What is MP3 and How can we use it?
Two years ago, MP3 was just another audio compression format. Today, it's a Net phenomenon that's at the center of an enormous controversy.
That's because MP3 makes it possible for people with an Internet connection to bypass record stores (and cashiers) and download CD-quality music by their favorite artists--for free. MP3 is great for DJs, music lovers and cheapskates, who can download funky tunes to their hearts' content without spending a dime; however, it's a nightmare for musicians and record companies, who can only watch helplessly as their profits drop into a digital black hole.
Now you know what all of the fuss is about. But what is MP3, exactly? Where can you find these oh-so-hot music files? How do you play them? And will you need to enter a witness protection program if you do?
If you're looking for answers to these and other pressing questions, you're in the right place. I have straightforward answers to ten of the most common questions about MP3, so that you too can become hip, with it, and best of all, the owner of a massive and (mostly free) music collection.
1. What Is MP3?
Life Before MP3
Since long before MP3 came onto the scene, PC users have been recording, downloading, and playing high-quality sound files using a format called WAV.
The trouble with WAV files, however, is their enormous size. A two-minute song recorded in CD-quality sound would eat up about 20MB of your hard drive in the WAV format; that means a ten-song CD would take up more than 200MB of space. Not only do WAV files fill your hard drive in a heartbeat, they also take forever to download. Who wants to wait around for two-plus hours to download a lousy two-minute song?
The sad file-size problem for music downloads has changed, thanks to the efforts of the Moving Picture Experts Group, a consortium that develops open standards for audio and video compression. Its most popular standard, MPEG, produces high-quality audio (and full-motion video) files in far smaller packages than those produced by WAV. MPEG filters out superfluous information from the original audio source, resulting in smaller audio files with no perceptible loss in quality. WAV, on the other hand, spends just as much data on superfluous noise as it does on the far more critical dynamic sounds, resulting in huge files.
Since the development of MPEG, engineers have been refining the standard to squeeze high-quality audio into ever smaller packages. MP3--short for MPEG 1 Audio Layer 3--is the latest of three progressively more advanced coding schemes, and it adds a number of advanced features to the original MPEG process. Among other features, Layer 3 (which was preceded by--you guessed it--Layer 1 and Layer 2) uses entropy encoding to reduce to a minimum the number of redundant sounds in an audio signal. Thanks to these features, the MP3 standard will take music from a CD and shrink it by a factor of 12, with no perceptible loss of quality.
Why All the Fuss?
It didn't take long for Net heads to take notice of MP3's high-quality sound, high compression, and low price (or, more often than not, no price). In fact, massive online MP3 music collections--most of which are pirated (and therefore free)--exist all over the Web.
2. Are MP3s Legal?
In short, the MP3 format itself is legal; it's what you do with it that may get you in trouble.
Copyright Laws Apply
Almost all of the songs recorded by your favorite music groups are copyrighted. That means the band or the music label that the band records under has the right to determine how and at what cost its songs are distributed. For instance, if David Bowie wants to give away his latest hit for free, it's yours for the taking. If, however, he decides to charge $10 for the song, and you own a copy but didn't pay for it, you're stealing. All the copyright laws that apply to vinyl records, tapes, and CDs also apply to MP3. Just because you're downloading an MP3 of "Changes" rather than copying it from your friend's CD doesn't mean you're not breaking the law.
Flaunting the Law
MP3s are so easy to make, trade, and find that many Netizens have chosen to flaunt copyright laws and dive head-first into a pool of free music. Web sites have sprouted up everywhere, offering pirated songs--and even entire albums--from every artist imaginable, all for free. Musicians and record labels regard the growing popularity of MP3 files with fear and anger, because every free download of a copyrighted song takes money out of their pockets.
Jail for MP3 Heads?
As for pirated MP3s, will you go to jail for downloading them? Probably not. Let's face it: the FBI has bigger fish to fry. Keep in mind, though, that what you are doing is stealing other people's intellectual property, not to mention their hard-earned cash. If you want to make MP3 versions of your own CD collection--for your own personal use, of course--that's perfectly legal, since you already paid for the CDs. But distributing, public/private performances for gain of MP3s to other people via a CD that you make yourself or via the Internet is crossing the line.
