Before you can play any music on your fancy player,
you've got to have some digital music to transfer.
It's time to rip--geek-speak for copying a track
(say, from a CD) to your hard drive. Some players
let you rip without a PC, but you'll often get
better quality if you rip tracks to your PC first
and transfer them to the player later.
Digital audio file formats such as MP3 (MPEG
1, Layer 3) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) compress
bulky WAV versions of audio tracks into much smaller
files. You'll find quite a few alternatives when
it comes to ripping: MP3, WMA, RealAudio, LiquidAudio,
Ogg Vorbis, and more. So how do you pick?
Let your player be your guide. Which formats
does it play? All players can read MP3 files,
and most can now play WMA files, so one of those
two is probably your best bet. WMA files sound
better at lower bit rates (a yardstick of quality
and file size), but the MP3 format is far more
popular and isn't subject to digital rights management
that can prevent you from copying multiple versions
of a file.
When ripping a file you'll select a format, then
you'll need to consider the bit rate you want.
In general, the higher the bit rate, the better
the sound and the larger the file. Unless you're
a golden-eared audiophile, an MP3 file encoded
at 128 or 160 kilobits per second should be fine
for a portable player; a WMA file at 96 or 128
kbps would be the equivalent and take up less
memory--a major consideration on flash memory
You can also download music from the
Internet. You've probably heard of Napster, the
defunct file-sharing service that became synonymous
with MP3s. As well as helping to usher in the
digital music revolution, Napster also let you
download music without paying for it. It's been
shut down as a result of many lawsuits. The music
industry now offers a few music services that
you pay for, and they're worth checking out. You
can also still get tracks from some Napster-like
file-sharing services and legal free download
Emusic and Pressplay, which is available
through Yahoo's Launch and MP3.com, charge a monthly
fee for downloads. Fees usually start at $10 and
go up from there. You can also download tracks
to your portable player or burn them to CD (restrictions
apply -- see "Essential Sites"
for more information).
You can still get something for nothing through
file-sharing services like Kazaa and Morpheus.
However, the legality of such downloads can be
questionable--and the same goes for the quality
of some tracks.
That doesn't mean you can't legally get free
digital audio files. Amazon, RollingStone.com,
and Billboard.com have several current hits available
for free. Make sure your player can read the format
before you spend the bandwidth downloading it.
And check out your favorite artist's site--many
give away new tracks for free as a promotion;
however, these giveaways often expire after a
certain amount of time, and the sound quality
may not be first-rate.
You transfer files from your PC to your portable
player using the software bundled with your player,
using a USB, FireWire, or USB 2.0 connection.
If you've got an MP3 CD player, you need to burn
the tracks onto a CD-R or CD-RW disc. When you
burn the disc, remember to save the files as data,
not as audio. Otherwise, the software will make
WAV files of the music, and you'll lose the compressed
size. (For complete instructions on how to burn
CDs successfully, see "How to Burn Without
Getting Singed.") You should also peruse
your player's manual; many CD MP3 players let
you group songs into albums by segregating them
into separate folders.
A little effort goes a long way in the digital
music world. Here are a few things you can do
to improve your experience.
Clean your ID3s. Each digital audio file includes
labeling information called an ID3 tag. The tag
includes the name of the track, artist, and album.
The tag can get even more granular and indicate
year and genre. Most players display some of this
information, and others use it to sort the files
by artist, album, and genre. But the player can't
sort correctly if the tags are wrong or incomplete.
You can edit the tags through jukebox software
or with special utilities (see "Essential
Make a playlist. The software you use to rip
your MP3s can also help you manage them on your
portable player. A playlist is a small file that
tells the player what order to play the tracks
in. You can have multiple playlists that group
tracks however you like. Just be sure that when
you download the playlist to your player, you
download the tracks on the playlist, too.
Speed up your transfers. Getting files to your
player can be excruciatingly slow, especially
when you do it often. But you can eke out a few
more kilobits per second if you have the latest
available software and firmware for the player.
Check your manufacturer's site regularly for updated
Check your settings. Most players let you adjust
the sound and display to some degree. If you don't
tweak your player's settings, you can only blame
yourself for the trebly sound, for instance. Adjustments
usually include an equalizer and balance, and
many players let you adjust the backlight on the
LCD, scroll speed for the display, and more.
Alas, all is not perfect in the digital audio
revolution. Here are some gotchas to watch out
Avoid incompatible formats. Make sure your player
can read the files you need it to read. If you've
got a bunch of RealAudio tracks, but your player
can only handle MP3 files, it might as well be
Greek. But don't worry--software like RealOne
can convert your files to match your player's
needs. The player's packaging usually indicates
which file formats it reads.
Check for broken files. When you download a file,
make sure you've got it all. If your system is
taxed using too many resources at once, the ripping
software may not encode the entire track, or your
PC may give up in the middle of transferring a
file to the player. Sometimes you'll get just
a 30-second clip of a several-minute track. You
might also think a clip you downloaded from a
free file-sharing service is intact, only to find
out later that you've been had. Check the files
to make sure they're complete on your player before
you take it on the road. And close other applications
when you rip and transfer the files to allow enough
resources for the job. If you have a problem,
though, it may not be the software's fault--it
could be a hardware issue instead.
Beware of mislabeled files. If you use a free
file-sharing service, you may also be led astray
by the file name. Not all files are as they appear--even
the music companies confuse things by entering
bad file names on tracks they plant on Kazaa.
You get what you pay for, and you may waste download
time if you go this route. Be sure to check that
anything you download is virus-free--make sure
your antivirus program's scanning engine is enabled
in the background.
Need some fresh music? Check out these sites
when you need some new downloads.
Emusic offers unlimited downloads for $10 a month,
and those files are yours to reuse as you please,
even if you end your subscription. You can burn
the tracks to CD and transfer them to a portable
player. The downside: The selection is a bit weak,
with few major names or albums. Jazz and blues
fans stand to gain the most.
Pressplay, available through Yahoo's Launch and
MP3.com, has most of the major artists--from Eminem
to Bruce Springsteen. It offers various subscription
levels beginning at $10 for unlimited downloads.
For $18, you can burn or transfer 10 tracks a
month, and those tracks are yours to keep. Other
downloads expire when you end your membership.
Amazon lets you try before you buy. It has a
great Free Downloads section in its Music area.
Many hot and up-and-coming acts can be found here.
Check if the file is in MP3 format if you intend
to transfer it to your player.
Don't forget about your favorite artists--they
may give out samples on their own sites. This
depends on the artist, of course, but many acts
find MP3s to be great promotional tools. They
want you to take it, so go get it!
These applications will help you get the best
from your music.
RealOne by Real is an all-in-one media player.
It includes powerful ripping software along with
great file management. Many players have plug-ins
that allow you to use RealOne to transfer tracks
to your player; it can burn tracks to CD, too.
The paid version ($10 a month) adds faster encoding
and burning, plus a subscription download service.
MusicMatch Jukebox is an MP3 jukebox application.
It can rip, burn CDs, manage files, and more.
The paid version improves ripping and burning
speed for a one-time fee of $20.
Nullsoft's Winamp is a simple free player. It
supports many formats and is great for making
playlists. It won't let you burn CDs, though.
MoodLogic edits the ID3 tags of your digital
audio files, adding details like year and mood
for $30. It really helps you sort your collection.
Dr.Tag helps you edit your file's ID3 tags with
a minimum of fuss. The "automatic" button
uses the file name to guess the artist, track,
and album information.