Music in the free world

You already have a ton of music you know you like, it's on those dozens of silvery discs floating around the house. How can you get those tunes into your computer?

CD rippers are programs that extract audio tracks from compact discs and save them to the hard disk. The job's not finished there, though; that audio data must also be encoded in MP3 format. RealJukebox is a combo ripper/encoder that takes care of the entire process.

To start, put an audio CD in the CD-ROM drive. RealJukebox should automatically open. (If it doesn't, launch it through the Start Menu.) The program may start recording automatically; if it does, click the Stop button to suspend the process. Better yet, kill the automatic recording habit. Choose Options-Preferences, click the General tab, and then clear the "Start recording the CD" box near the top.

Next, you have to do a little housekeeping. Log on to the Internet and press - to retrieve all artists, albums and tracks. This info should now appear in the main RealJukebox window. Choose Options-Preferences, and then click the Encoding tab. Select MP3 Audio under "Select a Format" and 96Kbps Stereo under "Select a Quality Level". This is the best bit rate (the amount of data saved per second of audio) that RealJukebox Basic can handle. Click OK. Finally, check the tracks you want to record: check the left-most box at the bottom to select all tracks, the right box to clear all tracks. Now click the red Record button at the top of the window.

The time it takes RealJukebox to record depends on several factors, including the length of the track and the recording bit rate. The higher the bit rate, the longer it takes. Typically, you can rip a CD and encode it in MP3 format within 15 minutes. Once the tracks have been ripped and encoded, you can play them, organise them into custom playlists, or move them off the PC and onto a portable player. For the best recording results, keep these facts in mind:

The higher the encoding bit rate, the better the sound quality. The only reason to drop below 96Kbps with RealJukebox Basic is if your hard disk space is extremely tight, for there's a discernible drop in sound quality from 96Kbps (44MB per CD) to 64Kbps (29MB per CD). To record at the industry standard MP3 bit-rate of 128Kbps (60MB per CD), which most people find hard to distinguish from actual CD audio tracks, you'll have to spring $US30 for RealJukebox Plus or use a different ripper/encoder, such as CDex. Check out for a wide software selection.

Some CD-ROM drives (mainly older, slower drives) can't digitally extract data from a CD. They can only record using an analog kludge that plays music through the sound card and records the output. Needless to say, quality suffers. To find out if your drive can digitally extract data, stick a CD in the drive, choose Options-Preferences, click the Recording Options tab, and then click the Run Test button.

RealJukebox automatically selects digital ex-"traction if the drive and sound card are up to it; otherwise, it will use the analog method. Check the Recording Options tab again. If Analog is checked, shove the Record Volume slider all the way to the right. The louder the volume, the better the re-"cording will sound.

When recording the analog way, you can't disable play-back during recording, and if you lower the volume using RealJukebox or Windows, you lower the recording volume. Instead, use your speakers' physical controls to turn down the sound.

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