Winamp visualizations were a big part of the early 2000s listening experience for many people. If you’d like to add them back into the mix to enjoy alongside streaming music services and more, we’re here to help.
A Brief History of Winamp Visualizations
If you’re a reader of a certain age, Winamp visualizations need no introduction, and you’re already here for that sweet, sweet nostalgia fix. But for those of you that opened this article out of general curiosity and not nostalgia, a brief review is in order.
Winamp was first released back in 1997 as a very simple freeware MP3 player for Windows—the name is a portmanteau of Windows and AMP, or “Advanced Multimedia Products,” the MP3 engine the app was built on. The first version, 0.20, wasn’t much to look at as it was an ultra-sleek affair, little much more than a compact toolbar used to load, start, and stop MP3 playback.
Where things got more interesting is with the release of Winamp 1.90 in early 1998. At that point, the simple little MP3 player had been redesigned to be a general-purpose audio player that, crucial to our discussion here, now supported plugins. Among the first plugins that shipped with the updated version were two input plugins and a music visualizer plugin.
That same year programmer Ryan Geiss created the eponymous Geiss plugin for Winamp. The liquid metal flow and waveform overlay, seen in the screenshot above, was among the various modes Geiss would play in and readily identifiable to fans of the plugin. We can say with confidence quite a few people—author included—listened to a lot of techno in the early 2000s with that as a visual backdrop.
The Geiss plugin was downloaded by millions of Winamp fans and proved to be so popular that Nullsoft, the company behind Winamp, hired Ryan to write even more music visualizer plugins, including a much more powerful followup to Geiss called Milkdrop.
The pictures we’ve included are certainly interesting to look at, but if a picture is worth a thousand words in the case of music visualizers, a video is worth even more. Below is a sample video we plucked off YouTube where a fan of the Milkdrop visualizer recorded the output while playing a progressive house playlist. We recommend setting the video quality to 1080p for the full effect.
Geiss, Milkdrop, and the other plugins released at the time were so much more than a simple bar visualizer or waveform display. The complexity of the visualizations and their pseudo-psychedelic patterns contributed to the popularity of the plugins. People loved to watch them and see what colorful output their favorite songs would produce.
In fact, the popularity of Winamp mirrored the rise in popularity of the MP3 format itself. By 2001 over 60 million people had downloaded Winamp, and millions of them were enjoying the fun visualizations that came with it. For a significant number of people, MP3s, Winamp, and Winamp visualizations were completely intertwined.
How to Use Winamp Music Visualizations With Any Source
With the history we just covered in mind, it’s no wonder that all these years later, people still have a soft spot for Geiss and other early Winamp music visualizers.
Fortunately, if you wish you could enjoy some of those classic Winamp visualizations alongside your modern music collection without resorting to rebuilding your Spotify playlist from a mish-mash of ripped MP3 files, you’re in luck.
By leveraging a hidden and lesser-known function in Winamp, we can pull in audio from external sources and pass it through the Winamp system—which means the audio visualizer plugins can process it and give us the colorful light show we crave.
Better yet, we’re not just limited to a specific streaming audio source or even internet-based audio sources at all. The method we’re about to outline will allow you to take any audio input your Windows computer can pull in and output it as a Winamp visualization. That includes music you play on Spotify or YouTube, any local audio files, and even the audio input from a microphone.
If you want the visualizer to react to not just the music at a party but the noise level and energy of the party itself, for example, you could run the visualizer off a microphone feed instead of the speaker feed. In short, if the audio is coming into, passing through, or produced by your Windows PC, Winamp can capture it and visualize it.
Let’s dig in with the start-to-finish list of steps to get your visualizer up and running.
Install Winamp and Plugins
We can’t exactly have a Winamp nostalgia party without Winamp, now can we? You can grab a copy directly from the source in one of two ways.
You can head over to the Winamp website, scroll down, and look for the download button among all the stuff on the page and click the download button—which is a bit of a hassle given the site’s laggy design—or you can hop right into the download directory here and grab the latest version.
Installation is straightforward, just run the installer. If you’re using Windows 10 or Windows 11, you don’t have to worry about Winamp setting file associations as how file associations are set changed with Windows 10. If you’re using Windows 8, Windows 7, or an earlier version of Windows, you may wish to uncheck all the requested file associations during the installation process.
By default, there are only two installed visualizer plugins, Advanced Visualization Studio (a collection of retro visualizations from the early days) and MilkDrop.
While MilkDrop offers a whole pile of neat visualizations, if you want to dip into the history of Winamp visualizations, you can download Geiss from Ryan Geiss’s website.
Additionally, if you poke around the internet, you’ll also find old archives of various Winamp plugins. We’re happy they’re archived for posterity, but because we are unable to inspect every plugin (and many of them are packaged as executable installers), we won’t be directly linking to them here for security reasons.
Enable and Test Stereo Mix
Once you have Winamp installed, you’ll be sitting dead in the water with this project unless you enable Stereo Mix.
Stereo Mix is a recording feature included in nearly all Windows soundcards that allows the user to combine all the audio inputs (both physical and virtual) on a given Windows machine into a single output as well as tap into that output to, say, record it or otherwise use it.
