Tower of Song

At the recent Macworld Expo in New York, Steve Jobs introduced Apple's new Power Mac G4 Cube -- a device with a top-loading drive that pops out CDs and DVDs like pieces of electronic toast. Steve Jobs has always wanted the Mac to be an appliance, to be as easy to use as a toaster...but a Mac that can carbonize sliced bread is a Mac with serious hardware problems. No, the appliance that the Mac has replaced for me and Tonya is not a toaster, but a CD player -- thanks to MP3.

It's almost inconceivable that someone reading this column has not heard of MP3, the highly compressed audio-file format that allows you to create data files of songs from a CD. An MP3 retains most of the quality of a CD but uses only a tenth of the space. Using computers to play music has become increasingly common over the last few years because powerful processors can encode and decode MP3s on the fly (no 680X0-based Macs can play MP3 files, and older PowerPC-based Macs have trouble as well).

The first places MP3s caught on were (not surprisingly) college campuses. Students buy more CDs than any other group, but they're also happy to share music with friends rather than to purchase it. Suddenly, MP3s made it possible for college students to record a roommate's CD and share the resulting file with a bunch of other friends without losing sound quality as the file was copied over and over. Copying music is legally and ethically questionable, but that hasn't stopped people from doing it. If anything, the vague taboo of copying music may have helped establish MP3, just as society's hypocritical disdain for illicit pornography helped establish the VCR and played a role in helping e-commerce to mature.

In short, MP3s are hip, and I -- in my early 30s, married, and with an infant -- am not. I can live without the modern clothing styles that would have gotten me laughed out of high school, but falling behind in hip technologies was clearly a problem. So about a year ago, I decided it was time to get into MP3s.

The program that helped me regain a smattering of cool was SoundJam MP ( www.soundjam.com ), written for Casady & Greene by Jeff Robbin and Dave Heller. I've known Jeff and Dave for years. I'm a big fan of Jeff's Conflict Catcher, and Dave Heller used to work with the long-since-acquired Salient Software on products like AutoDoubler and CopyDoubler. So I trusted the source and SoundJam's one-stop solution also offered a compelling alternative to the mishmash of programs for converting, encoding, and playing MP3s that had deterred me from experimenting previously.

So I installed SoundJam on our kitchen Mac, a 250MHz PowerBook G3 that was (at the time) the most powerful computer in the house. I added a pair of decent multimedia speakers I had lying around and started ripping CDs to the PowerBook's seemingly huge 4GB hard disk. Tonya and I were addicted in no time.

But, simply moving our music closer to where we spend time isn't revolutionary - we could have purchased a small bookshelf stereo to accomplish that. What makes the difference is that SoundJam and MP3s turn music into data, and for people as comfortable with computers as we are, that is a sea change.

Think about it. The CD is currently the "unit" of music -- you don't generally play a song, you play all the songs on a CD. People like to make compilation tapes that hold just their favorite songs because that way, each song becomes the relevant unit. While a tape of your favorite music provides a one-time fragmentation and recompilation of music, playing MP3s on a computer lets you denature and recompile music in innumerable ways.

The first thing I did was create a playlist that held all of our Abbey Lincoln CDs -- randomizing it provided relaxing background music for the end of the day. And randomizing our collection of Beatles music helped recreate the Breakfast with the Beatles radio show we'd listened to every Sunday during college. As we continued to wrap our heads around the concept of music as data, our groupings became increasingly arbitrary -- individual songs we liked to listen to at breakfast, songs to dance to with Tristan, and kids' music that Tristan liked. And of course, with most of our CD collection ripped to MP3, we have almost 1,600 songs at our fingertips. We no longer have to wonder where some CD is hiding when we want to hear it.

Perhaps the best part is when SoundJam randomizes a playlist, you never hear a repeat song until everything else has played; our CD player picks randomly from six available CDs and then picks a random song on the selected CD. This means that repeated songs are commonplace, and to a person who has a computer-informed sensibility, that's truly irritating.

Learning to live with MP3s took almost no time at all, but understanding the possibilities of having music as files has taken longer. It was months before I realized that I had music available when working on the PowerBook on planes (and NoiseBuster headphones really do help cancel out plane drone) and in hotel rooms.

When we ran out of disk space on the PowerBook, I moved 4GB of MP3s to our AppleShare IP server, from which any machine in the house can play music (and even better, Tonya's iBook can do it via our AirPort wireless network). That server -- a Power Mac 8500 with a pair of 2GB external hard disks -- is full now, but I'm planning to swap it for a Performa 6400 that's just begging to be outfitted with a spacious 60GB drive. That ought to hold us for some time.

A number of friends with fast Internet connections at home have extended this concept to making their MP3 collections available both on their home networks and to their work computers. Even more interesting is MP3.com 's legally embattled My.MP3.com service, which lets you build an online database of the CDs you own, and once built, lets you stream the songs from those CDs over the Internet to wherever you may be. Music is just data, and it's hard to hear any difference between a song playing from a CD and one playing from an MP3 file you encoded from a CD you own.

We're thinking of replacing our cars' cassette-tape players with some sort of MP3 players as well. A few products are starting to appear, and a friend has even built and installed under her car seat a tiny Linux box with a big hard disk and a Lucent WaveLAN card that she can copy music to over wireless Ethernet. She doesn't have to worry about summer heat damaging tapes or about losing CDs to a thief. And although I don't currently have much use for the palm-size personal MP3 players such as the Diamond Rio and iJam, I would have loved one back in high school when I listened to music constantly, especially when training for cross-country races.

The primary criticism aimed at the MP3 movement has come from the people who currently earn money from the sale of music -- the recording industry and some, but by no means all, individual artists. The MP3 file format makes it as easy to copy music as it is to copy any other file on a computer, and the rise of distributed file sharing technologies like Napster, Gnutella, and Freenet scares the music industry silly. Frankly, the recording industry ought to be scared, because unless they change the way music is sold, they could become irrelevant in no time. Lawsuits, such as the one pending against Napster, will buy a little time, but with the Freenet approach to distributed file sharing, there's simply no way to find out who to sue. The cat's out of the bag, the genie's out of the bottle, and no amount of legal action can close the barn door behind this horse.

In the meantime, we and some friends have found that we buy more music than we ever did before the days of MP3. Playing MP3s is so much simpler and more flexible than playing CDs that it encourages use. And that's where the music industry should concentrate its efforts -- making it easier for people to listen to and pay for music. Perhaps we'll pay $10 per month for all the music we can listen to over the Internet, or perhaps we'll pay a penny per play. But the lesson to be learned is that CDs are just a distribution mechanism as are floppy disks, and in the end, the Internet (via MP3s) will eliminate them just as it has caused a lot of shrink-wrapped software to transmogrify into Internet downloads. It's just a matter of time.

In addition to being an MP3 addict, Contributing Editor ADAM C. ENGST is publisher of TidBits, a newsletter for the Macintosh Internet community.

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