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That MP3eaceful, Easy Feeling, Part 2

In the first part of this article I looked at some basics of MP3 and how I started to become a convert to MP3. Part of the reason it took me so long to understand the beauty of MP3 is that before the arrival of SoundJam, the tasks of converting CD tracks (a process known as "ripping") and playing tracks were handled by separate utilities. With SoundJam, you can pop an audio CD into your CD-ROM drive and view a window listing the tracks on the CD, complete with title and artist information courtesy of the Internet-based CDDB, a huge database of information about CDs. Select some tracks, add them to the Converter window, and then click the Start Converting button. Tweaky options are available if you click the Configure button, but (not knowing what was best) I’ve stuck with the default settings and been happy with the results. Other programs can stand in for SoundJam here; we’ll soon have an article comparing the quality of different MP3 encoders.




Conversion to MP3 using the default settings takes two to three minutes per song, depending on length, and you can keep working in both SoundJam and other applications during the conversion. SoundJam saves MP3 files to a folder named with the title of the CD, using track titles as file names. They’re normal files and you can copy them from machine to machine, back them up, make aliases to them, and manage them as you would any other file.

More important, SoundJam automatically adds newly converted songs to the Master Playlist, a list of all your MP3 files. You can edit the Master Playlist, but it’s merely a representation of the MP3 files on your hard disk. Deleting an item from the Master Playlist doesn’t affect the original file. The Master Playlist optionally displays information about each track, including name, artist, album title, time, size, track number, year, date converted, genre, and file kind. Any column other than the first one (which is set to track name) can contain any of this information (the column headers are drop-down menus). You can add or remove columns by clicking the + or – buttons, and you can change the sorting order as you do in a Finder list view window. In practice, I’ve found most of these optional columns a waste of screen space, but I can see others appreciating the information. Because of SoundJam’s unique way of defining the content of a column, you can’t click a column header to sort by the column, as you would in the Finder. Instead, the first column’s header is a drop-down menu that lets you change the sort order to any of the optional columns, whether or not it’s visible. This means you can sort your Master Playlist by Genre, for instance, even if you don’t want to display the Genre column. I understand the design trade-offs, but I’d prefer standard sorting techniques.

SoundJam picks up some information about each track from the file itself, but it lets you modify other items, including Track Name, Artist, Album, Year, Track Number, and Genre. You might want do this if you disagree with details from the CDDB (personally, I want Beatles songs to sort under B, not T for "The Beatles,"). Another reason to customize this information is to add your own notes, ratings, or categorizations. SoundJam doesn’t provide user-definable fields, but you can co-opt the Track Number and Genre fields if you want, and future versions of SoundJam may offer additional functionality in this area.

SoundJam helps you categorize your MP3 collection in playlists. The Master Playlist is always available, but you can create additional playlists. I’ve started to do this for music that I listen to at different times (breakfast music is different from lunch music) and for music that fits different moods (raucous versus contemplative). You can store playlists anywhere, but if you put them in SoundJam’s Playlists folder, they appear in a hierarchical Open Playlist menu in SoundJam’s File menu. Playlists seemingly rely on the Mac’s Alias Manager, since you can move the MP3 files anywhere and the playlists continue to work.

Eye Candy & Finger Food — SoundJam offers two "features" that spice up the visual look of the program: skins and visual plug-ins. Visual plug-ins draw patterns in time with the music that’s playing. Eclipse and Melt-O-Rama are pretty (Thumper is dull), but they’re primarily interesting in full-screen mode (by pressing Command-F; pressing Escape returns to normal) on screens that can change resolution (not my PowerBook G3). SoundJam has no idea of your Energy Saver settings, so if you have your screen set to blank after a few minutes of idle time, don’t bother with a visual plug-in. Perhaps a future version of SoundJam could prevent screen blanking when a visual plug-in is running.

I’m more disappointed with skins, which are alternate interfaces for SoundJam’s Player window. SoundJam’s default Player window is reminiscent of Apple’s QuickTime Player, but more usable. The other skins, however, are almost unusable. It’s difficult to distinguish controls in most, thanks to garish color schemes and poor layout. My impression is that Casady & Greene felt they had to add skins to seem sufficiently hip and to compete with other MP3 players with skin support. I applaud the flexibility – consumer electronic interfaces are usually horrible, so it’s great to have the option of using different interfaces. Now if only an interface designer could create skins that provided true alternate interfaces, not just non-rectangular pictures with obscure, randomly affixed controls.

