Paul Sellars offers some advice on what musicians should look for when for choosing Internet audio software, and introduces the best of the current slew of Windows applications.
To say that MP3 is a popular audio format on the Internet would be something of an understatement. Equally, to say that there's 'no shortage' of MP3‑related software to choose from would also be putting it mildly. There is a bewildering variety of freeware, shareware and commercial encoders, decoders, file managers, virtual 'jukeboxes', search tools and self‑styled 'all‑in‑one' applications available. Faced with such an excess of choices, it can be difficult to know where to begin — especially for those who may be new to MP3 and music on the Internet.
For the majority of MP3 'consumers' there are probably two 'must‑have' applications: Napster (or possibly a Gnutella or Hotline client) for searching for and trading files with other MP3 enthusiasts, and a decoder (such as Winamp, see page 82) for playing the MP3s they find. For musicians and producers, however, choosing the right MP3 encoder is likely to be a more important consideration. An encoder is what you use to shrink bulky, uncompressed PCM audio from your DATs, CDs or WAV files into smaller, compressed MP3 files suitable for uploading to your web site and sharing with the world. As your encoder is thus responsible for creating the end product your audience downloads and hears, you'll want to be sure you're using a top‑quality program capable of encoding pristine, high‑fidelity MP3s which do justice to your hours of hard work in the studio.
Well, tough. It's not going to happen.
Sadly, everything you may have heard about downloadable 'CD‑quality' audio and MP3 is exaggeration, misinformation and recording industry propaganda. MP3 categorically does not provide CD‑quality audio, and listening to that MP3 you found on Napster is no substitute for hearing the same track coming off a CD bought in your local record shop. In terms of sound quality, there is simply no comparison. Equally, you are likely to be somewhat disappointed by the marked differences between your polished, perfect master and any MP3 version your encoding software spits out.
This is not to say that MP3 encoding is a waste of time, however. On the contrary, it's arguably the case that the majority of Internet music listeners are well aware of the shortcomings of MP3 and similar formats, and consciously use online file sharing systems like Napster as a way of hearing 'lo‑fi' previews of tracks before deciding what CDs and records to buy. By selecting the right material to encode and experimenting to find the appropriate settings in your encoding software, it should be quite possible to create MP3s that will sound perfectly acceptable over the average Internet user's 'multimedia' computer speakers, and which will hopefully inspire people to find out more about you and your music.
We could sum up by saying that the key to achieving satisfying results with MP3 is not to have unrealistic expectations of the format. Remember that MP3 is, first and foremost, a method of data compression. Given the current state of the Internet, it would be completely impractical for the majority of users to download true 'CD‑quality' PCM audio files, as the hundreds of megabytes required for an average CD's worth of music could literally take days to download with a 56.6 kbps modem and a domestic telephone line. By reducing audio files to around a tenth of their original size, without completely destroying their sound quality, MP3 has made it possible for full‑length recordings of music to be distributed online.
The 'perceptual coding' technology that allows MP3 to discard such large quantities of what would conventionally be considered essential audio data is extremely clever (see my article in SOS May 2000) — but it's not magic. Anybody who is familiar with the workings of digital audio will be aware that there is a direct correlation between the quantity of data generated in making a recording, and the quality and fidelity of that recording. Removing data from a recording, no matter how ingeniously, will have detrimental effects on the quality of that recording: some quantisation noise may be introduced, the frequency response and dynamic range may be impaired, and so on. MP3 may be capable of disguising these problems to some extent, but it is not immune to them. This should be borne in mind when choosing an MP3 encoder.
Obviously, the first consideration when evaluating an encoder is its sound quality: how 'faithful' is its output to the PCM source it encodes? However, because of the peculiar nature of MP3 and other so‑called 'perceptual codecs', it is extremely difficult to devise effective, objective measurements of encoder performance. If, instead of MP3 encoders, we happened to be comparing different PC soundcards, not only could we perform listening tests (to evaluate subjective sound quality), but we could also compare the signal‑to‑noise ratios of the different cards (to evaluate objective performance). However, with MP3 the latter approach is really not appropriate.
Since the only way MP3 can achieve its impressive feats of data compression is by discarding quite large quantities of audio data, and since doing so inevitably leads to a significant reduction in sound quality, it really wouldn't make much sense to measure exactly how much distortion one encoder or another introduced to an audio signal. The short answer to the question 'How much noise does this encoder produce?' will always be 'Frankly, too much'. While it would be possible to compare the output of various different encoders, and determine which of them was technically the 'cleanest', this would be rather missing the point. The real measure of encoder performance is not how much or how little noise is present in the files it encodes, but rather how noticeable and distracting that noise is when the files are played. With MP3, the goal is to strategically distribute the noise that the encoding process inevitably produces in such a way that it is 'masked' by more prominent elements in the recording. The only method for determining how successfully this has been achieved is the listening test, and listening tests tend to produce inconsistent results, since different listeners hear things slightly differently.
