The new MP3 format has the music companies in a tizzy.
"Since once I sat upon a promontory, And heard a mermaid on a dolphin's back Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath, That the rude sea grew civil at her song, And certain stars shot madly from their spheres, To hear the sea-maid's music." - William Shakespeare, "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

Be it the powerful voice of Aretha Franklin, or the bubblegum pop of the Pet Shop Boys, music is, and always will be, an integral part of the human experience. Music can tame a lion, soothe a fevered brow, turn a party around, and [as happens frequently in our neighbourhood] incite reckless violence and damage to property when the neighbours decide they're in the mood for that shrill cacophony of sound known as the Spice Girls ;-)

And so, whatever our disagreements with the Bard, we have to admit that, for once, he hit the nail right on the head with the verse above. Now if only he quit being such an incurable romantic... :-)

If you're a student of history [or just really, really old], you'll remember the Swinging Sixties, complete with vinyl records and bell-bottoms. And if you survived the Eighties, you'll definitely be familiar with the Walkman, Sony's most important contribution to the evolution of the human race. And then there were CDs, silver platters that freed us from the hisses and pops of traditional analogue cassettes with their laser-sharp renditions of all the instruments in an orchestra.

But we're just a few months away from the new millennium - and it's time for a new hero.

Enter MPEG Audio Layer 3 aka MP3, technology that's revolutionizing the world of music with it's promise of delivering CD-quality audio at one-tenth the size of traditional CD audio files, while simultaneously making the friendly neighbourhood audio pirate one very, very happy dude!

So this week, we'll tell you a little bit about this new technology, and also point you to the best Web sites for MP3 news, information and software.

First, a quick history lesson:

The Layer 3 format was originally devised by the Fraunhofer IIS Institute in Germany, in collaboration with the University of Erlangen, as part of a 1987 project on perceptual coding techniques - essentially, algorithms that exploit the properties of the human ear. Very simplistically, these algorithms filter out and eliminate those parts of the audio signal inaudible to the human ear, and then compress the remainder of the signal [using a technique known as the Huffman procedure to removes redundancies] to create an audio file that sounds exactly like the original, but is about one-twelfth the size.

You can find more information on perceptual coding techniques and the IIS's work at their Web site http://www.iis.fhg.de

This audio format is also a part of the MPEG [Motion Picture Experts Group] standard, which defines the coding of moving pictures and audio. However, contrary to popular belief, MPEG-3 and Layer 3 are not the same thing - Layer 3 is only the audio part of the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards.

More information on the MPEG standard is available at http://www.mpeg.org

Why is it called Layer 3? Well, here's what the official document has to say:

"MPEG describes the compression of audio signals using high performance perceptual coding schemes. It specifies a family of three audio coding schemes, simply called Layer-1, Layer-2, and Layer-3. From Layer-1 to Layer-3, encoder complexity and performance are increasing."

Now while all this is very interesting, and comes in very useful when insomnia hits, it begs the important question: so what?

Well, if you've ever worked with audio files, you know a little bit about the WAV or WAVeform Audio format, developed by Micro$oft. WAV files may be recorded at a variety of different frequencies ranging from 8 KhZ (radio quality) to 44 KhZ (CD-audio quality), and they’re also considerably larger in size as compared to the other formats. For example, a three-minute CD-quality audio track could be as large as 50 MB :(

MP3, on the other hand, with it's perceptual-coding-and-compressing tomfoolery, can reduce this WAV file to as little as 3 MB - all without sacrificing any of the quality!

Pretty impressive, wot?

All you need to get started with this technology are an 'encoder' and a 'player'. If you plan to convert CD-audio tracks to MP3 format, you'll also need something called a 'CD ripper' - more on these below.

A 'CD ripper' is a piece of software that 'grabs' or 'rips' music tracks from an audio CD and saves them to your hard disk in WAV format, at a frequency and sampling rate specified by you. Once saved in WAV format, they are ready to be encoded into MP3 format.

That's where the 'encoder' comes in - it converts or 'encodes' the WAV file into the MP3 format, identified by the file extension .MP3, using the perceptual coding algorithms we've done our best to explain above. Once encoded, you'll notice a dramatic difference in the file size of the original and the encoded version - usually a reduction of at least 10%.

