Roll Over Beethoven (and Tell Tchaikovsky the News!)

For a generation of people who grew up in the 1940s and '50s, the word "jukebox" conjures up a panoply of nostalgia: Soda fountain memories and bobbysock reveries — and the names Seeburg, Rockola and Wurlitzer. Who can forget the hypnotic, dazzling effect of glowing neon columns and merrily percolating bubbles of a Wurlitzer Model 1015 — loaded with a hundred of the day's top pop songs on 45s, a nickel per play?

Soda fountains and ice cream parlors of the "Happy Days" variety may be no longer, but the advent of digital jukeboxes has given us the means to store and play back music in ways only hinted at by the very best vintage jukeboxes.

Unlike a conventional jukebox, a digital jukebox does not utilize media such as 45s or CDs. Instead, it runs off of the same type of magnetic, internal hard disk used in laptop computers. The Nomad Jukebox, made by Creative, is the most popular portable digital audio player today — and the best. With a capacity of six gigabytes of data, it can store over 150 CDs worth of your favorite music in a device about the size of a conventional Discman. The format in which it stores this music is the popular MP3 scheme, which compresses a typical 4-minute song from 40 megabytes to 4 megabytes with minimal loss in sound quality.

A digital jukebox such as the Nomad has many distinct advantages over conventional jukeboxes, portable CD players (Discmans) and cassette players (Walkmans). Since digital jukeboxes do not play removable media, there are no discs to get scratched or warped, no cassettes to get chewed up or unwound. You may never have to change discs again!

Another feature possible only with digital technology is adjustment of playback speed without altering the pitch or tone of the recording. When played back at fast speeds on conventional analog playback devices, recordings sound like the Chipmunks. On a digital playback device, however, the pitch remains the same, with obvious benefits. For instance, you could study the nuances of Eddie van Halen's lightening-fast guitar solos, or resolve the puzzling lyrics to Manfred Mann's "Blinded by the Light". A reporter could listen closely to the details of an interview; a foreign language student could hone his enunciation skills from the narrator's voice.

Perhaps the most powerful and unique features of a digital jukebox, however, involve its ability not only to store and play large amounts of music, but to organize and manage those songs in novel ways. The Nomad Jukebox makes playlist file management a breeze. For instance, the player automatically sorts songs by artist, album and genre, based on information encoded into the song files from your PC. In addition, the Nomad can perform searches within each of these categories. If you have songs by a hundred artists in your jukebox, it is cumbersome to scroll down alphabetically to find, say, the Yardbirds, so you can type in the first couple letters of the artist's name, album or genre to pinpoint it more quickly.

A favorite pastime of many a lover of music is making song mixes of various artists. With the Nomad, you can create custom playlists out of songs already on the Jukebox, organized however you like, and store them in the player's memory. Then when you want to hear the playlist, just queue it up and press play.

Besides the ability to transfer over a thousand songs from your computer to the Nomad Jukebox, you can also record directly into the device, via its line-in jack. You can hook up a microphone or connect another device, such as a stereo tuner, and record off of the radio, directly into either the MP3 or WAV formats.

There are many situations in which a device like the Nomad comes in handy. Familiar with road trips where you listen to the same CDs and cassettes ad infinitum for five days? Sick of the tired radio playlist piped through the workplace sound system? Ever wish you could D.J. an entire party — and participate in the festivities as well? By creating custom playlists you can always have fresh music playing, and, as Seinfeld put it, be master of your own domain.

Technology is always changing, and digital devices tend toward rapid obsolescence. The Nomad addresses that concern. The Nomad runs off of "firmware", a set of built-in instructions that confers it with features. As new and improved features become available, the firmware can be updated. For instance, a recent update added fast-forward and rewind within a track. Similarly, while MP3 is currently all the rage, future updates promise the ability to play digital audio formats as they become available. Of course, you can't download the ambience of glowing neon lights and majestic Art Deco curves. But there's nothing to stop Wurlitzer from coming out with a jukebox that plays MP3s!


Michael Tanenbaum