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Making Music: April 2000

Bringing CDs to life

From interactive sheet music to virtual record lockers, the internet is changing the way that CDs are perceived, as Sean McManus reports

With software algorithms designed to identify music CDs in the CD-Rom drive, software can now be downloaded to add interactivity to ordinary compact discs. Based on the track timings, the method can be applied to any CD released any time.

CDDB has a library of data on over half a million CDs, enabling the compatible software players to download the track listings when the CD is being played. Software can also use the CDDB database when creating MP3 files from CDs to complete the track information automatically. The website compiles a chart of what people are actually listening to, revealing among other things that a large proportion of computer users are still listening to Dark Side of the Moon while online. The second generation of the specification has now been published, including links to websites and full performer and composer credits for each track.

The potential is shown by CD Beat [site no longer available as at July 2003], a free CD player program that connects to virtual fan clubs on the CD Beat website. Although the roster of artists and supported CDs is small (and European CDs are particularly sparse in the recognised list), the site shows how internet content could be smoothly married to CDs. In future, a database like the cddb database could be expanded so that nearly any CD released at any time could be played on a computer, giving access directly to a website with news, information on the music and new track downloads. Bands would be able to add interactive content to their old CDs cheaply through the internet, and listeners would be able to enhance their experience online.

Musicians wanting to strum along with their CDs can download interactive sheet music for use with the Songplayer program [link no longer available]. This synchronises the CD playback with chord symbols illuminated on screen like the words on a karaoke display. This site enjoys the support of many of the major music publishers, including BMG, Warner Chappell and Universal. Song files are available for around 71p when bought as part of an album, and virtual sheet music packages can be bought for compilations such as 'Now 44', which would never have justified a printed music compilation. The site has also created a 3D version of selected songfiles, which enables students to see the chords they should be playing displayed on a 3D virtual reality model of a guitar neck or keyboard, with the fingering clearly shown.

Instead of lugging a crate of CDs around, music lovers should be able to listen to their collection over the internet wherever they might be. That is the logic behind my.mp3.com, a service that enables customers to access their CDs in an MP3 format from their own central locker on the internet. The concept has been attracting interest from the motor industry for some time, where car manufacturers want to use the internet to enable drivers to play their CD collection while travelling.

The Beam-it software used works by examining the music CD in the CD-Rom drive to identify which recording it is. If this CD is in the database at my.mp3.com, Beam-it then grants the listener access to the MP3 files on the central server. The listener is spared the inconvenience of creating their own MP3 files and uploading them, which could take about an hour. Internet users will also be able to buy a CD online from one of MP3.com's partner retailers and listen to the digital files instantly, before the CD has been sent by the retailer. Listeners can edit their track listings and in future might be able to listen to their customised playlists over wireless handheld devices. Although now free, MP3.com has confirmed plans to charge for the service in future.

To help protect against piracy, the service only enables access to streaming MP3s and not to downloadable MP3 files. But the service does not require proof of ownership of the CD in the drive, and the Recording Industry Association of America is suing MP3.com alleging copyright infringement.

The technology raises questions about what listeners buy and how this might shift in future whether listeners buy the music, for which a CD is a cumbersome carrier; or whether they are buying the physical medium of the CD itself. The case is also likely to spark interest in updating or clarifying copyright laws, which are rapidly being outpaced by the evolution of technology.