This is a remarkable story.

CDDB (now Gracenote) is the Internet database of CD information (tracks, authors) etc that most computer-based CD players (right from earlier playback-only applications through Winamp right up to iTunes) use. I have not-so-fond memories of trying to persuade early versions of WinAmp to talk to CDDB via a fairly rigid firewall. But by now it’s quite a huge database – it takes the data manually entered by end users and is, generally speaking, a database containing track listings for virtually all (CD) recorded music.

Controversially, it started out as a free software product, licensed under the GPL; however it is now a highly closed, commercial project, with media players being required to pay a fee to Gracenote and to enter into a contract with Gracenote (which has caused some fuss, especially in relation to exclusivity, display of logos etc).

Anyway, that brings us up to this week’s controversy. Gramaphone magazine writes about Joyce Hatto’s ‘recordings’:

Several days ago, another Gramophone critic decided to listen to a Hatto Liszt CD, of the 12 Transcendental Studies. He put the disc into his computer to listen, and something awfully strange happened. His computer’s player identified the disc as, yes, the Liszts, but not a Hatto recording. Instead, his display suggested that the disc was one on BIS Records, by the pianist Lászlo Simon. Mystified, our critic checked his Hatto disc against the actual Simon recording, and to his amazement they sounded exactly the same.

See, the CDDB (or alternative) system uses track lengths (etc) to create a unique ID (checksum) for each CD. The data is stored on Gracenote servers by unique ID – when you insert a CD, your iTunes (or whatever) calculates the checksum, sends it to Gracenote, they respond with the list of names and artists. But did we ever think it was a detective tool?

So Gramaphone noticed something fishy; and of course, Hatto’s recordings had previously been questioned. She had not performed in 30 years (due to illness, apparently) but had recorded over 100 critically acclaimed discs. On her husband’s record label. So now, the plot thickens.

Pristine Audio and Royal Holloway have carried out significant forensic work, with results like this:


(The top one is the ‘copy’, the bottom one is the ‘original’. Similar exercises have indicated that virtually every Hatto recording is a copy, or a slightly modified version (e.g. pitch), of a well-known recording)

Wikipedia has a good collection of links. What will happen next?

Update: the husband strikes back. (He doesn’t explain how the conductor is an unknown, Rene Kohler, who probably doesn’t exist, or deal with many other problems…)