Music

Music is another one of my passions.

Genres

I listen to a wide variety of music, including:

  • Classic Rock
  • Hard Rock
  • Blues (and Blues-Rock)
  • Contemporary R&B (and Neo-Soul)
  • Latin Rock
  • Latin Ballads
  • Smooth Jazz

Appeal

In general, I prefer great performers (from the listening experience point-of-view) as opposed to "perfect voices" with no character.

My Collection

In general, I always try to get the recording with the best audio transfer (normally re-mastered for older albums). My practice up until late 2008 was to buy the physical CD, rip it onto my iMac with iTunes (previously onto my PC with MediaMonkey) as MP3 files (at 320 kbps CBR), sync them with my iPod Classic 160GB, and then store the physical CD. However, I have since decided to go with the more modern AAC file format (at 256 kbps CBR). As such, I have re-ripped at least all of my 2008 releases in this format, and I now buy any new albums I can from iTunes as digital content in this format (no physical CD anymore). Read on to see why I chose this approach.

Artist Naming Conventions

When organizing my collection, I adopted an artist naming convention to maintain consistency.

The Album Artist field should represent the primary entity (or entities) responsible for the album:

  • If an artist "defines" a band (normally when their name is the main focus of the band name), this artist should be listed as an individual
  • If a band's unique name defines itself (as opposed to the lead artists), then the band name should be listed
  • If there is more than one primary entity, then they should all be listed, delimited by "; "
  • If a secondary entity/band name is used for a collaborative effort, then add the secondary name as an entity after the primary artists
  • For albums with songs of a certain artist/band performed by other artists, use "OriginalArtist (Various Artists)"
  • For soundtrack albums with various artists, use "Various Artists (Soundtrack)"
  • For miscellaneous compilation albums, use "Various Artists"
  • Examples:
    1. "Huey Lewis" (not "Huey Lewis and the News")
    2. "Stevie Ray Vaughan" (not "Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble")
    3. "Carlos Santana" (not "Santana")
    4. "Pink Floyd"
    5. "Eric Clapton; J.J. Cale" (not "Eric Clapton & J.J. Cale")
    6. "The Police"
    7. "John Lee Hooker; Canned Heat; a.k.a., Hooker 'N Heat" (not just "Hooker 'N Heat")
    8. "Ronald Isley; The Isley Brothers; a.k.a., Mr. Biggs"
    9. "Stevie Ray Vaughan; Jimmie Vaughan; a.k.a., Vaughan Brothers" (not just "Vaughan Brothers")

The Artist field should contain the primary entity responsible for the track first (same rules as Album Artist) followed by semi-colon-delimited ("; ") secondary artists:

  • To maintain the integrity of the information for the supporting band, the supporting band name should be listed as a secondary artist
  • Do not follow the same convention as Album Artist for collaborative efforts with secondary entity names - exclude these
  • Examples corresponding to the Album Artist examples above:
    1. "Huey Lewis; The News"
    2. "Stevie Ray Vaughan; Double Trouble"
    3. "Carlos Santana; Santana"
    4. "Pink Floyd"
    5. "Eric Clapton; J.J. Cale"
    6. "The Police"
    7. "John Lee Hooker; Canned Heat"
    8. "Ronald Isley; The Isley Brothers"
    9. "Stevie Ray Vaughan; Jimmie Vaughan"

Best Music Format: CD, MP3, AAC?

Who is an audiophile? I used to think I was. I have always appreciated "quality" sound based on my general perception of clarity and a pleasing musical reproduction with no significant distraction from any "noise". From my assessment, a true audiophile is someone who appreciates the nuances of music and musical instruments, and puts a major priority on having the musical piece reproduced as accurately as possible relative to how it was originally heard in a concert hall (from the "best seat in the house", a.k.a., the "sweet spot") if it was a live piece, or to how it was originally heard by the sound engineer in the studio. Any artificial additions (e.g., echos, over-accentuated bass, noise, etc.) or deletions (e.g., sound data lost) in the recording/transcoding process is normally unacceptable to them. I do not have this kind of priority for my music recordings, and thus, do not consider myself an audiophile.

The purist standard: immaculate analog recordings. Based on my assessment of an audiophile above, you can see how short of having an artist re-perform the piece live for them, they would want a perfect recording of the musical event. Music can be naturally captured by analog recordings (tape or vinyl) which can reproduce the continuous flow of the musical notes. A purist is not comfortable with digital recordings as they attempt to artificially capture music in discrete samples that only hope to provide an accurate reproduction of the original analog music when played back. However, the sampling of music digitally represented on music CD's is based on solid sound theory (see the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem) that essentially says that if you sample an analog music/sound signal at double its maximum frequency, then you can reproduce it perfectly. But, CD recordings must make some additional "reasonable" assumptions to define a discrete recording process - the main one being that the maximum frequency of music (at least in terms of what most people can hear) is 20,000 Hz (padded by 10% to 22,000 Hz to be a little safer). These types of assumptions (combined with the imperfections of the real-world implementations) cause the theory to be less than perfect in practice, and thus, people with good hearing and musical perception can actually hear nuances in an analog recording that they could not hear in a quality CD digital reproduction of the same musical event.

The ultra-high-end standard: Super Audio CD's. At 64 times the sampling rate of a normal CD, the Super Audio CD (SACD) has all but extreme purists convinced that the music is being accurately reproduced. However, this format never took off due to its high cost, its limited availability, and studies that indicate listeners really could not hear the subtle difference between CD's and SACD's, unless they were played at uncomfortably loud levels.

