Not so long ago, downloading music was slow and impractical for anyone but a few advanced users. MP3 hadn’t yet become a buzzword, and the phrase “burn a copy” evoked images of book burning rather than sharing a CD with a friend. The abilities of a PC or Mac to record and edit music were severely limited by the speed and storage space available at the time, and only a few pioneering musicians attempted it. But the technology progressed rapidly, and today, anyone with a personal computer and an Internet connection can enjoy the remarkable benefits of downloadable music and streaming audio and forever leave behind the inconveniences of records, tapes, and CDs.

Here are a few examples of what you can do:

  • Turn your computer into a digital jukebox that holds your entire music collection.

  • Carry that music collection around with you in a device the size of a pack of gum.

  • Sample and download music from the Internet.

  • Listen to Internet radio stations from all over the world.

  • Stream music from your collection to any room in your house.

  • Use your computer as a digital recorder and mixer.

  • Digitize, clean up, and preserve audio from your old records and tapes.

You can do all this and much more, tackling in minutes tasks that used to take professional engineers hours—and you can do it all without expensive equipment and a technical degree.

The Evolution of Digital Audio

Digital audio is simply sound that’s represented by numbers (digits) and stored on a CD, computer hard drive, or other digital media. By contrast, analog audio is sound that’s represented by a continuously varying signal and stored on analog media such as records and tapes.

For many of us, our first exposure to digital audio was the compact disc, which debuted in 1982. The CD represented a revolutionary leap in technology that solved many of the problems common to records and tapes.

The most obvious improvement was the quality of the music, with better dynamic range, improved frequency response, and none of the noise (from turntable rumble to tape hiss) that we’d come to associate with records and tapes. CDs were also far less susceptible to the effects of dirt and minor scratches. And unlike records and tapes, CDs did not lose a little bit of fidelity every time you played them. For anyone who had experienced the auditory pain of listening to scratched records, stretched tapes, and lousy second-generation copies, the CD was a godsend.

The down side of the CD was that the audio was still effectively tied to the physical media. While you could copy songs from a CD to a computer hard drive, the resulting files were so large (typically 30–40 MB per song) that it wasn’t a viable option until the late 1990s, when hard-disk capacity began to shoot up by leaps and bounds. Even then, you could fit only one or two CDs’ worth of songs on a typical hard disk.

The next advance made it practical for anyone to work with digital audio on a computer: the development of the MP3 compression format, which reduced audio files to about one tenth of their original size; the continuing boom in hard-disk capacity and processor speed; and affordable DSL and cable broadband connections.

Together, these factors give you an amazing degree of flexibility, convenience, and control over your music experience. Bits that were once tied to a plastic platter can now flow without restriction over cables and wireless connections to different media, such as a hard disk, a portable player, or even a cell phone. A new digital music industry has emerged, and the underlying technologies have matured greatly since the pioneering days of and the original Napster.

Still, one thing never changes. The people who come up with the ideas and create the programs usually don’t have the patience to sit down and explain things in real-world, understandable terms. That’s why we wrote this book—to provide users with a comprehensive, reader-friendly guide to the world of digital audio on computers and the Internet.

About This Book

This book serves as an introduction to the topic of digital audio, a how-to manual for common tasks, a guide to popular products, and a reference for key technologies. We cover everything from the hardware and software you need to get started to background information and basic theory that will help you better understand the technology and stay out of trouble. Step-by-step instructions are included for common tasks, along with program- and operating system–specific details where needed.

Who This Book Is For

This book is designed to appeal to a wide range of readers, from computer novices who want to learn enough to enjoy the benefits of digital audio to “audio geeks” and industry professionals who want more details about what’s going on “under the hood.”

Parts I and II will appeal to newcomers who want to get started with digital audio without slogging through too many technical details. These chapters include plenty of tips, advice, product information, and references that will be of interest to most readers.

Parts III, IV, and V are for those who want to get their hands dirty recording and editing audio, burning CDs, or experimenting with Internet radio. These chapters also include important theory to help you better understand the technologies you are working with and troubleshoot any problems.

Organization of This Book

This book is divided into five parts:

  • Part I, Going Digital , introduces you to the many benefits of digital audio. You’ll get the history as well as the big picture on new technologies and business models revolutionizing the music industry. We also cover the hardware and software you’ll need to get started, along with the best ways to integrate your existing stereo or home entertainment system with your computer for the ultimate digital audio experience.

