14.2 Listening to Music
This section offers hints designed to increase your listening pleasure .
14.2.1 The MP3 Factor
As most power hounds and 8-year-olds know, digital comes in many formats, including MP3, .wma, .wav, and more. MP3 is the only format that can you play on any software player (like Windows Media Player) or physical device (like an iPod). Thus, if you want to use your PC or portable player to listen to a symphony you downloaded from a Website or rock opera from your favorite CD, you may well have to convert the files into MP3s.
Unfortunately, while Windows Media Player can play MP3 files, the program can't create MP3 files ‚ at least not without the help of a tool, called an encoder , which converts files into the MP3 format.
Here're two options for creating MP3 files:
MP3 Power Encoder , available for $9.95 from Cyberlink at http://www.gocyberlink.com/english/products/powerdvd/winxp_plugin.asp.
MP3 XPack , available for $9.95 from Intervideo at http://www.intervideo.com/products/custom/ms/windowsxp/media_pack.jsp.
Tip: To find other MP3 encoders, open Windows Media Player, choose Tools Options Copy Music, and click "Learn more about MP3 formats."
14.2.2 The Graphic Equalizer
Want to try your hand at the mixing board? Windows Media Player's Graphic Equalizer lets you tweak your tunes in a bunch of ways, including raising or lowering treble and bass, changing the balance of your left and right speakers , and choosing from almost two dozen presets ‚ canned groups of settings designed to make specific types of music sound better, like Rock, Rap, Techno, Country, Classical, and so on.
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Alternatives to Windows Media Player
What options do I have besides Windows Media Player?
Windows Media Player is great for playing music, but it does have a few drawbacks, chief among them its lack of built-in support for creating MP3 files. Furthermore, some Web sites offer audio and video clips that you can't play using Windows Media Player; these sites require another media player like RealNetwork's RealPlayer or Apple's QuickTime program. You can solve this problem by having several media players on your PC. Here's an overview of the most popular, each of which has a free version.
RealPlayer (http://www.real.com) is the media-playing program from RealNetworks, a pioneer in the world of streaming audio (that is, audio that's broadcast, rather than offered as a file you download and save). The free version of RealPlayer has comparable tools to Windows Media Player (you can rip CDs, organize your music, and burn CDs). RealPlayer also lets you buy downloadable songs from its Real Music Store for around a dollar a song or subscribe to its streaming music service (called Rhapsody) which lets you listen to more than 600,000 songs for about $10 per month.
MusicMatch Jukebox (http://www.musicmatch.com ), another option, creates MP3 files and plays other popular formats, too (including .wma, the Windows Media type). It also burns CDs, plays Internet radio stations , and lets you buy individual songs or subscribe to a monthly all-you-can-listen service.
Despite the big cultural differences between Windows and Macintosh, Apple offers two XP-ready programs. iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes) has the least cluttered interface of any major music-playing program--yet it still lets you rip and burn CDs and listen to music in many formats. It also gives you access to the iTunes music store, which has more than a million songs for sale at around a dollar a piece. But iTunes isn't really meant for playing videos (though you can watch some music videos and movie trailers by clicking on the Music Videos or Movie Trailers link in iTunes). Instead, try QuickTime, Apple's video player (http://www.quicktime.com ), which is designed to play QuickTime movies, a popular format among some Web video developers.
To display the Graphic Equalizer, choose View Enhancements Graphic Equalizer. The Equalizer, shown in Figure 14-2, appears at the bottom of the player. If the controls are grayed out, click the " Turn on" link. To choose a preset for the genre of music you're listening to, click Custom and choose from the pop-up list that appears.
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Figure 14-2. Customize the way your music sounds by moving the sliders on the Graphic Equalizer up (toward treble) or down (toward bass). You can also change the balance between your speakers by moving the Balance slider left or right. If your PC's speakers don't have separate volume controls, this slider is the only way to change the balance between them.
To the left of the sliders, three small buttons control how they work. Select the top button if you want the sliders to move independently, the middle one if you want them to move together loosely, and the bottom one if you want them to move together in a tight group (the difference between these last two is pretty minimal).
14.2.3 3D WOW Sound
Want to surround yourself with Microsoft's rendition of realistic, three-dimensional sound? Windows Media Player lets you simulate a 3D surround sound effect with your speakers ‚ even if you only have two of them ‚ by using the SRS WOW control. The effect might not convince discerning audiophiles to ditch their stereos, but average music fans will probably notice a slightly fuller and richer sound.
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Figure 14-3. The SRS WOW controls give your speakers a 3D sound effect, even if you have only two speakers.
