Mixed Up Tape

Cassette TapeBy now, you’re probably well aware of that vinyl albums have continued to sell (and gain popularity) even in this post-MP3, streaming music era. But a new report from FastCompany titled Music’s Weird Cassette Tape Revival Is Paying Off, recently noted that there’s been an odd resurgence in sales of cassette tape-based music in the past year. In the article, John Paul Titlow is quick to attempt to dispel the notion that the renewed interest in this fossil is simply analog hipsterism, citing that the format offers very real, practical benefits for budding artists as well as being embracing anew by well-established artists.

But I’m just as quick to call BS on this. I believe it is all about hipsterism.

Ok, ok, vinyl, I sorta get. Many audiophiles have long favored LPs over other formats, arguing that vinyl albums boast more warmth or a “rounder” sound due to the inclusion of super- and sub-frequencies that may be more perceived than actually heard. I suspect that most of those die-hard vinyl fans are really clinging to the format for mostly non-qualitative reasons. Nostalgia. Tactility. The cover art. Especially for us digital immigrants, LP music imparts more of a “wholeness” to it because it is concrete thing — you can feel, care for, and respectfully handle a vinyl album. There’s something to be said for the physicality of placing a record on the turntable and setting the needle — listening to an LP evoked a connection to your music that I’m not sure you can get with digital, regardless of how enjoyable the actual content is.

Mark Browm suggested that the revived interest in vinyl has more to do with the absence of DRM than anything else. But the motivation for studios to make the effort to encrypt their music has almost entirely waned, especially with streaming becoming the main way so many people get their music now. Once a very hot button issue, music “ownership” is no longer something most listeners even think about.

And really, digital media bests vinyl recordings soundly (rimshot!) by any objective criteria, including dynamic range, frequency response, noise floor, and channel separation, to name a few. Certainly, cassette tapes never even approached the audio quality of vinyl, much less digital music.

One undeniably cool thing about cassettes was making mixtapes. I remember fondly my first “boombox” portable player that had dual cassettes! Recording a mixtape required considerable effort, a lot of forethought, and a dash of skill. I made boatloads of mixtapes — often with accompanying custom J-cards for the cassette box — and it was a very personal thing. A mixtape was a labor of love. And because of the sequential nature of cassettes, the listener was all but forced to listen to your custom music compilation in the order that you intended.

In the post-cassette years, I burned CD versions of mixtapes. (Yeah, the term “mixdisc” does exist, but it never caught on.) Most of my CDs featured carefully-affixed custom labels (‘cuz scrawling across the disc with a Sharpie was just plain lazy) and the artwork of my home-brewed discs rivaled commercially-produced CDs. Certainly, the mixdisc offered the opportunity for lots more artwork, both on the media itself and the jewel case inner and front inserts. And with a physical disc, while there was less assurance that the listener would do so, it was still fairly likely that your carefully-selected anthology would be experienced in the intended sequence at least once.

However, in the MP3 era, this all went right out the window. Sure, you could still compile an assortment of files for your friends, but it lacked the same creative punch that a carefully-curated mixtape had. And with purely digital music, there’s nothing to force or even encourage the listener to play the tracks in any prescribed order. Gone too is any physical vestiges of music — digital music isn’t a thing, but more of an abstract concept.

So, FastCompany’s article posits that mixtapes are a viable way for up and coming musicians to cheaply produce small batches of their albums. But I insist that creating a CD is easier, less expensive, and the resulting product is far more accessible — how long has it been since you owned a car or home stereo equipped with a cassette player? Or maybe you’re still lovingly clinging to your circa-1979 Sony WalkMan?

For that matter, who among us still has a DiscMan?

So, I’m sticking with “hipsterism” as the key motivator for those stuck on tape.

What do you think?

Twofer Tuesday

Occasionally, I come across small utilities or other free applets that’re worth passing on.   It occurred to me that it’s been a long time since my last Two For Tuesday Utility post, so here are a couple of utilities that I’ve been using quite a lot lately:

  • Lyrics Plugin is a free applet that lets you easily view song lyrics in either Windows Media Player or WinAmp.   Just play your favorite MP3s and their lyrics will be displayed automatically.
  • Notepad++ is a free & open source replacement for Windows’ Notepad.   The program is highly customizable and offers a wealth of powerful features that make it especially great for use as a source code editor — like hacking out some HTML, for example.

Two Tool Tuesday

It’s been awhile since my last "twofer" utility post, so I thought I’d toss out a “twofer” of Tuesday tips from the (software) toolbox:

  • WordWeb is a quick & powerful free utility for thesaurus & dictionary functions within virtually any Windows program, without requiring you to go online. WordWeb displays word definitions, synonyms, pronunciations, usage tags, & links to the Internet for even more functionality.
  • MixMeister BPM Analyzer has become an oft-used tool in my MP3 app arsenal. This freebie analyzes your MP3 files, calculates the beats per minute of the music, and updates the appropriate ID3 tag field with that info. You can then use that number to help create music playlists with a consistent tempo for walking or working out. You’ll have to experiment a bit to find a BPM that sets a comfortable pace for you but I find songs in the 105-115 BPM range are good for starters and 125-130 BPM for when you’re really eager to sweat.)

    Update: Refer to this handy chart to find the right BPM for your workout playlist.

    And as I’ve mentioned in a previous “Tuesday Utility Twofer” post, Florian Heidenreich’s excellent Mp3tag is an absolutely essential MP3 tag editor. Don’t wait, go get it now!

