What is a Digital Music Retailer?

In the music industry, a new trend is moving to the forefront. It is called digital music retailing. Understanding what a digital music retailer is and what they can do for your band is important to any new recording artist.

To be concise, a digital music retailer is a company that makes it possible for musicians and singers to put their music in front of a wide online audience for sale. Using the mp3 format, you can record your music, upload it to a retailer and sell your recordings to fans around the world. Popular retailers include Amie Street, 7Digital, iTunes and EMusic.

While the retailing system has existed for a number of years, it’s popularity and value is rapidly soaring to new heights. To illustrate the value of these outlets, HMV bought a half interest in 7Digital in late 2009. They paid $12.6 million dollars for the privilege of owning half of this popular UK based retailer and saw a 16% increase in their sales from the previous year.

Those are big numbers but what do they mean to the recording artists? They mean that the music industry has seen that digital music downloads are the next wave in media. Recording artists no longer have to deal with expensive overhead that leaves them paying the recording companies to produce their songs. Using a home recording studio and a little tech savvy, the independent recording artist can now create, upload and sell their music online through a digital music retailer to see long term income in the form of royalties every time their song is purchased by a retailer’s customers.

The digital music retailer provides recording artists with a ready made fan base consisting of thousands of people and a hands off approach to sales. The artist provides the retailer with the content their customers look for. It’s a Win-Win situation all around.

Introduction to Digital Music Recording: Part 1 – Finding a Space for Your Home Studio

If you’re a musician, at some stage you’ve probably considered the idea of recording yourself, or your band, or the cool duet you do with the cat (she takes the high notes). Digital music recording technology has come a long way in recent years, and the best part is that you no longer need to remortgage your house to be able to build a decent quality home studio set up.

The first step on the home studio path is deciding where you’re going to work. Are you a garage band with access to a real garage, or are you a solo act who neatly folds onto a single chair in your study? Before you think about shelling out for any equipment, you need to sort out where you’re going to be recording music. As the experts say, “location, location, location”. It’s pretty important. Here are the things you should consider.

Peace and quiet

It almost goes without saying that if you live near a railway line or in a flight path you might want to consider recording at a mate’s house instead. Always remember that you’re aiming for minimal background noise, unless of course you’re recording at a live venue in which case ambient chatter and intermittent clanging are part of the experience and therefore the recording. Choosing a time that you have the house to yourself is always an excellent plan. There’s nothing more frustrating than laying down a perfectly executed riff that’s ruined by a door slamming, the dog barking or someone yelling, “Honey, I’m ho-ome!”.

Sized to fit

If you’re solo artist who will only be recording a single instrument at a time, then it shouldn’t be too hard to find a corner that will accommodate you and your stuff. If you’re going to try simultaneously recording all members of a cello octet, you’ll need to think through your space requirements a little more carefully. In some cases it could even be worth booking a local studio or hall, instead of cramming into your spare bedroom. Remember that some musicians don’t like to feel confined when they play (drummers and lead guitarists in particular), so realise that you’ll need a lot more space for simultaneous instrument recording. If space is tight, you should instead consider recording instruments one-by-one.

Acoustically sound

If you’ve ever sung from the choir stalls of a stone cathedral, you’ll notice your voice sound distinctly different from when you sing in your living room. Floor and wall coverings such as carpet, curtains and wallpaper act as dampeners, which stop soundwaves from reverberating and echoing within a space. A bit of an echo can be a good thing, especially when you’re recording vocals or acoustic guitar – both sound fuller and richer, as if the notes have more body. People sing in the shower because it’s where they sound best! I know plenty of musicians who routinely record in their tiled laundry or bathroom for this very reason, so for a crisper, fuller sound try to avoid overly dampened rooms.

Love thy neighbour

A quick note about sound levels – if you’re know you’re Armageddon Loud and that you’re going to be recording regularly, keeping your nearby neighbours happy should be a priority. One person’s music can be another’s noise, and if neighbours suspect you’re breaching acceptable sound levels, a quick phone call to the local council or police can shut down your jam sessions quicker than a grace note. Be considerate about the hours you play, and consider soundproofing if you regularly rock out in close proximity to your neighbours.

Now that you have a better idea of the space in which you’ll be recording, we’ll move on to discussing basic home studio equipment. In Part 2 we’ll cover elements such as computer requirements, microphones and music recording software recommendations.

Digital Music File Formats

An uncompressed digital music file (such as that on a music CD) uses 10MB or more per minute (at least 30MB for a 3 minute song).

These files have to be compressed to the more usual levels of 3-5MB per song. Compression rearranges the sequence of numbers, sometimes throwing away less significant information, in order to reduce the file size. The way the compression is achieved leads to the many different audio file formats available. Below is a list of the popular formats used by MP3 players.

MP3 (MPEG Layer 3)

MP3 is a perceptual audio coding algorithm, developed by the MPEG group. Although its a lossy compression, the digital audio sounds exactly as, or very close to, the original sound. The algorithm attempts to adapt the compression to the characteristics of the human perception of sound. This compression algorithm can handle both constant and variable bit rate compressions.

For good quality music, a bit rate of at least 192Kbps is recommended – this is near CD quality. 256Kbps per second is better. There is very little quality difference between 256Kbps and 320Kbps, but the later will have a larger file size. MP3 files have no Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology built in – meaning they are freely portable. That’s not to say its legal to move music files from one device to another.

