Editor's Blog: Susie Tells You How to Get Your DRM-Free Groove On - for Free

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Editor's Blog: Susie Tells You How to Get Your DRM-Free Groove On - for Free

 

Steve Jobs caused a stir two weeks ago with his "I know Europe's ticked that we won't license FairPlay, but we'd ditch DRM tomorrow if those darn record companies would let us" manifesto. And now you're saying, "Susie, late to the party much? This has been discussed to death!" And I agree with you. But you know who else is late to the party? Anyone who thinks that music on the Internet A) must cost money to be legal and not pirated, B) comes with all kinds of copy restrictions, and/or C) is encoded in such a lossy, low-quality format that you may as well buy it on CD and rip it yourself.

 

As mentioned in our "The Best Things in Life Are...Free!" cover story in the January 2007 issue of MacAddict (p21), you can get music for free on the Internet, whether you're streaming tunes from Pandora or CNET, searching GoingWare or FreeMacMusic, or even just grabbing an MP3 or three from your favorite band's MySpace page. Again, you probably knew that. What you might not know is just how much unreleased, unrestricted live music can be downloaded from the Live Music Archive, or grabbed via BitTorrent from etree.

 

Live music...you mean bootlegs? BitTorrent...isn't that for pirates? No, no, no. See, since the heyday of the Grateful Dead, a huge number of bands have allowed their fans to record and trade copies of their live shows. Free! No strings, except that they can't be bought or sold. And as much as I love albums (they're kind of taking over my house, actually), live shows are where it's at. You get covers, different versions of the same old songs, the energy of the crowd, longer playing time...and seriously, any band that can't turn it out at a live show just isn't as impressive to me anyway. And it's not just hippie bands that populate the Archive and etree. Yes, you have your jamband staples like the Dead, Umphrey's McGee, String Cheese Incident, and so on, but you'll also find 311, Death Cab for Cutie, Jack Johnson, Matisyahu, The Decemberists, Ryan Adams, Elliott Smith, The Walkmen, Ween (with shows dating back to 1989!), and much, much more. In fact, printing out the Archive's current list of bands took 14 pages. Yes.

 

Better yet, most of the live shows on offer aren't in MP3 format. Instead they're compressed as SHN (or "shorten") or FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression) files. Yes, that means that iTunes won't play them until you convert them to WAV or another supported format, so it's a little more work for you. But the advantage is that no data is lost in the compression, so you don't get any degradation in sound quality. And since the wonderfully geeky types who actually tape these shows spend a lot of time, effort, and money getting their "rigs" together to make these recordings (check out the source info on any show; it often breaks down to the tiniest detail: what brand of mics were used, how tall the mic stand was, where it was placed, what cables were used, the bit rate, the software used in the conversion, even the name and email of the taper in many cases), it'd be a shame to compress the tracks to MP3 with its tinny cymbals and muddy low end. Plus, once an MP3 is uncompressed, when it's burned to an audio CD for example, and then recompressed back to MP3, the quality degrades even further.

 

So if the shows you have your eye on are in SHN format, you need to get Shorten for Macintosh or xACT (which I use) and use them to convert the files to WAV. If you downloaded a show in FLAC format, you'll need xACT again (see why I like it?) or pretty much any app from this page to convert the FLAC files to WAV. From there, you can burn the WAV files onto audio CDs with your burning app of choice, and/or add them to iTunes, from where you can further convert them to Apple Lossless, AAC, or whatever format you prefer for listening through iTunes or adding to your iPod.

 

Anyway, if what I've said here doesn't make sense, and you get stuck with files that you're having trouble playing, post a comment and I can help you out in a future blog post. Otherwise, to get you started, here are the last 10 shows I've downloaded from the Live Archive.

 

1. Keller Williams 1999-04-03 SBD (soundboard) in FLAC. Keller plays acoustic guitar, looping over on himself with a JamMan, at this private party in the Oakland hills. Chill and sublime. Deadheads will love the gorgeous cover of "Eyes of the World."

2. Del McCoury Band 2005-10-1 in FLAC. Del McCoury was one of Bill Monroe's famous Bluegrass Boys, and his band, featuring his sons Ronnie and Robbie on mandolin and banjo, respectively, is THE best traditional bluegrass outfit playing today. (The Archive has Del recordings as far back as 1969! Flashback!) I saw this free show at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival held each October in Golden Gate Park. Free show, free download...what a country.

3. My Morning Jacket 2006-07-01 in FLAC. This was the Saturday-night headlining set at last summer's High Sierra Music Festival, a tradition for me. I watched it with my buddies in Future Rock (see #4) and we were all pretty blown away. There's a ton of MMJ on the Archive, so enjoy.

4. Future Rock 2006-08-25 SBD in FLAC. Future Rock are my pals from college, and they turn out the rock of the future: bass, synth, and the sickest drummer I've seen in a long time. This set, from this year's Camp Bisco festival, is seriously hot.

5. Phil Lesh and Friends 2004-12-17 SBD in FLAC. Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh puts together bands of "friends" for a tour, a three-night run, or even just a show, so audiences never know what to expect. I saw this monster show at the Warfield here in San Francisco, and the band featured Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, Jimmy Herring, members of Railroad Earth, and more. Get it for the soulful "Althea" and the hands-down best version of "Sugaree" I've ever heard. (Sorry, Jerry.)

