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Getting the Most Out of XMMS

by Rickford Grant, author of Linux for Non-Geeks (No Starch Press)

XMMS (X Multimedia System) is the standard music player in the Linux world, and generally, it comes with almost every Linux distribution out there. If you somehow managed to find a distro that doesn't include XMMS, you can find out where to download it from the XMMS site.

XMMS is modeled after Nullsoft's Classic Winamp and, as such, many of the feature-enhancing plugins available for that popular Windows music player have been ported over for use with XMMS. It is perhaps not as sophisticated as Apple's iTunes, but XMMS is nevertheless quite capable and, to many users, more straightforward to use. It also has a much smaller desktop footprint than iTunes (taking up less screen space) and is more highly configurable. Despite being dubbed a "media" player, XMMS is primarily a music player, capable of playing music files in a variety of formats, including MP3, OGG (the music format of choice in the Linux world), and WAV.

Once XMMS is up and running, it is easy to use, as its controls mimic those of an ordinary CD player. Still many users fail to reach below the surface and take advantage of the many other things XMMS is capable of doing. That is where this guide comes in handy. With this guide you will learn not only the basics of using XMMS, but also how to create playlists, how to download and install themes in order to change XMMS' appearance, and how to play Internet radio broadcast streams, to name but a few of the things I'll cover.

Let's get down to business. Mouse over to the Main menu in your GNOME or KDE panel, locate XMMS, and start 'er up. In Red Hat Linux or Fedora Core, that would be Sound & Video > Audio Player. Once XMMS opens, you will be ready to follow along with the rest of this guide.

1. Get to Know the Interface

As you can see in Figure 1, XMMS looks pretty much like a standard CD player. Still, some of the controls may be unfamiliar to you (or just too hard to see — it is a pretty small player, after all), so let's go through them one by one.

the main XMMS window
Figure 1. The main XMMS player window (with the Red Hat/Fedora Bluecurve theme)

  1. Slide this back and forth to adjust the volume of the player. You can also place your cursor anywhere in the player wndow area and use your mouse wheel to do the same thing.
  2. Slide this to adjust the balance between your speakers.
  3. Click this to open and close the XMMS Equalizer window.
  4. Click this to open and close the XMMS Playlist window.
  5. Slide this to move back or forward through the current song or recording.
  6. Use these button for basic playback functions.
  7. Click this button to load songs for playback.
  8. Check this to shuffle the order of songs in your playlist.
  9. Check this to repeat, or loop, the current playlist.

The XMMS Equalizer and Playlist

As you have just seen in the control list above, XMMS has two other windows, either or both of which you can display while using the application: the Equalizer and the Playlist. By clicking the EQ and PL buttons (#3 & #4 in Figure 1), these components will appear below or next to the main player window. If you then stack these components one on top of another, and adjust the width of the Playlist window to match that of the other two, the components will meld, so to speak, so that all three will move as one unit when you drag the main player window (dragging the Equalizer or Playlist will move only that module). Some skins, actually meld the three components graphically, as shown in Figure 2, making the whole unit look as if it were one. You'll learn more about working with XMMS skins later on in this guide.

stacking XMMS components
Figure 2. Stacking the three XMMS components, shown with Bluecurve (left) and UltrafinaSE (right) skins

2. Learn the Basics

Using XMMS is quite easy. On most systems, just double-clicking a compatible audio file or playlist will launch XMMS, after which it will start playing that song or playlist (Red Hat Linux or Fedora users should read the note below before going on). Of course, you can also open and play songs or playlists from the XMMS player window itself. If there are no songs queued up in the Playlist, the easiest way to go about things is to click the play button in the main playback controls group (#6 in Figure 2) or the load button (#7) to the right of that. Once you've done this, the Play files window will appear. Use that window to locate the songs, directories of songs, or playlists you wish to play. Once you've found the song or songs you want to hear, click the Play button to listen to your selection straight away.

A note for Red Hat and Fedora Core Users

As Red Hat does not include MP3 support in its products (Red Hat Linux and Fedora Core) due to licensing concerns, users of its distros will first have to install MP3 support for XMMS in order to play files in that format. The necessary RPM file for this simple task (xmms-mp3) is available from You can click any of the following links to open the appropriate download page for the version you are using: Red Hat 8, Red Hat 9, or Fedora Core 1. After you have the file on your hard disk, installation is a simple double-click procedure.