So you've got your encoded MP3 file - but how do you listen to it? That's where the third piece of the jigsaw comes in - a 'player' that decodes and plays back the encoded MP3 file. Since decoding an MP3 file requires substantial processing power, it's usually better to attempt it on a Pentium-class or better PC.

And that's it - everything you need to become a music pirate, in three easy steps! :-)

There are a whole bunch of Web sites out there devoted to keeping you up-to-date with MP3 news, music and software - here's our pick of the best:

http://www.iis.fhg.de

The place it all began - the official Web site of the Fraunhofer IIS Institute, with information and technical specifications on the MP3 format, FAQs, perceptual coding and more!

http://www.mpeg.org/MPEG/mp3.html

This page, on the official MPEG Web site contains technical resources related specifically to the MPEG Audio Layer 3 format.

http://www.mp3.com

Easily one of the most popular sites online, MP3.com allows you to catch up on the latest news from the MP3 world, search for MP3 tracks or choose from a variety of free music and find all the tools you need to start encoding your own MP3s, including rippers, players, encoders, skins, plug-ins and much more!

http://www.mp3now.com/

MP3now.com lets you search over 20 search engines for the track you're after, and also has it's own database of music and software.

http://www.mp3bench.com

Detailed comparisons of the different encoders and players, backed up by figures and benchmarks - just the thing for the bean-counter in you.

http://musicglobalnetwork.com/

This is the official site of The Battle of the Web Bands. Find hundreds of full-length songs in most music categories, all for free! But we should warn you that many of them will make you wish you were deaf ;-)

http://www.music4free.com/

The purpose of this site is to promote good bands and singers for free, and give people an opportunity to experience new music from up-and-coming artists. You never know - you might find the next Freddie Mercury here ;-)

http://www.winamp.com

IOHO, simply the best MP3 player around! WinAmp features a graphic equalizer, the ability to create playlists of different MP3 tracks and play them in random order, a spectrum analyzer and one of the coolest consoles around - all for free! And you can also tweak the interface by downloading a variety of so-called 'skins', which allow you to change the appearance of the player to resemble everything from a cellular phone to a fur-covered throw rug!

http://home8.swipnet.se/~w-82625/

Looking for a free encoder? Try BladeEnc, a freeware MP3 encoder that claims to be three times as fast as it's closest competitor!

http://www.audiograbber.com-us.net/

Wanna grab some music? Head on over to this site and pick your tool, then let 'er rip!

http://jukebox.musicmatch.com

MusicMatch Jukebox is integrated digital music management software that combines CD ripping, MP3 and Real Audio encoding, a music database, and a player in one compact package. Unfortunately, it ain't free :(

http://www.diamondmm.com/rio http://www.mpman.com http://www.yepp.co.kr

Want to get your hands dirty with the latest in portable MP3 technology? Try the Diamond Rio PMP30O, a portable MP3 music player that stores up to 60 minutes of digital-quality sound. It's smaller than an audio cassette, has no moving parts and is powered by a single AA battery for up to 12 hours of continuous music playback. And also check out it's competitors, the MP-Man and Samsung's Yepp.

Before you go crazy, though, there are a few things you should know about the MP3 format:

MP3 is simply an audio compression format, and as such, is not illegal by itself. However, if you use the technology to encode and distribute unlicensed music, or music to which you do not own the copyright, you are liable to both a prison term and other penalties, depending on the laws of your state.

In the same breath, we'll also tell you that MP3 has made it possible for small artists and bands to distribute their music to a much wider audience, and gain a global following using the Web. And there's also tremendous potential for the music companies - imagine paying a small fee and downloading your favourite artist's newest album off the Web on to your hard disk!

MP3 is also opening new avenues in the hardware field - just as Sony made it possible to carry your favourite audio tapes around with you, and listen to them anywhere, new portable MP3 players will make it possible to carry MP3 tunes around in your pocket and listen to them without having to depend on your PC.

Will this be the Walkman of the next century? Stay tuned...

Just BTW, this issue of The HITG Report was composed to the accompaniment of Paula Cole singing "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?"

Where indeed? ;-)

Till next time...stay healthy!

This article was first published on 06 Feb 1999.