All of the software I mention in this post is freeware (and for Windows; sorry Mac owners!). I'm poor; I looked for software that didn't cost anything. There may be other professional programs that are "all in one" or easier to use (though that would be a surprise), but these are all freeware or donationware (the creator wants you to donate money, to them or a charity).
As I mentioned in a November post, you can do pretty much everything you want with an MP3 player using Microsoft's Windows Media Player. It's just not that friendly and it's not at all flexible. You can expect it to be inflexible if it's simple enough for 80 year old grandmas to use, but it's not. So, given that it's not all that friendly lets look at some other programs you need to manipulate MP3s.
Okay, first of all some legal stuff.
The legality of whether or not you can copy songs from a CD you bought and play them on your MP3 player is somewhat questionable in the United States. I've seen online information suggesting that it falls under "fair use" and is legal. The record companies, of course, want you to believe otherwise. To that end, they use various forms of DRM (digital rights management).
The iTunes store, for instance, encodes the files you download such that you can't simply convert them to .mp3 format for use in a non-iPod mp3 player. Instead, they want you to either a) buy an iPod, or b) burn the file on a CD. iTunes also only allows you to play their music on five different computers. Since there's no DRM built into regular CD players (as yet) you can cut a CD from your computer and play it in the car, or on your home stereo. You can then rip the song off the CD and convert it to an .mp3 format, and then you can load it into your non-iPod MP3 player.
So why not allow you to just dump it into .mp3 format to begin with? Because .mp3 format doesn't have DRM, and there's nothing stopping you from sending it to your friends, or sharing it over the Internet. Forget the fact that you can still do this by burning it onto a CD (presumably this loophole is being plugged later).
It's all moot because there are programs out there that will let you get around a lot of the DRM stuff, if you happen to look for them.
Besides, it's not even illegal in some jurisdictions. The U.S. has the most strict anti-copying laws in the world, largely because the recording companies have deep pockets and politicians living in those pockets. Canada, on the other hand, allows copying of music you purchased for your own personal use. This goes back to the 1990s when Canada started collecting royalties on each blank audio cassette purchased. The record companies were happy to get the money, and gleefully rubbed their palms at the idea that the Canadian government was helpfully clawing back money from all those people breaking copyright law (and those who were using cassettes for non-copyright infringing reasons; I think that amounted to five or six people). This turned out to be a deal with the devil, because since Canadians were paying royalties the government thought it only fair that copying music be legal! This is an oversimplification, but basically in Canada you can copy music you bought from your own personal CD to MP3 format for use on your MP3 player.
So, it's entirely up to you to find out if doing anything mentioned in this post is illegal in your jurisdiction. To paraphrase the old Rock and Roll Doctor skit, I don't condone copying, I just prescribe it...
Oh, and I'm not going to go and define all these formats. I'm not going to tell you the difference between MPEG-3 and MPEG-4. Go look it up in Wikipedia if you're interested. I'm only going to give practical info.
I will mention this: MP3 files can be stored at various quality levels. This is given as a number of bits per second. Basically, MP3s are digital sound files. The MP3 player can fill in the gaps if some information is missing. So, by lowering the number of bits per second used to create the sound file you can shrink the size of the file. Of course the more bits you lose the worse the music sounds. How much is acceptable is up to the individual. Spoken word files, such as books on tape/CD, can go to lower quality as it's only a human voice you're listening to.
Audiograbber should be the first piece of software you install. It is known as a "ripper". It allows you to grab individual tracks from your CD player. More than that, it also allows you to import audio files from a line-in source plugged into your computer's sound card.
Audiograbber lists the tracks on a CD and lets you save in two formats: Wave (.wav) or MP3 (.mp3). Wave files are "lossless", meaning that they sound as good as they did on the CD. They are also big. If you plan to copy a CD, or make a compilation CD, you'll want to rip the tracks in Wave format. If you want the tracks for your MP3 player, you'll want to save them in MP3 format to save space. Audiograbber lets you choose the quality of your MP3 files.
You can get Audiograbber here: http://www.audiograbber.com-us.net/
So you ripped a track for use on a compilation CD or on your MP3 player. Unfortunately, the song merges with the next track so you have this ugly cut at at the end of the song. It would be so nice if you could fade it out.
That's where Audacity comes in. Audacity lets you edit sound files. It can handle five or six formats, but the important ones are MP3 and Wave.
Fading in and fading out are the reasons I picked up the program. I've used it for a bunch of other things, too. A later program, Switch, caused some problems that I had to fix with Audacity. We also received a couple of free downloads for Sony's Connect online service. I downloaded a song for Alana to use as a ringtone on her phone. It was an older song, and when you elevated the sound to a level loud enough for a ringtone it hissed something awful. Audacity cleaned it up nicely.
Get Audacity here: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/. I have version 1.26. I'm debating grabbing the beta version, too.
Both Audiograbber and Audacity need LAME. LAME stands for LAME Ain't an MP3 Encoder. In fact, it is an MP3 encoder. What's an MP3 encoder? It's the work horse of the two programs I've mentioned above: it takes the source file and strips bits from it (making it smaller) while still making it listenable.
Neither Audiograbber nor Audacity come with an MP3 encoder. This allows you to pick and choose encoders. You need one, so get LAME, install it into a directory, and point Audiograbber and Audacity to it. Don't worry about what it does, just get it.
You find it here: http://lame.sourceforge.net/index.php
MP3 Tag Tools
MP3 files don't just include the music. They have a bunch of "tags" with information about the music: name of the song/track, the artist, the album, track number, year, and even the musical genre. MP3 players can use most, if not all, of these tags, allowing you to pick and choose what music you are listening to on your player.
