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MPEG Audio Layer III
A.K.A. MP3; A Beginners Guide

Dale Swafford writes a monthly column for the PC Alamode on advances in CD Burning and is the instructor for the CD Recording / Burning Class. 


Ever wonder what all the controversy is about concerning MP3? If you’re like me, of the nerdish persuasion, you have to admire a gaggle of pimply faced young geeks striking fear in the hearts of the billion dollar entertainment and advertising industries. Have we seen this before? You bet! Remember when the boomers took on the government, and all power institutions, over Vietnam? Well, the Y or right-now generation saw a greedy, money grubbing music institution, completely out of control, and used computer technology and the Internet to make their music available free to everyone. Join me while we ponder one of life’s ironies?

Back in the early days of the Internet (before broadband), sharing music wav files over the net was not very practical. A wav file requires about ten megabytes per minute of music playing time. A real pain to send or download on a modem. We’re talkin’ over an hour for one song. So, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany went to work on a new compression format to strip away all the not-absolutely-necessary bits (called encoding) of the 1,411 kilobits per second (one X or the speed CD quality music is played), to a more reasonable 10 to 1 compression for 128 Kbps (the most popular bit rate). I prefer 192 Kbps myself. By using common audio tricks they make MP3 sound “almost” as good as the original wav file in a tenth of the size. Most encoders offer a choice of encoding bit rates from 96 up to 320 Kbps. Some, like the free Lame encoder/decoder (codec), also have an adjustable, variable encoding bit rate. As you probably guessed, the higher the encoding bit rate, the larger the resulting MP3 file. The sound is closer to the original CD quality sound. Encoding a CD music track, in geek-speak, is called ripping. Most MP3 files available on the net are extracted from a CD using DAE (Digital Audio Extraction) which activates copy protection, if present, distorting the sound quality before encoding the track to MP3. Some very ingenuous hackers figured out the inner workings of the Windows 9X CD file system and created a hack called the Alternate CD File System, which they made available free to all.  The alternate CDFS allows us to see wav files when we look at an audio CD with Windows Explorer. That allows encoding directly from the wav files in the music CD. This results in a cleaner rip. With MP3, we end up with a smaller file more suitable for downloading over the Web.

Now, if only a system could be available so anyone could go on-line to a server, that everyone could use, to leave a listing of all the popular music tracks they wish to share and have available for free download. Sounds like a job for Napster. No music, just listings of music available and Internet addresses available for the download. This P2P (Peer-to-Peer) MP3 music file sharing started a feeding frenzy. For the first time in history, unlimited music was available free, simply by searching Napster for the links to the tunes you wanted to download. Hard drives were being filled with MP3 files of unknown quality with less fidelity than a good FM radio station. They do sound good on those mickey mouse headsets and cheap to middle quality computer speakers. Must be a generational thing. And MP3s, can only be played on MP3 players that are expensive. For dedicated players, the MP3 files must be down-loaded from a computer. Or, if you have a CD player that will also play MP3 CDs, a regular CD player will not play MP3s, you have to burn an MP3 CD. Another option is to decode the MP3 back to a wav file and burn an audio CD, though I don’t recommend it. The resulting wav file sounds really crappy. Once you encode a wav file, most of that data is gone forever. As you probably know, the entertainment industry legal goons have destroyed Napster and are working on Kazaa and most of the other P2P wanabes. It was some kinda ride. Sure, there’s still some free music on the Web, mostly from foreign sites. Check it out at mp3.com and gnutellanews.com for latest happenings. Now, you need a good audio search bot like MP3 Wolf v2.0 for 31 day free download at trellian.com.  One of the popular MP3 jukeboxes like MusicMatch7, WinAmp3, Sonique, etc., most available at bestdownload.com are good at ripping, but not at searching the Web. The real advantage of the jukebox is it makes playlists (a list of all the MP3 tracks in the order you want them played). May not seem so important, but remember, you are going to have around 200 music tracks on that MP3 CD, or even thousands on a big hard drive. The MP3 jukeboxes will rip from CDs or your hard drive, encode/decode, modify ID3 headers, make playlists, play the playlists, and let you group similar MP3s tracks by genre.

