Air – The Virgin Suicides: Downtempo tension

Several degrees of Air. Or, what’s it take to get Air to remix a Beck song?

  1. Air gets Beck to remix Sexy Boy and provide vocals on Don’t Be Light and the Vagabond.
  2. Beck dated and is married to Marissa Ribisi.
  3. Marissa Ribisi has a twin brother: Giovanni.
  4. Giovanni co-stars in Lost in Translation.
  5. Lost In Translation is directed by Sofia Coppola.
  6. Sofia Coppola also directed The Virgin Suicides.
  7. The Virgin Suicides’ score was written by Air.
  8. Air is on the same record label Astralwerks as fellow French band Phoenix and the two groups plan to play a show together this June at Versailles. Phoenix is also the backing band for a remix of Air’s Kelly Watch the Stars.
  9. Phoenix’s vocalist, Thomas Mars has a daughter with Sofia Coppola.
  10. The soundtracks to Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette both feature a song by Phoenix and a song by Air.
  11. Air remixed Beck’s Missing for his remix album Guerilito.

Ok, that’s just an elaborate way of introducing the next record on the tunequest countdown the Pocket Symphony: The Virgin Suicides. Released in 2000, The Virgin Suicides is the directorial debut of Sofia Coppola. Driven by the demands of a soundtrack, this album can’t really be considered a proper follow up to Moon Safari, but it is a nice “bonus disc” of smooth downtempo music as only Air can provide.

Playground Love, the film’s theme, starts the album and provides it with a backbone on which to rest. The song is one of Air’s most conventional in terms of structure and its soulful saxophone melodies are pure delight, setting a perfect mood. From there, The Virgin Suicides is mostly appealing atmospherics. Having not seen the film, I can’t comment on its screen effectiveness, but musically, it is stellar. Somehow, it manages to be tense and laid-back at the same time.

However, downside is that, due to the requirements of being a dramatic underscore, there are few jump-out-and-grab-you moments on the disc, as the music must be subtle enough to blend with the film. As a result, not much stands out from the whole, even though that whole is generally gratifying.

Additionally the record is peppered with the complex compositional influences of prog-rock, yet most of the songs are rather short, which doesn’t give them enough time to really work themselves out. At less than three minutes each, most tracks start off enthusiastically, but prove to be somewhat unfulfilling when they end before reaching a satisfactory conclusion.

The exception is Dirty Trip, which clocks in a just more than six minutes. Fueled by a fat, in-your-face bassline, the song is the swagging monster of the disc. It’s easily the highlight of the soundtrack.

Overall, the score to The Virgin Suicides comes highly recommended. I just wish it were a little longer.

Playground Love video:

My Library

Air: The Virgin Suicides (2000)
13 tracks (of 13)
Average Rating: 3.85
Median Rating: 4
Signature Track: Dirty Trip

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A Big List of MP3 Patents (and supposed expiration dates)

So, by now, large portions of the internet are abuzz with the Federal jury decision that Microsoft has been violating some of Alcatel-Lucent’s patents on the MP3 file format, which ahas been the backbone of the digital music revolutions and without which iTunes and the iPod would not have been possible.

I couldn’t help but note the timing of the ruling, since I had been been researching MP3 patents a couple weeks while working on a recent post. I came across the realization that the MP3 patents will soon start to expire, as early as this year in one case. So last week’s news got me wondering two things:

  • whether there is an aspect of “cashing-in-while-possible” going on with the current suits
  • just what the are all the MP3 patents, and when do they expire?

I can’t really speculate to that first point, but for the second, it’s fortunate that Thomson, the company that handles MP3 licensing has a neatly compiled list published at mp3licensing.com. Of the twenty patents listed there, eighteen are filed in the U.S., to which this list is limited. These are the patents that everyone who makes an MP3-related product has licensed. We’ll get to those.

First though, here are the Alcatel-Lucent patents that Microsoft was found guilty of violating. This information was taken from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Since I’m no patent attorney, all expiration dates are best guesses based on quick summary research. Changes to U.S. patent law and the GATT treaty in the mid-90s (while mp3 was being developed) complicates matters. Additionally, I have not a clue as to how to handle continuations of abandoned applications, so some of these could be way off.