MP3 Lawsuits Abound
Just because the FBI is unlikely to nab you for downloading pirated MP3s, though, doesn't mean you can rest easy--especially if you plan to post said MP3s to your Web site and distribute them yourself. The Recording Industry Association of America, a group that represents major U.S. record companies, has filed lawsuits against Web site operators who have posted pirated MP3s on the Net; many of those facing legal action voluntarily shuttered their sites. The RIAA has settled its lawsuits and is currently negotiating a plan with the record labels for legal distribution MP3 music.
MP3 pirates may soon be facing a far greater foe than lawsuits, however. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI)--which is getting major support from the RIAA and roughly 110 companies--is charged with creating a technical framework for digital music to prevent pirating. The idea is to create a digital watermark for music released on CDs or on the Internet. A system for detecting the watermark would be added either to desktop software or to portable MP3 players. If the players detect any watermarked songs that have been illegally copied, they could be filtered out. However, there are still many technical and legal hurdles the SDMI needs to clear to make this technology a reality.
3. How Do I Find MP3 Files?
MP3 files are literally all over the Web; throw a virtual rock, and you'll probably hit one. Finding a particular song or an album by a specific artist in the mad jumble of MP3s, however, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. You can try a garden-variety search engine such as Yahoo or Snap; just type in the name of the song or artist you're looking for and add MP3 as a search term (example: Chuck D and MP3). Frustratingly, though, you're likely to scoop up plenty of Web pages that happen to have the words Chuck D and MP3 on them, without any MP3 files to speak of.
A better option is to try a dedicated MP3 search engine. Sites such as 2look4, FileQuest.com and Audiofind scour FTP sites all over the Net for MP3 files that match your search terms. You can also download a standalone MP3 search engine, such as MP3 Fiend, that will query multiple MP3 search sites simultaneously for the songs you're looking for. Both Web-based and desktop MP3 search engines will score you plenty of hits for both legal and pirated MP3 files; just remember that it's still illegal to download the copyrighted variety.
Another option is to check out an MP3 file directory, such as MP3.com, EMusic.com, or listen.com. These file libraries, which typically categorize songs by genre, are the best way to find legal MP3s. Most of the songs listed on these directories are by new artists hoping to get their music heard through the free MP3 format, or by big-name musicians who have licensed their songs for MP3 distribution, or else the songs are older ones that are no longer under copyright.
Most Popular Lists
If you're interested in checking out new artists, MP3.com also has a daily Top 40 chart that ranks the most popular songs at the site (click here and scroll down the page to see the list). The list includes lots of independent bands you probably haven't yet heard on the radio or seen on MTV.
4. How Do I Play MP3s?
To play MP3s, the first thing you need is a machine that can handle them. All that space-saving compression requires a lot of processor power and RAM, so we recommend that you have at least a Pentium or a Mac PowerPC processor, with 32MB of RAM or more. Anything less will most likely make your machine slow to a crawl when you play your favorite files.
Solid Hardware Is Key
On the hardware end, you'll need a 16-bit sound card (most PCs already have one installed) and speakers or a set of headphones. (A good speaker set with a subwoofer is your best bet.)
Dozens of MP3 Players
As for software, you'll need an MP3 player. Dozens of MP3 players are available for download, but only a few stand out from the crowd. Winamp, the most popular player and my choice pick as the best MP3 player on the market, sports a simple, compact interface that contains everything you need: a digital readout for track info, a cool but unobtrusive sound level display, and intuitive controls. Other popular players include Sonique, AudioCatalyst, MusicMatch Jukebox, and RealJukebox.
Whichever MP3 player you pick, make sure it comes with a playlist editor, which lets you create lists of songs that can be played in the order you wish. You should also look for a player that offers graphic equalizers, which let you tweak how the player actually sounds.
5. How Do I Make My Own MP3s?
So, you've got your favorite CD spinning in your CD-ROM drive (the one you bought and paid for, right?), but you want to store all that great music on your handy hard drive so that you can leave your CDs in the car or at home. How do you do it? All you need are a few simple tools.
