Old Mac, new tricks: MP3 jukebox

Forget Napster. The real significance of MP3 is that it's a highly efficient format for storing audio--not that it's inherently related to the Internet. In fact, the most exciting aspect of MP3 is that it offers new ways to enjoy the music you already have, without long downloads or ethically ambiguous copying. You can convert music from the audio CDs you already own, play it from your Mac, shuffle through your entire music collection quickly, and create custom playlists that span many different albums, deleting those songs you've never liked. And the best part? None of this requires a fancy new machine--just a PowerPC-based Mac with a lot of hard drive space.

In previous installments of our "Old Mac, New Tricks" series ( How-to, June and July 2001), we helped you get your old Mac up and running and showed you how to turn it into a Web server. Now we'll show you how you can use that elderly Macintosh as an MP3 jukebox that will supercharge your stereo system.

Step 1: Choose Your MP3-Jukebox Hardware

The first thing you'll need to do is make sure your old Mac has sufficient CPU power to handle playing MP3s. You'll also probably need some additional hardware, since the original hard drives in old Macs are seldom large enough to store your entire music collection as MP3 files.

Recommended Models If you're eager to put that old Quadra 650 to work--sorry, but you need a PowerPC-based Mac. No MP3 software works on 680X0-based Macs. You can use a Power Mac 6100 to play MP3s, but you'll probably have to encode your CDs on a newer Mac and transfer them to the 6100. For this project, I recommend a Mac with a PowerPC 603 chip or later, such as the Performa 6400 or Power Mac 8500. (Check the Apple Spec database.)

These models have enough power to play MP3s without skipping while simultaneously handling a few other tasks. A PowerPC-based PowerBook (any four-digit model number, such as the PowerBook 3400) is an even better choice, since it will require less space in your home, not to mention less electricity. And perhaps the ideal MP3 jukebox--if you happen to have one lying around--is Apple's stylish limited-edition Twentieth Anniversary Mac (which features a PowerPC 603e CPU, an easy-to-replace IDE hard disk, and a Bose Acoustimass sound system).

RAM Having a lot of RAM isn't particularly important for a Mac acting as an MP3 jukebox. MP3 players generally require 5MB to 8MB of available RAM, so Macs with at least 32MB of RAM should work fine (at least with Mac OS 8.6 or earlier--Mac OS 9 would be better served by 64MB of RAM).

Hard Drive Hard drive space is a different issue. Old PowerPC-based Macs came with 500MB to 2GB of hard drive space. Since a single album converted to MP3 format can eat up 30MB to 80MB (depending on the length of the album and your encoding settings), the bad news is that you'll almost certainly need a larger hard drive.

The good news is that huge hard drives are insanely cheap these days. For about $250, you can get an 80GB IDE internal hard drive, a 36GB SCSI internal hard drive, or an external 40GB FireWire hard drive. Visit dealmac ( www.dealmac.com ) or Price Watch ( www.pricewatch.com ) to find low prices. So which type should you get?

If your old Mac supports internal IDE drives, your first choice should be IDE. Even if your Mac has an internal SCSI hard drive, as long as it has a PCI slot, you can buy an inexpensive IDE card such as the $100 Sonnet Technologies Tempo Ultra ATA66 (4.0 mice. ), which lets you add an internal IDE drive instead of a more expensive internal SCSI drive. An internal IDE hard drive is by far the cheapest option, making it ideal for this project, since you probably don't want to invest too much in an old Mac. An internal drive also cuts down on noise, and you won't have to fuss with turning external drives on and off. The PowerPC-based PowerBooks, almost all PowerPC Performas, and a few Power Macs support internal IDE. PowerBooks use 2.5-inch hard drives, which are smaller and more expensive than standard drives.

If your old Mac has an internal SCSI hard drive and you want to stick with SCSI, you can buy a large internal or an external SCSI hard drive (the only option for NuBus-based Power Macs), or you can opt for a FireWire PCI card and an external FireWire hard drive. An internal SCSI drive will be less expensive than either an external SCSI drive or the combination of a FireWire PCI card and external drive. However, with the FireWire approach, you can get a card that also supports USB, such as the $140 Sonnet Tango FireWire/USB PCI card (949/587-3500; www.sonnettech.com ). With USB capabilities, you can control your MP3 software via a Keyspan Digital Media Remote, a tiny remote control (see "MP3 Jukebox Gadgets").