If anyone more knowledgeable wishes to correct any of my guesses, I will happily revise this page. These are much too technical, both in legalese and technology for me, but still I find them fascinating from a layman’s point of view.

Continue reading

Air – Moon Safari: A lunar adventure

This post is part of the countdown to Air’s fifth album, Pocket Symphony, which will be released March 6 in the U.S.

Moon Safari
moon safarimoon safarimoon safari

If Premiers Symptomes found our protagonists as the house band at “Le Casino dans la Lune,” then Moon Safari surely finds Air on its titular sojourn, casting off the confines of the lounge scene and setting off on a mission of exploration.

This, Air’s first album proper, launched the band’s career with spectacular fashion. It received nearly universal praise, debuted at number five on the U.K. charts and built a legion of die-hard fans “Air-heads?”. From its first moments, it is clear that Moon Safari is more adventurous than its predecessor. It still embraces the astro-pop sound of the 70s, but its scale captures much more grandeur. The rhythms have more funk, the melodies are complex and addictive, and the arrangements are layered into a dense and multifaceted pastiche of sophistication.

For nearly 25 minutes, through its first five songs, this record knocks out hit after hit, with each song ranking as five stars. The performance of that opening sequence is unmatched by any album in my iTunes library.

Powered by a mesmerizing bassline, La Femme d’Argent features sparkling synthesized melodies which quickly set the spaced out tone of the record. Sexy Boy follows with a pop formula that easily explains why the song was the album’s breakout single. Incidentally, that song, along with its b-side Jeanne, are the only instances of the [french band]’s use of French lyrics in their ten year history. Next up is All I Need, which brings the tempo down a notch, but the song is no less captivating for it. Kelly Watch the Stars picks up the pace for a fantastically fun aerospace romp that only has one sung line. Talisman then brings the house down with an ominous slow-building tension that battles with a powerful, sweeping string section.

After climaxing with Talisman, Moon Safari takes a turn toward the somber and contemplative. Whereas the first half of the album features some rather robust tracks, the second half turns decidedly low key. All in all, it’s still excellent, just not as breathtaking as the preceding songs. The only real sore spot on the record is You Make it Easy, a slow tempo love song with a few awkward transitions. Straying uncomfortably close to smooth jazz adult contemporary, the song earns the album’s only three star rating.

Redemption, however, comes in the form of Le Voyage de Penelope, Moon Safari’s finale. Featuring this incredibly dirty, distorted electronic melody, the song soars to new heights as the lunar adventure comes to an end.

Moon Safari is, without a doubt, a masterpiece, a perfect piece for cranking up and chilling out. It has been a personal favorite for nearly nine years now and it gets better with every listen. If you’re unfortunate enough to have not experienced it, here are a couple videos to get you started:

moon safari download at itunes

Kelly Watch the Stars:

Sexy Boy:

My Library

Air: Moon Safari (1998)
10 tracks (of 10)
Album Rating (average ): 4.5
Median Rating: 5
Mode Rating: 5
Signature Track: Talisman

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Air – Premiers Symptomes: Like in a lounge on the Moon

Air [french band]’s first album in three years, Pocket Symphony, will be released in a handful of days. In preparation for that event, I thought it would be fun to take a trip through the French band’s back catalogue, starting with their earliest works, which range from the 1996 early singles to 1997’s debut album Premiers Symptomes.

::

Imagine it’s 1969 and your thoughts are aimed toward the future. Not your own personal future, but the future of mankind. Think thirty years or so, to that far off time known as 1999. In your mid-century mind, you picture the fantastic possibility that the frontier of human exploration lies beyond the Asteroid Belt and that people will be making regular trips into Earth orbit. You even think that the fringe of exotic vacations take place on the Moon, which is bustling with low-grav attractions. Swanky hotels, rover expeditions, high-jumping sports, perhaps a theme park and a casino (with blackjack of course).

