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Part 1:  Listening to Your Computer

Written on October 31, 2003 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Your computer is capable of much more than just word processing, spreadsheets, and e-mail. With the right components and software, it can entertain you with dazzling sights and sounds.

Let's start with sounds on your computer.

But first, you have to get the lingo right ....

  1. Sound capabilities on your computer are known as audio in the technical world.
  2. To copy or record music from a CD to your computer, you will rip the CD.
  3. You never write to a CD, you burn it.

Got it? Now let's get started so you can play, rip, and burn audio on your computer.

What Do You Need?

In order to play or record pre-recorded music, you'll need a CD or DVD drive attached to your computer. It doesn't matter if it's just a reader/player or one that can write as well. All of these drives can play CDs bought at the store.

To play or listen to music, you will also need a sound card. Many newer computers come with sound capabilities already installed - just look for the headphone or microphone jack. If your computer doesn't have this, you may have to buy and install a card. It's not as hard as it sounds but if you're all thumbs with a screwdriver, we suggest you let a professional do this for you.

A sound card is not enough. Without speakers or headphones, you won't hear anything. This is one area where getting good quality equipment pays off. In other words, don't use the default speakers that come with a computer - manufacturers use cheap, small speakers to keep the costs down. To get the best sound reproduction possible, buy a set of powered speakers and, to really impress your friends, get a separately powered bass module and install under your desk. I'm partial to speakers from Altec Lansing.

We'll discuss software options later but Window Media Player that comes with Microsoft Windows may be all you need.

Playing a Pre-Recorded CD

Just insert the CD into the player on your computer. At this point, the software player on your computer should automatically start and you'll hear music. Easy!

Volume may be controlled with your computer (look for the volume setting in the software player you're using) or by using the old fashioned knob on your powered speakers. Your software player should have the standard play, pause, track skip, and other controls as shown in the figure below.

For the observant, you can also see that I am listening to Kokomo by the Beach Boys as I write this. It's also playing from the hard disk on my computer (ripped from the CD which I do own) using an MP3 encoded file recorded at 96Kbps. Whoa - what does that mean and how did I do that?

Music Players for Your Computer

Before I explain how to rip (i.e. record) CDs to your computer or buy/download music from the web, we need to talk about software.

Please respect copyrights on music. The copying of music for the purpose of private use is legal in Canada according to the Copyright Act.

There are many software players or jukeboxes available in the marketplace. Most of them are free. The companies that provide these players make their money by selling music downloads (which you don't need to subscribe to) or software upgrades for content providers (people who create music for sale on the web).

The most popular and best-rated players are:

Company Player Download Web Site
Microsoft Windows Media Player
Real RealOne Player
Music Match MusicMatch Jukebox

When you go to these websites to get a software player, you may have to hunt for the free download button amongst all the sales pitches - be patient and keep looking, it is there.

All the players play and record the most popular formats (more on encoding formats later) and allow you to create your own playlists. Music Match only works with audio (the other players can show video too).

Which one is the best for you? I suggest you try them out (after all, they are free) and see which one works for you. You've seen RealOne Player earlier in this article. Here's a peek at the other two:

Part 2:  Building Your Music Library

Written on December 29, 2003 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Let's see how to rip music (i.e. copy or record music from a CD) as well as buy and download music online in order to build your music library.

Please respect copyrights on music. The copying of music for the purpose of private use is legal in Canada according to the Copyright Act. Only buy and/or download music from legitimate web sites.

Creating a Music Library

I like to create a completely separate directory on my computer called "My Music" to store my audio files. If you have a newer computer with the Windows XP operating system, this directory will have already been created for you (as well as a directory called "My Pictures").

