Wednesday, September 19, 2001


English soil never looked so good

Phew! I'm glad to be safely back home. Flying back from the US was a complete shambles following Tuesday's tragic events. Still, what's a bit of inconvenience at a time like this? When so many innocent people lose their lives in such senseless attacks everything else pales into insignificance. I'd like to offer my deepest sympathies to all those affected by the recent disaster in America and urge you to support the Red Cross relief fund by making a monetary donation via their home page or by giving blood - information regarding blood donations can also be found here.

It's extremely heartening to see what can be achieved when people all pull together to achieve a common goal and I sincerely hope that we can learn to maintain the same compassion for humanity in the absence of such a crisis.

Wednesday, September 05, 2001

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MP3: music for the digital age

No internet harvesting training course would be complete without a bit of information on finding and downloading free music, so here's my attempt at guiding you to do just that. First a little bit of background information to give you a rough idea of what I'm talking about. When people use the phrase "free music on the internet" they are referring to MP3 files. MP3 is a fairly recent development in the computer music industry.

Music tracks are encoded from CDs and converted to compressed files with an MP3 extension. These can then be transferred back and forth across the internet, can be stored on your hard drive in the same manner as any other file format and require nothing more than Window's default media player to play them back (although Winamp makes a much better job of it). There's nothing new or revolutionary about this - we have been doing it for years now. The only difference is the transition between file formats.

Until recently, music was encoded in wave format (with a .wav extension) and a typical music track would occupy somewhere between 40 and 50 megabytes of hard disk space, which was obviously very inconvenient for transfer via the internet. So the critical change that the MP3 format brought about was a drastic reduction in file size, allowing much easier distribution over the internet, even for 56k modem users. To give you an example, a typical MP3 file will vary in size between 3 and 4 megabytes (depending on the 'bitrate' or quality in layman's terms) and provides near CD quality sound.

Locating and downloading MP3 tracks

So now the history lesson is over I'll get on with explaining how and where to find your next music fix. Many of the techniques that apply to other kinds of file foraging will also be useful for finding MP3s, so if you've already read my introductory lessons you'll be well equipped to begin your search.

The most dedicated MP3 aficionados tend to bypass more traditional transfer methods, instead opting for much more user friendly file-sharing clients. Of course, before the recent court ruling which imposed new restrictions on the exchange of copyright protected material, Napster ruled the MP3 sharing roost. Those days are, however, long gone. Not that this is likely to spell the end for the sharing of digital music; Napster was just the tip of the iceberg, the granddaddy which gave birth to the modern file sharing client if you like. While Shaun Fanning deserves full credit for putting the wheels of the free (or at least reasonably priced) music machine in motion, we shouldn't be bowing our heads in silence to commemorate the fallen hero, but saluting his contribution whilst looking ahead at a much more sophisticated range of replacements.

The sheer number of alternative clients is astounding, yet many of them are plagued with problems, the most detrimental ones concerning difficulties in connecting to the networks used to transfer files and store user's file databases. We have all witnessed how vulnerable these centralized networks are to legal action - this is precisely why there has been a marked propensity of late to develop de-centralized systems whereby no single server exists that can be shut down in order to drive the network off-line.

Piolet utilizes such a system and is rapidly shaping up to be the number one Napster replacement. While the current version is still in its infancy, it has the potential to be more popular than Napster ever was and not least because the two programs are so similar. Piolet, as Napster once was, is built on the foundation of simplicity and ease of use, and this is precisely what will attract exiled ex-Napster users by the droves. To help illustrate the point let me draw your attention to the fact that Piolet requires no installation whatsoever. You download a single file from the program's home page and you're ready to rock; the download is the whole client. Once it has finished downloading you can place it in any folder you like and simply double click on it to get started; the client automatically 'plugs' you into the community where you can begin searching for music tracks.

Also proudly riding the simplicity bandwagon is the anonymity factor. The program doesn't require you to register so you don't have to waste time thinking of a unique username or trying to remember your password before logging on as you would with many of Piolet's competitors. This means you are totally anonymous, a fact which the lack of any integrated spyware will also attest to.

