Hi-Tech 101: Down the dial

Build a collection of MP3 files for free.

By DAVID SHAMAH
May 28, 2010 16:57
old fashioned radio 88

old fashioned radio 88. (photo credit: )

Ten thousand songs. That’s how many I figure I need for my radio station.

This is a station that won’t be found on the AM or FM band, it’s exclusively for my use. My 10,000 songs have a home on my computer’s hard drive, and I’m be able to listen to them either directly on the computer, or the other computers in the house – or even through my cellphone. And to get the music I need for my station, I’ve been busy downloading songs off the Internet – legally – to populate my personal radio station.

Of course, you could call your 10,000 songs a “collection.” For me, the radio metaphor works. But whatever name you call it, here’s how to build a clean collection of MP3 files for your collection – for free. To record music off the Internet, you need music recording software, and while there are many choices, the one I want to focus on is called SimpleRipper (http://people.umass.edu/jvight/SimpleRipper/). SimpleRipper is a free front end Windows program for an application called StreamRipper (http://streamripper.sourceforge.net/), which is used to record Shoutcast streams, and unlike shareware based on StreamRipper (such as StationRipper, which I’ve written about in the past), there are no limits in SimpleRipper on how many songs you can record for free.

The music itself, as I mentioned, comes from Shoutcast, a service I’ve written about in the past. Shoutcast is a Web broadcasting format that allows anyone to stream music or voice over the Internet. Broadcasters sign up with the service, and listeners log onto the station at the Shoutcast home page (http://yp.shoutcast.com). There are thousands – make that tens of thousands – of music streams at Shoutcast, representing any and every genre you could possibly imagine. So, there’s something for everyone.

With such a wide variety of choices and so many people running their own Internet radio stations, Shoutcast broadcasters all have their own style. Some broadcasters run their streams like a “real” radio station, with promos, station identifications and deejay chatter. Even worse – they do a “crossfade” between songs, with a new song starting as a previous one ends.

Those are the streams you want to avoid; the streams you want are the ones that just play music, one MP3 file after another, with a few seconds gap between each song. It’s sort of like the difference between old time AM “top 40” radio stations, and the classy “classic rock” stations on the FM dial – with the latter toning down the chatter and promos, giving more focus to the music. It’s almost as good as listening to a CD – and those are the songs you want.


So what streams should you be recording? Shoutcast’s search engine will list specific streams (by name) or number of listeners, and will even find the names of songs that are currently being streamed through the service. The information that most interests us, though is the stream’s genre and the station bitrate. You can type in a style name – say, “oldies” or “country music” – in the search engine box, and you’ll get back a list of streams playing the music you want.

Once you’ve gotten the list, click on “bitrate” at the top of the right side of the list. The page should now list streams at the very top at 360 or 320 bps (bits per second), indicating a “strong” station – i.e. one with high-quality (CD quality) files (for best quality, I usually record streams at 192 bps or higher). Click on the “Tune In” button on the left side of the list, and listen to the station using Winamp (http://www.winamp.com), a free music player that works hand in glove with Shoutcast streams.

If the station matches your criteria – you’ll know after a couple of minutes – you’re ready to record (you can use Winamp to bookmark the “good” stations for future reference). Now it’s time to open up SimpleRipper, which will record the stream, separating the MP3 files as they are broadcast and tagging them with the name, artist and other information the broadcaster sends through the stream. To record, simply right click on the “Tune In” button on the Shoutcast page and click “Copy Link Location.” Paste that link into the SimpleRipper Stream URL box, press “Let’s Go” and the program starts recording.

You can save your songs anywhere (the default location is in the Windows My Music folder), and within a couple of days, you’ll probably have captured the station’s full playlist – at which point it will be time to go through the process again, finding new stations to record (note that you can record as many streams as you want at the same time with SimpleRipper – the only limitation is your Internet connection. The bigger the bandwidth, the more high-quality music you can pull in).

How long would it take to find 10,000 songs using SimpleRipper and Shoutcast? Depends on how many streams you run at the same time, your preferred genre (there are, of course, fewer streams for obscure music than there are for popular music) and other criteria. It took me about a month. And once you’ve got your collection, you can manage it with Winamp. If you’ve got multiple computers on your network, I would suggest using iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/), which lets you share music collections between computers on a wired or wireless network.

And to listen on other computers – or on your Nokia smartphone – check out MeCanto (http://www.mecanto.com/), a great piece of made-in-Israel technology that lets you easily stream your music from your home computer anywhere – even when it’s turned off.

I know what you’re thinking: Why bother with all this when all you have to do is go to one of the numerous “sharing sites” on the Web, and download anything you want for free? Well, besides the legal and ethical issues (the RIAA still comes after people who download music illegally), it turns out that my SimpleRipper/Shoutcast method is totally legal – and actually easier. SimpleRipper downloads automatically, 24/7, while you go out and do things.

Today, most music listeners are after specific songs, which are a hassle to find on sharing sites (the song you want is often buried inside an album). With SimpleRipper, you can be sure that sooner or later, the specific songs you want will be played on one of the genre Shoutcast streams you’ve selected. Music is supposed to be relaxing; don’t go on a search for it, let it come to you – and soon you, too, will have 10,000 songs to “broadcast” yourself.

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