Web Informant #166, 27 August 1999:
Making Beautiful Music on Your PC


It all started when we remodeled our house three years ago. We put in speaker wire to have our stereo (relocated to our kitchen) play speakers in both the kitchen and outdoors. That left our living room music-free. My wife really disliked having a rack of audio gear in the living room (to say nothing about the TV), and refused to grant design approval for installing a new system. What to do?

I first thought about buying a 100 or 200-CD jukebox, hooking it up in the basement so that the components (other than the speakers) wouldn't be visible up in the living room. But the jukeboxes are clunky mechanical things, and typing in all the CD information would be tedious. Plus, the typical jukebox remote control isn't a very satisfactory user interface, although these days you can buy products from Nirvis and Escient that can control them from a PC.

So I didn't buy anything, and our living room continued to be a silent haven in the house. Some days I would bring the speakers out of the attic and just set them up on their stands, disconnected, as I tried to fantasize to what listening to music would be like.

Now let's fast forward to this year, and the rise of MP3 software players. Fooling around with a few of these products gave me the notion of "ripping" (the term means converting your CD audio music to MP3 files) my entire music library to my PC's hard disk. Before I set everything up, I did a quick test with an old sound card and miniature speakers, then another test with a friend's old amplifier and my own stereo speakers that came back out of the attic, and the music sounded wonderful.

Based on these tests, I went out and bought a new 10 gigabyte Maxtor drive for this purpose (about $150). It came with disk partitioning and formatting software, along with a very handy utility to upgrade my aging PC's BIOS to handle its huge capacity. (You might want to buy a bigger disk if you have lots of CDs.)

I also got the latest sound card from Creative Labs, the Soundblaster Live!, which sells for around $100. This card has a variety of sonic software to control two or four speakers from the PC, including "environmental" effects that you would normally find on a typical surround sound amplifier. But more importantly, it has enough of its own processing power to be able to play music while you are also working on your PC doing other things. Some of the older sound cards rely too much on the PC's own processor, and as a result if you are scrolling or typing on the screen your music is interrupted or the audio quality quickly drops.

Only one thing remained, which is how to connect the PC to the amplifier. For my tests I was using a three-foot Y-cable that had a 1/8th mini-jack to fit to my PC's sound card on one end and two RCA connectors for my amp. That wasn't going to be long enough, especially as I wanted to put the amp in the basement. Before I found a longer $40 cord on the MusicMatch.com web site, I bought one from Radio Shack for about $10. There is also a wireless solution from x10.com called MP3 Anywhere that costs about $90 and connects your PC to your amp. However, when I tried it in my kitchen, it picked up interference from my microwave oven.

If I had another pair of speakers, I could drive them with another cable from the PC sound card to the amp. But for now the single pair is fine, and anyway I don't think I can get spousal design approval on adding any new speakers to my living room.

But hardware is the easy part of this story. The real challenge for me was figuring out the right combination of software tools to convert my CDs into MP3s and to organize them into appropriate playlists.

There are literally hundreds of programs that will let you do this. I ended up liking MusicMatch. It could convert a CD and set up a directory for each album with the appropriate titles easily. It works with a site called cddb.com to match album information, something that is a marvel in usability. It also converts the audio tracks into MP3 files in a single step -- with many programs, you first have to convert the audio into a WAV file and then convert the WAV into an MP3.

Ripping is best accomplished when you aren't doing anything else on your PC: running other programs will degrade your sound quality. There are also a zillion various parameters to fool that will change the quality of your ripped files. A good book that explains these and other issues around getting your MP3 act together is MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution, by John Hedtke.

Finally, to play my MP3s I settled on the Sonique player (soon to be owned by Lycos): I liked its interface and controls the best.

All was going well until I tried to copy a few of my CDs. They sounded awful when I played back the MP3 files. Talking to some friends, I found out that the quality of both the ripper and my CD ROM drive make a big difference, especially when trying to rip some CDs that have digital copy protection. Essentially, you are trying to make a digital copy of the music, and of course the music industry has gone ahead and tried to stop you by adding some code to the CD that will degrade the quality of the copy. If you have a better CD drive and software, you can get around this. I ended up using a program called Exact Audio Copy but there are hundreds of others available.

There are other ways to play MP3s on your home stereo. A quick check of the mp3.com web site and you'll find several devices that are basically small PCs that look like stereo components and can be connected to your audio gear, playing MP3s that you store on a writeable CD. These things aren't really what I have in mind. Having an ordinary Windows 98 PC to store and run my music tracks is better. If I find another ripper or player down the road, it is easy to replace and upgrade. I don't want any other audio components that I can't control from yet another limited remote -- it is far better to have Windows programs that I can manipulate. So far I've converted about 40 discs and filled up two gigs of space. When I max out my hard disk, I'll just buy another one.

There are also other ways to get MP3s besides ripping your own CDs -- namely, downloading them from the various Internet search sites. Two of my favorites are www.2look4.com and Lycos. Granted, this is where the music industry starts to get nervous. But I argue that this isn't any different from when I make a tape copy for my friends of a favorite album.

Having all these MP3 files is handy. I got a chance to try out the new Nomad MP3 portable player from Creative. The device is a cool-looking one to be sure. I downloaded my MP3s to the memory of the Nomad -- about two albums' worth of songs can fit inside the 64 MB of the player. Now I can play what I want and carry it around town, and the sound is terrific. But the software to manipulate the player still needs work, and getting the unit set up with my PCs parallel port wasn't easy.

My living room has music again, my wife is happy that the electronics are hidden, and I can program in long playlists of music so I don't have to get up to change a CD. The sound is great, although the Soundblaster software has an annoying habit of not saving my settings for volume and such when I shutdown and restart Windows. Maybe the next version will fix that.

Still, figuring out all this stuff to get my music playing wasn't easy and I wonder how ordinary civilians can manage. My experiments in MP3-land took many days and lots of trial and error before I have everything working right. Even though Sonique has a well-crafted user interface, overall the software tools are far from consumer-quality, even nerdy-consumer quality. Getting the PC and audio components wired correctly took some work. And dealing with the audio copy protection brought back memories of my early days in our industry when it was just as annoying to deal with the copy protection on Lotus 123 and dBase III. But there is no doubt in my mind that MP3s are the future for music in Chez Strom.

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David Strom
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