by Charlie White

Have you heard of mp3? Mp3 is the commonly-used name for the audio portion (layer 3) of the MPEG-1 standard, and it's quickly becoming an explosive, if not revolutionary force on the Internet, and by extension, sending shivers throughout the music industry. Join me on a tour of this new phenomenon -- one that has far-reaching implications for digital content creators of every stripe. Why should digital content creators take serious notice of this trend? Because where audio goes, video can't be far behind. Think about the evolution of digital audio, and then superimpose that over the development of digital video in general. Notice a pattern emerging here? Behind it by about a decade, digital video is following in digital audio's footsteps. As soon as bandwidth catches up, video files will be exchanged just as easily as audio files are moved around today. The implications here are vast. What if you could get an HDTV-quality copy of the movie Titanic in just a few minutes, over the Internet? What if a program you had produced could be instantly sent to the entire world in full high-definition quality? Think ten years ahead (or probably much sooner), and bandwidth will be such that these kind of transactions will be commonplace.

Honey, I Shrunk The WAV

Meanwhile, video-on-demand's precursor, mp3 audio files, are proliferating all over the world much to the chagrin of the record companies. Mp3 is the next technological step for audio -- using MPEG 1, music files can be compressed to about a tenth their original size. That means a three-minute WAV file that's normally about 30 MB shrinks down to a wisp of its former self after running through an mpeg compressor -- to only 3 MB. That's a big enough difference in size that, even given today's severe bandwidth limitations, actual songs are almost easy to upload and download across the far reaches of the Internet. Not only are the files easy to get, but they sound good. Damn good. Almost CD-good. Sure, they're not perfect, but close enough. And, if you know where to look, you can find almost every tune that's ever been recorded, free.

Figure 1: It's so easy to design these "skins,"
even my daughter did this one (well, with a little coaching).

Figure 2: Check out this great wooden design.

So Where Do I Look?

Not on the Web. The record companies have hired legions of sniffing surfers to root out sites that feature the, uh, how shall we put this, files without benefit of copyright. As soon as one site is set up, it's quickly torn down and gone. The sites that are left are nothing but a mess of porno banners and guessing games, a bizarre twist, but set up mainly by money-grubbing opportunists trying to grab cash from the click-through trade with porno merchants. No, the web is not the place to look.

Break out a copy of Agent 1.5 (or your favorite newsreader) and look on Usenet, in the newsgroup called alt.binaries.sounds.mp3. Wow! There they are, thousands upon thousands of songs, tunes, compositions, from every era, in every genre. There's Glenn Miller. Oh, and over there -- that's Snoop Doggy Dog. Here's Nat King Cole. And there's Van Halen. Who's that? Mozart? Next to the Butthole Surfers? Yep. First-run, newer-than-new CDs are posted in their entirety, sometimes even before they're officially released. And, those old favorites you listened to from the back seat of your Dad's car are there, too. It's a magnificent treasure trove of our musical heritage, all there for the taking.

And the record companies don't want you to know anything at all about it. That's because there's only one problem with this ... it's all illegal. You didn't pay for any of this music, did you? I didn't think so. So look, but don't touch ;) So the record companies, instead of embracing this new phenomenon as a new delivery mechanism for their products, are bending over backwards to snuff out this new technology. That's going to be awfully hard to do, though, given the magnitude of this groundswell of support for the new mp3 standard. >From here, it looks like the heyday of the record company's gouging listeners for $15-$17 for a music CD are over. Here's lots more about the politics and legality if this, if you're interested.

Roll Your Own

Or, you could forget about stealing music, and just convert your entire CD library over to mp3s, so you could play all your favorites, nonlinear-style, right from your computer. To do that, first you'll need what's affectionately called a CD-Ripper -- it makes an exact copy of the music data on a CD into a WAV file. The best app for that in the Windows 95 world is Audiograbber, but that won't work with Windows NT 4. For NT, use WINDAC 32. After you've ripped a track from the CD, then you'll need to compress it into MPEG. Many digital video content creators may already have the best mpeg software encoder, the XingMPEG Encoder 2.20. That'll work perfectly for crunching down mp3 files, too.

So now that we've gathered together all our favorite tunes, let's play them back. Get the best mp3 player of them all, Winamp, (or MacAmp, if the Mac is your stock in trade), and take a few of these babies out for a spin. Winamp is the best designed, and most well-received of all the players available. And, pick a player face that fits your own personal style -- there's quite a subculture of graphics developers springing up around the Winamp player, designing unique "skins" that easily replace the original face of the tiny player. With a just little tweaking in Photoshop, it's easy to do, and then, voila! You suddenly have your own personalized digital audio playback device. Heck, even my five-year old daughter has designed a few "skins" of her own!

Once you have the files in mp3 form, the fun begins. When it's time to sort, list and shuffle your hand-picked tunes, Winamp is at your service. This little player has a great and easy way to compose and edit song lists, complete with shuffle play. It's a hoot to put together five hours of your favorite tunes, and have your computer sift them around all night. Hook it up to your home stereo, and you have yourself the equivalent of a music butler.

Try This at Home

Another tremendous entertainment value is the plug-ins that are beginning to proliferate for Winamp. The best are the Lyrics plug-ins, and a number are available at the Winamp site. Plug in one of these, then go to a Web site that offers the lyrics to almost any song you've ever heard (I like this one from Switzerland). Then, with a little point-and-click musical fun, you teach Winamp where the lyrics happen in the song by just listening and following along with the lyrics, clicking at the beginning of each line. Then, play it that song again with the Lyrics plug-in activated, and there it is -- the lyrics are displayed, with each individual line highlit along with the music right there on your screen. It's instant Karaoke, and just about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on!

Figure 3: Teach Winamp your favorite song's lyrics! Start by copying the song's lyrics from a Web site, then paste them into Lyredit. Play back the song and click a button at the beginning of each line. A time is entered where that lyric should be highlighted for you. Sing along!

Figure 4: Here's how it looks when you play back your lyrics. You're able
to adjust typeface, sizes and colors, too.

If you haven't already, please check out these apps and play around with compressing some wav files yourself using mpeg. If nothing else, it's just lots of fun to see your files crunched down to a tenth their former size! And, if you're not familiar with mpeg and what it can do, this is a great introduction to its power and astounding quality. And, keep in mind: Whence goes audio, video shall soon follow!  

Charlie White, Executive Producer/Web Publisher Milwaukee Public Television
Columnist/Contributing Editor, Digital Studio magazine