Getting Sony's SonicStage for Christmas

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 15 January 2007

Whilst it wasn't traditional link bait in the sense of trying to get something onto the front page of Digg, when my good friend Frankie recently wrote about his experience of using Sony's SonicStage software, he must have known that I wouldn't be able to resist responding.

First off I must say I thought Frankie gave a very honest account of using and installing the software. He was using the CD supplied with the player to install it, so I don't know if it was the very latest v4.2 release (which can be downloaded via the Sony Connect online store) but the install isn't the shortest process in the world.

I note that once he got going Frankie was aware enough of the DRM situation with Sony products to take the trouble to use the advanced settings to get SonicStage to rip music to mp3 rather than the proprietary ATRAC format.

"As well as wanting to avoid the evils of DRM, I wanted to know that, should Fiona's parents ever upgrade to a new and different type of player, I could just move the files across rather than ripping all the CDs again from scratch (which takes longer than you might imagine)."

Maybe I am just an old cynic, but as a veteran consumer of music industry products, and having already made the transition from vinyl to CD to MiniDisc to mp3, I'm fairly certain myself that within the next ten years "super-lossless-mp3-plus®" will have me back re-ripping my CD collection and re-purchasing content I already own into a new format. Either that or Ogg Vorbis will win the format wars. No, sorry, that's a silly idea.

However, at least by skipping ATRAC Frankie has avoided his mum being locked-in to Sony products via the format, which was recently found to be against the law in France. He doesn't mention it, but I assume he has also done the same on hs install of iTunes, to stop Apple locking all of his iPod owning family into the equally restrictive AAC format.

I use the SonicStage software myself on my Sony laptop, as I'm a firm believer in "eating your own dog food" at work if you are in the business of defining the user experience. However, Frankie probably has a better grasp of the advanced options than me. As I'm based in Austria my work laptop runs a German language version of Windows XP. This is, of course, fine with things I have subsequently installed like Firefox in English, or with the Microsoft Office suite where the interaction pattern is so familiar to me that actually having it in German probably helps me learn the language more than hinders my productivity.

SonicStage, though, is another matter. I have the German version installed, and so find it a bit bewildering to get around the more advanced features.

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I have ripped a CD to ATRAC using the software - "Dieses Leben" by Juli which has been a bit of a local anthem in Austria - and like Frankie I also didn't find the process a problem, although without altering the defaults the software does put the files into a very deep and obscure folder within the Windows file system.

I'm able to do most of the basic functions with the software though, like import music, create playlists, and add pictures or cover art to albums or to playlists.

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There are certainly some shortcomings with the software. It can't, it seems, import a track where the track detail embedded in the file exceeds a certain limit, or where the path to the file and filename are too long, which to me seems odd. If the Windows OS can recognise a file as a valid mp3 file, and Windows Media Player can quite happily play it, I don't understand why the SonicStage software can't import it.

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There are also the odd glitches with file playback. I've downloaded "W.Y.H.I.W.Y.G." by Front 242 twice from eMusic, and each time the mp3 file has played perfectly fine using Windows Media Player, but comes out as a scrambled electronic noise using SonicStage. Which some people might argue doesn't sound that different from the original ;-)

Another thing of note that I think is a difficulty with any software that does it, is that SonicStage doesn't follow the standard Windows interface. The same is true of iTunes. Both Apple and Sony impose their own look and feel into the Microsoft environment, which doesn't take into account that users may have chosen the high-contrast Windows colour schemes in order to make their computer easier to use for them.

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Over Christmas Frankie was enjoying the same position that I used to hold in my family - "We like our new-fangled technical presents. Can you set them up for us?". A couple of years back I did exactly the same thing for my sister. She was getting an iPod mini for Christmas, and before the big day it was carefully smuggled to my house so that I could get it set up and pre-loaded with her favourite music, so she could use it out-of-the-box.

Interestingly, this seemed easier for me on a Windows PC than it was for Frankie running a Mac. He had to work quite hard to get around the default one-iPod-for-one-iTunes mode.

"The only downside with this is that iTunes doesn't recognise that it might be used by more than one person, so I had to change the synchronisation settings to stop the new Take That album appearing on my own iPod. Additionally, the play counts from all the iPods (mine, Fiona's and her sisters) are all added together within iTunes, which makes some of the auto-playlists a bit more of a random mix."

I simply created a new user account for my sister on my Windows PC, and when I first started iTunes when logged in as her, it created a new music library exclusive to her and associated her iPod with it. I then burnt a DVD of the files within her music library, and post-Christmas loaded those and iTunes on to her PC and linked her iPod to that instead, so she could control her future music listening destiny herself.

In the end Frankie didn't seem to have any great problems using the software. As I understand it, the SonicStage software is popular in Japan, and does a perfectly good job of putting digital content onto Sony digital devices. The product development is also all handled in Japan, and so that may go some way to explaining why it has not seen more widespread adoption within Europe and the U.S. as software to organise your music collection, rather than simply as software to put content on to your Sony hardware.

And if you want to see how unpopular the software can be with some people, then you should have a read of 42 Hours. This a website made by one disgruntled user of the software, who claims that Sony's SonicStage destroyed 42 hours of their intellectual property.

The views expressed on currybetdotnet are my own, and do not reflect the views of my current or former employers.

2 Comments

Was searching for comments on Sony MP3 players because I see that Sony are withdrawing all software for older MP3 players and leaving us high and dry. Currently trying to download for my 2 year old MP3 player (not Sonicstage) it comes up with website not available. I have been a firm Sony fan for years but this takes the biscuit.

Can anyone tell me whether to buy an Ipod or Sony MP3 just to download music. Which is the most hassle-free?

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