What format do you buy?

January 3, 2012 10:18 PM

Buying music: what do you have to have?

Just an informal survey: when you buy music do you need a physical object? Do you go digital? CD? Vinyl? 8-track (apparently, you can actually get new ones for something ridiculous like $50 a tape or something)? Does packaging matter or are you happy with just the files these days?

Just trying to think about releases and wondering what others think. I've had things released on/in several formats and I have purchased several formats, so I'd like to know what you (yes, you!) need.
posted by sleepy pete (46 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

High-bitrate MP3 or FLAC, PDF liner notes. In other words, what Zunior has been doing for years.
posted by scruss at 4:48 AM on January 4, 2012

Physical object when possible (CD usually, though if I really really really like the artist, vinyl is nice), and if not, FLAC.

I especially like when they offer FLAC or other high quality digital download for immediate consumption, alongside the later shipment/arrival of a physical good. Jonathan Coulton did this with his latest album. I had the FLAC on release day, and an autographed CD a few weeks later, once the obscene flood of preorders had been met.
posted by askmeaboutLOOM at 7:08 AM on January 4, 2012

CD or vinyl from shows, though I only really get them as a 'thank you' as I am kind of against the idea of physical media.

.m4a (usually) or .mp3 otherwise. .FLAC is a less than seamless experience on many of my players so I generally don't bother with it.
posted by dobie at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2012

Yep, I'm m4a/mp3 these days too although I'm not really happy about the sound quality most of the time. It's fine for casual listening but if you mix and master your own stuff you become painfully aware of the quality loss when they get compressed, even at decent bitrates.

I never really got over the transition from vinyl to CD, to be honest. I can see myself going back to vinyl in a big way if the current trend isn't just a fad.
posted by unSane at 11:01 AM on January 4, 2012

I never download FLAC since they can be so huge. I tend to buy CDs at shows often as a way of getting rid of downloading guilt.
posted by Corduroy at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mp3's just sound like shitty AM radio to me now so if I'm downloading I go for something a bit more high-res. My purchasing habits depend on situation; I still dig for vinyl at garage sales and thrift stores but I can't wrap my head around the whole boutique/novelty/elitism thing of paying $30 for a new vinyl album...so my record store purchases are always CDs. I like buying the physical object, even though I probably only hold it once and then just rip it onto the computer, usually at high bit-rate AAC. I do still prefer bringing CDs into the car over plugging in the iPhone/iPod, although I'll occasionally go for the iPhone long-playlist option on a long drive.
posted by chococat at 3:56 PM on January 4, 2012

Vinyl with a download is my preferred. MP3s are fine for casual and travel listening, and the vinyl is nice to hold, flip, and listen to on the Hi-Fi at home. Best of both worlds in one package!
posted by TheCoug at 1:33 PM on January 7, 2012

Vinyl is the only thing I ever buy. My stereo doesn't even have a cd player. If I get a CD (which only happens when they're included with the records - I do really like that) I throw it in my laptop, rip it, and put it in my collection for listening when I'm working away from home. CDs almost invariably end up scratched and cracked in the corner of a desk drawer somewhere.

Also, I really only buy new vinyl online; like chococat says, thirty bucks an album is crazy. Online, I can usually get them for the same price as CDs anyway.
posted by koeselitz at 6:05 PM on January 8, 2012

I have piles of vinyl records from 1999-2003 from when I was DJing and importing house records from europe. I switched to CD and MP3 as soon as clubs started reliably having cd mixers, though. I mostly download high bitrate mp3s from Beatport or sometimes itunes now.
posted by empath at 10:33 PM on January 8, 2012

Buying music on vinyl is ridiculous if you have a choice, imo. Everything is digitally mastered. You're only losing sound quality getting a vinyl version.
posted by empath at 10:35 PM on January 8, 2012

Everything is digitally mastered.

Except that stuff is mastered differently to go onto vinyl. You simply can't put as much RMS onto a vinyl track, so it has to be limited differently and generally slammed less. So you end up with more dynamic range.

A CD master, a vinyl master and an MP3 master are all going to sound different if they are made by a competent mastering engineer.
posted by unSane at 8:20 AM on January 9, 2012

See this thread on Gearslutz where they talk about making the perfect master for vinyl and then slamming it with limiters for CD.
posted by unSane at 8:41 AM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mostly they're just talking about what you can't do on vinyl that you can do with CD. (like out of phase bass, which would pop the needle out.) If they wanted music to sound like it does on vinyl for a cd master, there's nothing stopping them from doing that at all, but the reverse is not the case. And going from digital to analogue, your always going to lose fidelity anyway.
posted by empath at 9:15 AM on January 9, 2012

From that thread:

Think about (pre-)mastering for vinyl first with no limiting/clipping and just great sound. Then make a copy of the final EDL and tack on your limiting to get it up to typical digital volume.

