MP3 Afloat [legacy 2001 version]

Note: as this is a legacy page, we are no longer checking the links periodically. The information and links (if they still work) are here for interest only.

In our previous lives ashore, prior to Maringret, we had managed to accumulate a music collection of over 1,200 CDs. The collection started with records, made the transition to cassettes and then really exploded once CDs became the popular media when the music companies, eager to persuade musicphiles with large amounts invested in the older record and cassette medias to convert to CDs, offered up numerous rereleases of recordings that had previously been kept “out of print”.


Aboard Maringret we had wanted to carry the music collection but had been limited by space. We had some plastic disc holders that altogether held about 300 discs. This was not as much as we wanted but rather what we could find space for. There never was a “home” for the holders, rather they seemed to float about the saloon. We never could justify giving up space on the bookshelves for them.

We missed the whole Napster MP3 rage on the Internet as we didn’t have an Internet connection on Maringret. Friends described and demonstrated it but we were just beyond the “end of the internet wire”. When we replaced our Macintosh PowerBook 3400 laptop, after a mishap on the icy sidewalks of Trondheim, the Macintosh iBook we purchased came bundled with a package called iTunes. This program would read regular stereo CDs and convert them to MP3 format (amongst other things). Reading about the advantages of MP3 on the Internet we realised that with its 12 fold compression, our collection of 1,200 CDs (of which we had 300 on board) would only take 100 discs. A third of the number of physical discs we had been carrying! This lead us to set out on yet another technology project.

When we purchased Maringret the car stereo cassette player that was installed proved to be beyond hope so we had replaced it with a car stereo CD player which perfectly fit the hole cut in the teak above the wet locker door. After a wave came across the deck off the Lofotens this stereo stopped stereo-ing as the mushroom vent above the wet locker allows water directly into the wet locker. Not a lot, but enough! We started looking for a replacement unit. We were aware that some units had MP3 capability and were told by the various car stereo outlets that soon such units would be in stock. This never seemed to have happened (at least not at an affordable price). Finally we came across a store that was selling Jensen car stereos, one of which was affordable and handled MP3 format discs. According to the salesman, the limitation with it was that the front facing was not detachable. This didn’t really deter us as we couldn’t figure the purpose of removing the facing on a a boat where, unlike a car, stereo theft is not a large risk. So we ended up with a car stereo CD player which would play both normal audio CDs and MP3 format CDs. Now it was time to figure out how to make the things. And so began our learning curve…

As this project involved nothing but internet compliant technology we started off by using the search engines on the Internet. It seems that most of the hits generated for the search string “MP3” are to do with Napster-clone music ripping, downloading and exchanging. It is a bit harder to find sites dealing with MP3 technology itself. The main one we have found iswww.MP3.org which seems to be the organisation behind the technology. It has all sorts of links both to explanations, discussions and eventually commercial products. It has descriptions of the various versions that MP3 has gone through and what was achieved with each step forward.

Click here to view some terms used in MP3

The first thing we learned was that there are two parts to what is commonly referred to as MP3: the first is the music itself; the second is the textual information that is associated with the music (such things as artist, song title etc.) We never encountered any problem with the music storage, any song stored by any other machine seemed to play perfectly on any other machine, based on our experience.

Such was not the case with the textual information – which is stored in what is referred to as “tags”. It seems that all the machines do not agree on what version of the tags to use. So what’s in a tag? Things like name of song, album the song was released on, the year the song was recorded, artist of the song, these are the standard items stored in the tag. Later versions of the tags allow almost anything to be stored (song lyrics, videos etc.). But for us simpler folk, we’d just like to get the simple things working. Names for the artist, track and album would be enough for us.

One of the features of MP3 format songs and MP3 players is that while the song is being played, the title, artist, and album can be displayed by the player. Obviously different models of players will display these pieces of information in different ways. Our Jensen MP3310 has a simple one line display where the letters enter from the right hand side, slide across the display and then “fall off” the left side. This allows us to see the different pieces of information while the song is playing. This may seem rather esoteric to someone who compares it to using a record player where such things did not exist. But one of the big differences with MP3 is the amount of storage available for the music. Instead of getting up to change the record every 17 or 18 minutes and remembering the album by picking it up to flip over to the other side, with MP3 over 11 hours of music can be stored on one disc! If the average album was 45 minutes or less in the era of LP records then this is the same as putting on 14 or 15 albums every time you insert a disc. This is well over 100 songs which is a lot to remember!

We started out by simply burning a disc in MP3 format. The music worked fine but our display stayed blank. This is actually the point at which we started digging on the internet to learn about tags as we had naively assumed it would just work. We started out comparing our output with that from other (mainly Windows) laptops in the marina. Finally we gathered that:

  • there are various formats of MP3, as mentioned above this seems to be irrelevant for the actual music storage as MP1 and MP2 formats are never encountered;
  • within MP3 there are various formats of tags (i.e. textual information): these have great names like 1.0, 1.1, 2.2 and 2.3. Don’t ask us where the other versions got to. Possibly equipment supporting higher version tags can read lower version ones but we’re not sure as our player can only read version 1.1 (it says so on the box).