The high-end standard: CD's and lossless file formats. Even at the high-end, most people consider the standard music CD an acceptable minimum standard for holding their music. However, it should be noted that not all CD's are created equal. If a CD comes from a low-quality analog recording (often third and fourth generation recordings), then it is not considered acceptable for playback on high-end amplifier/speaker systems that will bring out all the flaws and will ruin the playback experience. I have found that this applies to many CD's that I bought in the late 80's, 90's, and early 2000's, which were not created from the best sources and/or no effort was put into restoring them to the quality of the original recording. I have since re-purchased many CD's that have been re-released with digitally remastering from the original tapes. Note, I can perceive a big quality difference in the clarity and general enjoyment of the music.

Also, beyond quality CD's, it is acceptable for high-end usage to transcode music from CD's to lossless audio formats like Apple Lossless and Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC). These can take up about half of the space of a CD while maintaining perfect CD quality with no loss of audio data.

The near-high-end standard: high-bitrate lossy file formats: MP3 and AAC. Lossy audio compression was devised to shrink music files down to the bare minimum in order to facilitate fast internet transfers and portable storage/playback. The MP3 format at a constant bitrate of 128 kbps (the first lossy compression standard widely accepted/supported) is still the most popular today. Lossy formats can achieve compression rates of 10-to-1 (i.e., taking up one tenth of the space of a CD) by using psychoacoustic science to throw out audio data considered mostly not perceivable by the human ear, especially at the higher bitrates (i.e., 192 - 320 kbps). However, purists would argue that the musical data being thrown out is perceivable to a trained ear, and any lossy compression is thus an unacceptable music reproduction process.

My initial choice: MP3 320 kbps CBR. From my perspective, based on blind tests with my specific hearing abilities and slightly above average audio equipment, I clearly noticed serious quality degradation with the playback of MP3 128 kbps files compared to the actual CD. As I moved up the MP3 bitrate scale (i.e., 160 kbps, 192 kbps, 256 kbps, and 320 kbps), as expected, I noticed less quality degradation with each step. I almost settled on 192 kbps before finding some songs where the quality suffered minimally at this rate. I further got paranoid with some other relatively insignificant quality differences noticed even at 256 kbps, so I settled on the maximum supported MP3 bitrate of 320 kbps. I did not perceive any differences between the CD and the MP3 320 kbps files with my tests. Note that even though greater compression rates can be achieved with variable bitrate (VBR) files, I only tested constant bitrates (CBR), because of the limited support for VBR files (e.g., could not be played by various players, played at incorrect speed by various players, and the elapsed/remaining time was incorrect for most players). Also, while my assessment was done primarily with popular music, genres like classical music typically have a much greater dynamic range (e.g., in one moment going from a soft low bass sound to a very high loud treble sound), and require even greater fidelity to be reproduced accurately - and thus, would also require more discerning blind tests.

My final choice: AAC 256 kbps CBR. Up until late 2008, I had ripped all my CD's onto MP3 320 kbps CBR files. However, as I moved to online backup for my key files (including my music files) and I started questioning the hundreds of stored CD's wasting space in my closet (I only play my music from my media PC, computer or iPod), I looked into a smarter way of obtaining new music. Initially, I was not a fan of online downloads with the Apple iTunes store being at the forefront and it only delivering music as AAC 128 kbps CBR files. Even with the general consensus that AAC sounded better at the same bitrate as MP3, the low 128 kbps files that I heard when my friend's downloaded them were significantly inferior to my CD's or MP3 320 kbps CBR files. There was no way I would have replaced purchasing CD's with those lower quality files. However, iTunes Plus (now just the normal iTunes) came around and provided the higher quality alternative of AAC 256 kbps CBR files with no DRM restrictions for the same price. I researched on the internet and could not find anyone that found the AAC 256 kbps CBR format to be inferior in quality to the MP3 320 kbps CBR format in any significant way. On the contrary, a significant number of people voiced that the AAC 256 kbps CBR format was actually slightly superior in quality than the MP3 320 kbps CBR format ripped from the same source CD. So, I decided to move to the more modern AAC format.

My collection was too big to warrant re-ripping all CD's to the new format for slightly better quality and a 20% savings in space used, but I did re-rip my latest acquisitions at the time. I also decided that I would avoid purchasing new CD's, and I would download new albums from iTunes.

The lower-end standard: lower-bitrate lossy file formats: MP3 and AAC. As noted earlier, I do not consider the lower-bitrate lossy formats a replacement for CD's. However, most people store all their music in this format for convenient portable playback. If you consider that you can still enjoy music when it is a lower quality facsimile of the original (e.g., grooving to a beloved song on AM radio compared to much higher quality playback of the same song on your home stereo CD player), with most portable listening occurring in suboptimal listening environments anyway (e.g., outside noises, office noises, airport noises, car noises, etc.), it makes sense that the lower-bitrate lossy file formats (e.g., MP3 128 kbps CBR and AAC 128 kbps CBR) have their place in the world for most people. However, I can comfortably fit my entire music collection at the same high bitrates at which they are stored on my home computer onto my iPod Classic 160 GB portable player; thus, I have no need for lower-bitrate lossy files.

Links

Some quality music resources/references:

  • allmusic.com (music info): This database has a lot of details (including reviews) on artists, albums, and songs.

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Music