In the evenings, after a day of enjoying all the leisure activities that the Moon has to offer, people gather in the Lunar Lounges to sip cocktails and make sophisticated conversation about how groovy it is to be on the Moon. As you picture all this, you hear an equally sophisticated music accompanying the chatter. In your head, it’s laid back and jazzy smooth with dreamy sparkling Mellotron melodies, which is of course the way music will sound in thirty years’ time…

 

That scene pretty much sums up the aura that surrounds Air’s early years, especially Premiers Symptomes. At just 5 songs and 27 minutes long, the record is short on length, but makes up for it by packing much groove. It’s nearly half an hour of perfectly sublime music. And the notion of being a spaced-out futuristic jazz ensemble on the Moon is epitomized with the album’s third song: Les Professionnels, which astute listeners will recognize as a proto-version of All I Need from Moon Safari.

Compared to the band’s later works, Premiers Symptomes’ songs are much simpler in form. There is less complex layering of sounds and the arrangements are more straight-forward. But it does a very good job of establishing Air’s distinct sound.

The 1999 re-release features two additional tracks Californie and Brakes On, which some people claim ruin the mood of the album. I can see their point, because those songs are as close to rock as Air has ever gotten and they do tend to take away from the disc’s ethereal atmosphere. But hey, it’s Air and despite being oddballs in the catalogue, those songs are pretty good. Brakes On, in particular, might make that late-60s futurist think, instead, of a discotheque on the Moon.

If you’re unfamiliar with Premiers Symptomes, check out the video for one its singles, Le soleil est pres de moi. It’s got nothing to do with the Moon, however:

Les Professionels

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Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
7.9 / 10

Speeding up Podcasts part 2:
Using Audacity to speed up MP3s

Part of the Faster Podcasts Series

  1. Speeding up podcasts:
    Listen to more, faster – Part 1
  2. Speeding up Podcasts part 2:
    Using Audacity to speed up MP3s
  3. Speeding Up Podcasts part 3: Make Yourself an Audiobook

faster podcast

I established in the previous article that with all the interesting content out there, it can be quite daunting to listen to all those great podcasts. The ease with which iTunes lets you discover, subscribe to and manage podcasts can quickly lead to an overwhelming number of episodes and timespan to get through. "Podcast Overload" is a very real possibility.

I also noted in that article that Apple’s Quicktime Player application can be used for faster playback… if you happen to be sitting at a computer. But what if you want to take advantage of the "pod" part of a "podcast" and listen on-the-go?

Luckily for us all, there are a couple of ways to speed up your spoken word audio before you pack it up and take it with you. Specifically, there are two main approaches, and each has its advantages and weaknesses. The first method involves using an audio processing program to decrease the total running time of a podcast before copying it to your iPod. Alternately, if you have an appropriate model (4G and later or any Nano), you can format your files so that the iPod itself adjusts the playback speed in real-time.

This approach has two principal advantages:

  1. Flexibility: Audio processing gives you the greatest amount of control over the final playback speed of your podcasts. Speed it up by 10% or 200%, whatever works for you.
  2. Organization: Because you are editing and replacing the original downloaded podcasts, you can maintain the organizational functionality present in iTunes + iPod.

However, this approach comes with trade-offs:

  1. Processing time. Running an audio file through a sound editor takes time. If you want to increase the playback speed, you have to run it through the processor before dropping it onto your iPod.
  2. Potential Zero-sum changes. Whether a project is even worth attempting depends on the likelihood of a net gain in time. If it takes you 5 minutes of computer use + processing time to shorten audio by 4 minutes, then you would have been better off just listening to it in the first place. This consideration is increasingly relevant for older computers with slower CPU speeds and longer processing times.
  3. Inflexibility. Ironically, the other disadvantage of this approach is inflexibility. Once you’ve processed the file, you’re stuck with it. If you’ve happened to set the speed to a rate that is uncomfortable or impossible to listen to, then you’ll probably have to re-download the podcast and try again.

audacity icon

Bearing all that in mind, just how does one speed up a podcast? Easy: Audacity, an open-source audio program that’s packed with features, cross-platform, fairly simple to use, and of course, free. In fact, the program is most likely used in the actual production of many of the podcasts you’ll be modifying.

Additionally, you’ll need the LAME mp3 encoder to save your processed files back to mp3 after Audacity is finished with them.

Audacity also supports batch processing (called "Chains" in its parlance) that allows you to open multiple files, run filters, and save back to mp3 with just a couple of clicks. Not bad, but how’s it work with iTunes?