AAC (Advanced Audio Coding)

A newer, lossy audio compression format developed by the same MPEG group. AAC is more efficient than the popular MP3 format, and requires less processing power to decode. Its also not backward compatible with MP3. AAC-compressed audio at 96 Kbps generally exceeds the quality of MP3-compressed audio at 128 Kbps.

AAC supports DRM, but you can have both protected or unprotected formats. The unprotected format is freely portable, while the protected format is locked by the DRM used. Apple uses the AAC format for its iTunes and in QuickTime. Audio compressed at 128Kbps using AAC sounds very close to the original sound, which means a smaller file size for the same audio quality compared to the MP3 format. The file will be about 75% of the size an MP3 compression would produce.

WMA (Windows Media Audio)

WMA is another lossy compression format, developed and owned by Microsoft, and used in Windows Media Player for DRM management. This compression is more efficient than MP3, and comparable to AAC in terms of efficiency and file size reductions.

WMA supports DRM, so can have both protected and unprotected audio files. Most devices and players support the unprotected WMA files – Apple iTunes software can convert them to AAC files.

Ogg Vorbis

Unlike the other formats, Ogg Vorbis is a completely open-source, patent-free, professional audio encoding and streaming format. There are no licensing fees for using this codec. If you are an artist that’s goods news. You won’t have to pay any fees if you distribute your songs, which you would if you use, say, MP3.

It is yet another lossy compression, but much better than MP3. An Ogg Vorbis audio file encoded at 110Kbps gives a smaller size and sounds better than an MP3 file encoded at 128Kbps. 160Kbps gives very-near-CD-quality audio encoding. Although it’s open-source, this codec compares very favourably to WMA, AAC, WMA Pro etc (see Wikipedia for more on this).

This format is rising in popularity due to its open-source nature and freedom from licensing issues.

MIDI(Musical Instrument Digital Interface)

MIDI is one of the old formats, but still very much in use today. Its not really a compression algorithm, but a synthesized music format. MIDI files consist of lists of commands which tell a synthesizer when to start/stop playing a specific note of a specific instrument, and may include the volume and modulation of the note. With MIDI you can play a number of instruments at once, or just play one instrument at a time.

These files are generally tiny compared to normal audio files such as MP3, WMA, AAC. Because this is synthesized music, its quality greatly depends on the quality of the synthesizer on your PC’s sound card or the quality of the synthesized instruments in your software. One application for MIDI files is as mobile phone ring tones.

RealAudio (RM/RAM)

This format from RealNetworks was at the fore-front of internet audio formats for many years. This format is usually streamed, rather than downloaded. It can be played using the RealPlayer or RealOne software. A good number of internet radio stations still use this format for their broadcasts.

The audio can be streamed at different bit rates to satisfy bandwidth constraints. If you are on a dial-up internet connection, the music quality you get is lower than if you are on broadband.

ATRAC(Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coder)

The ATRAC compression algorithm is owned by Sony, and was first used in the MiniDisc in 1992. The ATRAC family of lossy algorithms has three members: ATRAC, ATRAC3, and ATRAC3plus. ATRAC, the oldest of the three, can compress CD music to approximately 20% of the original size. ATRAC3 improves on this by a factor of two, compressing a music stream to about 10% of the original.

The youngest member, ATRAC3plus, can compress a music CD to about 5% of the original. In simple terms, ATRAC3plus can allow you to save over 350 music tracks on a 700MB CD. The ATRAC3plus is the default on Sony MP3 players, although they can also play other file formats.

Sony also has a lossless algorithm, imaginatively called the ATRAC Advanced Lossless algorithm. Perfomance-wise, ATRAC3 and ATRAC3plus are comparable to AAC and WMA. Being a proprietary algorithm, its not as widely supported as say MP3.

Digital Music Players

The iPod has literally changed everything about how we listen to music. Thanks to Apple Inc.’s wonderful little tool, everything is more portable and more reliable than ever before.

In its rawest state, the iPod is a portable digital music player. But there is more to it. The product could also be used as a Personal Digital Assistant even with just a little memory. Then there’s the game-playing components.

The battery is one area where you don’t want to skimp. These batteries are not made to be a user replaceable part but with proper instruction or access to a professional iPod repair shop you can enjoy the benefits of a new iPod battery in no time.

Naturally, the screen is pretty important too. This digital music player has some very innovative features incorporated in it that allow the users to access music as well as video clips and picture files.

And then there is the hard drive. This dictates how much music you can actually store on there. The iPod is about the size of a deck of cards, while the iPod mini is about half that size. In little over a decade they have progressed to the point where they are now capable of storing more than 100 hours worth of music, equivalent to 250 albums.

You’ll probably want a pair of earphones as well. Headphones are available in many different styles. The smallest type are in ear, which are plugged into the ear.

Headphones aren’t expensive. Most of today’s headphones are so-called dynamic headphones. Dynamic refers to the type of transducer that is used. There is no real difference, except for the amount you will spend.

Lastly, if you are someone who is handy with a set of tools, you actually can conduct repairs and mods on your own iPod. The repair process is really quite simple when you’re in need to fix iPod. DIY repairs are perfectly fine for a person who has experience and can confidently fix them.