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High-Tech Times Article 031

A Song in Your Heart -- And Your Computer

Welcome back to the High-Tech Times. This month, Iím going to discuss the newest music phenomenon: MP3. No, this isnít a fab musical group, but rather one of the hottest topics on the Internet, and the second-most popular search term on Web search engines.

MPEG (Motion Picture Experts Group) is a set of standards for storing and compressing digital video and audio. MP3 is MPEG Audio Layer 3, which defines how CD-quality digital audio files are created and stored. If you pop over to Borders to buy the latest audio CD, what youíre actually getting is a standard CD-ROM that requires 11 MB of audio data for every minute of songs; thatís why you canít get more than an hour of songs on a CD, as the 680 MB of storage space is used up in around 61 minutes.
But MP3 files are built differently, requiring only 1 MB/minute, so a single song or track of 3-5 minutes can easily be downloaded using a 56K modem. This has resulted in thousands of MP3 Web sites, newsgroups, and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) sites across the Web, where you can find almost any song, old or new. How do these MP3 songs compare to a Borders audio CD?
MP3 files are based on psychoacoustics: the way the human brain perceives sound. Experiments show that not all of the sound we hear is perceived by the brain. MP3 files start with a standard WAV file, and strip out the parts that you wonít miss hearing. For example, most people canít hear sounds above 16 KHZ, so the MP3 encoder removes that part of the audio signal. Loud sounds will mask quieter sounds at or near the same frequency, so those are removed, too. This ďwhittlingĒ results in a file that sounds almost identical to the original WAV, but is dramatically smaller.
To play back an MP3 file, youíll need a Pentium-class computer with 32 MB RAM running Windows 95/98, a CD-ROM drive, a 16-bit sound board, and speakers or headphones. You also need a lot of hard-drive space to store MP3s - those 3-5 MB per song can fill a hard-drive fast! So budget a few GB on a separate partition that can be easily defragmented.
The most important piece of MP3 software is the player, which decodes an MP3 file and outputs the audio through your sound board to your speakers. Many players offer additional features like spectrum analyzers, equalizers, frequency displays, etc. A popular feature of some players is the ability to create your own user interfaces called skins or themes. Most players also have built-in playlist editors that let you create and save lists of songs to play. The most popular MP3 players are Winamp and Sonique. To create your own MP3 files, youíll need a ripper and an encoder. The ripper takes a song from the CD and converts it into a WAV file. The encoder takes the WAV file, strips out extraneous data, and converts it to an MP3. You can download these applications and many more at <http://www.mpegx.com/topmp3soft.html>.
Creating your own MP3 files is fairly simple, but a few rules should be followed. Itís wise to reboot just before you start ripping and encoding; this ensures you have the most free RAM available. And donít try to do anything else at the same time, either, as these are CPU-intensive processes. When you rip files from an audio CD, experiment to find the best sampling rate. Click the Options button and look at the defaults. A standard sampling rate for music is 128 Kb/sec, which works for most music, but Iíve found that increasing the rate to 160 Kb/sec gives me much better sounds quality - along with a 25 percent larger file, of course.
Conversely, if youíre recording audio that doesnít need high fidelity, you can decrease the sampling mode down to 80 Kb/sec, or so. This is adequate for spoken-word recordings (speeches, comedy, etc.) and most 78-rpm records. Youíll be astonished at how much sound you can squeeze into a megabyte! Oh, and be sure to delete the original ripped WAV files when youíre done with your MP3 encoding.
Portable MP3 players have become the rage this year. The first and best-known of these players is the Diamond Rio, with 32 MB of on-board RAM for around $179, and there are several dozen new models with amazing features arriving every month. The Creative Labs Nomad 64 has, for example, 64 MB of RAM, an FM radio, and a digital recorder, all in a hand-sized package for around $250. Once you have encoded your MP3 files on your computer, itís easy to download them into a portable player for the most customized form of song playback.
With fast connections, you can also stream MP3s from almost any Web site.  In order to send an MP3 file to be played in real?time, youíll need a way to let the player know where the file is. The M3U and MP3URL filetypes were created for this purpose; M3Us are just like RAM files for RealAudio streaming, and are text files that contain the URL of one or more MP3 files. To make an M3U, create a simple text file in any text editor (NotePad is fine), and enter a URL such as <http://www.catii.com/stream/mymp3file.mp3> (note this isnít a working URL), and save it as mymp3file.m3u. That's it! You now can stream the file over a network.
A lot has been said about the legality of MP3 files. MP3 files arenít illegal just because theyíre MP3s, but there are many files that violate copyrights and are, therefore, not legal. If you created an MP3 of the latest hit CD and posted it to the Web without the ownerís permission, you would be guilty of a federal crime, a violation of the No Electronic Theft (NET) Act of 1997 which makes it a felony to create or distribute unauthorized digital music. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is the watchdog organization for this kind of abuse.
As a result of all this federal attention, most large MP3 sites distribute only legal and authorized MP3 files. These sites let you download a huge number of files from thousands of artists. If you like the music, you can buy the CD or the song, like shareware. If you want to load legal MP3s, stick with Web sites that have a reputation for authorized MP3 files; you canít always tell if a track is legal just by looking at it.
The most popular MP3 site is <www.mp3.com> which gets over a million hits  a day. MP3.com has a large collection of free files for downloading, as well as MP3 utilities. You should note that nearly all materials posted on newsgroups is illegal, but you can often locate specific songs by browsing groups like <alt.binaries.music.mp3> and <alt.binaries.sounds>. You can also use search engines like Lycos and AltaVista to locate songs using standard search criteria.
Some of the best things in life are free, and MP3 music is one of them. See you next month.
 

See you next month.