Managing your world of digital music still takes either an engineering degree or at least a teenager with more time and skill than most of us are willing to devote to this application. And while the products have gotten better, they are still not at a level of maturity necessary for the average consumer.
I tested four different products:
These four will handle a variety of digital music tasks and are perhaps the most popular. They are all freely available (at least with some basic functionality). Let me lay out the music landscape and give you my own recommendations in this and next week's Web Informant. And speaking of teens, I want to thank my Netprep high school students, and especially Cary James for their insights and suggestions. (They wanted me to tell you all they are all eager to try out other products, too.)
First, let's get some historical perspective. Back in the old pre-Napster days, life was relatively simple. If you had a computer with a CD drive, chances are you could just stick a CD into the drive and it would play your tunes. It didn't really matter what software player did this, because all that really mattered was that you could hear sounds from your speakers. Ah, those simple, carefree days.
But computers have gotten more capable - now most PCs come with pretty decent speakers, a subwoofer and CD "burners" - and software has gotten better and more specialized. Today's digital music world has four separate tasks that software has to handle. First comes ripping music from your CDs into MP3 files on your hard disk. Second are listening to streams of music (and watching videos) from the web, and downloading both free and fee-based music files from various sites. Third comes organizing all that music on your hard disk in a way that you can find it again and listen to it, and creating playlists so you can become your own DJ. Finally is the distribution angle, moving music from your PC's hard disk to other places around your home, office, and person (in the guise of a portable music player) and burning your own CDs.
Until recently, you would probably make use of several different pieces of software to handle each task. That is changing, particularly as the software player/jukebox products are becoming better integrated with each other and as they incorporate web-based services into their interfaces.
Of the four, MusicMatch remains my favorite, although it is weak in certain areas that the others are stronger. The all-Apple solution is a fine piece of software, and while I wouldn't go out and buy a Mac just to organize my music today, I might not keep saying that much longer if the Windows-based products don't improve quickly.
RealOne isn't quite ready for prime time, but does show some promise, particularly in the music organization area. The RealOne Player is the more recent product in the bunch, just announced this month from Real Networks. And to be fair it is still really in beta and still very much a work in progress. The others are fairly recent too but much more evolutionary from their particular roots. I made sure to download the latest software from each vendor, although at the pace this industry is going, by the time you read this undoubtedly there is something newer out there.
Microsoft still has a long way to go to match the features in the others: but we all know that Microsoft can quickly learn from the market and surpass its competitors, given the chance and carte blanche permission from a lenient federal government. Note that the version of WMP that comes with XP should really be called version 8. You can't really get this version with older versions of Windows (do you detect another anti-trust suit in the works here?), although you can come close with the separate WMP versions that run on the older Windows.
Speaking of XP, you will have some problems if you don't buy a machine pre-loaded with XP, especially if you have a sound card that doesn't yet have true XP device support. I had all sorts of trouble with my Soundblaster Live card - turns out there are only 57 different varieties of these cards and that the right drivers will depend on exactly which one you have. The only way to tell is to crack open your box and examine the card carefully. It is too bad that Creative couldn't be more, well creative about this and produce a single downloadable driver that would automatically detect the right card and update it accordingly. But this isn't a review of XP, so let's get on with the music.
Not all MP3s are created equally. The higher the bit rate you encode them, the better the music will sound and the bigger the file you will save to your hard disk. By now, you should have gotten the biggest hard disk you can find out there and put it in your computer. Better yet, go out and buy a new computer if you are really thinking about ripping your entire CD library into the machine: the newer CD drives will rip music faster, and the newer sound cards will sound better. Not to mention that the faster the CPU, the better off you are when it comes to running these music programs. (RealOne in particular seemed to be most resource-intensive of the bunch, but that was just a feeling.)
Each solution has a maximum bit rate that is built into the software:
RealOne's low encoding rate bears some explanation. The product can also encode CDs as Real Audio formatted files up to 352 Kbps, although so what? They are really trying to motivate you to upgrade the software, and one way is to make available add-ons that boost the encoding rate to 320 kbps for MP3 files, but finding this add-on will take some work. I do think that 96 kbps is much too low a rate for consumers, even consumers who aren't very discerning about their music.
MusicMatch also has an add-on upgrade called Plus for $20. It steps up the ripping capabilities and adds several other features, most of which I don't think are worth the extra dough.
