloud. The former because I use it to collaborate with others, notably for my Take Control books, and the latter for apps, data and iOS backups.

But I’ve just added another cloud service, and this one is breaking all records for pricing. MediaFire has just released an iOS app, to go with its web-based and desktop service, and is running a promotion. MediaFire starts you off with a free 10 GB, and has two paid price plans. The 1 TB – yes, that’s 1,000 GB – plan is $5 a month, and the 100 TB plan is $50 a month. So, for $50 a year – you get a discount if you pay yearly – you get 1 terabyte of storage. Compared to iCloud, you’re getting 40 times as much storage for $10 more a year. Granted, it’s not baked into Apple’s apps, but the MediaFire desktop app works a lot like Dropbox, as does the iOS app.

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I’m tempted to grab the 1 TB plan, which is currently on sale half price: just $25 a year for now. I doubt I’d use all that space, though if I had enough upstream bandwidth, I’d use it to back up my music library. But it would be nice to know it’s there if I ever need it.

Cloud storage prices are going to continue to fall, and MediaFire has taken a bold step. They probably know that most users who take a 1 TB plan won’t use a lot of that space, but giving you that much for the price of a couple of movie tickets is impressive. It remains to be seen how reliable MediaFire is, but, for now, I like the way it looks.

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How It Works: Audio Compression

The term “compression” is often a source of confusion when discussing digital music. There are two kinds of compression. The first is the kind used to compress the size of files; this is data compression. There is lossy compression, using with MP3 and AAC files, and lossless compression, used with FLAC and Apple Lossless formats.

But the other kind of compression, dynamic range compression, is the much derided method of limiting the amount of dynamic range in music. The point of dynamic range compression is to make less of a difference between the quietest parts of a piece of music and the loudest parts. Most music is compressed as part of the recording and mastering process, because it does sound a lot better, and keeps you from blowing out your speakers. But over-compressing music makes it sound like crap.

The best way to understand dynamic compression is to look at a couple of audio waveforms. The screenshots below were made using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission audio editor.

Here’s a song which is free on iTunes today. I chose this one because, well, any free pop single is likely to be heavily compressed, and this example shows that I’m not wrong.

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You can see two things in this waveform. The first is that the song is almost universally loud; the waves show the loudness. The second thing to notice is that there is a lot of clipping; audio volume that hits the top of the available limit. This is bad. As Wikipedia says:

Music which is clipped experiences amplitude compression, whereby all notes begin to sound equally loud because loud notes are being clipped to the same output level as softer notes.

Excessive compression has led to what is known as the loudness wars. This is when record producers make their songs louder and louder so they stand out against other songs. Generally, the human brain perceives louder music to be better, so additional loudness can make a song more compelling. But, in the end, all this has done is made lots of loud, clipped songs.

Here’s an example of a song which is not compressed. This is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here:

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You can see the difference in two places in this screenshot. In the overall timeline at the top of the window, you can see that the music has a shape; in the first screenshot of the free pop single, it’s just one long mass of sound. And in the actual waveform, you can see that there is modulation, and no clipping, in the Pink Floyd song.

The difference is that you may play your Pink Floyd song at a louder volume, in order to hear the quiet parts of the song, but the louder parts will be, well, loud. In the first song, the entire song is loud, and you’re likely to become fatigued more quickly after listening to music like that.

For good examples of audio that is not compressed – or only very slightly – watch a movie. In general, movie audio is not compressed; this is why the dialog is often too soft, but the special effects are too loud. This is why you often need to adjust the volume for movies with lots of explosions, otherwise your ears hurt. (You may have an AV receiver which has a dynamic range compression feature; if you’ve turned this on, you may not hear such large differences in volume.)

Dynamic range compression isn’t a bad thing; it’s just bad when it’s overdone, as is the case in much popular music today.

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iTunes High Resolution Conversion to WAV or AIFF Truncates Bit Depth

I spotted something surprising today, and if you buy and listen to high-resolution files with iTunes, you’ll want to know about this. Personally, I don’t believe the high-resolution music file stuff, but it’s up to you.

