Making Light Work Of Videos

Watching a video in a browser window can be quite tiring though it’s not always obvious why it is such hard work, but it’s there, right in front of your eyes. Surrounding the video frame there are usually huge swathes of bright white screen, which the video is trying, but usually failing to compete with. So what’s the answer? Full screen mode is one option, though a lot of web videos either grind to a halt, or look awful when inflated to fill the screen, so here’s another solution. It’s called Turn Off The Lights. It’s a small browser extension that at the click of a mouse (or simple keyboard shortcut) fades the background surrounding the video display. It automatically detects Flash and HTML5 video windows, as well as QuickTime, Silverlight and Windows Media Player displays. You can also customise the settings, varying the opacity of the background, automatically fade up after the movie has finished, change the background colour or image and specify which areas of the screen fade out on YouTube. There’s also a speech recognition option for voice control of playback and lighting features, coloured atmosphere lighting and much more besides, including an Easter Egg. It’s available for all popular browsers IE, Firefox, Chrome and safari, etc and it’s free, though the developers certainly wouldn’t be averse to satisfied users making a small donation.



Horror Hunter

It’s an oldie but a goodie, Hijack Hunterhas been around for a while but it is still a very capable freeware malware detector. It’s very though and after a scan that last 15 minutes or more it will provide you with a detailed report on all of the behind the scenes programs and services running on your PC. Most of them are supposed to be there and are perfectly harmless but even on the most carefully maintained computer there are bound to be a few undesirables, on things that have been forgotten or left behind and still using your PC’s resources. It also includes a number of tools for removing suspicious or harmful items; prune the startup list and a handy Restore feature for key system files. It’s not for absolute novices but used with care it can be another powerful weapon in your battle to keep the baddies at bay.



Double Quick YouTube Downloader

YouTube is great, isn’t is? Well, yes, but there is one niggling annoyance, and that’s the need to watch videos as they are streamed. Wouldn’t it be great if you could download a YouTube video onto your PC or device and watch it when it suits you? Or when there’s no network connection? Yes, we know there are loads of downloaders out there but almost all of them have drawbacks or foibles, come spiked with ads, toolbars or malware, some are difficult to use and some demand money after the trial period has expired, so what we want is something that is free, simple to use, no frills and doesn’t carry any nasty infections. Well, nothing is perfect, but this one, called 4K Video Downloader, comes pretty darn close. All you have to do is copy and paste theURL for the video you want to watch into the downloader’s open window, select the format (MP4, FLV, MKV or 3G), then the quality and resolution, click the Download button and away it goes, downloading, converting and saving the video as fast as your Internet connection and PC (MAC and Linux versions also available) allows. And for once that’s all there is to say, it really is that simple!



Making Waves

If you are in to audio editing then you will probably know all about the excellent freeware application Audacity, but here’s another one to consider, called WaveShop. It’s not as sophisticated as Audacity but it is very fast indeed, and exceptionally easy to use. Simply open your audio file – it supports almost all common audio formats -- and it is displayed as a waveform timeline. You can now make your changes, either globally, or by selecting a segment, then chose what you want to do from the menu bar. Options include amplify, extract, fade, insert channel, normalize, reverse, resample, speakers, spectrum, swap channels. Additionally there’s a full set of filters and equalisers on the Plugin drop down menu. These include DJ Equaliser, fast lookahead limiter, Glame bandpass, highpass and lowpass filters, SC4 and triple band parametric. Even if you don’t know what they all mean it’s a lot of fun finding out what they can do to your favourite tunes, and when you are finished you can save it to any one of the twenty plus file formats.



Edited Highlights

In the past few years video editing has been transformed from a mysterious black art that depended on fancy hardware and expensive software, into an everyday application, but there’s always room for another simple to use and reasonably adept editing program, especially if it is free. Avidemux fits the bill well; it’s open source and available for all major operating systems, including Windows, Mac and Linux, and it does all of the basic jobs quickly and efficiently. The main feature list include simple cutting – handy for shortening home videos, chopping out dodgy bits and slicing ads out of TV recordings. It has extensive encoding facilities, for converting videos from one format to another – supported input formats are avi, OpenDML, mpeg, mpeg-4, asf, nupple, jpeg/bmp images, H263 and Quicktime, and the output options additionally include .flv Flash. The third headline feature is Filtering, and there are options for de-interlacing, resizing, adding subtitles, colour correction, crop, flip and rotate, sharpen/blur, noise reduction and a several twirly, whirly effects. Okay, so it’s not going to turn your next back garden epic into a Spielbergian masterpiece but if all you need is a quick and easy way to lick your footage into shape, it’s definitely worth a look.



Turn On With Tunein

Last time I extolled the virtues of Radiosure, an excellent web radio for Windows, well, here’s an even better one, this time for Android phones and tablets. It’s called TuneIn, and is available from Google Play. There are two versions, a free one with fairly minimal ad intrusions, but there’s really no need to pinch those pennies, the ad-free Pro version will set you back a paltry 61 pence. For that you get a really easy to use interface that gives you fast access to more than 70,000 stations, over 2 million podcasts and on demand recordings. The icing on the cake is it’s own built-in MP3 recording utility with a schedule timer. Whether you just want to relive memories and catch that funky station you heard on holiday, stay up to date with the latest episodes of the Archers or just listen to Los Angeles Fire and Rescue Department’s emergency channel, it has them all, with pictures and live schedules, and they’re all no more than a couple of finger swipes away.



