- Two years ago, MP3 was just another audio compression format.
Today, it's a Net phenomenon that's at the center of an enormous
- 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
- 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.
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?
- Space-Saving Tricks
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.
- Enter MP3
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
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
- 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.
- Piracy Protection
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.
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.
- Search Engines
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.
- MP3 Libraries
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.
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.
- Essential Extras
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
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.
- Easy Encoding
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
- 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.
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
- Karma Chameleon
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
- 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.
- Easy Installation
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
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 radioor 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.
- Inherent Trade-Off
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.)
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.
- Limited Memory
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.
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.
- Bandwidth Intensive
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
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
- 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
- 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.