At a Loss with Lossless

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AIFF and WAV audio files sound lovely (they are made up of 16-bit, uncompressed stereo music at 44.1kHz—exactly what you find on audio CDs). The one problem is their size: an AIFF file gobbles up 10MB of disc space for every minute of audio. That size makes them difficult to store and download.

That’s why the MP3 audio compression algorithms were put together more than a decade ago, and why Apple uses AAC files on its iTunes Music Store. Both MP3 and AAC are severely compressed file types, which can cut audio files down by as much as 90 percent—a 3-minute song in AAC format is roughly 3MB instead of 30MB for an AIFF. MP3 and AAC files achieve these fabulous savings by tossing out much of the musical information stored in an audio file, most of which is supposed to be outside the range of normal human hearing. The problem is, those with a good ear can easily tell the difference between a compressed file and an uncompressed one. That’s where lossless audio comes in.

Lossless audio files are about 60 percent the size of the original AIFFs, which is still quite large but much more manageable. The benefit is that lossless audio (as opposed to lossy MP3s or AACs) doesn’t toss out any of the musical information. Just as when you Stuff or Zip a file to make it smaller and it works perfectly once expanded, so lossless formats compress a file without compromising sound quality.

There are several lossless audio formats out there. Apple has its own Apple Lossless Encoder built in iTunes. But among traders of live music, the preferred formats are Shorten (SHN) and Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC). Mac users can easily convert such files to AIFF and burn them to audio CDs or import them into iTunes using Scott Brown's free xACT for OS X.

For some reason, some people on the PC side insist on using the mkw lossless format. That presents a problem to Mac users, since there’s no Mac software that can read, play, or convert mkw files. A Mac-using friend of mine had several concerts in mkw format, so I told him to send them to me and I’d take care of it.

How, you might ask? With Virtual PC (   , January 2005 ).

Running the latest version of Virtual PC with Windows XP on my dual-processor G4 at home, I downloaded the application mkwact. Then, I copied the folders containing the mkw files into the Windows virtual space. After figuring out how to install a Windows app, deal with windows (and Windows), and select multiple files, I dragged and dropped the mkw files onto the now open mkwact window. Doing so causes mkwact to convert the files to uncompressed WAV files, which I then copied back to the Mac side and burned as files on two data DVDs to mail back to my friend.

As painful as it is to use Windows, it’s better doing so on my Mac than having to resort to using an actual PC. Microsoft (well, the Mac Business Unit at the least) will be the first to tell you that if you’re a Mac user who sometimes needs the functionality of a Windows PC to preform a specific task, Virtual PC is for you. If your needs extend any further, you’re better off plopping down a cheap PC next to your Mac. And I agree with that.

The real point is, nobody should be using the mkw format, especially when there are better and more accepted alternatives out there. But as I’ve seen with lots of things in life, the most logical and useful solution is often not the one that gets implemented. The only reason I have Virtual PC on my Mac (other than the fact that I work with Mac hardware and software for a living) is for this exact purpose of converting wayward audio files. Although I’d be happiest to see mkw die an ignoble death, I must admit that Windows came through for me when I needed it the most.

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