Then, I have sub-directories for each genre of music. These can either be set-up in advance or automatically created by your music player software when you rip a CD. When you rip a CD, you can override the suggested genre (e.g. Rock, Rock and Roll, Classic Rock, Hard Rock, Punk Rock, Soft Rock, etc) with one of your own choosing (e.g. Rock and Roll). The trick is to make it easier for you to find the music later. Here are some genres:

Big Band Folk Opera
Blues Jazz Rock and Roll
Classical Movies Swing
Contemporary Musicals World

Ripping a Pre-Recorded CD

Ripping, or copying a CD into your computer, is as simple as putting the CD in your player and, when the music player software starts, selecting the option to copy the CD into your library. If you're online, the music player will even find the name of the album, artist, genre, and titles of all the tracks (if you're offline or have a very obscure CD, you will have to type all these in yourself). Voila, done!

But wait. Your audio software will use the encoding format and bit-rate set-up as the default (however, you can change the default settings) but these may not be what you need based on what music you're recording and how you are going to use or listen to the music.

All encoding formats (and there are several of them) use "lossy" compression. That means that you will lose some of the audio quality of the CD as it is recorded. You can compensate for this by recording at higher bit-rates (i.e. how frequently the music is sampled) but these create very large files on you computer. What's a person to do?

Factor 1 - Audio Formats

There are three popular formats but they are not interchangeable. Not all music software plays all formats (the three music players mentioned in the first article can play all three formats and are know as "universal" players) and, more importantly, not all portable players play all formats. Here is a summary:

  • MP3 is the most popular and universally available format. However, the resulting music is of poor quality unless it is recorded at high bit rates (128 or 192 Kbps). Most music players record at low bit-rates (64 or 96 Kbps) by default to keep files small. Almost any portable player uses MP3. A newer version, MP3Pro, corrects some of these deficiencies but is incompatible with most portable players and is usually only available at an extra cost.
  • Real is proprietary to RealNetworks. The quality is high and ripping a CD is very quick but not all audio software or portable players can play it.
  • WMA, or Windows Media Audio, is a format created by Microsoft and can best be described as "middle of the road". It is gaining popularity.

Factor 2 - Recording Bit-Rates

You want the music to sound as good as original CD but recording at 320 Kbps (or approximately 320,000 bits per second) would quickly fill up your computer. Recording at lower bit-rates does take up less room on the computer:

Recording Bit-Rate Approximate Disk Spaced Used for an Album
320 Kbps 160 Mb
192 Kbps 90 Mb
128 Kbps 60 Mb (i.e. 1 Mb per minute of music)
96 Kbps 45 Mb
64 Kbps 30 Mb

Which recording rate should you use? It depends on both the type of music and how you're going to listen to the music. Music that is more subtle, quiet, or precise requires a higher bit-rate otherwise you will notice the difference between the CD and the computer. Also, the higher the quality of the speaker or headphone used to playback the music, the higher the bit-rate should be. Here are some suggested settings:

Playback Device Rock and Roll Classical
Computer Speakers or Mini Stereo System 96 Kbps 128 Kbps
High Quality Head Phones or Ear Buds 128 Kbps 192 Kbps

Now you know why I have The Beach Boys playing on my computer speakers in the MP3 format encoded at 96 Kbps.

Buying and Downloading Music

Ever since Apple made buying music online popular with iTunes, it seems like there are new sites popping up daily. Single tracks are readily available at 99¢ (US dollars) or less.

We're not going to explain how to use these services as they vary widely. Our only advice is to make sure that the music format and recording bit-rate being sold to you matches your needs.

Unfortunately, you'll have to wait until the next article to see how to listen to your music library, create playlists, use portable players, and burn customized audio CDs.

Part 3:  Playing Music Your Way

Written on February 26, 2004 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde

Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine

Now that you've built a sizable music library, let's see how to listen to your music library, create playlists, use portable players, and burn customized audio CDs.

Please respect copyrights on music. The copying of music for the purpose of private use is legal in Canada according to the Copyright Act. Only buy and/or download music from legitimate web sites.

