Finding Digital Music Online
Just what is this digital music craze all about?
It seems like everyone is talking about downloading at the moment. Listening to people talk about digital music and toss out terms like MP3, ripping, burning, and streaming can make you feel like you've taken a wrong turn and ended up in a graduate class at MIT. But it's all easier than you think, and our brief guide to the world of digital music should help to make you comfortable with the basics. We'll cover the whole process of downloading music on the internet, from the very basic setup you need to download, to the application or digital music player you'll need to play your music.
What is Streaming?
Streaming audio is sound that you listen to 'live' over the internet. It is not downloaded to your computer. This is often for copyright reasons; you can listen to music but are unable to download and keep it. There are a lot of radio stations that stream their shows over the internet.
What is Downloading?
When you download something, you get a file from the internet and bring it onto your computer. Music is one of the most popular kinds of download. Instead of going out to a store and coming home with a CD, you can pay to download songs and listen to them on your PC or on a range of other devices.
What You Need to Start Downloading
Each music download site will tell you the minimum specifications and should provide you with the software needed to use their service, but for all of them you will need a computer with plenty of hard disk space, a sound card and a connection to the internet. To get the most out of any download site you will need a broadband connection (a high-speed internet connection), as songs can take hours to download on dial-up, as opposed to minutes. If you have a dial-up connection to the internet, you can still download music; it will just take longer.
What am I Downloading?
Music on the internet comes in a variety of different file formats. The most well-known format is the MP3. Other file formats include WMA (or Windows Media Audio) and AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).
MP3 is probably the most widely supported audio format. Virtually any device meant to play digital music will handle these files. (It's why many people refer to portable players as "MP3 players.")
- Advanced Audio Coding (AAC)
Apple and its iTunes player and music store favor the AAC approach.
- Windows Media Audio (WMA)
This is Microsoft's own audio compression format.
This is the compression format from Real, which makes the RealPlayer.
Where Do I Go to Download?
You can download music from a number of sites. Keep in mind that the music is copyrighted, and you need permission to be able to use it. Unless the copyright holder has explicitly provided permission, it is illegal to swap music with others or to download tracks from unauthorized sites. The recording industry has traced and prosecuted some individuals for illegal use of music. The pay services have permission from the music labels to sell tracks individually.
Price - $0.99/song; $9.99/most albums
Apple’s iTunes is one of the most comprehensive services you’ll find online. The software, which acts like a web browser, is easy to download and use. The big downside about iTunes is that it isn’t compatible with other systems. What does that mean? Essentially, if you download a track from iTunes, it will only play on a computer with iTunes (and on an iPod).
Price - $0.99/song; $9.95/album
With Napster you can purchase a track and burn it to CD for the usual 99 cents. In addition, for $9.95 a month you can stream tracks to your PC, with access to virtually the entire Napster catalogue. You don’t own the music this way, and if you cancel your subscription, all the tracks you’ve downloaded disappear. The range of music offered on Napster is not quite as wide as iTunes, but there is still a lot to choose from.
Real Networks Rhapsody
Price - $0.99/song; $14.99/month
Real Networks Rhapsody service offers $9.95 and $14.95 options of streamed music, and downloads to keep and burn are 99 cents each. Rhapsody has an excellent catalogue with more depth and breadth than most and has an easy to navigate search function. But the best feature is that it supports virtually every kind of MP3 player – including the iPod.
Price - $0.79/song; $4.99/mo for temporary songs
With Yahoo Music, downloads to burn are only 79 cents, a savings of 20 cents over other services. You can also subscribe for $4.99 a month, allowing you full access to songs, which can be left on your computer or downloaded to compatible portable devices. As with other subscription services, you only have access to the music as long as you maintain your subscription.
Price - $10/month for 40 tracks
At $10 a month for 40 tracks eMusic is a remarkable deal. But, its real appeal is for those whose tastes lie well outside the mainstream. The company doesn’t work with any major labels, only independent ones.
How Do I Download?
First you will have to pick which music download site is best for you. Although many sites share certain tracks, all of the sites have different music catalogues. Browse through a few of the different sites and decide which one is for you before you register. To register and buy songs, you will have to give the site your credit card details, so make sure that you are buying from an established and secure music provider. Some sites (such as iTunes) allow you to buy songs individually. Other services require you to subscribe to monthly packages.
Playing Downloaded Music
Just as there are multiple ways to download music, there are also a number of music player applications with which to play the music on your computer. Music players can also play CDs on your computer, tap into Internet radio stations, and organize music on your computer. When you sign up for your chosen Web site, you will usually be given instructions on how to download software to play music. This will happen before you even download a song. The software for each provider does vary, but here are a few examples:
Using portable media players
Downloading tracks gets them as far as your computer, but that won’t help much if you want to take your music with you. If you want to hear your music while you are out and about, you'll need to transfer them to a portable player.
There are a lot of portable players available, and it's usually a simple matter to plug them into a computer and transfer the songs from the computer to the player. But before you make a purchase, make sure that the player you want will play the type of files you have. There are a few different file formats for digital music, and not all players will play all of them. Apple's iTunes service uses the AAC format, which can only be played on an iPod digital music player. Another file type is WMA (Windows Media). This can be played on the devices made by Creative, Rio and Dell, to name a few. It is possible to play WMA files on an iPod.
All of the major services allow you to burn downloaded songs on to CD for personal use, so if in doubt you can always stick to the trusty portable CD player.
Burning music to CD
Once you have downloaded a selection of songs, you can compile them into a playlist, which is a group of songs in an order chosen by you. From this playlist your software can burn an audio CD. For this you will need a blank CD or CD-R. These are available in most computer shops, music stores, and even drug stores.
In iTunes, once you have selected your chosen playlist you simply click on the "burn disc" icon in the top right of the window and insert a blank CD. In Windows Media Player you can also compile a playlist of tracks and then click on the "Copy to CD or Device" tab on the left hand menu.
Do you have more questions about digital music? Contact the Sights and Sounds Department at (410) 396-4616 or e-mail us through our Ask A Question service.