Harley Hahn's
Internet Advisor


Chapter 10...

Music on the Net

Imagine finding a radio station that plays your favorite type of music 24 hours a day. You'll find it, and a lot more, on the Internet.

The Internet is the largest source of music in the world, and much of it is free. Rock, jazz, oldies, classical, hip-hop, blues, country music — just about anything you might want to listen to is available, whenever you want it. Aside from recorded music, you can also listen to many types of broadcasting, including radio stations from around the world, live concerts, and small Internet-only stations that cater to esoteric audiences. You'll also find interesting curiosities such as live police broadcasts and air traffic controller communications.

In this chapter, I'll show you how to find the music you want, and I'll explain what you need to do to listen to it once you find it. I'll also explain what is involved in downloading music from the Net and making your own CDs.

Music is important to all of us in ways that we can't really understand, but that we recognize. There is something deep within all of us that responds to rhythm, melody, harmony and counterpoint, as well as the poetry of a well-written lyric.

As long as there have been people, people have been making some kind of music — and because of the time period in which we are living, we have access to tools that allow us to use music in ways that are brand new to human culture.

After you read this chapter and spend a few hours experimenting, you will come to an amazing realization: that once you learn how to use your hardware, your software and your Internet connection, your computer will become nothing less than an incredibly powerful and versatile music machine.

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What You Need to Listen to Music
on Your Computer

To listen to music you need a computer with speakers and a sound card. You can use the speakers that came with your computer, or if you want better sound, you can substitute your own speakers. The SOUND CARD is a special circuit board inside the computer that provides sound-related capabilities. Virtually all new computers come with both of these features.

The CD that came with your computer can read not only computer CDs (CD-ROMs), but music CDs as well, so you can use your computer as a stereo and listen to music from CDs while you work. If you want to create your own CDs, you will need a special type of CD drive, called a CD-RW. We'll talk about this later in the chapter.

What if you have an older computer? Is it worth upgrading it by adding a sound card, speakers and a CD-RW drive? My advice is don't bother — you will just be wasting your money. Putting new parts in an old computer is generally not a good idea. No matter what you do, the system will never work as well as a new computer. Moreover, trying to get all the components working properly can use up a lot of your time and start you on a voyage of major frustration. Save your money and put it toward a new computer with everything already built in.

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Music File Types

On the Internet, there are three file types that are commonly used to store music and other types of audio data: wav, mp3 and mid. The most common file type is mp3.

WAV files: These are the basic sound files used by Windows. As you use Windows, you hear sounds from time to time (for example, the sound Windows makes when it starts). All of these sounds are stored in wav files, each sound in its own file. On the Internet, wav files are used to hold sounds for Web pages. If you ever click on a link and hear a short sound, that sound was probably stored as a wav file. Later in the chapter, when we talk about making your own CDs, you will see that wav files have another use. They are used to hold music that is going to be written to a CD.

MP3 files: The mp3 file format was developed to store audio data in a compressed format. For example, I have the Beach Boys song Surfing USA stored as a wav file on my computer. This song is only 2 minutes, 29 seconds long, and yet the wav file is 13.8 MB (megabytes). The mp3 version of the same song takes up only 2.0 MB. Here is another example. The Billy Joel song Piano Man is 5 minutes, 35 seconds long. As an mp3 file, it is 5.3 MB; as a wav file, it is massive: 57.9 MB. So, on the Internet, music is most commonly stored as mp3 files, and as a rule of thumb, 1 minute of music in mp3 format requires 1 MB of data.

MID files: The mid file format is used to store music in MIDI format. MIDI was originally developed in 1982 to allow musicians to connect one synthesizer to another. Today, a modern version of the MIDI format is used to store and manipulate music on computers, synthesizers, keyboards, and other electronic music devices. On the Internet, mid files are commonly used by people who compose music, and who use computer programs to work with the music. You will find a lot of original music on the Net in mid format.

What's in a Name?

wav
mp3
mid


The wav format for storing sound was developed by Microsoft. The name stands for "waveform data". (As you may know, sound travels in the form of waves.)

The term mp3 stands for "MPEG 1 audio layer 3". MPEG 1 (pronounced "em-peg-1") is one member of a family of formats used to store video and audio data. Within the MPEG 1 system, there are three ways to compress audio data. They are referred to as layer 1, layer 2 and layer 3. Files using the mp3 format store audio data using the MPEG 1 layer 3 method. Thus the name mp3.

