Embracing Obsolescence

Free MP3 and Ogg Vorbis Software for Old Macs and the Classic Mac OS

- 2006.03.08

The concept of listening to music on your Mac isn't a new one - essentially any Mac with a CD drive can play audio CDs - and even the more recent fascination with newer digital music formats is several years into its course. Yet many people have designated the classic Mac platform as unsuitable for the task of audio jukebox, which is not an entirely accurate assessment.

True, pre-OS X versions of the Mac OS may be limited in their support for some recent codecs, particularly those which contain Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) software (thus no iTMS support or support for those service licensing Microsoft's Play4Sure), but all is not lost.

The classic Mac OS remains surprisingly capable in its support of non-DRM lossy audio formats. "Lossy" simply means the compression used trades off some audio quality in exchange for smaller files.

On the other end of the digital music spectrum are lossless codecs, such as Apple Lossless and FLAC. However, other than the common WAV and AIFF formats (audio CD format), there is zero support for common lossless codecs, even the open FLAC.

Furthermore, I'm going to discount the various RealPlayer and non-DRM Windows Media formats on account of the lackluster official playback software from RealNetworks and Microsoft and the paucity of support in alternative players.

MP3 and Ogg Vorbis

This leaves us with two remaining formats - the near ubiquitous MP3 and the open Ogg Vorbis.

If you need your digital music to be compatible with the widest range of hardware and software, MP3 is the safest choice. MP3 is a lossy format, but quality it certainly acceptable at higher bit rates, especially considering the much smaller files sizes granted by encoding your music. By choosing different bit rates you can further maximize file compression by encoding at a lower rate or make better quality files by encoding at a higher rate.

Variable bit rate (VBR) adds another wrinkle by allowing the bit rate to fluctuate higher or lower depending on the complexity of sound at any portion of the audio track. The average bit rate is calculated, giving the overall sound quality of the file.

Another wrinkle is mp3PRO, which allows even better compression. This results in higher quality at lower bit rates, which means smaller file sizes. There's not much support for this codec, but non-mp3PRO players will play these files as normal MP3s, albeit without sounding as nice and lacking the added mp3PRO characteristics.

Free MP3 Software

MP3 Players

All the MP3 players listed have a few features in common. Notably, support for creating playlists (either through the application itself or via helper applications), recognition of ID3 tags (some provide more support than others), shuffle, repeat, and compatibility with VBR MP3s.

Air Whisper: A persistent window always on top ready for quick access, coupled with a skinnable interface and low system requirements make this player an interesting choice.

Aqueous: A lightweight, simple to use MP3 player. Can use WinAmp skins.

Audion: A jack of all trades. Supports many codecs other than MP3, including mp3PRO. Some of the included features as follows: set wake and sleep timers, encode music, stream music, listen to streaming audio, and many more functions. Is skinnable with the ability to download or create many different faces.

Cabrio: Another basic player with modest system requirements. Skinnable and has sleep timer.

iTunes 2: Similar to Audion, but does not support quite as many features, nor codecs.

MP3 Strip 1.5: Very similar to its sibling, Air Whisper, except it operates as a control strip module. Otherwise same basic feature set.

MpegDec: Another very simple player. Can play streaming MP3s and has 68k Mac support.

MP3 Encoders

Both Audion and iTunes supports VBR encoding and CDDB lookup, but Audion has more features overall, including support for the MP3 Pro codec along with the LAME MP3 codec.

Ogg Vorbis

Ogg Vorbis is similar to the MP3 codec in that it is a lossy format and has access to VBR encoding, but sound quality is often deemed to be superior. Whether this claim is true, Ogg Vorbis benefits from the fact it is a truly free codec. There aren't any licensing fees for building software to support this format.

Unfortunately, even with the openness of the codec, support is not nearly as universal as support for MP3. This fact is reflected in the relatively few applications supporting Ogg Vorbis encoding and playback.

Free Ogg Vorbis Software

Ogg Vorbis Players

Audion: See the MP3 player section for more information on Audion. The key here is support for Ogg Vorbis decoding.

JustOgg: Essentially a twin to MpegDec, except JustOgg support Ogg Vorbis decoding.

Ogg Vorbis Encoders

Ogg Drop: The only Ogg Vorbis encoder freely available for the classic Mac platform.

MacAmp: The last versions of MacAmp ($10 shareware) has support for encoding Ogg Vorbis files, but MacAmp for the classic Mac OS hasn't been updated in five years.

Lastly, if superior sound quality is the goal, and hard drive space is not an issue, you could always use iTunes or Audion for playback and decoding of AIFF and WAV files.

I hope this article was able to serve as an adequate introduction into the world of digital music on the classic Mac OS. In my next article, we will proceed to step two, where we look at ways to actually get audio into our digital audio jukebox. Until then, feel free to start trying out some of the software I made mention of during step one. Although I certainly have my favorites, until we start getting into the details of setting up the jukebox, there is no need to get too specific. Better to let you experiment and enjoy the fun and frustrations of exploring each application. Until then, happy computing.

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