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How big is the sound of music?

HD music adoption can mean big storage needs for consumers

March 21, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Computerworld - When Peter Bliss sits back, closes his eyes and listens to a tune from his 4TB 67,000-song music library, he can almost see where the instruments are on a stage, hear every strum of the guitar, every stroke of a violin's bow, every beat of the drum.

Bliss, who audits insurance companies by day, readily admits he's an audiophile who spends thousands of dollars on his passion and stores his music in lossless digital formats, a growing trend among music lovers.

"The recording quality is almost as important as the music itself," Bliss said. "It's like Ferraris versus Volkswagens. You can get a Beetle and it will take you from Point A to Point B. Some people wouldn't do it in anything but a Ferrari, and others say, 'My 20-year-old Beetle gets me there.'"

Music aficionados are adopting so-called lossless digital music file formats to store albums in a form that's as close to the artist's master recording as possible. The trend is also leading consumers to set up multiterabyte storage systems for their music libraries.

Music purists have long argued that analog recordings on vinyl offer better sound quality than CDs or MP3s, but their stoic loyalty in the face of change was often seen as little more than a nostalgic bias during the 30 years in which digital recordings came to dominate the music industry.

Compressed vs. uncompressed

And, while vinyl record sales have seen a marked uptick over the past decade, they still represent a tiny portion of overall music sales.

More recently, however, audiophiles and high-profile musicians have gravitated toward master-quality music that's playable from a hard drive. That has led to greater use of lossless file formats.

Among consumers, the most popular file format, or codec, is still MP3 -- the compressed file format referred to as "lossy," meaning data is lost in the translation from the original master to the compressed format. Analog audio is recorded by sampling it 44,100 times per second, and then the samples are used to reconstruct the audio signal when playing it back digitally. An uncompressed file on a CD for example, uses 44.1KHz or a 1,411Kbits of data per second (Kbps).

In online music stores such as iTunes, an MP3 music file offers a bit rate of up to 256Kbps. Uncompressed audio files, however, can take up gigabytes of space on a hard drive.

For example, a typical album of songs stored as uncompressed WAV files takes up 640MB of space. The same album of songs in MP3 format can vary in size depending on the quality a user chooses during the ripping process, but in general it will take up about 60MB.



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