In basic form, the workflow looks like this:

  1. Podcast is downloaded. MP3 file is saved into your iTunes Music > Podcast folder and the appropriate entry appears in iTunes’ Podcast panel.
  2. Said mp3 file is opened in Audacity. Modifications are made.
  3. New, faster mp3 file is exported.
  4. Original mp3 is replaced.
  5. iTunes entry is updated with a shorter playing time.
  6. Profit?

Alright, now that we know what we’re in for, let’s walk through the procedure.

Install and Configure Audacity with LAME mp3 encoder


click to enlarge

Download Audacity and LAME encoder for your system. Version 1.3 (beta) is required for batch/chain processing.

Now to configure.

Once Audacity is installed, we need to tell it where the LAME encoder is. So, launch the program and select the Preference menu item. Under the file formats section, choose "Find Library" next to MP3 Export Setup. Also, choose the bitrate to save your modified podcasts at. Most podcasts are published between 64kbps and 128kbps. In my experience, 64kbps provides sufficient quality for listening to spoken word, though you should adjust it to fit your preference.

Next, we just need to set up a Chain. Chains are like scripts inside Audacity that automate a string of operations. For our purpose, we need to build a chain that imports the mp3, changes the tempo, and re-encodes it back to mp3. It’s really easy, so let’s get it set up.


click to enlarge
  1. From the File menu, select "Edit Chains." You’ll be presented with a box showing the pre-configured Chains.
  2. Click "Add" and give the Chain a name (ex: 25%Faster)
  3. Then click "Insert" to add a step to the process. You don’t need to tell the Chain to import a file. That happens automatically when you run it. So the first thing to do is select "Change Tempo" not Change Speed. Change Speed will affect the pitch of the audio, like speeding up a cassette tape or turntable (aka "chipmunking"). Change Tempo leaves the pitch as it is.
  4. In the Parameters field, enter to amount to speed up by. 20% will result in 48 seconds for every 60. 200% will result in 30 seconds for every 60.
  5. Next, click Insert again and select "ExportMP3." That will complete the Chain.
  6. At this point, you can create multiple Chains for different speeds if you want. One for 15%. One for 50%, etc. When you’re done, close the Chains window.

Two steps, that’s it. Change tempo -> ExportMP3.

Let’s Get Speedin’

Now that Audacity is all set up, we can do the actual processing.

  1. From the File menu, select "Apply Chain" and select the one you created earlier. Click "Apply to files."
  2. Navigate to where your podcast files are stored. Unless you’ve changed your iTunes settings, they’ll be in your "iTunes Music" folder, in a folder called "Podcasts."
  3. Select the files you want to speed up. On a Mac, hold down the Command/Apple key to select more than one file. On Windows, use the Control key.
  4. Click "Open." Audacity will begin processing the files. When it’s finished, you’ll see a folder called "cleaned" with your originally downloaded files. Inside that folder is your shiny new faster podcasts.
  5. Move the new files out of the "cleaned" folder. When asked if you want to over-write the existing files, say yes.
    IMPORTANT: If you want the option of re-processing the files at a different rate, copy or duplicate (don’t just move) them to another folder before replacing.
  6. Open iTunes and click on Podcasts from the source view. Select the episode that you modified. The time should change, but if it doesn’t, get info on it. That will force iTunes to refresh the display.

podcast before and after

Ta-da. Welcome to the world of faster podcast listening. The next time your iPod is updated, the new faster podcasts will be copied and you can take them on the road.

Air [french band]’s pocket preview: an online listening party

air headphones

If you happened to miss the listening party, you can get your own small preview from the album’s first single “Once Upon A Time,” which is available from the iTunes Store.

Alternately, you can pre-order Pocket Symphony from the iTunes Store and receive 2 bonus tracks (The Duelist and Crickets) plus a PDF of artwork.

Update March 6: Pocket Symphony has been released. Get it.

::

Today is the first public unveiling of Air [french band]’s new record, Pocket Symphony. It it the duo’s first release in the three year since the magnificent Talkie Walkie was set loose upon the world in early 2004. For fans of the post-modern, downtempo electronic wunderkinds, each new album is an eagerly awaited event.