OK, I take it you've had time to download and start the client by now... and if not, why not? Getting this baby up and running is absolute child's play. While it will run perfectly well 'out-of-the-box', it's always a good idea to set your preferences the first time you run any new application. To do this click on the 'config' tab. If your primary language isn't English, now's the time to tell Piolet. With that precursor taken care of it would be advantageous to inform the client of what sort of connection you are employing to allow other users to estimate how long it is going to take them to download files from your hard drive, and also how long it is going to take you to download files from them. From within the same 'connection' tab it is also possible to choose a nick name by which people can identify you. This isn't essential and doesn't have to be unique to you, although it's a simple way to introduce yourself to the people you are exchanging files with - it's just a matter of common courtesy really.

With that taken care of, it's time to switch to the 'uploads' tab. This is the area which allows you to select which folders will be made available to other Piolet users. To do this, click on the 'add' button and then use the integrated explorer to choose the folders where your MP3 files are stored. Note that it is advisable to have at least a few files available so that you can begin trading; you're not going to be too popular if you turn up to the party without a bottle! Below the 'add' folders option are two input boxes. These allow you to restrict the number of files other users can grab from your computer simultaneously. Obviously if you're lumbered with a feeble dial-up modem it would be a good idea to keep this number fairly low (I would suggest setting this to just one or two simultaneous connections, and the maximum number of connections per user to one). If on the other hand you've been blessed with the use of a T1 or faster connection then throw caution to the wind and be as generous as humanly possible.

The final option which requires tweaking is the folder where you wish to store your downloads. You've guessed it; the menu which allows you to do this can be found under the 'downloads' tab, so click on that now and select a drive with plenty of free space available. The other options can be left alone to use the default settings unless you run into difficulties later.

While you were taking care of the formalities, the Blubmeister (it used to be known as Blubster) was busy logging you into the network. You will now have reached the point where you will be allowed to search through and download the collections of other users, in exchange for allowing other users to have access to your files. So what do you have to do to embark upon your MP3 foraging quest? The first step is to click on the 'search' tab where you will be prompted to fill in a few details relating to your query. You don't have to be a genius to work out what to put in the 'artist' and 'title' boxes so I won't spell it out for you here. Note that these are the only fields which have to be completed to conduct a search.

See, I told you this was child's play didn't I. Having pressed the search button, the results will quickly be presented in the lower window from which it will be possible to reorganize the tracks to narrow down your search. For instance, if you click on the title at the top of the 'bitrate' column, the files will be rearranged according to the sound quality of the tracks. A useful rule of thumb is not to download anything with a bitrate of less than 128 kb/s. This is the middle of the road setting, which offers a nicely balanced sound quality to file size ratio. Choosing anything less than this figure will result in finding music with a smaller file size, but a lower sound quality, and the converse is true for anything with a higher bitrate. If you've got plenty of hard drive space and a fast connection aim for the highest bitrate tracks available.

Now if you click on 'velocity', the tracks will once again be re-organised, this time according to the connection speed of the user serving the files whilst still taking into account the bitrate value which we specified previously. This is an example of a secondary categorization. Avoid modem users like the plague, instead set your sights on at least a cable connection, but obviously the faster the connection the better. Clearly the more people who are connected to a single user's computer at any one time, the smaller the bandwidth limit is for each person. This is why it is wise to download from someone with as fast a connection as possible. Modem users clearly have far less bandwidth available to begin with, which is why such users are best avoided.

'Ping rate', the final option, is much more variable than the preceding two and so will have a lesser effect on your downloads. The ping rate is the length of time it takes for a message to travel from your computer to a remote computer and back again, a bit like a digital boomerang if you like. Note that this figure is not the same as a user's static connection speed (56k for example) because it is dependent on a multitude of other factors. These can include the number of simultaneous connections the user is currently accepting, the number of concurrent downloads he or she is making, and whatever else the user happens to be doing online whilst using the Piolet client. Although it is advisable to choose the download location with the highest ping rate, since any of these factors can vary at a moment's notice, meddling with this setting will not necessarily yield salient improvements in transfer speeds. So if the range of ping rates offered are very similar don't spend too much time worrying about which download location to choose unless you find that your connections are crawling along at a snail's pace.

