Where to find high-quality, Linux-compatible music

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I'm sitting in my living room listening to Thievery Corporation's Babylon Rewound on the home stereo. A lot of this glorious music is coming from the general vicinity of the speakers, but there is a significant part coming from hard to my left, about two meters to the left of the leftmost speaker.

Really? Between the recording, the playback hardware, and my brain, I am hearing stuff coming—quite clearly—not from the left speaker, nor the right, but from some place quite far away from both. How can this be?

This amazing illusion of musical space is one of many created by the recording and my auditory system; and it is sustained, in better or worse form, by the chain of hardware and software that sits between the recording and my ears. That chain of hardware and software can't make a flat, lifeless, and boring recording into something wonderful and awe-inspiring; but it can take a fantastic recording and make it flat, lifeless, and boring.

I don't know about you, but for me, life is too short to spend it listening to flat, lifeless, and boring music. So, in this series of articles, I hope to share with you some of the lessons I have learned about creating a great environment to enjoy music, starting when my good friend Pete patiently explained to me, back in 1973, that good audio equipment made a huge improvement to the enjoyment of recorded music.

The first thing I want to talk about is the way in which the music is preserved in recordings.

Recorded music

Recorded music has come to me in several formats over the years:

  • as LP (long playing) records
  • as 45s (one song per side)
  • as cassettes
  • as CDs (Wow! Perfect sound forever! Or not...)
  • in various digital formats (MP3s, AACs, Oggs, FLACs)

Today I have in my possession several hundred CDs, several hundred more LPs, a few 7" 45s, a few more cassettes, and a growing number of music downloads.

I am going to focus on music in digital formats, stored somewhere on a hard drive, whether ripped from CD or purchased as downloads. Moreover, since I am a Linux kind of guy, I'm going to take a Linux kind of perspective on this topic.

But before I get into the details of digital formats, I'm going to cover some introductory material.

Where to get digital music

For those of you—like me—with CDs, by all means, rip them to disk as well and keep the CDs as deep backup. For this task, I tend to prefer GUI-based tools that use cdparanoia as their engine, such as Asunder, that let me get at the parameters used by cdparanoia (I tend to install the version in my distribution's repositories).

Watch out for the data these tools pick up from places like Grace Note (formerly CDDB) or MusicBrainz; it's a good starting point for track names, performers, and so forth, but in my experience it's far better to edit this data before you rip than to go looking for it afterward. Look for things like spelling errors in album or performer names, missing composer names in classical music, weird punctuation, missing album artist in compilations, and the like.

Another important consideration with respect to getting your music from CD—sometimes this is the cheapest way to find some music, and other times it's the only way. Perhaps because CD sales are suffering these days, it's not uncommon to find CDs at bargain prices. Also, many physical stores that sell used media have used CDs in decent shape at super-cheap prices. Finally, in countries other than the U.S., licensing restrictions often limit the availability of music downloads, but seldom the availability of CDs.

Of course, you can rip your LPs as well, if you have all the bits and pieces (LPs that you want to convert to digital, decent sound card that permits recording, record player, phono pre-amp, recording software like Audacity). For those of you who are old enough (or young enough, maybe?) to remember ripping your LPs to cassette to make mix tapes, this process will seem somewhat familiar.

Moving to music downloads, some artists make their music available (or allow their music to be available) at no cost or at user-selectable cost on sites like Bandcamp. Sometimes physical media are also available there.

A few other places I buy music downloads (including format information, which we'll discuss more in the next chapter):

  • Bleep: Lots of modern stuff, especially electronica, in CD resolution and sometimes better, FLAC or WAV format, plus vinyl and CD. No download hassles.
  • Boomkat: Again, tending to electronica, in CD resolution and sometimes better, FLAC or WAV format; no download hassles.
  • Linn Records: Primarily classical, jazz, and Scottish folk. CD and higher resolution, FLAC and other formats, plus vinyl, CD, SACD. No download hassles.
  • 7Digital: A ton of modern and classical, especially MP3 and WMA, but getting on the FLAC bandwagon, albeit mostly at CD resolution. No download hassles.
  • Gimell Records: Home of The Tallis Scholars' recordings. CD and higher resolution, FLAC, and other formats. No download hassles.

There are many other sites that provide music downloads, but several of these have the egregious habit of requiring the use of downloading software that does not run (or at least, not readily) under Linux. ProStudioMasters requires the use of its Adobe Air-based client; HDTracks and Acoustic Sounds require the use of a piece of closed-source software that may operate under Wine. If you like their catalogs, please consider writing to them and asking (politely) for a way to download your purchases in Linux.

As I mentioned above, music downloads tend to have licensing restrictions that can make certain downloads unavailable in certain countries.

And a last point, returning to the listening experience: I would claim that improving one's listening skills will improve one's enjoyment of music, and I can think of no more straightforward way to do so than taking Philips' online course.

In my next article on this subject, I look at digital formats for Linux listeners.

Chris Hermansen portrait Temuco Chile
Seldom without a computer of some sort since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005, a full-time Solaris and SunOS user from 1986 through 2005, and UNIX System V user before that.

19 Comments

Just for information, I usually buy my music on QOBUZ.com ... up to Hi-Res / 44Hz quality ;)

Thanks for mentioning Qobuz. They are currently not available in Canada so they didn't make my list of "where I buy". But it's good to have them added; I hope others will suggest some of their favourite sites!

Thanks again!

In reply to by DansLeRuSH (not verified)

Just for information's sake, research indicates that higher than CD quality sampling rates (tells us what frequency sounds occur at) have no benefit (and under some conditions may actually be counterproductive). There is a better chance that going from 16 bit to 24 bit recordings (affects relative loudness of different sounds) would create perceptible changes, although it doesn't seem that it does with a properly created recording.