The MPEG standards were developed by an organization called the Moving Picture Experts Group. For this reason, mp3 files are often referred to as MPEG files.

The term mid is an abbreviation for MIDI, "Musical Instrument Digital Interface".

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Streaming

As I explained in the last section, audio files are large. An mp3 file uses about 1 MB of data to store a minute of music, and a wav file requires much more data than that. Thus, downloading an entire song from the Internet can take a long time, especially if you have a slow connection.

However, there is a system called STREAMING that allows you to listen to music without having to wait a long time for an entire file to be downloaded. With streaming, your computer starts playing the music as soon as the first part of the data arrives. While the music is playing, your computer downloads the rest of the data in the background. As long as the downloading process stays ahead of what is being played, what you hear is a continuous stream of music.

Streaming is used on the Internet with a variety of different types of audio, such as music, live radio, concerts, talk, and so on. Without streaming, for example, you would not be able to listen to radio broadcasts on the Net. Streaming works so well with audio data that, if your computer has a fast Internet connection and good speakers, you may not be able to tell the difference between music from the Internet and music from a regular stereo.

Streaming is also used to broadcast video over the Internet. However, the picture usually looks somewhat rough and uneven — not nearly as good as television. This is because high-quality video requires much more data than can be broadcast over the Internet in real time. For this reason, video on the Internet, especially through a slow connection, is often of poor quality.

Streaming is different from regular downloading in two important ways. First, as the streaming process starts, you won't hear anything for the first few moments. This is because your streaming program (which we will discuss in the next section) must first build up a reservoir of data. Only then will the program start to play the audio or video.

While this is happening, you will see a message saying that the program is BUFFERING data. (Within a computer program, a BUFFER is a temporary storage area used for input or output.) Thus, you will not hear anything until your streaming program has downloaded enough data to fill its buffer. If it happens that, while you are listening, your Internet connection is interrupted, the sound will stop as soon the buffer is empty. You will then have to wait for your streaming program to refill the buffer. (This is called REBUFFERING.) For this reason, if your connection to the broadcast source is not a good one, the sound may stop and start intermittently.

The second way in which streaming is different from regular downloading is that the audio data is not saved. Once you have listened to something, the data is thrown away. This only makes sense. After all, even a few minutes of music would require megabytes of storage (and video would require even more), so there is no point in saving streaming data to a permanent file.

On the Internet, there are a number of systems used to provide streaming audio. Two of the most widely used are REALAUDIO and STREAMING MP3.

The RealAudio system was originally developed by the RealNetworks company. RealAudio data is identified by various file extensions, the most common of which are ra, rm and ram.

Streaming mp3 is based on the mp3 file format, and is identified by the file extensions pls and m3u.

You probably won't have a need to manipulate such data directly, but when you encounter it, I want you to be able to recognize it. For example, let's say you are using your browser, and you notice a link that points to filename.ra. The ra tells you that this link represents a stream of RealAudio data. Similarly, if a link points to filename.pls or filename.m3u, it represents streaming mp3 data. When you click on such a link, your browser will automatically start your streaming program, which will then begin the initial download.

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Music Software

In order to listen to music over the Internet, you need a program to decode audio files and turn the data into sound. Such programs are known by a variety of names such as AUDIO PLAYERS, MULTIMEDIA PLAYERS and MP3 PLAYERS.

Most audio players are capable of playing a variety of audio formats, such as music CDs, mp3 files, wav files, mid files, streaming RealAudio, and streaming mp3. Some are also able to play streaming video. The most widely used audio player is the Windows Media Player, because Microsoft gives it away for free. In fact, Windows comes with the Windows Media Player already installed.

There are a variety of audio players available on the Net, and if you listen to a lot of music, I encourage you to try different programs and find the one you like best. I have included some Internet resources below to help you locate a variety of programs.

I have also included some resources to help you search for all types of music software. If you like music, and you are at all technically inclined, the Internet has enough software to keep you occupied from now to St. Swithin's Day.

Some audio players have an interesting capability. They allow you to change the appearance of the program by installing what is known as a SKIN. When you use a skin, the program looks different, although the functionality is not changed. (It's just for fun.) You will sometimes see skins referred to by other names, such as FACEPLATES or TEXTURES.

