A basic guide to downloading

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Early in 2008, Gramophone readers – hard-core music lovers to a person – were asked whether they downloaded music. Twice as many said yes when compared with those who replied to the same question two years earlier. That’s not an overwhelming constituency but it definitely marks a sizeable interest in the new format. The CD, though, isn’t going to disappear overnight but it will become just one of a number of formats on offer and already a vast number of recordings are available as downloads. But first, let’s dispel a few concerns.

‘I don’t want to walk round with little white headphones on...’

You don’t have to! The millions of iPod users (and listeners to other kinds of MP3 players) are merely making portable a medium that is essentially a new form of delivery – down the phone line straight into your PC or Mac. But there is no denying the allure that instant, portable music has, and how it has driven the download market. But increasingly people are storing their music on hard-drives (the cost of which is coming down dramatically month on month). These can be played back either direct through your computer or via your hi-fi (see next entry).

‘I don’t want to listen to my music in my study...’

Ok, you don’t want to transport your music around in an iPod or sit at your computer to listen either. There are now numerous wireless ways of transmitting your music from your PC to your hi-fi. Or there are an increasing number of systems that allow you to insert your player (more often than not an iPod) and offer remarkably good sound quality. It’s also pretty easy to link your iPod/MP3 player using its cradle and a good old-fashioned – and cheap – cable (a phono to headphones cable is a mandatory holiday accessories now that many hotels and apartments have hi-fi as standard).

With the advent of a new generation of Network Music Players, freedom and quality go hand in hand. The audiophile listener can listen to downloaded (and no doubt lossless) music with no degradation of sound quality. And with companies like Linn, Gimell, Chandos, Da Capo and Analekta offering studio quality downloads, there is no reason that your music should not sound as good as (and in some cases considerably better then) the equivalent CD. A good guide to Network Music Players can be found on the Logitech website (one of the market-leaders).

‘I’m worried about sound quality…’

This used to be one of the biggest concerns voiced about downloaded music, but needn’t be any more. No one has ever claimed that MP3 is a hi-fi medium. But if you’re happy with FM-quality sound (say BBC Radio 3) played back through high-end equipment, you are unlikely to be disappointed with the quality of the sound of the music you download. However, there are a growing number of digital retailers (often record labels themselves) who are seriously addressing this issue and offering lossless sound (in other words, no degradation in sound quality over the equivalent CD, usually as FLAC files, occasionally as WAV). Sites to check out for lossless formats are Linn, Gimell, DaCapo, Analekta and Chandos’s download site, theclassicalshop: music downloaded from these sites will sound better than the equivalent CD. But how many people can honestly tell the difference? 

‘I’ve a huge CD collection which I still want to listen to…’

Most people’s MP3 players contain a combination of music that they’ve ripped (ie transferred from CD to their computer’s hard-drive) and music that has been downloaded (the proportion is invariably a single-figure percentage of downloaded music). It makes sense to load your computer (especially if you are planning to take your music with you) with your favourite recordings and then supplement them with downloads as necessary. If you’ve a laptop, why not store some music there, then you’ll always have something for those unplanned-for delays when music is the only balm!

‘I like to read the notes that come with the CD...’

Again this is being fast addressed by the independent sector. Many companies are assiduously adding sleeve-notes to their downloadable offerings (Chandos and Hyperion lead the way here). Some of the high-profile major company releases are also being offered with downloadable PDF notes. This embarrassment of material, though, brings with it its own problem: where do your store it? It’s also worth trawling the web for programme notes – an increasing number of orchestras are making their material available on their websites.

‘I see that certain recordings are only being made available as a download.’ True, and that’s clearly the way things will start to go. Universal has been exploring download-only productions under the DG and Decca Concerts brand. These offer live concert recordings with minimal editing.

The one genre that would seem ideally suited to download-only music is new music where sales are invariably low. It’s an option being explored by a number of orchestras allowing people to capture the quality and experince of the ensemble performing in its own concert hall. The St Louis Symphony under its dynamic music director David Robertson has already embarked on an imaginative series that offers live recordings of work central to each season’s music-making, and some of the Boston Symphony's more recherché recordings are also available only as downloads. With the cost savings made by not having to press CDs and print booklets, this could greatly benefit new music ventures.


