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Alternative Music Formats

MP3, AAC, and OGG files are great because they are small, but they use lossy compression. AIFF and WAV files are prized for their CD-quality sound, but they take up a lot of room on a hard drive. If you're looking for a middle ground, take a gander at some other audio codecs gaining popularity: SHN (Shorten), FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec), and APE (Monkey's Audio).

These file formats all utilize lossless compression, which means that they don't throw out musical data in order to achieve smaller sizes -- they're just like StuffIt or Zip archives, but they're designed specifically for music. The files are bigger than most of what you'll find in your iTunes Library -- about half the size of AIFF files, or around 5MB per minute -- but are musically indistinguishable from standard audio-CD files.

For that reason, SHN and FLAC are being used extensively for online music trading of live concerts from bands, such as moe and the Grateful Dead, that allow fans to tape their shows. Thousands of such recordings are available as free downloads from the nonprofit Internet Archive (www.archive.org).

And bands including Phish (www.livephish.com), Steve Kimock Band (www.digitalsoundboard.net), Primus (www.primuslive.com), and Metallica (www.livemetallica.com) are selling downloadable soundboard recordings of many of their concerts, in both MP3 and FLAC (the latter format costs a few dollars more, mostly because the file sizes are larger and download times are greater). Eight-string jazz guitar artist Charlie Hunter (www.charliehunter.com), whose live performances are freely traded, is also selling three of his studio albums as MP3 or FLAC digital downloads.

If you're interested in encoding or decoding any of these formats, download Scott Brown's xACT (X Audio Compression Toolkit) 1.3, a free GUI for the Shorten, FLAC, and APE command-line tools (available at http://etree.org). Neither iTunes nor the iPod can play any of these formats, but Slim Devices' Squeezebox can stream FLAC, along with many other formats. The now defunct Subband Software is giving away its shareware music player MacAmp Lite X (find.macworld.com/0004). Download the 1.5b version (which includes plug-ins for playing SHN and FLAC files), and enter the registration codes listed on the site. The free MPlayer OS X (   ; Mac Gems, February 2004; http://mplayerosx.sourceforge.net) and VLC Media Player 0.7.1a (   ; " More Mac Software Bargains," May 2003; www.videolan.org) can also play FLAC files. And of course, using xACT, you can decode any of the mentioned lossless formats to AIFF or WAV, to burn to a CD or compress with iTunes. -- jonathan seff

Beyond MP3 Several bands, including Phish, sell their concerts as MP3 or FLAC files (top), and with xACT, you can connect them to AIFF files for burning, or compress your own tunes (bottom).
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