Make the Most of Your MP3 PlayerFollow our tips for easy ripping and keeping your player in shape. Plus: We point you to the best music sites.
Your portable MP3 player is what you make of it. No matter what kind of digital audio player you have, you can do more with it (and have more fun) if you know a few things about the player--and about digital audio in general. We'll tell you how to convert your music collection to the MP3 format, download free tracks, improve transfer speed, and more.
Rip It Good
Before you can play any music on your fancy player, you've got to have some digital music to transfer. It's time to rip--geek-speak for copying a track (say, from a CD) to your hard drive. Some players let you rip without a PC, but you'll often get better quality if you rip tracks to your PC first and transfer them to the player later.
Digital audio file formats such as MP3 (MPEG 1, Layer 3) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) compress bulky WAV versions of audio tracks into much smaller files. You'll find quite a few alternatives when it comes to ripping: MP3, WMA, RealAudio, LiquidAudio, Ogg Vorbis, and more. So how do you pick?
Let your player be your guide. Which formats does it play? All players can read MP3 files, and most can now play WMA files, so one of those two is probably your best bet. WMA files sound better at lower bit rates (a yardstick of quality and file size), but the MP3 format is far more popular and isn't subject to digital rights management that can prevent you from copying multiple versions of a file.
When ripping a file you'll select a format, then you'll need to consider the bit rate you want. In general, the higher the bit rate, the better the sound and the larger the file. Unless you're a golden-eared audiophile, an MP3 file encoded at 128 or 160 kilobits per second should be fine for a portable player; a WMA file at 96 or 128 kbps would be the equivalent and take up less memory--a major consideration on flash memory players.
You can also download music from the Internet. You've probably heard of Napster, the defunct file-sharing service that became synonymous with MP3s. As well as helping to usher in the digital music revolution, Napster also let you download music without paying for it. It's been shut down as a result of many lawsuits. The music industry now offers a few music services that you pay for, and they're worth checking out. You can also still get tracks from some Napster-like file-sharing services and legal free download sites.
Emusic and Pressplay, which is available through Yahoo's Launch and MP3.com, charge a monthly fee for downloads. Fees usually start at $10 and go up from there. You can also download tracks to your portable player or burn them to CD (restrictions apply-- see "Essential Sites" for more information).
You can still get something for nothing through file-sharing services like Kazaa and Morpheus. However, the legality of such downloads can be questionable--and the same goes for the quality of some tracks.
That doesn't mean you can't legally get free digital audio files. Amazon, RollingStone.com, and Billboard.com have several current hits available for free. Make sure your player can read the format before you spend the bandwidth downloading it. And check out your favorite artist's site--many give away new tracks for free as a promotion; however, these giveaways often expire after a certain amount of time, and the sound quality may not be first-rate.
You transfer files from your PC to your portable player using the software bundled with your player, using a USB, FireWire, or USB 2.0 connection. If you've got an MP3 CD player, you need to burn the tracks onto a CD-R or CD-RW disc. When you burn the disc, remember to save the files as data, not as audio. Otherwise, the software will make WAV files of the music, and you'll lose the compressed size. (For complete instructions on how to burn CDs successfully, see "How to Burn Without Getting Singed.") You should also peruse your player's manual; many CD MP3 players let you group songs into albums by segregating them into separate folders.
Tips for Your Listening Pleasure
A little effort goes a long way in the digital music world. Here are a few things you can do to improve your experience.
Clean your ID3s. Each digital audio file includes labeling information called an ID3 tag. The tag includes the name of the track, artist, and album. The tag can get even more granular and indicate year and genre. Most players display some of this information, and others use it to sort the files by artist, album, and genre. But the player can't sort correctly if the tags are wrong or incomplete. You can edit the tags through jukebox software or with special utilities (see "Essential Software").
Make a playlist. The software you use to rip your MP3s can also help you manage them on your portable player. A playlist is a small file that tells the player what order to play the tracks in. You can have multiple playlists that group tracks however you like. Just be sure that when you download the playlist to your player, you download the tracks on the playlist, too.
Speed up your transfers. Getting files to your player can be excruciatingly slow, especially when you do it often. But you can eke out a few more kilobits per second if you have the latest available software and firmware for the player. Check your manufacturer's site regularly for updated versions.
Check your settings. Most players let you adjust the sound and display to some degree. If you don't tweak your player's settings, you can only blame yourself for the trebly sound, for instance. Adjustments usually include an equalizer and balance, and many players let you adjust the backlight on the LCD, scroll speed for the display, and more.
Troubleshooting Tricks for Common Problems
Alas, all is not perfect in the digital audio revolution. Here are some gotchas to watch out for.
Avoid incompatible formats. Make sure your player can read the files you need it to read. If you've got a bunch of RealAudio tracks, but your player can only handle MP3 files, it might as well be Greek. But don't worry--software like RealOne can convert your files to match your player's needs. The player's packaging usually indicates which file formats it reads.
Check for broken files. When you download a file, make sure you've got it all. If your system is taxed using too many resources at once, the ripping software may not encode the entire track, or your PC may give up in the middle of transferring a file to the player. Sometimes you'll get just a 30-second clip of a several-minute track. You might also think a clip you downloaded from a free file-sharing service is intact, only to find out later that you've been had. Check the files to make sure they're complete on your player before you take it on the road. And close other applications when you rip and transfer the files to allow enough resources for the job. If you have a problem, though, it may not be the software's fault--it could be a hardware issue instead.
Beware of mislabeled files. If you use a free file-sharing service, you may also be led astray by the file name. Not all files are as they appear--even the music companies confuse things by entering bad file names on tracks they plant on Kazaa. You get what you pay for, and you may waste download time if you go this route. Be sure to check that anything you download is virus-free--make sure your antivirus program's scanning engine is enabled in the background.
Need some fresh music? Check out these sites when you need some new downloads.
Emusic offers unlimited downloads for $10 a month, and those files are yours to reuse as you please, even if you end your subscription. You can burn the tracks to CD and transfer them to a portable player. The downside: The selection is a bit weak, with few major names or albums. Jazz and blues fans stand to gain the most.
Pressplay, available through Yahoo's Launch and MP3.com, has most of the major artists--from Eminem to Bruce Springsteen. It offers various subscription levels beginning at $10 for unlimited downloads. For $18, you can burn or transfer 10 tracks a month, and those tracks are yours to keep. Other downloads expire when you end your membership.
Amazon lets you try before you buy. It has a great Free Downloads section in its Music area. Many hot and up-and-coming acts can be found here. Check if the file is in MP3 format if you intend to transfer it to your player.
Don't forget about your favorite artists--they may give out samples on their own sites. This depends on the artist, of course, but many acts find MP3s to be great promotional tools. They want you to take it, so go get it!
These applications will help you get the best from your music.
RealOne by Real is an all-in-one media player. It includes powerful ripping software along with great file management. Many players have plug-ins that allow you to use RealOne to transfer tracks to your player; it can burn tracks to CD, too. The paid version ($10 a month) adds faster encoding and burning, plus a subscription download service.
MusicMatch Jukebox is an MP3 jukebox application. It can rip, burn CDs, manage files, and more. The paid version improves ripping and burning speed for a one-time fee of $20.
Nullsoft's Winamp is a simple free player. It supports many formats and is great for making playlists. It won't let you burn CDs, though.
MoodLogic edits the ID3 tags of your digital audio files, adding details like year and mood for $30. It really helps you sort your collection.
Dr.Tag helps you edit your file's ID3 tags with a minimum of fuss. The "automatic" button uses the file name to guess the artist, track, and album information.