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Music to burn

Listening to MP3 music on a home computer isn't enough for some people. Add a CD recorder and software and anyone can create personalized compact discs with the music of their choice.

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 30, 2000


photo
[Times photo illustration: Rossie Newson ]
Internet music is such a guilty pleasure.

It's so easy to find thousands of songs online, ripe for the downloading and much of it free (assuming you don't stop to ponder copyright law and an artist's intellectual property rights, which is where the guilt comes in).

Once people grab music from the Web, they want to do more than just play it on their PCs. They want to set up a playlist, arranging the songs in their preferred order, according to a survey by Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. And they want to be able to listen to their music any time, anywhere.

That may mean buying equipment, such as a CD-RW to "burn" compact discs. And it may mean learning new terms, such as mastering the likes of "converting to .wav." But getting the music from the personal computer to a compact disc that can be played in a home, car or personal stereo isn't that difficult.

"Children in fifth and sixth grade, they know what to burn means and what ripping means," said Howard Wing, vice president of sales and marketing for the Plextor Corp. (www.plextor.com), which makes hardware and software for do-it-yourself CDmaking. "And they know more about the CD-R, CD-RW technology than many adults because music is such an integral part of their life."

For the uninitiated, "burning" means to record on a compact disc and "ripping" means downloading songs from a compact disc. CD-R stands for compact disc-recordable, and CD-RW is CD-Rewriteable. Both drives can record discs.

So to start, you'll need a CD-RW drive. Costs range from about $100 to $350. The drives will have a set of three numbers, such as 12/10/32, which show how fast the machine can write, rewrite and read back discs respectively. The higher the numbers, the faster it is and the better and faster it records the music, Wing said.

A compact disc holds about 74 minutes of music. If it's writing at 4X speed, it will take about 18 minutes to burn the disc. Using a 12X burner reduces the time to about 6 minutes. Currently, a 12/10/32 is the fastest drive available, with a Plextor model gaining top ratings in tests at PC World magazine (www.pcworld.com).

Music to burn
Internet music is such a guilty pleasure.

From online to CD in minutes
With digital music, it doesn't take long to go from online to a disk.

An important consideration for consumers, says Tracey Capen, executive reviews editor at PC World, is to make sure your PC can handle the CD-RW. Some older PCs and hard drives are too slow to handle the drives. He recommends checking the CD-RW specifications to make sure the PC and CD-RW will work together.

"If I were really interested, I'd probably buy a new machine of almost any processor speed, and have the CD-RW installed by the vendor so it's a better match," Capen said.

But you cannot record with hardware alone. Most CD-RW drives come with a software package. Adaptec's Easy Creator (www.adaptec.com) is one of the more popular packages for PCs. Toast, also from Adaptec, is a popular Macintosh package.

In most cases, the software will convert digital audio files to the proper format, such as .wav or .aif, for CD play. But users need to check the packages to make sure that the software will convert MP3 files, the popular digital format used by many online music-swapping services such as Napster (www.napster.com) and MP3.com. If the MP3 files aren't converted by your software, the CDs made from them will play only on PCs or new gadgets designed for MP3, not on a home or car stereo.

Next comes the discs, and not all of them are created equal. It may require experimentation to make sure they work with a particular system. CD-R discs are the main choice for music CDs because most CD players can read them. These discs can be recorded on only once. CD-RW discs, which cost $1 each, can be recorded, erased and re-recorded up to 1,000 times, but not all players can read them. CD-R discs sell for 60 to 70 cents each, and Wing says users should be cautious about inexpensive media.

"There are people who can buy a disc for 10 cents or 20 cents," he said. "We know better performance and longer quality costs more, maybe 60 to 70 cents or a dollar. Creating a coaster is a level of frustration."

A coaster is what happens when a recording goes bad: The disc isn't good for anything but keeping your iced tea glass off the coffee table.

Plextor's newest drives have what it calls "burn-proof" technology that it says eliminates coasters by managing the data flow more effectively to prevent an interruption that will ruin the whole disc.

While music gets the lion's share of attention for burning CDs, the technology originally was developed for data and software backup and storage. The boom in online music created a consumer rush for the recording drives, a market that has been bolstered by the popularity of digital photos. CDs can be used to share or store pictures and to back up home computer hard drives.

"Once you start loading MP3 and digital photographs, it sucks up a lot of hard drive space," said Capen of PC World.

And a lot of people are downloading music, according to Forrester Research. About 36 percent of 3,000 online users surveyed by the research company download free music at least once a month, with 17 percent doing so at least once a week. "But online users are cheap," the report by analyst Jeremy Schwartz said. "Paying more than $1 for a song or $10 for an album won't fly with them."

It's remarkably easy to download free music and burn a CD, if you are willing to wink at copyright laws.

A few hours spent on Napster gives a good glimpse at the great debate over what some consider music sharing and others call music stealing. It's an incredible source, with material available that couldn't be found anywhere else on the Web, free or for a fee: favorites from vinyl albums that wore out long ago, singles that weren't worth the price of a CD by themselves, novelty songs that brought a laugh, classic comedy bits -- just about anything you can imagine.

So, with regrets to Kris (Kristofferson) and Bonnie (Raitt) and Tom (T. Hall) and others, a selection of a dozen songs, about 65 minutes in all, went from online to CD flawlessly. Now I'm left with a CD of favorite songs and a gnawing sense of wrongdoing whenever I play it.

The word free has been a staple of the Internet for a long time, and many surfers seem to have an expectation that if it's online anything goes. But no one can argue with a straight face that this is like exchanging music between friends. The Internet, under any definition, is clearly a form of mass distribution. Making this CD felt like high-tech shoplifting.

To settle the lawsuit filed against it by the recording industry, Napster has suggested charging a subscription fee of about $5 a month for users. That doesn't sound unreasonable, though the recording industry apparently has rejected it.

But while the recording industry has a clear interest in protecting its work, it is something of an accomplice, too. For example, Sony has a guide to burning CDs at its Web site (http://sony.storagesupport.com). At the bottom of one of the items in the frequently asked question section, it has this footnote:

"Please record responsibly. Before copying anything onto a CD-R or CD-RW disc, please be sure you are not violating copyright laws. Most software companies allow you to make a backup or archive copy of software. Check your software license agreement for specific details."

If Sony's safe-music warning sounds ambiguous, it's not surprising. Sony, of course, makes CD-RW drives. It sells the discs. And it sells music.

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