Monster Radio

Over the years we’ve looked at several Internet radio utilities but here’s one that is going to take some beating. It’s called Radiosure. What makes this one different is the sheer number of stations on offer – more than 17,000 at the last count – and with that many stations on tap you’ll need its fast search facility. There’s also a slick crossfade effect when switching stations, a single-click mp3 Record facility that records multiple stations simultaneously and cleverly packages song tracks. For good measure it also runs on any version of Windows from XP onwards, 32 and 64 bit, it automatically checks for new stations, or you can add them manually, it’s free, and best of all, there are no frills, and it just works!  Watch your step when downloading the file, make sure you select the Free version and click the link to the actual program download, which is around 5Mb, and not the smaller (50kb) download manager that’s generously offered, but you really won’t want cluttering your PC.



aTunes Alternative

If you have any sort of Apple idevice then you are pretty much stuck with the notoriously horrible iTunes to manage your media and playlists. There are alternatives of course but most of them are hobbled by Apple’s vice-like grip on their systems. But what if you’re not tied to a iplod, or whatever, and just want to manage and listen to the music and podcasts on your PC and portable player? In that case the wonderful world of music and download managers is open to you and you should try a free Open Source offering called aTunes, available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS. After the complexity of some media managers it’s an absolute delight, with a clean and simple interface that won’t bog you down or try to sell you stuff you don’t want. It supports most popular formats (mp3, ogg, wma, wav, flac, mp4, m4a, ra, rm, cue). It has a built in web radio, equaliser, shuffle and repeat and karaoke functions. It can read and write mp3, ogg, flac, wma, mp4, ra, rm tags. It categorises by artist, album or genre in a simple tree hierarchy, it supports playlists, drag and drop from OS, portable devices can be mounted as file simple systems. Internet features include searching popular media sites, Last FM info, Lyrics, you can subscribe to podcasts, there’s a CD ripper, and the list just goes on and on so we’ll leave it there and let you find out what it can do, and we think you will be impressed!



MP3 Modifier

Every so often we come across a utility that looks like it could turn out to become a must-have classic. MP3 Toolkit is a very likely contender, it’s simple, does exactly what it says and it’s free, so let’s take a closer look at what’s on offer. When you open the program you’ll find that there are six options. The first one is MP3 Converter. Just select the file you want to convert, then the output format (.wma, .ogg, .wav, .flac, .ac3, .aac, .amp or .mpg), set your bitrate and output folder and its good to go. Number two is a CD to MP3 Ripper – no need to explain that one and, option three is MP3 Tag editor. This is handy for renaming MP3s, adding extra info and so on. Four is MP3 merger, and again it’s fairly self-explanatory and all you need to join two or more tracks together. Number five is an MP3 Cutter, and you can use this to create Ringtones or do some simple editing, and option six is an MP3 Recorder, which records whatever is passing through your PC’s audio adaptor. Of course most of these functions are available in standalone apps or editing and recording programs but that’s missing the point, which is that MP3 Toolkit puts them all together in one easily accessible package.



Music To Your Ears, And Monitor Screen…

Here’s one for those of you with a musical bent, or just like making up tunes. It’s called Musescore, and it’s a well-featured what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG or ‘wizzywig’) music notation program, similar in concept to industry workhorses Sibelius and Finale, except that it’s free. Essentially it’s a musical word processor, you drag and drop the notes and musical instructions where you want them on the staves, set the time signature, notate the instruments and all the other things involved in getting a tune onto paper (you can tell that I’m not a musician…), choose your instruments, press Play and hey presto, you’re in the composing business.  For those that know about such things other key features include an unlimited number of staves, up to 4 voices per staff, easy note entry using a qwerty or Midi keyboard, it has an integrated synthesiser, import and export files in musicxml or standard Midi formats. Even if you haven’t got a musical note in your body or are simply tone deaf it’s still a lot of fun to play around with and who knows, you may even come up with something noteworthy…



Free Capture and Record

Have you ever wondered how those computer tutorial videos are put together, or maybe you want to have a bash at making one for yourself? It’s easy, all you need is a screen capture utility, and a good place to start is Free Screen Recorder. The name says it all and when you press the record button everything that happens within the defined screen area, or even the whole screen, is recorded and saved as a high quality AVI video file. Incidentally, you can also use this program to capture videos playing on your screen, so if you’ve had problems recording streamed video in the past, this is definitely worth trying. In addition to video it also records audio from your microphone, there are plenty of recording and customisation options and if you prefer not to use AVI you can easily change the video codec and frame rate.



Ripping Good Freeware

Watching DVDs on a smartphone may be a deeply unsatisfying experience but occasionally it can be a handy diversion, stuck in an airport departure lounge or on a long train journey, for example. However, the main problem is how to get the movie or video from your DVD onto your the phone. It’s not a problem any more, WinX is a fully feature DVD ripper, oriented towards smartphone transfer, but with plenty of other useful features, including DVD backup to your hard drive, rip to MP4, WMV, AVI, FLV, MOV, MPEG, H.264, plus specific format conversions for iPhone, iPod, Apple TV, Android and PSP. Be warned that it’s a bit naughty and can rip copy protected DVDs and it’s not concerned by region codes and so on, so it behoves us to say that you should only employ these questionable features on your own or copyright free material, so use it wisely…



Mending Broken Movies

Normally video files are fairly robust and can be moved back and forth, between camcorders and digicams to PCs, mangled and fiddled by conversion programs, editing applications and so on. But sometimes something goes wrong, and a video file that you know was okay, just stops working. Usually there’s little you can do and hopefully, of the original file is intact you can go back and start over, but what if there is no backup? Well, help may be at hand in the shape of a freeware application called DivFix. It’s a small program that doesn’t even have to be installed as it runs from the .exe file. Just point it at your broken .avi file, click the Fix button and if it’s repairable it will do it’s best to sort out the problem. Needless to say it can’t work miracles, but if you have a dodgy movie its worth a try and it’s non destructive, so your original file is safe.



Making Lightworks of Video Editing

If you are seriously interested in video editing read on, but you should probably leave now if you prefer to keep things simple. Welcome to Lightworks, it’s a free Open Source editing application, now available in Beta form for you to try but be warned, it’s a proper high-end jobbie, capable of professional results, so there’s a bit of a learning curve involved. It’s worth the effort, though, and the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of an award winning editor who has been in the biz for over 20 years has been poured into the program. There’s all the basics, of course, for trimming scenes and managing media but it also goes into areas like multiple secondary colour correction, source/record three-point editing, replace, fit to fill, backfill, extend and split edits, single-click timeline re-sync, and matchframe for clips and subclips. If,  like us you’re glazing over, it’s probably wise to stick with one of the more basic offerings, on the other hand, if you’re up for a challenge and want to learn how to do it properly you should definitely take a look.



