The FezGuys
To Rip, Or Not To Rip ...
[ No. 27 - January 1999 ]

Things That Are New

  1. Real Networks (claiming 85% market share of streaming audio on the Web) is loosing itself from the Microsoft influence (MS is divesting themselves of Real) and jumping deeper into the arms of AOL and Netscape. The marketplace may have lost confidence in Real (stocks went south fast) but Real hasn't lost confidence in themsleves. "Woo-Hoo! Check us out!", they said.*

  2. Microsoft's WebTV has given up on RealAudio and Java in the hopes that people will opt for MS's own like-minded products: Media Player and ActiveX. That's relevant to you content providers. RealAudio-encoded music using any version after 3.0 is unlistenable to the half-million WebTV users. Microsoft shoots itself in the foot by limiting content available to WebTV subscribers. The Headspace audio engine is part of the next version of Java. WebTV users will be out of luck there, too. No Java! No Real! No way! If you are a subscriber, let them know how silly they're acting.

  3. Keep an eye out for an improved QuickTime streaming product to be launched in January at MacWorld. QuickTime works with almost everything. One publisher maintains that 80% of the Web's multimedia streaming content uses QuickTime. Seems like everybody is saying that...

  4. Sony Music has a website called The Jukebox. Their brilliant notion is that you'll pay a fee to hear RealAudio files streamed over phone lines! Sony, like so many record companies, is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Who will pay to hear crappy audio when you can often hear the same crappy audio for free elsewhere? Get real gang: The FezGuys celebrate established music businesses using the Internet to distribute their product. Now we'd like to see somebody step out of the box. It's time to use this new toy in a new way, kids. Remember, you marketing geniuses: Form Follows Content!

  5. invites unsigned musical acts to join them at <> for product distribution. Seems like a pretty decent deal, though there are no guarantees anyone will find or hear you. You're still responsible for your own marketing. The contract can be terminated at any time by either party and all intellectual property rights remain with the original rights holder. Seems pretty clear that all they want to do is distribute physical product. Very straightforward.

  6. At the recent Webnoize conference in Los Angeles a so-called verbal "fireworks display" was touched off during a debate between members of the vocal MP3 community and a posse of representatives from Liquid Audio, a2b Music, Real Networks and Microsoft. Go to: here to listen in either RealAudio or NetShow. Go to the Wed., November 4th, panel discussions and jump forward to 2:38:00 to enter that exact conversation. Listen to pundits and CEOs ditz and waffle. Very amusing.

  7. Visit <> and see how some modern musicians are dealing with record companies valiant attempts to use, co-opt, control or abuse the Internet. Public Enemy's public voice, Chuck D., speaks frankly (as usual) about the band's trials and tribulations as an Web-enabled music group. Great, honest reading. No punches pulled.

  8. And finally: we were gonna review the "final release" of Real Network's new G2 player but it's still Windows-only. What's a Fez gotta do to get a Mac app around here? After promising a Mac version for many months, is RealNetworks using the word "final" as in "you Mac-offs can kiss my bits?"

* Ok. They didn't really say that. But we're sure they'd like to.

That's the question... and why not? Before the year 2000 kicks in, there'll be plenty of playback devices for "ripped" MP3-encoded files. So let's get a head start by firing up software specifically designed to rip music from CDs and turn it into files on your desktop, ready to transfer to any digital playback device. The software we're talking about is AudioCatalyst from Xing Streamworks.

The term "ripping", is unfortunate because it fans the flames of the raging debate over consumer playback technologies. Record companies are concerned over the ease with which their intellectual property can be transferred without payment from one listener to the next in the same pristine condition the manufacturer first sold the product. Music listeners want to easily transfer their favorite songs from CD to computer to portable listening devices. Who will win the debate? That's not our concern this month. We're just going to explain how to create encoded files simply, quickly and cheaply (and within our legal rights).

