How Do Shared iTunes Radio Stations Work?

With iTunes Radio, you can share stations with your friends. You can’t do this with the Featured Stations – the ones Apple curates – but you can with any you create. However, some of the stations you create may be pre-packaged stations, based on artists or genres.

001.pngHere’s an example. There’s a Contemporary Classical radio station that I added to iTunes the other day, which has bits and pieces of recent “classical” music. I didn’t create this station myself; I selected it from the stations that showed up when I clicked on the Classical genre. I tweeted about it, and someone added it to their iTunes Radio stations. So it displays, as you can see here, with 1 Follower.

But what does that mean? Will anyone who’s added an iTunes Radio station from a link you share automatically get all the changes you make to the station? Because you can choose a setting in the Tune this station section, and you can add artists or songs to the Play more like this section, and you can also block artists or songs in the Never play this section.

If the station is shared, then, will all users get the same Play more and Never play information when they listen to the station? Do you want to try? Here’s a link to the Contemporary Classical station. I’ve added Steve Reich, Bang on a Can and So Percussion to the artists I want to hear more of. And I’ve added Black Sabbath to the Never play section. If you add this station, do you see the same?

Update: If, as the comments below suggest, you don’t see the Play more or Never play sections with a shared radio station, then you are, indeed, following someone else’s choices. I find this surprising for a preset station – the one I experimented here is one of iTunes’ sub-genre stations.

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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 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:

live-dead copy.png

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).

dead-wallpaper-small.png

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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.

hd-options.png

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.


2014 03 25 10 16 51       2014 03 25 10 16 59

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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My New Mono Listening Setup

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably noticed that I have a thing about mono recordings. I wrote about my recent appreciation for these recordings in In Praise of Mono Recordings, and offered a list of Some Great Mono Recordings.

The problem with listening to mono recordings in stereo – on two speakers – is that there is a sweet spot, the point where the sound converges, just as there is with stereo listening. With mono, this sounds artificial. In addition, it’s possible that there are phase cancellation problems when you listen to the same music coming from two speakers.

I did a fair amount of research, and found that there is a small minority of people – audiophiles; I know… – who have dedicated mono systems. I didn’t want to go that far; I could buy a mono amp, but I see nothing wrong with using just one channel of a mono stream connected to a single speaker to listen to mono recordings.

So I decided to get a mono listening setup for my office. You can see, in the photo below, my new speaker on a stand behind my monitor; it’s a bit tilted; I need to work on that.

2014-04-09 11.12.29.jpg

My amp – a Cambridge Audio 651A (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) – and it has two speaker zones. So my stereo speakers are set on zone A, and I connected a single speaker to zone B.

My current speakers in my office are Focal Chorus 705v (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). I also have a pair of Focal Chorus 806v speakers (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) in my living room. I bought the latter about a year and a half ago in France, and I really like their neutrality. So when I was looking for new speakers for my office, I went with the same brand, just smaller.

So, when looking for a mono speaker, I checked out what Focal has to offer. I realized that the best thing might be a central speaker from a surround system, and I got a Focal Chorus CC 700 (Amazon.com, Amazon UK). It has two mid-bass drivers and one tweeter, and has a wonderfully balanced sound. The mid-bass drivers are slightly larger than those on the stereo speakers in my office; this center speaker is more adapted to a system using the 806s. But since I’m only using the CC 700 on its own, and not as part of a multi-speaker system, it doesn’t matter. (If there had been a smaller version of this speaker, I would have gotten it.)

Focal-Chorus-CC-700-Noyer_P_1200.jpg

This setup is certainly not a necessity, but I like the idea of listening to mono music on a single speaker. It wasn’t too expensive – I got it much cheaper than Amazon’s price – and it’s got nice, clean sound. Mono music sounds a lot better like this.

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Do Vinyl Records Sound Better than CDs? (Spoiler: Nope)

I’ve been discussing a number of audiophile myths here on Kirkville, and today I’d like to address another one: the myth that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or downloads). Vinyl sales are booming, reaching the highest levels in more than ten years. To be fair, this isn’t difficult; as long as sales continue to increase, they’ll be higher than any time since the Great Vinyl Decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

People abandoned vinyl for several reasons: CDs were more convenient, less fragile, and sounded better[1]. Turntables were annoying and fragile, and you had to manually change sides of records; with CDs, you can play an entire album without flipping discs.