Let’s assume you are buying your music to transport around on an MP3 player – most people do and it’s a staggeringly easy way of guaranteeing that you can hear pretty well whatever you want, whenever you want it. (But as already noted in the introductory questions and answers, you need go no further than downloading it onto your computer and leaving it there to listen to.) However you choose to listen to your music, you will need to store it. Many DSPs (Digital Service Providers – basically download stores) offer a player that works with their offerings. The most wide-spread and probably the easiest to use is the iTunes version. It’s better than most at coping with the sort of information that a classical music consumer will need: it’s certainly visually appealing – clean and intuitive in the typical apple house-style – but it also easily allows you to alter the various information columns to suit your musical tastes. For example, with pop and rock music you may prefer a hierarchy that gives artist, album and song the dominant position. With classical music, you may prefer a line-up that works something like: composer / work / movement or subsection / artist / genre (chamber, instrumental, song, etc).

Searching for music on the various sites is still a far-from-ideal manoeuvre. Most sites are geared up to the rock/pop consumer for whom an artist’s name is probably all that is necessary to home in on their various albums and from there the selection is simple. Imagine typing in Herbert von Karajan – the choice is immense and the whole process is like shooting in the dark. One of the best search engines is found on the classicsonline site – it allows a number of fields to be entered and invariably locates what you’re looking for immediately. If the big DSPs want to be taken seriously by the classical consumer they will have to address the ‘searchability’ of their sites (though this presumes that the data on each recording is in some kind of useable form to start with – mention the word ‘metadata’ to anyone working in this field and they tend to roll their eyes in a state of horror).

So, you want to dip a toe into the new waters of downloading. What do you do?


Until recently there weren’t many options for the download enthusiast to organise and play his or her music. Apple’s Jukebox has the enormous advantage of being part of the iTunes eco-system where music can be seamlessly acquired, stored and syncronised to your iPod. There are versions for Mac and PC, so everyone is catered for. Once installed, the set-up process is very easy: you simply follow the instructions on the screen.

Sound quality is an important issue for many classical music enthusiasts so before you start you need to decide what bit-rate you are happiest with. iTunes now encodes all its music at 256kBps AAC (which compares well with the 320 kBps MP3 files offered by the likes of Passionato and Classicsonline. 

If you've plenty of hard-disk space you don't need to worry about ripping CDs in a compressed format. Rip the disc using the Apple Lossless encoder, and then when you want to transport your music around on an iPod, iPhone or iPad configure iTunes 9.1 to convert the files at whichever bit-rate you want (I would be hesitant to go below 192kbps AAC – piano music tends to fray a little at the edges – but depending on the listening conditions you might be happy with 128kBps). Just go to Summary > Options and select "Convert higher bit rate songs to 128 kbps AAC". 

Now you are set up to download but before you go mad and start downloading an entire new music collection it’s worth pausing to consider how you’ll find all the music you’ve bought.

You will be amazed at how quickly you can amass a substantial collection of music on your PC (usually through a combination of ripping CDs and downloading) so it’s a good idea to create a ‘house style’ for cataloguing the music. The information that accompanies a music file – whether acquired automatically on the web using a service like Gracenote (which is supplied largely by fellow enthusiasts in a kind of collective responsibility) or as supplied by the DSP – can arrive in a variety of styles. Decide early on how you are likely to sort though your music when you are looking for something to listen to. (One example of the inconsistency of web-based metadata services is the difference you will encounter between discs if you are ripping an opera: each CD can attract a completely different style of information that can waste an enormous amount of time if you then edit it manually. You can even get the information in different languages between discs – not exactly conducive to easy listening.)

If you listen to classical as well as other genres (pop, rock, jazz, world and so on), the chances are that you will sort your classical music initially by composer and your non-classical music by artist or album. For the eclectic music consumer a good idea is to remove composer details from all kinds of music other than classical: this makes searching far quicker; and besides, the chances are that you’ve never heard of half the people who compose pop tunes. Relying on the genre column is one option but who does this?

Simplicity is the key note: pare the details down to the minimum.