6. Meltone 2004-03-06. Another band I saw at High Sierra, Meltone is a wacky Japanese outfit that blends rock, funk, silliness, and the occasional keytar. Dig on the Michael Jackson and "2001" covers. Bonus: You can get it in MP3, Ogg Vorbis, or SHN.

7. Tea Leaf Green 2006-09-30 in FLAC. I saw this at San Francisco's Fillmore with a couple awesome friends, and it's the best Tea Leaf Green show I've ever seen. And since they're my favorite band, that's quite the thing for me to say. It rips, all the way through.

8. Yonder Mountain String Band 2002-03-16 in FLAC. Colorado-based YMSB doesn't just play bluegrass. They play the HECK out of some bluegrass, and they mix it up with rock covers, long jams, and the occasional onstage shot of Jagermeister. I caught this show in Madison WI and it's still my favorite for the lonely gem "Mother's Only Son," the beatiful take on the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," and fiddle wizard Darol Anger's blazing runs on the Misfits' "20 Eyes." Yes, the Misfits.

9. Blue Turtle Seduction 2006-06-29 in FLAC. Tahoe-area favorites Blue Turtle Seduction stole the show at High Sierra last year. This set will do much to explain why.

10. Bonnaroo Superjam. Tennessee's annual Bonnaroo festival brings the biggest names in music together for a weekend of nonstop fun, culminating in the annual Superjam. The Archive has three of 'em, all different, each spectacular in its own way. Give it a spin -- after all, the jam is the essence of live music.

 

Enjoy!

 

13

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avatar

KaT

Ahh, yes, Macs *will* indeed play WAV files (Macs are very versatile in many ways, audio processing being near the top of the list), but since Apple's default audio format has always (well, for a very long time anyway) been AIFF, and since AIFF is - in my opinion as a professional audio recording engineer - superior to WAV in so many ways, why would anyone chose to convert any audio files to WAV on a Mac? The only time/reason I do so is when I *have* to port something from the Mac to the (ugh) PC in the studio.

For things staying on the Mac, it's AIFF all the way for enjoyment listening, SD2 for pro work. As far as I can see, WAVs offer no advantages on a Mac, and in my opinion do not belong on a Mac. Macs are better than that.

Re: the "extra" info noted about mics used, placement, etc: while for the casual listener this information is certainly superfluous, there *is* a reason for it to be noted: For anyone trying to pull several of these audio files together to make a nicely listenable collection, a bit of mastering is going to be needed, and knowing as much as possible about the source can help in that process. I know that the average person doesn't realize or care about mics and placement, but in fact about 90 to 95% of a recording's quality is based on those two bits of info.

All the bit rates, conversion specs, MP3 vs AIFF vs WAV, digital vs analog, etc etc etc are fun to sit and debate for hours on end, but at the end of the day if you use the wrong mic, or even put the perfect mic for the job in a bad place, no amount of digital or analog slight-of-hand will ever fix it. Mic selection and placement determine at Stage One whether the sound you get is going to be great or garbage. The computer people have had the right mantra for decades: GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out. Works that way for audio too. :-)

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John

Awesome tips. I'm not terribly tech savvy. I've gotten to the xACT and decoding from flac to wav to import to iTunes. But the files don't have the tags that normal MP3s do. Is there something I'm missing? Or is that just how FLACs work? Thanks.

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agogddy

Plugging a Nintendo product into an Orange amp is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I can think of no better way to thum one’s nose at all the purism and snobbery going on in the name of “tone” these days.
---------------------------------
Free Download
http://www.onedownload.org

avatar

agogddy

Plugging a Nintendo product into an Orange amp is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. I can think of no better way to thum one’s nose at all the purism and snobbery going on in the name of “tone” these days.
---------------------------------
Free Download
http://www.onedownload.org

avatar

John Horvatic

Sure there is music for free but not the artists that most people want. Lot's of unknown bands trying to make it big giving there music away for free or without DRM. What Jobs is talking about is Label artists from the big 4 or what maybe the big 3 if Warner is able to buy EMI. If big execs like Warner keep whining and keep being so greedy there never will be DRM free music to legally buy.

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Susie Ochs

Hey, if all someone wants to hear is stuff from the "big 4 or ... maybe the big 3" labels, that's one thing. But what I'm trying to say is that there's so much more out there. I wouldn't call Ryan Adams, Ween, The Decemberists, My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco, et al, unknown. Allowing the free trading of live recordings is a way for artists to build their fan bases, sure (not to mention get more people to attend their shows, which is where bands really make their money, not on record sales), but it's also a way for music aficionados to get turned on to new sounds that aren't being played on the radio, MTV, or other traditionally industry-controlled outlets. The Internet has been making it easier for both sides (bands and their fans) to cut out the middleman for years now. We don't have to wait for the major labels to stop being greedy...we simply don't need them.

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Hark

probably the best rock/alt/country artist in the last 10 years. if i weren't married, i'd marry you just for mentioning him.

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webfool

this is a rad intro to getting the right tunes from the right source at the right price. Thanks for the great kickoff. I'm off to start digging through the archives.

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Anonymous

This is the best introduction to the world of free (good!) music on the web that I've ever read! Thanks, Susie -- I'd write more, but I've got a serious night of downloading ahead of me, thanks to you! Thanks!!

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