Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Best Kept Web Secrets: CBC Concerts on Demand

A new series begins at AfterByte! Woo-hoo! Heck, I might even continue this one past the first installment.

The CBC is Canada’s public radio network, equivalent to NPR in the U.S. and BBC in the UK. Like some other public radio services, the Corp. regularly records and broadcasts live concerts.

Unlike other services, it now posts those recordings online, almost immediately after the broadcast. With the exception of Wolfgang’s Vault, arguably another best kept secret, this must be the largest cache of live concert recordings available online. And the CBC service is superior in some ways to Wolfgang’s. The concerts are all contemporary for one thing. (Wolfgang’s are mostly archival.)

The CBC concerts are also streamed at 128 kilobits per second (Kbps). Now, audiophiles will turn up their noses (ears?) at the notion of 128-Kbps streams. When they rip music from CDs, they use lossless modes that rip at between 400 and 900 Kbps and deliver CD-quality sound. But 128 Kbps is about the limit of what you can reasonably stream over the Internet. And to my ears, these streams sound as good as FM radio, better in some ways - no interference and distortion.

Mind, if you listen on your computer with its crappy sound system and crappier speakers, CBC COD titles won't come across much better than most online audio streams. Which is why you need to invest, if you haven't already, in a wireless digital music player such as one of Logitech's Squeezebox products. They let you play Internet music (and music stored on your PC) through a stereo system.

With my Squeezebox Duet, I can add the link to a COD stream to my list of Favorites and play it in the living room anytime I want. And it sounds great.

Okay, sound quality: pretty good, great if you use a digital music player. Music? There’s the rub for many netizens.

The CBC records mainly Canadian acts. Many, while good, are not well known outside the country. Not that little-known Canadian music stars are necessarily a bad thing, of course. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Oscar Peterson and Celine Dion (sorry) were all little known outside Canada at one point.

And you will find international stars, just not top pop music names. Recent examples: 80s British alt rocker Elvis Costello, bluesman John Hammond, archetypal 60s folkie Arlo Guthrie (pictured courtesy CBC), alt country singer Neko Case, country legend Loudon Wainwright III, classical pianist Emanuel Ax – and that’s just in the last month and a half or so.

There are also lots of gems from the Canadian music scene. If you’re feeling adventurous (or actually like the same kind of weird stuff I do), check out the following:

There ya go - no longer a secret.


  1. Thanks for your great coverage of CBC Radio 2's Concerts on Demand . . . and for spreading the word.

    You're bang on about a bunch of things.

    128 kbps wma files can indeed do as good or better a job than an FM broadcast signal. We take the 16 bit, 44.1 linear PCM file the recording engineer created for the final mix of the concert and do a one step conversion to the 128 kbps wma file. That's it. No other processing or conversions take place and this is the file that you stream.

    The FM broadcast chain for a nation-wide network with multiple time zones is considerably more tortuous. Let's just leave it at that ;-]

    I'm also a fan of the Squeezebox devices. I think that company is being really smart about a lot of things. I don't know if you've upgraded to 7.4.x yet but when/if you do, have a look at the Apps area. If you like CBC Radio programming (Radio 1, 2, 3) I think you are going to like what you find there: easy to navigate links to Listen Live streams from across the country, 24/7 genre-specific Music Channels (internet-only radio), over 70 podcast series, and - ta da - Concerts on Demand!

    OK the CoD section is NOT complete yet but give it a try. I think you'll find it is MUCH easier than copying and pasting into your favourites with the Squeezebox. We have a script almost ready which will update the CoD file each evening. It's just taking a while to get the last details into place.

    Finally, kudos to you for a great list of shows. I recall that the Gryphon Trio concert has at least one mind-blowing solo by saxman Phil Dwyer. I can't help but suggest a handful of other concerts for you to try.

    The Rufus Wainwright show is a real treat. Hey Rosetta! for sure. (There's an audio treat at the end when the band walks through the audience and to the great out doors of Gros Morn). If you are feeling particularly adventurous do check out Tanya Tagaq.

    Wunderkind Jan Lisiecki. Bell Orchestra. Oliver Jones! Steven Page (vocally fearless). Guido Basso and Mike Murley. Constantinople with Barbara Furtuna is a must. Symphony Nova Scotia doing Mahler 2 will surprise you. James Ehnes. Tafelmusik.

    OK, I'd better stop.

    Thanks again for caring about great music and great sound. Right up my alley!

    -Peter Cook
    CBC Radio 2
    Concerts on Demand

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