In "MP3 Convergence on a Dime" (Connected Home Magazine, Winter 2001, InstantDoc ID 22443, I explore the concept of using legacy hardware to build a shared MP3 audio system that you can access from anywhere in your home. In this article, I demonstrate how to build the system. The examples in this article focus on Windows simply because that is the platform that my other systems use. Platform choice is akin to a religious debate, but ultimately you must choose what's best for your needs. Figure 1 shows the basic layout of a dedicated MP3 system connected to a home network. Now let's look at the individual components that compose this system.
Find Your Weakest Link
To be effective as an MP3 player, a computer must have sufficient processor power and memory. Newer OSs provide increasing levels of power and memory, which can quickly make your older hardware inadequate for all but the most mundane tasks. To take advantage of current OSs and MP3 players, I recommend at least a 300MHz system with 128MB of RAM. As long as your system isn't proprietary, the costs of upgrading your weaker links should be reasonable.
Make a list of your base system's components and determine which components are upgradeable and at what cost. Today, new 500MHz and 600MHz Celeron, Duron, and K6-2 processors are available for less than $75 and might be compatible with your older system. Your processor utilization will vary dramatically depending on the software you run and how you configure that software. I used Nullsoft's Winamp on my 500MHz Pentium III system (with 256MB of RAM) to play a song and kept an eye on the CPU load in Task Manager, which Figure 2 shows. The first half of the CPU Usage History chart shows an average 1 to 2 percent CPU load while Winamp plays a music track. After I enabled Winamp's built-in AVS visualization module, the CPU load jumped to an average of 50 percent! (Visualizations are MP3-player plug-ins that pulse graphic designs along with the music.) In comparison, WMP used a 15 to 20 percent load when playing music and about a 40 percent load after I enabled visualization. When you're deciding whether your older processor is fast enough for your needs, remember to consider what you want to run.
Pick a Card, Any Card
Your sound card is arguably the most important component of your MP3 system-particularly if you plan to extend the use of your MP3 player to, for example, DVD playback. Today, a high-quality sound card supports Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding, as well as real-time digital signal processor (DSP) effects. Also, newer cards support digital outputs, which permit no signal-quality degradation between your computer and audio receiver.
Creative, manufacturer of the venerable Sound Blaster sound card, markets its Live! products in several packages. Although the bundled software differs from package to package, the sound card's features generally remain the same. I like the company's flagship Platinum 5.1 Live! card because of its optical digital Toslink outputs and stable drivers. The Platinum package consists of an internal PCI sound card and a larger component called Live!Drive, which you install in the front of the PC in a standard 5.25" disk drive bay. The Live!Drive also includes an infrared remote, which I use to control my MP3 player in the absence of a keyboard and mouse. I was disappointed, however, that the optical outputs were not in the back and that the infrared sensor wasn't disconnected from the Live!Drive. To use the remote control, my PC had to face the room and I had to wrap digital cables from the front of the computer to the back of the stereo receiver-not a pretty sight. Hercules recently released its Game Theater XP audio solution, which sports a detached hub for all of the audio interconnects and includes optical and coaxial digital outputs. By supporting existing audio standards, these manufacturers are pushing convergence.
PC sound-card support for digital optical output and Dolby Digital 5.1 decoding is terrific if you have a high-end stereo system and want to derive a similarly high level of quality from your MP3 player. Bundled software can be convenient if you need the features it offers, but you can find many shareware and freeware MP3 players on the market that offer similar functionality. Before you purchase an expensive sound card, check your old one-it might work just fine. Although I got a kick out of the Live! card's special effects, I was pleased with the sound quality of my prototype MP3 laptop with built-in Sound Blaster-compatible audio.
Connecting a sound card to your AV receiver is fairly straightforward-as long as you recognize some basic terminology and understand the options that your receiver supports. To send music (i.e., sound) from your computer to your stereo system, you'll connect a cable from your computer's Audio Out jack to your receiver's Audio In jack. Most AV receivers support analog audio connections through the popular red and white RCA phono plugs. Most sound cards offer analog output by way of an eighth-inch stereo phono jack. A 6-foot cable to connect these jacks can cost as little as $5. However, if you experience interference, you might need to try a shorter cable length, to physically separate the cable from your power cables, or to invest in a higher-quality cable.
Digital audio connections are increasingly common. Most midrange to high-end CD and DVD players-and even Sony's PlayStation 2-have digital outputs. Creative provides a digital output on its Live! sound cards and a digital optical input and output on its Live!Drive and Digital I/O 2 cards. Make sure your AV receiver supports digital input, and note what type of digital input it accepts. The most popular digital inputs on today's AV receivers are digital optical inputs that use a Toslink interface or digital coaxial inputs that use a coaxial interface. A 6-foot Toslink-to-Toslink digital optical cable ranges from $25 to $50, depending on the manufacturer. With a digital-to-digital connection, you needn't worry about line noise or interference, and your AV receiver handles the digital-to-analog conversion-a job usually better suited to a receiver than a sound card.
