Dr. AIX's POSTS — 27 March 2014

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There was another Northern California “High Definition Music” download effort launched about 7 years ago called MusicGiants.com. You might remember them at the various tradeshows with their Airstream trailer and heavy promotions into the custom installer/home theater marketplace. They were the first to secure licenses with the major labels for a large amount of “classic” commercial music and make it available as “high definition music”.

MusicGiants also had an audiophile server called the MusicVault that I saw on a couple of occasions but their primary focus was on their high-definition music download site. I don’t think their hardware ever saw the light of day. The content was diverse (everything from CCR to the Beach Boys) and extensive. I would guess that they had over 3000 albums on the site at the peak. Their operation included the actual transfer and remastering of the masters licensed from the labels.

That’s a very different model than the current supply chain. These days the labels and their own studios are doing any transfers and needed production work on the “masters” and then making it available to ALL of the companies currently in the high-resolution digital music download business. It’s a rare event when a company like HDtracks secures a master (usually a safety copy) and pays to have a special transfer done as they did with Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue”. They employed the services of Jamie Howarth to do his “Plangent” processing to the transfer. But the Chesky brothers and HDtracks don’t “own” the transfer that they paid for. They have the right to exclusively offer their new digital version for a few months and then it will revert back to the label for distribution to everyone else.

MusicGiants took the responsibility for the fidelity of their masters on themselves. And the results were marginal. They simply didn’t have the equipment or expertise to do state-of-the-art transfers and restoration on thousands of albums. They didn’t have the bandwidth and they didn’t really care. They weren’t selling their HD music downloads to audiophiles. Their target market was home theater owners and music servers. It was all about convenience and quantity.

I talked with them at length over many months. Elliot Mazer, who just happens to have been one of the engineers that worked extensively with Neil Young, was associated with them. Elliot is a strong advocate for analog recording. He’s a terrific engineer and has had a very distinguished career in audio. He and I had some conversations about recording and the need to clearly identify the MG tracks as something other than “high-definition music” for the very same reasons that we’ve been talking about the definition lately. He and the principals at MG didn’t agree.

I asked him and the others at MusicGiants, if a 1967 transfer of a Beach Boys album is high-definition when transferred at 96 kHz/24-bits, then what are my tracks that were sourced at 96 kHz/24-bits? The answer? “Well, we’ll have to have another designation for your recordings. How about Super High Definition?” they suggested. The emerging world of high-resolution audio was complicated enough without adding new categories. And the same is pretty much true today.

MusicGiants failed. Maybe it was too early to start a high-quality download site back in 2007 or some other aspect of their business model was flawed. If Kickstarter had been around at the time, the outcome might have been different.

I was encouraged that Robert Harley of The Absolute Sound magazine called MG out on the whole “high-definition music” definition. He wrote that the transfers of older analog masters to large PCM containers didn’t elevate the tracks to HD status or Ultra High-Resolution. I’m looking forward to seeing what the audiophile publications have to say about Pono.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(9) Readers Comments

  1. Yep. I downloaded my first collection of Hi Def (sic) music from MG. When it folded I believe I had a credit on my account there. But … it was a pioneer that got me interested in downloaded music. I still have a computer directory containing my MG downloads — now incoorporated into my JRiver library with a note as to origin. As MG was a pioneer I harbor no grudge.

  2. As a person who actually used and purchased music from MusicGiants, I can tell you three precise reasons why it failed. By the way, I don’t think it was 7 years ago. They came out like… late 2004. It is a decade now.

    1. DRM: It used Microsoft’s PlayForSure DRM stuffs or something similar. Completely unusable other than those devices which support PFS DRM and Windows Media Player. Sure, I managed to play those files from my iriver H10 (very rare PFS-enabled device at that time) but it was just pure pain to configure.

    2. Inaccessibility: By infinite wisdom, website was ONLY accessible via Windows Media Player… Yes, you heard it right. MusicGiants was part of that infamous Windows Media Player webstore garden, which hardly worked and I had to fight against tons of glitches and errors.

    3. Format: Related to point no.1, it used WMA, and WMA Lossless. Only that Microsoft’s zune player (actually, I think zune player itself could not play WMA lossless file. hilarious, a product COULD NOT play the format that made by same company) Only players at that time could play WMA Lossless were some exotic Korean MP3 players such as iriver (which now makes A&K high end portable players) and Cowon (famous for Jetaudio).

    And I had that one of exotic players such as iriver H10, Cowon D2 and many more. Still playing that DRM’d WMA Lossless files were pure labor since PlayForSure never really worked well. Not to mention Microsoft itself did not support PFS well, and quickly abandoned it.

    If you told me to pick the biggest reason it failed, I’d choose 2. NOBODY wanted to Windows Media Player to navigate the website and trying to buy stuffs with all of the glitches and errors. It could not have gotten enough audience in the first place.

    If the site was accessible from normal web browsers, I believe they could had been still around now.

    • Very good points AND you’re right about the time…how fast the years flow by.

    • Times don’t change. How is it that MS can make a product as good as their SQL Server and at the same time make really rubbish media software? Although movie maker ain’t so, Media Player is still really awful.

  3. I saw an article in the April 2014 Jazz Times a few days ago that made the scales fall from my eyes and showed me what we’re up against – a generation or two that have imprinted like baby ducks

    Near the end of a decent article explaining sample rates and bit depths, the author then touches upon the Extreme High Res DSD downloads. Here’s the phrase that made all things clear, “Many audiophiles feel DSD has a warmer, more “analog” sound than 24/96 or 24/192 audio.”

    Warmer = none of those irritating high frequency sounds!

    It’s like someone raised indoors under tungsten light brought out into the daylight. “The light is too blue!”

    Or as Dr. Pangloss would say in Candide, “Raise the glass!” [rose-colored variety]

    • PS – Ironically, the digital generation that grew up with mp3s and prefer them to the CDs they were ripped from (see the depressing piece “The Good Enuf Generation” in Wired a few years ago) have also been conditioned to prefer high-frequency starved music.
      I think we should be grateful that Neil Young is willing to put star power on the other side of the scale. Let’s see if it leads to anything.
      Nothing in his business model would prevent folks from downloading the music without buying his hardware. My Android phone can play FLACs served up by Plex!

  4. MusicGiants had a number of problems. No, they were not true hi-def, but they were the only service offering CD-quality downloads from all the major labels at the time. I downloaded over 200 tracks from them between 2005 and 2009, largely singles, remixes, and albums that were download-exclusives. I still have some deleted digital-only releases that were never available in CD-quality sound anywhere else. (Carrie Underwood’s “Home Sweet Home” single, for example.)

    That DRM, though, man… I’m glad I was smart enough to burn my entire library to CDs and rip it back to hard drives as WAVs, because I had a PC crash a couple of years ago and had to reinstall Windows. Unfortunately, I had NOT been smart enough to back up my licenses, not realizing they were not stored within the tracks themselves but elsewhere on my PC. So none of my MusicGiants files are playable now. Sure am glad I burned them all before that happened. (Although I purchased one three-track EP and only played the first track before MusicGiants went belly-up, so I never was able to play or burn the second two tracks, even before my computer crash.)

    • I was a fan of Music Giants in spite of the fact that they were a little misleading about their files. Oh well, they started quality downloads but were shackled with DRM by the labels.

  5. Yea I have tons of songs I purchased from HD Giants I can’t play back anymore…Totally pissed. It worked great in my studio, portability never really mattered… So mad about, there are converters out there?

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