The Xing AudioCatalyst Encoder is available through an online secure server for $29.95. Go to: <>. There is a free demo version available. The AudioCatalyst is based on an encoder we reviewed recently (see FezGuys column #24 <> ) and is the software packaged with the ground-breaking RIO MP3 personal music player from Diamond Multimedia. Also, in keeping with the ways of MPEG, Xing has released the source code for it's MP3 decoder on the Web (go to: <>. This indicates Xing's confidence in themselves, their technology and the benefits of releasing source code into the public domain. People who use the product on a daily basis directly contribute to its improvement for all.

Installation of the Windows-only AudioCatalyst is easy, with one exception: if you are running an NT system you might need to install specific drivers for your CD-ROM drive. Documentation within the app explains exactly how and where to do this. The AudioCatalyst allows for a wide variety of encoding parameters. You can create MP3 files optimized for streaming on everything from 33.3kbps modems to dual ISDN and up. You can encode from 32kbps to 320 kbps, in any of several mono or stereo modes. You can rip to a WAV file independently and then compress to an MP3 or just rip directly to an MP3. Ripping to a WAV file is useful because a normalize option in AudioCatalyst is available to optimize source audio for MP3 encoding. Also, some CD-ROM drivers won't allow direct encoding to an MP3. Making a WAV file first also allows you to bypass that occasional limitation.

For our demonstration purposes we're going to use a legally-purchased copy of the Ultimate Rock Album: Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side Of The Moon" (digitally remastered - catalog number #CDP7460012). We're going to rip the album directly to individual MP3 song files.

After launching AudioCatalyst and slapping the CD into the computer's CD-ROM drive we click on the AudioCatalyst's CDDB button. The CDDB interface <> is pretty cool. CDDB allows programs like AudioCatalyst to locate our Ultimate Rock Album (or any other album) in a database on the Web. Instead of having track "one" through track "twelve" listed in our window we get the album title, band name, song names and running times in one click. Obviously it's necessary to have an open Internet connection while doing this. It's so exciting to be multi-tasking on your home computer! The next step is to click on the MP3 settings button to select encoding parameters. We're choosing to rip to an MP3 file, instead of using the intermediate step of creating a WAV file. We're using their 128kbps, stereo (near-CD quality) encoding default parameter. We check the box to include an ID3 Tag which puts appropriate track info in each MP3 file. Then we select which tracks we'd like to encode. In this case: all of them.

Encoding to a WAV file is very fast (depending on the speed of your drive and computer). But ripping directly to an MP3 file involves the computer reading off the CD-ROM and encoding simultaneously, and that translates to the approximate running time of the source audio. It's too bad we can't listen to the music while encoding but the process is worth the wait. The encoded file sounds great. But wait: there's more options! While digging around inside the AudioCatalyst we find that it's possible to choose start and stop times from within your source audio (very useful if you only want to encode portions of material). There are dialog boxes to enter your own file names and, conveniently, any WAV file can be your source audio (instead of reading from a CD). Amusingly, you can set the AudioCatalyst to shut down your computer after finishing a designated task.

The compression algorithm in Xing's AudioCatalyst, MP3, is a great standard because (unlike Dolby's AC-3; the algorithm behind Liquid Audio and most of RealAudio) the source code is easily available to any programmer to create their own encoder. This way everyone contributes to the evolution of the code and that means better code, in the long run. Over the past couple of years MP3 has morphed into the most user-friendly, high-quality software to digitally encode music. All the common MP3 players (WinAmp, MacAmp, FreeAmp, Audioactive, even Shockwave) can play your encoded files. An MP3 encoded file created on a Windows machine with AudioCatalyst can be listened to by Windows, Mac, or even UNIX users. MP3 is a real-world standard that works on almost everything and with almost everything.

Xing appears to have learned a lot about user interfaces over the past year. Much more attention is being paid to documentation and troubleshooting. Comprehensive support is provided for a plethora of drives and drivers. There's even a Windows-like "Tip of the day" option available to help you learn about other AudioCatalyst features.

This is an intuitive, flexible, powerful and reasonably-priced product. There's a wide array of parameters to choose from, it sounds great and, as encoders go, it is very fast.

Xing Streamworks AudioCatalyst Encoder - FOUR FEZZES (Get Up On The Downstroke!)

The FezGuys should welcome your comments, but we know better.



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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