Casady & Greene last week released SoundJam MP Plus 2.1, a free update to the company's popular (if awkwardly named) MP3 player and encoder. That reminded me that I'd somehow missed writing about the update to version 2.0, which added numerous features and introduced a free version called SoundJam MP Free, which offers a reduced feature set and the capability to encode only 30 songs. Let's catch up quickly.
SoundJam 2.0 -- The April release of SoundJam 2.0 added several major features along with numerous enhancements to the basic functionality that Casady & Greene had been improving through versions 1.1, 1.5, and 1.6. Among the features and enhancements were:
Support for contextual menus, so you can Control-click a song to get more information about it, find the original MP3 file, or convert the song's ID3 tags. As we've become accustomed to using contextual menus, support for them in new places becomes increasingly welcome.
An alarm clock feature that can start playing music at a specified time and day. Also included is a sleep timer that plays music for a specified period of time, then either stops, quits SoundJam, puts the Mac to sleep, or shuts down.
A Playlist Composer that, although slow, builds playlists based on criteria you specify and can limit the playlist to a specific amount of time or file size (if you're downloading to a portable MP3 player).
The capability to submit information to the CDDB (the Web-based database that publishes information about CD names, track titles, and more). No more being annoyed that your work in entering track titles won't benefit anyone else.
The capability to apply equalization settings, volume adjustments, and custom start and stop times to individual tracks. These features can be handy since volume levels vary between different CDs. You can now also trim unwanted time at the beginning of a track or unnecessary applause at the end of a live song.
Improved AppleScript support.
A karaoke mode, presumably so you can embarrass yourself at home before attempting it in public.
Support for playing and recording from the sound input set in the Sound control panel. Finally, you can encode MP3 files directly from records, cassette tapes, electric guitars, voice, or anything else you can hook to the microphone or audio in jacks on your Mac.
Substantially reduced CPU usage during playback and improved performance while adding large numbers of files to a playlist. SoundJam can also preload an entire file into memory to save battery life on PowerBooks and iBooks.
SoundJam MP Free -- Although the changes in SoundJam 2.0 probably warranted a full version number change on their own, the move that really justified the number bump was the release of the free SoundJam MP Free 2.0, now also updated to version 2.1. SoundJam MP Free acts as a demo for the full version for a period of 14 days, although you can encode only 30 songs within that time. After 14 days, you lose encoding capabilities entirely, along with the playlist composer and the alarm clock functionality. Other features that aren't available after the 14 trial period include:
- Access to the equalizer and per-track volume and equalizer settings.
- Support for skins (alternate interfaces for the player).
- Support for video and audio plug-ins, in case your lava lamp is broken.
- The capability to connect to portable MP3 players.
SoundJam MP Free ends up being a perfectly reasonable MP3 player with a solid feature set. I think Casady & Greene did a good job in removing the more interesting functionality that could entice users to spring for the full SoundJam MP Plus. If you've had trouble overcoming the inertia to try working with MP3s, try SoundJam MP Free - it's a 2.5 MB download and will work fine for encoding songs on two or three of your favorite CDs to MP3 format.
SoundJam 2.1 -- The recently released SoundJam 2.1 continues to add new features without requiring users to pay for an update. The major new feature in 2.1 is the capability to work with Adaptec's Toast 4.1 or later to create audio CDs directly from SoundJam. Other improvements include:
Continuous CD playback without interruptions between adjacent tracks.
Support for a variety of new portable MP3 players, including the Rio 500 and Rio 600, the Nike psa[play, and the Nomad II and Nomad II MG. SoundJam can also update the firmware for several of these devices.
The capability to start playback when you open a playlist. Plus, SoundJam can now re-shuffle playlists each time you open them.
Support for RealJukebox Music Package (RMP) files. You can also enter .pls, .m3u, and .rmp files as URLs to play them.
Shortcuts for expanding and collapsing playlists folders.
Improved encoding quality, even beyond the improved quality in 2.0 and previous versions. It's good to see Casady & Greene focusing on encoding quality, since few people are going to go to the effort of testing each MP3 encoder to find the best one, as Jerry Kindall did in his two-part "Making MP3s" series.
SoundJam 2.1 costs $40 online, or $50 if you want a CD, a stereo cable for your Mac, and a printed manual in a box. Keep in mind that it requires a 100 MHz PowerPC 603-based Mac or faster, and prefers a PowerPC G3 or PowerPC G4-based Mac for best results. The update is free to registered users; it's a 2.7 MB download.
SoundJam for Mac OS X -- For programmers who are running developer releases of Mac OS X and can't live without music on the Mac, Casady & Greene has posted a free update to SoundJam MP Plus so it works under the pre-releases of Mac OS X. Needless to say, it's unsupported, but it's good to see Casady & Greene putting the work into developing for Carbon and letting developers have access to the results early on.
Future Enhancements -- Tonya and I are serious users of SoundJam and have been since early versions. Although some of our irritations with the previous versions have been addressed over time, others remain.
It's still too difficult to find and play songs from a specific album or artist. You can type to select a song title, but that typing should either also match artist and album names (if showing in the playlist), or typing should be linked to the Listed by setting in the playlist; for instance, if your playlist is listed by artist, typing should select artist names, not songs.
Although the Playlist Composer is a major step forward in creating playlists automatically, it's too slow to use more than occasionally (searches through 900+ songs take about 45 seconds on my 450 MHz Power Mac G4). Since you're never sure what you'll get, the slow speed makes experimentation painful. It also feels as though it was designed more for creating playlists to download to portable MP3 players than to give users a fast way of creating ad hoc playlists (play rock recorded before 1975, for instance). SoundJam still needs a better way of letting users quickly create and play categories of music.
SoundJam would benefit by mimicking Eudora's clever Option-click to select similar items shortcut. That way, no matter how a playlist was sorted, you could Option-click on an artist, album, or genre to select matching tracks.
Better network support would be welcome. I'm now serving my MP3s from a Power Mac 8500 running AppleShare IP 6.3, and until I made sure to mount the disks containing the MP3 files via TCP/IP rather than AppleTalk, short freezes were common as SoundJam loaded the next song in the playlist.
Since SoundJam installs an extension that assigns names from the CDDB to audio CDs and their tracks, it would be helpful if it could also provide a system-wide pause hotkey to make it easier to pause SoundJam when the phone rings.
By default, SoundJam has a huge database of music that I like. I'd like to see Casady & Greene add some sort of music recommendation service based on collaborative filtering with other SoundJam users. A competing program, MusicMatch, offers this functionality already, and they've just released a beta version of their software for the Macintosh.
These suggestions are relatively minor, but SoundJam has progressed to the point where the basics are well-covered, so what remains is interface polishing and work on innovative new approaches to dealing with digital music.