What this is all leading up to is that, as far as MP3 is concerned, sound quality is largely subjective. When choosing an MP3 encoder you should thus ignore the opinions of journalists and other know‑alls, and be guided by what your own ears are telling you. Encoding two or three quite different sounding tracks (a death metal anthem, a country ballad and an operatic aria, for example) with different encoders, and then comparing the resulting MP3s — both with each other and with the original source recordings — should help you decide which encoder seems to produce the best results overall.
While sound quality may be difficult to quantify, there is at least one element of encoder performance that is easy to measure and compare: encoding speed. MP3 encoding is a relatively complex process and places a significant load on your computer's CPU. Encoding can thus be a fairly time‑consuming procedure, and any encoder that is capable of getting the job done quickly will be attractive to a prospective user.
However, 'bench tests' conducted with the encoders featured here quickly revealed that there is little or nothing to choose between them as far as speed is concerned: they all managed to encode the same 36.4Mb, 16‑bit, 44.1kHz stereo WAV file as a 128 kbps 'joint stereo' MP3 in just under three minutes on my not‑particularly‑high‑end PC (a 400MHz Intel Celeron with 64Mb RAM). There may be one or two slightly faster encoders available (there are certainly a few slower ones) and, if you're very impatient, you might decided to make encoder speed your first priority. Be aware, however, that some users complain that faster encoder speeds are sometimes achieved at the expense of sound quality.
Paradoxically, another option to be considered when selecting MP3 software is support for other file formats. While MP3 is by far and away the most popular file format for audio on the Net at the moment, it does not have a complete monopoly. RealNetworks' RealAudio format has long been used by a number of web sites to provide low‑bit‑rate 'streaming' audio content, and several MP3 packages now support it. Similarly, Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) format is viewed by some as a possible replacement for MP3, offering, as it does, comparable sound quality and data compression. Although WMA is currently nothing like as popular as MP3, it is already supported by many applications, both for encoding and decoding.
Without wishing to come over too much like a jaded and cynical journalist, one has to say that what is perhaps most striking about the current, swollen market for MP3 and Internet audio software is a profound lack of originality on the part of most software developers. It's a competitive marketplace, and it's entirely understandable that companies should be eager to ensure that their products offer comparable functionality to those of their competitors. Software can become obsolete alarmingly quickly in this day and age, and it would be an unwise programmer who didn't keep a close eye on the newest gimmicks and gadgets offered by his rivals. However, the net effect of this 'features arms race' is that it has now become extremely difficult to draw any meaningful distinctions between most currently available programs. With perhaps one or two exceptions from the dodgy freeware end of the market, more or less every developer has devised a fast, efficient encoding engine capable of producing good‑sounding results, with support for both constant and variable bit rates. Almost every encoder is capable of playing, ripping and encoding audio from CDs. All the better packages support file dumps to portable hardware players like the Rio and Nomad. Convenient audio CD‑burning capabilities are increasingly commonplace. There is little variation in price between most packages and, since many of them allow you to alter their appearance via the use of plug‑ins known as 'skins', one can no longer even cop out and make a choice on the grounds of which one looks nice. Some other common features include:
- Visualisation options
Common amongst decoders and 'all‑in‑one' packages, 'visualisation' plug‑ins generating colourful, hallucinatory patterns which change in response to the music are increasingly hard to avoid. These are clearly of no practical use, and if you don't think you'll enjoy staring glassy‑eyed at your monitor for hours on end, you might want to consider opting for a more functional 'bare bones' package — or one which allows you the option not to install its visualisation functions.
- DSP effects
Also frequently found in decoders and 'jukebox' applications, DSP and effects functions are something of a mixed bag. At their best, they may offer a simple graphic equaliser for boosting selected frequencies, and can provide a useful way to compensate for the sonic shortcomings of some MP3 files on playback. At their worst, DSP plug‑ins may tempt you with the opportunity to recreate, for example, the, er, 'conducive' atmosphere of a 'Bavarian Beerhall' by drowning your tracks in a not‑too‑subtle reverb. Perhaps an interesting exercise for the software developers, but a waste of time and space for the end user.
- CD burning
Almost every encoder these days boasts the ability to 'rip' audio from CDs prior to encoding it, and an increasing number now support the reverse procedure. Provided your computer is equipped with a CD‑RW drive, many of today's 'all‑in‑one' MP3 applications are capable of burning your MP3 and WMA files to data CDs, and some can even automatically decode compressed files and burn them as Red Book audio CDs. This is a nice touch, although one has to wonder how much of a selling point it really is when you consider that the vast majority of CD‑RW drives sold are bundled with perfectly capable (and, in some cases, superior) CD‑authoring software anyway.