Ludwig van Beethoven

Symphony No 3 in C minor, Op 55, ‘Eroica’

Allegro con brio

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / 

Herbert von Karajan

may satisfy the completist (or the librarian), but that’s an awful lot of information to contain in the small window of an iPod (which actually has a larger window than many MP3 players). Why not settle for:


Symphony No 3

I (or first movt)

BPO / Karajan

It says exactly what is playing and gets the message across with economy and clarity. The best advice is to experiment and decide how much information you need to find your music quickly and efficiently. (Do be careful that you don’t oversimplify your system – there is a risk that you could end up being offered all the first movements, followed by all the second movements and so on – and that risk is increased when you start adding multiple versions of a particular work to your collection. And if you’re especially completist you’ll almost certainly run into trouble when you add a different version of a particular work by a single performer – say, Brendel’s Hammerklavier Sonata, but that’s probably not going to happen too often!)

Another decision that needs to be taken is whether to keep your music in its original album form (do you want the Bruch Violin Concerto always to deliver the Mendelssohn as well?) or to store your music as individual pieces. 

There are strong arguments to be made for both approaches: on a purely practical level you’d be amazed how quickly you seem to be re-programming your iPod if you have broken up albums into individual pieces (though you can easily make a special playlist that includes all your favourite violin concertos, so you can have a feast of Maxim Vengerov in great concertos if you want).

Where to find your music

There are various different ‘business models’ in operation for purchasing music. There is the simple pay for what you buy (the most traditional and still most popular): the average price for a new ‘full-price’ album is about £8. This is model used by iTunes, Passionato, the classicalshop, classicsonline, the French Qobuz and numerous others. A second model is the subscription where a monthly payment allows you either unlimited access to music (though with certain restrictions) or a fixed number of downloads (the eMusic model – see below). Here, for the classical music enthusiast, is a guide to some of the best sites for acquiring music.


The mother of all DSPs is iTunes: it’s the biggest source of downloads across the entire range of genres and in the classical arena it carries an impressive selection (a quick search for Brahms’s German Requiem turned up 13 different versions from historic recordings from Toscanini and Karajan to more recent ones from Herreweghe and Rattle). And like a traditional retailer you pay for what you download – don’t expect much in the way of special offers. There is a lot of music here – from majors to independents – and by employing the Power Search you will soon find what you're looking for. Of course if you have an iPod then iTunes is a perfect fit with seemless transfer from search to purchase to syncronisation with iPod. However, downloads from the site carry Apple’s proprietory DRM and cannot be transferred to other players or computers without restrictions (though iTunes Plus recordings are DRM-free).


Not surprisingly, Amazon (in UK, US and numerous other sites), with its huge hold on the physical retail market, entered the downloading market in 2009 – and in the size of its offering must rival iTunes in reach (there has been much jostling between the two along "mine is bigger than yours" lines). Search is comparable to that used for finding CDs, books and DVDs and while not the most "surgical" works pretty well. Music files are encoded at 256kBps – not hi-fi but fine for listening on the move (comparable to good FM sound).


Next in size to the iTunes and Amazon mega-sites comes eMusic. It operates a payment system that allows you a certain number of download tracks for a fixed fee (at the time of writing, 24 tracks for £9.99; £13.99 for 35 and £17.99 for 50). If you consider that most symphonies have just four movements and concertos have three, that’s potentially a lot of music for very little money – and add in the free 25 tracks eMusic gives you as an incentive to join-up (and which you can keep even if you don’t stay with them), then this might be a good first destination to see if you enjoy acquiring your music in this new way. All eMusic downloads are DRM-free which means that once you’ve bought it you can do whatever you like with it. (Incidentally, eMusic’s Download Manager allows you store your music and control the audio files on your PC before you import them into your iTunes jukebox or preferred player.)

The site focuses exclusively on independent companies – it contains recordings from Naxos, LSO Live, BIS, Ondine, SDG, Guild, Danacord and numerous others – and also does rather more editorialising than other sites, containing artist profiles, reviews and so on. The eMusic site does contain many gems though finding them is always slightly difficult – you tend to to stumble over them when you least expect it (and a sense of serendipity is still nice to encounter in this too-often-streamlined world!). Though that said, the search engine is infinitely superior to that offered by iTunes which simply is not up to the task of locating classical music easily (or indeed logically).


