By Bill Machrone (05/04/05)
The PC Magazine readers I talk to believe firmly that once they've bought a piece of music they should be able to play it on any device they own and do whatever they want with it, without having to repurchase it in some other format. I agree emphatically.
ADVERTISEMENT I recently wrote an article for our Solutions section on how to remove DRM from music you've purchased online ( http://go.pcmag.com/unlockmusic ). This is an important issue; you shouldn't have to be tied to a specific player/software/store combination, any more than you are to a specific brand of TV to watch Law & Order. Some people love iTunes; others hate it. They'll put up with it for transferring music to their iPods, but they may prefer to manage their music library with Musicmatch or Winamp. They may want to buy their music from Napster, Rhapsody, or MSN Music.
After reviewing a number of techniques for my article, I concluded that the safest one for most people was burning their music selections to CD and importing the CD images into their chosen library management software or player download manager. The technique is time-consuming but essentially foolproof, yet it hadn't occurred to a fair number of readers, and they wrote notes of thanks.
Other readers wrote to make sure I knew about various other techniques that remained in the digital domain and preserved as much of the fidelity as possible. Many revolve around "record what you hear" programs that snag the digital signal from your sound card before it's converted into analog form, and write it to disk. These programs range from free to $30, but not all are created equal. Many have the same problem that you get when creating an analog loopconnecting your audio output to your line inputbecause they don't know when to start or stop. You generally have to trim silence from the beginning and the end of a recording.
The second problem is that these programs have no idea what they just recorded. You have to give each track a name and create an ID tag for it with title, album, artist, and so on. Some programs save only to WAV format, so you may have the additional step of converting the track to MP3 or your format of choice. You also have to be careful to turn off other programs or sound sources, or you may find your mouse clicks, chimes for arriving e-mail, and error sounds on the track, too. The better programs in this genre have facilities for turning off all the other sources.
If you're a bit on the adventurous side, you might want to try Audacity ( http://audacity.sourceforge.net ), a freeware audio recorder and editor with a growing list of capabilities; you'll have to add the LAME encoder (which stands, recursively and amusingly, for "LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder") to make MP3s, though. A simpler solution might be Record Smart 1.0 ( http://go.pcmag.com/recordsmart ), which limits you to WAV files but has some other nice features, such as auto-trimming silence at the end of a recording. If you have a Creative sound card, you may already have What U Hear. If not, do a fresh download of drivers and utilities. A number of readers use the utility and recommend it.
I haven't thought about Winamp in some time. It used to be my player of choice, but it was pushed aside by Windows Media Player, Musicmatch, and all of the (generally horrible) proprietary music managers that come with the digital audio players I test. Winamp, now owned by AOL, is still going strong, although I could never get excited about all of the supposedly cool skins that it and some other players sport, seemingly trying to out-weird one another. Winamp has always been a strong platform for plug-ins, and people who are equally devoted to iPods and Winamp can now download a plug-in that lets Winamp communicate with an iPod.
But progress comes at a price. According to one reader, Winamp used to play protected WMA files; an output plug-in would direct the digital stream to MP3 and other formats, while preserving the tag information in the original file. This was a great time-saver, but he tested it recently on a WMA track that he purchased from Walmart.com, and the software told him to select a different output plug-in to play that type of file. It makes sense that a media company like AOL wouldn't leave a gaping hole like that in one of its products, at least not for long.
Looking at the unsatisfactory alternatives, you can probably understand why I still prefer to buy CDs and rip them to the format and player of my choice