As you may know, you can play back high-resolution files in iTunes, if they are in Apple Lossless format. You can convert files to Apple Lossless from FLAC, AIFF or WAV with no loss in quality. You can do the WAV or AIFF conversion in iTunes, or, to convert FLAC files, you can use the free XLD.

But, if you use iTunes to later convert your Apple Lossless files to WAV or AIFF, you may be surprised: iTunes converts your 24-bit files to only 16 bits. Here’s an example: I took a 24-bit, 96 kHz file and converted it to WAV using iTunes. Here’s the original file:

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And here’s the WAV file:

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I’d always thought that iTunes was transparent in lossless encoding and decoding, but this is not the case. The same thing happens when converting to AIFF.

iTunes can play files at a bit depth of up to 24 bits, and with a sample rate of up to 352.8 kHz, assuming you have the hardware to handle that sample rate. But we forewarned that, if you plan to convert these lossless files back to AIFF or WAV, you’ll lose some of the high resolution. (To be fair, there is no reason to do so…)

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iTunes Smart Playlist: Lots of Live Dead

I’ve made a smart playlist to group all of my live Grateful Dead recordings (just official releases). This uses a nested smart playlist, with a number of conditions. The first is Artist is Grateful Dead, and then I nest a number of conditions, beginning with Album begins with 1, since all of the Dead’s concerts took place in the 20th century, and I name them with the date first, like this: 1974-05-14 – Missoula, MT – Dave’s Picks Vol. 9. Here’s what the smart playlist looks like:

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(To add nested conditions, press the Option key and click on the + button to the right of the first condition; when you hold down the Option key, that button becomes a … .)

For other live albums, I’ve just added their names; I could also do this more easily, by adding, say, “Live” to the Comments field of all these albums. But that means I’d need to remember to do this for each new release.

And here’s what I see when I view this smart playlist; this is in Grid view:

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That’s a lot of Grateful Dead!

By the way, if you want a full-size screenshot of the above picture, click here; it’s about 5 MB. You may need to click on the image to zoom to full size; I see I have to do that in Safari.

And how about a wallpaper? I’ve made a 2560×1440 graphic with a lot of my live Dead covers from iTunes. That’s the size of a 27″ Apple iMac, or Thunderbolt display. If you need other sizes, you’ll just have to make them yourself. Grab the wallpaper here (3.4 MB).

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The Committed Podcast Discusses Wearables, WWDC and iTunes

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s The Committed podcast, Ian Schray and I discuss wearable technology; more specifically, fitness trackers. (Rob Griffiths was away for this week’s recording; he’ll be back next week.)

Ian and I each have one, and we discuss the merits of counting steps versus Nike+ fuel, and the problems of accuracy I’ve seen with a couple of fitness trackers. We also talk about the WWDC (Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference), and have a chat about iTunes and a possible Apple steaming service. And we look at Dropbox’s new Carousel, an iOS app for managing and sharing photos.

Listen to Episode 29 of The Committed podcast: “Wearables”.

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When Will Apple Start Selling Lossless Files on the iTunes Store?

Update: I posted this article in January, 2014. Recently, there are new rumors around the possibility that Apple would be selling high-resolution audio files in the iTunes Store. Notwithstanding the fact that high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I consider it highly unlikely that Apple will sell such files in the near future. This rumor isn’t new; it’s been around since early 2011. Apple requests high-resolution files from record labels in order to correctly create Mastered for iTunes files. Apple’s portable devices simply don’t have enough storage to hold many high-resolution files. However, I do think that Apple will soon begin selling lossless files. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago, with some slight changes to bring the article up to date.

A while ago, I posted an article discussing Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both in comments to the article and in emails, from people wondering when Apple will start selling lossless files on the iTunes Store. (These are music files that are the exact equivalent as music on CDs, and Apple could use the format that they developed, Apple Lossless, to provide this quality.)