Once the track list has been neatly rearranged according to filename, file size, connection speed and so on, downloading is simply a matter of double clicking on whatever takes your fancy. In the same way, other people can download your files without you having to do anything. If you are searching for a particular album, a good tip is to go and find the CD cover for it first (refer to the links at the bottom of the CD burning tutorial for some excellent sources). This way you don't have to wrack your brain trying to recall the names of every track that is on the album because the back cover will contain an official track listing. Armed with a scanned CD inlay you will know exactly which tracks to look for, and in what order they should be burnt to a CD-R if you plan to produce an audio CD later.

The Piolet client also includes an MP3 player and an integrated chat program, which allows you to communicate with your fellow 'Blubsies' via private messages. In short, it is a virtual music community where you can meet new friends, exchange files, run and dance naked in the fields and live happily ever after in a perfect state of melodious bliss! It really is a musical utopia - I've gone too far again haven't I? You really should stop me before I get carried away you know. Trust me though, it's damn good... and if you don't believe me check out some of the independent reviews at Zero Paid. Test driving it yourself and making your own mind up is advisable too however!

Although Piolet is set to revolutionize the way we listen to music, it is not without its problems. Providing you are aware of them, however, the two of you should get along just fine. One of the few stumbling blocks you are likely to encounter is having your transfers cut short. This happens whenever the user you are downloading from disconnects from the internet mid-transfer, moves the files you are downloading or generally performs some other brainless action, which is likely to interrupt the download process. You can slice and dice an MP3 track anywhere you like and the remaining portion will still play correctly, which may lead you to believe everything has gone according to plan despite receiving a 'transfer error' message. That is, until you listen to the end of the track and find that it comes to an abrupt halt without warning. At this point the best thing to do is hit your computer as hard as you possibly can while cursing at your nearest and dearest friends, relatives or partner. It won't help you in the slightest, but it may make you feel a bit better!

To avoid accumulating a collection of half finished MP3s I'd suggest setting Piolet to delete partial downloads from within the preferences menu. That way you can perform a new search for the same track and begin again from scratch; a painful process, but one that pays off in the end. Nevertheless, what's even more annoying is when other people fail to do this and instead leave partially transferred tracks in their shared folder for you to find and waste your time downloading. The best way to avoid this pitfall is to click on the heading of the file size column to reorganize the tracks into ascending order according to their file size. Providing that the songs listed in your search box are of an equal bitrate and have the same track title, the one with the largest file size will be the most complete of the set. When trying to reduce the likelihood of downloading half finished tracks, biggest is best, so always make a beeline for the ones with the most bytes to avoid having your listening pleasure cut short.

If Piolet doesn't float your boat, fear not, there's a plethora of other options available to you. While none of the competition feature cutesy pixelated Blubsies they will nevertheless get the job done (with widely varying degrees of efficiency) - check out my file sharing tutorial for some inspiration.

Ripping, encoding and creating audio CDs

Now that you have a reasonable sized collection of MP3s you may want to create your own audio CDs that can be played through your hi-fi so that you can make use of your woofers, tweeters and any other house hold pets you can lay your hands on! This is a fairly straightforward process, but you have to keep in mind that you won't be able to fit hundreds of them onto one CD because they will no longer be in MP3 format. Before your hi-fi's CD player can recognise an MP3 file as a music track it must first be converted to wave format; the 40 to 50 megabyte files we discussed at the beginning of this tutorial.

When this conversion process has been taken care of, all that remains to be done is to burn the files to a blank CD-R using an audio CD template. To carry out this operation, open your favourite CD writing program and select 'new CD' from the file menu. Now choose 'new audio CD' and drag the wave files you wish to burn from the source files window to the music CD project window, give the CD a title, fill in the artist name and finally press the 'write CD' button in the usual way. Bear in mind that if you burn your collection of wave files using a data CD template your hi-fi won't have a clue what to do with them, although you will still be able to open the files through your PC using Media Player or a similar audio playback program.