If you are a Fedora Core user and want to run XMMS automatically by double-clicking a compatible audio file, you also have another chore to perform before you do so. As Fedora Core now has the iTunes-ish Rhythmbox player registered as its default audio player, the double-clicking approach will bring up that application instead of XMMS. To change this state of things, follow this simple procedure:

  1. Right-click on any OGG file, and then select Open With > Other Application in the pop-up menu.
  2. In the Open with Other Application window that will then appear, click once on X Multimedia System in the top pane, and then click the Modify button.
  3. In the Modify "X Multimedia System" window, click the radio button next to Use as default for "Ogg audio" items, and then click the OK button. This window will then close.
  4. In the still-open Open with Other Application window, click the Done button, after which that window will also close.
  5. Now repeat the process on one of your MP3 files.

3. Work with the Playlist Window

The XMMS Playlist window has several useful features that warrant mention. Before getting into those points, however, let's take a look at the buttons in the Playlist window (Figure 3) to see what each of them does.

controls in the XMMS Playlist window
Figure 3. Controls in the XMMS Playlist window

  1. Click this to add songs, directories, or URLs to the playlist. This button is labelled File in some skins.
  2. Click this to remove entries from the playlist window.
  3. Click this to select all or none of the songs in the playlist.
  4. Click this to sort or randomize the playback of the songs in the playlist, or to modify the information for any of the entries.
  5. Click this to create a new playlist or to save one that you have already assembled.

Creating and Saving Playlists

One of the nice things about working with music files on your computer is that you can play them in any order or combination that matches your mood at a given moment. You might, for example, want to create a set of ballads, a set of world music favorites, a set of raucous tunes to wake up with, or a set of songs of the sixties to go on a nostalgia binge, for example. Rather than move your files around on your hard disk, you can easily achieve this by creating playlists in XMMS. A playlist is essentially a set of links to the songs already in place on your computer's hard disk. To create a playlist of your favorite songs, do the following:

  • Click (but do not release) the List button (#14 in Figure 3) in the Playlist window. Now select New in the pop-up menu and then release the mouse button. This will clear the present playlist. Needless to say, if your playlist is empty when you start out, you can skip this step.
  • Click the Add (#10) button (or the Load button (#7) if you prefer), which will bring up the Play files window.
  • In that window, locate the song you want to add to the list, select it by clicking on its title once in the right pane, and then click the Add selected files button.
  • Now follow the previous step for each of the other songs you would like to add to the list.
  • When you done adding songs, click the Close button.

Now that you've set up your favorite songs playlist, save it. To do that, just click (but do not release) the List button (#14) in the Playlist window, select Save in the pop-up menu, and then release the mouse button. A Save playlist window will then appear, so navigate to wherever you would like to save your list, type in a name for the file, and then end it with .m3u. For example, my_faves.m3u would be a fitting name in this case.

After that, just click the Play button in the main player window to listen to your new list, or double-click on the title of any song in the list to play that song. In the future, when you want to play your list again, double-click on the actual .m3u file or click the Add or load buttons in the main player window and select the list in the Play files window.

4. Listen to Internet Radio Streams

XMMS also enables you to listen to Internet radio streams in either MP3 or OGG formats. The direct way of going about this is to click the Add button (#10) in the Playlist window, keeping the mouse button pressed. Then select URL in the pop-up menu, and release your mouse button. A window will appear in which you can type the URL of the stream to wish to listen to. Once you've done that, click OK and the stream will begin playing. Why not give it a try with Radio France's FIP program stream, a wonderfully eclectic collection of music of all genres in all languages. Just type in the URL window.

To make things a tad more convenient, you can also set up your Web browser to play MP3 and OGG streams with XMMS whenever you click a "Listen Now" link on a broadcaster's site. Assuming you are using Mozilla as your browser, you can set things up by selecting Edit > Preferences, which will bring up Mozilla's Preferences window. Once the window opens, click on Smart Browsing in the left pane of the window. Next click the New Type button, which will appear on the right side of the window, to bring up the New Type window. Fill in the text boxes in that window so that they match those in Figure 4, and then click OK when you are done. Finally, click OK in the Preferences window, and you will be all set.

setting up Mozilla to use XMMS
Figure 4. Setting up Mozilla to play MP3 and OGG streams automatically

Try things out by going to Virgin Radio UK's very Linux-friendly site. Click one of their OGG streams to see what happens. If all goes as it should, XMMS will open up and begin playing the stream you selected. To check things out with MP3 streams, you can click one of their MP3 links, or you can go to Nullsoft's SHOUTcast site, and try one theirs.

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