Speaking of controls, the Player window offers all the basics, but you might not want to use the mouse to click the buttons, especially if you’re using a skin, where identifying buttons can be a chore. SoundJam provides keyboard control, so you can start playing the selected track by pressing Return, pause by pressing Spacebar, mute with Command-M, stop playback with the time-honored Command-period (but not the standard equivalent of Escape), switch tracks with Left and Right arrows, and increase and decrease volume with Command-Up and Down arrow.

SoundJam also features simple bass and treble controls, or you can replace them with a 10-band equalizer. I’m never sure how to set these things, so if you’re like me, you can choose from preconfigured settings. Audiophiles may appreciate the equalizer; if SoundJam wanted to go all out, it could enable you to associate specific equalizer settings for a track or album.

Expanding My Horizons — After working with MP3 files for a week or two, my eyes started to open to further possibilities. I’m not talking about listening to streaming MP3 files – my 56K frame relay connection doesn’t seem to be up to the task. (SoundJam author Jeff Robbin confirmed that many streaming MP3 files require at least 128 Kbps ISDN connections.) Nor am I talking about downloading MP3 songs from the Internet – although a several megabyte file should take only five to ten minutes to download, I found the MP3 sites fairly slow. Worse, these sites feature so many artists and are so clumsy to navigate that they’re overwhelming. After downloading free songs that failed to arrive intact or that I threw away before they finished playing, I refocused on MP3 files converted from our personal CD collection.

Here’s where I started to realize what MP3 made possible. If I didn’t like a song on a CD, I could avoid converting it. Some CD players can create programs to eliminate specific songs, but that information stays with the CD player, not the CD. Play it in the car and you have to listen the song you dislike again. As a bonus, when converting to MP3, eliminating songs saves disk space.

Disk space quickly becomes a focus as you convert CDs to MP3 format. I’ve converted 44 CDs containing a total of 507 songs, and they take up a total of 1.9 GB on my PowerBook’s hard disk. Over the years, we’ve accumulated about 200 CDs, and there’s no way I’ll have room for them all. But with 20 GB ATA-IDE hard disks available for less than $200, I’m already contemplating how to bring more MP3 storage online. None of my current Macs other than the PowerBook use ATA-IDE hard disks or support FireWire, so I’d need a different computer. I also don’t want anything other than a PowerBook in the kitchen – desktop Macs and their monitors take up too much space, are too loud, and, with the reported exception of the not-yet-released AGP Graphics Power Mac G4, don’t sleep quietly.

But then the possibilities spill out again – MP3s are just files. I could put a Mac with a 20 GB hard disk (any inexpensive Power Mac that would support a huge ATA-IDE hard disk) down in the server room and share the files via Ethernet not just to the PowerBook in the kitchen, but also to any Mac on the network. When I rushed to test this, I was disappointed that the sound broke up frequently. Jeff Robbin said he’s seen the same problem with Personal File Sharing, though he said it’s solved both in AppleShare and in Mac OS 9’s Personal File Sharing. Disappointed, I tested a few more variables – a faster Mac serving the files, no other network traffic – but the only change that helped was sharing the files via TCP/IP rather than AppleTalk (thanks to ShareWay IP from Open Door Networks, but also a feature of Mac OS 9).

My head swam with possibilities again – my PC has only a 150 MHz Pentium in it, and it’s slow. Perhaps I could replace it with a faster PC next time I need it for work, and convert the existing machine into a Linux box running software to make it into an AppleShare server? I’ll bet someone has already put together a tiny Linux box with a big hard disk and an Ethernet port – if it’s cheap and can share files, that’s all I need.

All of this is silliness, of course, but the germs of ideas sprout here. The Mac, at least when coupled with SoundJam, happens to make a good MP3 player. The interface is better than your garden variety CD player, and there’s room for improvement as we get past the concept of hard-wired interfaces, tiny buttons, and barely readable LCD displays. Macs are far too expensive, of course – I’m using a several thousand dollar computer to replace a $500 CD player. The only reason that’s an economy is that I already have the PowerBook, and I’d have it whether or not I also bought a CD player. It’s not cheap, but it’s doing precisely what computers were designed to do: whatever I ask of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been astonished, and I’m enjoying the feeling again. You may not find SoundJam or even MP3s as liberating as I have, but if I can encourage you to tell Eudora to hold your email and head home early from the Microsoft Office, perhaps you’ll also see new ways Macs can improve your life outside work.

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