Before you begin creating audio CDs and converting file formats it is important that you understand some of the terminology used in MP3 creation/playback circles. Ripping is the process by which audio CD tracks are converted to wave format and stored on your hard drive. Encoding on the other hand is the art of converting these wave files into MP3 format whilst attempting to minimise any loss of quality which may ensue. There is a glut of so called audio ripping/encoding programs on the market which will take care of these tasks for you, but the difference in terms of the quality of the encoded tracks they produce is vast.

The program used to rip or encode audio tracks is not the only consideration, however - these programs are not standalone, but rely on a particular external encoder to produce MP3 tracks. The two best encoders are Fraunhofer and Lame, and to be of any use, these must be used in conjunction with an audio ripper. Many people use the Xing encoder without really understanding its drawbacks because it is the default encoder found in one of the most commonly used audio rippers, Audio Catalyst. Note that Xing is a very poor substitute for the Lame or Fraunhofer encoder because the sound quality is inferior to that produced through the use of the latter encoders. In short, give it a wide berth if you want to optimise the sound quality of your MP3 tracks.

As I said earlier, there are a broad range of options to choose from in terms of MP3 tools, but my personal favourite is Audiograbber. Audiograbber, when used correctly in conjunction with the Lame encoder will guarantee that your rips are free from pops and clicks every time. Combining these two essential components may sound complicated, but it simply involves placing the freeware Lame DLL encoder file (which can be found in the download section of the Audiograbber home page) into the directory where the main executable file of Audiograbber resides. Audiograbber is completely idiot-proof so is perfect for beginners, and yet has a myriad of more advanced functions which allow the more experienced encoder to fine tune the conversion process.

The reason Audiograbber produces such high quality MP3s is because it encodes music not via the sound card, but digitally, enabling it to make perfect duplications of audio CDs. It also has the ability to analyse the files it has produced for imperfections, which can then be corrected, in addition to eliminating periods of silence from tracks and performing a normalizing function to make sure all the tracks are encoded at the same volume. The interface is exceptionally user friendly so it is usually fairly obvious how things work from the outset, nevertheless, if you're still struggling to get it to work after going it alone, the Audiograbber home page provides some very comprehensive FAQs and walkthroughs to help out newbies.

If sound quality isn't your top priority, however, an even simpler method would be to let Easy CD Creator take care of the whole process for you. With a few mouse clicks this all purpose program will convert your audio CDs or MP3s to wave files and then burn them to a blank CD-R all in one fluid motion on the fly. If you're planning to take this approach, first ensure that you have plenty of spare disk space available to store the temporary wave files, which will be created behind the scenes before being written to the CD-R.

There are two ways in which you can encode your music tracks. The first, as already covered in detail above, is to download MP3 files from the internet and convert them to wave files, and the second is to turn your own or your friend's CD tracks into wave files (known as 'ripping'). With this antecedent dealt with, it is simply a case of deciding what is going to go where and in what order. To arrange your files, simply drag and drop them using your favourite CD writing software.

Before you all rush off to burn your first audio CD, a final point to note is that most modern CD compilations are stored on 80 minute CDs. This means that to copy a CD track-for-track you will not have enough storage space available on your standard 74 minute CD-Rs, so make sure you stock up on plenty of the fifty-megabytes-extra varieties.

Thought for the day

Roll on fairly priced, legal music downloads! It will be a monumental leap forward for consumers when we are at last able to pick and mix the music we wish to purchase without paying a premium for space-fillers, or to subsidize the luxurious lifestyles of fat cat, record label parasites. Hell, let's dispense with them altogether and pay the artists directly. With the advent of forward-thinking, internet-based delivery systems for music, let's also hope that less well established, yet equally talented and hard working artists will be able to penetrate the market and receive the recognition and reward they deserve.