It's the Music, ManBy Martin Hansen. Published: 18th Aug 2004, 03:22:09 | Permalink | Printable
It comes from not-so-far awayReview The MP3 compressed music file format has been around for many years, but only recently popularised. I first remember seeing headlines about these controversial music files in late 1999 when websites offering MP3 files of just about any pop tune you care to mention caused a big panic in record companies around the globe. Sales of CDs were falling, we were all told, as those in the know grabbed their music for free from the Internet. Since then, the websites offering 'pirate' MP3 files have been closed or brought under tight control.
As the whole process has become legalized, Apple are becoming closely associated with online music, supplying both trendy hardware, the iPod, and compressed audio files (similar to MP3) to be legally bought and downloaded via the 'net to play on it. Microsoft, as ever, are not far behind with a similar offering, but with an audio compression format that's incompatible with the Apple one. It's developing into a messy scrap between several companies on both the hardware and software fronts that, thankfully, RISC OS is well clear of.
The MP3 file format still has a lot to offer our platform, however, and recent software advances have meant that we can indulge a passion for the modern way of listening and manipulating music on both our older and newer machines.
Just playing a standard MP3 file has been easy on RISC OS for quite some time. Looking back through old AcornUser magazines, in the March 2000 edition, the cover featured in massive letters the banner "Get Wired" atop an even bigger sign saying simply, "MP3". Inside a three page article investigated the out of control 'MP3 scene' and compared no less than four different MP3 players. All but one were free to download and so RISC OS swashbucklers too could grab a booty bag of MP3s. At that time, there was just one MP3 encoder and I decided to see if I could turn a CD track into an MP3 using my Kinetic StrongARM RiscPC. I was interested in introducing a RISC OS jukebox into the sixth form bar at the school where I teach, and MP3 files were the obvious way to convert a large pile of CDs into something more manageable and usable by teenagers. Selecting a high sample rate didn't help but the 2 minute 45 second track I experimented on took over ten hours to turn into an MP3. Rather than use an alternative OS, I abandoned my plan. And besides, enthusiastic DJs had suddenly decided that vinyl was hip.
The idea has remained buried for four years but when I heard that Peter Everett had done the work needed to get MP3 encoding working sensibly on StrongARM and XScale RISC OS computers (by porting Shine), I decided to download his free encoder and see what it could do. Then I remembered seeing an advert for a new CD audio/MP3 package for RISC OS. Sure enough, for 20 quid, R-Comp would sell me MusicMan. It basically takes a load of existing free software, techniques and know-how and packages it into an easy to use, no hassle, quality product. I sent off my cheque and very soon after, MusicMan arrived.
Enter the software
With this review in mind I decided to install it onto an old StrongARM RiscPC, running age old RISC OS 3.7, first and then, with R-Comp's prior permission, also onto my Iyonix. MusicMan uses Peter Everett's free encoder, Shine, which I'd already installed so I decided I'd better remove that first, least having two copies floating around the system caused any problems. Then I clicked on !MMinstall on the supplied floppy disc, rebooted my machine, and clicked on !MusicMan. Straight away, it worked. Within half an hour I'd set MusicMan the task of squashing an entire CD while I went off to have lunch. To encode an entire CD took 1 hour 39 minutes. Around 60 minutes of audio data now took up 43M of hard disc space.
In view of some problems that lay ahead with MusicMan on my Iyonix, let me point out here that although old, this StrongARM RiscPC has been kept very up to date. It has installed on it the latest ToolBox modules from RISC OS Ltd, and also the latest version of AMPlayer (pictured left). This "unofficial" version is numbered 1.39, but it is Iyonix compatible and I have it on all of my machines as the preferred way to play MP3s. I found my copy on a Foundation RISC User CD but it's freely available on the web.
When I tried to run MusicMan on the Iyonix, it complained with a loud bleep of first not having something called TextGadget, then not having AcornCD, an application that looks up track names from the Internet. Luckily, I recognised the first as being one of RISCOS Ltd's modules in their ToolBox upgrade. I suspect I became confused somewhere along the line, as I forgot that the ToolBox modules, from RISC OS Ltd, were compatible with Castle's Iyonix. After updating the machine, and rebooting for good measure, much to my relief MusicMan was ready to transform another CD. The operation of MusicMan is otherwise exceptionally well explained in a four page, A5, user guide and as I could not better anything said there, I'll leave it as that.
If you have Internet access then MusicMan will grab the track titles for the CD from the 'net; a nice touch. As it was, with my broadband 'net connection still not plugged into my Iyonix, I typed them in. Then I decided to have some fun, and I edited them to add my own personal star rating to each track (pictured left). Doing this was quick and easy, and I even had a track playing through MusicMan directly from the CD as I set up the text. Then, to initiate the conversion, I simply clicked on 'Make MP3s'.
You may recall that it took 1 hour 39 minutes on the StrongARM RiscPC. Exactly the same settings on Iyonix gave a time of 28 minutes. That's half as long as the music itself would play for, and way, way better than the ten hours it took to convert that one track when I last tried in 2000. You can select the bitrate you want to use, and as I'd gone for the default of 128Kbit/s I was curious to know how good the results were. It's a straight forward trade: Higher bitrate means more information is stored per second, which should increase audio quality, whilst resulting in bigger files that taking longer produce by the encoder. One is after the minimum that does the job. Too low a bitrate will result in a poor quality sounding MP3 file.
So, I asked myself, "Would I have to encode again at a higher rate to get something acceptable?" I wired up a couple of speakers the the Iyonix's 'audio out' socket and am listening to them now as I write this. It's quite acceptable, and the speakers, rather than the audio quality on disc are the limiting factor. It will be interesting to either buy some better speakers or put the audio out through the Hi-Fi System. If it's not up to par, I can always resample at up to 320Kbit/s.
My overwhelming impression is that this is a great software product, despite consisting of freely available software. It does use the work of others to do its job but, let's face it, that's why such a marvellous front end is on sale for such a moderate price.
Interestingly, I've registered with R-Comp to receive an upgrade in a month or two's time. This will enable audio sent to the Iyonix's 'audio in' socket to be captured and used to create an MP3 file. So, the time is coming for when you can convert all those old LPs into MP3s.
And before the Ogg Vorbis fans complain, apparently there is support for selecting an OG encoder, as well as an MP3 encoder.
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