Location, Location, Location
You'll store all your MP3 files on your MP3 player or on another networked computer's hard disk. Instead of shuffling through your jewel cases or jukeboxes, you simply click on the song you want to hear. EIDE hard disks' cost-per-GB continues to drop. A 40GB 7200rpm EIDE hard disk (which can store approximately 700 CDs) costs less than $150. You might be able to find a larger disk at 5400rpm for even less. If you're using your hard disk only for MP3 storage, you can get away with the slower RPM rate-even if multiple users listen to MP3 files simultaneously over your network.
You might store MP3s on CD-R discs that play beautifully on your computer but won't play on your portable player or in your car. Most older CD players support only the CD-DA music format. Fortunately, some MP3 software supports MP3-to-CD conversion. This capability lets you take your music wherever you go, but you'll still be stuck with the noncompressed 74-minute CD audio limitation.
Look At All the Sound!
Another benefit of using a PC for your MP3 player is the ability to connect the player to your TV so that you can watch the available visualizations. A TV hookup also lets you graphically control your MP3 player. However, a TV's display limitations typically result in blurry text, which confines the display's use to larger graphics (e.g., a picture of a graphic equalizer). To manage play lists and perform other text-heavy jobs, consider using a traditional computer monitor-along with a product such as Microsoft NetMeeting-to control your MP3 player over a network. Figure 3 shows some of the information and special effects that you can display when you use a monitor.
The United States uses the NTSC format for its television signal. Therefore, you must use a VGA-to-NTSC converter to translate your computer signal to a TV signal. Compared with your computer monitor's resolution, your TV's resolution is very low-you're generally restricted to 640 × 480 or 800 x 600 lines of resolution. The resolution you use depends on the quality of your signal and your tolerance for blurry text. Scrolling through play lists and libraries in 12-point text is dreadful on a TV, even using the largest text at 640 x 480 resolution. I default to the TV display for visualizations when I'm entertaining or for DVD movies. Standalone VGA-to-NTSC converters can be expensive (e.g., $200 to $500), but many video card manufacturers build this functionality into their cards for a fraction of that cost. In addition to the typical 15-pin SVGA connection, look for a Video Out port on these products. However, manufacturers seem to intend these ports for video games or DVD playback, because the display quality simply isn't sufficient for normal computer use. In general, price-versus-performance and quality considerations will vary depending on the combination of sound card and TV that you have.
To make the physical video connection, you typically use either a composite video (yellow RCA) plug or an S-Video plug. S-Video offers a higher-quality signal, but older TVs might not support this connection. An alternative to connecting your MP3 player to your television is to connect it to a traditional computer monitor. LCD monitors are also dropping in price, and you can more easily hide them than their larger CRT siblings. Another solution is to forgo the display and manage your MP3 player remotely.
Networking your MP3 player permits file sharing among other PCs in your home, so that all the machines have access to your music library. Today, many home computer systems have outstanding speaker packages. If a PC in another room has a sound card and speakers, you can use your networked MP3 player to share files with the PC, rather than copy music files from computer to computer. Also, if your MP3 player is connected to the Internet, you can play MP3-format radio stations and even download supplemental information about a currently playing song.
To connect your MP3 player to other machines, install a Fast Ethernet card (which costs approximately $25) in your MP3 player, and plug the player into a hub that connects to your other computers. Many vendors (e.g., Linksys, NETGEAR, SMC Networks) combine a hub and shared Internet connection so that you can access the Internet from your MP3 player and share MP3 files with your other home machines without worrying about the security of your home network. When you play an MP3 file (regardless of its location), you'll use the machine that's running the player to play the file-not the machine on which the file resides. In other words, the machine that stores the MP3 files doesn't need to be hooked up to the stereo; only the machine playing the MP3 file does.
The 802.11b wireless Ethernet protocol supports 11Mbps data-rate connections, and its cost is dropping significantly. For less than $500, you can install a wireless network adapter and access port that will free you from the physical constraint of wiring Category 5 (CAT5) cable around your home.
Manage Your Music
If you network your MP3 player, your song-management options extend greatly-especially if you have other high-end systems in your home. For example, you might rip your audio CDs in your office on a high-speed CD-ROM drive, then save them on your MP3 player's hard disk. Or you might remotely manage your MP3 player from a separate home computer because the resolution is better on a traditional monitor or because you've chosen not to connect a monitor to the dedicated MP3 player.
