Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Drinking from the Firehose: Giant Music Libraries at Home and Online

The title comes from the movie UHF.  As a reward in a game show, a kid gets to drink from a firehose.  Sounds great, but, well, there are unexpected consequences.  The same goes for the idea of digitizing a giant physical music library.  Sounds great, but…get ready to be inundated.

Giant Libraries at Home

Suppose you have a wall of CDs, maybe even vinyl.  How do you make them portable? How do you get them into your computer?

CDs are fairly easy, because they’re already digitized.  You can put them in your computer’s CD drive, and you can probably use your favorite music player software to get them into your computer in a compressed format (more on music software here).  I’ll talk more about compression below.

Vinyl is trickier because it’s still in analog format (see here for an explanation of analog and digital).  There are a few considerations to make.  First, how technically savvy are you, and how good is your computer equipment?  If your computer’s sound card is just average, you might end up doing a lot of work and not being happy with the results.  I had to upgrade my sound card when I started doing vinyl conversion.  For vinyl, you need to be able to hook up the output of your audio receiver to the input of your computer, and use audio recording software to capture the sound.  You might also need to manually separate the album tracks into separate files.  Audacity is a free program that can be used for this purpose, but there are many others.

Another factor to consider:  how good is the LP?  If  you’ve already got pops and crackles, you might be able to remove them using software, but it’s more work.

Another question:  how much do you love it?  Vinyl conversion is a laborious process.  You will have to make the decision of which LPs are worth the time to convert for the sake of portability and preservation.  Would it be more cost-effective (or time-efficient) to replace it with a CD or digital download?  Would you rather keep listening to it in its vinyl form comfortably at home, or do you want to have it on the go?

I don’t want to dissuade you, but I do want you to be mindful of how much work is involved.  Personally, after realizing how much time and effort would be involved, I’ve taken a hybrid approach: converting what I cannot replace and must have, gradually replacing what I can (consider eBay), and enjoying the remainder in original vinyl.

When you’re ready to convert your physical audio into audio files, you’ll have to pick a format.  I’ve written about formats here.  There are some factors to be taken into consideration.

If you’re the proud owner of a hard drive, internal or external, with several terabytes (TB) of storage, or a portable device that can hold a tiny micro-SD card with 256 gigabytes (GB) of storage (or more—you can now get fingernail-sized micro-SD cards with up to 512 GB of storage), file size may not be so important (unless you also have a huge collection of music).  But if your hard drive is filling up faster than a closet full of winter coats, or you have a portable device with a limited internal drive (cough, cough, iPhone), you’ll have to make some decisions:  more music, or more quality.

To give you an idea, I ripped the first movement (that is, converted it from its original CD form to a different format) of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (Solti; Chicago), which is just over 18 minutes long, using different formats to see how much room the files would take up.  Here are the results:

Format Bitrate (kbps) File size (megabytes, MB)
CD 1411 184
WAV 1411 184
AIFF 1411 184
FLAC 630 82
OGG 189 25
MP3 320 39
MP3 160 20
M4A (Apple AAC) 256 34
M4A (Apple AAC) 128 17
For all of these the bit depth was 16 bits and the sampling rate was 44,100 Hz.

You’ll have to determine how much space you want to dedicate to Beethoven’s Ninth, or any other work.  You might rip your favorites using a higher-quality format and rip others with good, but not premium, formats if file size is a concern.

So, size is a consideration, but so is quality.  Sure, you can fit a ton of music on a device if you use a super-compressed format that tosses a lot of your original data, but…you won’t want to listen to it.  Only you can determine what level of compression is acceptable to your ear.  I would point out that it is said that the Apple compression method yields a better sounding file than an MP3 recorded at the same bitrate, so don’t let that 128 kbps in the table above alarm you.  Personally, I try not use MP3 below 160 kbps, and I typically go higher.  The good news is that you can probably reach a good compromise between file size and quality and still fit a bunch of music on your devices.

If all the details above exhaust you even thinking about them, you might want to consider streaming services.

Giant Libraries Online

Some folks get around all this digitizing by using on-demand music streaming services.  But even these differ in their streaming format.

 

At the time of writing, Amazon Music mobile app and Amazon Music Unlimited stream using a 256 kbps MP3, Google Play Music uses a 320 kbps MP3, and iTunes Match and Apple Music use a 256 kbps AAC format.  Spotify streams with 320 kbps OGG.  These are lossy formats, meaning you lose some of the original quality, but if the kbps number is high enough, you may not notice the difference.  If you are using a service as a “music locker,” where you store your own music in the cloud and listen to it whenever and wherever you want (as opposed to using the service’s library of music), you may be surprised to find out that you will not necessarily be listening to the same format that’s on your hard drive.  Your music is matched with an equivalent in the cloud for that service, and that’s what you hear when you stream, not the file from your hard drive.  If there’s no match, or if the version the service provides is wrong for some reason, you can upload your own music.

Tidal (standard) streams at 320 kbps AAC, but its HiFi service is a standout, using a steaming format of 1,411 kbps FLAC, which is CD quality (notated as 16 bit/44.1 kHz).

One streaming service that focuses on the classical music audience is Qobuz (not available in the US), which streams at 320 kbps MP3 (premium package), CD quality (Hi-Fi package, 16 bit/44.1kHz FLAC), and an even higher resolution (the Sublime package, which includes streaming at 24 bit/44.1 kHz and 96 kHz—provided you have bought the music at that resolution.  This is the studio master resolution level).

A new player in the market is Primephonic, which streams using FLAC and MP3.  Primephonic is focused on the classical music market.

There are free options and paid options, and the costs and amount of music available vary from service to service, so shop around to find the service and package that’s right for you.

Audiophile-level downloads

There are numerous sites for downloading digital music in MP3 format, but you can get studio master resolution (better than CD quality) at companies like Linn Records and others (listed here and here)—provided your audio equipment can handle that resolution.

One hundred years ago, you might hear your favorite symphony just a few times in your life.

While it will never beat a live performance, digital music has provided an opportunity for access to all of the world’s great music to people around the globe.  And that’s quite a feat for a bunch of ones and zeroes.