Note: Not all speakers can take advantage of SRS WOW, so you may not notice any change when you use the controls. Older speakers, less expensive speakers, and laptop speakers won't deliver the audio whomp this feature is designed to produce.
To activate SRS WOW, choose View Enhancements SRS WOW Effects. The controls shown in Figure 14-3 appear. If the controls are grayed out, click the "Turn on" link. From the link to the right of the on/off link, choose the type of speakers you have (your choices are: large speakers, small speakers, or headphones). Adjust TruBass (a souped-up bass control) and WOW Effect with the sliders in the middle of the control panel.
14.2.4 Improving CD Playback Sound
When you listen to music CDs using Windows Media Player (or any music player on your computer), your tunes may sound muddy ‚ that is, not quite as clear as when you listen to music on a normal stereo. You probably can't match the quality of a fancy stand-alone system, but you can tweak your PC's CD player to play back music in digital rather than analog form ‚ which can help brighten up dull discs.
Launch Windows Explorer (Windows logo key+E), right-click your CD drive, and choose Properties Hardware. Highlight your CD drive and choose Properties Properties to open the screen pictured in Figure 14-4. At the bottom of the window, look for "Enable digital CD audio for this CD-ROM device" and make sure it's turned on, then click OK until you've closed all the dialog boxes.
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Figure 14-4. Turning on digital audio playback can make the CDs you play on your PC sound sharper.
14.2.5 Groovy Visual Displays
One of Windows Media Player's cooler features is its ability to show visualizations ‚ colored patterns and designs that change to reflect the current mood of the music (Figure 14-5). Windows Media Player comes with a number of visualization collections grouped by name and genre, such as Ambience, Bars and Waves, and Musical Colors (each genre includes several different visualizations).
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Figure 14-5. The visualization takes up the whole player screen. If you want it to cover your whole monitor, maximize the window by clicking the middle button in the upper right corner of the player.
To try out a visualization, choose View Visualizations and then from the cascading series of menus , as shown in Figure 14-6, select a particular style. Once you choose the visualization you want, click the Now Playing tab in the taskbar on the left ‚ that's where you can see the actual visualization. You can turn off visualizations by choosing View Visualizations No Visualizations.
Note: If you notice your PC slowing down when you're using visualizations, you may have to skip the fun, particularly if you have an older computer or one with a small memory.
14.2.6 Skinning Windows Media Player
You're not stuck with Windows Media Player's staid, corporate design. You can apply a skin of your own choosing to change the way the program looks ‚ often drastically. (Skins are different design elements ‚ things like fonts, button styles, and background colors ‚ you can to a program to alter its appearance.)
More than twenty skins come with Windows Media Player (you can get many more online, too, as described in the box on ADD-IN ALERT More Skins, Visualizations, and Plug-Ins). Here's how to try a skin. In the taskbar on the left side of the player window, click Skin Chooser, or choose View Go To Skin Chooser. A list of skins pops up (Figure 14-7), and when you highlight one, a preview appears on the right ‚ in this case, a Microsoft skin called Headspace. Choose the one you want, and then click Apply Skin to give your player an instant makeover.
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Figure 14-6. If Microsoft's preloaded visualizations don't excite you, you can also download others from the Web. Choose View Visualizations Download Visualizations to open a Microsoft Web site where you can download more designs.
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Figure 14-7. When you apply a skin to Windows Media Player, not only does the program's entire look change, it also shrinks significantly, taking up less real estate on your screen.
Note: Skinning Windows Media Player can make certain features less recognizable, including the player's controls. If you're feeling lost, right-click anywhere on the skin to get a list of program features; choose any option you want from the list. If you want the skin to vanish press Ctrl+1 to return to Media Player's normal look.
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More Skins, Visualizations, and Plug-Ins
You're not limited to the skins and visualizations that come with the Windows Media Player. Microsoft offers a wide variety of free skins, visualizations, and plug-ins , all of which you can get from http://www.wmplugins.com. (A plug-in is a small chunk of programming that adds an additional feature to a program.)
For example, download the dancing Elvis plug-in and the King will gyrate across your Media Player (regardless of whose music is playing). The Windows Media Bonus Pack ‚ which includes visualizations, skins, and sound effects--is another nifty package. And if you have Windows Media Player 9, try out TweakMP PowerToy for Windows XP, which the next hint explains in more detail.
Plenty of other sites, including http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/FunStuff/VideoSkins/0,,,00.html), offer their own collection of add-ins. Search Google for "Windows Media Player skins" to find even more sites.
Plenty of other sites, including http://www.customize.org and Turner Classic Movies (http://www.turnerclassicmovies.com/FunStuff/VideoSkins/0,,,00.html), offer their own collection of add-ins. Search Google for "Windows Media Player skins" to find even more sites.