Listening to Your Music Library

Most of the music player software allows you to search through your music library in a variety of ways. Usually, searches by genre, artist, and album are provided. Depending on your software, there may be even more options (e.g. by album cover, by tempo of music, etc). Once you've found the music you want, click on "play" to hear it. Explore the search options on your music player.

Creating a Playlist

Creating playlists is where your music player customizes the music experience to your personal needs.

Create an empty playlist (in RealOne Player, select File | New | New Playlist) and give it a name that you want. Then add clips or tracks from any album, artist, or genre in any order that you want. Playlists don't copy the files with the music in it; they simply create a list which points to the files on your computer.

When you select that playlist, the songs will play in the order that you specified, no matter where they are stored in your music library. It's like creating a virtual CD or a radio station that you program.

For example, I can create a playlist called "Eclectic" and add clips like Fun, Fun, Fun by The Beach Boys (genre Rock and Roll), then In The Mood by Glenn Miller (genre Big Band), and finally Mamma Mia by ABBA (genre Musicals). Whenever I select "Eclectic" to play, I hear my three favourite songs in the order I want.

Using Portable Players

Unless you have a portable computer, there are only a few ways to take your music with you. Using a portable music player is one of the most popular options.

There are dozens of different players on the market and everyone will tell you what their favourite one is. How do you select one?

In an oversimplification, there are two types out there.

One type uses memory cards or memory sticks to store music. However, this type of memory is not cheap so players come with the capacity to hold an hour or two of music (typically 128 to 256 Mb of memory) - not much more than a couple of CDs - but, like playlists, it can be any music you want.

The other type of portable player has a very small disk drive in it. The disk drive holds more music (5,000+ songs or 15 to 40 Gb of storage) but it does have moving parts that could fail and its battery life is shorter. The Apple iPod is a huge success in this category with its simple look and stylish controls but the competition is catching up.

Make sure your portable player can play the music in the format that you use (i.e. MP3, MP3Pro, Real, or WMA). Also, make sure your audio software and your portable player can "talk" to each other (RealOne, Windows Media Player, and MusicMatch can interact with most portable players).

As each player is different, how to connect it to your computer may vary from player to player. We won't go into details here. Just a word of caution: make sure to get the connection that is compatible for your computer (e.g. USB cables for Intel/Windows and Firewire for Apple). Once connected, you can copy music from your computer to the player (or from the player to your computer), including your playlists.

Like speakers on a stereo system, the higher the quality of your headphones, the better the music will sound. Alternatively, you can use a mini-stereo system or powered speakers to play your music on the road. You could even play music through your car radio (just make sure you have all the right attachments).

Burning a Customized CD

One of the other ways to make your music portable is to create CDs.

Now you ask, why would I create a CD when I already have the CD? When you burn a CD from your music library, you can put anything you want on the CD. Delete clips you don't like, mix music from various genres and artists, re-order the tracks to your liking, and add your own special effects (e.g. no breaks between clips or cross-fading from track to track).

Use your music player software to create a CD. As each player is different, I won't describe the details but leave it to you to explore the possibilities.

When burning an audio CD, the music will be converted back from the format that you use (i.e. MP3, MP3Pro, Real, or WMA) to the audio format. Be warned that unless you recorded the music using a very high bit-rate, there will be a noticeable loss of quality when you re-write it back to an audio CD.

If all you want to do is create audio CDs with your preferences, then use the WAV format in your computer. There will be no loss of quality but it will create huge files on your computer. The large amount of disk space used is the reason this is not one of the popular formats. The audiophile will love this format to rip a CD, mix it, burn the results back to CD, and then delete all the large files on the computer to make room for more.

Even More Music

This ends our exploration of listening to your computer. However, there could be future articles on Internet Radio or converting tapes (cassette or 8-track) and records (45 rpm singles, 33 rpm albums, and even those ancient 78s) to CDs. Just let us know what you want to do.

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