The more popular audio players have many different skins you can download for free (donated by artistic people who want to share their efforts).

Note: You will be able to find a freeware or shareware audio player. There is no need to pay for a commercial version.

In addition to these Web sites, you can find lots of music, audio and multimedia software by looking in the software archives mentioned in Chapter 9.

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Radio and Broadcasting on the Net

There is a huge amount of broadcasting on the Internet. In order to listen, you need one of the streaming multimedia players I discussed in the previous section. Let me take you on a quick tour of what is available on the Net. At the end of this section, I will show you some Internet broadcasting resources.

Radio: You can listen to many different radio stations from all over the world. Whatever format you prefer — music, talk, sports, news, public radio, and so on — it is all available, and you can listen whenever you want.

If you use Internet Explorer version 6, there is a more elaborate multimedia facility. To access it, just click on the Media button.

Learn how to...

Control the Appearance of Your Browser

You can customize your browser by hiding or showing some of the toolbars and buttons. In particular, you can tell Internet Explorer to display the Radio toolbar automatically each time you start the browser.

If you use Internet Explorer version 5, there is a less elaborate built-in tool, the Radio toolbar. If the Radio toolbar is not visible, you can display it as follows:

  1. Pull down the View menu.
  2. Point to Toolbars, and click on Radio.

Using the Radio toolbar is simple, so I won't give you detailed instructions. Just experiment and you'll figure it out. When you find stations you like, you can add them to your Favorites list (see Chapter 7).

Internet-only stations: In addition to regular radio stations, there are also a great many stations that broadcast only over the Internet. These stations tend to be commercial-free and cater to a distinct audience. You can use the Net to listen to your favorite type of music all day long, with no interruptions. Many of these stations are run, literally, by one or two people. I once had a great time listening to a guy do live prank phone calls.

Television: There are a variety of television stations and networks that broadcast over the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, the quality is not as good as you would see on your television set, especially if you don't have a fast Internet connection. Still, video on the Net is available for free, and it can be interesting. (One time I watched television from Croatia.)

Live events: There are a great many live broadcast events, many of which are arranged specifically for the Internet. You can listen to (and watch) live concerts, speeches, sporting events, and much more.

Strange things: If you get bored, there are some unusual broadcasts you may want to try. Look around, and you'll find all manner of strange things to listen to. For example, you can listen to air traffic controllers, police and railway workers communicating over the radio. (Actually, this sort of stuff gets boring fast, but it is interesting to listen to once.)

The following Internet resources are good places to start looking for things to listen to and watch. When you get a few spare moments, these are good places to browse.

— hint —

Some broadcasting sites force you to listen to a short commercial before the actual audio or video starts. If you would like to skip the commercial, try this trick.

The moment the commercial starts, press the PageDown key or click on the Next button. In some cases, doing this jumps to the next segment, effectively bypassing the commercial.

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Learning to Work with Mp3 Files and CDs

In the next few sections, I will discuss how to get mp3 files, how to manipulate them, and how to create your own CDs.

Before I start, I want you to appreciate that all of these operations require special software, and it is going to take time for you to find, download and install the programs you need. Moreover, it is going to take more time for you to become familiar with these programs, and to learn how to use them well. Be prepared to spend at least a few hours learning how all of this works.

Once you figure out the system and understand how to use your programs, you will be able to work with mp3 files smoothly and easily. However, between here and there, it's going to take a while, so don't be discouraged, and don't be in a hurry.

If you can find someone who is knowledgeable about mp3 files and CDs, ask that person to walk you through the basic operations. Doing so will save you a lot of time.

— hint —

Working with mp3 files is more fun when you do it with a friend. This is especially true at first, when you are trying to figure out how everything works.

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Creating Mp3 Files from CDs

The two most common ways to get mp3 files are to:

  • Create them from your own CDs
  • Download them from the Internet

Copying songs raises some tricky copyright questions, but for now let's ignore them. I will discuss these issues later in the chapter.

To create mp3 files from a CD, you need a CD drive and a program called a RIPPER. A ripper reads data from a music CD and converts it to mp3 format. You will often see the word RIP used as a verb. ("Where did you get all those cool mp3 files?" "Oh, I ripped them from a bunch of CDs I had lying around the house.")

