Big Beats Writ Small

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, August 1999

Big Beats Writ Small


Maybe you're into filipino folk, or Chicago blues, or both. You can find it in cyberspace in MP3. Some files are legal; others are bootlegs. Here are the top launchpads for the former. Intro to MP3, complete with FAQs and download tips. You'll also find 56,000 MP3 tunes for 99ó apiece and mail-order Digital Automated Music CDs, which contain both CD tracks and MP3 files. Host of the pioneering Internet Underground Music Archive, which spotlights many of the bestùand worstùunsigned bands. Surf-music gods The Mermen were "discovered" here. The Ultimate Band List is a one-stop music shop, dishing up tunes, news (and rumors), and reviews with 'tude. Oh, and UBL sells old-fashioned CDs, too, at competitive prices. An MP3 search engine that delivers the most hitsùin both senses of the word. ùB.H.

On the eve of a 14-month around-the-world odyssey several years back, I was suddenly reduced to an emotional wreck. My distress had nothing to do with bidding adieu to loved ones, career, and every last penny of my savings. All of that was easy. The real problem was that I'd recorded 20 cassette tapes of proverbial desert-island music, mixes of songs I had hand-culled to stand the test of time, and only ten tapes would wedge into my pack.

Today's traveler, though, may not have to choose. Two new digital devices let you create custom sound tracks and take them on the road with a fraction of the bulk: MiniDisc recorders and MP3 players. What about CD players? Well, they still rule for sound quality, but to patch together a mix you need a home CD recorder as well as a portable player. If what's important is to be your own DJ and travel light, check out the following devices.

MiniDisc Recorders

Like the Lilliputian offspring of a tape recorder and a CD player, these units wrap recording capability and reasonably high fidelity into one totable bundle. They use digitally compressed audio that's not quite CD-rich, but you'd need canine hearing to notice. MiniDiscs themselves, which you can buy blank or prerecorded, resemble downsized floppies and can hold up to 74 minutes of music. Connect the recorder to your home stereo, or buy an external microphone to record live music.

Measuring just over three inches by three inches by one inch, the 8.1-ounce Sharp MD-MS702 ($279; 800-237-4277) isn't the tiniest MiniDisc recorder. It is, however, the best value. And it's convenient: A slot in the side lets you load discs one-handed, without breaking stride. The memory buffer keeps the unit from skipping, assuming you don't jostle it for more than ten seconds at a stretch. By comparison, Sony's pricier 6.1-ounce MZ-R55 ($349; 800-222-7669) is half as thick, and a 40-second memory buffer accommodates seriously spasmodic solo-dancing. However, the fairly flimsy hinged door makes loading discs a two-handed job. The Sony's headphones collapse neatly but don't deliver the satisfyingly deep bass that the Sharp's do. Both units run for several hours on rechargeable batteries or up to ten hours with AA batteries, and both let you change the volume or track using a tiny, clip-on remote.

Portable MP3 Players

Are you down with geekspeak? Enjoy whiling away the hours surfing the Web? If so, you've got the chops to operate an Internet music player. With your PC you can download any of the 100,000 or so MP3-format files on the Web to a Windows-compatible portable MP3 player. (Mac-compatible units are due any minute.) And most include software that let's you convert your own CDs to road-ready MP3 compilations.

The heavily compressed music sounds inferior to that of MiniDiscs, but you can improve MP3 fidelity: Search the Web for files with a high bit rate, say 128 kilobits per second. The higher the number, the better the quality (and the more memory it eats up). Indeed, you'll only squeeze 30 minutes of 128 kbps music onto a standard player with 32 megabytes of memory. And extra Wheat Thin-size slide-in memory cards are pricey, about $100 for 32 MB. But with no moving parts, MP3 players pump tunes for ten hours on their batteries, andùmountain bikers take noteùthey'll never skip. Ever.

Smaller than a deck of cards, the Diamond Rio ($169; 800-468-5846) barely registers 3.8 ounces. The plastic case instills little confidence in its durability, but you'll enjoy the tone-shaping equalizer. I prefer the similarly sized, magnesium-encased Creative Labs Nomad ($169; 800-998-1000). It weighs 3.2 ounces and features an FM tuner and a built-in microphone. Neither player has stellar headphones, so you might pick up a nicer pair before you head out, whether you're going around the globe or just around the block.

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