You can use remote-control software to manage the MP3 computer, or you can use a keyboard and mouse to manage the computer directly while viewing the display on the television or attached monitor. If you use your TV or a remote monitor, consider keyboard/video/mouse (KVM) extension cables or a wireless keyboard and mouse.
If you don't use a monitor on your dedicated MP3 player, consider using NetMeeting to control your server. NetMeeting comes free with Windows 2000 and Windows 98. On the MP3 player, configure NetMeeting for Remote Desktop Sharing, as Figure 4 shows. On the guest machine, run NetMeeting and connect to your MP3 player. You can now manage your play list, install new applications, and start and stop songs from the guest machine. Win2K Server Terminal Services doesn't work well for controlling your MP3 player because it isolates the audio drivers from externally connected users. Other commercial remote-control applications-such as Symantec's pcAnywhere and LapLink's LapLink-also work well, but unless you need these products' extended features, you can't beat NetMeeting's price.
Put Another Dime in the Jukebox
The primary component of your MP3 player is the MP3 player application-and you have many to choose from. Winamp, the pioneer player for Windows systems, offers many custom features and relies on user-community plug-ins to extend its functionality. Winamp is free, small, fast, and effective. WMP 7.0 is also a free MP3 player that supports a wide range of media types. RealNetworks' RealJukebox 2 Plus and MUSICMATCH's Jukebox 6.1 are great commercial MP3 players that let you categorize music files and take advantage of robust features such as MP3 recording and CD-DA-format burning. These players scan your storage for MP3 files and organize the songs in a database. You can use each player to sort music by genre, album, artist, or song.
All these players support skins (i.e., graphical representations of CD players) and visualizations. With the exception of Winamp and its multitude of plug-ins, these MP3 players and recorders would benefit from more customizable features, as well as the ability to use standard tools (e.g., Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access, Notepad) to access the databases they create. I would love to be able to access play lists and music libraries and transport them to other tools for printing, sorting, managing, and general tweaking.
Rip It Good
After you set up your dedicated MP3 player, you'll need to load it with your MP3 music files. Until the courts and the recording industry support digital music commerce, we'll have to manually transfer our audio CDs to our MP3 players. (Wouldn't you like to be able to buy a single song?) The process of copying CD music to a computer in MP3 format is called encoding, or ripping. Make sure that your MP3 software supports CD audio encoding.
When you encode an MP3 file, you need to name it. You can also enter optional information about the music track. Or you can choose an automated method: Attached to every MP3 file is an ID3 tag that contains information about the song's title, artist, album, year, and genre, and a comment field. When you insert an audio CD while the MP3 player is running, the player can use Gracenote's CDDB music-recognition service to automatically look up song information on the Internet. CDDB is a database listing of commonly available recordings that licensed MP3 software accesses from the Internet. (Gracenote claims to hold information about more than 800,000 albums and 10 million tracks.) Although the CDDB service is free for personal and noncommercial use, commercial software developers must license the CDDB service for use in their software. As a result, if a software company chooses not to license its software with Gracenote for this service, that software won't work with CDDB.
CDDB doesn't always populate the genre field and other subjective fields, so categorizing your music later might take time. The ease and flexibility of editing ID3 tags for your music depends on the MP3 player you choose.
Even with one-click recording and CDDB enabled, ripping an entire CD collection is time-consuming. Consider how you want to organize your filenames and your directory structure. Most CD rippers support automatic filename creation based on your preferences. For example, I prefer to create new folders for each album and create song filenames such as artist-songname-tracknumber.mp3. Renaming or reordering files is a pain, so be sure to plan your organization before you rip your collection.
The bit rate at which you rip music determines file size and sound quality. Most players default to MP3 encoding at 128Kb/sec. This default value strikes a good balance between size and quality. For the sake of compatibility, avoid proprietary encoding formats. For example, RealJukebox's encoding defaults to the company's proprietary RealAudio 8 format, and you need to switch from the default to encode in the MP3 format. Also, avoid encoding your recorded MP3 songs with encryption or other security features that will prevent you from playing the songs on other systems. Although such security measures prevent piracy, they also prevent you from playing music on systems that don't support the same encryption mechanism. Look for products that record music as standard MP3 files so that you have the flexibility to play your songs on your personal player or in your car.
Here to Stay
MP3 is here to stay. While the recording industry and manufacturers begin to acknowledge this terrific medium, you can start enjoying MP3's benefits now without spending a lot of money. And in a few years, when off-the-shelf solutions are more powerful and less expensive, you'll be in the position to transfer your 40GB worth of music to any future platform. That's the beauty of convergence.