Want to turn your PC into a digital jukebox?
To put your compact disk collection onto your hard drive, you'll need three programs: a ripper, an encoder and a player.
A ripper pulls songs off your CDs and converts them to industry standard .WAV files (the kind Windows uses for sound effects). An encoder compresses the .WAV files into MP3 format. Finally, a player transforms the MP3 file back into Frank Zappa.
If you want to keep life simple, try MusicMatch's Jukebox, a $30 shareware program that can handle all three chores. What it lacks in extras - no track information or sound equalizer - it makes up for in convenience.
If you're strictly interested in playing MP3s and want the very best, try Nullsoft's WinAmp (www.winamp.com), the undisputed king. Macintosh users can get the similar MacAmp at www.macamp.com.
What makes WinAmp so cool? First, its $10 price tag. Second, thanks to hundreds of artistic music lovers around the world, WinAmp is highly customizable.
Of course, you can use the standard setup, which looks like a regular stereo set. But on Nullsoft's Web site you'll find more than 1,000 "skins" and other WinAmp plug-ins. Like Halloween costumes, these can make your WinAmp display take on the logo of your alma mater, show a picture of your favorite movie star, or assume some really bizarre shapes and sizes.
For the absolute miminimum effort, you can go along with Microsoft's free Windows media player, the latest version of which supports MP3 files and many other audio and video formats. Visit MP3.com (www.mp3.com) for this and other MP3-related software, music and news.
Once you have the software, where do you find music?
If you have a hankering for Hank Williams Jr. or some other artist, try one of the Web's specialized multimedia search engines, such as Scour Net (www.scour.net). Typing "MP3" and your favorite band's name into a big search engine such as AltaVista (www.altavista.com) will also generate leads.
These search engines, however, can't discriminate between legal MP3s and bootlegs. So if you run across MP3s of Maria Carey's latest hit and decide to download, be warned: Anyone caught copying digital music is subject to penalties of up to $250,000 and three years in prison.
There are, however, perfectly legitimate places to get MP3s. Online music retailer Goodnoise (www.goodnoise.com) sells singles for 99 cents a pop, albums for $8.99, but you may not find any bands you recognize.
There are also alternatives to MP3. Liquid Audio (www.liquidaudio.com) and a2b Music (www.a2bmusic.com) are competing technologies that allow publishers to offer CD-quality music online. By encrypting the music so it can't be easily copied, the companies protect the copyright holders and you're assured of a legal copy. Because big music publishers are relatively happy with this technology, you're likely to find more popular music titles in these formats.
Liquid Audio permits you to "burn" a copy of each of its songs onto a recordable CD. Visit the company's Web site for information about the technology and retailers who support it.
Finally, to escape from your PC altogether, consider the Diamond Multimedia's Rio PMP300 (www.diamondmm.com). About the size of a deck of cards, this $200 Walkman-like device allows you to carry 30 minutes worth of CD-quality MP3 songs on your belt. The music industry's effort to block sales of the Rio failed, so you're likely to find similar gadgets from other manufacturers on the shelves in coming months.