One Click Record

Simple is best, as my old dad used to say, and you can’t get much simpler than Moo0 VoiceRecorder, (and no, we don’t know how to pronounce it either…). Anyway, all you need to know is that once this little freeware program is installed and running you are one click away from recording whatever is coming out of your PC speakers, your voice, or a combination of voice and PC sound—assuming of course that your PC or laptop is fitted with a microphone. By default it records in MP3 format but there’s the option or wave (.wav) recording as well. It’s a great little tool for recording from Internet radio, almost any streamed content in fact, and it’ll also capture Skype and audio from video playback. Only one. Well, two things to watch out for. It has problems working on systems with Realtek Audio, and this includes a fair number of motherboards with integrated audio adaptors, and there’s a option to install some toolbar software at the beginning, so pay attention and uncheck the box if you don’t want it.



Squeeze in More Songs

Remember the days when you thought you would never manage to fill a 40Mb hard drive? Maybe I’m showing my age but nothing really changes and although drives have become steadily larger and cheaper the same feeling that you’ll never run out of room whether you have 100Mb or 10 terabytes of free space is always going to be with us, more so nowadays with portable media devices. The big space gobblers are multimedia files, and for many of us it’s the thousands of music tracks that we seem to acquire that do the real damage. Here’s a way to claw back some of that space. It’s a freeware Open Source program called MP3packer, and the idea is there’s a lot of wasted space with many MP3 files that can be safely clawed back, without sacrificing quality. Some tracks, especially high bitrate files, can be made up to 10 percent smaller by using a VBR or variable bitrate encoding. It’s unlikely you will get the full saving but if you are getting close to capacity it should give you some useful breathing space or allow you to cram in a few extra tracks on your MP3 player.



DJ For Free

Virtual DJ has to be one of the best known and most widely used PC music-mixing applications and now it can be yours for free. A new version, called VirtualDJHome is now ready for download and it has almost all of the features of its paid-for stable mate, the most notable omission being a limit on external hardware. This is hardly a problem if all you want to do is mix and tweak tracks on your PC, and that it can do with the facility to control up to 99 decks. There’s a full set of DJ controls and mixers, with variable speed, direction and pitch. I mention these as if I know what I’m talking about, but you’ll also be interested to know it has keylock and master tempo, BPM detection, automatic beatmatch, auto gain, smart loops and smart sampler. There’s also playlists, karaoke video, and a whole lot of other things that I have no idea what they do, but I can promise you it’s fun finding out.



Free Expression

Microsoft is getting generous in its old age and here’s another really handy freebie called Expression Encoder. Actually it’s the ‘lite’ version of a commercial program and there are some limitations but we’ll come to those in a minute, so what does it do?  Essentially it’s an MS Silverlight tool but the feature that makes it rather interesting is the Screen Capture Codec utility. This lets you capture all or any part of your PC screen in high quality 1080p resolution video. In other words it can grab video streams, or help make how-to-do-it videos for uploading to the web. Now for those limitations, because it is free it is, it is unsupported. It is locked to the Windows .wmv format, it only runs under XP SP3 or later and the maximum recording time is 10 minutes, though that should be plenty for most DIY videos. If you want more you’ll have to upgrade to Expression Encoder Pro, and after seeing what the standard version can do, you can decide if it’s worth the expense.



Ripping Good Program

DVD ripper programs have always been a bit of a grey area legally, so I’m not going to get into that argument. Suffice it to say, if you’ve purchased a movie on DVD I personally feel that you should be able to watch it as many times as like, on as many different devices as you own, whether it’s media player, smart phone or hand-held games console. The trouble is you can’t cram a DVD into your phone or media player, so iin order to watch it , it has to be ‘ripped’. This means using software to extract the data from the disc, compress it and convert it to a suitable format so it can be uploaded to the device or copied to a memory device, like an SD card or USB Flash drive. The gold standard for rippers has always been DVD Shrink, but here’s another one to try. It’s called idoo Free DVD Ripper and the name says it all really. The only other things that you need to know is that it converts from DVD to AVI, MP4, WMV, MOV, FLV, MKV, which broadly covers the iPhone, iPod, iPad, iPhone, Zune, PSP as well as Blackberry, Andriod, Nokia, Windows Mobile devices. The free version does have a number of limitations; the output resolution is fixed, the audio options are fairly restricted and there’s no support but it’s still pretty good and if you like what you see there’s always the option to upgrade to the more sophisticated paid-for version.



Converting to Better Audio

It has been a while since we featured an audio application so lets put that to rights straight away with AIMP. It’s a highly featured audio player, bearing a striking resemblance to WinAmp, but it does have a number of unusual features. In addition to support for all popular formats it has a built-in file format converter, an audio ripper, recorder, tag editor, speed, pitch, tempo adjustment, chorus, flanger, echo and reverb effects, voice mute, a highly configurable equalizer, and support for a wide range of plug-ins. It’s small, the download is only 7Mb and it’s light on resources too, there’s also a portable version and as an added bonus, the sound quality is really very good!



Make it Free

If you had the chance to compile a wish-list of features for a piece of creative video software I wouldn’t mind betting you’d come up with something very similar to Freemake Video Converter. Part of what it does you can guess from the name, it is free, and it’s a powerful conversion tool, able to handle most common formats (avi, mpg, tod, mov, dv, rm), mobile phones (3gp, 3g2, 3gp2), Internet (flv, swf, mp4) & PC (wmv, mkv, qt, ts, mts). It will also convert and rip to and from a variety of formats, including avi, wmv, mp4 3gp DVD and MP3, and that’s just for starters. It will upload your video to YouTube, create photo slideshows from digital still photos, it has basic editing facilities so you can cut out all of the dodgy bits from your videos then you can use it to burn a DVD, complete with titles and menus. What more do you need?



VLC Movie Debut

As regulars will know we’re big fans of the VLC media player. It not only handles more video formats than you can shake a stick at, it also manages to play files that other media players won’t have anything to do with. Now they’ve turned their attention to the other end of the video movie biz, as it were, with VLMC or VideoLan Movie Creator, a new, well-specified, free Open Source non-linear video-editing program. At least it will be when it is finished. These are very early days and it’s currently a pre-alpha release, which basically means there are still a few wrinkles to iron out, and not all of the features work properly, but it looks really promising. Even at this early stage VCL would be interested to hear what you think of it, and if you find any bugs they would like to know about those too. So if you fancy getting in on the ground floor of what should be a very interesting project, give it a whirl.



