If you break down a digital audio file, you will find that it is just a series of numbers. Because computers are so good at working with numbers, it isn't surprising that the personal computer can be a powerful audio device.
You can use your PC not only to play audio files, but also to record, create and edit sound files. In fact, many professional studios use computers extensively to mix, edit, and master audio tracks.
You can connect state-of-the-art audio equipment to your computer system, as well as hook your computer to an existing stereo component to create an amazing audio experience.
If you sit down at the computer to write a letter and your stereo happens to be located in the other room, don't worry. Your computer can meet your musical needs.
From the ability to play standard CDs to downloaded digital music, the computer provides an excellent resource for managing, cataloguing, and playing music.
There are several critical hardware pieces necessary for sound to play on a computer. Chapter 13 covers the required audio hardware including sound cards, speakers, headphones, and microphones.
For a simple experience using your computer as an audio listening device, try placing a standard CD into the CD-ROM drive. When you insert an audio CD into a computer, Windows recognizes the CD format and causes the default media player software to load and begin playing the CD.
To hear the CD, you need to have speakers (or headphones) connected to your system and configured properly.
When you access a media file via an inserted CD or by double-clicking on a media file, Windows automatically loads the default media player. This player enables you to view or listen to the selected media file.
Media players can play video as well as audio files. You can find more about video media files in Chapter 43.
Several different media players are available, each with its own feel and look. Most of these media players can play audio files directly from the hard drive or from Internet sources.
Windows comes with its own media player installed. You can access Windows Media Player from the Start All Programs Accessories Entertainment menu. If the media player isn't in this directory, then you can install it using the Add New Windows Components button on the Add or Remove Programs window in the Control Panel. However, the installation found on the Windows Setup CD is probably older than the current version available on the Web.
If your computer is already connected to the Web, visit the Microsoft Web site and search for Media Player. The latest version of Windows Media Player is available as a free download. During the installation process, Windows Media Player lets you choose which files are associated with the media player. When a file type is associated with media player, Windows knows which application to open when the file is selected. All files associated with Windows Media Player cause the Windows Media Player application to load when the associated file is opened.
Windows Media Player, shown in Figure 42.1, shows the album cover for the loaded CD along with a track listing of the songs on the CD. The controls at the bottom (or top) of the window let you play, pause, and skip between tracks. There is also a volume control and buttons to repeat the current track or shuffle all the tracks. The progress bar at the bottom edge of the window shows how far the track has progressed. You can fast forward or rewind the current track by dragging this bar.
Figure 42.1: Windows Media Player highlights the current track that is playing.
As an alternate to displaying the album art, the Media Player window can display some preprogrammed visualizations that beat in time with the music. You can select the visual effects using the Now Playing Visualizations menu. Figure 42.2 shows the player using the Alchemy visualization module.
Figure 42.2: Windows Media Player can be set to display colorful visualizations that move with the music.
In addition to playing music, the Windows Media Player can also catalog and organize your available music. In the Library window, shown in Figure 42.3, all the music files in the My Music folder load for quick display along with their tracks and album covers where available. By scrolling through the Library, you can quickly select which music albums to listen to.
Figure 42.3: The Library tab of the Windows Media Player displays all the digital albums available on your system.
You can add media files to Media Player's library using the Library Add to Library command. This menu lets you select a folder to search for audio and video files that you can add to the library. Once specified, any media files dropped into the selected folders automatically add to the library.
Apple QuickTime is the default media player for Macintosh computers, but a Windows version of the QuickTime player is also available, as shown in Figure 42.4. The QuickTime player can play video files that use the QuickTime (MOV) video format.
Figure 42.4: The QuickTime Player is also available for Windows and provides a portal for the latest samples from the Internet.
When you install an iPod to your system, the software also installs iTunes. This is a software interface for loading MP3 and video files onto an iPod device. iTunes also lets you create and access libraries of media clips and create playlists.
Another common player that is available is RealOne Player, shown in Figure 42.5. This media player is another portal with music samples, movie trailers, and new reports.