I grew up with vinyl, and, while I miss the bigger artwork, and the added room for liner notes, that’s all I miss. I don’t miss the clicks and pops of vinyl, or the way that, if you bumped into the turntable, or whatever shelf it was on, you could scratch a record, damaging it permanently. With older, scratched records, sometimes the only way to listen to them was to place a penny on the cartridge to add weight to it. Also, the quality of the plastic used for vinyl records was often poor, meaning that records wore out quickly. Oh, and you had to deal with dust, records that warped if exposed to heat or were stored flat, static electricity that could perturb things, the spindle hole that might be off-center, and wow and flutter that added noise to playback.

But the biggest problem with vinyl is simply that records wear out. Audiophiles tout the higher frequency response of vinyl over CDs, saying that vinyl can play back those frequencies that we can’t hear.[2] First, this is only true with a pristine record, a perfect stylus, and a high-end stereo system; in most cases, vinyl’s frequency range is lower than that of CDs. Bear in mind that needles used to play records are made of diamonds, a very hard substance, and each play of a record wears it out a bit. This wear results in lower frequency response and lower overall fidelity. Stereo separation is poor on vinyl; there is spillover from one channel to the other, which is an inherent weakness of the playback process. And, because of RIAA equalization[3], the sound on a recording is manipulated, both for pressing, to reduce low frequencies, and for playback, to attempt to restore them.

But there’s another problem with vinyl that most people don’t consider. The first grooves on an LP offer 510 mm of vinyl per second, but as you get to the end of a side, there’s only around 200 mm per second; less than half the resolution. This is similar to the difference in tape speeds dropping from, say, 15 ips (inches per second) to 7.5 ips. Anyone who has worked with tapes knows that this speed difference results in much lower fidelity. Back in the LP days, musicians would argue about who got their songs on the beginnings of sides, and the music you listen to on an LP gets lower in quality as you get closer to the center.

Most people, when discussing vinyl, talk about an “analog sound,” saying that vinyl sounds “warmer” or “richer” than digital. It does; because there is less frequency response (poorer reproduction of high frequencies), and more distortion. Just as tube amps may sound “better” because of the distortion they introduce into playback, the same is true for vinyl. That “warmth” you hear is simply the poor quality of the playback; the distortion caused by the analog chain, and its lack of detail.

“But the other part of it is that the experience of listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”[4]

There’s a fetishism around vinyl, it’s about the process of listening. If you take more time to prepare for something, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it more. If this is what you want, then by all means, go for it; but the sound of vinyl is actually inferior to that of CDs or digital audio.

So this is yet another myth that’s used to market products to people who don’t know better. You may like the idea of vinyl, but my guess is that, if you grew up with vinyl, you are probably aware of its limitations, and don’t want to go back into the past. I find it interesting that many audiophiles prefer a format that provides audio in a lower quality, and with more distortion.


Let me close with a few tidbits from turntable reviews in hi-fi magazines.

Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges—the opposite of an analytic and etched sound.

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts.

the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops

produced a big, slightly warm orchestral sound. String tone was rich, with a pleasing golden glow. The piano’s lower register was cleanly rendered and remained well defined against the hall’s reverberant field. The upper keyboard sounded supple, with a rich, woody, yet sparkling bite. Image stability and solidity were never in question, and the system’s dynamic punch announced a turntable that seemed in complete control.

And, I’ll finish with another gem from What Hi-Fi?:

Play an album such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Point 5 delivers an energetic sound that combines fluidity, stability and authority brilliantly.

Where most rivals render a sharply etched sound packed with detail, the Point 5 has a more rounded presentation where the leading and trailing edges of notes aren’t overly emphasised, but the bits in between are defined richly.

The result is an immensely likeable presentation that’s big and muscular without suffering from a lack of agility or finesse.


  1. Yes, many early CDs sounded bad, because mastering engineers initially used masters created for LPs, and it took a while for them to, well, master the process for the digital medium.  ↩

  2. See Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.  ↩

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RIAA_equalization  ↩

  4. Pitchfork: Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?  ↩

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