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February 2002
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Groovin' Digitally, With Your PC

By Anthony Paonita

Groovin' Digitally, With Your PC THE holidays by now are a dim memory. You've figured out how to hook that new computer up to your cable modem. Word XP holds no more mysteries, and you've become a master at turning off its online reminders to register and/or buy more products and services. So, finally, you're ready to have some fun -- after you've drafted that motion, that is.

What sent me into new computerdom this past holiday season was my upgrade fever. My old computer's lack of disk space and a USB port was beginning to get annoying. I couldn't hook up any new peripherals without buying an expansion card that may or may not work. And my burgeoning digital music collection had no permanent home of its own.

Along the way, I got in touch with my inner disk jockey. I started importing my collection onto the nice, spacious hard disk of the new PowerBook. (O.K., so it's not so spacious any more.)

Then I put together a million playlists, one for every mood -- and some just to hear song transitions that probably shouldn't be in the same universe, let alone on the same playlist. Then I happily went through a spindle-full of blank CD-Rs, burning my masterworks. (Ask my friends. After they stop rolling their eyes they'll tell you I'm a great D.J.)

To some people, like my mother-in-law (she's still coming to grips with e-mail), this is unbelievable stuff. But it's become an intrinsic part of the computing experience for a lot of people. It's almost as good a time-waster as Web-surfing. And thanks to recent advances in hardware and software, it's unbelievably easy. Even if you have to add peripherals to your system to do it.

Now, the requisite stern anti-piracy note: Don't steal music. You have the right to play around with what's yours, but grabbing those MP3s from illicit sources deprives artists and...well, you get the drift. (A side note: Some labels are putting copy protection on CDs, making some unplayable on computers.)

But enough of that. Let's talk about wasting time, tunefully.

How It Works

There are three basic steps to happy digital music-making: First, you've got to "rip," or bring in your tunes to your PC. Second, you've got to organize them. Then play -- or burn.

Groovin' Digitally, With Your PC Most music out there, and most digital music jukeboxes rely on the mp3 format. It's the musical equipment of an image .jpg -- the format compresses some data, but not enough so that most people would notice. (There are, and I'll get to it, people who do notice, and who think the mp3 format is an abomination.)

On the industry-standard Windows side, most enthusiasts use programs like Winamp or Musicmatch Jukebox to import their music and organize it the way they want. Here's how it works: You pop your CD into your PC, the application recognizes that you've done so, and it goes out to the Internet to look up the disk in a databases. And magically, the album and song titles appear in the program window.

In another pane of the program interface, you create a playlist--it's sort of like organizing your favorites in Internet Explorer. You drag the song titles over from your main library, mull the cosmic significance of their order and meaning, and you have a playlist.

On the Macintosh side, there's the freeware iTunes, which basically works the same way; most of the differences come down to aesthetics. It comes with all new Macs, and is available for a free download from Apple's Web site.

It originally was SoundJam, and Apple bought the software from longtime Mac software publisher Casady & Greene Inc., redesigned and rechristened it.

A recent revision fixed some glaring omissions, like an equalizer. It also enabled iTunes to synch with Apple's neat little iPod, a seriously cool MP3 player. (Note to true geeks: The iPod is just a very portable 5 GB hard drive that's learned some special tricks. You can also use it for backup and as an external bootup drive. Reports that it fills out tax returns are totally false.)

Back to the purists. I have a friend who by day runs the trading network of a prominent financial institution. By night, however, he's the Webmaster of a Grateful Dead virtual community. And to him, MP3s are too "lossy," meaning that when they're compressed, something's lost. (True quote from him: "It makes you wonder why the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] is bothering to hassle everyone because no one is ever going to get a perfect clone" using the usual "ripping" software.) He's a devotee of Exact Audio Copy, a Windows-only program written by a German computer science student.

Go for the Burn

Now that you've got the songs you want on your computer hard drive, and your playlists have your songs artfully and intriguingly arranged, it's time to put them on media. Or, not. It's your choice. In our office filled with young, computer-savvy journalists, headphones are as much in evidence as reporter notepads.

Chances are that if you bought your PC a year or two ago, it already has a CD burner, or a combo DVD player/CD burner setup. If you're so blessed, skip the next couple of paragraphs. If not, there are dozens of burners out there. What to look for? Speed, speed speed. And power.

Most CD burners connect to a PC via your USB port. That's fine -- they're easy to connect, just plug it in and install the burning software, if necessary. But USB limits your burn speed, because it's not an especially high-speed connection. USB-2, just getting off the ground, could remedy that.

But you might be lucky enough to have a computer with a FireWire, or IEE1394 port. These allow much higher speeds, and also can accommodate such things as digital camcorders, without the frame dropoff rate of lesser connections.

All recent (last couple of years) Macs have them, as do Sony PCs. The rest are catching up, and Microsoft recently bestowed its blessing on Firewire with the release of Windows XP, which has built-in support for it.

If you want your custom CDs to play on a normal CD player, make sure you record in audio CD format, and onto a CD-R (as opposed to a CD-RW, or rewritable) disk. Most car CD decks only play CD-Rs, but this is changing, along with everything else.

Newer burners and current software versions allow you to record an MP3 CD, which means you can fit a zillion songs in that corrupted MP3 format. If you do so, make sure you have a CD player that can accommodate that format.

Or you may forego disks altogether. The iPod is just one (although probably the best) of many MP3 players, all of which allow you to download music from your PC. They use a variety of memory formats, from Sony sound sticks to hard disks.

If the choices above sound wide-open and free-form, well, that's how things stand right now. Think of it not as confusing, but as liberating. You don't have to be bound to only one format for your music, and choice is good. Happy listening!

Anthony Paonita is a senior editor at The American Lawyer and Corporate Counsel magazines, and a contributing editor to Law Technology News.

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