While the album proper doesn’t hit the street for a few more weeks (March 6), the band has invited the entire internet to a listening party at the album’s website, pocket-symphony.com on Feb 15 (that’s today). So head on over and give it a once through. You can sign up to receive the access password and to receive future updates. Or you can simply type in “play” and get straight to listening via streaming music.

The preview window also features simple comment posting and a Google Maps mash-up showing where other listeners are located.

As for the album itself, as I write this I’m five songs in and it’s everything an Air album should be: mellow, dreamy and complexly melodious.

air pocket symphony at itunes

air pocket symphony at amazon

The Polish Ambassador – Diplomatic Immunity: Retro Electro Futurism

When I was in middle school, I became a big fan of the first few entries to the Mega Man series of games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Game play was straight-forward. The stories were fairly one-dimensional Mega Man good; all others bad, but exciting. And each level, named for an element or mineral (Bubble Man, Heat Man, Air Man, etc), proved to be a uniquely constructed world, incorporating imagery and themes related to the mini-bosses’ namesakes.

But the best part was the music, especially Mega Man 2 and 3. I enjoyed the music so much I put together a compilation of songs from the various levels by holding a cassette tape recorder next to the TV speakers and precisely pressing buttons on the controller at the same instant I pressed “record.” Despite being constrained to the NES’s primitive sound capabilities, the music from those games showed a compelling attention to rhythm, melody and harmony.

Which brings me to The Polish Ambassador, who simultaneously hails from both the farthest reaches of the known galaxy and Chicago. He is a musical envoy on a peaceful mission to evangelize his Polish heritage and electrify but not electrocute you with his powerful outer space grooves.

I’ve been keeping tabs on him since I stumbled across one of his songs at Last.fm several months ago. So when he asked me to review his recently released debut album, Diplomatic Immunity, I said that I would be thrilled to do so. And today, I got my very own cosmic Valentine’s Day present in the form of a compact disc.

Which is appropriate, because I *love* this record.

It rocks in a way that only multi-layered synthesized jams can. Much in the same way that working with a limited sonic palette forced early NES composers to rely create complex tonal patterns and melodies, The Ambassador bends the electronics to his diplomatic will, creating deep, engaging arrangements that belie the simplicity of its timbre.

The influence of early game music and culture is unmistakable here, from sounds themselves (Infiltrating the U.N. features a direct SFX sample) to the bit-mapped pixel art that adorns the disc and jewel case. These instrumental tunes could almost be the soundtrack to their own game, circa 1985.

I say almost because the passage of 20+ years means the The Ambassador is not restricted to the meager capabilities of an ancient game console. Where those compositions would end, Diplomatic Immunity takes off, adding fantastic beat after fantastic beat. This stuff is so groovy that each listen has the potential to kick-start the best damn dance party this side of Canopus.

Clocking in at 20 tracks running over 56 minutes, the record doesn’t disappoint on both substance and variety. And while there’s not a bad song in the lot, the real standout is Earth versus the World, which also happens to have a pretty nice video. Also, for pure dancetasticism, it doesn’t get better than the album’s finale, Crunching Numbers. You’ll swear you’re dancing in the middle of a laser battle.

Visit The Polish Ambassador’s website to learn more about his mission, his jumpsuit, his grooves (with samples), to download free bonus tracks or buy the CD, which is also available from the iTunes Store.

If clicking links isn’t your bag, you can check out the Earth versus the World video below.

Star Trek sold out at iTunes Store?

UPDATE March 26: After nearly a two month stint of being offline at the iTunes Store, the Star Trek TOS is back. The complete first season is available in its original broadcast form. Additionally, newly remastered episodes from the first season are available in their own section. iTunes is still the only source for them in their uncut form.

::

star trek on itunes

Star Trek tv shows are suddenly missing from the iTunes Store. Both the Original Series and Enterprise are completely gone. The movies are still there though. I wonder what’s up with that.

A quick scouring of the internet doesn’t turn up any information, so who knows.. Maybe the store is just out of stock… 🙂

Seriously though, this is surprising. I don’t have any figures, but I bet the shows were selling well. Especially the new remastered episodes that were available. The iTunes Store was the only place to download uncut versions of select remastered episodes.

