Compact discs still fit perfectly inside most stockings, but in view of new-tech products already reaching the consumer market, they look almost, well, old-fashioned. But how do you box, wrap, and tie a pretty bow around an au courant digital audio file of U2’s latest single? Easy: You load it onto a portable MP3 player or record it onto a CD with some homemade artwork on the insert first. And just how do you do that? Fortunately, that’s why we’re here — to help you select the software and hardware that will make music for your loved ones’ ears this holiday season.
MusicMatch Jukebox 6.0
The most important part of any digital music collection is the software you use to listen to it. For $19.99, MusicMatch may seem an odd pick, since it can convert music into MP3 format, record back onto CDs, organize playlists, stream online radio stations and video, and play MP3s just like its freebie counterparts. But unlike other players, MusicMatch also lets you print a colorful CD insert using the cover art — which it finds on the Internet — from each album on your custom playlist. It also records onto more than a dozen portable audio devices, and, unlike Microsoft’s Media Player 7, it still works on Windows 95. Plus it comes in a box that you can wrap and put under the tree right next to the latest Beatles anthology. A
This $29.99 player’s best feature — if you can find it amidst the cluttered interface — is a crossfader that lets you mix seamlessly between tracks. It’s comparable to MusicMatch in nearly every other way. B+
Microsoft Windows Media Player 7
This free software has two advantages: It converts songs into Windows Media files that are half the size of most MP3s, thereby saving room on your hard drive. The sound quality, though, is rich enough to appease audiophiles who have downloaded Madonna’s latest single from Listen.com. Since it’s free, there’s no reason you wouldn’t use Media Player to convert your CDs and a different jukebox to listen to the finished audio files — just be careful which player you select as the ”default” during the installation. B-
Logging on to one of these websites and creating a custom-mix CD sounds like a good start to delivering a personalized gift, until you discover that the selection is unbearably small. You won’t find anything — much less new releases — by Madonna, U2, or Radiohead on either of these sites. Instead, you’re forced to plow through their catalogs looking for gems from yesteryear like Cyndi Lauper’s ”Time After Time” or the Bangles’ ”Walk Like an Egyptian.” That’s not exactly our notion of a custom mix. Still, it shows that you cared enough to send more than a Virgin Megastore gift certificate. C
Mixman DJ Megamix
Aside from making even a tone-deaf musician sound like DJ Ton Def, the $29.95 Megamix software is a lot less expensive than two turntables and a mixing board. With Mixman you can choose from libraries full of techno, pop, and hip-hop audio samples, and then mix them together to create new songs. Once you’ve mastered the art of scratching on your keyboard, you can upgrade to Mixman StudioPro and start adding your own music samples to create high-quality, extended-play sets. The finished works can then be traded online with other Mixman addicts (or burnt onto a CD for a lucky friend). A+
MTV Music Generator
Less sophisticated than Mixman, and only for the Sony PlayStation, the $39.99 Music Generator lets aspiring DJs create rock, house, trance, and acid tracks — and then cut a simple video to go with them. Add three friends and attempt a multiplayer mix, or just drive Mom and Dad crazy — which is, in the end, what music’s all about, isn’t it? B
Martin Tobias, founder of Loudeye Technologies, on making high-quality home digital audio recordings:
Buy your master from a reputable source — one that has a relationship with the original content owner or label. Do you really want a digital file of a song somebody recorded with a Walkman from the 40th row of a live concert?
Encode into the highest audio conversion rate that your software will allow.
Turn off your e-mail program while listening to or recording streaming audio, e.g., from an online radio station.
Download multiple tracks at once; it only increases the chances of losing bits on the way.
TAKING YOUR ACT ON THE ROAD
CREATIVE NOMAD JUKEBOX
The $499 price tag isn’t so ridiculous considering this portable CD-size MP3 player carries 100 hours of music. Along with a standard headphone connector and the Mac- or PC-compatible USB port, the Nomad has a line-in jack for recording from external devices (like a microphone), a line-out for car stereo adaptability, and dual speaker outputs. It even comes packaged with 20 hours of music and audiobooks. About the only thing the Nomad doesn’t do is help pick which albums from your collection ought to go on it. A
Yet another reason to switch from the Palm PDA to the Handspring Visor: The MiniJam snaps right into the Visor’s Springboard slot, allowing it to double as an MP3 player. The $259 version holds 64 megabytes (about an hour of audio), so it’s nearly indistinguishable from a stand-alone portable. Upgrade MiniJam’s storage capacity with a flash memory card for $44.95 and transfer files to it using the MusicMatch Jukebox. About the only drawback is that the device depletes the same batteries you use for scheduling appointments. B
Burn-your-own CD fanatics can finally stray from home base with this under-$100 portable that, unlike normal CD players, accepts both regular discs and ones filled with MP3 recordings. Since a CD full of MP3s carries around 10 hours of music, this player soundly beats its MP3-only competitors in storage and price. But despite the impressive 50-second antishock function, the MPTrip looks cheap and has a few functionality problems — accessing different music directories is difficult — that need to be corrected before it gets a top rating. B-