Digital Mixology

Music: Audio-editing programs give even beginners the tools to customize tunes for their listening pleasure. KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

May 13, 2004|By Sam Diaz | Sam Diaz,KNIGHT-RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The MP3 changed everything.

When digital music hit the mainstream during the Napster craze, the world of music changed profoundly - for artists, record labels, retailers and especially for consumers.

Suddenly, regular people had the ability to manage songs as computer audio files and record them to a CD that would play in the car or on a boombox. But that wasn't enough.

Today's sophisticated users are kicking the digital music experience up a notch or two. They're downloading tracks off the Internet and converting them to formats that will record to a CD or will be recognized by their MP3 players. They're also mixing multiple songs into one track, editing out offensive words and speeding up the tempo of their favorite songs. Even those determined to get their own music and voices on CD - or the Internet - now have the tools to create original music tracks.

"It's not just musicians or DJs who are using these types of tools," said Joseph Clarke, founder of Acoustica, a software company that makes audio-editing products. "People are manipulating audio for a variety of reasons."

Acoustica has a popular line of products that can convert music files to different formats.

The Internet also is flooded with software downloads that use variations of an open-source encoder called LAME, which converts files to other formats.

But converting some tracks is tougher now that many downloaded songs come with copyright protection codes written into the music files. In that case, people have found ways around the restrictions by recording the tracks to a CD and then reimporting the song as an MP3.

The conversion products still sell well, Clarke said. But the demand these days is for editing programs with features such as those that allow blending of multiple songs into a single track or trimming pieces out of a song.

Some applications use a visual image of a song - which looks like a large bar graph - to allow users to monitor the song's progress. Through the process, users can edit out or insert split seconds to create a hiccup sound over specific parts of a song (often offensive lyrics).

Others use the bar graph to monitor how different songs are mixed together.

Last month, Clarke's company released its latest version of Mixcraft, a $40 program that has become attractive to a range of people - from aerobics instructors who mix songs and adjust tempos for their workouts to home-video enthusiasts customizing soundtracks for DVD movie projects.

The home-video market is where products such as Movie Maestro enter the game. The software, which sells for $50, targets beginners, as well as those who are concerned about illegal use of music. The product creates a soundtrack that's based on the length of the video segment and uses only licensed instrumental tunes.

"Individual users are getting more sophisticated," said Richard Manfredi, spokesman for SmartSound Software, which makes Movie Maestro. "They get these sophisticated visuals and want audio that's professional-sounding, too. Those tools are becoming more affordable for them."

Products targeted at professional users tend to be higher-priced and somewhat intimidating, said Clarke, who admits that he has struggled with some of the pro tools.

"There's a big learning curve with a lot of those," he said.

The folks at 321 Studios, known best for the software that allows users to easily copy DVDs, recently released AudioXTools, an all-in-one product that includes ripping, recording and editing programs.

At $60, that's probably not a bad investment for someone such as Brandon Signorotti, 18, of Gilroy, Calif.

Signorotti has been creating custom CDs for a couple of years, either from his own collection of more than 200 CDs or from those he borrows from his friends.

"I'm not really doing any editing," he said. "I don't have the software for it."

But he might be interested in doing more with music later, he said. With software such as AudioXTools installed on his computer, the tools would be there when he's ready for them.

It's kind of the idea that Apple is banking on with GarageBand, a digital recording studio program that comes as part of Apple Computer's $49 iLife package, which includes the popular iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie and iDVD programs.

GarageBand allows users - even those with no musical experience - to compose their own music and import their own vocals to create original songs.

Creative's Prodikeys DM - software bundled with a computer keyboard and integrated musical keyboard - is also working to make the experience simple enough for beginners, but high-tech enough for advanced users.

"People are amazed at how easy it is to play music," said Phil O'Shaughnessy, Creative's director of corporate communications. "Anyone can sit down and play music right away. Music doesn't have to be intimidating anymore. Music can be fun."

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