So you want to join the digital music revolution but aren’t quite sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place. We’ll tell you what kind of equipment you need–and what you can do to get rolling.
Any job is easier and more pleasurable with the proper tools. To enjoy music on your PC, the most important thing to consider is your sound card. We recommend Creative Labs‘ $100 Audigy 2 or Terratec‘s $229 DMX 6Fire LT, or a similar high-quality card.
For the best (speaker) sound, you might want to invest in a better speaker system. Your PC may have come with a pair of standard speakers, which often will render only mediocre sound. Give a critical listen–perhaps comparing the sound with your home entertainment center–and let your ears decide whether you want to upgrade. If you’re interested in games and movies as well, you should think about getting a good 5.1 Surround Sound system, such as Logitech‘s $80 Z-640. However, audiophiles will want a set of reference-quality speakers, with flat frequency response that doesn’t artificially augment the sound. A good example is Behringer‘s $400 B2031 Truth Monitors .
To render first-rate sound, you don’t need a state-of-the-art PC. Even old 166-MHz clunkers will let you play digital music. For serious recording and editing, however, we recommend at least a 1-GHz processor, a 40GB (or bigger) hard drive, and 256MB of memory–specs well below what you’ll find on an average entry-level machine.
Music Files: Compressed Versus Uncompressed
On the music front itself, there are two basic classes of digital or digitized music storage: uncompressed (raw) and compressed.
Space allowing, the raw files used on both CDs (.cda when viewed from within your operating system) and on PCs (.wav on the PC and .aiff on the Mac) are always preferable for recording and transferring from CD to CD, because there’s no loss of data involved.
Compressed audio files, such as MP3, which have data squeezed out of them, are anywhere from one-tenth to one-twentieth the size of a raw file, and are used when space is of primary concern. Case in point: A 128MB MP3 player can hold 30 to 50 compressed songs but only about 3 raw CD tracks. Compressed files don’t have quite the fidelity of raw files, but depending on the type and ratio of compression used, the quality can come very close.
So how do you record, handle, and play back digital music? Read on.
CD to Computer
To get tunes from your CDs onto your computer, you need to use what’s called a ripper–a software program that copies the .wav file data byte by byte to your hard drive, adjusting file format as necessary. This is known as digital audio extraction or DAE. Any decent CD-burning package, such as Roxio‘s $100 Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 or Ahead Software‘s $100 Nero 6 will rip raw .wav files; file players, such as MusicMatch and RealOne Player will also handle the job. For ripping chores, Windows Media Player will only save in WMA format.
Raw .wav files run about 10MB per minute of stereo music, so make sure you have plenty of hard drive space before you start. Also, some early CD-ROM drives don’t support the raw-read protocol required for DAE–check your drive manual if in doubt. Our advice: Don’t use a non-DAE drive’s distortion-inducing analog outputs–get a new drive. And before you assume that your ripped files are free from audible defects, listen to them. Some optical drives and software don’t rip reliably at high speed, so drop your rip speed down to 4X or so if you hear crackles or other artifacts in your ripped files.
Once you’ve ripped your tracks, they’re ready to burn to CD-R/RW, be compressed, or be transferred to an audio file player (you can also rip and save directly to MP3 or another compressed format).If you’re burning, CD-R is by far the most compatible media, but a growing number of players will play CD-RW discs, which can be reused when you grow tired of your mix. Any CD-burning package on the market and a large number of file players, including Windows Media Player and Apple iTunes, will burn audio CDs. For comprehensive step-by-step instructions on ripping and burning, check out “How to Burn Without Getting Singed.”
Cassette and LP to Digital
Recording music from a tape cassette or vinyl LPs to your computer is a relatively simple process, but the better your equipment, the better the results. Cassette decks generally have a high enough output level, and you can hook your deck directly to your PC’s sound inputs. However, you will need to hook up a turntable to your stereo/tuner or a dedicated preamp. Pinnacle‘s $100 Clean Plus, for example, includes a USB preamp. Rule of thumb for audio connections: The less wire between the sound and the computer the better–digital connections are best.
Once you’re hooked up, you’ll need recording software, which runs from the simple and free Windows Media Recorder to a full-on professional package like Steinberg‘s $800 Cubase SX. Make sure to record at the highest sample rate available for better signal-to-noise ratios and more accurate post-recording processing. In other words, the higher the sample rate, the more accurate your music files will be. Some sound cards allow 96-KHz/24-bit recording, though 44.1-KHz/16-bit is fine for most users.
If you want to remove tape hiss or clicks and scratch noises, you’ll need an audio-restoration program. Both Roxio’s Easy CD & DVD Creator and Ahead Software’s Nero provide decent restoration capabilities, but for best results, a dedicated audio-restoration program such as Pinnacle System‘s $50 Clean or Waves‘ super high-end $1200 Restoration is in order.
You can keep your higher sample rate files, but you’ll need to save your music as 44.1-KHz/16-bit files for burning to CD.
Compress Your Files, Choose Your Formats
The need to fit more music in less space is what has driven the MP3 revolution. MP3 (short for “MPEG-1, Layer 3”) is an audio CODEC (compressor/decompressor or encoder/decoder), which squashes audio for storage and unsquashes it for playback. But while MP3 started the ball rolling, you’ll find a number of other compressed formats, including WMA (Windows Media Audio), Ogg Vorbis (primarily used by Linux users but available for all platforms), AAC (advance audio coding from MPEG-2/4) for the Mac, ATRAC, and others. All of these are lossy, because they discard a great deal of the original data–much of which the human ear won’t miss–as well as employing other data-reduction techniques. For example, you might notice muddier bass tones, less punch, or less treble in a compressed file.
