Digital Audio From the Cyber-Underground
Millions of consumers have dished out a couple of grand for a computer, lured by the promise of spectacular, eye-popping, ear-popping, interactive multimedia -- but the reality has been closer to Lost In Space than Star Wars. Sure, there are some pretty cool games, but a $200 Sony Play Station or Nintendo 64 easily blows away your $2,000 desktop computer for sizzling 3D graphics and lightning-fast game play. For computer savvy music fans, the PC revolution has been particularly disappointing. We've been told our computers will allow us to download whole CDs of music, bypassing and eventually maybe even eliminating major record labels and the local record store. Sure, you can probably play an audio CD in your CD-ROM, but to actually store, process, and play digital audio files from your hard drive takes a bunch of expensive software, a screamin' computer with as much memory as you can cram into it and hard drive space out the wazoo, right? Plus, sound files are so big, it would take forever to download them anyway. Digital computer audio has been strictly for the professional, just another unfulfilled techno-promise. Until now.Thanks to a new type of audio compression called MPEG Layer 3 Audio (MP3 for short), anyone with a decent computer and the right stuff (see side bar) can download, store, manipulate and play sound files of CD quality or better. Here's why: With current technology, one average song from a CD would take anywhere from 50 to 200 megs of hard drive space. The same song, compressed with MP3 technology, takes three to five megs of space. Translate that into download time from the Internet and you're talking 10-20 minutes as opposed to hours.Still not convinced this is exciting stuff? How about this: MP3 makes it possible to do everything you could do with a DAT (digital audio tape) recorder and more with your current home computer for a total outlay of about $50. (Ever priced a DAT recorder?) You can now run a line from your computer to your stereo. Next time you have that big party, you can program hours of music to play automatically. No more silent gaps, no more beer spilled on your CDs.Another exciting thing about MP3 is it gives the power back to the people who make the music instead of the trend peddlers. Got a great band with great songs but can't get a record deal? Put your songs on the Net as MP3 files, maybe charge a dime a song with one free as a demo. You can afford to sell your music cheap because you have no manufacturing, packaging, promotion, or distribution expenses. Creating a website can be much less hassle than dealing with any record company. No tour support, though.Even though it's a far superior form, MP3 is still relatively unknown. Search for "MP3" with a Yahoo search engine, and you only get 64 matches. Maybe it's because MP3 represents a threat to the power elite in the music biz, or maybe it's just the underground feel of trading music. Maybe it's that new European technologies take a while to catch on in the states. Still, as revolutionary as MP3 is, I'm surprised every media outlet in the country isn't giving it massive exposure. So far, it's been universally ignored by mainstream media.Okay, you think it sounds cool. What do you need to play MP3 files on your computer? First, check the system requirements to make sure you have what it takes.System Requirements to Play MP3 FilesPC Systems:*486/66 or better (math co-processor required)*8 megs of memory (16 recommended)*Windows 95*A sound card or on-board sound support*SpeakersMac Systems:*Any Power PC*Mac OS 7 or above*Sound support*SpeakersAdditional requirements to make MP3 files from CDs*At least 200 megs of free hard drive space*A 4X or better CD ROM drive*Software to copy songs from CD to your hard driveThe following instructions are for PCs running Windows 95. The first thing you need to do is download and install an MP3 player. This is the program that lets you play MP3 files on your computer. The best one I've found is WinPlay3, version 2.00. You can download a demo version of WinPlay3 for free from a website in Germany. Point your browser to http://www.iis.fhg.de/departs/amm/layer3/winplay3/index.html (or http://www.public.asu.edu/~master/mp3/players.htm to download from a U.S. site). The free trial version will only play the first 20 seconds of any song. To remove this limitation you must buy the software. The current price is about $40 U.S.To download WinPlay3, click on "free demo version" on the WinPlay3 Web site. Save the file, it's called wp200.exe, to a temporary directory or your desk top. This is a self-extracting Zip file, so all you have to do to begin installation is double-click on the file icon. When prompted, choose "Setup" and follow the on-screen instructions.The same folks who released WinPlay3 have a new version out for Macs. It's not as fancy as the Win95 version -- MacPlay is just a naked player, no frills or fancy interface, but it works. (Watch for more MP3 software to be released for Macs in the future.)To download MacPlay 3, point your browser tohttp://www.iis.fhg.de/departs/amm/layer3/macplay3/ and select "free demo version" or "MacPlay 3 0.99 Installer" (the links are the same). MacPlay installs like any other Mac software. Just follow the on-screen instructions.Now you've got the player, you've got it installed, you've registered it so it's fully functional, but you don't have any MP3 files to play. First, you should probably learn a little more about MP3, what it is and how it works. There is an excellent MP3 general information site at http://www.public.asu.edu/~master/mp3/. This site should answer most questions you may have about MP3. It will also tell you about cool accessories that are available for WinPlay3 that allow you to automate playback or make your own MP3 files from CDs.Another good site for MP3 accessories is the NONAGS software archive. They have a Texas-based mirror site at http://www.txk.com/nonags/main.html. Here you'll find several new MP3 players and a good selection of MP3 utilities. NONAGS is also a great source for all shareware and freeware programs -- every program is tested and rated. Plus, as the name implies, they only carry shareware and freeware without annoying registration nags or set evaluation periods. Before you drop bucks on new software, check NONAGS. Odds are you can find what you need for free.Now you're good to go, but you don't have any songs. This is the tricky part, for now. See, MP3 scares the pants off the recording industry. They freaked when DAT machines came out, allowing anyone to make CD-quality copies -- but they're going ballistic over MP3s. The industry delayed the U.S. introduction of DAT recorders by almost two years and when they were sold here they were equipped with a chip to prevent making a copy from a copy. (My advice is get it while it's hot. Or at least available.)Industry groups have recently forced several MP3 Internet archives, one here in Texas, to close down under the threat of lawsuits. Still, there are all sorts of MP3 files out there if you know where to look. A good place to start is the Usenet news group alt.binaries.sounds.mp3. On my last visit I found rare stuff from the Twenties, out of print bebop cuts, big band tunes, classical, and lots of recent releases being traded. If you're patient, you can find pretty much anything. And you can always make your own MP3s from CDs.So you've found and downloaded some groovy tunes. Now what? To play an MP3 file, just double-click on the file icon. The first time you do this, Win95 will ask you what program you want to open the file with. Look for Winplay3 on the list. If it's not on the list, hit "other" and browse to the location of Winplay3. Double-click on Winplay3.exe. (Make sure the "always open with this program" box is checked.) From now on, double clicking on any MP3 file will automatically start WinPlay3 and play the song.A quick legal note. The same laws that govern tape recording apply to MP3 files. This basically means you are entitled to make a copy of music you have bought for personal use only. Public domain stuff is fair game. You can do anything you want with music in the public domain but most songs will be protected by copyright laws. As with taping songs from the radio or making tapes for friends, use a little common sense and listen to your conscience.