Most of the recordings were pure digital files, with no MP3 encoding.
Al Fasoldt's reviews and commentaries, continuously available online since 1983

T e c h n o f i l e
Live performances of top musicians in free (and legal) downloads, in super-fi sound, too

Aug. 13, 2006

By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 2006, The Post-Standard

   A few months ago I had never heard of Ari Hest. Now I have 11 CDs I made from live performances of his music.
   Hest is one of thousands of performers across the country who allow their live performances to be taped and made available to anyone for free. Volunteers turn the raw audio recordings into files they upload to a gigantic Internet database of music, photographs and videos. It's called the Internet Archive, at www.archive.org.
   If you're thinking back to the last time you heard somebody's pitiful "basement" tape made on a dinky cassette recorder, you've got a surprise or two coming. The recordings on the Internet Archive generally are much better sounding than typical on-the-scene tapings. The sound crews aren't amateurs in most cases -- they're pro or semi-pro audio engineers -- and the digital audio is often available in its high-proof form, without any MP3 encoding to water down the sound.
   In fact, most of the performances I grabbed from the archive were pure, no-MP3 digital, compressed for faster downloads with the FLAC encoding system. FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) squeezes digital audio file sizes without removing any audio information. FLAC playback software is easy to find -- I have a list for Windows PCs and Macs in today's blog -- and you can always use a free converter to turn FLACs into a more familiar format such as WAVs.
   (Tech note: MP3, the most common method of compressing audio files, tosses out data in the audio signal to make the file smaller. Usually, this is done cleverly enough for normal listening, but the sonic data is lost forever -- you can't turn audio steak into hamburger and expect to reassemble the steak later on. Lossless encoding such as FLAC maintains full sound quality and is ideal if you want to make high-fidelity audio CDs from downloaded performances.)
   FLAC files are monsters compared to MP3s. To download them, you need either a broadband Internet connection such as cable or DSL or a separate phone line just for your modem if you use a dialup connection. (You'd be hogging a shared phone for days on end.) Here are some typical FLAC file sizes from the songs recorded during a live country-music band performance, noted from the download manager in my Opera Web browser as I write this column: 70.8 MB, 60.3 MB, 71.6 MB and 139.1 MB.
   What I've usually done is start a couple of dozen downloads from the archive before I go to bed. Sometimes they're still active in the morning, but modern computers handle other tasks easily while downloading, so I'm able to do e-mail and other functions while the downloads are hidden away.
   The Internet Archive gained popularity starting in 2001 when it opened the Wayback Machine site to the public. The Wayback Machine, at www.archive.org/web/web.php, allows you to go back in time to Web sites that no longer exist. If you used to go to a certain site in, say, 1998, chances are you can put the address into the Wayback Machine and visit it again.
   The archive is also popular among deadheads -- fans of the Grateful Dead -- because of its large collection of downloads of the Dead's live performances. (Yes, I know that sounds funny. But I didn't give them that name.) Go to www.archive.org/details/GratefulDead.
   As for Ari Hest, he's now filling most of my iPod, and the CDs I made from his live gigs live in my SUV. You can hear an excerpt of this singer-songwriter's best work on my blog, at www.syracuse.com/technology/weblog.