The best sound quality: African American musicians on CD in Hamon


Hamon CDsDid you know the Hamon Arts Library provides access to millions of music recording tracks? The Library carries multiple formats, but this post will highlight several of its recordings by African-American musicians, singers, and composers available in compact disc. But first, why is Hamon continuing to collect CDs when streaming is the preferred format for most music listeners?

The Hamon Library subscribes to multiple different streaming databases, which provide access to millions of tracks of music. However, the library also retains a collection of over 17,200 compact discs. Contrary to perceived opinion, compact discs are not dead! In 2002, CDs accounted for ninety-five percent of the market share. Now they account for less than seven percent of music recording revenues. Yet, producers continue to make them, and Hamon continues to buy and add them to the music collection for a few good reasons.

First, unlike the streaming music subscriptions, which provide temporary access, Hamon owns its compact disc recordings. Subscriptions to streaming music platforms do not guarantee that the content (the actual albums and tracks) will be available to SMU in five or ten years. Much like the streaming video platforms, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu, record companies can also remove titles and labels from the platform after a set timeframe.

Second, another reason is that the CD format remains viable and durable, and playback equipment is still available. Manufacturers still make players with either stereo components or computer optical drives. This equipment uses a laser that reads stored data. Therefore, unlike a stylus to play an LP or the head of the magnetic tape, the laser does not penetrate the surface of a CD. In essence, that means no recording data is scraped away even after thousands of playbacks. When stored in appropriate environmental conditions, CDs have an extremely long life.

Third, the CD format has superior audio fidelity over streaming file formats. This final point about fidelity is the primary reason that Hamon continues to collect CDs. The bit rate (number of bits of data transmitted per second, measured in kilobits per second or kbps) for compact discs is 1,411 kbps.
By comparison, streaming platforms available to libraries by subscription or purchase claim to provide “CD quality sound,” yet they are actually of lower audio quality. Streaming music bit rates use compressed file formats. Mp3 files have a bit rate between 128 kbps – 320 kbps, significantly lower than a CD format. As a result, the listener gets less than ten percent of the recording data captured on a compact disc. This fractional amount of data means poor fidelity because so much of the information—those missing 1,200 kbps—never make it to the listener’s ears.

It is true that there are companies that sell digital music in lossless or high-resolution audio formats. However, the end user license agreement does not permit library use. The only way that the library can provide high quality, uncompressed audio to our patrons is through its CD collection.

And Hamon has quite a collection! It includes classical, jazz, and even popular music recordings. For Black History Month, I would like to suggest checking out some of the hundreds of compact discs featuring performances and compositions by African American musicians, singers, and composers. I encourage you to check out some CDs and experience the full range of these artists’ musical art as intended, in uncompressed high fidelity.

Black Manhattan, Vol. 3 features recordings documenting the music of important African-American composers from late 19th- and early 20th-century New York City. The disc includes the original score version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” considered the “The Black National Anthem.” The poem was written by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

Leontyne Price: The Prima Donna Collection HighlightsLeontyne Price

The American soprano was the first African American to have leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Her astounding recordings of operas, art songs, and spirituals are included in more than 100 discs in Hamon’s collection.

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn: Such Sweet Thunder

One of the greatest partnerships of composing and arranging in American music. Ellington’s compositions span from 1920 to the 1970s and include short, popular song forms, symphonic suites, film soundtracks and jazz re-compositions of classical works. Such Sweet Thunder is a set of musical depictions of Shakespearean characters composed for the Stratford (Canada) Shakespeare Festival by Ellington and Strayhorn.

Florence Price: Black Diamonds: Althea Waites Plays Music by Afro-American Composers

With the recent discovery of a large collection of music manuscripts in 2009, there has been renewed interest in the works of Florence Price. She is noted as the first African-American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and the first to have a composition played by a major symphony orchestra.

Blog post and Hamon CDs image: Pam Pagels, Music and Theater Librarian, Hamon Arts Library

Image credit: Leontyne Price (1994) by Jack Mitchell (This photo has a CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

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