  • Part II, Listening to Digital Music , shows you how to organize and play music on your computer using several popular jukebox programs. You’ll learn about the different types of online music services, including downloadable music stores, music subscription services, file-sharing networks, and Internet radio stations. You’ll also learn how to take your digital music with you in a portable player such as the iPod, and how to listen to downloadable music on your car stereo.

  • Part III, The Nuts and Bolts of Digital Audio , covers the fundamental theories of digital audio, including how analog sound is captured and converted to digital format. We cover common digital audio formats, from the uncompressed PCM format used on audio CDs to common “lossless” and “lossy” compressed formats, including MP3, RealAudio, and Windows Media Audio. We also cover the high-resolution audio formats used for DVD-Audio, DVD-Video, and the Super Audio CD. A separate chapter covers the details of MPEG Audio, which includes MP3 and the AAC format used by iTunes.

  • Part IV, Capturing and Editing Audio , covers how to get audio onto your computer, either by recording it through your sound card or by “ripping” it from a CD. Once the audio is on your computer, you’ll learn how to edit it and convert it into common formats, including MP3. You’ll learn how to minimize noise and get the best-quality sound from your equipment. We also include a detailed chapter that shows you how to capture and clean up audio from your old records and tapes and explains the important differences between modern vinyl records and wide-groove vintage records.

  • Part V, Sharing and Distributing Your Music , cover show to burn songs from your digital music library to standard audio CDs, how to create MP3 CDs that can hold more than 12 hours of music, and how to set up your own Internet radio station. You’ll find detailed instructions for setting up a station on Live365 and for configuring a Nicecast or SHOUT cast server on your own computer. Finally, we cover the all important aspects of copyright law as it applies to digital audio, so you can avoid expensive legal headaches.

Programs and Operating Systems

Much of the material in this book is fundamental information that applies to digital audio on any type of computer or operating system; however, we do include material specific to Mac OS X and Windows XP, where appropriate. This book includes a good deal of software-specific instructions, so we’ve done our best to make everything as current as possible. Because there is not enough room to cover all the details of these programs, we focus on the most common features and tasks. In the case of programs that come in both “lite” and full versions, the instructions we include are based on the full version unless otherwise noted. Don’t worry if you use a program not covered in the book; most of the procedures and concepts apply to similar programs. The applications we cover include iTunes 4.7, Media Jukebox 8.0, Musicmatch Jukebox 9, Peak 4.0, and Sound Forge 7.0.

Conventions Used in This Book

The following typographical conventions are used in this book:

  • Italic is used for filenames, pathnames, URLs, email addresses, new terms where they are defined, and emphasis.

  • When keyboard shortcuts are shown, a hyphen (such as Ctrl-Alt-Del) means that the keys must be held down simultaneously.

  • Menu sequences are separated by arrows, such as Data List Create List.

  • Tabs, radio buttons, checkboxes, and the like are identified by name, such as “click the Options tab and check the ‘Always show full menus’ box.”

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In addition to an enormous amount of researching, writing, editing, fact checking, and rewriting, a book of this scope requires input from experts in many fields, including audio, computers, music, and the Internet.

The foundation for this book was laid by our previous book, The MP3 and Internet Audio Handbook (TeamCom Books), which was a collaborative effort involving multiple writers, industry experts, and technical reviewers. While this new book is not a rewrite of the Handbook, it would not have been possible without the contributions of everyone involved in the earlier effort, including Christine Finn, Karen Porterfield, Ann Rolfes, Joe Rolfes, and Larry Thomas—who were primary contributors—plus more than a dozen secondary contributors whose input was vital to that book’s success.

This book was also a collaborative effort between the authors and a talented team of people at O’Reilly. Special thanks to Mark Brokering, who liked our first book and championed the idea for this one; to Molly Wood, who got this project started and provided key input on the style, structure, and content; to Brett Johnson, who edited many of the early drafts and asked a lot of key questions that gave us ideas to make the book more reader-friendly; to Robert Luhn, who provided much-appreciated editorial input on the final chapters; and to Erik Holsinger, who gave much of the material a firm technical read. And, finally, many thanks to the people in O’Reilly’s illustration and production departments who turned the manuscript and our drawings into a finished product.

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