The largest download site devoted entirely to classical music, Passionato, has recently been revamped and re-launched. Like iTunes it offers major company recordings as well as independents (not as yet Warner or Sony-BMG though). Quality is clearly a guiding principal, so 320 KBps downloads are the norm and many files are offered in lossless FLAC sound – if you have a Network Music Player then you can enjoy CD-quality music through your hi-fi direct from your PC or laptop. This is a well-stocked site with a determination to grow substantially – and with regularly changing special offers, it’ll pay to bookmark it.


One destination that has been steadily growing in size and confidence is theclassicalshop, a digital store with an increasingly broad catalogue. Chandos, the site’s host, launched its own download site early in 2006 and suddenly we were offered over 6000 MP3 files of the company’s deleted recordings. The range is too immense to list but if you’re attracted to Chandos’s unequalled catalogue of rarer British orchestral music this could well be the place for you. There are gems like Bryden Thomson’s Gramophone Award-winning Bax Fourth, works by Finzi, Kenneth Leighton and Rubbra, and more standard fare such as the complete Rachmaninov piano concertos played by the late Earl Wild, with Jascha Horenstein conducting.

Labels other than Chandos to be found at theclassicalshop include Avie, Amon Ra, Brana, Coro, CRD, Doyen, Guild, LSO Live, Naxos, Nimbus, NMC, Onyx, Priory, Pristine, Quartz, Signum, Somm and Wigmore Hall. Again, everything is DRM-free and an increasing number of recordings – and all of Chandos’s new releases and a vast number of back catalogue items – are being offered in Lossless formats.


Naxos, despite being well represented on the larger sites like iTunes and eMusic, also has its own website, classicsonline, which also contains music from the labels the company distributes around the world. Worth checking out, though you might find that acquiring Naxos material via eMusic is a more cost effective method.  The search engine, however, is probably the best around – so finding your music is no problem here.

Another destination within Naxos’s world is Naxos's own website that is a mine of information that contains biographies, sleeve-notes, histories of music and the ability to listen to everything in the Naxos catalogue as well as a host of distributed label. All this comes for a modest annual fee.


Based in Sweden, eclassical has been around since 1999 and so has a fair amount of experience. There is some helpful ‘editorial’ material to support the downloads (biographies, introductory notes on the music and so on) and a good selection of music. Performances are a little variable but there are some treasures to be found so it’s a site that’s worth exploring when you’ve time on your hands. Not surprisingly there’s good representation of the (Swedish) BIS label, and also a large quantity of recordings from Hänssler Classic. The site also suggests such music for moods: under ‘After a divorce’ it recommends three movements of Dvorák’s New World Symphony which one can only assume is a hint that emigration might be a good idea…

Pristine Classical

Pristine Audio has a dual role as remastering experts who offer their very fine transfers on custom-made CD or as downloads. Focusing on out-of-copyright recordings (in other words, of public domain music recorded before 1957), it has amassed a large catalogue full of the great names of 20th-century music-making. One wonderful series is the restoration of the entire HMV Haydn Quartet Society discs from the Pro Arte Quartet recorded in the 1930s. Pristine has been exploring new transfer methods recently and has been achieving some very impressive results. Some of the highlights of the Music & Arts catalogue have been treated this way and are sounding better than ever! Another powerful reason to visit this site is that it offers the recordings issued in the late 1920 and early 1950s on Gramophone’s own label, the National Gramophonic Society. Fascinating chamber music releases – including John Barbirolli’s first recording – have been cleaned up with remarkable success.


Unveiled in March 2010 this amazing archive, CHARM (Centre for the Histpry and Analysis of Recorded Music) is a must-visit destination for historic performance enthusiasts. Over 5000 sound files (largely of out-of-copyright recordings) have been made available to stream (MP3) or download (FLAC files) from the CHARM website free of charge. Many of the recordings fall into CHARM’s project “Musicians of Britain and Ireland, 1900-1950”, and offer a unique opportunity to experience changing performance practices in the first 50 years of recorded sound. For example, you can listen to William Byrd madrigals recorded by The English Singers in 1923, John Barbirolli and his Chamber Orchestra in Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro in 1929, or even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking about spiritualism in 1930. There’s even a thrilling recording of Mischa Spoliansky and the Julian Fuchs Symphony Orchestra playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 1927. My advice would be to sample first by streaming (and the player doesn't react immediately so be patient) and then download the FLAC file (which, because of its size, does take a while to download). But persevere, this is a real treasure-trove.