In the course of ripping songs or downloading songs, you're going to want to edit some of these tags. On my MP3 player I group songs together in "albums". For instance, I have over 20 Tragically Hip songs in a folder (album) on the MP3 player called "Tragically Hip Sampler". These songs all came from several CDs. I want them on a single "virtual album" on the MP3 player for those days when I feel like listening to The Tragically Hip's "greatest hits". I have a bunch of other songs that come from a host of albums. I've cherry picked songs, but I have them all on a virtual album called "Singles".
To put these songs into the virtual albums I had to edit the album tag on the MP3s. I also wanted to put the songs in a particular order, so I edited the track number tag. You can do this with Audiograbber, but if you forget or mess up, you need some way of fixing the problem without having to rip the songs again. To do this, I used MP3 Tag Tools ver. 1.2.
It's an odd little program with some idiosyncrasies. Basically, you have a list of tracks on your computer and a bunch of fields on the screen, one field per tag. If you check off the box beside a tag you can edit the tag. This is the important part: if you highlight a bunch of songs, write something in the tag field, and then click the Write Tag button, all those songs will have that tag set to what you just typed. So, changing some 200-odd songs to the album "Singles" is a breeze. Caveat: it's easy to overwrite a tag that you didn't want overwritten. As an example, if you accidentally leave the artist tag unchecked you may find you've attributed every one of your songs in your Singles "album" to The Smashing Pumpkins!
Download MP3 Tag Tools here: http://massid3lib.sourceforge.net/
There are a bunch of people who don't like Apple's iTunes store and its use of DRM. As I mentioned above, if you want to convert something you bought from iTunes to MP3 format you have to first burn it on a CD.
Apple iTunes songs are in .m4p format, a DRM protected MPEG-4 format. The ingenious QTFairUse program converts these to the unprotected .m4a MPEG-4 format. The way it does it is cool. It has the iTunes program play the music very quickly on your computer (though it doesn't bother throwing it to your sound card). iTunes has to decrypt the protected song to play it. As the song is decrypted, QTFairUse grabs it and saves it in the unencrypted .m4a format.
Once it's in .m4a format you just need to process it with another program to get it into MP3 format. At least it saves you money in burning CDs...
I discovered the program on this forum site, which includes download links: http://hymn-project.org/forums/viewtopic.php?t=1553
I originally used Windows Media Player to rip songs off some CDs and put them on my MP3 player. One problem: the program stored them in .wma format, Windows own Media Player format. Microsoft claims that it's a superior format to MP3, but I disagree. I notice there is a slight difference in sound, but I couldn't say one was better than the other. They are just different. What's more, unless I'm missing something I can't change quality settings for .wma files. Worse, as far as I can tell you have limited tag editing ability for .wma files.
So, I wanted all my files in MP3 format. This is where Switch comes in. It allows you to convert from one file format to another. It can import a bunch of file formats and save them as one of a bunch of file formats. At the very least it allows you to import Wave files and export them as MP3. Audacity allows you to do that, too, but Switch is faster.
I did have a problem with the second to last version of the program. When I converted a bunch of files from .wma to .mp3, the program duplicated the first half a second of the song at the beginning. No big deal if the song faded in quietly, but for several songs the "bug" was annoying. I was able to perform surgery on the tracks using Audacity, though.
Other than converting Wave files to MP3, Switch is also used for converting .m4a files "recovered" from QTFairUse into Wave or MP3 format.
This progam, by an Australian outfit, is here: http://www.nch.com.au/switch/plus.html
iTunes isn't the only company with obnoxious DRM files. Sony's Connect download store, and it's SonicStage software, store files in protected .oma format. Sony will let you burn .oma songs to CDs as long as they didn't come from a CD or you didn't buy it from their site.
Enter HiMdRenderer, a program that first saw life with use in Sony Minidiscs. The program is pretty rough looking as far as the interface goes. However, it does the job, converting .oma files to Wave files.
The owner's web page is, itself, pretty rough: http://www.marcnetsystem.co.uk/. I couldn't figure out how to download it from there.
No matter, you can get download information here: http://forums.minidisc.org/index.php?showtopic=6087
Or, download it directly: http://www.marcnetsystem.co.uk/himdrenderer052.zip
I haven't mentioned any CD burners. That's because I use Roxio's RecordNow (formerly Sonic's RecordNow), which came with the laptop. I've also burned CDs using Media Player. I used to own Nero. It was a pretty extensive burning program, but the company isn't good at giving upgrade discounts (and, a few years ago when I bought it, I had to sick my credit card company after them because they charged my credit card twice and demanded I mail them documentation proving it). For any of the CDs I've wanted to burn, what came with the computer did me just fine.
RecordNow will let you rip songs from several CDs and burn them onto one CD. I find it easier to rip them manually with Audiograbber. That way I can rip songs over the course of a couple of days and then combine them into one CD later.
That should give you pretty much anything you need for MP3s. Remember: this is just a helpful service. I make no promises as to how well these programs work. My virus checker didn't complain when I downloaded the files, but that doesn't mean that one or more of then couldn't be infected by the time you download them.
I will point out one thing: I use Windows Media Player as my default media player. Musicmatch Jukebox came with the laptop and it wants to be the default player. The Musicmatch program has a long start up time. It insists on playing audio CDs all the time, too, which is a pain when you swap CDs when ripping songs. For simply playing music, Media Player has a small footprint and a short load time.