Recent Convert

How do I convert a file from one multimedia format to another? It's one of the commonest questions and when one or the other formats is bit out of the ordinary the only answer is to trawl the web in the hope that someone has figured it out. There are a number of one-step file converters around, some of them quite good, but this one – Xmedia Recode – is going to take some beating, not only is it really easy to use, it deserves a prize for the sheer number of formats it can handle. Decide for yourself, here’s the list: 3GP to AVI, 3GP to FLV, AC3 to MP3, AC3 to WAV, ASF to 3GP, ASF to FLV, ASF to MP4, AVI to FLV, AVI to 3GP, FLAC to MP3, FLAC to WMA, FLV into 3GP, FLV to Mp3, DVD to 3GP, DVD to AC3, DVD to AVI, DVD to MP3, DVD to MP4, DVD to MOV, DVD to SVCD, DVD to VCD, DVD to WMV, OGG to MP3, OGG to WMA, MPEG to AVI, MP2 to MP3, MP4 to FLV, MP4 to AVI, M4P to MP3, MOV to 3GP, MOV to AVI, MOV to FLV, WMA to MP3, WMV to FLV, WAV to MP3.



Web Radio Grows Up

If you have played around with radio on the Internet you’ll know that it can be a bit hit and miss. Many web radio station websites are difficult to navigate and finding the ‘listen’ button can turn into a bit of a chore. Internet radio applications also tend to be a bit clunky and sometimes difficult to use, but don’t give up. Have a look at Antenna. It’s based on Adobe Air, and if you haven’t already got it installed on your PC it pays to install that first – there’s a link to it on the Antenna download page. Once it’s up and running you can choose from over 9000 stations around the world, listed by national flag, country and genre – who knew there was a rock station on Christmas Island?  Just click the station – it tells you the reliability and bitrate of the connection – and a second or two later you’re tuned in, it’s really that easy!



Mouse Volumiser

Here’s a pretty and potentially quite useful little addition to your desktop. It’s called 3RVX and it replaces the boring Windows volume control with a choice of skinnable designs. The one shown is called Vista 808 and there are seven others to choose from. Instead of clicking the titchy little loudspeaker icon in the System Tray you can make it appear with a user-definable ‘hotkey’, it’s up to you but one of the defaults, Winkey + Mousewheel, works for me. It’s really easy to use and highly customisable, so why not take it out for a spin?



Speak For Yourself

If you have a Garmin Sat Nav and it’s an aera, GPSMAP 620/640, nuvi or zumo series model then you can do something about those really bossy voices that tell you what to do. It’s called Garmin Voice Studio, a free Windows program that lets you replace the built-in voices with your own, or someone else's. This is the opportunity to try out your best celebrity or cartoon character impressions, or maybe add a touch of sarcasm to ‘Arriving at destination’ or ‘Make a U-Turn’. It’s really easy to use, just repeat the 65 or so words and phrases into your PC’s microphone, trim off the dodgy bits, upload it to your satnav and experience the peculiar sensation of telling yourself where to go…



Plinky Photos

Time for something really weird. It’s called RGB Music Lab and its job is to turn your photographs into music… I told you it was weird, but it’s also strangely compelling, all you have to do is select an image, set your preferences (instruments, tempo etc.) and Music lab converts the RGB values and positional data of the pixels in the image into chromatic scales. The tunes, if you can call them that, are not exactly something you’d be able to him along to, but there does seem to be a strange correlation between the mood in the photo and the music, or maybe I’m just imagining it, either way there are lots of things to tweak play around with and who knows, with the right picture and the right settings you could have a hit on your hands…



Twist in the Tale

It’s almost heresy to grumble about Apple products but I have to say that iTunes is horrible… It started out okay but the Windows version at least has evolved in a bloated and unwieldy beast so I’m always keen to try out alternatives. Sadly they have been very thin on the ground but here’s one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for something simpler and easier to use than iTunes. It’s called DoubleTwist and it probably won’t surprise you to learn that it’s thrown in its lot with a rival online music store, almost as famous as Apple, namely Amazon. Headline features include support for hundreds of devices, including Blackberry, Android GI and PSP, and of course iPods. Synchronisation is automatic upon connection, there’s a simple to use file send function and it converts to and from a wide range of file formats. It falls down on the playback functions, these are quite basic but for straightforward library management, downloading, uploading and a near universal device compatibility it’s going to be a tough one to beat.



MP3 First Aid

How many MP3 tracks have you got on your PC? If you are anything like me you’ve probably lost count and I’m willing to bet that a few of them display incorrect track details or won’t play any more because track info is wrong or corrupted or it could just be that the sound quality is poor. All these things and more can be put right with a one-stop MP3 repair tool, called MP3 Diags. Here’s a quick run-down of what it can do: add/fix track & album cover info, correct track duration, correct files that cannot be played by some players, convert non-English track names, add composer name, rename files, find/fix broken tags, duplicate tags, incorrect tag placement, correct low quality, restore normalisation data, to name just a few. Obviously It can’t perform miracles and it’s not going to restore files that are completely kaput or increase the bit rate but if you have a problem with your tunes it has to be worth a try, and being free, what have you got to loose?



Desktop Ditties

After years of struggle I still can’t get more than a couple of chords out of my old guitar, so I may not be the best person to recommend anything to do with making music, but if you are of tuneful bent, or just fancy having a dabble with some interesting software, have a look at LMMS. It stands for Linux Multimedia Studio, but don’t worry if you’re a Windows user, it’s cross-platform and there’s a Win32 version at the download site:


If you know your way around commercial programs, like FL Studio you’ll feel right at home, but for the uninitiated it includes a Song Editor, Beat plus Bassline editor, Piano Roll pattern and melody editing, 64-channel FX Mixer, instrument and effects plug-ins and it’s compatible with many industry standard formats and protocols, including SoundFont2 VST, LADSPA, GUS Patches, there’s full MIDI support and you can import MIDI and something called Fruityloops Project files. Even I managed to make a bit of a tune with it, so why not give it a try…



Another Free Audio Editor

It would take a lot to wean me from the excellent Audacity audio editor but this new one, called Free Audio Editor 2009, is definitely going to give it a run for its money. Like Audacity it combines an easy to use audio recorder with a versatile editing facility, it supports most popular audio formats and it’s really easy to use but it also has several useful extras that you won’t find in Audacity. These include a built-in CD burner, and a Text to Speech converter (using Microsoft’s SAM voice). That’s all you need to know, so give a whirl and see what you think.