The Compact Disc DataBase (CDDB) is, as its name suggests, an extensive online database of artist names, song and album titles, and track numbers and times taken from seemingly just about every audio CD ever released. Anybody can add a CD's details to the database, and many MP3 programs are capable of accessing CDDB (provided an Internet connection is available) in order to retrieve data about an audio CD in your computer's CD‑ROM drive. In the case of decoders that double as audio CD players (as many do), the relevant information is simply displayed as each track plays. In the case of encoders, this CDDB data can be used to write 'ID3 tags' into any MP3s that are encoded from tracks on the CD. Some or all of this ID3 tag data will typically be displayed by a decoder as the files are played.
The latter kind of CDDB capabilities do away with the need to enter ID3 tags by hand, for any MP3s that are encoded from a CD well‑known enough to be registered in the CDDB database. They are thus a labour‑saving godsend for people who frequently encode MP3s from commercially available CDs (for personal use only, presumably, since to distribute such MP3s online would be an infringement of copyright). However, unless you are encoding tracks from a CD of your own, to which you (rather than your publisher or label) own the exclusive copyright, and which has been commercially successful enough for somebody else to have already taken the time to register it with CDDB, it's questionable how useful CDDB support in an encoder really is.
Paul Sellars is the author of the forthcoming Wizoo Guide To MP3, soon to be available in the SOS bookshop and elsewhere. Surf to www.wizoo.com for more details.
A good all‑round Internet audio package, the Earjam IMP (Internet Music Player) encodes and decodes MP3 and WMA files, as well as playing and ripping from audio CDs. Audio CDs can be burned from playlists, with MP3 and WMA files being decoded automatically as necessary. File dumps to the usual popular portable hardware players can be performed, and IMP will also upload files to a 3Gb online 'storage locker', one of which is supplied for each user by www.myplay.com. The built‑in 'Audiobot' MP3 search engine is a nice touch in theory, although in practice it seemed to produce rather disappointing results.
The Earjam IMP is an easy and intuitive decoder, with all the customary playlist functions, and some suitably psychotropic visualisation options. It rips and encodes audio quickly and the results sound good. A restricted version of the IMP can be downloaded free of charge, although since this free version is limited to 20 encodes, it should really be thought of as more of a demo. However, $29 seems a perfectly reasonable price to pay for the full version of a program of this quality, and if you're in the market for a good all‑rounder, the Earjam IMP has a lot to recommend it.
Free version available (limited to 20 encodes); full Deluxe version $29.
Cakewalk are already well‑known for their MIDI + Audio sequencing software, but Pyro represents their first foray into the MP3 and Internet music market. It's a comprehensive and, relative to its competitors, fairly expensive package, which seems to be marketed with the emphasis as much on its CD authoring capabilities as its ability to encode and decode MP3 and WMA formats. It comes bundled with some fairly respectable CD labelling software, a blank CD‑R and a well‑written and nicely presented manual — which, to be fair, makes for a much more substantial package than most of its cheaper rivals.
The program itself is well laid‑out, boasting a commendably 'no‑nonsense', vaguely Windows Explorer‑esque interface, with all the major functions accessible via a couple of mouse clicks. MP3 and WMA encoding and decoding tasks are easily performed by selecting the desired output format from the 'Convert file(s) to...' sub‑menu on the 'File' menu. Ripping CD tracks to WAV, MP3 or WMA is similarly straightforward: click once on the 'Copy from CD' button, select the format of the file to be created and a folder to save it in, and then click 'Copy to Folder'. Audio is extracted and encoded quickly, and the results sound very respectable.
Playlists of tracks in all the supported file formats (which also include WAV and CD audio tracks) can be compiled and saved — and burning an audio CD from a playlist is simply a matter of opening the desired list and clicking 'Burn CD'.
Other features offered by Pyro include support for file dumps to Nomad and Rio portable players, a number of DSP options (with support for DirectX plug‑ins) for processing audio on playback, and a built‑in browser window for viewing the Cakewalk homepage and downloading upgrades. All in all, a well‑designed and capable addition to the 'all‑in‑one' Internet audio software market.
Full package £39 including VAT, or $39 as a download from Cakewalk web site.
Probably the most popular 'all‑in‑one' package for Windows, MusicMatch Jukebox is a CD ripper, an MP3 and WMA encoder, and a good all‑round digital audio player. Playlists can be created and edited in the usual fashion, or you can have the slightly gimmicky 'Auto DJ' function create them for you, according to criteria that you specify. Once again, playlists can be exported as WAV files or burned as audio CDs, and there are also functions for creating 'jewel case' inlays from a playlist, although these are only available to users who pay for the enhanced version. Other features include a 10‑band graphic equaliser, some support for common video file formats (provided Windows Media Player is installed) and the ability to dump files to several popular portable MP3 players.
