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The joys of MP3 music

November 1999

Some extraordinary news was reported recently: for the first time ever in the history of the Web search engines, "sex" was not the most frequent search term. It has been replaced by "MP3." This is progress.

By now many of you are probably into MP3, and I have to admit that I'm a bit behind the curve on this one. But if it's news to you, read on, and find out what makes MP3 so sexy.

MP3 is a way of digitizing music that creates a relatively small file size, resulting in a quantum leap in the ease of distribution on the Internet. Because MP3 players and encoders can be freely downloaded from the Internet, there's been a huge explosion in the digitization and dissemination of music.

The quality is nearly the same as a CD, and hundreds of thousands of files are now available on the Internet for downloading. Whatever your tastes, from rock to rap to classical to world music, it's all there. You simply download a free player, which is a small software application that resides on your computer. Then you may need to configure your browser to recognize the MP3 file type (instructions available online), and then you start downloading music files. You're ready to create as large a music collection as you want--for free.

Or if you already have a large music collection on CD, you can download a free encoder which allows you to play encode your CD as you play it on your CD-ROM drive. By the time it finishes playing, you've got it in MP3 format on your computer. Why would you want to do that? Some people find that it's an excellent way to store and organize their large CD collection. They prefer to have their favorite music all on one place in their computer rather than on various CDs, mixing and matching with their electronic jukebox to create a playlist of songs they like.

MP3 takes about one megabyte for each minute of playing time. Since, it's common for computers these days to have four gigabyte hard drives you could easily 30 hours of playing time or over 600 songs if you had a couple free gigabytes.

Admittedly, there's a lot of controversy surrounding MP3. For one thing, many people have ignored intellectual property rights and have illegally posted copyrighted music on the Internet. The big record companies are trying hard to stop this piracy.

But there is also a huge amount of legitimate music available. Many record labels will put a portion of the CD online, hoping to get you to buy the whole CD. Also, many recording artists are making their work available in an effort to build their reputation as well as to sell albums.

A good place to start is MP3.Com. This site has been around since the MP3 boom began and has long given useful information about the various players available and how to get set up. Lately, however, they've gone into partnership with Real Networks, so now most of their information is oriented toward downloading and setting up the free Real Player software. This is what I've been using, and it works well enough. The Real Player software also allows you to hear the music via streaming. That means that instead of taking 10 minutes to download a two-megabyte file using a 33.6 modem, you can click on the streaming link and the music will start playing immediately--but the quality won't be as good as when you download the file.

If you have a fast connection, then you're set. You can get high-quality streaming or fast downloads of songs. Your main limitation will be storage space.

There are a variety of free, shareware, and commercial players available, with "digital jukeboxes" becoming very popular. Two that are widely used are WinAmp for Windows and MacAmp for Macintosh. The Mac's QuickTime software (version 4) can also be used to play MP3 files. You can buy portable Walkman-type players that let you download 30-60 minutes of music from your computer. Since they use RAM cards, there are no moving parts--ideal for someone on the run.

MP3.Com has over 150,000 files available, and I was impressed with the variety of their classical music. They are careful not to offer pirated music. Lycos offers an MP3 search engine, which indexes half a million files. This is also a good introductory site.

So if you haven't yet explored the joys of MP3, a whole world of music awaits. Time to get your collection started.

© 1999 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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