Chapter 15 - Music To Your Ears

It might not have been your intention, but by purchasing that new computer system, you've also bought one heck of a sound system.

Those of us who started in the early days of home computing didn't have it so lucky. Before the introduction of the first Macintosh in 1984, most home computers offered a few simple beeps to keep us entertained. PCs were even slower to jump on the audio bandwagon, but high-quality digital sound is now the standard on all Macs and practically all PCs.

The equipment

While most Macs and PCs have built-in sound capabilities, some PCs still use separate components called sound cards to handle audio. Some all-in-one computers have speakers built into the console or monitor, while others have stand-alone speakers that attach to one of the mini-headphone jacks on the card or motherboard.

You'll likely find additional mini-headphone jacks, allowing you to hook up a separate line in, a line out or a microphone. Few computer manufacturers will throw in a microphone for free, but you can pick one up for about $10 at any computer or electronics store.

Some PC sound cards also feature additional ports or an older 15-pin joystick port, which can be used to connect a MIDI keyboard, which we'll discuss later in this chapter.

CD Audio

The most obvious sound equipment in your computer is the CD-ROM, which doubles as a CD audio player and connects to your sound card with a thin internal audio cable.

Simply pop in a music CD, and your operating system's built in software will start piping beautiful music out of your speakers. The software interface is similar to that of a standard CD player, offering play, stop, forward and back buttons to control the music.

Digital audio

The real breakthrough in computer sound came in the 70s, when sound engineers figured out ways to turn sound waves into electronic impulses and "sample" them. By taking tens of thousands of snapshots of the sound waves each second, they could recreate sound and save it to a disk.

Digital audio is now a common function of computers, and there are two common uncompressed formats. Windows depends on the WAV (pronounced "wave") format, while the Macintosh uses AIFF (Audio Interchange File Format) files. The MP3 format is the most common compressed file type.

WAV and AIFF are the formats of the short sounds that play while we boot up or a when a warning box appears. If you have a microphone, you can even create your own digital sounds using your operating system's built-in sound recorder.

On the Mac, go to the Apple menu and choose Sound. From the menu on the left, select Input and choose your external or internal microphone as the source.

In Windows, click on Start and go to Programs - Accessories. The Sound Recorder can be found in either the Multimedia or Entertainment subfolder, depending on which version you're running.

Instructions for the Windows sound recorder can be found by clicking help, but if it's not working with your microphone, you might have to make an adjustment in the volume control. Double-click the speaker icon in the bottom-right corner of the screen, then click on Options and Properties. Choose Recording and make sure the microphone box is checked.

Once you record a sound, you can save it to your hard drive and even choose it to greet you upon boot-up.

Because these digital audio formats are uncompressed, sound files of significant length can eat up a lot of hard drive space. A standard pop length song can take up 30 MB of disk space. If you wanted to download a WAV or AIFF file from the Internet, it could take hours with a typical modem.

Although it's nice that our operating systems provided us with free sound recorders, they're not the best tools for the job. My favorite is Audacity by SoundForge, which is a formidable program and absolutely free.

You can use Audacity and similar software packages to trim unwanted parts of your recordings, clean up excessive background noise or adjust the volume. It's great if you want to record an old record, clean up click and pops from scratches and burn it onto a CD. You can also play with some of its more gimmicky features, such as listening to how your recording would sound on an old-time radio or in the shower.

MP3

Wouldn't it be nice if we could take that 30 MB WAV file and cut it down to about 3 MB? That's where the MP3 format comes in.

The format, first developed in 1993, can take that same digital audio file and reduce its size 10 to 12 times with barely any noticeable decrease in quality.

But MP3 is more than just compression. The format is leading the digital music revolution by challenging how the record industry does business and offering us greater access to a wider variety of artists.

You've probably heard about the well-publicized Napster court battle some years ago, in which the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued the online MP3 trading site. The RIAA alleged that by enabling users to open their hard drives and share MP3 files (many of which were copyrighted songs), Napster was aiding piracy.

The judge agreed that that's a valid argument, and most MP3 download sites are now legitimate businesses that pay artists royalties. But the real threat to the recording industry was much deeper. The digital music revolution has helped to connect artists directly with listeners, thereby eliminating record companies as the middlemen.

No longer can corporate marketing executives and radio station programmers control what music we could listen to. No longer do we have to buy a whole album to get the one song we wanted. We can pay a small fee (like 99 cents) and download the one song we want. And if artists start selling their music directly to us en masse, it will surely be a lot cheaper.

If you want to listen to MP3 files, you'll first need a player. They typically ship you're your computer, so it's likely you already have one.

I'm a big fan of Nullsoft's Winamp, which offers a free version and a Pro version. Once you have a player installed, you can download and listen to any MP3 files you can find.

