By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, Al Fasoldt
One thing that irks me about the way Microsoft sets up Windows 95 is the thoughtless association of WAV files with the Windows sound recorder. Microsoft built a much better WAV playback system into Windows 95, but why the company chose to make the sound recorder the default WAV playback device is beyond my understanding.
The problem is easy to fix, and I'll show you how.
First, I'll explain what WAV files are for those of you who may not be sure. Nearly all the sounds that you hear on your PC are WAV files. There are other audio formats—MIDI is the most common of all the non-WAV audio formats, for example— but any time you hear a sound in a Windows sound scheme, your PC is playing a WAV file.
WAV (pronounced "wave") files are digital audio files, in monaural or stereo, of varying quality based on how they are recorded or transcribed. You can make your own WAVs using the sound recorder, capturing the audio from a microphone or from an external source such as your CD-ROM drive.
The sound recorder has a serious limitation: It can record for only a minute. This is the result of a decision by Microsoft to keep its support calls down, I suppose, because hundreds of thousands of Windows users a year probably would be calling Microsoft with a peculiar problem if the sound recorder had no such limitation: They would have run out of disk space and would figure something was wrong with Windows. The danger is real, because a WAV recording made at the highest quality level (which many users would be likely to choose) consumes about 10 megabytes of disk space a minute. Clicking the record button on the Windows sound recorder if it did not have a one-minute limit and then asking all the kids to say "Hi" to grandma might take up 50 megabytes, and sitting yourself down and plucking that old guitar for a few choruses of Woody Guthrie songs might cost you 200 megabytes.
Clearly, Microsoft was doing you a favor when it limited the recording time in the sound recorder. (You can use more serious recorders for unlimited-length recordings, of course. You may have a "real" WAV recorder already. Many sound cards come with WAV recorders.)
By design, the Windows sound recorder does not play a WAV file until it loads the entire file into memory. I'm sure most users don't know this, and most experts on Windows probably don't know this, either. If you only play small WAVs, this limitation doesn't matter. After all, most of the brief Windows sounds are small WAVs ranging from a few hundred bytes to a few kilobytes. They'll fit easily into memory.
Modern PCs nearly always have many megabytes of memory, so you'd think the sound recorder's behavior would not cause a problem even with WAF files of 10 megabytes or more. But it does. It causes a serious problem.
What happens is this: When you double click on a large WAV file, the sound recorder starts loading it. It's very slow at this because it was not designed to handle large files and can't deal with them well, but it dutifully swallows the file, byte by byte, until all of it is in memory. It does this even with files that are larger than the PC's real memory, too. In Windows, as long as the PC has a large swap file that Windows can use for extra memory, programs are not told how much real memory is available, so they'll try to load any file they come to. And that's why the little sound recorder will chew away at a 20-megabyte WAV file for a long, long time to load it on a PC that has only 16 megabytes of memory.
What's needed is a WAV player that doesn't need to load the entire WAV file into memory to play it. And you have one that works like that. It came with Windows 95.
It's called MPLAYER. That stands for "multimedia player." MPLAYER is actually a front end for all sorts of audio and video playback methods in Windows— even, odd as it sounds, for WAV files when they are played in the background (by your Web browser, for example).
MPLAYER starts playing a WAV file immediately. It doesn't matter how big the WAV file is. I've double clicked on WAVs that were more than 500 megabytes in size, and MPLAYER began to play the audio almost instantly. MPLAYER doesn't need to load the entire WAV file into memory and doesn't try to. It's an ideal way to play WAVs.
To make Windows 95 switch from the sound recorder to the media player whenever it is told to play WAV files, you'll have to change the way WAV files are associated. The procedure is simple, but it does require mucking around with parts of Windows that most users never get into.
Here's how you do it.
Open an Explorer window. (Double clicking "My Computer" opens an Explorer window, if what I just said seems confusing.) Click on the "View" menu, then choose "Options." In the window that opens, click the tab at the top called "File Types."
You'll see a list of descriptions. These describe the files that Windows knows about. The list is alphabetical. Scroll down the list to the entry for WAV files. You may see "Wave Sound" or simply as "WAV file" in the list. Double click on the WAV entry.
You'll see another window. In the lower part of the window, under "Actions," you'll see one or more words. (You may see "Edit," "Open" and "Play," or perhaps just one or two of these.) One of them will be in dark (or bold) type. Double click the entry in bold type.
Another window will open. In that window, which is smaller than the other one, you'll see "Application used to perform action:" above a text-entry line. It probably will look like this: "C:\Windows\sndrec32.exe /play /close." (Don't worry if "/play /close" aren't there; I'll show you how to add that part anyway, and I'll explain what those two words do.) Take out "sndrec32.exe" and type "mplayer.exe" in its place. If "/play /close" are not there, add them, so that the line looks like this:
c:\windows\mplayer.exe /play /close
Make sure that the only spaces in that line come after "exe" and after "play" and that you use slashes and not backslashes. (A backslash tilts backwards like this ... \ ... while a slash tilts forward like this ... / ....)
Then click the "OK" button on that window, and the "Close" button on the next two windows you see. You're done. The next time you double click on a WAV file, media player will take care of it.
As for "/play" and "/close," they're called switches. They tell MPLAYER to play the file without waiting for you to click the play button and then close down when the sound has finished. Good luck finding those two switches in the Windows help or in most "expert" books on Windows; they're undocumented parts of the way Windows works.