Hi-Tech 101: Down the dial

Build a collection of MP3 files for free.

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 willlist specific streams (by name) or number of listeners, and will evenfind the names of songs that are currently being streamed through theservice. The information that most interests us, though is the stream’sgenre and the station bitrate. You can type in a style name – say,“oldies” or “country music” – in the search engine box, and you’ll getback a list of streams playing the music you want.
Once you’ve gotten the list, click on “bitrate” at the top of the rightside of the list. The page should now list streams at the very top at360 or 320 bps (bits per second), indicating a “strong” station – i.e.one with high-quality (CD quality) files (for best quality, I usuallyrecord streams at 192 bps or higher). Click on the “Tune In” button onthe left side of the list, and listen to the station using Winamp(http://www.winamp.com), a free music player that works hand in glovewith Shoutcast streams.
If the station matches your criteria – you’ll know after a couple ofminutes – you’re ready to record (you can use Winamp to bookmark the“good” stations for future reference). Now it’s time to open upSimpleRipper, which will record the stream, separating the MP3 files asthey are broadcast and tagging them with the name, artist and otherinformation the broadcaster sends through the stream. To record, simplyright click on the “Tune In” button on the Shoutcast page and click“Copy Link Location.” Paste that link into the SimpleRipper Stream URLbox, press “Let’s Go” and the program starts recording.
You can save your songs anywhere (the default location is in theWindows My Music folder), and within a couple of days, you’ll probablyhave captured the station’s full playlist – at which point it will betime 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 timewith 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 andShoutcast? Depends on how many streams you run at the same time, yourpreferred genre (there are, of course, fewer streams for obscure musicthan there are for popular music) and other criteria. It took me abouta month. And once you’ve got your collection, you can manage it withWinamp. If you’ve got multiple computers on your network, I wouldsuggest using iTunes (http://www.apple.com/itunes/), which lets youshare music collections between computers on a wired or wirelessnetwork.
And to listen on other computers – or on your Nokia smartphone – checkout MeCanto (http://www.mecanto.com/), a great piece of made-in-Israeltechnology that lets you easily stream your music from your homecomputer anywhere – even when it’s turned off.
I know what you’re thinking: Why bother with all this when all you haveto do is go to one of the numerous “sharing sites” on the Web, anddownload anything you want for free? Well, besides the legal andethical issues (the RIAA still comes after people who download musicillegally), it turns out that my SimpleRipper/Shoutcast method istotally legal – and actually easier. SimpleRipper downloadsautomatically, 24/7, while you go out and do things.
Today, most music listeners are after specific songs, which are ahassle to find on sharing sites (the song you want is often buriedinside an album). With SimpleRipper, you can be sure that sooner orlater, the specific songs you want will be played on one of the genreShoutcast 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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