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Chapter 4. Playlists, Tags, and Skins: M... > MP3 Options and Considerations

4.1. MP3 Options and Considerations

Once you've mastered the basics, you'll want to expand your horizons a bit and start checking out the many advanced capabilities, cosmetics, playlist generation techniques, ID3 tagging tools, plug-ins, and other toys available. There's a lot out there, and we'll only have space to touch on a handful of examples of useful "peripheral" software here. Do some searching through your favorite MP3 site or software library and you'll find hundreds of tools not discussed in this book.

Before we get to the goodies, however, we'll discuss some of the issues affecting the quality of MPEG audio. Because the compression format discards some data, MP3 already stands on shaky ground from a fidelity standpoint. That's not to say the quality of MP3 stinks, as some critics claim—but there are some things you can do to optimize the quality of your MP3s during encoding and during playback.

On the lighter side of things, MP3 players can often be dressed up in "skins"—small collections of bitmap images that sit on top of your player to give it a customized appearance. You can download skins from the Internet or create your own, although the process is admittedly a bit tricky. Don't worry—we'll show you how to create your own skins from start to finish.

Two of the most important "peripheral" technologies you'll meet in this chapter are ID3 tags and playlists. We discussed ID3 tags in a technical vein in Chapter 2; they're the extra space in MP3 files that let you store "meta data" about a file, including the artist, album, and track names, as well as genre, year, and personal comments. An up-and-coming modification of the ID3 specification, called ID3v2, is much more powerful, and lets you store a nearly unlimited amount of additional information (up to 256 MB). We'll check out the many ways in which ID3 tags can be created or edited, either directly through your MP3 player or via separate software.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of building a large MP3 collection, and one of the things that makes it so different from building a tape or CD collection, is the fact that you can mix and match songs into a customized sequence at a moment's notice. These personalized "albums" are called playlists, and consist of simple text files referencing the locations of tracks scattered across your system. Playlists can be created by dragging tracks one at a time into an MP3 player's playlist editor, by dragging entire directory structures onto your MP3 player, by trawling your disk with scripts, by running command-line queries, or by scanning through your collection with a database-like solution like Helium.

Ensuring that your files have solid ID3 tag data (accomplished either while encoding or after downloading) can be very important later on when you want to start creating playlists based on query criteria, such as "Create a playlist of all songs on all of my disk volumes by either Neil Sedaka or The Carpenters written between 1971 and 1975 that don't have the word `schmaltzy' in the comment field."

The functionality of many MP3 players can be extended by installing plug-ins, much as you would for Netscape Navigator or Adobe Photoshop. A bewildering variety of plug-ins is available, which will let you do everything from controlling your MP3 player via infrared remote control to applying sound effects to displaying wild visualizations of the music as it plays. We'll take a look at a few of the more popular plug-ins later in this chapter as well.

An increasingly popular way to listen to MP3s is not to save them to disk or to encode them, but to listen to them in real time as they're broadcast out over the Internet. While the process of running your own Internet broadcast is covered in Chapter 8, we'll show you how to tune into the two main types of streamed MP3 (broadcast and on-demand) in this chapter.

Finally, you'll want to make sure your system is well-tuned for MP3 encoding and playback, so we'll talk about the hardware requirements—what kind of processor you need, sound and video (yes, video) card interactions, disk speed issues, and the like. We'll also show you how to benchmark MP3 players and encoders in case you have an older machine and want to make sure you're not dragging down the rest of your system's performance.

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