One way to explain why the sampling rate does not make a difference after a certain point is to realize that your playback equipment recreates the sounds you hear from digital information about them. This is sort of like drawing a geometric shape from instructions about its size. The frequency that a sound occurs at is rebuilt from the samples taken. Once you have enough samples to describe the frequency, adding more samples does not make any difference. It's like drawing a straight line. Once you have the end points, getting other points along it will not change how you draw it. The only difference more samples make at that point is their ability to describe sound at a higher pitch. Since CD quality accurately describes sound at as high a pitch as any human can hear, no more is necessary.

Thanks for the comment, CFWhitman.

In the next installment of this series, I will make some claims about why I am willing to spend extra cash on higher resolution downloads. Stay tuned!

In reply to by CFWhitman

bandcamp.com is also a great source for indie music. They provide download options in multiple formats including FLAC.

Yes!!! Bandcamp is an excellent source! I did mention it in the article (just above the list itself) because it is one of my favourites.

I especially like two of the "labels" that use Bandcamp: Six Degrees Records, and Cumbancha. Both of these "labels" do a great job of scratching my world music itch. If you like reggae, check out Sarazino's albums on Bandcamp. Crazy!

In reply to by Kevin Bush (not verified)

BandCamp allows users to download FLAC, ALAC and Ogg formats. And it's popular. And offers artists an option for placing their music under creative commons. I thought it was worth a mention.

It is more than worth a mention, and that's why I mentioned it! But thanks for emphasizing it, because you are correct, it is great for all sorts of reasons - great music, great format availability, great for the artists that put music there, and great for Linux users.

In reply to by et (not verified)

Great article! Coming from the A/V industry into the IT realm, I have seen and heard what you are writing about. From LP-FLAC; having the right equipment that can interpret the signal, and reproduce it correctly makes a huge difference. All the pieces have to interact together perfectly or you lose out on hearing the sounds.

Thanks for the comment, BJ Maynard. It's great to hear from someone who has serious audio chops. And I agree totally; a great equipment configuration can really increase the enjoyment of the music. I plan to address that in two subsequent installments...

In reply to by BJ Maynard

There is as well http://www.dogmazic.net/ which provide over 50.000 tracks on free license (some under LAL, CC-BY-SA, CC-BY-NC, ... you've got to check each track to find the license).
dogmazic is run by a 1901 French association law which is close (but not exactly the same) than an non-profit anglo-american association.
So far, just in mp3 format but you can contact each the artists to have a better quality format. (mainly because they are a law 1901 association without a big bunch of money to pay for the server to stock FLAC or WAV tracks)

Thanks for the pointer, trebmuh. I like the idea of negotiating with the artists to get a higher quality source!

In reply to by trebmuh (not verified)

These problems you describe in the start have nothing to-do with Linux alone. These problems occur as well on Windows side. But I agree that you have to watch out where you get things. From the hardware as well as from the software side.

Its no different now adays with food, electrical stuff and other things. Most of the companies just want your money and dont give you the qualitiy promised. Or why else did electrical machines lasted longer in the past then now adays? Because they put in parts, which brake after the time they want. Wanted ob

Same goes for music and films. You can have HD and HD. Depends on how you make the movie. Same for music. I dont know if there is a term in english, in german its "gewollte obsoleszenz" translated "volitional obsolescence" for electrical things.

But your suggestens are very good. And I like your music download side. I was looking around for these things.

Mutosan, your phrase "geowlite obsoleszenz" is similar to the English phrase "planned obsolescence". Of course that's one of the great things about Linux - a lot of people work hard to not leave older hardware behind! So my eight year old Dell desktop is still quite happy with the latest Linux desktop even though it has long been left behind by that closed source operating system we've all heard of...

Thanks for the comments!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence

In reply to by Mutosan (not verified)

Bandcamp too is one of my *very* favourites. I recently got my first high res 5.1 flacs from Qobuz. Now I need to figure out how to play them. :)
I have got a huge CD collection but I am more and more using downloads. Since there actually are shops who do offer flac that has become a valuable option.
Do you know Ampache? How do you organise a huge file collection?
Baboom.com is well worth checking out. Discocered Tiki Taane's "Past Present Future" there and really like it. Very Linux friendly shop.

Thanks for the comment, Tobs!

The site you mention, baboom.com, looks interesting; going to have to check that out. Thanks for the recommendation!

I urge you to start ripping your CDs! Don't let all that great music sit on the shelf...

WIth respect to organizing, I plan to discuss a bit of that in upcoming articles. But in the meantime, there are tons of online articles about "the best Linux music player"; I suggest you read some of them to get an idea of what kind of features appeal to you with regard to organizing your library.

With respect to hi-res 5.1 FLAC files, the first thing you need is something that will generally play 5.1 data, which for most people is their home theatre gear. Some home theatre receivers or blu-ray players support connecting a USB drive containing media files, but I haven't yet run into one that decodes FLAC. Having said that, I haven't really been looking. There are some multichannel DACs (for example this http://www.exasound.com/e28/Overview.aspx or this one http://www.essenceelectrostatic.com/product/evolve-hdmi-multi-channel-d…). Also, if you have a computer that you can dedicate to that purpose that has an optical out, and if your home theatre receiver has an optical in, you may be able to connect and play the music that way.

Thanks again for the comment.

In reply to by Tobs (not verified)

Chris,

I am not A Google fan boi by any stretch but you can download a DRM free version of any music you purchase from the Google Play store. You also failed to mention archive.org which offers lots of DRM free music at no charge (e.g. their Grateful Dead collection)

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