The limiting reduces the dynamic range - that's the whole point. A lot of MEs use the vinyl premaster as their chance to get the sound they actually want before they have to crush it all to hell for the CD master and the record company.
posted by unSane at 9:36 AM on January 9, 2012

I'd be very surprised if that were common. I know that when I look at vinyl rips and cd rips from dance records in ableton, the wave forms look very similar once I match the volume on the vinyl records to match the cd tracks. It's not like cd mixes are squashed and vinyl isn't. Vinyl just tends to be recorded quieter (and I don't mean less compressed).

I imagine that for anything more than 10 years old or so, that the vinyl mixes might be better, but anything made in the past 5 years or so has got to be sound better on CD.
posted by empath at 9:51 AM on January 9, 2012

I agree with empath about vinyl. The popular notion is "it sounds better" yet there is likely no difference in quality. That said, people buy vinyl at shows...
posted by dobie at 10:15 AM on January 9, 2012

Yeah, I get that people like vinyl for the physicality of it, and I was tempted to buy the latest M83 album in vinyl even though I sold my turntables a few years ago, just because I love it so much...
posted by empath at 10:43 AM on January 9, 2012

I'd be very surprised if that were common.

It's not common in dance music because that stuff is smashed to bits as part of the sound.

Anyway, my fondness for vinyl is much more about the 'thinginess' of it and also the fact that as a medium, the record sleeve is about a trillion times nicer than a CD jewel box.
posted by unSane at 12:02 PM on January 9, 2012

empath: "And going from digital to analogue, your always going to lose fidelity anyway.”

You lose fidelity going from digital signal to CD, too, though. CD is a ridiculously limiting medium; it's sort of shocking that we haven't moved past it, and I get the feeling it's only because at this point a recording media switch is almost impossible. They tried that SACD thing a few years ago, but that kind of went nowhere. Really, it's a medium that is almost forty years old which has been eclipsed innumerable times by more advanced recording media that generally were used for video instead. How long until we can get music on Blu Ray or whatever?

I'm not saying its bad because it's old - obviously. But seriously, you're telling me that a little disc that holds a measly 700 MB at MOST is really the acme of recording media today? I haven't even recorded that much stuff, but three of my songs wouldn't fit on a CD unless I compressed the living crap out of them.
posted by koeselitz at 12:03 PM on January 9, 2012

From that gearslutz thread:
We do two versions quite regularly.

Find the settings for the hotter digital master & print.

Then ease off a few dB just before the limiter for the vinyl version & print.
well said, JT. That's the way I've been doing it for years.

However, I rarely find myself changing anything but the volume (just lowered enough so it doesn't hit the limiter).
You could always do a great sounding, no-limiter mastering job and use that for the LP and whatever digital formats are planned. Clearly, this is the best solution for everything. But, given the likelihood of the average client accepting a LP-appropriate RMS level for their digital master, doing a second bounce of the LP master through a limiter has worked for me in many cases.
My method is much like Allens, and so long as I know before I start the session that a vinyl master is needed too I'm cool with it. I master as normal but keep an eye on things I know won't make friends with the cutting engineer [excessive sibilance, out of phase lo frequencies, that sort of stuff] and make sure I run a 24bit file without limiter.

posted by unSane at 12:14 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You lose fidelity going from digital signal to CD, too, though.

No, I'm sorry, it doesn't. You're going to get exactly the sound on CD that you had in pro-tools.
posted by empath at 12:27 PM on January 9, 2012

. I haven't even recorded that much stuff, but three of my songs wouldn't fit on a CD unless I compressed the living crap out of them.

Were your three songs over 74 minutes long? CD isn't compressed audio.
posted by empath at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2012

two words about vinyl - noise floor
posted by pyramid termite at 1:16 PM on January 9, 2012

Raw WAV files are compressed files, empath. The phrase "lossless" is a technical term; it is not literally true.
posted by koeselitz at 1:20 PM on January 9, 2012

CD is 16-bit lossless AIFF @ 44.1 KHz, which means that you have 96dB of dynamic range (usually a bit less because of dithering noise added in during conversion from 24bit. The range of sounds from quietist to loudest in a concert hall is around 80dB.

AIFF is not compressed -- it's plain old PCM, which means each 16 bits represents one sample.

44.1 KHz means that the Nyquist limit is 22 KHz or thereabouts although the resolution at this frequency is very poor. I personally can't hear anything above 15KHz but some people go up to about 25 KHz. It's arguable that there's no useful musical content above 20 KHz -- it's pretty much noise up there.

Most recording studios run 24 bits @ 44 or sometimes 88 KHz. The reason they run 24 bits is not actually for higher sound quality in the recording -- it's because when the signal goes through dozens of plugins and busses and so on, rounding errors in 16 bits can become significant.

Some engineers claim to be able to hear the difference between 24 bits and 16 bits, but it's pretty hotly disputed and you need world-class monitoring (and ears) to even have a chance.

The dynamic range of the average modern recording is generally in the 10-20dB range.