Audacious new Audacity

New versions of favourite programs seem to be coming out of the woodwork at the moment and one of the latest updates concerns our old friend Audacity, just about the best audio recorder and editing program money can’t buy. The beta version of Audacity 1.3.6 has just been released and in amongst the many new features we have the long awaited FFmpeg support (available as a separate download) which allows it to import and export a much broader range of file formats, like WMA, M4A and AC3 audio from video files. There’s something called on-demand loading, which basically means files can be played and edited whilst they are still loading and Linked Audio and Label Tracks ensures that label data will be carried across when cutting and pasting segments of audio, or changing track speed and tempo. There’s much more, including some bug fixes, so if you’re already a fan you’ll need no further bidding, and if you haven’t yet used Audacity to record and edit audio, you are in for a treat!



Switch Formats

I came across this little freeware utility when trying to figure out a way of converting an obscure audio recording format into an MP3 track. It’s called Switch Audio Converter and it seems that it can convert just about anything, though you might need to install a codec if it’s a file it doesn’t recognise. But even that’s easy and usually there’s a link to the site where the codec can be downloaded.  


The list of formats is a long one, so deep breath, and here goes: wav (PCM, ADPCM+, aLaw+, uLaw+, and others), mp2+ (MPEG Layer 2), mpga+ (MPEG Audio), au, aif/aiff, gsm, dct, vox, raw, ogg, flac, amr, wma, wmv, aac, (but not aacPlus), m4a, mid+, act/rcd/rec+ (newer version of format not supported), rm / ra / ram+, dvf+ (Not all dvf recorders are supported), msv+ (Not all msv recorders are supported), dss+ (SP Mode only), sri+, shn+, cda+, mov, avi+, mpg/mpeg+, m3u+, .pls+. And there’s more but I can see your eye’s glazing over, just take it as read that if it its out there, Switch can probably convert it.



Kwik Kool Kantaris

It’s been a while since we featured a media player but it’s been worth the wait. Hot out of the box is Kataris a free Open Source player based on a past favourite, VLC, but all you really need to know is that it can play just about any type of multimedia file, Here’s the highlights: AAC, AC3, AVI, FLAC, MID, MIDI, MP2, MP3, MPEG, MGEG-AVC, WMV, MOV, MKV, OGG, QuickTime, Matroska, DIVX, XVID, H264, MP3, WAV WMA and many, many more. There’s also integration with Apple Movie Trailers and Last FM, plus some really freaky visualisations.




The Right Mixxx

I have to say straight away that the last time I did any DJ-ing, record players still had a 78rpm speed setting. I freely admit to being a bit out of touch with current trends, but I’m reliably informed that this free Open Source program, called Mixxx is just the job for all of you hep cats out there who enjoy mixing your tunes and generally fiddling around with musical tracks. Key features, so I’m told, include the ability to read new fangled music formats, like MP3, Ogg Vorbis and Wave (something to do with turntable speed, I suppose…), it can import M3U and PLS playlists, whatever they are, and it has Beat Estimation and Pitch Independent Time Stretch features, which is probably a good thing. It’s compatible with MIDI devices and the Hercules DJ Console Mk2, there’s a waveform display so you can see the dynamics of the tacks you’re working with oh yes, and it’s available in Windows, Mac and Linux versions.



Wild Sounds

Here’s a brilliant freeware audio recording and mixing program, called WildVoice Studio. Ostensibly it’s designed for making podcasts, but it’s far too good for such a narrow application. Of course you can use it to record your voice, through a microphone, but it will also record anything you can hear on your PC’s speakers, but here’s the really good bit. It comes with a library of almost 30 sound effects, everything from a fart to sawing wood, and you can mix in your own background sounds or music. Even if you’re not into podcasts this is still a great way to produce audio recordings, alert sounds for your computer, answering machine tapes, or just a easy way to make some silly noises…



Quick Free Audio Snipper

Editing audio files is usually a fairly complicated business but here’s a really simple little utility that will snip out chunks of sounds with just a couple of clicks and if you like, convert from one audio format to another just as easily.


As the name suggests Free Audio Dub won’t cost you a bean and it won’t tax the old grey cells either, as it is so simple to use. Just open the track -- it supports most popular formats including MP3, WAV, AAC, AC3, M4A, MP2, OGG, WMA -- click the Play button until you reach the start of where you want to make the cut, click the first scissors icon, resume play until you reach the end of the section then click the second scissors icon. Click the Delete icon and it’s done and you can save the modified file with a new name, so the original remains intact. There, I said it was easy….



Free DVD to MP3 Ripper

Over the past few months I’ve had a lot of people asking me how they can extract the soundtrack form a DVD so they can listen to it on a MP3 player or iPod and my usual response has been to play the disc back on a PC and use the most excellent Audacity freeware editor/recorder to capture the audio, then export it as an MP3 file. It works well, bout now there’s an even easier way a freeware utility called Free DVD MP3 Ripper. It couldn’t be simpler, just pop in a DVD, select the part of the recording you want to extract, click the RIP button and away it goes. It’s quick, simple and free and ripping movie soundtracks probably breaks all sorts of copyright laws, but if it’s your DVD and it’s for your personal use only, we won’t tell anyone…



iPod Tune Grabber

If you own an iPod you’ll know that you are tied to iTunes to get tunes in and out of your player. There are alternatives, but generally speaking it’s a bit of a restriction. Here’s a program that will allow you to download music from your iPod to any PC, and no need to get involved with any new software, the program is stored on the iPod itself. It’s called Babya iGrab and all you have to do is download the program (it’s freeware) and copy two small files to the root directory of the iPod. To get at the tunes just plug the iPod into any XP or Vista PC, open the iPod, click on the iGrab icon  and it will display all of the tracks stored on the player. Select the ones you want, click the Grab button and send them to a nominated folder on your PC. It makes no changes to the iPod so it’s safe to use. 



