Apple-EMI deal dooms WMA? Huh?

April 5, 2007

Since that last post, I’ve seen a couple other articles suggesting that Apple’s decision to offer DRM-less tracks in the AAC format is going to strike the death blow for Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio (WMA) format.

Everybody loves a “Microsoft is losing” headline, but these articles are just stupid. Why?

  1. If device makers had thought they could steal iPod users by supporting AAC on their devices, they would and should have done so long ago. The huge majority of AAC files on people’s computers are unprotected files from CDs ripped in iTunes, not from the iTunes Store. (This is why the Zune natively supports AAC.) Removing DRM from a miniscule percentage of the overall number of AAC tracks out there doesn’t change the equation a bit. (In fact, if I were a player manufacturer, I’d support as many formats as I could afford to license so the user would never have to think about formats at all. Isn’t the idea maximum ease of use?)
  2. These writers seem to assume that the Apple-EMI deal will remain exclusive. I doubt that’s the case. EMI wants to sell tracks as broadly as possible, even to the tiny percentage of Zune users out there. Assuming they believe removing DRM will sell more tracks, why not allow Microsoft to sell DRM-free WMA files on the Zune Marketplace? And allow Napster, and Yahoo Music, and whomever else to sell DRM-free files in whatever format they choose. These folks would be happy to sell DRM-less tracks—like nearly every other digital media player, they support DRM because they have to, not because they want to. It’s costly to implement, alienates consumers, closes off interesting scenarios that might make users more prone to buy new digital media products, and so on.
  3. The Business Week writer talks about Microsoft’s “expensive licensing terms” for WMA. But AAC comes with licensing terms as well! And they’re more expensive for device makers than WMA (at least according to Paul Thurott).

News flash: Apple chose to make this deal for AAC because they’ve already licensed that format, and the iTunes infrastructure is probably built to deliver files in that format, and it’s a much more efficient (filesize for quality) format than their other option, MP3. Which, by the way, comes with licensing fees as well.

The undercutting of the PlaysForSure music store partners probably did more to hurt WMA than this deal will. And Microsoft doesn’t care because those stores weren’t selling many songs anyway, and Microsoft has plenty of other ways to push the Windows Media format—native support in every PC and Windows Mobile device shipped, Xbox Live Marketplace (for video), MSN Video, Zune Marketplace and so on.

But everybody loves a “Microsoft’s doomed” headline.

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EMI offers DRM-less tracks through iTunes

April 5, 2007

Both Jobs and EMI have been telegraphing this move: for $1.29, you can now get all songs in EMI’s digital download catalog as 256kbps AAC files with–ta-da!–no DRM. And while Lefsetz is pissed that that they raised the price for these tracks, I like it as the first small step away from the record industry’s self-defeating efforts to control user behavior with inept and unfriendly technology.

Wired columnist Eliot van Buskirk, anxious for any headline that portrays Microsoft as loser, seems to miss an important point: the Zune natively plays AAC files. That’s right–along with going into direct competition with the players and stores that have long supported Windows Media Audio (WMA), Microsoft went and supported the file format favored by its number-one competitor. Sure, Microsoft would have liked to establish WMA as the de facto standard, but it’s basically acknowledged that particular war is over, and it’s lost. Microsoft is not even pushing WMA for telephone handsets anymore–instead, it’s gone and built a generalized DRM system (or “content access” technology as they call it) and will let the carriers apply it to any file format they want–including AAC.

In other words, Microsoft just hopes you buy a new PC to store all your digital media files. They’re not as concerned as they once were about what format those files are in.