To use a ripper, you tell it which songs you want to copy from the CD. The ripper will then read the audio data from the CD, convert it to mp3 format, and save the songs you want as files on your hard disk.

Each song is stored in its own mp3 file, which requires about 1 MB of disk space per minute of music. Once you have such files, you can listen to them, share them with other people, and (if you have the right type of CD drive) create your own customized CDs.

Some rippers are simple, straightforward and easy to use. They copy songs from a CD to mp3 files and store the files in the directory of your choice. Other rippers are complex, sophisticated tools that take a while to master, but can perform a large variety of tasks. You will have to decide which type of ripper you like best.

It is possible that you received a ripper for free with your CD-RW drive. If not, or if you want to try a different one, check out the Internet Resources below.

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Downloading Mp3 Files from the Internet

The Internet has a huge number of mp3 files available for downloading. Broadly speaking, there are two types of mp3 files on the Net: official and unofficial.

The official sources of mp3 files include the Web sites of record companies and music groups. For example, a record company may release one or two songs from a new album in mp3 format, in order to promote that album. Similarly, many music groups use the Internet to release their own music, without the help of a record company. In fact, the rise of mp3 technology is making significant changes in the recording industry, because musicians can now publicize and distribute their songs without depending on record companies.

For the most part, the songs on these Web sites can be downloaded using your browser in the same way that you would download anything. You click on a link, the download process starts, and you specify where you want to save the file on your hard disk. Some songs are available in a streaming format, which means you can listen to them directly, without having to save them to your disk.

Most of the music you probably want, however, will not come from official Web sites. It will come from other people who are willing to share their mp3 files. There are a huge number of such files available on the Net. To get them, you need to use a file-sharing program. (See the Internet Resources below.)

The first extremely popular Internet file sharing program was Napster. Napster used a central server to connect people who had files to share. In May 1999, people around the world began to use Napster to share mp3 files. Over the next two years, millions of mp3 files were downloaded using Napster. Unfortunately, at the beginning of March 2001, Napster was shut down by the major music companies for copyright infringement. This was all too easy to do: all the music companies had to do was get a court order to shut down the Napster server. Once this was done, the entire Napster file sharing system collapsed.

Still, music sharing is alive and well on the Net. There are a number of newer, more sophisticated programs that allow people to share files These programs work without a central server. Instead they use a decentralized PEER-TO- PEER technology, in which the individual computers join into a large, connected system. Such programs can be used to share any type of file, not only music, but video, text, games, programs, and so on. Moreover, because they do not use a central server, such systems cannot be shut down -- ever.

To start sharing music, all you need to do is install one of these programs on your computer and join the crowd. There are a variety of such systems available, so I suggest you take a bit of time to experiment and choose the one you like best. Once you are all set up, and you are familiar with the system, you will find that sharing files is easy.

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Listening to Mp3 Files

Once you have a collection of mp3 files, there are several ways you can listen to them. First, you can listen to the files on your computer by using an audio player.

Second, if you have a CD-RW drive, you can use your mp3 files to create your own custom CDs. Since these are ordinary music CDs, you can listen to them with a regular CD player, or you can play them on your computer.

Finally, you can use a small, portable device called a DIGITAL MUSIC PLAYER that is designed to store and play mp3 files. To use such a device, you connect it to your computer and upload mp3 files. You can then disconnect the music player, and take it wherever you go. To change the music, all you need to do is upload new files.

— hint —

To help you organize your files, most mp3 players allow you to create PLAYLISTS.

A playlist holds the names of a group of mp3 files. Once you create a playlist, you can use it to load a whole group of mp3 files at once.

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The Issue of Copyright

Any time you produce a creative work, such as music, art or writing, you automatically own the copyright to that work. Owning the copyright means that you can do what you want with the work, such as publish it or sell the rights to someone else. In addition, you have control over what others can do with the work. Legally, copyrighted material cannot be uploaded or downloaded without the permission of the copyright holder.

There is a lot of music available on the Internet that is perfectly legal to download and share with others. Some of this music is in the public domain; some of it is specifically designated by the copyright holder as being freely accessible.

However, many of the mp3 files that are traded on the Net are copies that were made from CDs. Strictly speaking, it is illegal to make such copies, and it is illegal to share them with other people. Still, countless people do so, and as you might expect, the recording industry is very upset about this.