Free Audio Editor

Regulars will need no reminding that Audacity has long been my audio recording and editing program of choice but I have to admit to being quite smitten with EXPStudio, which is also free, and has a similar line up of facilities. These include being able to edit audio files using like a chunk of text, using cut and paste techniques. It will record anything passing through your PC’s speakers, save audio files in a wide range of formats (Compressed WAV GSM, ADPCM, DSP, U-Law, A-Law and others, MP2, MP3, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, AIFF, AU, MPC, VOX, RAW, PCM, U-Law, A-Law,G.726, G.723, G.721, to name just a few). There’s a good assortment of effects, like Voice Changers (male-female/female/male, chipmunk, Zeus…) plus the old stalwarts, fade, flange, phase, reverse, reverb, expand, compress, tempo and many, many more. Audacity still has a slight edge with its multi-channel facilities, but for quick and simple edits it’s just the job.



Morph Your MP3s

There are a zillion MP3 player programs and most of them do a pretty good job, but here’s something a bit different. AV MP3 Player Morpher lets you fiddle around with your tunes, you can adjust the tempo, change voice frequency – a must for Chipmunks fans – there’s even a ‘Cher’ mode, for the classic vocoder effect. There’s also a Robot sound, you can change instrument sounds remix voices and on the paid-for version you can rip and burn CDs, cut and paste chunks of music, play up to 12 songs at the same time and extract vocals. Even so the free version has more than enough features to keep you amused and although you have to send off for a registration key, there are no catches. 



Windows Media Player Mini Mode

If you use Windows Media Player (WMP) to listen to your MP3 tracks then here’s a neat little feature that you might have overlooked. Right-click on the Windows taskbar select Toolbars then Windows Media Player. That’s all there is to it and the next time you open WMP just click the Minimize button and a small control panel, also known as ‘Mini Mode’ appears docked onto the taskbar.


Here’s a bonus tip for WMP 11 users, available for download now and included with Windows Vista. This sets WMP to always open in Mini Player mode when you click on an mp3 file. Go to Now Playing > More Options and select the Player tab. Check the item ‘Start the mini player for file names…’  and in the box below replace the default text (voiceatt.wav – for automatically opening voicemail attachments) with ‘.mp3 (without the quotes). You can also set it to open when you click on files in a particular folder. For example, if all of your MP3s are stored in a folder called Music on the C: drive, just put ‘C:\music’ in the box. 



Join the Jet Set

I know, there are more free multimedia players on the market than you can shake a stick at and some of them excellent, and here’s another one to add to the list, though JetAudio Basic is a bit special. To begin with it has built-in CD burning and audio recording utilities, and it’s also a dab hand at converting audio files from one format to another. It’s compatible with a wide range of audio and video file formats (AVI, Audio CD, MP3, MP3Pro, OGG, MPEG, MIDI, RM, WMA, WMV, and WAV, to name just a few). There’s a whole bunch of special effects (reverb, wide, speed, x-bass, cross-fade etc.) to play with, synchronised lyric display, it’s Vista compatible and there’s an MP3 tag edit, but don’t just take my word for it, give it a test drive!



Lightweight MP3 Recorder

As regular visitors will know I’m a big fan of Audacity, just about the best audio editor and recorder there is, and I’m not about to change my view, but there is a new kid on the block that’s worth keeping an eye on. It’s rather clumsily called MP3 My MP3 Recorder, and like Audacity it’s free and will record just about anything that you can hear through your PC’s speakers, be it the noises Windows makes, to DVDs, CDs and streamed Internet Radio. Once the recording has finished you can export the file to MP3 or wav format. You can also change the colour and appearance with downloadable skins. It doesn’t have the advanced editing capabilities of Audacity, so it’s not really fair to compare the two, but if you just want a quick and simple MP3 recorder it’s definitely worth a look.



IPod to PC Transfer

As iPod owners know only too well getting your tunes off the player and on to your PC can be a bit of a pain. Of course you can sync your library using iTunes but physically copying tracks is another matter. There are a number of laborious manual methods, but here’s a little freeware program that does it all for you. It’s called iPod to Computer Transfer, and it does exactly what it says. It supports playlists, there’s an auto update feature, you can search for tunes and it is compatible with all recent iPod, Shuffle and Nano models. The only limitation is that the free version will only let you copy a single track at the time, if you upgrade to the Pro Version (it costs £8.00) you can copy as many tracks as you like.  



Take Care of Your MP3s with the Godfather

It’s okay, the mob isn’t about to make you any offers you can’t refuse for your bootleg MP3s, but you might want to let The GodFather look after your collections. It’s a freeware program, designed to manage all types of music files, and if you are anything like the rest of us, your hard drive is probably stuffed full of them, but why do they need managing, I hear you ask? Simple, your collection is probably in a bit of a mess, with mis-named or mis-spelled albums and tracks, some of the info files or ‘Tags’ are probably wrong. Of course you can do all this manually, one at a time, but The Godfather makes it much easier, and lets you do it in batches. It can also help you catalogue your library and there’s a powerful search facility and a built-in player. Overall, not a bad deal for free!



Song Lyrics, The Evil Way

How many times have you tried to lamely sing along with a tune playing on your PC without really knowing the words? Yes, I know it’s easy enough to look them up on the web, and some music files have the lyrics embedded, but for all those other occasions when you just want to know the words try Evil Lyrics. It can be set to open automatically with all popular media players. As soon as the track starts playing Evil checks the name of the song then in a flash, downloads and display the lyrics on your screen.



PC Playback on your Radio

How would you like to playback tunesstored on your PC on your home hi-fi? If the PC and hi-fi are in the same room, or you have a laptop, then it’s not too difficult to hook up the PC’s audio out to the hi-fi’s audio input using a stereo connecting cable, but there’s an easier way.


Last week at my local computer fair I picked up a wireless ‘sender’ designed for portable MP3 players, iPods and the like, for the princely sum of £7.50. Judging by the number of different models on sale I’m guessing we’re about to be flooded with the things.


It’s basically a low power FM stereo transmitter, for sending sounds from an MP3 player to a nearby radio -- they’re a handy way to play your digital tunes through a car radio, for example. Well, they work just as well with the tuners in hi-fi systems, and the audio outputs on PCs, and the quality is not half bad.