Microsoft is of course trying to do an end-run around this whole MP3 business by using its own digital media format for WMP, called WMA. To rip CDs into MP3s in WMP (but not to play them) you'll need to install an extra-cost MP3 encoder from one of several vendors. They claim that lower bit rates (and thus smaller file sizes) of WMAs are the sonic equivalent for MP3s, but I am skeptical.
Of course, not all players can work with music stored as a WMA, and for that reason I have steered clear of this format for ripping my own music collection. (MusicMatch and RealOne, to their credit, can both play and rip music as WMA files.) iTunes can also encode music as AIFFs, a format that has been around longer than MP3s that isn't much used anymore.
For the purposes of this comparison, I will assume that you are interested in recording your music as just MP3s: the advantage here is that once you have ripped your CDs into MP3s, you can still use these other tools if you grow tired of the software player or if its features fall behind some of the others.
The products work similarly to rip your music. You insert a CD in the drive and it is recognized by the CDDB online database of titles and automatically track tags are generated. (More on that next week.) You select which tracks to record and off you go. Depending on your CD equipment, you can rip an entire CD's worth in about one fourth the total playing time or even less on some of the newer model CD drives.
Both present challenges for the players. First, none of the players work with the peer sharing music servers -- you still need a separate piece of client software to do this, and one that is tuned with the right peer services too. Second, it is one thing to locate a stream. It is another thing to return to this stream and play it again and again. Finally, there are almost as many different streaming file formats as there are stars in the galaxy, and that means trouble for the online music lover.
RealOne and WMP are best at dealing with streams, but they are designed for their individual formats and universes. RealOne supports all the Real Audio and Video streaming formats, of course, and these are still the majority of streaming files that you'll find around the net. WMP supports the Microsoft streaming formats and they are coming on strong as you can imagine. Both support MPEG streams, although describing all the many frustrations of downloading various kinds of MPEG videos could take another article in itself. Many web sites that stream music and videos are making their content available in both formats, which is great.
RealOne has done the most work in the streaming area, and they have expanded their Gold Pass content subscription service into a wide swath of content, including sports, news, TV tie-ins (such as Survivor outtakes), and music. The subscription service is available for an extra $10-20/month, depending on the amount of content you wish to download.
Both WMP and RealOne have integrated a web browser inside their players. With WMP and XP/IE v6, the player is inside the browser screen, bringing up a separate side window like the folders or history listing. Both products can view web sites with specially designed content inside its player. The cutest thing about RealOne is that it can connect you to the CD for sale on Amazon while it is playing the stream or the ripped music. When I showed this to my wife, she was initially impressed but then said: "So what, we already own the CD." So much for that little bit of programming magic.
iTunes and MusicMatch don't really work well with streaming formats. iTunes supports QuickTime audio files, but not the video, along with MP3 streams as well. You need to know the URL of the stream however: you don't have any web browser to navigate around to find the stream. This means if you want to really use it for streams you'll first need to bring up a browser and then cut and paste the URL from the browser to iTunes, which is a big problem. iTunes does have an Internet radio option (for free, unlike the others), with choices for dozens of different kinds of music, and you can store these locations in your music library to return to your favorite radio station. You can also store the stream location in your music library as well.
MusicMatch supports its own RadioMX service, which is essentially a series of customized Internet radio stations that are available when you purchase the upgrade player and subscribe for $5 a month to the service. It is somewhat clunky and not as well thought out as the RealOne Membership program. The cute thing is that it is keyed to the artist that you are currently playing, although the "station" doesn't play that artist's songs exclusively.
Next week we will continue our discussion about these products and look at how they organize playlists and distribute their music. Stay tuned.
This week, we look at how they organize playlists and distribute their music.
The key to organizing playlists is two functions of the software: first, being able to customize the display to meet your needs. Second, being able to search for a particular song. All four do this to some extent, but they do it in varying degrees. Actually, classical music presents a problem for most of these software tools, because in addition to the artist you also have the composer and the orchestra and sometimes a featured soloist playing the tune. Ideally, you would like to have all this information attached to the song file in your computer. Through the miracle of computers and the Internet, you mostly can.
When you rip a CD to a MP3 and you have an Internet connection, you can make use of a special free service from CDDB.com. This is a huge music database on the Net, and it keys off a special identification tag that almost every commercial music CD includes. This is a tremendous time saver, because you don't have to type in the track and artist information into your computer when you make the MP3.
However, everything isn't quite automatic. Depending on the CD, you might want to make changes to the ID information that is stored with each tag. And depending on the software that you use to rip your music, this ID information can differ from product to product. If you have a large music library, you will find that sometimes the songs get misidentified, or identified in a way other than what you'd like. So some amount of cleaning up the tags is probably going to be needed. I found both MusicMatch and iTunes best at this task.