Let 'Er Rip
You've probably heard your fellow Netizens chatting about CD rippers before, but maybe you've been afraid to ask what the heck they're talking about. (I don't blame you.) CD rippers are programs that extract--or rip--music tracks from a CD and save them onto your hard drive. There's a whole slew of CD rippers to chose from, but Audiograbber is our current favorite.
Encode the File
Once you've ripped the tracks to your hard drive, you'll need to convert them to the MP3 format--that is, unless you want 30MB WAV files clogging your hard drive. To turn these WAVs into MP3s, you need an MP3 encoder. Many CD rippers have MP3 encoders built in (such as MusicMatch Jukebox, another favorite program of mine), or you can download a separate encoder utility, such as MP3Enc.
So, how does it all work? Simple. If you're using MusicMatch, click the Record button to get a window with a list of the tracks on your CD. Choose the tracks you want to encode, and click Start. It should take just a few minutes to record the tracks. Once you've converted your CD tracks into MP3 format, you can listen to them just as you would any MP3. The process is somewhat similar if you've chosen to use separate rippers and encoders. A CD ripper such as Audiograbber will let you choose which tracks from your CD you want to grab; it will then save those tracks as WAV files on your hard drive. You can then use an encoder to turn the resulting WAV files into MP3s.
Avoid Analog Rippers
When selecting a ripper, steer clear of those that extract CD tracks in real time via your sound card. They use analog audio recording, which has a reputation for clicks, pops, and hisses; plus, they take an eternity to extract songs. Always use rippers that support digital audio extraction; they sound better and can work up to eight times faster. Keep in mind, though, that some older model CD-ROM drives don't support digital extraction; check your owner's manual to see if your CD-ROM supports this feature.
Keep It Legal
Remember, although it's perfectly legal for you to turn your CDs into MP3s, you can't play them for gain (do a show with them were you are paid), distribute them via the Web or on CDs without violating the law.
6. What Are Skins?
When your fellow MP3 heads turn to you and say, "Gimme skin!" they're not asking for high-fives. No, they're after something entirely different: a new look for their desktop MP3 players.
Skins are tiny files that let you change the appearance of your MP3 player's user interface. By far, the majority of skins are developed for Winamp, though other players are increasingly getting more skins.
New Look and Feel
Skins do much more than just change the color of your player's UI; they can actually change its entire look and feel. You can get skins that will make your player look like a slick car stereo, a pencil-and-paper sketch, or a space-age masterpiece. You can also find skins based on your favorite TV shows, sports teams, and movie stars.
Shop for a Skin
Want to find the right skin for you? Easy. If you have an MP3 player with support for skins, your best bet is to go to your player's home page. Nullsoft, the makers of Winamp, has a huge selection of skins. The skins are typically arranged by category; browse away and download your favorites.
Your MP3 player should come with instructions on how to install your new skins. For Winamp, choose Options from the main menu, then select Skin Browser; from there, you can find the skins you downloaded to your hard drive and select whichever one suits your fancy.
7. Why Do Some MP3 Files Sound Garbled?
First of all, an MP3's sound quality depends on your hardware. If you have a pair of puny speakers and a dime-store sound card, your MP3 files are going to sound pretty lame. However, if you have killer speakers, a subwoofer (for deep bass), and a 16-bit sound card, you should be in good shape.
More Bits, More Quality
As for the quality of the file itself, the MP3 standard was designed to
achieve high-quality sound at low bit rates. However, files recorded at higher
bit rates will always sound better than those at lower bit rates. For example, a
file recorded at 128 kbps will sound like a CD track, whereas a file recorded at
16 kbps will sound more like AM radio—or worse. Of course, there's always the
possibility that the source material for the MP3 was poor to begin with; for
instance, a period Louis Armstrong recording will sound old and scratchy
regardless of the MP3 bit rate. However, a garbled, monaural MP3 file of Alanis
Morrissette was most likely recorded at a low bit rate.
So, why would anyone ever record a low-bit-rate MP3 file if the quality is so bad, you ask? Because there's an inherent trade-off when it comes to MP3 bit rates: the higher the bit rate, the larger the file size. A 128-kbps MP3 file will be nearly ten times the size of a similar 16-kbps file (although a 128-kbps MP3 will still be considerably smaller than an equivalent WAV file). This really becomes a factor when it comes to streaming MP3 files. (Don't know what a streaming file is? Don't sweat it. I'll tackle that question soon enough.)