I think Apple will eventually do this, but that they’re in no hurry to do so. The quality of the AAC files that Apple sells (at 256 kbps) is certainly “good enough” for most uses. If you do the kind of test I discuss here, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference. And unless you have very good audio equipment, then you most certainly won’t.

Nevertheless, many music fans (though certainly a minority) want lossless music files. And, just as Apple has pushed its “Mastered for iTunes” files – which, interestingly, are not always better quality than regular AAC files – they could use the sale of lossless files as a marketing tool.

If so, I think they would do so in a way similar to the way they sell video. Currently, you can choose between SD and HD videos for most movies and TV shows you get on the iTunes Store (older shows and movies in SD only don’t offer that choice). And, when you choose HD, you can choose from two qualities. As you can see below, you can choose from levels of HD quality.

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I can imagine that iTunes would offer the option to download lossless or lossy files, perhaps with a premium for the former, as they do for HD video (though they have to keep the price below that of CDs, which, of course, are lossless and easy to import into an iTunes library). And there would most likely be an upgrade option for music you’ve already purchased, as they did when they moved from 128 kbps files to 256 kbps.

But I also think that you would have the option of downloading lossy files as well, notably to use with iTunes Match on iOS devices. Because lossless files are much larger, using them would fill up an iOS device very quickly. You can convert lossless files to lossy versions when syncing to an iOS device, but if you download music directly onto an iOS device, you don’t have this option.

While the market is small, the marketing value is large; if Apple were to offer lossless files, they’d be the first major music retailer to do so. (Many labels that sell their music directly offer lossless files, but no large music retailer does.) I can foresee Apple doing this in the next year or two, after they’ve worn out the Mastered for iTunes campaign.

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Here’s How Apple Could Make Music Streaming Work

The word is out that iTunes Radio isn’t performing as Apple had hoped. Album sales are down, streaming revenue is up. iTunes Radio may not be the appropriate model for Apple to use to compensate for a drop in music sales in the iTunes Store. It is said that Apple is in talks with record labels to set up a music streaming service. This wouldn’t be like iTunes Radio, but an on-demand streaming service, like Spotify and others.

I looked at the math in Is Streaming the Future of Music?, but now I want to look at how I think Apple could make a streaming service work. My main points here show why I don’t like current streaming services; obviously, other listeners have other ways of listening, so their ideas may be different. Feel free to post comments about changes you would make to have a streaming service that works for you.

To start with, the main problem with many streaming services is that they are designed for people who listen to songs. A listener wants to hear the latest song by their favorite artist, and they search for it, then listen to it. It’s unlikely that they want to hear an entire album, but they might want to listen to a few tracks of the latest album. They’ll choose them one at a time, or make a playlist with them.

But some listeners are more album-oriented. You can do this with streaming services, but it’s not as simple. With Spotify, on the Desktop, it’s simple to listen to an album, but in their iOS app, it’s not the same. There’s actually no button that lets you play an album. You can listen to an album in shuffle mode; there’s a great big button for that. You can add the album to a playlist; tap the … button at the top right, then tap Add to Playlist. Or you can tap on a track, and add it to a playlist.


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My guess is that the occasional listeners – the ones who want to listen to songs – will continue with ad-supported streaming services, but album listeners, or those with broad, eclectic tastes – the ones who keep the music industry afloat – would be willing to pay, if these services welcomed them.

Here’s what I think needs to be done:

