I Just Wanna Go To The Rock ‘n’ Roll Show

Both Wednesday and Thursday night I saw Sleater-Kinney play El Rey here in Los Angeles. (I’ve mentioned this already.) They are such a great band. There had been some talk on the wordsandguitar mailing list that someone had recorded the Wednesday show. This morning I decided to check it out.

For those who aren’t in the know, the SK Depot is an FTP site with lots of live material from Sleater-Kinney. (If you want to check it out, I suggest you take a look at the mailing list for the latest address, username and password. It changes occasionally.) So I popped in over there and downloaded the show. I noticed that there were a lot of shows in a .shn format. I wasn’t familiar with it so I decided to do some research.

Now, hours later I gotten into the audiophile groove.

After I wrote my initial analysis of Apple’s Lossless Codec, I got a lot of traffic from websites like Furthur Network and the Grateful Dead mailing list. I didn’t investigate things too far then, but now I kind wish I’d looked into it more since today I wound up on many of those sites that linked to me.

There seems to be three main lossless audio codecs that are the most popular: FLAC, Shorten (.shn), and APE. I’m sure there are many others, including Apple’s, but those are the ones that I encountered the most in my research today. There are also lots of other articles, webpages and whole websites dedicated to these things. I’m going to focus on the Macintosh OS X side of things. Though others might find a few things interesting.

If you encounter files in any of these formats you need to know how to deal with them. (As a side note: audio files compressed with a lossless codec are really good. They’re larger than MP3s but they sound exactly the same as the CD, DAT, or other media they were made from.)

iTunes only supports Apple’s Lossless encoder, so if you want to play the files you’ll need MacAmp Lite X. Unfortunately development on this program stopped years ago. Fortunately Josh over at The Arctic Lounge has archived the last versions of MacAmp Lite X including the FLAC and Shorten plug-ins.

Maybe you don’t want to listen to those files in MacAmp. Maybe you want to listen to them in iTunes or your iPod. Then you’ll have to convert them. Scott Brown has written a great GUI for the command line versions of the FLAC, Shorten, and APE converters called xACT. With this you can easily decode your files into AIFFs or WAVs. And from there you can make MP3s, AACs, or Apple Lossless Files in iTunes. (Set the encoder you want to use in the “Importing” section of the Preferences. Highlight the AIFF or WAV files to convert and select “Convert Selection” from the Advanced menu.)

Another side note: there are many different methods for converting CDs or AIFFs or other audio into MP3s. Many people consider the LAME encoder to be the absolute best. This is not the encoder that Apple uses in iTunes. Blacktree has released their iTunes-LAME Encoder for those of you who want the best sounding audio possible in a lossy format.

I downloaded several lossless Sleater-Kinney shows from the Depot and converted them to Apple’s Lossless format so that I could listen to them on my iPod. Here are some of the statistics:

Los Angeles, CA 05-19-2004 – 70:24
712.3 MB AIFF / 372.2 MB SHN / 337.9 MB ALC (1 / 0.52 / 0.47)

Berkeley, CA 05-31-1997 – 40:15
407.1 MB AIFF / 216.5 MB FLAC / 200.5 MB ALC (1 / 0.53 / 0.49)

San Francisco, CA 08-07-1998 – 57:08
578 MB AIFF / 338.3 MB FLAC / 339.1 MB ALC (1 / 0.59 / 0.59)

San Francisco, CA 07-01-1999 – 73:17
741.7 MB AIFF / 413 MB FLAC / 416.6 MB ALC (1 / 0.56 / 0.56)

Cambridge, MA 05-17-2000 – 76:51
777.4 MB AIFF / 505.1 MB FLAC / 508.7 ALC (1 / 0.65 / 0.65)

This shows several important things.

  1. The space savings of lossless audio is significant.
  2. I got much better results than with my initial test of “Are You Gonna Be My Girl”.
  3. There isn’t a radical difference in size between Shorten, FLAC, and Apple Lossless.

And now the cool part…

There’s tons of lossless audio out there on the net for you to download. I’m not talking about Kazaa or other sharing networks where you are illegally downloading copyrighted material from other people’s computers. I’m talking about live concert recordings (bootlegs) of bands that don’t mind fans sharing the love. Of course a lot of it is jam bands: Grateful Dead, Phish, Rusted Root, Widespread Panic, and the like. You need to look around a bit more to find other bands, but it’s there. Have fun with it.