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Digital Music, and you

There's been a lot of hub-bub lately about online music sales and illegal online music sharing and all that jazz. Well, like most things, I've got opinions on the related subjects, so here we go.

I've been listening to music on my computer since before mp3's, so I've been watching developments for a while. Yup, I used to download fancy MIDI files (s3m's, mod's and others). When I first heard about mp3's, I figured they were another MIDI-type thing (video-game sounding bloops and bleeps). As we all know, though, mp3's were a whole different animal than MIDI. I quickly amassed as many as I could the hard, delving through public ftp servers.

Now that was tough, but thankfully Napster came along and the mp3/digital music revolution ensued. You all pretty much know the story, so I won't repeat it here. Long story short, Napster is gone, Kazaa too its place, nothing's changed really.

All this seems to be illegal (which is questionable, except under recent, equally questionable laws). Unfortunately though, many, like myself would rather listen to their music in a way that is only possible by using compressed music files on a computer. Myself, when I buy a CD, I rip it (the process of converting CD audio to a rather large computer file) and encode it (the process of shrinking that big file down, which results in some loss of sound quality) immediately. I would like to be able to look at a list of all my music and pick any song, like a juke-box, which is only possible with a computer (or similar device).

I'm not the only one who likes to listen to music like this. As such, there is actually quite a market for this, one that the industry has failed to meet, until recently. Ah, but lately, we've had the introduction of widespread, fairly successful online music stores that have a decent selection, like the Apple iTunes store and the new Napster. But for me, these are still fatally flawed.

To illustrate, I'll take another tangent. I don't do file sharing anymore, though not for any moral or legal reasons. I have no problems there except for fear of getting caught and having an unjust law unfairly used against me. The real reason I don't do file sharing is because the music you find on there is by far of inferior audio quality. Most are 128 Kb/s, and some are 192 Kb/s, but this still isn't very good. Back when I still used mp3's (more on that in a later tangent) I always made variable bit rate (VBR, more info) mp3's that averaged about 200 or so Kb/s. After lots of self testing, I found that I could hear noticable faults in the sound at anything below this level. Most people on Kazaa or Gnutella apparently don't care about sound quality as much as I do, so no go there anymore. How is this relevant? My point is I'm snobby about audio quality, and I like to make my own music files, so I can make sure they're of the caliber I demand. The files for sale by Apple and Napster are not of that high of quality. Not good enough for my tastes, at least.

If that wasn't damning enough, you are also limited in what you can do with your files, though less so with the recent music store incarnations. They do this by selling the music in a restricted format, AAC for Apple, WMA for Napster and others. So you can only play it on certain operating systems (MacOS and Windows, pretty much), a limited number of computers, and only certain devices. This is pretty unacceptable for me, as I'm a GNU/Linux user.

My answer: I buy my own CDs, and make Ogg's out of them. Oggs play on any computer anywhere, because it's an open format and anyone can write a player. Winamp comes default with Ogg support. There are even getting to be a few portable devices that play Oggs and work fine under GNU/Linux or any other operating system.

Final summary: don't let your rights go out the window! Demand files you can do something with and don't sound like crap. Windows users: download CDex. Fiddle with the options. Be free!