Installation of an internal hard drive is more complex than plugging in an external SCSI or FireWire cable, especially with some PowerBooks, but if you've installed hardware in a Mac before, it's not too difficult. You can find assistance at AccelerateYourMac ( www.xlr8yourmac.com ), and this might also be a good time to solicit some help from a friend with more installation experience. After you've installed the hard drive and put your Mac back together, start up from a Mac OS CD-ROM and use the Drive Setup utility to initialize the hard drive. Then, if you've replaced your old internal hard drive or want to use the new drive as your startup drive, install a fresh copy of Mac OS--preferably a copy of Mac OS 8.6 or, if you want to use Apple's iTunes, 9.0.4 or 9.1.

Step 2: Pick Your MP3 Software

MP3's popularity has resulted in oodles of programs that can play MP3 audio files and a smaller number that can encode audio from a CD into MP3 format. I prefer those that can both play and encode, because you can do everything in a single program. In particular, I recommend Apple's iTunes and Panic's Audion. Casady & Greene's SoundJam MP is also good, but the company stopped selling the program in June.

iTunes After using SoundJam for some time, I've come to prefer the interface of Apple's free iTunes 1.1 (4.0 mice. ; Reviews , June 2001). Written by the programmers responsible for SoundJam, iTunes shares most of its important features, including flexible playlists, a variety of encoding options, and broad support for portable MP3 players. And iTunes goes beyond SoundJam with its ability to burn custom audio CDs without requiring another program, such as Toast. And its single-window interface works better on a Mac dedicated to playing MP3s than the multiple-window interfaces many other MP3 players use (see "All Together Now").

Audion Panic's $33 Audion 2.1 (4.0 mice. ) offers all the basic features, such as playlists, skins, and visual plug-ins, and adds a host of less common ones, including a waveform-based MP3 editor (useful for trimming applause from live songs), an equalizer that can operate on everything or on specific songs, a two-track mixer, speed control, and additional encoding capabilities. Audion pays special attention to how people interact with their music collections via features such as a per-song play counter, support for album-cover art, personal popularity ratings, and playlists that update to reflect the organization of your MP3 files in the Finder.

Bottom Line Both of these programs work well, but if you're running Mac OS 9.0.4 or later, you can't beat Apple's free iTunes. If you have an older version of Mac OS, choose Audion, though on an underpowered Mac such as the Power Mac 6100, you might find it sluggish. In that case, I'd recommend using iTunes to encode MP3s from your CD collection on the newer Mac, copying the MP3 files to the older Mac, and using a simple, efficient MP3 player such as the free GrayAMP from Digital Thoughts ( www.digithought.net ).

Step 3: Set Up Your Speakers

With MP3 audio, sound can come from one of three sources: your Mac's built-in speakers, standard multimedia speakers, or the speakers connected to your stereo system.

Built-in Speaker The Twentieth Anniversary Mac is possibly an exception, but overall I can't recommend using your Mac's built-in speaker for listening to MP3s. The quality of internal speakers generally stinks. You can't get separation of the right and left channels for stereo sound, and the volume most certainly does not go to eleven, so you're not likely to be able to hear your music from across the room or crank the volume for your favorites.

Multimedia Speakers The easiest approach is to connect a pair of powered multimedia speakers to your Mac's headphone jack or USB port. The quality of these speakers ranges from poor to quite good, though they seldom can compete with speakers attached to a stereo system's amplifier. They do require an extra electrical socket, and unsightly wires running to the Mac and between the speakers.

Stereo Speakers You'll hear the best quality if you play your MP3s through a stereo system's amplifier and speakers. This approach requires a Y-cable connected from your Mac's headphone jack to an unused pair of red and white RCA input jacks on your stereo; you can find these inexpensive cables at an electronics store such as Radio Shack. The main downside of this approach is that you may not find it convenient to locate your Mac physically close to the stereo (see " MP3 Jukebox Gadgets " for some solutions).

Step 4: Rip Your Audio CDs

With your Mac and speakers set up and the MP3 software installed, you're ready to turn your audio CD collection into MP3 files. Be forewarned that encoding will take time on older Macs, perhaps up to twice as long as it would take to play the CD. I found it convenient to put a pile of CDs next to my MP3 Mac and encode them whenever I thought of it. If you're in a hurry, consider encoding on a faster Mac and copying the files to your MP3 Mac later. Also, you can save laborious typing of track names if you encode your CDs on a Mac with an Internet connection, since both iTunes and Audion can download the names of audio CD tracks from the Internet-based CDDB database.

