Last week, various technology news outlets reported that a "hole" in the Napster To Go online music subscription service was letting subscribers copy songs illegally to their hard disks. Predictably, the truth is far less exciting than the reports. Here's what's really happening, along with some pointers that let you see how it works for yourself.
Before I get into the details, let me be clear about something. I don't condone the theft of copyrighted music. However, I do condone taking advantage of your fair-use rights, and using the techniques I'm about to describe is every bit as legal as using a VCR to record a TV show, assuming you do so for personal use only, have already paid for the songs you're copying, and don't distribute them in any way to others.
The Story Behind the Story
Last fall, I was writing an update to my Plus! Digital Media Edition review at the SuperSite for Windows and noticed something interesting. While investigating the software's Analog Recorder tool and playing a beta version of Napster To Go in the background, I was able to use the tool to record music streams from the Napster service. Curious, I tried recording a full song to see if it would work. It did. So I contacted a friend at Microsoft, who verified that the tool was using the so-called "analog hole" to record music. The "leak" about Napster last week uses the same technique but uses a different tool: Nullsoft's Winamp media player.
Here's what's going on. Regardless of how you got the music—be it Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store, a Windows Media Audio (WMA)-based service, or even a song you ripped personally from CD—at some point, your PC's audio system needs to uncompress the bits so that it can play the song through the sound card. This is the previously mentioned analog hole, which software tools can use to record any sounds your PC makes, including music. Unlike Apple, Microsoft actually gives WMA licensees a technology called Secure Audio Path (SAP) that lets them plug the analog hole. However, most online music services, including Napster and Microsoft's MSN Music, don't use SAP, because it's incompatible with older sound cards.
Users who use the analog hole to record music aren't really getting away with much. For starters, music from a service such as Napster is heavily compressed, and the resulting recording (typically an MP3 file) will be a further compressed version of a compressed file, resulting in a file that has a generational loss in sound quality. Recording songs in this fashion is time-consuming, too, because you must literally play each song, one at a time, in real time to record them. And the songs you just stole don't come with any decent metafile information, so you'd then have to manually add all that information.
How to Do It
Still undeterred? Here's how you can re-record WMA-based music that you've purchased from MSN Music, Napster, or similar services. First, download a copy of Winamp. In my experiments, I used version 5.08d, but Winamp owner America Online (AOL) is allegedly trying to crack down on this functionality, so you might need to find an older version. Now comes the tricky part. You need to find a Winamp plug-in called Output Stacker. Since the Napster To Go controversy started, Output Stacker has been removed from the Winamp site and is difficult to find. Here's a hint: Try Google.
Install Winamp and copy the Output Stacker plug-in (i.e., out_stacker.dll) into the Winamp plug-ins folder. Now, open Winamp and select Options, Preferences to open the Winamp Preferences dialog box. Navigate to the Plug-ins section and choose Output, as the first figure shows. Select Dietmar's Output Stacker v0.8 (x86), then click Configure. In the Stacker configuration dialog box that appears, click Add, then navigate to the Winamp plug-ins folder and select out_ds.dll. Click Add again, and add out_disk.dll (which is in the same folder), as the second figure shows.
Now, select out_disk.dll in the Stacker configuration dialog box and click the Configure sel button. At this point, you'll choose a folder to which to save your ripped files, as the third figure shows. In the Output file mode drop-down list, select Force WAV file. Next, click OK, click Done in the Stacker configuration dialog box, and click Close in Winamp preferences. You're ready to start copying WMA originals to uncompressed WAV format.
To copy songs, load them into Winamp's playlist editor window and click Play. Each song you play will result in a similarly named but uncompressed WAV file. For example, a 4.51MB file named Van Halen - Dreams.wma will result in a 49.4MB recorded file called 001_\[Opening\] Van Halen - Dreams_wma.wav.
Naturally, these WAV files are pretty unwieldy because of their size. Now, you can burn them to CD, then rip them back to your PC normally in MP3 format. Or, you could use an audio-converter application such as Plus! Audio Converter, which is also part of Plus! Digital Media Edition. In the latter case, as I noted, you'll need to manually recreate all the metafile information for each song, which can be a chore.