8. Can I Take MP3s on the Road?
Yes you can, thanks to the coolest handheld music device to come along since the Walkman. Portable MP3 players look just like a little personal radio, complete with headphones. Instead of playing cassettes, CDs, or FM radio, however, these little marvels play MP3 files stored in RAM.
Light As a Feather
Weighing in at only a few ounces, these battery-powered gadgets are simple to use. First, just download some MP3 files from the Web or rip some tracks off a CD. Once you're finished, transfer the files onto your portable MP3 player through your PC's parallel port. (Most portable MP3 players come bundled with a file manager that lets you drag and drop MP3s from your PC onto the player.) Detach the parallel cable, and you're ready to rock and roll.
Can you sense the impending catch? You're right, and here it is: most portable MP3 players come with only 32MB of onboard RAM. That means you're limited to just a handful of MP3s on your portable player at any given time. The key to overcoming your player's limited capacity is adjusting the bit rate of your MP3 files. For instance, you can fit about 35 minutes of music recorded at 128 kbps. If you bring your compression down a few notches to 80 kbps, you'll get 56 minutes, while 64 kbps (still reasonably good in terms of audio quality) gets you 70 minutes. Fortunately, there are some portable MP3 players on the market with 64MB of memory, and others come with memory-expansion slots.
9. What Are Streaming MP3 Files?
Streaming MP3 files offer listeners instant gratification. They let you play music files directly over the Web--right after you click an audio link--so you don't have to download the file in its entirety before playing it. Thanks to a technology called Shoutcast, anyone with Nullsoft's Winamp audio player, the proper plug-ins, and a Net connection can broadcast high-quality, MP3-encoded audio. From The Howard Stern Show to the Beastie Boys' radio station, Shoutcast streams are in no short supply on the Net. (Stay tuned for more about broadcasting music with Shoutcast.)
Many MP3 players, including popular choices such as Winamp and Sonique, support streaming audio. Finding streaming MP3 stations on your own, however, can be quite a chore. Fortunately, there's a clever tool that can help.
Tracking Shoutcast Servers
MP3Spy is a program that tracks every single Shoutcast server on the Net. Tuning in to these servers is simple. Just scroll through MP3Spy's genre list to find a style of programming you want to hear, click once to pull up a list of servers, and double-click to start listening. Just like spinning a radio dial, you can't know exactly what you'll get from a given server until you tune in. However, MP3Spy displays a range of information on each server. As you browse through lists of available broadcasts, you can see each station's name, how many people are listening to each station, and various data that will help you evaluate the reliability of listed servers.
One factor to keep in mind, however, is that streaming is bandwidth intensive, so if you're not using a T1 line or a cable modem, you should stick to Shoutcast servers that are broadcasting at about 24 kbps or less (MP3Spy will list the bit rate for each server in its list). If you have a 56k modem and you try to connect to a 128-kbps Shoutcast server, be prepared for a very stop-and-go listening experience.
10. How Do I Stream My Own MP3 Files Over the Web?
It's actually easier and cheaper than you might think to stream your own MP3 files over the Web. The only thing you'll have to pay for is your Internet connection. (Remember, however, that streaming another artist's music without their consent is illegal.)
Send Your Signal to Shoutcast
Here's how it all works. Using Winamp, you send either MP3 files or live content (with the help of a plug-in) to a Shoutcast server installed on your PC. That server then broadcasts to your listeners across the Net over TCP/IP. The server can also transmit information about your particular station to the Shoutcast server directory.
Tools of the Trade
To get started, you'll have to download and install Winamp, the Shoutcast DSP Plug-in for Winamp (which processes the output from Winamp before music is sent to the Shoutcast server), the Shoutcast Live Input Plug-in (which you'll need for those live broadcasts from your garage), and the Shoutcast server itself. Install Winamp and the Shoutcast Server first, then start with the plug-ins.
Check the Instructions
Setting up the Shoutcast server and broadcasting over the Net is relatively simple, considering the feat you're accomplishing. However, it will still be tricky if you're a novice. We strongly recommend checking out the detailed instructions on Nullsoft's Web site before you begin.
Original text: http://www.djsociety.org/MP3_1.htm