Technically they’re still illegal but plans are afoot to amend the law (or at least turn a blind eye to them). The range on my cheapie sender is around 10 metres, enough to hear the PC in an upstairs bedroom on the living room sound system. The widget is battery powered, and they last for ages, but you can cut running costs to next to nothing with an adaptor or by using rechargeables. Now how about a USB FM sender for PCs Mr cheap n' cheerful gadget maker?



P.S. Thanks to Gareth Hicks for letting me know that such a device does exist, it's called the Linex USB FM Transmitter


One Click Volume Control

How annoying is the Windows volume control? Yes, I know some of you are lucky enough to have fancy keyboards with volume control functions but the rest of us have to click on the little speaker icon and fiddle around with the slider. Not any more, I’ve been playing around with a little freeware utility called Volume Tray. The icon appears in the System Tray and all you have to do is hover the mouse pointer over it then click the right or left mouse button to raise or lower the volume. It’s highly configurable and does all sorts of other tricks, like setting hot keys for volume and mute, changing its appearance and making noises as you change the settings. Try it and you’ll never go near that darned speaker again!




Don't you just hate it when you’re playing back audio files using Windows Media Player WMP), having to continually fiddle with the volume setting because some tracks are louder than others?  Well, WMP 10 has a built in facility that lets you ‘level’ the volume of all of the tracks in the library. It has to be set up, though and to that go to Search on the Tools menu (or press F3), browse to the folder containing your audio files then underneath make sure that ‘New files and all existing files (slow)’ and ‘Add volume Levelling for all files (slow) are both checked (If the latter option isn’t shown click the Advanced below). Click the Search button and volume levelling info will be added to all MP3 and WMA files.


For WMP to make use of this facility go to View > Enhancements > Show Enhancements and on the toolbar that appears use the left or right arrow to select ‘Crossfading and Auto Volume Levelling’ and make sure ‘Turn on Auto Volume Levelling is displayed. If you burn music tracks to CD then you can use it to ensure that recorded tracks are all at the same level as well. You’ll find this option under Options on the Tools menu, select the Devices tab, double click your CD/DVD writer drive and select the Quality tab and ensure that ‘Apply volume levelling to music when it is burned’ is ticked.




Do you really need to hear the Windows jingle at start up, and what about all of those other pings and dings? System sounds swallow up a disproportionate amount of your PC’s resources, especially during boot up, when the CPU, hard drive and memory are really busy with other, more important tasks. Unless you have an unquenchable urge to hear the Windows tune every time you switch your PC on then you might as well switch it off, and maybe save a second or two in the boot up time. While you are at it you might want to get rid of some of the other spurious noises you PC makes, by going to Sounds and Audio Devices in Control Panel. Simply highlight the event you want to silence and select ‘None’ from the drop-down menu then click OK to exit the dialogue box.




The growing popularity of Wi-Fi and home networking means that a lot of people now share their printer amongst several users. Unless you are in the same room as the printer you have no way of knowing if the job has finished or not; Windows to the rescue. One of the available, but unused sound options is a Print Complete alert. To enable it just go to Sounds in Control Panel on the Start menu, select the Sounds tab and scroll down the list to Print Compete. Choose your sound from the Sounds drop down menu and test it by clicking the triangular ‘Play’ button. Click OK then have another look through the list for any other events that you want to assign a new sound, or change the existing one.


Tip-in-a-Tip. You don’t have to use the Windows default sounds. You can easily make your own, using the Sound Recorder utility and a microphone (Start > Programs > Accessories > entertainment). Just save the *.wav file in C:\Windows\media and it will show up on the list of available sounds.




If you haven’t upgraded your Windows Media Player (WMP) for a while then you might want to think about downloading WMP 10 (free from the Microsoft website). As you may know WMP can ‘Rip’ or copy tracks from an audio CD and copy them to your PC’s hard drive. Until now it has done so using the proprietary Windows Media Audio (*.wma) format but now, in WMP 10 there’s an option to rip tracks to the hugely popular MP3 format, and there’s no need to install any third-party add-ons or plug-ins, it’s built-in.


Just pop in your audio CD, select the ‘Rip from CD’ when the Windows XP AutoPlay message box appears and click OK. To switch from the default wma to MP3 ripping go to Tools > Options, select the Rip Music tab then on the Rip Settings drop-down menu select MP3, set the compression level (‘Smallest’ 128kbs is fine for playback on a personal music player), choose the location where you want the files to be saved then click OK.  



Increase Sound Recorder Recording Time

The Windows Sound Recorder is quite handy but it is limited by a maximum recording time of just 60 seconds. However, there is a workaround that can extend its recoding time to as long as you need. Make a blank recording, save it and call it ‘blank’. Now go to in Insert File on the Edit menu, select blank.wav and make a new recording, this time the length will increase to 2 minutes; repeat the process as many times as necessary to get the length you need. You might want to make a couple of copies of your blank.wav file, for later use. When you’re ready select Open on the File menu, choose blank.wav and make your recording.




When you double-click the little speaker icon in the System Tray (next to the clock display) the main Windows Volume Control panel opens but it’s quite large and blanks out a sizeable chunk of the screen. If you want to make it smaller, so you can keep it on the screen, then just click Ctrl + S and it toggles to a smaller display, and stays that way whenever it is opened. To revert back to its normal size simply hit Ctrl + S again.




If you are bored with the cheesy tunes, ‘pings’ and ‘ta-da’ Windows sounds create your own from snippets of audio CDs, played in the CD-ROM drive. Load the CD and open the Sound Recorder by clicking on Start then Programs, Accessories and Multimedia (or Entertainment in Windows 98). Play the CD (the Audio CD player is also in Accessories > Multimedia/Entertainment), and click on the Sound Recorder red record button. You may need to adjust the level or enable the input from the CD player from Volume Control on the View menu on CD Player. Sound Recorder can also add special effects (echo, play backwards, change speed), and edit the sound (Delete Before/After on the edit menu). When you are happy with it, give it a name and save it in the Media folder in Windows. It can then be easily accessed from the Sounds utility in Control Panel and assigned to an event of your choice. Remember, no public performances if you're recording Copyright material!