When it's time to choose encoding settings, it's best to start with the default settings, which means 128 Kbps (kilobits per second) in Audion and 160 Kbps in iTunes. If your ears are sensitive enough to hear quality loss after you've encoded at the default settings, try again at a higher bit rate, such as 160 Kbps or 192 Kbps. One significant drawback is that files encoded at higher bit rates take up more hard drive space. (See " MP3 to Go," February 2000, for more information.)

Step 5: Create Playlists and Play

When you start using your MP3 jukebox, you might just play a single album at a time. But you can do so much more with MP3 files.

All MP3 players can shuffle songs randomly, just like traditional multidisc CD players. The difference is that with your MP3 jukebox, you are able to shuffle hundreds or even thousands of songs, as opposed to just those from the few CDs that fit in your CD player. It's your very own radio station.

You can also create playlists--collections of songs just like those compilation tapes you made back in college, only they're not limited to a 90-minute cassette. You might start with a playlist of your all-time favorites, of all your jazz recordings, or of just Beatles songs. Once you've gotten the hang of it, how about a playlist of dance music, or music you like to listen to while making dinner, or quiet evening music? Only your imagination limits the ways you can mix and match your music.

The Last Word

You may not be able to stock your new jukebox with free music from Napster anymore, but that's not so important. Building an MP3 jukebox lets you appreciate the music you already own--in ways that only recently became possible. And even better, if you're like me, you'll get a warm fuzzy feeling from using your old Mac to infuse your stereo system with intelligence.

Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is the publisher of TidBits ( www.tidbits.com ), the author of numerous books and articles about Macs and the Internet, and the president of the Info-Mac Network.

MP3 Jukebox Gadgets

You can enhance your MP3 jukebox with a transmitter, for sending MP3 audio to your stereo, and a remote control, for controlling MP3 software from a distance.

Transmitters and Receivers What do you do if your MP3-playing Mac is across the room from your stereo's amplifier and speakers? Akoo's $100 Kima KS-110 and RF-Link's $120 Cam Pro (3.5 mice. and 2.5 mice. , respectively) use a transmitter attached to your Mac to broadcast audio to a stereo-connected receiver. Both devices work roughly like cordless phones--the Kima transmits in the commonly used 900MHz band, while the Cam Pro operates in the 2.4GHz band, like newer cordless phones. The Kima comes with all the cables you need and features a pass-through jack for plugging additional speakers into the transmitting Mac so you can both transmit audio to your stereo and listen to it on speakers connected to your Mac. The Cam Pro is designed to transmit audio and video, so it includes video cables; you'll need to buy another cable to connect your Mac's headphone jack to the Cam Pro's RCA jacks.

Remote Control If the perfect spot for your MP3 jukebox Mac is some-place relatively inaccessible, you can control your MP3 software via Keyspan's $49 Digital Media Remote (3.5 mice. ). This credit card-size remote sends infrared commands to a receiver connected to the Mac's USB port (you'll need to add a PCI or PC Card USB adapter to your old Mac). The device requires a line of sight to its receiver, and its software can control any Mac application by simulating keyboard shortcuts.

MP3 Jukebox Tips

• MP3 ServerIf you store your MP3 files on a networked Mac running Mac OS 9's File Sharing over TCP/IP, you can play them from any Mac on your network, even machines using an AirPort wireless network.

• Backup BonusWhen you're making a backup of your Mac (you are backing up, aren't you?), it's best to exclude MP3 files. They take up vast amounts of space, they don't compress, and you can always encode them again should calamity strike. Another approach would be to burn them to CD-R for a backup that you can also play in portable MP3-CD players.

• Universal Pause ButtonIn iTunes or Audion, to pause playback quickly if the phone rings, just press the space bar (other MP3 players may use a different keyboard shortcut). Press it again to resume play. If you're running other applications on your MP3 jukebox, use a macro program to create a hot key that switches to the MP3 program and presses the space bar for you.

All Together Now: The single-window interface of iTunes works well for a dedicated MP3 jukebox, since you don't have to open, arrange, and close numerous windows to access controls and playlists.
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