According to the boards at startrek.com, the eps were pulled for a “technical reason.” We’re left to speculate what that actual reason was, but it would be pretty swell if CBS and Apple were building a Star Trek portal/store-within-a-store/wormhole inside iTunes.

In defense of digital music files

Volkher at livingwithmusic posted the other day a rather thoughtful treatise against digital music files as a medium. He does a good job of bringing up all the relative shortcomings of abandoning physical media, including the effort required to encode/download and properly organize/tag files as well as the burden and cost that goes into storage and preventative backups. And he’s right on the money about picking an audio format that may or may not be around for the long haul.

It’s a valid argument; you should go read it. But as one of those “young folks” who’s been living with mp3s and related files for 10 years now, I’d like to offer a friendly rebuttal, because digital music files do have much to offer, despite the occasional hassle.

Firstly though, I’m going to side-step rights-management and other DRM-related issues. It’s quite possible to build a large collection of digital music and never touch the stuff. Plus, with all the talk lately about eliminating DRM from the marketplace entirely, it may well not be an issue in the near future.

Carrying on then, why embrace digital music? In my case, the number one reason is convenience and flexibility. Using iTunes, it only takes a handful of clicks to set up a playlist that will last all day. That playlist will only include songs that I like, ignoring ones that I might not care for. I can listen to one hundred different artists as easily as I can listen to Radiohead’s complete discography, including live shows and unofficial tracks. No need to organize or hunt for physical CDs, or interrupt the music to change discs or skip ill-favored songs.

With some extra up-front effort and Smart Playlists, I can turn my library into a self-refreshing and randomized jukebox that I can assume control of at any moment. With an iPod, I can take it all with me, wherever I go. It truly is awesome stuff.

Another reason I enjoy digital music is the physical space savings. I still have a large number of CDs, even though the vast majority of my music listening is done via iPod or iTunes. Finding a place to put all of those discs has proved challenging and, after 19 months of living at my current house, most of them are still boxed up and hard to access. That’s fine though; they can stay in the garage/closet/attic because I already have everything I need on my hard drive.

Additionally, expandability is a significant motivation for taking to digital music. As a physical collection grows, the tyranny of the shelf kicks in, which ultimately limits the collection’s size and imposes increased time-overhead on organization and media retrieval. iTunes offers no practical limit to the number of songs it can manage. Hard drive space and memory are the only true limitations (though a computer’s processor speed can become an issue, especially if there are a large number of live-updating Smart Playlists). Currently, I’m storing about 18,000 files (between my library and my wife’s) + a backup drive in the same physical space as about 6 CDs. I could double the amount of songs and hardly use any more desk space.

Of course, this digital utopia is not without its pitfalls, many of which Volkher mentioned. Number one, by far, is data security and integrity. Hard disk drives are notorious for failing, whether though a mechanical fault or corrupted disk header. And they usually fail inexplicably and at exactly the wrong moment.

A hard drive crash can obliterate a library of thousands in an instant, often with no warning whatsoever. I know; it’s happened to me on multiple occasions. By contrast, a scratched CD might lead to the loss of that CD and nothing more.

Thus, a workable, redundant backup system is necessary to protect against irrevocable and irrecoverable catastrophe. The cost and effort of doing that, of course, increases with the amount of data to be backed up. A 10GB library is easier to deal with than a 100GB.

In his post, Volkher posits a figure of one terabyte of digital music, once all is said and done and a large collection is encoded and/or downloaded. But is that a meaningful gauge? Just how much music will fit in a terabyte?*

  • At 128kbps, the bitrate of standard iTunes-purchased AAC files, one terabyte is 18,641.35 hours / 776.73 days / 2.12 years of non-stop, continuous music listening.
  • At 191kbps, the average bitrate in my library, one terabyte is 12,492.63 hours / 520.53 days / 17.1 months of continuous listening. That number is about 11 times the size of my current library.
  • Suppose you’re a true audiophile and only deal with lossless encoding, such as FLAC or Apple Lossless format. The average bitrate of all the lossless songs in my library is 728kbps, which is still nearly 3,277.6 hours / 136.6 days / 4.48 months worth of continuous audio.

