September 29, 2003

It's the Plugins That Matter

Once again I've learned the strategic importance of choosing and using software products that are fervently supported by their developers and more importantly, by the users themselves:

This weekend I finally got around to installing an MP3Pro decoder plugin for my Winamp 2 Player (it's been on my leisure "to do" list for months). If you haven't tried MP3Pro, you're in for a treat. The idea behind it is simple: Get comparable sound quality from an MP3Pro file that's half the size of its MP3 counterpart. It's easier on bandwidth and storage. At low bitrates (say, < 64 kbps) the sound quality difference between standard MP3's and MP3Pro's is akin to that between AM and FM radio stations. Yes, it's that good, and if you install the necessary decoder, you can easily search Shoutcast for "MP3Pro" to find stations using it and can hear it for yourself. While I listen to higher bandwidth stations for the nicer sound quality, some of the online stations I like are only available at the lower bitrates.

Then I counted all of the plugins I've installed into my Winamp 2 player to achieve results that rival and even exceed some shelf stereo systems. I've customized it with five incredible plugins that I'll mention shortly. If I had chosen any other music player, I wouldn't have had the benefit of Winamp's diverse plugin developer community. When you read my list of plugins, you'll understand why this is so important.

Likewise, when I was comparing blogging systems for creating this blog, I naturally looked at the included features. As you can tell, I chose Movable Type. But not just because it has some very nice features such as multiple category posting and Blogger API support for remote posting. I found out rather quickly that it has a thriving third-party plugin developer community, and that I could easily and freely extend its already impressive features with additional plugins.

And then there's my Palm-based PDA, with no less than 6 installed plugins (also known as "hacks"), to provide functionality not present in the original OS. Not to mention all the great Palm programs I've accumulated over the past several years, many of them freeware or shareware.

As I've posted recently, I've also found MyIE2 to be an incredibly useful free add-on for extending Internet Explorer's capabilities.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the pattern, and so it struck me while I was relaxing to some great classic rock online in glorious 3D surround sound: While these are all very good products in their own right, it really was the developer community and the plugins that made these good products into great ones. It's the plugins (and the people behind them) that contributed to their success just as much, if not more, than the original product itself. Up to a point, it doesn't matter if the platform itself is proprietary, as long as there is a diverse developer community willing to take advantage of its extensibility and push the envelope.

So to all these people who gave us something incredibly useful on their own time, I just wanted to take a moment to extend my thanks: You rock.

As promised, here's my list of indispensable Winamp 2 plugins for creating a great music player on your PC (although it truly helps to have a quality soundcard and speakers, including a subwoofer). This is my small way of giving something back:

1) DFX -- a skinnable* DSP (Digital Signal Processor) that synthesizes and adds back the missing high notes, deep hyperbass, ambience (reverb), and other audio attributes that are removed from MP3's during their compression -- a must-have for all media players;

[*I would be completely remiss in my thanks if I hadn't mentioned all of the graphic artists who painstakingly developed the vast collection of skins or templates for all of the above programs and more. Viva variety, the spice of life!]

2) CD Reader -- enables me to use Winamp's 10-band graphic equalizer when playing normal audio CD's (Winamp 2's equalizer only natively works on MP3 files and streams, not on audio CD's);

3) Bobware Stereo Delay Plugin 2.0 -- a fantastic little 3D sound DSP plugin that generates fully customizable delays between the left and right stereo channels to create a rich "expanded stereo" or "stereo wide" effect, and with very little CPU drag to boot;

4) MP3Pro Winamp Plugin -- discussed above, used to get much better sound quality out of lower bitrate (lower bandwidth) audio streams or files encoded with MP3Pro; and

5) MuchFX2 -- enables me to "stack" or run multiple DSP plugins (such as DFX and Bobware Stereo Delay) simultaneously in Winamp for a custom blended effect. This is necessary because Winamp 2's architecture only allows one DSP to be selected and run at any one time. With MuchFX2, I get the benefit of DFX's sound quality boost along with the expanded stereo effects of the Bobware Stereo Delay plugin. A very cool must-have. (Note: As of 9/27/03, this is MuchFX2's new website for development).

Like Winamp, all of the above plugins were free except for DFX, which cost about $25 at the time for the "master pack" bundle promotion, which works with numerous media players, and is well worth it at twice that price. You'll also note that I'm still using Winamp 2 (aka "Classic") even though Nullsoft released Winamp 3 a while ago. It's for one simple reason alone: Winamp 3 can't run the Winamp 2 plugins natively. You need -- you guessed it -- yet another plugin to do that. Ironic, isn't it? It reminds me of the IBM business consulting commercial about the "universal business adapter", which works with all conceivable devices. However, to use it in Europe, you need an adapter. A classic.

Thus to use some of these plugins with Winamp 3, you need the Winamp 2x Plugin Manager. While it should work with the above plugins, it doesn't support all Winamp 2 plugins, and some users have reported it to be flaky at times. In essence it's a hack or kluge, and I applaud its author for taking time to fill a huge gap for Winamp 3 users. Since Winamp 3 didn't improve much, if any, upon the overall sound quality (mostly just its aesthetics), I decided to stay with Winamp 2's solid support of my plugins. Eventually I'll try these with Winamp 3, but I'll take superior sound quality and program stability any day over more visual bells and whistles.

I've recently discussed how "enablers" should be sought out for great solutions, and all the above certainly qualifies with flying colors. They have reinforced my philosophy of how I look for and choose technology solutions.

Topic(s):   Feature Articles  |  Other Musings
Posted by Jeff Beard