BOOT CAMP 393 (12/10/05)
Downloading music, part 1
downloading has been in the news recently thanks to a number of well-publicised
cases involving teenagers, or rather their parents, receiving rather large
fines. These resulted from the music industry’s belated attempts to crack down
on illegal file sharing and piracy. In the last three or four years music
downloading has really taken off, fuelled by easy to use file sharing software
and the growing popularity of personal digital music players.
slow shift from illegal to legal music downloading began about a year ago with
the original bad boys Napster (www.napster.co.uk), who pioneered the concept of peer-to-peer
(P2P) file sharing. Napster is now wholly respectable with an online catalogue
of more than 1 million copyright-paid tracks costing from 79 pence each.
However the best-known legal music download site is Apple iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes), which has thrived on the success of the Apple
iPod. The iTunes site now has over 2 million tracks also at 79 pence each.
the past couple of months iTunes has been joined by several more on-line music
stores, including high-profile names like Virgin (www.virgin.net/music/digitaldownloads)
both with more than 1 million tracks each selling for the seemingly obligatory
price of 79 pence. The market is now developing at a phenomenal rate and the
range of material has broadened to include tracks and complete albums covering
virtually every musical genre and style, from Beethoven to the Blues.
Music tracks from most
of the original illicit file sharing and download sites were encoded using the
MP3 file format. This is a compression system or ‘codec’ used to quickly send
large amounts of audio over the Internet. Audio codecs like MP3 are referred to
as ‘lossy’, which basically means they reduce the amount of data in an audio
file by discarding sounds that are either masked by louder sounds or cannot be
heard. However, the big problem from the music industry’s point of view is that
MP3 files are easily copied.
Most of the new legal
online music stores that have sprung up recently sell tracks encoded in the WMA
(Windows Media Audio) format. The notable exceptions are iTunes, which uses the
AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) codec, and Sony’s Connect site (www.connect-europe.com), which sells tracks in its proprietary ATRAC (Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding) format.
In general these codecs are more
efficient than MP3, resulting in better sound quality and smaller files sizes
but they have one other thing in common and that is Digital Rights Management
or DRM. Files downloaded from the various online music stores are embedded with
DRM data that can be used to restrict how and where tracks are played and
copied. DRM can be used in a number of ways, including limiting the number of
times a track can be copied from a PC to a personal music player or ‘burned’ to
a CD, it can also prevent tracks being copied from one PC to another over a
network and even stop tracks stored on a PC from being played if the purchaser
fails to renew their subscription to the online music store.
It’s all starting to sound a bit
complicated, but there’s more to come. Many personal music players can play
both WMA and MP3 tracks, however, Apple iPods are limited to AAC files and most
Sony personal players are designed to work with ATRAC files, though most models
can also play WMA tracks. The only small crumb of comfort is that virtually all
personal music players -- including Apple and Sony models -- come with software
that allow users to copy or ‘rip’ tracks from CDs that they already own and
then copy them to their players, without any restrictions and that is one of
the topics we’ll be looking at in more detail in part 2.
WEEK -- Downloading music, part 2
(or coder - decoder) -- a software utility add-on or ‘plug-in’ used to process
Motion Picture Experts Group
audio layer 3 -- digital audio compression system commonly used to send files
containing audio and music over the Internet and for storing musical files in
personal audio players
TO PEER (P2P) FILE SHARING
of file distribution where files are stored on the PCs of a group of users
logged onto a file-sharing network, rather than on a central ‘server’
quality of downloaded music is not that great, it’s comparable with FM stereo
radio, so treat claims of ‘CD-quality’ with suspicion. However it tends not to
matter too much when music is heard through earphones on a personal player in a
noisy environment. Quality is also determined by the codec and the ‘bit-rate’
used during the encoding process (the faster the better). The simplest way to
improve the sound quality of most personal players is to throw away the
supplied earphones and invest in a set of good quality headphones or earphones.
Maybury 2005, 0510