Figure 42.5: The RealOne Player is yet another popular media player available on the Internet.
MusicMatch Player is another great media player that includes the ability to catalog and organize music sets into playlists, as shown in Figure 42.6. You can streamline most media players and hide them away in a corner of the Windows interface so they don't take up much space. MusicMatch Player was one of the first players that could read CDs and automatically download song and album titles from the Internet.
Figure 42.6: MusicMatch Player can display song and album titles from the Internet.
Media players often are included with certain types of software such as an iPod or pre-loaded on the computer.
When a media player is installed on your system, it is configured to play the vast assortment of media files that it may encounter. You can switch a specific file type to use a different media player if you wish.
If you select the audio file and open its Properties dialog box, it includes an option to change the media player that opens the specified file type.
To change the media player used to open the selected file type, follow these steps:
Locate a media file type such as MP3 in Windows Explorer.
Choose the File Properties menu or right click on the selected file. Choose the Properties menu command.
In the Properties dialog box, shown in Figure 42.7, click on Change.
Figure 42.7: The media files Properties dialog box lets you change its default media player.
In the Open With dialog box that appears, select the desired media player. Close the dialog box. Then click the Apply button on the Properties dialog box.
Most media players can reset the files associated with their player and some even include regular checks to see if these associations have been switched to another player.
Digital music is all the rage now with MP3 and media players available from many different manufacturers and songs available for download from many artists.
Each of the media players has the ability to store and play MP3 music your PC downloads from the Internet; most provide access to a music service where you can access and download music files for a nominal fee.
Digital music files can be some of the largest data files on the Web. CD-quality sound is recorded at 44,100 samples per second, which for 16-bit sound in stereo (with two channels) turns out to be a whopping 1,411,200 bits of data for every second of sound. At this ratio, even a simple nursery rhyme would be around 5 to 10 megabytes (MB) in size.
MP3 is a compression format that enables music files to be reduced in size significantly without seriously degrading the sound quality. This format makes it possible to reduce a three-minute song from 30MB down to one that is roughly 3MB when 128KB per second compression is used. You can save better quality sound by using less aggressive compression ratios.
The Moving Pictures Experts Group developed the MP3 audio format. It was the third major release of the format, which stands for MPEG audio Layer-3. A newer format called MP3 Pro is available that reduces the compression rates even more, but the new format requires a new encoder to realize these compression rates and a new player to get the best sound quality.
When saving MP3 files, you can set the Bit Rate between 42KB per second to 192KB per second. Lower bit rates compress the audio file to a greater extent but result in lower quality. MP3 files saved at 192KB per second bit rate have the best quality sound.
In addition to CDs, downloaded MP3 files are another common source of digital music. Users can download MP3 files ripped from CDs and also upload them to servers. You can add downloaded music files to the media player's library by simply dragging them onto the media player's window.
Many fee-based Web sites let you pay a fee for the ability to download digital music files to your computer. From your computer, you can download the files to an MP3 player for taking your music on the go.
Sharing ripped MP3 files is against copyright laws.
Another way to listen to digital audio is to use a media player to connect to a podcast. Podcasts are digital audio programs that you can download and listen to or take with you on your mobile device.
Podcasts are available on every conceived topic and can be searched using a Web browser. The iTunes player includes an online repository of podcasts that are easy to navigate and use.
Many Internet sites offer streaming audio. These broadcasts, like radio stations, have a continual digital file that isn't downloaded in its entirety. Instead, the program is streamed to your computer's hard drive where a portion of the program is saved. As the program continues, more of the program downloads while you are listening to the section that is already saved. By continually downloading the next section so it can be heard without interruption, the program lasts indefinitely.
Many radio stations broadcast their programs on their Web sites in conjunction with their broadcast over the airwaves. If you do a search for you favorite stations, there is a good chance you can find them online. Streaming audio servers are required in order to be able to set up a streaming audio program, but anyone with a Web browser and the correct add-ons can listen in on a streaming audio program.