Which format should you use? That depends entirely on your intended playback device. If you only plan to listen on your computer, you can use whatever’s handy. WMA and Ogg Vorbis are free, MP3 and MP3 Pro are also freely available, as are the RealAudio formats and several others. For Apple users, AAC (MPEG-4) is a good choice, since iTunes supports it. All the CODECs produce excellent quality at around 128 kilobits per second, except for the older MP3, which requires a few more bits in the stream–say, 160 kbps.
However, when it comes to playing your files on hardware devices, MP3 and MP3 Pro are your best bet. As the first format to gain popularity, they play on any device (portable CD player, audio file player, home CD player, and so on) that can play a compressed audio file. Most newer hardware supports the WMA format, so it’s your next-best choice. Apple users will probably gravitate toward AAC, but the only hardware that can handle this format is an iPod. All the other CODECS play on very few (if any) hardware devices, though Sony is using its minidisc ATRAC compression in its latest portable players. On the software side, RealOne can record and play ATRAC files.
Where do you get your CODEC? WMA comes free with Windows Media Player, AAC comes with iTunes, Ogg Vorbis can be downloaded from the Web, MusicMatch offers free consumer-quality MP3 and MP3 Pro encoding, and RealOne offers free RealAudio, ATRAC, and consumer-quality MP3. High-quality MP3 encoding is usually bundled with CD-burning packages or available for many programs as a plug-in (approximately $10 to $20). Since most CD or DVD drives come with one of these packages, most users already have free high-quality MP3 capability.
Play Your Digital Music
Any computer jukebox application such as Winamp or Windows Media Player will play just about any type of music file or music CD.
If you want to play your digitized music on something other than your computer, there are many options. A number of home CD players now play back MP3 files. Sony‘s monstrous CDP-CX455 400 Disc MegaStorage CD Changer could theoretically hold over 4000 hours of music using MP3 CDs–almost half a year of 24-hour listening!
But the sexiest way to play digital music is an audio file player, aka MP3 player. Because of their diminutive size, MP3 players such as IRiver‘s IFP-190T or Sonic Blue‘s Rio S50 give you an incredibly convenient way to carry your music. The drawback: Their small 128MB of flash memory means relatively limited storage. Audio players vary in their support for compressed formats, but all handle MP3, and most handle WMA.
Portable CD players such as Panasonic‘s SL-MP80 and Sony‘s D-NF610 ATRAC3 will also play MP3 CDs. Since each CD can hold about 650MB worth of files, you can fit more songs on CD players than flash-memory-based audio players, but audio players with hard drives such as the 15GB Philips
HD100 are the storage kings. Roughly speaking, each MB equates to a minute of music.
Check out our Top 10 Audio Players and “How to Buy an MP3 Player.”
Where to Get Digital Music
The legality of copying music or any media is a muddled situation at best, but as it stands now, you have the right to make a single copy of any song for your personal use. In real life, the industry probably doesn’t care what you do as long as you are not sharing or selling copies, which is most definitely not legal.
The primary source for digitized music is of course CDs, but there are a number of other legal sources, including MP3.com and Musicmatch MX. You might also want to check out the various music services. See “Online Music: New Hits and Misses” for a comparative review.
Another great source: Internet radio stations (see Radio-Locator, for example). These stations stream digital audio that can be played using Windows Media Player and RealOne. Given that the audio is streamed, it’s nearly impossible to record, and you may not want to: Audio fanatics won’t consider its quality up to snuff.
The Technology Behind the Scenes
To really understand digital music, or more accurately, digitized music, it helps to first define music itself. A simple way to think of music is as a satisfying series of precisely pitched sound waves (notes), played at pleasing time intervals (a rhythm). Get a lot of instruments and a singer going at the same time and you have a bunch of waves, which when recorded become a complex waveform. Digital music is a sequential series of numeric descriptions of this complex waveform. These numeric descriptions are created from analog signals produced by microphones, tape decks, turntables, and so on, using what’s called an AD/DA (analog to digital/digital to analog) converter; you’ll find one on every computer sound card or sound chip.
Once signals have been converted to the digital realm, various methods are used for storing and playing them back. The important things to know here relate to bit streams and samples–the two most common ways of delineating and describing the resolution (or fidelity) of digitized music.
The resolution of a bit stream is described in bits per second, such as the 128 kbps and 192 kbps you might see associated with a compressed audio file, such as an MP3 file. There are also variable bit rates, which use fewer bits to describe less complicated musical moments (like silence) and more bits for loud complex passages. When you see VBR, the rate indicates the maximum number of bits that will be used. In general, higher numbers mean better sound quality and larger file sizes, though this can vary when compression is used.
Samples, or groups of bits that create a snapshot of a waveform at a precise point in time, are described as having both a rate and a width. The 44.1-KHz (rate)/16-bit (width) sample resolution used by the common CD means that 44,100 samples, each 16 bits in size, are recorded or played every second for each stereo channel. That’s about 10MB per minute–a lot of data, even with today’s massive hard drives!