In today’s Christian Science Monitor, there’s and article by Brian Wise on the issues of Digital Rights Management, or DRM, and of the desire by classical music fans for hi-fidelity downloads instead of lossily compressed .mp3 files.  But he makes a claim which just doesn’t seem to add up:

“By removing the layer of software known as digital rights management, or DRM, customers can not only play their music on any device they choose (PCs, Macs, and iPods), but they also may stand to benefit from improved sound quality. . . Industry figures are hopeful that dropping copy protection – thus allowing for big, clear-sounding and noncompressed audio files – will generate even stronger interest in classical downloads. ”

Why would there be any correlation between the use of DRM and the fidelity of the recording?  Surely DRM can be applied to any sort of file you want to apply it to, including non-compressed or losslessly compressed files.

I’m all in favor of both the elimination of DRM and of making high fidelity recordings available for sale on the web, but I don’t see how they’re related, and an article like this is only going to confuse the public about the issues.  Unless, of course, I’m the one who’s confused and there really is a legitimate link.  Anybody know something I don’t know?

7 Responses to “DRM and Fidelity”
  1. david toub says:

    They’re not directly related, Galen, as you correctly suspect. The reason for the confusion is that Apple is making DRM-free AAC files available at a 256 kbps bitrate (perhaps to justify the slightly higher price associated with DRM-free offerings from the iTunes store), which means that there are twice the number of bits in every second of music, much as higher resolution images have more pixels per square inch. But there was no reason why Apple couldn’t have made files with DRM at 256 kbps or 512 kbps for that matter.

    That said, on a related issue, people should be aware that both DRM-containing and DRM-free downloads from Apple (and, I suspect,any other DRM vendor) contain the downloader’s name and e-mail address. That this is the case for files protected under DRM sucks, but is not surprising. But that it is the case for DRM-free music is pretty concerning.

    All of this said, however, I personally can’t tell the difference among anything encoded above 96 kbps, at least without premium speaker systems. There’s a good article in the NY Times about this issue, interestingly, and they confirm that most people can’t tell the difference, at least at the higher end of audio encoding.

  2. Steve Layton says:

    I just read it

    and think he’s got the story a little muddled. He’s really talking about two things here: 1) EMI wanted to offer non-DRM files on iTunes, for a higher price than ITunes normal DRM files, and 2) the files would be encoded at a higher bit-rate than iTunes normally uses. But (at least so far) NO offering through iTunes will be “uncompressed”.

    Fully uncompressed WAV or AIF files run about 10 mb per minute of sound; MP3s compressed at the old standard of 128 kbps pack the piece into a file about 11 times smaller, at the cost of tossing a lot of sonic information that most people don’t really miss all that much (just like a jepg image file does to it’s full parent, the bitmap). The typically-used higher bit-rate (256 to 320 kbps or higher) keep a lot more of the original WAV file, but are still quite a bit smaller.

    FLAC compresses the file without tossing information; like a “zip” file, it’s squished into a smaller “package”, that has to be unpacked again for listening. The file to be downloaded is much smaller than the original WAV, but still pretty big.

    Though our bandwidth speeds and our hard-drive space have both increased tremendously, truth is that we’re nowhere near the time when most people will be downloading and storing uncompressed WAV files. Just two CDs of music take more than a gigabyte in their uncompressed state; add up how many megabytes of MP3s you have right now, multiply that number by 10, and you’ll see how unrealistic it would be (though once terrabyte drives become cheap and common, who knows!). And calculate how long it would take you to download 650-700 mb (a standard audio CD) through even your speedy DSL or cable connection, and you’ll see that isn’t quite there yet, either.

  3. david toub says:

    Absolutely in agreement, Steve. What people don’t realize is that a MP3 player will only hold half the content at 256 that it would at 128, which works of course to the manufacturer’s advantage. While there is Apple’s Lossless Codec as well as FLAC, etc. to offer the same quality of sound as one gets with AIFF or WAV (i.e. uncompressed audio), even that is still pretty big.

    I have a MP3 of La Monte Young’s The Melodic Version of The Second Dream of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from The Four Dreams of China that was encoded at 320 kbps and comes in at 178 MB for a 76-minute piece, which would be, of course, about 76 MB had it been compressed at 128 kbps. I’ve been tempted to save it as an AAC file, which offers better sonic economy than MP3 files (i.e. a 128 kbps AAC sounds as good as a 256 kbps MP3, more or less), since I’m running low on disc space (all those music files exact a space penalty!), but might save the original to do a side-by-side comparison. I doubt I could tell the difference, to be honest.

  4. Galen H. Brown says:

    Steve, thanks for pointing out that I had forgotten to include the link. I’ve fixed it.

    What you guys are saying pretty much jives with my own understanding of the situation, although I didn’t know some of those details about the iTunes business model. How is the name and e-mail address encoded into the non-DRM files? Is it a watermark, or just something in the file header that could easily be stripped off?

    In addition to hard-drives getting cheaper, there’s also the fact that lossy encoding is getting better. As I recall, the MP3 files of the mid to late 90s had a noticible amount of flanging in the treble which more recent codecs have fixed at the same bitrate. Lossless compression will presumably get better as well. I can’t see any reason (aside from as a marketing strategy based on the fact that many consumers are ignorant) to sell raw uncompressed files anywhere.

  5. Galen H. Brown says:

    Actually, I take back what I just said about there not being any good reason to sell uncompressed WAV files. If you cater in part to a commercial clientelle, they’re likely to prefer WAV because it’s the industry standard for audio editing and they aren’t going to want to have to convert the files. And I think a lot of CD burning software prefers to deal with WAV files and can’t deal with FLAC, so if your customers are going to want to burn everything to CD providing them with WAV files saves them a couple of steps and the need to deal with additional software.

  6. david toub says:

    Galen, I haven’t gotten around to playing with the files yet to see how they encode personal information, as reported by Ars Technica online.

    Some files I’ve downloaded from the Web are in flaac format, but there are many tools available for os x and windows to convert these to aac. Still, it’s an extra step. Why convert? Mostly to play the files on an iPod in my case. I still can’t tell the difference, but then, I don’t use a high-end stereo system. I don’t even use my system at all anymore—my “system” is my iPod plugged into either my ears, my Mini Cooper or my iHome.

  7. david toub says:

    From today’s MacFixit:

    As noted by several readers, tracks purchased from the iTunes Music Store using iTunes 7.2 have personal purchaser data — specifically names and email addresses — embedded in them. The data are stored as MPEG-4 Atoms: ‘name’, containing the user’s name ‘user’ which generally contains an email address.

    The obvious concern among some users is that, if indeed this data is being used to track files posted to illegal file-sharing networks, it could be spoofed to maliciously indict an innocent user.

    Users have so far experimented with a few removal methods, including opening the files with a Hexadecimal editor (like HexEdit), locating and deleting the personal data. Some users who have tried to do the same with standard text editors have rendered their files unplayable with iTunes, so keep backups if you attempt modification. Also, note that by performing any modification you may be violating the iTunes Terms of Service, which dictates:

    “x) You agree that you will not attempt to, or encourage or assist any other person to, circumvent or modify any security technology or software that is part of the Service or used to administer the Usage Rules.”