Audio software for free (Feature)
By Jay Dougherty Sep 20, 2008, 2:08 GMT
Washington - You can spend a lot of money on software to play, edit, and record audio files. Or you can take the time to download the best free audio tools and end up with a tool chest of utilities that compare well to their commercial counterparts. All you need to know is where to look - and what to look for - and you'll be on your way to pleasing your ears and your budget.
--- CD burning software
What good are audio files if you can't burn them to a CD? The big two CD burning packages - Roxio Easy Media Creator and Ahead's Nero - have crowded out most of the competition - at least in the world of commercial software. But both products have turned into bloatware, installing dozens of features that many users are unlikely to need or want - and that's on top of the fact that both programs are pricey.
Luckily, today's best free CD burning software provides the speed and simplicity that most users want.
CD Burner XP (http://www.cdburnerxp.se) is lightweight, compatible with all current versions of Windows - including Vista - and will burn both CDs and DVDs. Although it's free, its feature set is impressive. It can create audio CDs without gaps in-between tracks and can both create and work from image files that contain an entire album's worth of material in one file. Unlike many free programs, CD Burner XP has a thoughtful interface and features a wizard that walks you through the process of burning particular kinds of disks.
Deep Burner (http://www.deepburner.com) comes in a free version that does what most users need: burns CDs from MP3 and WAV files. Like CD Burner XP, Deep Burner provides wizards to guide your way through common burning tasks.
--- Audio recording and editing
Audio recording packages are useful for recording live audio, podcasting, for converting tapes and records to digital music, and for editing audio files, including WAV and MP3. Musicians, disk jockeys, and those who want total control over how pre-recorded audio files are heard will need an audio recording and editing package in their toolbox.
Today, the big commercial audio packages - Adobe Audition, Steinberg Cubase, DigiDesign Pro Tools, and many others - are complex and expensive, with prices starting at around 150 dollars for most home versions. So it's heartening when capable, easy-to-use packages exist for free.
The best of the free audio recording and editing tools is Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net), an open source project. It's available for Windows, the Mac, Linux, and some other operating systems and provides a good introduction to what audio recording and editing software can do.
With Audacity, you can do everything from record simple voice narration to musical instruments, including dubbing existing tracks to create multi-track recordings. And you can edit existing audio files - to remove static and hiss, adjust volume levels and equalisation, or to add special effects. If you're a musician and find that you ultimately need a sophisticated multi-track recording package, you may ultimately find Audacity lacking, but it won't cost you a thing to see whether Audacity has what you need.
--- Audio players
Audio players aren't what they used to be. While just a couple of years ago, audio players were strictly for playing back MP3 and other popular audio files, the free Windows Media player changed the game by playing not just audio but video files - and many types at that. The result is that even the term 'audio player' is now outdated - with 'media player' being more appropriate.
Names aside, there's good reason to look at what's available in the free media player market, despite the fact that Windows Media player and iTunes - the two leading media players - are free. Both Windows Media Player and iTunes are resource hogs, meaning they consume a lot of processor power, which you just might like to use for other tasks while your media player works in the background. In addition, both applications struggle to play all of the file types - especially video file types - that are available today.
In the past, WinAmp (http://www.winamp.com) was the free media player that most folks turned to by default - and with good reason. WinAmp used to be a fast, no-frills solution for playing back audio files. But then, presumably to compete with Windows Media Player, WinAmp started loading on the features, including video playback and skinning, and performance suffered. Plus, if you're not careful during installation, WinAmp will encumber your system with adware.
Thankfully, there are other free options out there that are both faster than the bloated media player behemoths and more capable in some ways as well. Chief among them is the open source gem Media Player Classic (http://sourceforge.net/projects/guliverkli). This little program doesn't even require an installation. Download it from SourceForge, unzip it, and you'll find a single executable file that will give you all of the useful features of the biggest media players with none of the junk.
Media Player Classic can handle all of the usual audio file types from MP3s to Ogg Vobis - and has native support for more video formats than Windows Media player. It can even use the QuickTime and RealPlayer technologies - if installed on your computer - to play those file types natively. You can also extend the number of file types that Media Player Classic can handle by downloading and installing the free ffdshow (http://sourceforge.net/projects/ffdshow).
Being the open source software that it is, Media Player Classic is also strong in areas that power users often value: virtually every feature can be adjusted with keyboard shortcuts as well as with the mouse, and many aspects of the program can be customized - from the logo to whether the program automatically plays certain file types.
Media Player Classic is compatible with Windows 95 through Vista. A good multi-platform alternative to Media Player Classic is VLC Media Player (http://www.videolan.org/vlc). VLC is distributed in versions that are compatible with Windows, Mac, BeOS, Linux, Solaris, and a number of other operating systems. VLC supports the playback of most audio and video file formats, including some that Media Player Classic cannot handle without add-ons.