A digital revolution

Dec 8, 1999 at 12:00 am

When "MP3" surpassed "sex" as the No. 1 search term on the web earlier this year, it established once and for all that the most controversial file format to date is permanently locked into the music/technology landscape. You can't get away from it. You'll be hearing the term at every gathering and be seeing it often on wish lists. If you're not yet on the inside track of the MP3 revolution, you need to be.

But if you still haven't figured out how to use your VCR, then MP3 probably isn't in your immediate future. (There's no need to read further.) But for those with a working knowledge of computers and the willingness to learn, MP3 can change the way you acquire and listen to music.

First, a little history: After a relatively quiet unveiling in the early '90s, the fledgling audio format soon became a fixation for Internet junkies looking to swap both legal and illegal recordings. Generally speaking, it was a well-known secret until the recording industry felt threatened and raised piracy and copyrighting issues. The controversies temporarily thwarted the growth of the technology but not its popularity. In fact MP3 has become so successful, it is largely regarded as the "format of the people."

Jumping to the present and oversimplyfying all the ruckus, it's safe to say that MP3 is now racing through green lights. Also seeing green are the electronics manufacturers racing MP3 players to market, hoping to capitalize on the hot demand by shoppers this holiday season.

Basically, if you're looking for a portable music player, there's (1) the cheap and easy old-school cassette deck with average sound quality, (2) the pricier CD player that sounds amazing but is too bulky and prone to skipping, and (3) the more expensive MP3 player, an all-digital device that yields skip-free, near-CD quality. (Though MP3's are touted as delivering CD-quality sound, I have yet to hear one that rivals a CD but I'm still looking.) Considering all the variables and with an eye toward the future, the user-friendly MP3 is a sound investment.

What exactly is MP3? MPEG 1, layer 3 (MP3) is simply a digital file format that allows for the storage and transfer of compressed audio in a limited amount of space. At a measly one megabyte (MB) per minute of audio, MP3 files are much smaller than a CD's, which take up 11 MB per minute – and that's what makes it the practical format for distributing music via the Internet.

What you give up to get that small file size is an almost negligible loss of sound quality – this is the beauty of MP3. When you convert a CD track (or .WAV file) to MP3, an encoder removes the frequencies inaudible to the human ear – as well as quieter sounds hiding underneath louder ones – resulting in a highly listenable MP3 file much smaller than its CD counterpart. The encoder settings are adjustable, so you can make MP3 files even smaller – at the sacrifice of sound quality. While MP3 files are relatively small, it still takes about an hour to download an average-sized song, depending on the speed of your modem.

Getting started: First off, you need access to a personal computer. Depending on what you are planning to do with MP3, your computer may or may not be up to the task. If you're just looking to play MP3 files on your computer (through headphones or PC speakers), you'll need a Windows 95/98-based machine running at least a Pentium 90 MHz with a sound card, a CD-ROM drive and a parallel port or universal serial bus (USB). (Although available, MP3 software for the Apple Macintosh has been slow in coming out and many portable players don't offer MAC support.) To grab MP3s from the 'Net, you need a modem (a 56K model is highly recommended) and an Internet connection.

Software: Believe it or not, MP3 players for your computer are readily available on the Internet for downloading – several of them for free. Nullsoft's Winamp, easily the most popular of the bunch, is a worthy player that's full of goodies, like custom-designing the control panel's look and feel. It has a familiar cassette-type interface and can play a variety of file formats. Winamp is not free. After a 14-day trial, Nullsoft requires a $10 registration fee.

Of the freebies, Night 55 Inc.'s Sonique is one of the best. It doesn't have as many features as Winamp, but it's fully functional.

If you are squeamish about downloading and installing software, books like John Hedtke's "MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution" ($27.95, Top Floor Publishing) might be what you are looking for. The 247-page overview introduces you to the MP3 format before showing you how to install MP3-player software, "rip" (more later) a CD, download MP3s and build a digital jukebox. "MP3 and the Digital Music Revolution" also gives you the skinny on several portables as well as addresses for hundreds of resourceful websites, FTP sites and newsgroups. The book even comes with a CD-ROM full of software (including Winamp) and over 10 hours of MP3s.

Finding MP3 files: Do a web search for MP3 and more sites that you can count will pop up. MP3.com (mp3.com) – the current king of MP3 sites – is highly recommended and packed with hundreds of thousands of song titles. Rolling Stone has an MP3 site worth browsing. Both are excellent places to build up your collection.

Let her rip: Not all MP3 files are downloaded; you can make your own by "ripping" or copying a CD to a computer, but you need at least a Pentium 133 MHz. (Legally it must be your CD and for your personal use only.) Ripping is as easy as dropping a CD into the CD-ROM drive and cuing software, such as AudioCatalyst. In addition to ripping, this top-flight program also acts as an encoder, which you also need to complete the process. Free CD-ripping software is available, such as the no-frills Cdex.

OK, now that you've successfully filled your PC with MP3s, how do you take them with you? An MP3-compatible portable player – like RCA's Lyra ($200-$250; pictured).

What to look out for: To ensure you don't get stuck with a portable player that isn't future smart, make sure that the unit is software upgradable. This way, if a new file format emerges – and they will – you're just a download away from the next big thing.

Find out if the portable you're considering uses a parallel port or USB connector. If you are going with parallel port, make sure that the player uses a cable with a pass-through that allows the printer and the MP3 player to be hooked up to the computer at the same time. Other-wise, you might have to unhook your printer every time you transfer MP3s, a drawback of early models.

The big question: How much music do you want to carry around with you? Most MP3 portable players are equipped with the standard 32 MB of memory – enough storage for a half-hour of music. I'd recommend spending the extra cash for the 64 MB model, which provides space for more than an hour's worth of tunes.

Another consideration is the type of memory used by the portable. The Lyra uses CompactFlash cards to store MP3s – similar to tiny video-game cartridges. In comparison, the Diamond Multimedia RIO 500 ($269) has 64 MB of built-in memory in addition to a SmartMedia slot – a nice touch. Consider a player that uses CompactFlash cards over SmartMedia cards because they are cheaper and will soon double in storage size.

As far as the digital revolution goes, the MP3 takeover is underway. Is it the next step in the evolution that saw vinyl give way to cassettes and then CD? Or will MP3 go the way of the 8-track? For now, I'm putting MP3 on my Christmas list, right next to DVD. Mark Padgett is the music editor at Florida's Orlando Weely. E-mail [email protected].Weekly, Metro Times' sister