Michael Brown

Internet radio is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to discovering new music, except that you need to be connected and listening to really take advantage. I wrote about the Slacker Portable Radio Player yesterday, now I’d like to introduce you to a software product that takes advantage of Internet radio in a different way.

Radiotracker monitors Internet radio streams, automatically rips the types of music you tell it you like, and stores it on your PC's hard drive in MP3 format. You can then play the songs on your PC or transfer them to your digital media player of choice. The software requires a lot of fine tuning to deliver a good experience, but the free version (which doesn’t have some of the features of the $40 Platinum version reviewed here) is definitely worth checking out.

But let’s get one thing out of the way right up front: The vast majority of Internet radio stations are low fidelity, streaming music at 128Kb/s or less, so don’t expect anything close to CD-quality rips from this software—it can’t replace what’s not there in the first place; but hey, whadaya want for free?

You can begin ripping tracks within minutes of installing Radiotracker on your PC, but you won’t get a very good experience because the software will vacuum up everything from Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to Britney Spears. I don’t think anyone’s tastes are that diverse. A better approach is to at least choose a preferred genre from the drop-down menu in the player's Autorip section.

This selection can be fairly broad or tightly focused, but there's no real in between: I’ve been listening to a lot of Americana music, for instance, but Radiotracker dumps Blues in this category along with Folk, Cajun, and Bluegrass. Blues is definitely a uniquely American genre—but so is Jazz—and I don’t consider either to be Americana. Unfortunately, the only way to exclude sub-genres is to limit your choice to just one sub-genre. People with diverse musical tastes will need to collect music one sub-genre at a time to avoid spending a lot of time culling unwanted tracks from the libraries they build.

There are two other ways to use the Autorip function to increase your chances of capturing music you like: One is to build a list of favorite stations that you know play the type of music you’re interested in. Radiotracker has a built-in database of stations organized by genre and subgenre that you can choose from, or you can manually enter your own picks. Once you’ve designated a few of these stations as favorites, you can instruct the program to monitor them closely. Another method is to use the program’s music database to create a “wish list” of tracks and artists you’d like to collect. You can then set the Autorip function to select stations that play those songs and artists frequently.

Once you’ve ripped a track, Radiotracker will search the Internet for the appropriate ID3 tag and album art. The software’s built-in Player module will even display the song lyrics for you. Since this is radio, some tracks end with the DJ talking over the song, or with a seque into a station ID, news or weather report, or even the occasional commercial. The software has tools that help eliminate this sort of thing, but these are relatively blunt instruments.

After spending more than an hour telling Radiotracker about my musical preferences, I was about to slam the program’s ability to accurately identify the types of songs I like because it ripped Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” (from I’m Not Dead ). Pink ? Americana? Intrigued by the title, I listened to the track and discovered it was a protest song in the best folk tradition. Thank you, Radiotracker. This song was published more than a year ago, but I’d never heard it before—and considering the artist, I would never have sought it out.

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