Digital madness

I was tickled to see my Wall Street Journal piece on problems with classical music digital downloads linked both here on ArtsJournal, and on Musical America. I also got a tide of e-mail, maybe more than I’ve ever gotten about anything I’ve written, including my Boston Symphony/modernism post here. Clearly I tackled problems many people have been having, among them an executive from one of the major classical record labels, who’s been terribly frustrated by all the things I wrote about.

Of course I’ve written about these things here, too; in fact, it was writing about them here that gave me the idea to do the piece for the Journal. But the problems go on and on. If I’d had more space for the Journal piece, here are more things I would have said:

Every hard-drive based digital player I’ve ever had — plus the iPod — puts a brief pause between tracks. There’s nothing any owner of these players can do about this, though maybe the manufacturers could: At least to some some extent, the pauses seem to be a software problem. I have a Creative Nomad Jukebox, the first digital player ever made with a hard drive; when I bought it, the pause was really long, but a firmware upgrade made it shorter. Needless to say, these pauses are horrible for classical music. Try listening to a complete Strauss or Wagner opera, consisting, of course, of continuous music, divided into many CD tracks. Every few minutes, as one track succeeds another, the music hiccups. Even some pop albums have continuous music. This is a problem the digital player makers really ought to fix.

And here’s another opera problem. When you rip music from a complete opera CD set, or download the opera from iTunes or some other online service, the tracks are automatically numbered. Usually that’s helpful, because your player reads the track numbers, and plays the tracks in the right order. But operas normally come on more than one CD, and the track-ripping software and the online music services number the tracks on each CD separately. That is, they’ll start from track one when they number tracks on the first CD in an opera set, and then, for subsequent CDs, they’ll start with track one all over again. Rip music from a three-CD opera set, and you’ll end up with three track ones, three track twos, and so on. Put them on your player, and what happens? You hear track one from the first CD, then track one from the second CD, then track one from the third CD, then track two from the first CD — and so on. The opera becomes nonsense.

To avoid this, you have to renumber the tracks yourself, which I’ve spent long minutes doing. When you’re downloading from an online music service, it’s pointless to have track numbers that correspond to the physical CDs. Tracks should be numbered consecutively through the opera, starting with track one and ending with track 64, or whatever the final count might be. And software that rips music from CDs ought to deal with this problem. It should give us the option to continue incrementing track numbers on successive CDs, until we say an “album” is finished.

(I won’t go into the fresh problems caused when — instead of giving you more than one track with the same number — a player decides that each CD in an opera set is an independent album. You can go crazy listing all the bewildering tiny things that can go wrong when you download classical music, or rip it from CDs. You can, of course, deal with eveyr problem, but only by spending a lot of time deleting all or most of the information online services and CD ripping software supply, and typing new information in yourself.)

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