The best free MP3 software
In these days of Spotify streaming, an MP3 collection may seem like a throwback – but managing your own music means you never need to worry about it disappearing, being unable to get on the internet or hearing it in lower quality than you'd like. While Windows Media Player and Windows 8's music player do their best, there are better apps to play, organise and sort out your collection. These are our favorites.
For many of us, Winamp is the only music player worth mentioning: it's been around since the earliest days of digital music, and while various ownership issues mean development has been halted for a while as lawyers fight each other, it remains a fantastic and very flexible music player.
In addition to supporting every audio format you can possibly imagine, Winamp supports skins to change its appearance and plugins that add new features – equalisers, audio processors, visualisations and more. As its slogan goes, "it really whips the llama's ass".
MediaMonkey is a great app for organising and playing music libraries of any size. It can automatically rename your MP3s and sort out the way your music files are organised; it can fix broken ID3 tags and tell you if tracks have been duplicated, and it makes it easy to share your music with other devices, including Apple and Android kit, Smart TVs, DNLA-compatible Blu-ray players and so on.
Some of the advanced features are limited to the paid-for Gold version, but the free version delivers an awful lot of bang for zero bucks.
If you've got an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad then Apple really, really wants you to use iTunes, and while it's not everybody's favourite, it remains the best way to get music onto Apple devices.
The latest version introduces an improved user interface, Family Sharing (which enables you to share purchases with other members of your family without having to share your account details or passwords), better playlist editing and performance improvements. If you find it runs a little slowly, delete the Smart Playlists and disable the Genius feature: they seem to have a big impact on iTunes' performance.
Music folders can be frightening places, and the longer you leave them disorganised, the more terrifying they can become. Thank heavens, then, for MusicZen. It's an incredibly simple and very useful utility that can tame even the most tempestuous digital music collection, moving and renaming files while getting shot of duplicates.
By default it organises music by artist, then by year, and then by album, although you can change that if you like. Its simplicity means it's very, very quick, so if you've been putting off that music folder fixing, you don't need to put it off any longer.
5. VLC Media Player
As a music player VLC Media Player looks rather basic, but we're including it here because it's the Swiss Army Knife of digital media: if it can't play it, it probably isn't worth bothering trying to play in the first place. It plays CDs and DVDs, video CDs, MPEG, AVI, ASF, WMV, WMA, 3GP, MKV, Real Audio, FLAC, Flash, MIDI… you get the idea.
It can even handle streaming music. It isn't just a player, though. It can convert music from one format to another, extract audio from video, stream media over a network, apply audio and video effects and grab podcasts too.
Digital music veterans shudder when you say "ID3 tags" to them: they're the tags that describe each music file, and that audio apps use to organise music. Unfortunately incorrect or inconsistent tagging can cause chaos when half your REM tracks are tagged "R.E.M.", collaborations are tagged as separate artists and nobody can never make up their mind about how to spell Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The good news is that MP3tag can look at the mess, tut loudly and sort it all out. It can fix inconsistencies and errors, spellcheck your tags and cross-reference them with Amazon and Freedb.
For digital natives, the place to discover new music isn't Spotify or iTunes: it's YouTube. Artists haven't been slow to notice that, and as a result you'll find music on YouTube that isn't available anywhere else – not to mention endless covers, tributes, live versions and parodies, as well as music from undiscovered new artists.
That's a lot of audio – more than 20 million tracks – and YouTube doesn't always make it easy to discover. MP3jam is designed to help you find exactly what you want among YouTube's ever-growing library of content, and it can download the audio to your PC too.
8. FreeMake Audio Converter
In an ideal world, every audio player or device would recognise every kind of audio file. Unfortunately this isn't that world, but you can get closer to it with Freemake's Free Audio Converter.
It has a music player that can handle more than 40 different audio formats, and it can also convert from one to another – so if you need to convert your FLACs into MP3 or AAC, convert Ogg Vorbis to Windows Media, compress music to save space or merge multiple tracks together for gap-free listening, Free Audio Converter can do the job quickly and without fuss.
If you're looking for a fast, flexible and really powerful music player for Windows, you really ought to check out foobar2000. It supports all the key formats – MP3, AAC, WMA, Ogg Vorbis, FLAC and many more – and can rip audio CDs, plus it has excellent tagging capabilities, a customisable user interface, gapless playback and customisable keyboard shortcuts.
The available extensions add all kinds of features: fancy decoding 8-bit Atari chiptunes, decoding Nintendo sound files or adding the same reverb that PlayStation games use? It's a little over the top for just playing the odd Taylor Swift track, but it's a great app.
If you make music as well as listen to it, or if you want to convert old analogue formats into shiny digital files, then Audacity should definitely be part of your audio arsenal. It can record and export in a ton of different file formats, remove unwanted noise, clicks and hisses, adjust frequencies, add fades, cut and paste waveforms and use both VST and Audio Unit effect plugins.
It's particularly good for jobs such as digitising vinyl records (the filters do a great job of removing unwanted turntable rumble) and mastering audio files for production. We're amazed it's free.
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