More Pod Peoples

Linda & Kayla have joined the ranks of the iPod people. They both received a 30GB iPod Video for Christmas. In Linda’s case, Santa must’ve forgotten to check that "Naughty" list twice this year!

We were initially skeptical about the video quality since the screen seems so small. But after watching a few minutes of Desperate Housewives, well, that Steve Jobs is a genius!! I could definitely stand to watch a movie on this screen without my eyes becoming bleary. Linda says if you plug it into your TV, the image is just as clear at that size as it is on the small screen. 2Dolphins gives 2 thumbs up!

The 'Other' Carpenters show off their Video iPods

Tuesday Utility Twofer

Sometimes you really need a simple, straightforward tool to get a tedious task done. Well, here are a couple of indispensable goodies from my toolbox to make your day a little easier:

  • 1-4a Rename is an excellent freeware utility makes light work of renaming large collections of files. Great for series of digital camera photos or MP3 music files.
  • Mp3tag by Florian Heidenreich is a free, powerful, fast, & easy-to-use tool to edit MP3 music file metadata tags. Essential for managing a large digital music collection

And in keeping with the whole "two for Tuesday" theme, here’s a second twofer set:

  • mpTrim is a great little free app for removing silent or unwanted parts from MP3 files. Could be really useful when you want to clean up those rambling podcasts.
  • emailStripper is a fantastic free program for cleaning the ">" and other junk formatting characters out of forwarded emails so they’re much easier to read.

Happy Birthday, MP3!!

Newborns wearing headphones listen to classical music in a hospital maternity ward in Kosice, eastern Slovakia to help them adapt better to life after birth.  Photo Copyright: Frantisek Ivan

On July 14th, the name "MP3" celebrates its tenth anniversary!!   On this day back in 1995, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits IIS in Erlangen, Germany decided upon the filename extension ".MP3" for their new audio coding technology.   Soon MP3 became the generally accepted acronym for the ISO standard IS 11172-3 "MPEG Audio Layer 3" designed to greatly reduce the amount of data (10:1 compression is common) required to represent audio, yet still sound like a faithful reproduction of the original uncompressed audio to most listeners.

As mentioned in my Digital Music Project blog post back in February, we’re big fans of digital music, so happy birthday, MP3.   Rock on!

Digital Music Project

I embarked upon a fairly ambitious project about three weeks ago and have just completed. I’ve ripped – or encoded – all of our audio CDs to MP3 format files. In all, our music collection of around 350 CDs ended up being about 7200 files using about 26GB of hard drive space. And I’ve still got a few hundred loose MP3 files scattered across a dozen or so backup disks that have yet to be imported.

Having all of our music available in MP3 format offers several advantages but primarily this was to make use of our TiVo’s ability to pull MP3 music from my PC thru our wireless network to the nice surround sound system in the living room. And this also makes it easy to scoop up fresh tunes for my old reliable NexII MP3 player that I take on walks or onto Dede’s Dell Axim PocketPC that’s always with her.

So, why MP3 format? There are other formats, like Windows Media Player’s WMA or the iPod’s AAC, that feature better compression (resulting in slightly smaller files with no decrease in audio quality) but they suffer from compatability issues. MP3 files can be played on nearly any kind of PC or handheld device (and even some cell phones!) whereas these other formats are far more limiting and selective. Those are the formats, by the way, that you’ll get if you join one of the digital music services that allow you to purchase music downloads, like Napster, MSN Music, Wal-Mart, or iTunes. I urge you to avoid those services due to one major drawback: DRM.

DRM, or “Digital Rights Management,” is a form of copy protection from the record labels. DRM-enabled music files feature restrictions that allow record companies to securely and legally sell you music without having to worry that you might freely share that music with others. DRM is designed to assure compensation for the copyright holders (writers, musicians, record labels, etc.) but really only straightjackets you, a well-meaning, law-abiding music fan by placing tight limits on how many times you can make a copy of a song (between different computers, mobile devices, or MP3 players) or burn music you’ve purchased to CD. This is important so let me state that again…

     You don’t buy music with those services – you rent it.

Given that, it starts to make sense why lots of people use illegal file sharing programs like KaZaa or LimeWire for downloading music files because these programs provide music in the convenient and ever-compatible MP3 format that contain none of the tight restrictions of purchased music downloads. So, why not just turn to file sharing sites to get all of your music? The biggest reason not to do so is the tremendous security risks – crippling spyware and malicious virus attacks – that are all too common side-effects of using these services on your PC. These security nightmares can grind your PC to a halt in a matter of minutes, causing problems typically only fully remedied by scrubbing and rebuilding the entire thing. Ugh!

Also, with these illegal music downloads, you have no assurances of the quality of the music or that the file even contains the song that the filename suggests. Often, downloading from file sharing sites is like Forrest Gump’s box of choc’lates – “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Lastly, downloading from these sites is essentially stealing music. Though it may be unlikely, there’s a certainly very real potential for legal fallout when engaging in this sort of shady stuff. Legally purchasing music avoids potential legal pitfalls and, perhaps most importantly, it helps to support your favorite musicians so they can keep making tunes that you enjoy.

With that in mind, I urge you to continue buying your music on traditional CDs. Then you can make backup copies of those CDs for the car or rip ’em to MP3 format to use on your PC and mobile gadgets. This way, you’re protecting your music investment while “doing the right thing.”

By the way, you can head over to CNet’s Music Center Glossary to learn more. Relax, the confusing tangle of digital music terminology can confound even the best of us.

So what are your thoughts on the whole digital music thing? Leave us a comment!