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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iCloud Is a Black Hole

IcloudI recently wrote about how 5 GB is insufficient for an iCloud account for many users, especially those who have multiple iOS devices. It would be a lot more logical for Apple to offer additional space when you buy a device from them. Heck, I’ve got two Macs, an iPhone, iPad Air, iPad mini, and an iPod touch. I don’t use much of my iCloud storage, because I don’t back up a lot of data from the iOS devices. But still; what if I wanted to back them all up, and found that I hit the limit?

But there’s another problem with iCloud: it’s a black hole. When used as designed, you don’t see a file system. Each app that stores data on iCloud does so in its own space, and you can only access that data or those files from those specific apps.

This is an annoyance. Say you’ve created a file with an app that stores your data on iCloud, and you want to view or open it in another app? On OS X, you can export the file, but on iOS you’re stuck.

Imagine this scenario. You created a file with an app, and for some reason, that app doesn’t work for you. It crashes, or misbehaves, and perhaps you can’t re-download it right away, or the new version has the same problem. I’ve seen this happen with some iOS apps, and the developers have to wait for Apple to approve an update that fixes the bugs.

Your data or files are locked into the black hole that this app, and only this app, accesses. There’s no way to get the file. Again, on OS X, there are workarounds. iCloud files are saved locally, in ~/Library/Mobile Documents; even those files you created on iOS devices, with iOS-only apps. (There are also apps that let you access these files more easily.) But if you don’t have access to a Mac, there’s no way to get them. You can’t even access them from the iCloud web site; but, of course, you can’t access that site from an iOS device anyway.

Another anomaly is that you can save certain documents to iCloud with Apple apps, yet not be able to access them on iOS devices. Create files with Preview or TextEdit; you can get to them on your Mac, but not on an iPad.

Apple needs to open up iCloud storage. Let apps store files in their own space, but let users access those files if necessary. Ideally, there would be a Dropbox-like app to navigate the iCloud file storage space, and allow users to email files, or open them with other apps that can read the same file formats. I’m not suggesting full access to the file system on iOS; I know Apple will never allow that. I simply want to access files that I’ve saved to iCloud from any app.

iCloud, as it is now, makes no sense. I hope that, in the next versions of iOS and OS X, Apple rebuilds iCloud. It’s a great idea, but the way it works, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and bad things can happen.

Update: a developer friend pointed out something that’s worth mentioning. OS X apps can only use iCloud if they’re sold through the Mac App Store. (The same is true for iOS apps, but they cannot be sold otherwise, except for jailbroken iOS devices.) Apple should consider dropping this restriction, so more apps can use iCloud, though only if iCloud becomes more flexible. If they want the service to be useful, it needs to become ubiquitous.

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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.

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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.)

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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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