Own-label websites

Why rely on others when you can do it yourself? This is a philosophy that has always fostered innovation and imagination – and in the world of classical music has been the biggest force for advance. A number of labels have launched their own digital stores. Top of the list must be Linn Records, not only because it’s a classy little label in its own right, but also because its technical instructions and usability are second to none. Anyone interested in downloading should spend some time on the Linn site reading the FAQ section. The answers are level-headed and honest – and extremely helpful.

Hyperion bided its time before entering the download market but the wait was well worth it. In a masterly move, the company’s excellent website – clean, informative and nicely logical – was simply overlaid with an activatable download function. You say which format you want to download (MP3 or FLAC – interestingly priced the same) and the site will offer you everything in your chosen format. And pricing has been approached sensibly (and there is the very obvious – but rarely done – ability to load your wallet so you can download your music without having to enter your credit card details each time). There are also some neat features such as the ability to link a work that has been interspersed, say, with plainchant and download it unbroken. Hyperion also offers the simultaneous download of song texts and translations. 

The UK wing of the vast Universal Music company, Decca UK (né Universal Classics and Jazz) has its own site which is a useful destination for the gems of the Decca, DG and Philips catalogues as well as a growing amount of jazz material. If you’re a fan of Deutsche Grammophon – the Yellow Label, and for many the classical music brand par excellence – then check out its own webshop. It’s a rhapsody in yellow that offers the entire DG catalogue (and now quite a few Decca and Philips albums too) in the environment of the company’s activities, both present and past. Music here is DRM-free and competitively priced.


The Montréal-based Analekta has launched its own download site. As has become increasingly the norm with independent companies you are offered MP3 files (192kBps) and two types of lossless FLAC files (44.1 kHz, 16 bits or the studio-quality 88.2 kHz, 24 bits). And if you buy a recording in FLAC format you automatically also get the MP3 equivalent. Like the newly unveiled Hyperion site (a model of its kind), Analekta allows you to load your wallet to speed up later purchase and it also operates a kind of “frequent flyer” programme (one you’ve accumulated 100 points you’ll be credited with Canadian $10). Analekta contains some treasures and also provides a fine window onto French Canadian musicians and music-making. You can sample all tracks  (complete) before deciding whether to download them. 


Toccata Classics, the record company arm of Toccata Press, furthers the aim of exploring the byways of classical music. And as a label it has turned up some real treats: encountering Donald Tovey as composer rather than as the author of a series of splendid analytical essays on music has been a real ear-opener. Well, Toccata Classics has grasped the nettle and launched a download service that works well. If exotica from the Baroque to present day appeals, why not pay them a visit? And Toccata's disc of Dvorak songs transcribed for violin or viola by Josef Suk and played by him with Ashkenazy at the piano is glorious!

Mention of new music brings us to NMC, a record company that has been doing a unique service for new British music for many years. Having built up an impressive catalogue – and gained a few Gramophone Awards on the way – logic demanded that NMC make it available for downloading. And it’s a splendid place to go for challenging, and invariably, deeply rewarding musical experiences. Rather charmingly you search by the composers using their first name rather than their surname – but I guess that just adds a touch of familiarity. There are also some excellent samplers that are great ways to see whether a particular composer appeals to you. The latest addition to this dynamic organisation’s site is a New Music Map that allows you to put each composer in his or her musical context (teachers, influences and so forth). Visually striking, it’s something that will obviously develop with time. 

To the future

These are exciting times for music-lovers: there has never been so much music available ever before and now the ways to get at it have just got easier. If you live miles from a record store (provided that store even stocks classical music), then downloading is an option you should explore. It will inevitably become the obvious  way for record companies to keep their back-catalogues available – a truly appealing prospect. Welcome to a world of infinite choice – the head spins!

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