So to return to our situation, it turned out that our Jensen MP3310 player dealt with MP3 tags but only version 1.1. As we pointed out above, the music worked regardless of any tag discrepancy, it was just we wanted to get the tag issue sorted while we were at it. It turned out that the iTunes program on our iBook supported and defaulted to version 2.3 tags. Of course there may be even higher version of these tags out there but if so then we don’t know about it.

To summarise our situation, our player was of an older version of the tag format than the machine we were going to use to write out the discs. One tool we found that was invaluable for sorting this out was MP3 Inspector which allowed us to drag-and-drop MP3 files onto the program and have the version of the internal MP3 tag displayed. We also learned these other facts regarding MP3 tags:

  • the track sequence does not seem to be used within MP3 tags, at least not in earlier versions of MP3 tags. Our Jensen MP3310 player simply plays the tracks in alphabetic order so the tunes starting with the letter “A” play before those starting with “B” and so on. The version 2.3 tags in iTunes on our laptop have a field for sequence but we haven’t been able to figure out how to cause it to be used. We have entered it (usually it is entered by the software when the CD is read prior to you entering the track names) but it doesn’t seem to have any effect on the playback order. If this sounds like an esoteric then just imagine putting in a classical recording in MP3 format and the track “Finale.MP3” plays before the track “Introduction.MP3”. Not necessarily what one wants.
  • moving music between any two machines will quite possibly encounter a variety of minor differences in the handling of tags. To reiterate, never in all our testing did anything ever happen to the music itself, it always played on every player we tried.

What we found was:

  • Our MP3 player used the name of the track to determine the order to play the tracks; because of this all our tracks are of the form “Track 01.MP3” through to “Track 99.MP3”. A note is that WinAmp seems to store the track name as the actual name of the file on the disk. Perhaps WinAmp handles the track sequencing differently but for our Jensen MP3310 player this leads to all songs playing in alphabetic order.
  • The MP3 tags carry information on the album the track (or song) belongs to but in the case of our player, this information was not used. Our player used folder names for the album so an album called “Debut” with three songs “First”, “Second” and “Encore” resulted in a folder called “Debut” with 3 files inside that folder called “Track 01.MP3”, “Track 02.MP3” and “Track 03.MP3”, inside these files are the tracks “First”, “Second” and “Encore” (the song or track title being stored in the tags).
  • Our player was able to get the Artist name and Track name out of the MP3 header so we stored the information there using the iTunes program.
  • We wanted our large collections of the same artist to play chronologically so we prefaced the folder names with the year so the album above would be something of the form “1993-Debut”.
  • Specific to our Jensen MP3310 player, it seemed to have a bug whereby if folders were used then the last track of the last folder would be skipped. This is undoubtedly specific to our model of player. But to get around this we had a friend record a 1 second long track of silence and we put this track, called Silence.MP3 into a folder called zzzSilence (the “z”‘s at the beginning of the folder name mean it will always show up as the last folder. This worked on our Jensen and if we then play the disc on another player which does not have this problem it will go to all the trouble of playing 1 second of silence which won’t be audible anyway.

Storage

When it came to converting all our discs we started to realise the physical requirements. Yes we would shrink our 1,200 discs to about 100 discs, but we noticed some problems as we started.

  • Our iBook ripped at an average of 4 speed – this means it would rip 4 minutes of music in 1 minutes. The rate went as high as 6.1 and as low as 1.0 but an average was between 3.5 and 4. We noticed that doing anything on the computer else tended to cause the rate to drop.
  • To burn a CD which was filled with MP3 information would take about 15 to 20 minutes by the time all the tracks are copied to the disc and then the laser burns all the information permanently onto the disc.

These two limitations meant that it took significant time to rip all the disks and also that a new disc had to be supplied to the machine between every 10 to 15 minutes. Not too bad if you happen to be sitting beside but a bother otherwise.

Our experiences were that based on the recordings we have, we got between 9 and 14 albums in MP3 format per blank CD. We started off by ripping the collections of artists we had 20 albums and more by. Although time consuming it was easy to fill up the blank discs one at a time and so condense 25 albums to 2 to 3 discs. We could already see all the available space materialising on Maringret.

This is as far as we have gone with out MP3 project. We realise that we have done the easy bit in that we have ripped the artists who fill up MP3 format CDs easily. What will be harder, much harder, is to rip the albums where we only have that one album by the artist, burn the album onto a blank disc with up to 12 other albums by other artists and then at a later date, try and find it again. We haven’t come up with a solution to this yet.

Another shortcoming we ran into, which may not relate to may other persons is we had all the track information for our CDs in another database. That database could write out various formats of files with the information so that we could then work with that information. This would have been ideal is we could have only found an MP3 tag editor which would have been able to import the information and update the MP3 tags. A lot of effort would have been saved. There is a CD track database on the internet but our laptop has never connected to the internet.

www.mp3.org


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