Within the world of mp3 files, many, many files are passed around illegally. As you enter this world, you are going to notice a huge amount of hypocrisy, so let's take a moment to cut through it all with the butter knife of truth.

Sharing mp3 files of copyrighted songs is illegal. However, lots of things in life are illegal, and you have to decide for yourself what you are willing to do. Realistically, unless you get caught trying to use someone else's music to make a significant amount of money, nothing is going to happen to you.

As a general rule, whenever people are faced with a system in which common activities are illegal, the resulting conflict leads to a great deal of denial and deception, so let's be realistic.

If you feel comfortable with copying and sharing mp3 files, go ahead. Just don't do anything dumb, like setting yourself up in the bootleg CD business. And, for goodness sake, if you work for a politically correct organization like the government or a major corporation, don't download megabytes of music files at work. Save your questionable activities for the privacy of your own home.

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CD-RW Drives

To create your own CDs, you need a CD-RW DRIVE, sometimes called a REWRITABLE CD DRIVE, a special type of drive that can read and write to CDs. This type of drive can write on two types of discs: CD-RWs and CD-Rs.

CD-RW DISCS behave like large floppy disks, in that they are reusable: you can read, write and delete data as often as you want. These discs have a storage capacity of 650 MB. However, before you can use a CD-RW disc for the first time, you must FORMAT it. (Formatting is the process that prepares a new disk to be used for the first time.) This process uses up some of the space, and after formatting, the disc can hold only 530 MB of data. Still, this is nothing to sneeze at. You can put a lot of data in 530 MB. This makes CD-RWs perfect for backing up important data.

CD-R DISCS are similar to CD-RWs, except you can only write data once to each part of the disc. If you delete files on a CD-R disc, you cannot reclaim the space and use it again. CD-R discs are cheaper than CD-RWs, which makes them perfect for applications in which you don't need to change the data once it is written. In particular, CD-Rs are the ones to use when you make your own music CDs. In fact, CD-R discs are so inexpensive that, if you make a mistake creating a CD, you can throw it away and start again.

Aside from being able to use CD-RWs and CD-Rs, CD-RW drives can also read regular music CDs and CD-ROMs (computer software CDs). Thus, you can use a CD-RW drive in several ways, to:

  • Listen to music CDs
  • Create music CDs
  • Use CD-RWs to store files
  • Read CD-ROMs
  • Copy CD-ROMs

Many computers come with CD-RW drives. If your computer doesn't have one, and you don't plan on buying a new machine soon, I strongly suggest that you think about getting a CD-RW drive. One reason is that CD-RWs are perfect for backups, as well as archiving data for long- term storage.

— hint —

If you plan on upgrading your computer by buying a CD-RW drive, and you don't like working with the internals of a computer, have someone install the drive for you.

Even if this means you must pay a service charge, do so. It is money well spent.

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Creating Your Own Music CDs

When you use a CD-RW drive to create your own music CD, we say that you BURN it (although nothing really burns). Most CD-RW drives come with a CD BURNER program that allows you to create your own CDs. If you don't like the program that came with your CD drive, you can download another one from the Net.

In most cases, your music files will be stored in mp3 format. Some CD burning programs will work directly with mp3 files. Other programs, however, require wav files.

If this is the case with your program, you must create wav files from your mp3 files before you can burn a CD. To do so, you use a program called a DECODER. To create mp3 files from wav files, you use an ENCODER. Many CD decoders will encode as well, so you can use the same program to convert audio data back and forth between mp3 and wav formats.

In general, here are the steps you use to make your own music CDs:

  1. Get a whole bunch of mp3 files. You can either rip them from CDs or download them from the Internet.
  1. Use a CD decoder to convert the mp3 files to wav files. (Remember, wav files are much larger.)
  1. Use a CD burner program to burn the CD. Within this program, you will be able to organize the songs in whatever order you want. Some programs have a tool to let you design and print a cover for a plastic CD case (which is called a JEWEL CASE).
  1. Once the CD is finished, delete the wav files, as they take up a lot of space. If you need them again, you can always recreate them from the mp3 files.

— hint —

Making your own CDs can be a lot of fun. However, it is a time-consuming process. It can take hours to gather the mp3 files, encode them, organize the CD to be just the way you want it, and burn it.

However, once you know what you are doing, you can let the ripping, encoding and burning run by itself in the background as you work on other things.

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