Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

The return of analog?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on February 7, 2003
(Issue 2106, Mean, Lean Computing Machine)

It probably is little surprise that the magic bullet the film and music industries have been looking for to stop online piracy should be coming from Redmond, Wash.

Bill Gates first earned the wrath of consumers back in the mid-'70s when he penned an infamously poison screed against software trading. So Microsoft's claim to have developed a method of making music CDs and DVD movies copy-proof may be one of the few times the company's initial product announcement isn't mere vaporware intended to scare away potential competitors.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has designated itself the secret police of the Internet, and the music companies comprising the RIAA are likely to be very supportive customers for whatever algorithm Microsoft has come up with to stop customers from directly converting music CDs to compact MP3 files.

This is, after all, an industry trade group that is actively suing not only wholesale music pirates, but average citizens who happen to trade songs over the Internet. The group even went after a group of cadets at one of our military academies – kids who volunteered to put their lives on the line for their country now find themselves being hounded by greedy, overpaid corporate lawyers who've never worked an honest day.

Still, if the movie and music industries want to wage a bloody war against their own customers, that 7 percent dip in sales last year may look like a regular bull market down the road.

Holes like a sieve

Maybe it takes a long-in-the-tooth audio geek like your faithful correspondent here to point out the obvious: Online music trading isn't going away.

Even if you can't rip MP3s off of your audio CDs directly, as long as folks can play their music CDs in a standard stereo unit (the whole point of selling CDs last time I checked), they can still make high-quality copies virtually indistinguishable from the original.


Our old friend the tape deck.

Simply record the CD to a high-quality cassette or reel to reel tape, then digitally record the songs through your sound card (or play them directly from an external CD deck through the sound card and skip the taping), save them onto your hard drive, convert them to MP3s, and voila – we're back where we started. Heck, invest the money in a Digital Audio Tape deck, and you're even closer to the original process of ripping CDs directly to a computer file.

There's no way I can think of to block someone from taping a CD on a stereo console system – you have to generate an analog signal in order to get music coming out of the speakers, no? That signal can be captured, recorded, copied.

Will it be as pure as ripping an MP3 directly? Depending on your system, it could end up being even better. A high-end reel-to-reel or DAT deck is going to create a copy that no one outside the hardcore audiophile community could tell from the original – and maybe not even them. With the right amplifier, equalizer and other signal massagers, you could well end up with a sound fuller and richer than what you'd get off your standard CD ripping software.

And the beauty of analog is there's no way to embed a digital watermark in those files.

The genie's bottle is broken

What the music and film industries don't understand is that it's the connectivity of the Internet that makes it impossible to stop file trading.

No technology, no police-state crackdown is going to stop fans from sharing art they're passionate about.

A more intelligent industry would accept this bit of human nature – our desire to share those things we enjoy with one another – and use it as a marketing tool to get their products out there into the hands of potential consumers, then sell them a higher end version of what they have for free. A kid gets an MP3 of a new band online, sell him the five-channel CD or music DVD of the same band. You're not getting that kind of quality in an MP3.

Every study but the RIAA's own rather questionable report has shown that those who trade music online are the music industry's most loyal customers – and that those who are exposed to a new artist through an unlicensed copy are more likely to buy an album from that artist than those who are not exposed to it.

So let Microsoft and the RIAA pour their money into a code to supposedly stop the world from copying music: It's not going to work.

It may, however, finally provide the impetus to make the DAT as popular as the cassette used to be – or even bring back the heyday of the reel-to-reel tape deck.