BOOT CAMP ARCHIVE 2005

  

 

BOOT CAMP 393 (12/10/05)

Downloading music, part 1

 

Music 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.

 

The 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.

 

In 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) and HMV (www.hmv.co.uk/pmenu/downloads), 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.

 

 

NEXT WEEK -- Downloading music, part 2

 

JARGON FILTER

 

CODEC

Compression/decompression (or coder - decoder) -- a software utility add-on or ‘plug-in’ used to process digital data

 

MP3

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

 

PEER TO PEER (P2P) FILE SHARING

System 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’ computer 

 

 

TOP TIP

The 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.

 

---end---

 

© R. Maybury 2005, 0510

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