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HIAWATHA BRAY | UPGRADE

Free for the listening -- and legal

The Internet remains as tuneful as ever, record-company lawsuits notwithstanding. Any kind of music you fancy is free for the listening, and you don't even have to steal it. With thousands of legitimate music streams online, a good broadband connection is all you need.

Of course, we humans can only listen to one channel at a time. Our computers aren't so limited. With the right software, you can tune in to two, five, or a dozen Internet audio streams, record them all, then listen at leisure.

It's not altogether good news for the recording industry, already busy trying to stamp out the music file-swappers. But there's not much they can do about it. It's perfectly legal to record a TV show for personal use, or to tape a favorite AM radio talk show. The same principle applies to Internet audio streams. As long as you don't pass out copies to others, you're on the right side of the law.

So all you need is software that will capture the incoming music and save it to your hard drive. You can download a number of these programs, ranging from the primitive to the polished.

A British outfit called Opcode Digital Media has a cute little program called OpD2d, free for the taking at www.opcode.co.uk. Digital audio recorders don't come any simpler than this one. It will copy any sound that passes through your computer's audio system, converting it into the same WAVE format used on audio CDs. WAVE is an low-compression technology, so it produces very large files. Luckily, you can set OpD2d to switch itself off after a set time, to avoid filling up your hard drive.

OpD2d is excellent for transcribing old audiotapes or LP records. Plug the player into your computer's soundcard, and the software will make you a good digital copy. But it also captures Internet audio streams. Punch up your favorite online music channel, then push the record button.

Still, those big audio files take up lots of space. You're better off compressing them into something smaller -- MP3 files, for instance. Besides, OpD2d can only handle one audio stream at a time. The better Internet radio recorders can manage a good many more.

StationRipper, for instance, is designed to record up to 300 audio streams at once, though its developer, Greg Ratajic of Columbia, S.C., said the most he's ever managed is 120. Each of these audio streams is recorded in the MP3 format to save space. Indeed, StationRipper works only with Internet radio stations that use Shoutcast, an MP3 broadcasting format developed by America Online.

The free version of StationRipper, available at www.stationripper.com, can only handle two audio streams at once, but the deluxe edition's a bargain at $9.95. Launching the program opens a browser window into the Shoutcast directory of compatible broadcasters. From here you can search by genre for the music you like. Then click a button, and StationRipper starts recording. You don't even have to listen; the software will silently gather up tunes, automatically attaching artist and title information to each cut.

"If you do 20 stations, and just sit there and let it go for a day," said Ratajic, "you'll get 3,000 plus songs on your machine." Assuming you'd want to. Remember, the MP3 files are already compressed, so sound fidelity isn't always the best. Besides, Internet broadcasters ration their bandwidth to save money. The lower the bitrate of the broadcast, the lower its quality. Many Shoutcast stations offer mediocre 64-kilobit streams, hardly worth recording. But channels that go up to 128 kilobits or even higher are playing for keeps.

For a still more sophisticated program, check out Audio Xtract, for sale at computer retailers and www.audioxtract.com. The $49.95 Professional edition is a complete suite for serious recorders. You're still limited to tuning in only Shoutcast stations -- the program's not compatible with the music streaming technologies used by RealNetworks Inc. and Microsoft Corp. But within its limited province, Audio Xtract provides all of the tools you're likely to need.

The software will only record eight simultaneous streams, but who really needs more? What we might need is Audio Xtract's scheduler, that will dial up a favorite channel at a set time every day. Remember those big WAVE files you recorded with OpD2d? Use Audio Xtract's conversion software to crunch them down into MP3 files. There's also an impressive suite of music editing tools to let you burn your recorded music onto standard audio CDs you can play in the car. You can even edit the sound files, remix them, or insert your own audio effects.

Although Xtract, and the other programs I've mentioned, run on Windows only, there are also plenty of stream-catching programs for the Macintosh as well. StreamripperX, a free program, is the most downloaded Mac program of this type on CNET's download.com. It's a simple, elegant program that's designed to work with Apple's popular iTunes music player. After tuning in a favorite iTunes channel, you just drag and drop it onto StreamripperX, and start recording.

It's a garden of delights for the music lover, and perhaps a vision of hell for the record industry. Streamed music recordings could join the billions of other illegally swapped music files that have plagued the music companies.

On the other hand, why steal what you can legally record for free? Just last week, the group that represents the biggest US music publishers agreed to a new royalty deal that will let traditional radio stations play the latest hits over the Internet. If music lovers can legally record the Dave Matthews Band in high fidelity on their home machines, why bother with illegal file swaps? Streamed music recorders could be the best antipiracy system ever. If the music moguls were smart, they'd start giving this software away.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. 

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