  • It should be easy to find music, by artist name, song name, album name, etc. This currently isn’t the case with Spotify; they’re search isn’t very good (I’m not familiar enough with other streaming services, because there aren’t many available in the UK). iTunes searches are good enough: you can search by album, artist, song, etc., and, in general, you find what you want, even if it’s somewhat obscure.
  • You should be able to play an entire album with a single click or tap.
  • You should be able to access a full history of what you have listened to. Spotify has a Play Queue – a sort of “Up Next” – and there’s a History tab, which should show everything I’ve listened to. I haven’t used Spotify in a while, and the History tab only contains what I’ve listened to on my computer. If I look on my other Mac, nothing shows up; nothing is listed from what I’ve listened to on mobile devices. This Recently Played playlist should contain everything I’ve listened to with my account, from every device, and should be available on every device as well.
  • You should be able to rate music, not just “star” it, using a five-point scale, as you can do in your iTunes library. You should be able to record what you like and what you don’t, because if you listen to a lot of music, it’s hard to remember.
  • If iTunes becomes a streaming service, you should be able to stream any music from the iTunes Store (as long as labels have opted in). It should be transparent as to what you can and can’t stream, and streaming should be as easy as buying.
  • You should be able to add streaming tracks to your iTunes library. This is the killer feature. Just as you can have tracks “in the cloud” in your iTunes library, and use them as part of a playlist, you should be able to do the same with streaming tracks. They should become part of your library, combined with your purchased music, and you should be able to play them as if they were in your library.
  • iTunes should cache what you listen to, so it doesn’t have to keep re-downloading the same tracks; so, rather than streaming each time, it would store tracks – in encrypted form – in a cache.
  • You should be able to sync streaming tracks to your iOS device, either via iTunes Match or by a connected sync. In other words, the difference between what you physically own and what you stream should disappear. iTunes should be able to sync cached files or download streaming tracks for offline playing, so you can sync them to an iPhone and listen to them without worrying about paying for mobile data. (You should have the choice as to whether you want to sync actual tracks or just pointers, to later grab them on your iOS device.)

What I’m suggesting, in essence, is that the wall between your music library and the entire iTunes Store library be torn down, for a fee. Apple is the only company that can do this, because of the integration of the iTunes Store and the iTunes app, and its ability to sync content to mobile devices. If Apple were to do this, they would have literally no competitors, at least on iOS devices.

However, if this is the case, who would buy music? I would still buy some CDs, because I want to own music, but I can’t imagine that I’d buy any more digital music. This is the problem with streaming services: if they’re too good, they will cannibalize sales. However, streaming done right could cannibalize piracy as well.

And there, as they say, is the rub. If you make streaming too good, no one will buy music any more. If streaming is mediocre, not enough people will pay for it. If streaming is going to generate enough income to keep musicians and record labels afloat, maybe it’s time to make a big leap into the unknown. Right now, only Apple can do this.

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Book Notes: Miles Davis, Biography and Autobiography

As part of my recent Miles Davis binge, I bought two books about the musician. Miles Davis: The Definitive Biography, by Ian Carr (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) and Miles: The Autobiography (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). Both of these books give great insight into Miles’ career, and his music.

4157FM2ZKTL._.jpgIan Carr’s biography is clearly that of a fan. He likes almost all of Miles Davis’ music, even the later albums, which, arguably, are greatly inferior to most of what Miles recorded. He also analyzes the music, somewhat. He discusses most of Miles’ recordings, describing the music. For example, regarding Bitches Brew, he says:

The ensemble pauses, then starts again, and Miles plays a few phrases and then stops.

Descriptions of music like this aren’t very useful, unless you have the music to listen to; and even then, I’m not sure what they add to understanding either a musician’s life or his music.

But Carr is exhaustive, and does seem to discuss every recording session, and every album. He paints a detailed picture of Miles’ life, presenting both the good and the bad without passing judgement. The book also contains a detailed biography, and a discography listing every session Miles recorded.

image001.jpgAs for the autobiography, this is Miles Davis creating his own story. Written with Quincy Troupe, the book was taken from interviews, and reads like Miles spoke. Which means there are lots of “fucks” and “motherfuckers.” Miles seems to tell things as they were, even many of the less respectable things he did in his life. However, Miles comes off as being fairly racist; he rails a lot about white people. If a white person wrote a book like this and said the same things about black people, it would be criticized. Granted, Miles had to put up with a lot of racism in his time, and he did work with white musicians, but it still comes off as angry.

Nevertheless, reading two sides of Miles Davis’ life is interesting. If you’re a fan, it’s worth checking these books out. The biography is more interested, but could have done with some editing to tighten it up. The autobiography, however, lets you hear Miles Davis in his own voice.

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