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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:

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.

5. Get the Sound Just Right

It is pretty fair to say that music played with XMMS is as good as the speakers you use. Computer speakers being as inexpensive as they are these days, there is no excuse not to get a good pair yourself (preferably with a sub-woofer unit). In addition to such inexpensive hardware upgrades and settings, there are also a few other ways that you can manipulate the output of the music you play with XMMS.

The most obvious of these, as I have already mentioned, is the XMMS Equalizer. You probably have some experience using an equalizer with your home or car stereo, so I won't go much into how to use it. I will mention, however, that you must click the ON button in the Equalizer window before any of your settings take effect. Also, just as is the case with the volume control slider, you can also use a mouse wheel to adjust the various sliders in the Equalizer.

XMMS also includes several add-ons, called plugins, which allow you to add various functions to the application. Included in these are a number of Effects plugins, which allow you to tinker with the quality of your audio output. Every distro that includes XMMS comes with a number of these. To see what the plugins you have do to the sound of your system (and to you in the process), right-click anyhwere in the main XMMS player or Equalizer windows, and select Options > Preferences in the pop-up menu. When the Preferences window appears, click on the Effects Plugins tab.

Try each of the plugins out by first playing a song of your choosing (so as to hear the effects), then clicking on the name of the first plugin in the list at the top of the window, and finally checking the check box next to the words Enable plugin. Many plugins allow you to configure them, so if the plugin you have selected and checked is configurable, you can also click the Configure button directly below the plugin list to see what you can do with it.

Once you have heard what the plugin you're trying out does for you, uncheck the Enable plugin checkbox, and then repeat the process for the next plugin. Click the OK button, leaving the Enable plugin checkbox checked, if you find one that sounds good to you.

6. Visualize Your Music

Another set of plugins available for XMMS provide some sort of visualization of the music being played. These visualizations, when enabled, appear in a separate window, as shown in Figure 5. Usually there are a few of these plugins included in every Linux distribution that comes with XMMS (Wouldn't be much point to having the plugins without XMMS, eh?). To find out what plugins there are on your system, and what they look like, play a lively music file of your choosing (for maximum visual effect), and then right-click anywhere in the main player or Equalizer windows. In the pop-up menu that appears, select Visualization > Visualization plugins. The XMMS Preferences window will then open to the Visualization Plugins tab.

XMMS visualization plugins
Figure 5. XMMS visualization plugins

That window shows a list of all the visualization plugins available on your system. To check each one of them out, click on the name of a plugin in the top pane, and then check the checkbox next to the words Enable plugin. The visualization window for that plugin will then appear. As is the case with the effects plugins, many visualization plugins also allow you configure the way they look and/or behave. If the plugin you have selected and checked is configurable, you can also click the Configure button directly below the plugin list to see what you can do with it.

Once you have seen enough of the plugin you're trying out, uncheck the Enable plugin checkbox to close the open plugin window, and then repeat the process for the next plugin. If you find one that you wouldn't mind looking at all the time, leave the checkbox checked for that plugin, and then click the OK button.

7. Change Your Skins

As I mentioned before, you can change the look of XMMS by changing its skin. Most distros include plenty of skins (you can see some examples in Figure 6), so you can probably try some out straight away. Right-click anywhere in the main player or Equalizer windows and then select Options > Skin Browser in the pop-up menu. The Skin Browser window will then appear with a list of all the skins installed in your system. To see what each one of the skins you have looks like, just click on it. The effects will take place immediately. Once you find a skin that strikes your fancy, simply click the Close button in the Skin Browser window.

XMMS skins
Figure 6. XMMS skins

8. Pick the Right Fonts

If you are a customization freak, you may want to change the fonts that XMMS uses in its player and Equalizer windows. To do this, all you have to do is right-right click anywhere in the main player or Equalizer windows, select Options > Preferences in the pop-up menu that appears, and then click the Fonts tab once the Preferences window opens. You can then click the top Browse button to open the Select "playlist" font window, from which you can choose the font, style, and size you want. Once you've done that, click OK to close that font selection window, and then OK in the Preferences window. To change the font settings for the main player window, click the bottom Browse button, and follow the same simple procedure.

If you deal with songs or sound files with titles that have letters not normally used in English, such as å, æ, œ, ß and so on, you may well find, depending on how XMMS was originally configured for your distro, that such letters come out as something other than they should. For example, in Figure 7 in the next section, song number 6 in the playlist shows that the song "Nordic City" is by a group by the name of Bazar blÄ¥, when in fact, as you can see in Figure 3, it should show Bazar blå. If such things matter to you, you can easily change things in the Fonts tab of the XMMS Preferences window. Just click the two checkboxes you find there, and then click OK. That's all there is to it.

9. Download and Install Additonal Skins and Plugins

If you are not satisfied with the collection of skins and plugins that comes with your distro, you needn't worry; it is quite easy to download and install others. Additional skins (and plenty of them at that) are available from the XMMS skins and WinAmp skins sites. In the case of WinAmp skins, be sure to download only those that are listed as Classic, as only these are compatible with XMMS. All XMMS-compatible skins come as compressed files with .zip or .wsz file extensions. You don't need to extract these files, so you can save them directly to the .xmms/Skins in your home directory. Assuming you are using Mozilla as your web browser, you can find this "hidden" folder by right-clicking on the download link for the skin you want to download, selecting Save Link Target As in the pop-up menu, and checking the checkbox next to the words Show hidden files and directories in the Save As window that will appear.

You can also download additional effect and visualization plugins, though there are fewer of these. Many of those that are available come as easy to install RPM packages (for Red Hat Linux, Fedora, Mandrake, and other RPM-based systems), or as .deb packages for Debian-based systems. The majority, however, come as source tarballs that you will have to compile and install from the command terminal, though it is a very easy process for most of them. To go this last route, you will have to have the XMMS development libraries installed, but as most distros come with it, that should not prove to be a major obstacle. To have a look of what plugins are available, check out the XMMS site and click the appropriate links on the left side of the page.

One of my favorite plugins is XMMS CoverViewer (Figure 7), which automatically displays the cover of the album of any song you are playing. It is compatible with whatever skin you are using, it melds with the other XMMS modules onscreen, and, more interesting yet, it automatically downloads the cover for that album and stores it on your disk for future use. The newest version of the plugin is only available as a source tarball right now, so you might be reluctant to fiddle around with it, but if you are willing to get just a tad geeky for a moment or two, you can read my set of XMMS CoverViewer instructions. It's all really easy, actually, so fret not.

XMMS CoverViewer
Figure 7. XMMS CoverViewer

10. Find Further Resources

Despite the detail I've given in this guide, XMMS is, all in all, very easy to use. As with any application you are using, don't be afraid to experiment. Right-click here and there to see what pops up and try out things you didn't notice before. Part of the fun of using Linux, and XMMS, is exploration and discovery. You will find that things will become all too intuitive as time goes by. And best of all, you'll hear a lot of great music in the process.

If you do want to find out more about the ins and outs of XMMS, check out the resources available on the XMMS Support page, or if you have some specific questions you would like addressed, don't be afraid to ask them on the XMMS Forum, or on one of the many other online Linux forums, such as Just Linux.

Rickford Grant Rickford Grant, author of Linux for Non-Geeks, has been a computer operating system maniac for more than 20 years.

No Starch Press recently released (March 2004) Linux for Non-Geeks

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