Once you put more than a couple of CD's worth of music on your hard disk, you will find that searching through your collection to make sure that you hadn't already transferred music to it is a chore. Apple of course makes this very easy: you have up to 14 different columns with artist, album, song name, song length, encoding rate, and so forth. You can click on the top of each column and sort them in ascending or descending order. You can customize this display by going to Edit | View options to include more or less columns. You can drag the columns around to reorder them. All of this is very nice.
MusicMatch's Library display comes in a close second to iTunes, if not its equal. You can have more than one library, which is great if each member of your family wants to have his or her own collection and not have it polluted with someone else's taste in music. You can select how your library display will look with the various columns and can choose just about anything here, to a maximum of seven columns. You can also automatically add tracks to the library if they are copied into a specified directory on your hard disk: this comes in handy if you do a lot of downloading of free music. It can examine the ID tags of the files and make some intelligent assumptions about the description, artist, and album. You can sort columns up or down like iTunes too. There are many other librarian features and this is one of the reasons why I continue to use this for my main music repository. You can add or delete tracks easily, and import or export the library listing itself as text files, which is handy.
WMP's library feature is its weakest point, and is basically one step up from managing files in Windows Explorer. It does provide lots of columns of details, but because it uses the vertical Explorer-like tree structure it is harder to navigate than the others, which display their listings in more of a tabular format. I made the mistake of deleting a few song files from Windows Explorer. Silly me, that wasn't a good idea, because WMP still thought the songs were in my library. I couldn't figure out how to get rid of the library listings, until I spoke to the Microsoft program manager and he pointed me to the Bonus Pack, which contains additional tools to manage your library. Still, this is way too hard and Microsoft needs to boost the library features in the main product.
Finally, RealOne has the makings of a great library manager, but it still is a work in progress. You can have over a dozen fields, and customize all sorts of things. It uses more of a hierarchical tree view than I'd like, and you have to drill down to see the individual song titles - better than what WMP does but not as useful or as simple as either iTunes or MusicMatch.
But having a solid library display is one thing. Being able to find the music is another matter entirely. Once you have several hundred song files on your computer, you will appreciate this function. Today, I want to see every song by the Beatles. Tomorrow, I want Mozart. MusicMatch and iTunes both have a simple Find or Search button that works well and just does a text match across all the various fields in your library. The iTunes search will show you the matches as you type in your query, which is the way all search tools should work. The MusicMatch Find routine can add the tracks that you're your search to your active playlist, which is also a very nice feature.
WMP's search function is a bit more complicated, and you can specify the field you want to search (such as only artist names, for example). RealOne has a search button that can search both your music library and streams on the net, which is a nice idea although it still needs more work.
I go into lots of detail here not to be persnickety, but because the crafting of the user interface and how information is displayed on the computer is important to your listening pleasure. The harder you have to work at finding something to listen to, the less likely you are going to use the computer to listen to your music.
So, you have four basic choices. They depend on when and how you want to take your digital music with you when you are away from your computer. The simplest method isn't actually digital: once you have ripped MP3 copies of your CDs, you can have the actual CD to play in the car, in a cheap portable CD player, or at work. But that isn't good enough for many people, especially if you end up carry multiple CDs around.
The second method is to burn your own data CDs that contain MP3 files of your songs. You can fit over 100 songs on a single CD, depending on the encoding rate you choose. There are many portable CD players now that can play data CDs, and they aren't very expensive either. This is the low-tech method. All four of the software players can do this, some easier than others. Apple's iTunes has a menu option under Edit | Preferences | CD Burning to switch between audio and data CDs. RealOne has a "burn" button at the bottom of the screen, this will prompt you the first time you click on it to download a plug-in to update your player that unfortunately will require a reboot to install, thank you very much. MusicMatch has an option to "Create CD from this playlist" but that just creates an audio CD, not a data CD.
The third method is more hi-tech, and involves using a networked device that is attached to your home stereo or home theater components. Turtle Beach, Dell, and others make various models. The trick here is that you leave the digital MP3 files on your computer's hard disk and transfer them over a network to these devices, which then decode them and pump the tunes into your stereo. This also involves learning another software interface to operate these devices.
You can effectively do the same thing by directly hooking up the sound card of your PC to your stereo, but there is a problem here: usually, your PC isn't anywhere near your stereo. The longer the cord you need to connect them, the greater your chances of getting buzzes, clicks and poorer sound quality. (Harman Kardon makes a cute bridge device that connects a USB port on your computer with a coax digital input called the DAL 150, but I haven't tested this.)