Why not create your own sounds? All you need is a microphone; plug it into the ‘mic’ jack socket on the PC’s sound card or audio input. It should be on the back of your PC, close to the speaker plug. Find the sound recorder utility, it’s in the Multimedia folder in the Accessories directory. It’s easy to use, just like an ordinary tape recorder; full instructions are in the associated help file. When you’ve recorded your sound give it a name. From the File menu choose ‘Save As’ and put it in the Media directory in the Windows folder, then go back to the Sounds icon in Control Panel and assign it to the event of your choice.




To check that your microphone is working go to Start > Programs > Accessories > Entertainment and click Sound Recorder. Click the Record button and whistle or speak into the microphone and see if the ‘oscilloscope’ display reacts.


Click Stop and play back the recording to confirm all is well. If it doesn’t work double click the loudspeaker icon in the System Tray (next to the clock), a microphone level slider should be displayed; set it halfway and make ‘Mute’ isn’t checked. If you can’t see the Microphone slider select Options > Properties and click the check box next to Microphone on the list of ‘Controls’.




You will often find that you want to change the volume of your PC’s sound system; however, the volume control is not very accessible on a standard Windows installation. Normally most users get to it via the View menu option in CD Player (Start – Programs – Accessories – Multimedia – CD Player – View – Volume Control) but there’s a quicker way, and you can have it permanently on the taskbar if you so wish.  From the Start menu click on Settings, then Control Panel and the Multimedia icon. Click on it and select the Audio tab. About halfway down there’s a small box marked Show Volume Control on the Taskbar. Check the box and it’s done. On the far left side of the taskbar you will see a small loudspeaker symbol; when you click on it a volume slider and mute switch will appear on the screen.




If you’re in the habit of playing audio CDs on your PC it’s a good idea to put the CD Player on the Start menu.  From the Start menu click on Settings then Taskbar and select the Start Menu Programs tab. Click on the Add then Browse buttons and look for the Windows folder. Double click on it to open it up then move the horizontal slider along until the CD Player icon appears. Highlight it, click open, then next and select the Start Menu folder at the top of the file tree. To complete click next and then Finish. 




Your multimedia PC has a sound system that is capable of hi-fi performance but you're never going to realise anything like the full sonic potential of audio CDs and games with those speakers… The speakers supplied with most PCs have the acoustic properties of baked bean tins. If you've got a redundant hi-fi system or some half-decent speakers lying around, try connecting it to your PC and hear the difference! The soundcards used on most PCs have an amplified output and can drive speakers directly. Suitable leads are available from electrical accessory dealers. Make sure the speakers are at least a foot away from the monitor screen, otherwise the speaker magnets may cause colour staining on the display.




Windows 98 and ME have a little known speaker configuration utility that allows you to tailor the sound of your PC according to the size and type of speakers. Go to Start > Settings > Control Panel and select Multimedia, make sure the Audio tab is selected and click the Advanced Properties button. On the Speakers page Desktop Stereo Speakers will probably be selected, but it's surprising how many laptops have that setting too. Try some of the other options – you may have to reboot for any changes to take effect -- and the differences can be quite small but it's well worth trying. Whilst you are at it you may want to look at the Performance tab and if your PC is a relatively speedy model with a plenty of RAM, move the two sliders to the maximum setting.



Next, go to Add New Hardware in Control panel, double click Add, then Next, followed by No, then Next and in the Hardware Types box select Sound Video & Game Controller. Click Next again and Have Disk. Use Browse to find your copy of Speak.exe and click OK. Select Sound Driver for PC Speaker and click OK, then Finish and when prompted re-start the PC.  You will find the controls for the PC speaker in Multimedia on the Control Panel; on the Devices tab click the Audio Devices branch and Audio for Sound Driver for PC speaker and then Settings. On Windows 98 you'll find it on the Advanced tab.




Here's a nifty freeware program that turns sounds on your PC into visual displays. Although the Sound Frequency Analyser download is only 31k this powerful little utility shows both the amplitude of sounds passing through your PC as a constantly changing waveform, and as a colourful Fourier Transform, which represents the spectrum of the frequencies contained in the sound. Even if you're not interested in the science and mathematics of sound analysis it's fascinating to watch the patterns on your PC screen. Sound Frequency Analyser is a zip file and it can be downloaded from:




The quality of your CD recordings is dependent to some extent on the capabilities of your PC's sound card. Sound Card Analyser is a small program the tests the performance of your PC's sound system, measuring frequency response, dynamic range, noise levels, cross talk and distortion. It's simple to use – all you have to do is connect the sound card's input to the output and click the Run Test button – and it generates a comprehensive report, complete with comments and impressive-looking graphs. Sound Card Analyser is freeware, the program's 'zip' file is quite small (454kb) and it can be downloaded from: 




Does your PC talk to you?  If it does, and you haven’t got Windows XP or installed a speech synthesiser program you might need help, but if it remains stubbornly mute, and you’d like it to read back your word processor documents, emails or web pages then have a look at a shareware program called TextAloud. It’s a sophisticated text to speech program and the delightful ‘Mary’ will read anything you paste into the Windows Clipboard or type into the text window. If you’d prefer to listen to another voice, or even another language there’s a good selection of free add-ons from the TextAloud website. The program file is 4.2Mb and the trial lasts for 20 days but it’s all yours for a registration fee of around £15. More details and the link to the download can be found at:




Here’s a useful freeware program, for anyone who listens to music on their PC and has scrabbled around with the mouse, trying to mute the sound or lower the volume when the phone rings. Global Audio Control (900kb) assigns simple keyboard shortcuts to all of your PC’s audio controls, it’s a real time-saver, you’ll wonder how you ever managed without it. Suitable for Windows 9x/NT/2000 it can be found at:




This freeware program is an add-on for WinAmp, but it’s also available as a stand-alone program that works with Windows. G-Force is similar in concept to the ‘Visualisations’ in Windows Media Play 7, except that the pictures and patterns it generates – that gyrate and pulsate in time with the music -- are about a hundred times more dazzling and colourful. Be warned, it’s hypnotic, and works best on reasonably quick PCs, preferably 500MHz or faster.

G-FORCE, 2.1Mb, Windows 95/98/SE/ME/NT/2K, freeware

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