*these numbers do not take into account file overhead, album art, etc. However, it seems pretty clear that one terabyte will hold a lot of music.

You’d have to own a seriously HUGE collection (roughly 4000 full-length CDs, lossless compression; 7500 CDs, extreme quality 320kbps mp3s) before a terabyte is a serious option for the working copy of your library. I know there are people who can claim those numbers, just not the vast, vast majority of music listeners.

Heck, I consider myself a respectable avid collector/listener/explorer of music and it took me a full year to listen to each and every song in my library, a library that is the equivalent of ~1400 full-length records.

Hard disk storage is cheap and getting cheaper. Practically speaking, two 500GB drives would sufficiently provide enough storage for a live copy and backup of all but the most copious of collections. Add a third for redundancy, if you’re paranoid. At $230 a piece as I write this, the cost of the drives compares favorably to all the shelving and organizational furnishings needed to manage a large physical collection, even those from IKEA.

Which brings me back to physical space savings: how does one translate a digital library into a physical space? Let’s use numbers from my library to hazard a guess. A trusty ruler tells me that a standard CD jewel case measures 11mm thick: a “CD unit” for this purpose. FreeDB tells me that the median number of songs per CD is 12 (with an average of 13). Therefore, I can estimate that each song on a CD takes up .917mm of physical space. Applied to iTunes, the 14,554 songs in my library would use up the equivalent of 1443 “CD units” or 15,872mm or 52.1 feet of “shelf space.”

That number is based on the assumption that a digital library consists entirely of full CDs. When considering partial albums and single tracks, the space savings is even greater. The single track of Nate Dogg and Warren G’s Regulate in my library actually saves me the full 11mm of space rather than .917, since I don’t have to own the full album just to have that one song.

Despite my continued devotion to the digital music scheme, I must admit that I do miss some of the concrete and tactile aspects of handling a physical record or compact disc: album art, liner notes the satisfactory “click” of snapping a disc into place and-contrary to what I’ve said above-the awesome feeling of standing back and viewing a neatly organized array of records on shelf after shelf. But at this point, for me, it’s all digital and there’s no going back.

Volkher goes on to discuss the inherent uncertainty of choosing an audio file format that may or may not be in use and supported by audio devices in times past the immediate future. And he’s got a valid point. I know from experience. Long ago, a portion of my digital music collection was in the MP2 format, which was largely made defunct by the growth of MP3 tools and players. The death knell for me was the iPod. I was dismayed when I bought my first one and discovered that it didn’t support MP2, forcing me to convert those portions of my library into something more usable.

So futureproofing is an ever-present concern. But, like the compact disc and vinyl record, there’s no reason to believe that mass-market digital formats won’t be around for a very long time. The use of MP2 was never really widespread. MP3 and AAC however have users in the tens of millions. Many people and many companies have invested a lot of resources into those formats. They’re not going to die any time soon. In fact, the patents on the MP3 format begin to expire in 2011, just 4 years away. I’d wager that individuals, corporations and open source communities will have a field day with it in short order, continuing to breathe life and support into software and hardware for decades.

Look at the passion with which gamers and code archivists continue to resurrect, port and support obsolete games. Just yesterday I ran across a 30+ year old command-line game called Super Star Trek that certainly would not be playable on today’s technology. But thanks to the efforts of a dedicated user, there is now a refreshed version for Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, OS/2 and DOS.

Likewise, I expect that in three decades time, I will fully be able to enjoy my collection, no matter what size it has expanded to. I believe that the flexible nature of software will make it easier to maintain support for these formats as they age, unlike hardware-dependent media (I’m looking at you, reel-to-reel, 8-track and increasingly, cassette tapes).

The fact that I was able to easily convert my MP2 files to MP3 is a strong argument for digital files. Just try converting a reel-to-reel tape without a reel-to-reel player.

I admire Volkher’s decision to keep his music in the real world; I know there’s no better feeling than finding an old, rare, long-sought-after gem. But for me, the future is all digital. It has its trappings, but they are easy to overcome. The rewards outwiegh the risks.

So, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a playlist to build.

mp3 waveform