Last week, I was watching Stephen Colbert interview Elvis Costello, Don Fleming and Emmylou Harris about the historical work of live music performance archivist Alan Lomax.  I immediately leapt onto iTunes and found over 110 Lomax albums available for purchase.  I was happy to have those Lomax gems in my iTunes Match library in the iCloud at 256 kbps.

When I looked for a couple of other albums — like “The Alan Lomax Collection from the American Folklife Collection” featured on the Colbert show — I could not find it on iTunes.  I also could not find Volume 2 of the Prison Songs album on iTunes even though Volume 1 was available for sale.

When I popped over to the Amazon MP3 store and did a search for the missing Lomax albums on iTunes, I quickly found them available for purchase.  I bought the albums, and the Amazon MP3 Downloader automatically added the songs to iTunes.

Then I saw the reason why I believe the albums were not for sale on iTunes:  The songs had a variable bit rate less than 256 kbps:

147 kbps (VBR).  204 kbps (VBR).  125 kbps (VBR). … but the iCloud status of “Matched” for the Folklike album was puzzling.  I did at search on “bit rate VBR” and found this:

Variable Bit Rate is an encoding method that is designed to achieve a better sound quality vs. file size ratio than CBR (Constant Bit Rate) encoding. This is achieved by continuously changing the bit rate during the encoding process depending on the nature of the audio. For example, if there is silence to be encoded then the bit rate is lowered to optimize the file size. In contrast, if the audio to be played contains a complex mix of frequencies then the bit rate is increased to give good sound quality.

Using the VBR encoding method will produce an audio file that will have variable bit rates from 128Kbps to 320Kbps depending on the complexity of the audio frequencies.

“Matched” means the album is available on iTunes — but I couldn’t find the album for sale on iTunes.  If songs are Matched on iTunes, that means I can delete the local file, keep the file in iCloud and have iTunes Match download the song at a non-VBR 256 kbps.  I deleted my Amazon files and updated them with fresh 256 kbps copies from iTunes Match:

Since there are more than 20 million songs in the iTunes Store, chances are your music is already in iCloud. And for the few songs that aren’t, iTunes uploads what it can’t match (which is much faster than uploading your entire music library). Even better, all the music iTunes matches plays back from iCloud at 256-Kbps AAC DRM-free quality — even if your original copy was of lower quality.

The Lomax “Popular Songbook” and “Prison Songs Volume 2” were more problematic.  iTunes reported those Amazon purchases were “Uploaded” and not Matched.  Those songs count against my 25,000 song limit and, as you can see in the screenshot below, those songs, too, were not recorded at the 256 kbps level and they are all Variable Bit Rate:

It concerns me that, because of a minimum recorded bit rate, that iTunes appears to be excluding some of our musical heritage in order to adhere to a strict recording level of “kbps listening.”

One day, I hope Apple will allow the entire Lomax catalog for sale — with appropriate warnings that some songs were recorded live in the wild — and let us decide if we want to purchase “lesser” kbps VBR recordings or not.

If we can’t buy all the Lomax albums on iTunes only because of bit rate recording minimums, then that is censorship by purposeful marketplace omission.

To exclude the full, historic, Lomax catalog because of an modern day Apple marketing scheme is unseemly and ultimately destructive to our full comprehension of our shared history in song — which is precisely what Alan Lomax was trying to preserve for us all in the first place.

2 Comments

  1. Seems they’d rather you have a little of a very good thing than a lot of a mostly very good thing, sound quality wise — strict adherence to their standard. I thought even a live recording could be remastered at 256 kbps.

    1. I’m sure the songs could eventually be remastered at a higher, VBR, but what happens until that happens? iTunes has a massive Lomax hole in its catalog and that cheapens and dilutes the existing Lomax matter they are currently selling.

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