I'll happily supply 16 and 24 bit files of the same recording and you can see for yourself if you can hear any difference.
posted by unSane at 1:32 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

To elaborate - 700 MB is enough space to record 74 minutes of music only if the source audio is 24bit. Your statement that a WAV file, as it is burned to CD, will contain "exactly the sound that you had in Pro Tools" is true if you never work with anything over 24 bits. And that might be true of a lot of people, I don't know. All I know is, to my ear, 24 bits is a huge limitation. And, yes, it is absolutely possible to work with, say, a 48 bit signal in Pro Tools - and if you do, you sure as hell won't fit 74 minutes on a standard CD.
posted by koeselitz at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2012

(er, 16 bits)
posted by koeselitz at 1:38 PM on January 9, 2012

This conversation is awesome, btw.
posted by koeselitz at 1:40 PM on January 9, 2012

I would wager that not only would you not be able to tell the difference between a 24 bit sample and a 16 bit sample, but that you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a 24 bit sample and a 320kbps mp3, using any headphones you care to use.

It's arguable that there's no useful musical content above 20 KHz -- it's pretty much noise up there.

As far as I know, a lot of engineers put will filter out anything over 20khz anyway....
posted by empath at 1:59 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

two words about vinyl - noise floor

Yeah, I've tried to get clean drum loops from vinyl rips and once you start manipulating it (filtering, boosting volume, etc), there is always hissing and noise, etc..

What's interesting is that it actually sometimes improves the character of the track, to the point where I started adding in fake vinyl distortion to songs I'm working on. The right amount of white noise adds so much to space to a mix.
posted by empath at 2:03 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

As far as I know, a lot of engineers put will filter out anything over 20khz anyway....

On particular tracks but not the whole mix. Typically you would put a low-pass filter on anything which doesn't have useful HF content above a certain point. But things like acoustic guitar and cymbals usually get a shelving HF filter to boost the 'air' up there and this is where your 20KHz and up frequences would come from.

It's kind of worth listening to a track with everything below, say, 15 Khz filtered out so you just get the high frequencies. They are REALLY high.

In the same way you generally put a high-pass filter around 50-80Hz on anything without useful bottom end (everything except bass, drums, etc in pop mix quite often) and a total cut-off at 25-30Hz for everything because no-one has speakers that go that low.
posted by unSane at 2:22 PM on January 9, 2012

Yeah, i cut off everything at around 30hz, including the kick and bass, because otherwise it's just a muddy mess. Everything else gets high pass filtered depending on how thick my bass is.

I filter the high frequency out of most synths because the higher harmonics tend to just sound like buzzing to me... the only highs in my tracks tend to be white noise...
posted by empath at 2:35 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Here, I did some files for you guys. Same short section of a song which was recorded in 32 bit, 44.1 KHz, bounced down to:

24 bit AIFF

16 bit AIFF

320kbps mp3

To really see what the differences are, load two of the files into a DAW, flip the phase of one of them, and play them simultaneously. Whatever you hear is the difference between the two files. I just did this and all I could hear between the 24 bit and the mp3 was very high pitched noise, barely there at all. It didn't even register on the meters, certainly below -60dB.
posted by unSane at 3:57 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ha, I did it wrong. In fact the 24 bit and the MP3 do not null *at all*. I'll post the difference track shortly.
posted by unSane at 4:14 PM on January 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Okay, this is the difference between the mp3 and the 24 bit file.

So basically, if you played the mp3 and this file simultaneously you would get the sonic equivalent of the 24 bit file.

What you can hear mostly is the psychoacoustic algorithm of the mp3, which dumps frequencies it doesn't think you can hear because there's something loud going on in another frequency. In this case you can hear that it's dumping a heck of a lot of stuff on every kick drum hit.
posted by unSane at 5:45 PM on January 9, 2012

So uh, does that answer your question Sleepy Pete?
posted by dobie at 12:03 PM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Everyone knows MP3 is 'lossy'. What matters is whether people can actually tell the difference, subjectively.
posted by empath at 12:20 PM on January 10, 2012

ha ha, dobie. Um, sure.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:39 PM on January 11, 2012

wait, wait... i'd like to change my answer to none, none more black.
posted by sleepy pete at 6:50 PM on January 11, 2012

Back to the original question: I occasionally buy CDs but now I mostly just listen on Spotify for free until I'm bored of it.

I think people who make a big deal about "I only buy vinyl" are kinda anachronistic wanker would-be Djs...
posted by mary8nne at 8:28 AM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by koeselitz at 4:20 PM on January 12, 2012

I mostly just buy MP3s. My ears are too shot from years of mistreatment in front of guitar amps to notice any problems. Plus, the idea of moving with vinyl makes me shudder.
posted by drezdn at 11:04 AM on January 15, 2012

You're telling me. My poor ikea bookshelves :(
posted by empath at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2012

Anyone want a few thousand 10 year old trance records? :)
posted by empath at 11:40 AM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by koeselitz at 11:50 AM on January 15, 2012

Heh, they're heavily used. All in the wrong sleeves, warped, worn, dusty, etc. I was carrying them around to gigs for years and abused the hell out of them. There are quite a few rare white labels in the mix, though.
posted by empath at 1:04 PM on January 15, 2012

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