Buyer Beware

It may be a crazy download world, but buyers still need to be diligent and know what it is they are buying. Last week, I wrote about all the various mainstream services selling music downloads. Competition is fierce, and the latest fallout is the Yahoo! Music Online Store, which will discontinue operations on September 30.

One of the problems with these services is the proprietary nature of the content. For instance, songs and albums that were purchased through the Yahoo! Store are protected by a digital rights management (DRM) system. The music files require a valid license key before you can play the songs on any computer. Since Yahoo will no longer support that key once the store closes, you run the risk of loosing the ability to play the songs you already purchased. So, before the store closes, you need to back up the music tracks on CD because the files themselves will become useless.

This business model, created by Apple for the iTunes Store, has been under fire for some time. Purchased content should be yours for all time, and you should be able to do whatever you want with it. How Apple handled the DRM issue is that songs purchased at the iTunes Store can only be played through the iTunes software or loaded onto an iPod. You can't even convert them to a different file format and back them up to CD.

The whole issue of intellectual property and royalties has been a stumbling block for the recording industry since the emergence of downloadable media. Of course, the artist's work has to be protected. However, artists seem to be far more hip, and they recognize the shift that is already happening. Ultimately, they want fans to get their music, no matter the medium. Many offer a free song or two when promoting a new album. Hopefully, people like it enough to purchase the CD or download it from one of the music services.

Major record labels are scrambling because artists don't need them as much anymore. Back in the day, the label was responsible for recording, mastering, and distributing albums. They often fronted the cash to record the artist's first album, then paid themselves back with the proceeds. Unless the band released a bona fide hit, they often never saw a penny from the sale of their album. Today, artists are in more control, creating their own labels, covering the costs of recording, and developing their own distribution.

If pop music is your thing, the mainstream music services are, in essence, the new distribution points for the major labels. So it's not surprising there are restrictions in place to protect everyone's interests. Still, the music you purchase and download should be your own to enjoy in whatever way you like, so support DRM-free music. Pay a little more and retain control of your music files. You wouldn't expect your CDs to become useless just because the music store you bought them from went out of business. We'd all be in a lot of trouble now that Tower Records and The Wherehouse are distant memories.

What Are Lossless Files?

An interesting question came up this week. Are Apple's AAC (.m4p) files lossless?

AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) is a format developed by the MPEG group, which includes Dolby, Fraunhofer (FhG), AT&T, Sony, and Nokia. AAC is part of the MPEG-4 standard and was designed for greater efficiency in distributing sound files over moderate-bandwidth connections. For instance, the files you purchase from Apple are special AAC protected files with a data rate of 128kbps. While the fidelity is greater than MP3, it is still a pretty seriously compressed file. The low data rate allows customers to download the files via slow Internet connections.

Lossless doesn't mean there is no compression—quite the contrary. All lossless files are created using some kind of compression scheme. The more important question to ask when examining a particular audio codec is whether it uses lossy or lossless compression. Lossy compression loses some of the file's data during the encoding process, resulting in sometimes audible degradation of the music. Yes, file sizes are smaller, but the loss of audio resolution is often immediately apparent. On the other hand, even a lossy compression scheme can sound pretty good if the date rate is high. However, once you start losing any resolution, it ceases to be a faithful reproduction of the original music track.

Lossless compression schemes such as FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and ALAC (Apple Lossless Audio Codec) retain all the data of the original music file. This type of compression typically reduces the file size by 40-60% without losing audio quality. Still, the file sizes are considerably larger than anything you can download from most mainstream sites.

So, in answer to the original question, Apple's AAC protected files use a lossy compression scheme, but ALAC files are lossless. Both, however, are exclusive to the iTunes/iPod world.

DRM-free or not, what you get from mainstream music services is encoded with lossy compression to keep the file sizes small. Consider that an original CD WAV file is encoded at a bit rate of 1411kbps. Even Apple's iTunes Plus files (DRM-free) are only 256kbps with AAC encoding. Amazon's DRM-free files are 256kbps with MP3 encoding. The file sizes are the same, but AAC is part of the newer MPEG-4 standard, so technically, it should sound better.

Some might be compelled to write and tell me this is a pretty simplified explanation, and they would be correct. File-compression technology is not only complex, but it can be a pretty passionate topic. Just suffice to say that compression, in and of itself, is not evil. Some types of compression degrade audio fidelity more than others.

If you really want to get into the nuts and bolts of the various compression schemes, here are some great links for your research. These sites provide some explanations and technical specifications for various digital formats including ACC, ALAC, AIFF, FLAC, WAV, WMA, and many more.

Digital Preservation

dB Power Amp

Take a look at the official FLAC website. After immersing yourself in these highly detailed pages, you'll be a bona fide expert.

For a comparison of the various codecs, check out these sources:

Audio Codec Comparisons

Audio Codec Chart

I look forward to your comments and questions on this subject. It's my desire to create an open and respectful discussion. For some, this is like a new language. Getting into the numbers and all the technical specs can be educational and an interesting topic of conversation. But of greater importance is that we don’t lose sight of the goal—to enjoy downloadable media at the highest possible quality. Convenience is wonderful but not at the expense of the hard work and effort that goes into a musician's original creations.

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