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Unlock Protected Music
Online music services
Total posts: 14

ByBill Machrone

When you buy music from an online store, the copy-protection scheme may not allow you to play it on your portable player or to manage your music library with that player. The most commonly offered suggestion for unlocking these music files is to burn a copy to an audio CD and then reimport it. We challenged the conventional wisdom to see if there was a better way—and there simply isn't. If your machine can handle rewritable discs, the process isn't even wasteful. Just follow the directions in your media player or online store software to burn tracks to a CD. The process is digital throughout, so you don't have to worry about recording levels or codecs. Once the file is in CD format, you can then reimport it into any other format.

For example, if you buy music from Napster, it's delivered to you in protected WMA format. If you want to play it on your iPod, you have no choice but to burn it to CD and import it as an MP3 file that your iPod can handle. Likewise, iTunes delivers its music in a locked MP4 format that's keyed to your software.

How to Unlock Protected Music The inherent problem is that you'll never get a better-quality recording than the source, and the fidelity of music from the online stores often leaves something to be desired. The common 128-kilobit-per-second MP3 lacks dynamic range, and 128-Kbps WMA chops off the highest frequencies and sacrifices midrange dynamics for bass dynamics. When you move songs in these formats to CD, their sonic flaws move with them. When you reimport the song using another compression scheme you can compound the problem, because the other scheme might take away dynamic range, frequency response, or both.

If this is music for on-the-go applications, such as jogging, commuting, or even listening in the car, the loss of fidelity is largely irrelevant. Background noise usually masks the sonic differences.

If, however, you want to record at a high bit rate, perhaps to load a music server for your home or for critical listening through your portable player, there is no substitute for buying the CD. Until music services offer premium-quality files with lossless compression, the CD remains your best bet. (Look for a follow-up article that analyzes the sound quality of the various services' file formats.)

Remember that there's nothing illegal about making a CD copy of the music you buy from online sites. The software supports it, and even makes it easy for you to create mix discs that combine purchased music and the songs you've ripped from your own CDs. You might think you can go through your portable player, but the songs you download from the online music services maintain their protected formats when you transfer them to the player. You can upload the files from the player to another machine, but they won't play.

We also tried using analog recording software and a loopback cable: plugging one end of a standard, male-to-male 1/8 inch stereo cable (available at any electronics store) into the computer's headphone jack, connecting the other end back into the microphone or line input jack, and playing the protected music through it into an analog recording program. Sound-card fidelity is sufficient to make a decent copy this way, despite the digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversions, but pitfalls are everywhere. If you run the output volume too high or too low, you'll get distortion. If you run too high a level into your input jack, you'll get distortion. If you run at too low a level, you'll have a poor signal-to-noise ratio.

Free or low-cost analog recording software is available, and the best can help you maximize your signal-to-noise ratio and minimize distortion. But it's best to avoid this process unless the industry switches to copy-protected CDs. They can make copying inconvenient, but they can't stop the music from coming out of the speakers.

Bill Machrone is a contributing editor of PC Magazine.

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