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Classical music label sets up download service

Thursday, 1 December 2011 - 5:00am

MELBA Recordings has already established itself as one of the world's premier classical music labels. Its focus is on the highest possible quality, both in artistry and in audio, which is why most of this Melbourne label's releases come in two forms - conventional compact disc and the superior high-fidelity super audio CD (SACD.

Now, as the days of the silver CD draw to a close, Melba has become this country's leader in direct high-quality internet sales of its product, joining a small group of international retailers offering premium audio-download products.

  Melba IT business manager Michelle Jeffries started researching Melba's proposed download website two years ago…the site had a soft launch in August. Although the site still needs some tweaks, such  as adding the full artwork for downloaded titles, all Melba's current releases are now available for download.

''That's 43 so far,'' Jeffries says. ''But we have a very busy release schedule planned, so look for fast expansion. And from now on, every title will be given automatic release as a digital download. We've been through blood, sweat and tears to get to where we are today but this is the platform for the future.''

The work is essential. Sales figures from ARIA (the Australian Record Industry Association) show physical CD sa les have slumped as digital album sales have risen. These are still early days for digital sales but the trend is clear.

Because Melba's reputation comes in part from superlative audio quality, standard CD or MP3 downloads are not enough for this site. These are not the standard compressed downloads in low bit-rate MP3 formats, which infest the world's iPods with inferior audio. Melba offers its catalogue in the audio world's favoured compression mode, FLAC, a ''lossless'' compression method that reduces file size for fast downloading but preserves the original audio information.

MP3 format is also offered at 320Kbps, the highest quality available for MP3s, but this is still a ''lossy'' format, meaning the file has been compressed with some loss of information.

Most consumers will be satisfied by the standard ''lossless'' format of 44kHz 16-bit files, which means your downloaded files give exactly the same audio as found on a normal CD. But to deliver superlative audio, most of Melba's catalogue can also be downloaded in two other superior formats - 44kHz 24-bit files that deliver more dynamic punch than a standard CD, or near-optimum 96kHz files at 24 bits, which Melba describes as ''studio master'' quality.

To find Melba's online offerings, simply see Select the ''downloads'' tag and all its offerings will be there, plus an easy user's guide to make your task clear.

Jeffries believes that while the demise of CDs is inevitable, there will be enough consumers wanting to purchase that ''hard'' format to give it perhaps another decade of useful life. But the present sales trends show download sales are needed to take the company into the future… 

The ''lossless'' files come in three formats to suit just about everyone. There's FLAC for the dedicated audiophile, WMA (Windows) format for most desktop applications and the lossless ALE format for high-end iPod users. Download prices for a typical disc range from $10 for a complete title in MP3 to $13 for a CD-quality file and $23 for a high-end ''studio master'' file. For traditionalists, the site also offers CDs for about $25 each.

As an experiment, I downloaded a recent Melba release of Diversions, music by Stravinsky for violin and piano performed by violinist Ray Chen and pianist Timothy Young.

I chose the highest-quality FLAC file download possible: 96kHz at 24 bits. That format approaches super audio CD in quality and, once downloaded, I was left with a choice of how to enjoy my acquisition.

I usually burn downloaded files to CD but this download's high-quality specification meant it could not be burnt to CD without reducing its audio quality. Playing it on computer using a cheap sound card and speakers was not an option; that would certainly cripple the sound compared with my high-fidelity sound system.

My solution was to download a free computer software program called DVD-Audiofile, which takes the ''studio master'' files and builds a DVD-audio disc image. I then burnt that image onto a standard blank DVD disc using another piece of free software called ImgBurn. The resulting disc, when played on my Blu-ray player, the Oppo BDP-83, gave superlative audio with the same spacious relaxed quality as SACD.

If a consumer's playback equipment cannot cope with the specialised DVD-audio format, the alternative is to Google a software program such as Audio DVD Creator. This program (and others like it) fits the downloaded files onto the audio section of a standard DVD in the same format used for movies.

While there is slight compression, the result is still superior to a standard CD and can be played back on any DVD player.

Melba Recordings managing director Maria Vandamme wants the Melba site to eventually offer complete lossless audio files in surround sound as well as stereo. ''I know of only one or two other companies in the world which are as dedicated to downloads of this quality,'' she says. ''There is Linn in the UK and Channel Records. The major companies just don't seem interested.''

Eventually, the need to store these files on computer or disc will disappear. A consumer's complete audio collection will one day exist in the cloud, able to be summoned whenever wanted. That may be a decade away but Melba is taking the first steps towards that right now.

Become a convert

WHEN it comes to audio downloads, I am a neo-Luddite. I strive to gain the highest quality audio but I can't resist putting the result onto disc, complete with the appropriate artwork. I want to handle my audio, not just have it streaming from the ether or from my computer hard-drive.

But that disc is really unnecessary. Specialist hi-fi retailers offer various solutions to let you throw it away, such as the small but potent Nuforce Icon HDP, a device that will take music files straight from your computer in uncompressed or compressed formats and turn them into a full-frequency, high-fidelity experience.

All digital files have to be converted to analog to be heard via loudspeakers or headphones and the Nuforce is a pre-amplifier that boasts a digital-to-analog converter superior to that found in most computers or CD players. It can be connected to your computer via USB and used to produce an analog signal perfect for high-end headphones. Or, with your computer laptop attached, it will connect via standard RCA jacks to a conventional stereo amplifier for listening using your own system.

The Nuforce Icon HDP retails for less than $700 but the audio experience is beyond price.

Sound advice

What does sampling rate mean?

THIS refers to the number of times a second musical information is sampled. The higher the kilohertz, the more samples of audio taken each second, with corresponding accuracy capturing the music. One kHz is 1000 samples a second. So 96kHz is 96,000 samples a second.

Word length or resolution

RELATES to the dynamic range or how loud or soft something is. The original CD standard of 16 bits has a theoretical dynamic range of 96 decibels. A symphony orchestra can be as loud as 120dB, so you can see that even CDs are limited in their ability to reproduce a true dynamic. SACD recordings use a different method that measures the relative loudness of each sample to each other, which is not constrained by a specific word length, so its dynamic range is limitless.

What is the bit rate?

BIT rate indicates the quality of an encoded file whether it be lossy, such as MP3, or lossless, such as FLAC. The higher the bit rate the less compression is used, giving better quality of sound as it is closer to the original. Using photography as an analogy, bit rate could be compared to pixel-count. For most digital recordings, the higher the bit rate, the more detailed the reproduction.

What is Super Audio CD?

THE SACD format was developed by Sony and Philips in 1999 to give audiophiles playback of the same high quality as the original studio master recordings. An SACD disc can store more than seven times the amount of information as a CD, allowing for far more musical information to be captured for playback, in both stereo and surround. Most SACD discs are released in a hybrid form that carries standard CD information, so no special player is needed. But to hear the superior audio of SACD stereo or surround recordings, a special player is needed, as the information carried on the SACD track cannot be read by a standard CD player laser. Companies such as Pioneer, Oppo and Cambridge Audio sell ''universal'' players that will play Blu-ray, DVD, CD and SACD discs, making the need for special players unnecessary.


Anthony Clarke

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