Digital Music: 10 free tools
MP3s in a mess? Bored of the same old tunes? We show you how to make the most of your digital music collection.
Convert videos into MP3s
There are lots of music videos on YouTube that appear to be music videos but are, in reality, just uploaded songs playing over a static image. Rather than sitting there staring at the picture for four minutes, use Video2mp3 to grab the track to listen to whenever you want. Just paste in the URL of the video and click Convert. The site pulls out the audio and saves it as an MP3 file that you download to play on your PC or portable player. But note that if you share the file, you could be infringing copyright.
Store your MP3s online
MP3tunes gives you 2GB of free storage for your digital music so that you can listen to hundreds of your favourite songs wherever you go. You can play the tracks stored in your online ‘locker' on a range of mobile phones, including Android devices and the iPhone apps, consoles such as the PlayStation and Wii, and a variety of web-based players and Desktop widgets. There's also a 10GB version, which is currently invitation-only but should provide a genuinely interesting back-up-and-play-music-anywhere service when it launches. Well worth keeping an ear on.
Design and print CD covers
Although PressIt would prefer you to buy its label-making and printing package (which includes a spring-loaded label applicator), you can also download its excellent exPressIt design software for free. This is available for PC and Mac and makes it easy to design and print good-looking CD covers, inserts and labels for your music compilations. The PressIt website also features plenty of stock images that you can use in your designs.
Find missing album artwork
The iTunes Companion is a dinky Desktop tool that acts like an iTunes remote, letting you control your music library from a compact window withouthaving to open the main iTunes interface. Usefully, the widget also finds missing cover art for your albums (still a problem despite recent improvements made by Apple) by searching Amazon's enormous music collection and plugging any gaps it finds. You'll have to install Yahoo Widgets to begin with, but this is free and is a lot faster and prettier than it used to be.
Find almost any CD cover
Claiming to be the world's largest online archive of CD and DVD artwork, CDCovers has thousands of front, back and inside covers in its searchable database that you can download for free. The covers are stored in JPEG format, which means you can open and print them in virtually any image-editing program including the free exPressIt software we mentioned above.
Tag your music collection
PicardTagger takes metadata from the vast user-maintained music database MusicBrainz and uses it to tag all the songs your music library. It's a fantastic tool if, like most music buffs, you want the tracks in your collection to have the correct information about their artist, album, genre and so on. There's a really good illustrated guide on the main website that explains how to use the program and why tagging is so important.
Use iTunes with any MP3 player
There are plenty of decent MP3 players other than iPods, but many of us like the simplicity of iTunes. Fortunately, you can make most non-Apple devices synchronise with the music-management software using a tool called iTunes Synch. This tiny, free program will get even the cheapest generic MP3 player working happily with iTunes, provided the device shows up as a drive letter in Windows. It's a handy program if you have more than one portable media player in the house or if you're using a substitute after putting your iPod through the wash.
Play music through your web browser
FoxyTunes is a free plug-in that - despite its name - works with both Internet Explorer and FireFox. It works by displaying a small player 'strip' either at the bottom of your browser window or in your toolbar, which you can use to access your iTunes, Windows Media Player or Winamp music library. This features play, pause, rewind and fast-forward buttons, as well as a volume control, and even lets you search for lyrics, artist information and videos. FoxyTunes is a tidy, customisable tool that puts an end to all that clicking back and forth between your browser and music player.
Share and discover music
Spotify offers basic tools to create playlists and share them with other users but ShareMyPlaylists offers a faster, easier way. The site currently has thousands of playlists you can grab - there were 19,253 when we visited. Search by keyword or browse the music categories until you find a playlist that suits your taste and then click it. You'll often likely find lengthy - and occasionally even erudite - descriptions of the tracks including details of the story behind each one, why they were chosen and so on.
Try an iTunes alternative
Thought you'd checked out every music manager in town? Try MusicBee which - along with the usual audio files such as MP3, WMA and AAC - also plays songs in FLAC and Ogg Vorbis format, among others. The program includes Last.fm support so you can 'scrobble' tracks to the popular online music service and has comprehensive features for entering ID tags, adding album artwork, playlists, ripping CDs and even synching with iPods. It looks great, too - a bit like that other impressive iTunes alternative, Media Monkey.