Whereas the free versions of many comparable programs are really little more than restricted demos, with MusicMatch Jukebox you really can get something for nothing. Although there is an improved version available for $19.99, the freeware incarnation of MusicMatch Jukebox has almost all of the same functionality, and really could be the only Internet audio program you'll need. If you feel extravagant enough to spend the princely sum of $19.99, the 'registered' version promises faster ripping and encoding, along with one or two other enhancements. A new Mac version of MusicMatch Jukebox with practically identical features is now available too.
Free version available; enhanced version $19.99.
EasyMP3 is a high‑quality encoder with an innovative, unobtrusive front end that makes MP3 encoding as easy and straightforward as the most common of Windows tasks. Following the example of their own N2MP3 encoder for the Mac, Proteron have sought to integrate basic MP3 encoding facilities with the computer's operating system. In practice this means that, once EasyMP3 has been installed, it's simply a matter of right‑clicking on a suitable file (such as a WAV or CD audio track). The new option 'Encode File' appears in the standard drop‑down menu, and this launches EasyMP3's control panel, which provides quick and easy access to all of the necessary settings. The novice user can choose his or her desired bit rate and quality setting (the options are 'Faster', 'Medium' and 'Better Quality') and then just click OK and let EasyMP3 get on with it. More advanced users can explore a few other options, such as the choice between constant‑ or variable‑bit‑rate encoding, different stereo modes and CDDB settings.
Compared to some of the other programs on test here, EasyMP3 might seem to be a bit lacking in the features department: it is a plain and simple MP3 encoder, and makes no effort to be any more than that. It is also the only program featured that offers no support whatever for the Windows Media Audio format. Nevertheless, for my money, these omissions are compensated for by its excellent, unobtrusive design and its good and reasonably quick encoding. Used in conjunction with Winamp or Sonique, it's a powerful and cost‑effective tool that makes up probably the more important half of your Internet audio armoury.
Streambox Ripper is an encoder with one significant difference: not only can it extract or 'rip' music from audio CDs, and convert and encode between WAV, MP3 and WMA formats, but it also has the ability to convert RealAudio streams (with the suffix RA or RM) to WAV, MP3 and WMA formats. This enables users to take music and audio that could normally only be heard using RealNetwork's RealPlayer software, and convert it to much more useful and portable formats, such as WAV and MP3. There is a huge amount of music and spoken‑word material available in the RealAudio format, and Streambox Ripper makes it much more accessible.
In addition to encoding and file conversion, Streambox Ripper can also be used to decode and play content, although only WAV, MP3 and WMA formats are supported. There are also no playlist capabilities to speak of, and consequently Streambox Ripper is unlikely to be anybody's first choice as a digital music player. However, this is really not the niche it sets out to fill, and the playback facilities provided are perfectly sufficient to allow for convenient previewing of material. At $34.95, Streambox Ripper is not cheapest encoder available, but in view of its simple and effective design, ease of use and comprehensive features, it would be well worth considering for anybody looking to buy some powerful software for encoding and converting Internet audio files.
$34.95; also available as a free trial version limited to 10 encoding/decoding sessions.
Nullsoft's Winamp was one of the first really usable MP3 players for Windows, and its success arguably did a lot to help establish the format. It pioneered many of the design ideas that are now de facto standards for MP3 software, and it is probably still the most popular MP3 decoder and general‑purpose PC audio player available. Its appearance is stylish and understated, although it can be altered with 'skins' (a Winamp invention), of which countless numbers are available for download. With intuitive and flexible playlisting functions, a CDDB‑equipped CD player and support for MP3, WMA, WAV and a number of more obscure formats, Winamp is an extremely functional and useful program to have around. It's stable, reliable, and not as system‑hungry as many of its competitors.
Other perks include a useful graphic EQ and a built‑in 'mini‑browser' to help you find files online. In fact, the only thing that is missing from Winamp is any kind of encoding capability — although as it is specifically designed to be a lightweight, flexible audio player, this is hardly a criticism. Remarkably, Winamp is available to download completely free of charge, and should be considered an essential edition to any Windows software library.
Sonique is perhaps Winamp's only serious competitor in the field of free audio players for Windows. It offers broadly comparable features (with one or two minor omissions, such as CDDB support) and is an equally solid and stable application to use. It's a little more system‑hungry than Winamp, although not so much that it will cause problems on any but the oldest Pentium‑based systems. Sonique's chief selling point is probably its appearance: it is by default a very good‑looking program, and can be cycled through three different display modes, any of which would make a fetching addition to even the most discerning of desktops. If the default front end doesn't appeal to you, a growing number of skins are available for free download. If you're looking for an audio player, and you aren't immediately impressed by Winamp, you should definitely try Sonique, as these two are head and shoulders above their nearest rivals.