Do Make Say Think

March 8, 2007

Do Make Say Think played gorgeous music last night at Neumo’s in Seattle. A music critic might classify them as “post-rock,” a genre that involves lots of instruments, extreme shifts in dynamics, slow tempos, classical constructions (lots of triads, few sevenths or jazz chords), and few or no vocals. “Post-” because most of the musicians came out of the rock world (particularly punk), but somewhere along the way evolved (or devolved?) into more “grown-up” sounding music. Other bands in the genre include Sigur Ros, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Tortoise. Personally, I like to think of these bands as the musical successors to mid-era Pink Floyd–after Syd Barrett left, but before they turned into a classic rock megaphenomenon; like Umma Gumma and the movie soundtrack albums More and Obscured by Clouds.

But here’s the interesting part. I was perched in the perfect spot for ultimate stereo sound (directly between the two enormous banks of speakers at the front of the club, as far away from them as they were from each other, like the third point of an equilateral triangle), when a younger guy, maybe 25 or so, asked me if I could move to the side. He had two stereo mics and some sort of digital recording box. I asked him if he was with the band, and he replied no, but that Do Make Say Think have an open taping policy (popularized by the Grateful Dead and often used by other hippie-jam bands), and that he posts all his recordings on Archive.org. Most interesting, he uses an open-source (this was very important, he mentioned it several times) lossless audio codec called FLAC that I wasn’t familiar with. Lossless codecs give you the exact same bits as a CD-quality recording, but are compressed to about half-CD size simply by eliminating a lot of blank bits–it’s basically like zipping a computer file.

Two things about this really struck me:

  1. Do Make Say Think don’t benefit directly from letting this guy record their shows, but allowing those shows to be recorded, posted freely, and traded benefits the band overall–it drives excitement and gets people out to live shows, where they might buy merchandise.
  2. This whole scene couldn’t have been further from the corporate rock world that Microsoft so desperately wants to enter with Zune. They’re striking this indie rock pose, but it’s really about fashion more than about the music–the Zune doesn’t even support Windows Media Audio Lossless, the only WMA codec that an audiophile like this kid would have found interesting. And of course their stance on DRM is completely alienating.

WMA

February 19, 2007

Despite all of the strategic mistakes Microsoft has made in the digital media space, some of their underlying technology is pretty remarkable. In particular, the Windows Media Audio (WMA) codecs occasionally surprise and impress me.

In this context, a codec is a computer algorithm used to reduce the file size of digital media files for easier transmission over a digital network. In very basic terms, this is done by removing extraneous information from the signal–for example, bits that represent very high or low tones that most listeners cannot hear. The trick is removing the right stuff–sometimes, seemingly inaudible portions of the signal, when summed up, contribute to a particular instrument or voice’s character–remove too much, and the cymbals sound tinny, or the guitar sounds flat, or the singer’s voice sounds thin.

In the best head-to-head test I’ve seen, WMA comes out very well versus its competition.

But more sriking to me was a recent personal example. Diminished Men, for whom I’ve been playing bass, recently finished recording an album. It was done onto 2-inch analog tape, then moved into ProTools (the industry-standard digital mixing tool) for mixing. The tracks have been mixed, but not mastered. Mixing is where you listen to each individual track (bass, guitar, each drum), decide which tracks to use where (for example, we did lots of guitar takes with different tones), equalize the tracks you’re going to use, blend them together at a certain relative volume, re-equalize, re-blend, and so on. Once that’s done, you master each song, which means equalizing the whole song, compressing it, increasing the volume, and so on. This is done to bring out parts that are hidden, add power, and so on. (Mastering is also where you decide song sequence, how much space between tracks, and so on.) There’s a lot of complicated voodoo (and opinion) involved in both parts–for example, an unmastered mix might sound like crap to an untrained ear, but will sound better once the engineer has equalized certain parts up and down or compressed the whole thing.

Anyway…when I converted those mixes from full CD to 320kbps WMA files for my Zune, it actually ended up sounding like a good master. My guess is it eliminated a lot of low-level noise in the midrange (this is an instrumental surf band with lots of guitars and drums with big reverb), bringing out the low and high a bit and making the overall thing sound cleaner and crisper, while still preserving the slightly chaotic tone.