The Nomad Jukebox is supported by all four solutions that I tried, but supported was a matter of degree. Let me take you through what you need to get this player connected and communicating with your software, and then you'll begin to see what I am talking about.
The easiest solution, of course, was Apple. It just works. You plug in the Nomad to the USB cable, and the Mac recognizes it and iTunes proceeds to find all the music that you have stored on it. The nice thing about iTunes is that it can transfer music both ways: to and from the player. Very nice, I thank you Apple for all your hard work to make it all easy. There is this page of information on the dozen other players that are supported by iTunes, including its latest iPod device and several Rios.
None of the remaining Windows solutions that I examined can upload music from my Nomad to my Windows PC. The only way to do this is to make use of Creative's own Playcenter software, which is an exercise in patience and perseverance because you need to download several different pieces to get everything working correctly. That is just the beginning of what the joys of running Windows with your digital music player. The most troubling thing is that you will have to hunt down the drivers for your player depending on which software you are using and what version of Windows.
Of the three Windows products, MusicMatch is the best, although still nowhere near as easy as iTunes. They have a web page that you get to by going to Options | Add New Features that will show you pictures of the various players and have you download the driver to your PC. There were about two dozen different models that I saw. Each of them has a special .MMZ file that is incorporated into the MusicMatch software. When you want to transfer music to the player, you go to File | Send to a device and pick your device. These drivers will probably work with most versions of Windows I have found, but I didn't do lots of tests here.
RealOne isn't much more difficult, but its drivers are more finicky. To get to it from within the software, go to Tools | Install/Configure New Devices, and then click on the button that says Install New Device. This will bring up a window and show you what is available. The cute trick here is that the software figures out which version of the operating system it is running, and only shows you the devices that they have drivers for it, somewhat like running the WindowsUpdate procedure. When I ran through this on XP, I was in luck - the only device supported was my Nomad Jukebox. When I tried it on my Windows 98 computer, there were a couple of other devices as well. RealOne uses its own drivers for the players, and their product managers tell me that they will have plenty more drivers available soon.
Finally, there is Windows Media Player. Go to Tools | Options | Devices and click on Add, and you will be brought to a web page that will show you lots of confusing information, and also lots of devices -- several dozen when I visited. Some devices have drivers that are already included in Windows XP, or are supported by XP and will require a separate download. Some, like the entry for my Nomad Jukebox, are shown on this page as not currently available, which is curious because my Nomad works just fine with WMP. I forget exactly how I got it working, I think I had to download a driver by going to the rat's nest called Creative's web site.
Each product has a different way of displaying the music files that are stored on your portable player, with Apple once again superior: the same display that is used for your library on your hard disk is how you see the player's disk. I wish the other vendors would follow their lead. MusicMatch doesn't give you any view whatsoever of what is on your player until you are ready to download the songs to it. That is bad, because if you have a hard-disk player with hundreds of songs, it will take a while to bring up the overall list, and this will happen each time you want to do a download. Both MusicMatch and WMP display meager information on the players: just the song file name (which can be anything, depending on how you ripped the music) and its file size in MB. Neither of these is very useful and more akin to what you would get if you brought up Windows Explorer.
RealOne has a button at the bottom of its screen marked "Devices" which you click on and it will display the music on your device. The first time you connect the device it takes a while to go through all the song files, but subsequent times you can get your directory of what is on your player much faster. The display on RealOne is very complete: with artist, album, track title, encoding rate, and everything else. You just can't sort it by column like the iTunes display.
As you can see, if your portable player is supported by the software, you are probably in luck and will be able to get it working. If your player isn't on the list, then you are out of luck until the vendor gets around to adding the driver. As you can imagine, writing drivers isn't exactly everyone's top priority these days, so the moral of the story is if you are thinking about buying a portable player, make sure your software supports it first.
Both WMP and RealOne are essentially putting a web browser inside their player, the better to deal with the rich content displays and searching for streams. I am not sure this is the best way to go. The web isn't really an ideal user interface, although it is one that most of us are already familiar with. This trend towards web services bears some watching, though.
If you want to use different pieces of software to do each job, one of my students recommends the following products: Nero for burning, Winamp for playing, and Monkey's Audio for ripping. You can find them all freely available.
Digital music is still very much a work in progress, and as these programs mature expect to see lots of cross-pollination of features. Let me know what tools you use and your own recommendations.
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