Homemade CDs spook the music industry

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, July 1999

The explosion of interest in the MP3 format for audio has the music industry spooked. And with good reason. Up until now, they've had a pretty good thing going. While users could tape music onto cassette tapes, the most convenient and highest quality medium, CD, has been read-only.

And while CDs cost next to nothing to produce in bulk, they've sold for more than formats like pre-recorded cassettes, which are actually more expensive to produce.

But all that's starting to change. Combine the Internet as a distribution medium, highly-compressed MP3 files as a format, and the more and more affordable and common CD Recorders and who needs the music industry?

Take my 15 year old Joey. (I'll ignore the temptation to include the old punchline "Please!").

He's recently spent a lot of time online, collecting MP3 music files. (Of course, he only collects non-pirated songs from independent artists, right?) He listens to them while he's on the computer-- doing his homework, or chatting to his online friends via ICQ.

The other night, he asked if we could make a CD from his collection-- we have a CD Recorder (aka a 'burner'). These devices now start around $280, with blank CDs at about $2 each-- on a par with cassette tapes.

We discovered that depending how you want to use the CD, it may not be quite as easy as just copying a bunch of files to the disk, but it's not too difficult a process. First step is to decide how you want to use the CD. If you just want a CD as a way of storing a bunch of songs, but you're only going to play it on computer, it's easy.  And while an audio CD holds about an hour and a bit of music, if you want to store MP3 files on the CD, you can easily store ten or twelve hours of music on a single CD.

(A typical pop song may only take up 3 or 4 MBs of space, and with about 650 MBs on a CD, you could easily get, say, all of the Beatles' output onto a single disk. And if you already owned copies of all the original CDs, and were making a copy for personal use only, it would probably even be legal)!

But as we said, you could only play this on a computer.

Joey wanted something he could play in his DiskMan, or take down to his room and play on his stereo. For that, he needed to convert the MP3s to CD audio format.

The CD-Recorder came with a copy of Adaptec's Easy CD Creator-- a program to create data or audio CDs. To create audio CDs, it needs the music to either already be in CD audio format (copying tracks from existing CDs, for example), or in Windows-standard WAV format. So the trick is to convert the MP3 files to WAV files.

There are a number of programs floating around the Internet that do just that. The $10 shareware Winamp (www.winamp.com) is popular, for example-- as it can also be used as a player for a wide range of music files, and accepts plugin 'skins' to change the program's appearance.

We used the free MP3Box (www.gti.net/fannet)-- it made a pretty quick job of converting the songs, one by one, into WAV files, and in the process, removing the MP3 compression. The output WAVs were easily 12 or 13 times as large-- a song that was 3 MBs in the compressed format ballooned to 40 MBs or so as a WAV.

As a result, Joey's CD could hold about 18 tracks-- just like a standard audio CD.

But once we had the music in WAV format on the hard drive, Easy CD Creator made it as easy to create an audio CD as its name suggested-- locate the files in its file browser window, drag them in the desired order to the CD window, and click Create Now. It recorded the audio CD in 2x speed, taking about half the time to record as it would to play it back.

The program even offers a jewel case layout option, automatically adding the list of tracks, and allowing Joey to paste in a graphic he'd found online as a cover and insert for the CD case.

Joey's happy-- he's got a custom CD with 18 of his favorite songs and no filler, and he can play it on pretty much any audio CD player. He knows he can create more as he collects more MP3 files, with pretty good sound quality and at a cost that's a fraction of what a retail CD costs.

With pirated MP3s of commercial hits floating around the Net (despite industry efforts to stamp them out), it easy to see why the music industry it w

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan