Originally written Feb 8, 2011

Apple, Robot Chicken and the Decline of Recorded Music

I don't have a blog (which I still think is a stupid term, but I guess we're stuck with it), but I do have my web site on which to post the occasional rant (such as this one).

Yesterday I was watching a recording of the new episode of Robot Chicken (how I missed out on that show for four years is beyond me - oh wait, it's because it's on in the middle of the night and I have a job). Anyway, the show included a great sketch about how CDs have been overtaken by MP3s. If you haven't seen it, it went something like this: as Steve Jobs leaves his mansion, the superhero CD Man, upset about being made obsolete, attempts to decapitate Jobs by throwing a CD at his neck. At the last moment the disc is deflected by a Microsoft Zune which was thrown by Zune Man, who is also trying to kill Jobs. Zune Man and CD Man get into an argument about who is lamer, with CD Man making fun of the Zune's unintuitive interface and slow response times, and Zune Man "accidentally" scratching the shiney round logo on CD Man's chest and saying "Now you're worthless" (with CD Man screaming back "There are repair kits for that! THERE ARE REPAIR KITS!") In the end, Jobs pulls out a gun and dispatches CD Man because "his time is over", but refuses to shoot Zune Man because he's just too pathetic.

It was a funny bit, but it got me thinking about iPods and the current state of music. I know - I'm a geek (which my wife pointed out when I showed her the Robot Chicken sketch). But dammit, I'm writing a web page about it anyway.

Recorded music has never been perfect. From way back in the wax cylinder days, it has always just been an attempt to approximate the actual sounds musicians were making. Ever listened to old 78s of jazz music recorded in the 40s? Or even early rock music from the 50s? Sounds pretty putrid compared to modern recordings. The 60s and 70s saw the dominance of the long playing record, which improved sound quality quite a bit. But it was still a needle bouncing around in a groove cut into plastic, with the vibrations simulating recorded sound waves. When you think about it, it's amazing that vinyl albums sounded as good as they did.

Eight-track tapes came along and made music portable, but at the expense of adding tape hiss and the threat of having your favorite song cut in half with a loud "CLUNK" noise in the middle while the tape changed tracks. Cassettes came along in the early 80s and looked like they might be the wave of the future - despite the continued hiss, they sounded reasonably decent and could hold an entire album side on one side of a tape. Unfortunately they were really easy to duplicate, so the recording industry quickly abandoned them (as someone who grew up in the 80s and started my music collection by buying around a hundred cassettes - thanks for that, music industry. Appreciate it.)

So along came the digital revolution and compact discs. The music companies loved them because (at least at first) they were impossible to duplicate, and they could charge people an arm and a leg (remember when CDs initially came out and the average price for one was in the neighborhood of $18.99?) to replace a bunch of music they already owned on vinyl and/or tape. The public loved CDs because they sounded better than cassettes and you could play them over and over and over again without them wearing out or collecting pops, clicks and skips. You could still scratch them up and make them unplayable, but if you took reasonable care of them they'd last forever. Or at least that's what the recording industry preached.

Vinyl purists insisted that records sounded better than CDs (after all, the disc was just a bunch of 1s and 0s representing an approximation of various pitches at micro-second intervals, whereas a record was a continuous, analog recording). In the early days of CDs, when it seemed like companies were just taking bands' back catalogs and even new recordings and slapping them onto CD without fixing the equalization or mastering them properly, the vinyl purists were probably right. But eventually they started properly mastering CDs (in what was probably a pre-planned strategy to make everyone buy their favorite albums yet again), and there was even a high-definition CD format that looked like it might take over and give the best sound quality yet.

So what's the point of this history lesson? The main point that I'm trying to make is that through the history of recorded music, for its first 100+ years, the goal was always to improve sound quality. To make the recording sound better and better, more and more like the original source sounds.

Then along came the internet. It didn't take long for someone to realize that those 1s and 0s on a CD could easily be converted into a bunch of 1s and 0s in a computer file. And that file could easily be transmitted from one computer to another to "share" music with their friends or random strangers on another continent. Well, maybe not so easily - the files were freaking huge. So along came compression schemes. There were various formats, everything from using the long-standing ZIP format to SHN (shorten) and FLAC and others, but the one that really caught on was MP3. Despite its initially horrible sound, it made the smallest files, and the easiest to send over slow internet connections.

People nowadays might not remember or realize what it was like, but back in the early days of the internet, the idea of sending a song you liked to someone else over the 'net seemed almost magical, and was such a cool idea that no one stopped to worry about whether it was legal or not.

The big music companies panicked and tried to shut all the "pirates" down and make digital music files go away. Apple (to their credit), asked "how can we get in on this action and make a profit from it?" Along came the iPod, which wasn't the first MP3 player around but it quickly took over the market. People liked the idea that they could fit all their favorite songs on a portable device.

The problem was, and continues to be, that MP3s are a step backwards, sound-quality-wise. For the first time in the history of recorded music, most people are saying "I don't care if it doesn't sound as good as what I had before - it's convenient and portable and it's close enough".

Granted, the MP3 format has come a long way. I have trouble telling the difference between a well-encoded 192K/sec MP3 and a CD. Sometimes the highest frequencies still sound a little "slushy" to me, but other than that they sound pretty good. Does that mean I'm going to throw away my CD collection and start buying all my music from iTunes? Hell no. I'll be buying CDs until the last manufacturing plant shuts down for good (which, hopefully, will be many years from now), and I refuse to open an iTunes account until there's no other choice. I'm paranoid that I'll lose the MP3 files and not have a physical disc as back-up. I like to read liner notes (not that many CDs include them any more). I like to have a physical package and an album cover to look at while listening to the music (and no, a postage-stamp sized graphic on the iPod screen doesn't count).