Before you proceed, we recommend you update the audio drivers for your soundcard either by downloading them directly from your PC or soundcard manufacturer. In some cases, the default driver installation performed by Windows doesn’t include the Stereo Mix functionality, and you’ll need the full driver set from the manufacturer to fix that.
With updated drivers, open the Windows Control Panel and navigate to Hardware and Sound > Sound > Manage Audio Devices.
In the Sound menu, select the “Recording” tab. Ensure that Stereo Mix is present and enabled—if you don’t see it at all, before doing any advanced troubleshooting right-click anywhere in the list and ensure “Show Disabled Devices” is checked.
If Stereo Mix is not enabled, right-click on it and select “Enable” from the context menu.
Now is a good time to test if Stereo Mix is functioning as expected. Load up literally any audio source on your computer—YouTube video, Spotify playlist, doesn’t matter. The little volume meter next to Stereo Mix should flicker up and down, indicating the Stereo Mix has access to the audio output of whatever you’re listening to.
If it doesn’t show any input, the most likely culprit is whatever you have set to default in the Playback tab of the same Sound menu is incorrect or Windows is just being fussy in a sort of ghost-in-the-machine way.
For example, the PC we tested this tutorial on has a 3.5mm line out on the back that feeds into a 2.1 channel speaker system and a 3.5mm line out on the case for headphones. Stereo Mix works fine with the motherboard line out on the back of the computer but not with the headphone jack on the front of the case. You may have to make similar adjustments.
Switch Winamp to Line Input
With the Stereo Mix enabled (and confirmed to be working), now it’s time to take advantage of a hidden Winamp feature.
Run Winamp. With the app open, right-click on the main window to access the context menu and select Play > URL. Alternatively, you can press Ctrl+L to access the same feature.
In the resulting pop-up window, we’re not going to enter a traditional website URL but instead enter the text
linein:// in the address box and click “Open.” The Winamp interface should indicate the “song” is
1. Line Input .
In addition to that, and this part is important, you should see activity in the simple bar-style visualizer under the playtime in the main window. If those little indicators aren’t jumping up and down to the beat, then Winamp isn’t actually getting audio input through the Stereo Mixer line input.
Remember, just because you can hear the music playing in your headphones or through your computer speakers doesn’t mean anything. The Stereo Mixer trick is tapping into the existing audio feed, not creating a new one.
But as long as you see the bar visualizer moving up and down, you can move on to the next step.
Enable Visualizer and Enjoy
All the pieces are in place, and it’s time to turn on the visualizer and enjoy old-school Winamp visuals like MilkDrop with new-school audio sources like Spotify.
Right-click on the main window again as we did in the previous step and select Visualization > Select Plugin… or press Ctrl+K to jump right to the menu.
Select a visualization plugin. If you haven’t downloaded Geiss 1.0 yet, we recommend just jumping into MilkDrop. If you have downloaded Geiss 1.0, it’s a really good one to start with. The visuals are simpler and more responsive (if there is no music coming through to Winamp, it will just fade to black, which makes it immediately apparent you need to troubleshoot something).
Either way, if you’ve come this far and double-checked the Stereo Mix output and Winamp bar visualizer in previous steps, whatever you fire up should work flawlessly.
Extra Winamp Visualization Tips and Tricks
One of the first things you might notice, especially when using one of the more sophisticated visualizers like MilkDrop, is there are an overwhelming number of visualizations.
While we’d encourage you just to kick back and play around with it for a bit just to see all the psychedelic fun it can throw at you, there are a few things you can do to tailor the experience.
Use Keyboard Shortcuts
When trying a new visualizer, always press F1 to see if there is a help menu. Most of them have keyboard shortcuts to help you navigate the experience. It’s common for there to be shortcuts to jump to the next visualization preset, return the previous one, or otherwise customize the experience.
If you’re using MilkDrop, for instance, you can press the + or – keys to rate a preset (and force it to play more or less in the future). You can also press Space to jump to the next preset or Backspace to return to the previous one. If you really like the current preset, you can press Scroll Lock to lock it for the duration of your play session.
Download Preset Packs
The popularity of Winamp and the really cool visualizers that are part of the Winamp experience, combined with the adoption of Winamp and those visualizations by DJs around the world, has led to some pretty neat collections of presets and customizations. You can browse through the Winamp MilkDrop Preset subforum to find all sorts of really neat ones.
One such notable collection is the Cream of the Crop collection from NestDrop. The collection is hand curated with presets pulled from the vast 50,000+ pool of MilkDrop presets created by fans over the years.
To use the presets, simply take the .milk files and dump them into the MilkDrop plugin folder. If you have a default Winamp installation, it’s located at
C:/Program Files (x86)/Winamp/Plugins/Milkdrop2/presets/.
When your start digging into presets, you can see how people drawn to curating music collections and elaborate playlists would also be drawn into curating preset collections.
But whether you become a preset wizard or just play around with Geiss and MilkDrop for old times’ sake, there is plenty of kaleidoscopic fun to be had.