Ogg Vorbis: Music to your ears

The author of "Linux Multimedia Hacks" recommends using OS music player Amarok, explains why Ogg Vorbis has superior sound quality to the MP3 format and offers a handy audio hack.

The MP3 format is rife with potential licensing issues due. There are, however, alternatives that eliminate legal worries, including open source resources like Ogg Vorbis and music players like Rhythmbox, says Kyle Rankin, author of Linux Multimedia Hacks from O'Reilly Media, Inc.

In this interview, Rankin explains why he prefers open source Amarok and thinks Ogg Vorbis sounds better than MP3s. He also describes a handy audio hack.

Kyle Rankin, author of "Linux Multimedia Hacks"

What advantages do you see to choosing Rhythmbox over iTunes or Windows Media Player?

Kyle Rankin: I would say the primary advantage in choosing Rhythmbox would be a licensing advantage simply because Rhythmbox is open source software. As far as feature sets go, Rhythmbox does not really offer anything compelling over the other two.

That having been said, the Amarok music player really does offer a number of features and integration such as the ability to log listening data into a centralized database over the network, audioscrobbler (last.fm) support, a lyrics search and a variety of different features that all leverage a number of the music services currently available on the Internet.

What is your favorite hack out of Chapter 2, the audio section of your book?

Rankin: That's a tough one. I'd have to say my favorite hack is either the amaroK hack or the hack about grip, since those are the two audio programs I use the most.

Amarok is just an amazing audio player and of all of the relatively new iTunes-like audio apps that have come out for Linux lately, it's been the only one that managed to pull me away from XMMS. As far as Grip, I think it is one of the best examples of combining the power of command-line tools with an easy-to-use front-end that still gives you a lot of that same power. Once Grip is set up how you like, you can keep feeding CD after CD to your computer and rip them automatically with no extra effort.

Why are Linux distributors concerned about the risk for including MP3-encoding software?

Rankin:While to my knowledge there hasn't yet been a lawsuit against a Linux distribution for including MP3-encoding software, the fact is that the MP3 technology is owned by Fraunhofer and Thomsen and while the extent of the scope of their patent is somewhat unclear, most distributions didn't want to risk a lawsuit by including an MP3 encoder (and later an MP3 decoder as well) as part of the base installation.

Why is the Ogg format considered to be higher quality than MP3?

Rankin: There have been a number of studies done on the different competing media formats and for the most part they have concluded that Ogg Vorbis (and really most of the other formats that compete with MP3) sound better at the same bit rates (and in some cases even at lower bit rates).

Do you think the open source Ogg Vorbis will and the Ogg format will overtake the MP3 eventually? Do you think people will get tired of the licensing and copyright issues involved with MP3s?

Rankin: That's difficult to say, but I think that Ogg Vorbis has a tough fight ahead of it and that MP3 isn't even really the format it will have to compete with. The MP3 format has an advantage in that it was the de facto standard for compressed audio for a long time so that just about any portable media player you buy today supports MP3s and the hardware to decode MP3s is readily available for electronics manufacturers and relatively cheap.

For Ogg Vorbis to overtake MP3s, it would need to get the same level of ubiquity as MP3 in portable media devices. Otherwise, most people just won't want to deal with the annoyance of maintaining multiple formats for their music -- Ogg for their computer and MP3, AAC etc. for their portable media player.

Another challenge Ogg Vorbis has is that there are a number of large companies such as Microsoft and Apple, among others that all have their own competing media formats. Some portable media players support one, some support another, but few players support all of the formats. I think the content providers want to be able to add DRM features to any digital formats they distribute in, which makes it even more difficult for Ogg Vorbis.

For Ogg Vorbis to really get a foothold I think it needs to seek after independent labels and musicians first as a higher quality alternative to MP3 that doesn't have all of the patent encumberance. That combined with a bigger push for support on the portable media player market would definitely help its chances against the other competing formats.

Can you describe the "open data" concept found in MusicBrainz? How is the album/artist info found there different from what can be found on iTunes or Windows Media Player?

Rankin:The data found with MusicBrainz is contributed by fans. A lot of the information you might find with iTunes or Windows Media Player often comes strictly from ID3 tags within a song. With MusicBrainz you have the potential to get a lot more (and more interesting) information about an artist or album since actual fans who follow the artist contribute the data.

Can you offer our users a handy audio hack that they may have overlooked?

Rankin: I think the hack about using Grip is often overlooked because there are just so many audio rippers out there. Grip is definitely worth the quick effort of setting it up just for the fact that once it is set up, you can just start the program and keep feeding your computer CDs. Grip will automatically rip the CDs and eject them when its done ripping. Since it automatically grabs ID3 tag information from the net, you get your music encoded in the format you want (Grip supports ripping to MP3, Ogg Vorbis and FLAC among others) with the ID3 tag information you want, and you don't have to do anything other than pop the CD in.

This was first published in March 2006

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