By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

Oct. 17, 1999

ROCKOLA. WURLITZER. SEEBURG - classic jukeboxes that evoke memories of flashing neon, dancing bubbles and vinyl 45s pumping out rock 'n' roll in smoky taverns and aroma-filled diners.

But that was before the digital age. Today, the modern jukebox is the home computer. The music packages have names such as RealJukebox, MusicMatch and Winamp. Instead of wax 45s, the music comes from MP3s -- digital music files that can live on a computer disk or hard drive in your computer.

Actually, computer music is not new. Techies have been storing music on hard drives for a long time. But music files are enormous and not the fare of average consumers. A three-minute song, for example, stored as a Wave (.wav) file, easily eats up 30 megabytes of storage space on a hard drive.

The MP3 solution

MP3 stands for Motion Picture Experts Group-1, audio layer three. The technology compresses massive song files into small, manageable files -- about a 10th of a .wav file -- that won't hog vast amounts of disk space or take forever to download from the Internet. The sound that results is nearly the quality of a standard CD recording.

A smaller file, downloaded from a Web site at a 10th of the time, then can be loaded onto portable MP3 players or recordable CDs or Zip disks, making it as accessible as a Walkman tape.

The youthful technology took off because with MP3 being an Internet technology, hundreds of thousands of songs found themselves on the Web -- songs from the famous to the ambitious unknown.

Most recordings from unknowns are free of charge. The major record labels and independent-minded artists increasingly make tracks available for download. Some are free; most cost 99 cents to $1.99.

For the computer users, this means being able to turn a Macintosh or personal computer into a digital jukebox. Using software to 'rip,' or record, CD tracks to your hard drive or an Iomega Zip disk, you can assemble your CD collection for playback any way you want it. And that leaves the CD-ROM drive free for things like work.

All you need is a"'player." No, not another box like a CD player, but a virtual player, software that displays buttons and arrows and data on the computer monitor. Some players include recorders called "rippers." Some of the more popular software is available at, and

The combination player and ripper plays CDs from your CD-ROM drive as well as MP3 files. Some will let you transfer CDs into MP3 files for storage; one will let you transfer your old LPs. They can be customized with 'skins,' decorative graphics that give your screen a snazzy look.

The music you download often comes with 'tags,' artwork, lyrics and notes that can be displayed by the player.

One more note: 'Near-CD quality sound' is just that. It's far superior to analog recordings -- tapes and vinyl albums. But play a CD and a standard MP3 file side by side, and the CD is superior.

And next you ..

Now the killer tunes are on your desktop computer. But it sure would be cool to take them with you jogging or away from the workstation. Well, there are two ways: Transfer them to a recordable CDs or the easier alternative, to a portable MP3 player.

Using CD disks can be complicated. Recordable CD drives handle writable disks (CD-R) and rewritable (CD-RW). A CD-R disc can be written only once. A CD-RW acts like a normal computer disk and can be overwritten or rewritten.

The drawback for CD-RW disks -- other than they're more expensive than CD-Rs -- is that CD-RW disks won't play back in conventional home, car or portable CD players. They'll only play music from the CD-RW drive connected to the computer and some specialized CD-ROM drives.

Liquid Music Player, incidentally, supports several CD-R drives and allows virtual one-button recording. However, Liquid Tracks are licensed and encrypted; that means you can play a Liquid Track unlimited times on your computer, but you can transfer it to a CD only once.

Back to MP3

That hodgepodge of exceptions is why the MP3 is so popular. MP3 files can transfer to Walkman-style digital MP3 players.

The big advantage: no moving parts. No tape, no disk, no spinning motors and no skipping.

The latest generation of Rio, Lyra and Nomad players is hitting the market priced at $200 to $300 -- about twice the price of the previous generation of players. The drawback is still capacity.

Players hold about one hour of music memory.

RealJukebox, incidentally, uses an easier drag-and-drop process to transfer files to portable players.

In the end

And now, a word of caution. The technology is in its infancy. MP3 is a rage right now, largely thanks to college students taking advantage of campus computer networks that are very fast and always on.

But MP3 has its rivals, and there's no guarantee it will remain the standard.

So, don't toss out those converted LPs just yet.

The New York Times and Reuters News Service contributed information for this story.