Streaming multimedia

Broadcast-quality streaming audio and video is quickly becoming the norm, as fast cable and DSL connections are becoming more prevalent.

Streaming, used by such Web applications as RealPlayer and Windows Media Player, lets us to begin listening to a file as it downloads. When we click on a streaming file, the server spends a few seconds "buffering" before starting the transmission. By always staying a few seconds ahead, the server can avoid some of the choppiness caused by slow Net connections.

Streaming video allows us to go to news sites such as CNN.com or Comedy Central and watch broadcasts of today's top stories or bits. Granted, many the windows are small and the quality is not exactly on par with a DVD, but it will only get better as the technology improves and our Internet connections become faster and more reliable.

The quality is more than sufficient to check out movie trailers before heading to the cinema, says J.W., of Melbourne, Fla.

J.W. watches some streaming video online, but it's audio programming that takes up most of his time on RealPlayer. When a favorite radio show, Bob Brinker's "Money Talk," was dropped from his local radio station's lineup, he was able to find it online and listen to it anytime.

"It's more convenient," J.W. says. "I listen when I want to."

J.W. says he often listens to audio shows in the background while doing other work on the computer. He enjoyed tuning into a 15-minute religious program, weekly Florida Gator football shows and nostalgic programming such as "The Bill Miller Show" and "Sounds of Sinatra."

"I was raised on radio so it's interesting to me," says J.W.

Streaming media formats are great for consumers, but they also provide benefits for content providers. Because the user never gets a copy of the audio file, sites can better control distribution and protect copyrights.

Still, successful streaming is dependent on a steady Internet connection, which is not always a reality. Low speed or inconsistent connections can always lower sound and video quality or provide a choppy clip.

CD Recording

CD-R, or writeable CD drives, can greatly enhance your computer's capabilities. Not only can you copy audio CDs and create your own custom CDs out of MP3 files, but you can also use it to copy data discs and backup your files.

Many new computer systems now come standard with a CD-R drive. (If you don't have one but would like to add it, see "Chapter 27: Upgrading.")

CD-R (recordable) drives allow you to copy CDs and "burn" your own audio discs, but once recorded, CD-Rs are as permanent as a commercial CD. The term "burn" comes from the process of the drive's laser burning tiny indentations into the spiral track on the disc.

Most CD-R drives you can buy today drives also act as CD-RW (rewritable) drives, which perform the same as a standard CD-R drives but also let you write to special rewritable discs which can be used over and over. And most also are DVD-R drives that can burn DVD movies.

But for audio, CD-R discs are the standard. Most audio CD players you'll want to use your homemade discs in will work with CD-Rs, but few will work with CD-RWs.

To record your own CDs, you'll need a CD-R drive and software to use it. Fortunately, most drives come with that software.

Roxio and Nero are some popular packaged CD recording programs. The versions that come with the drive are often not quite as feature-packed as the commercial versions, but they should be sufficient to get you started with your newfound hobby.

Although there will be slight differences among CD recording programs, most are pretty intuitive. You create a CD layout by dropping the MP3 files and audio tracks onto a track list just like you were copying files. When you have the layout set the way you want it, you click a button to burn the CD and wait. When it's complete, you should have a disc that will work in your audio CD player.

MIDI

It's unusual for any standard in the computing industry to stick around for very long, but MIDI - or Musical Instrument Digital Interface - has passed the test of time.

MIDI was introduced to the music industry at a 1983 trade show by a handful of synthesizer designers who wanted keyboards of different brands to speak a common language. It has since become a universal standard.

Unlike digital audio, which is more like a recording, MIDI files are the electronic version of sheet music. The file instructs your sound card which instrument to use to play which note and for how long. Since MIDI files hold only instructions, their size is minute in comparison to a WAV or MP3 file.

So what's the disadvantage? Well since the file plays instruments built into the sound device, MIDI files can sound quite different from one system to another.

For instance, if you were to place the same copies of sheet music to Mozart's Moonlight Sonata in front of world-renowned pianist Itzhak Perlman and an 8-year-old, first-year piano student, you'd be sure to get drastically different results.

It's the same with MIDI. The same MIDI file might sound like it was performed in a concert hall on a Sound Blaster Audigy with wave-table synthesis, yet also sound like it's coming out of an ice cream truck on a cheap card using FM synthesis.

There's another disadvantage to using MIDI. Since it's not a digital format, you can't add a voice track. Remember, it's just sheet music.

But MIDI wouldn't have lasted so long if it wasn't so versatile. Any MIDI-compatible sound device - from a Yamaha keyboard to a Roland drum machine - often can be connected to your computer via the older joystick port on the back of your sound card or through newer proprietary ports. Add some MIDI sequencing software such as Cakewalk and you've got your own digital studio. You could use the setup to compose and record a background score with drum and bass lines and have it play automatically while you tickle the ivories.

NEXT - Chapter 16 - Fun and games