Why am I so resistant to the Apple revolution? There are a bunch of reasons. I should mention, before I really get going with this rant, that I do own an iPod video, and I even upgraded it to a 240 gig hard drive and I'm currently working on transferring my entire music collection over to it. So rabid Apple fans can just get off my back about how great the iPod is and what an idiot I am for even daring to suggest it's not the greatest invention since fire. I'm on board already, so don't send me email trying to convert me. I'm just not in the "Apple can do no wrong" camp.

First off, iTunes is a bloated, unintuitive piece of junk. There, I said it. It just boggles my mind when people talk about how superior Apple's software is and how intuitive and easy to use it is. My daughter and wife both use iTunes, but I refuse to (I replaced the Apple software on my iPod with RockBox, mostly so I wouldn't have to deal with iTunes). I've had to help my daughter with iTunes several times, and every time it's a hassle. My favorite was the time her iPod refused to "sync" with iTunes and it took us over an hour to find a "sync" button because it was hidden behind an advertisement.

iTunes seems really slow and buggy as well. I've had it lock up computers and crash multiple times. My daughter originally had it running on an older PC and it took longer to rip a CD into iTunes than it would to just listen to the disc. Then there was the time she bought a DVD of a Harry Potter movie and got a code to download a free digital copy - it literally took three days to get the dang thing downloaded and installed properly. And she never watched it anyway, because the screen on the iPod Touch is so tiny and we had the DVD she could watch on the big, wide-screen TV. What is the point of all these "digital copy" movies, anyway? But I digress...

Like all Apple software I've had the misfortune to use, iTunes tries to do everything for you, which is great if you're a complete computer novice and only need to do very basic things. But if you want to do anything more complex, it's nearly impossible to figure it out and iTunes fights you every step of the way. I had a recording of the entire radio broadcast of the 1985 Live Aid concert already converted to MP3 and I never could figure out how to get iTunes to put it in the right order since it spanned multiple CDs and featured dozens of artists.

But the absolute kicker came when my parents finally replaced their antique computer this Christmas. I volunteered to set up their new computer, and everything went relatively smoothly. Even getting their anti-virus subscription transferred over to the new PC wasn't that difficult. Then I tried to figure out how to get all the music in iTunes over to the new computer. The short answer is - you can't. At least Apple apparently doesn't want you to. In the end I had to resort to using "pirate" software to copy the music off my mom's iPod Touch onto her new computer, and then import it back into iTunes. I'm not talking about music that was bought from Apple's store - these were songs that had been transferred from legally purchased CDs. There's no easy way to get those from the computer you ripped them on over to a new computer. I guess Apple expects everyone to re-rip their entire music library every time they buy a new computer.

That's another reason I'm glad I went with RockBox and my own method of ripping CDs. For the record, I use Exact Audio Copy to rip and LAME to encode to MP3. It takes less time than using iTunes and it leaves me with folders named after the artists and albums and MP3 files named after the songs. When I finally did manage to extract the music from my mom's iPod Touch, Apple had helpfully renamed everything with random names to prevent us from knowing what was what. Anyway, next time I get a new computer or a new MP3 player, it'll be a simple matter of copying the files over.

So, as you can tell, I'm not particularly fond of iTunes. But what about the iPod itself? It's a great piece of hardware, right? It's beautifully designed, right? It's very intuitive right? Wrong on all counts.

The model I bought (off of eBay) is an iPod Video (5th generation), because that was the highest generation iPod that RockBox supported at the time, and it was an 80 gig model (the MP3 player with the most storage capacity that RockBox supported).

Within a month, the hard drive went bad. Bad sectors all over the place. To be fair, it might have been bad when I bought it (which is probably why the eBay seller was selling it), and it took me a few weeks to discover that. But still, so much for quality hardware.

I shelled out another $200 and bought a hard drive replacement kit, because I had already installed an iPod adapter kit in my car's radio, so I was kind of locked into using an iPod. The replacement drive works for me anyway, since it's a 240 gig drive and should be able to hold most, if not all, of my 2500+ album collection.

But let's look a the design of the controls. Apple couldn't spring for a separate volume knob? I'm always accidentally changing/stopping/restarting tracks when I was just trying to adjust the volume since they all use the same control.

How do you shut this thing off, anyway? Oh, you press and hold "play" for several seconds until it shuts off. That's real intuitive. And you can't turn it off at all if it's plugged into an external power source. Why?

When the iPod occasionally crashes (and it does, despite those who insist that Apple's stuff never crashes), the only way to re-start it is to hold down the Menu and select buttons at the same time for around 10 seconds. How cryptic is that? I had to Google search that solution twice before I finally remembered how to do it.

There's no A/C power connection? How do you plug it in? You're kidding. You have to plug it into a computer's USB port (or buy a special adapter) to charge the battery? Why couldn't they have just used a standard power plug? I probably have a dozen different power adapters at home, surely one of them would have worked. No, Apple has to use their own proprietary format, just like they do with everything else, to ensure they control everything. And unfortunately the iPod took off and became the most popular MP3 player out there, unlike their annoying computers which only the true Cool-Aid drinkers still insist on buying and crowing about how superior they are.

OK, I know I've done a lot of bitching about iPods here - the sound quality leaves a bit to be desired, the hardware leaves a bit to be desired, the software is geared towards idiots who only listen to the latest hit singles, and the proprietary nature of the whole mess just sucks. All that said...now that I've found ways around the more annoying drawbacks of the iPod, I wouldn't part with mine. I have to admit, it's really convenient to be able to carry hundreds of albums in a device smaller than a deck of playing cards when I go to work or take the dog for a walk or go for a bike ride or mow the yard.

Still, they'll be prying my CDs from my cold dead fingers. Hopefully several decades from now.