It's quite a singular experience to wander into one of the high street's biggest electrical retailers, present yourself at the counter, and find yourself encouraged to do something that's entirely against the letter of the law: that is, buy a portable MP3 player and make copies of your CDs onto it.
Not to worry. It's just another day in the wonderful, if occasionally ambiguous, world of MP3, where nothing is quite what it seems and the technology itself is in danger of being buried beneath a deadly combination of PR fluff and legal action.
Let's briefly recap. MP3 is a compression technique which allows near CD-quality music to be packed into tiddly file sizes, thus making it suitable for storing on PCs and tiny, Walkman-like personal stereos. Its compressed characteristics also make it an attractive format for those who wish to make music available on internet websites for visitors to download. Cue lots of recording industry-versus-MP3 spats and much general confusion.
Turning CD tracks into MP3 files
So what's the current state of MP3? If you've got a CD collection and you don't mind breaking the letter of the law (just as you do when you make a cassette copy of something - try www.bpi.co.uk for a better explanation than most) then you ought to be in heaven, because there's never been a wider choice of MP3 rippers which can turn CD tracks into MP3 files - whether they're commercial ones like Magix MP3Maker (www.magix.net) or free ones like MusicMatch Jukebox (www.musicmatch.com). For a good, up-to-date list, visit http://software.mp3.com/software/ where you'll find a selection of MP3-related programs reviewed and rated.
If you're searching for music on the internet, most sites exhibit similar characteristics - i.e. an alarming lack of major artists. For these, you must travel to the nether reaches of the net in search of so-called 'warez' sites where you'll find thousands of illegally recorded and distributed MP3 songs by every major recording artist in the world. Legal MP3s require more spade work.
Rocking all over the internet
There's hope though, if you're into other kinds of music. Dance, hip-hop, indie, folk, alternative rock, and world music acts are well-represented on the net, as are those bands like Boston and Marillion, whose commercial heyday may have come and gone but who retain a hard core of devoted fans interested in their stuff. Try www.crunch.co.uk for a decent selection of new UK dance music or www.vitaminic.co.uk/ which is one of the places Boston songs hang out.
You could also try www.peoplesound.com too, the self-styled 'No 1 Free Music Download Site', though don't get too excited by its selection of chart music: instead of a bit of Travis or Shania, you'll only find the mealy-mouthed excuse: "OK, let's not get too pedantic about this, we know the stuff here hasn't entered the charts, yet." Shabby, shabby, shabby.
Where to look for legal MP3 music
Finding legal MP3 files of music that most people have actually heard of is a slog. Try the list of top MP3 search sites at www.mp3now.com/ or hit www.palavista.com/ - though here you'll need an FTP client program because of the odd way it's been set up.
Alternatively, try the official sites of the artists you like because they'll often put up songs for short periods when there's a new album or tour to promote (though these may not always be in MP3 format). Similarly, online shops like Amazon (www.amazon.com) and CDNow (www.cdnow.com) regularly use downloadable songs to promote featured artists like Shelby Lynne, Tom Waits and Carl Cox.
Finally, both the Ultimate Band List (www.ubl.com) and the All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) are worth a trawl.
As far as new products go, you'd best pop off to the Nullsoft site (www.winamp.com/) where you can download the latest version of Winamp, the most popular MP3 player on the planet. Version 2.60 includes a number of new features including the amazingly named SuperPiMP installation system, which proves that someone somewhere still has a sense of humour.
Of the newer programs, UltraPlayer (www.ultraplayer.com) looks good, does the usual MP3 things but also includes some good skins and some blazing visual plugins that swirl and twist psychedelically in time to the music. It's especially good to see that our old friend PsiKorp's Miffo plug-in works with UltraPlayer.
UltraPlayer also has its own alarm clock which can be set to start playing a specific MP3 song or playlist and fade up the volume over a predefined period of time. Top stuff.
Elsewhere, we'd commend Wplay Pro, which you can download from www.mp3rulz.com. This has all the features you'd expect from a good MP3 player, but some enterprising authors have created skins that allow it to look like other MP3 players (including Soritong, NAD and DigiDeck). It also has the most fantastic mobile phone skins. (On a separate but related note - and this is a drum that I bang constantly - if you want to see the future of software, visit both www.customize.org and www.skinz.org to see how software authors are changing the face of Windows for the better.)
Funkiest hardware of recent times has to be Creative's amazing Nomad Jukebox (www.nomadworld.com/) which has six gigabytes of storage. Yes, you read that correctly: it has enough storage to hold your entire CD collection (depending on how big your CD collection is, of course), which at a stroke removes the main problem thus far with all MP3 hardware players - the fact that you have to keep re-recording music. No news on pricing yet, but it should be available in the UK from the early summer. Looks good, too.
Elsewhere, Creative also has BlasterKey, an MP3-compatible, 49-key musical keyboard which will allow you to download, jam with and mix special MP3 content from the www.blasterkey.com website. This sounds a bit bizarre, but it's only $99 and currently includes five free sound font CDs. Now, if we only get the same offer here in the UK...
Of the recently announced 'straight' MP3 players, Sony's Memory Stick Walkman (http://220.127.116.11/) is the best looking and shows that when the people who know about consumer design get hold of this stuff, there are going to be some extremely desirable products out there. Weird ones, too, like the standalone internet radio that plugs straight into the phone line and doesn't need a PC (www.kerbango.com).
Mind you, if you want to find someone making real money out of music on the internet, visit www.eoffer.com/ where Mick Fleetwood will soon be auctioning off the piano John Lennon used to write Imagine. Just don't turn up without £1m or more.
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