Ripping
Any wav file can be encoded to MP3. If you are not using a jukebox, It is a good idea to assemble wav files in a work folder before encoding so you can run filters and normalize the volume levels. Few things are more annoying than having to adjust the volume level on every individual music track. MP3 file editors are rare indeed. If you do it on-the-fly, the burn will take forever. I prefer to keep as much music quality as possible. The Alternate CD File System will show the CD quality (stereo, 16 bit, 44.1 KHz) cda tracks as wav files. I prefer to encode using the free Win32Lame, a Lame encoder that uses a Windows type interface. I use 192 Kbps with a VBR (Variable Bit Rate) encode. This makes a medium sized MP3 file, near CD quality sound, with the VRB concentrating the higher bit rate on the more difficult portions of music. My portable CD/MP3 player can’t read 192 Kbps, so I have to encode at 160 Kbps to burn to CDs for this player, a bit of a pain, but do-able with a playlist. Read the manual on your MP3 player to determine the bit rates it can play. When you have grouped all the MP3 files in a work folder, use EncSpot MP3 available at guerillasoft.com, to check all your MP3 files for quality and accuracy before burning to an MP3 CD. 

Burn an MP3 CD
I prefer to use Easy CD Creator5 Platinum MP3 burner software to burn an MP3 CD. It is simple to use and handles the large number of files with ease. It also will encode the wav files to MP3, but uses a constant bit rate Fraunhofer encoder. Nero will also encode your wav files, but after a few compressions, you have to send them some money for the encoder. Bummer! Most of the jukeboxes will encode the wav files and burn an MP3 CD. I get a lot of questions from folks that have burning problems with jukeboxes. Most problems are solved by reading the help files and manual, but some are bad design in the jukebox software.

Burning an audio CD from decoded MP3 files
I never encourage anyone to decode MP3 files to an audio CD. The quality is awful. You would have a better quality CD if you recorded the song using analog recording from an FM station. But, if you must, use either burner software that does MP3 encode/decode (Nero, Dart4, ECDC5 Platinum, etc), or an MP3 jukebox program such as MusicMatch, WinAmp, etc. It would be prudent to listen to all the 20 or so MP3 files for richness of quality and detail, and check them with EncSpot MP3 before burning the audio CD.

Analog recording to MP3
MP3 is the perfect format for archiving records and cassette tapes. You can store and play those old favorites on your hard drive. If you use analog recording software like Dart4, you can adjust the resolution of the recorded wav file. I use 22 K for vinyl records, mono or stereo depending on the source, and 8 or 16 bit depending on the condition to create a wav file on the hard disc. Run your cleanup, pop and noise reduction, and normalize filters on the wav files. Restoration software like Dart Pro 98, free demo at Dart, will really bring most of these old tunes in wav format back to life. You can play these very small wav files using the Dart4 software. Rip to an MP3 CD when you have enough to fill a CD.

Using a MusicMatch7 Jukebox
I’ve been getting free bundled copies of MusicMatch for years with other hardware and software. I would install it and try to use it, and promptly relegate it to the bit bucket. For this article, I decided to see how they were doing, so I downloaded the latest MusicMatch version 7.20. To say I am pleasantly surprised is an understatement. They have really come a long way. In the early years of the MP3 phenomenon, WinAmp was always the file swapper’s favorite. Now, WinAmp is hoping to play catchup in the soon to be released version 3. MusicMatch7 includes all the goodies from the MP3 candy store for an MP3 adventure including rip, filter, playlist, burn, print labels, and enjoy all the great benefits of a programable personal jukebox. It includes the variable bit rate Fraunhofer codec, and the new Thompson MP3 Pro codec. MP3 Pro is supposed to equal a 128 Kbps MP3 file’s music quality, with a 64 Kbps encoded file (a 20 : 1 compression). MP3Pro will only play on players that support MP3Pro. They also offer Xaudio, supposed to put life in MP3 files, but I haven’t tried that yet — it cost extra.

So I downloaded the Wolf and put it to work. I told it to look for Elvis’ In the Ghetto in wav or MP3 format. It started filling pages of MP3 files available for download. No Elvis, just scads of unknown groups with titles that would make a Teamster blush. When I set it to download an old favorite, nothing happened. I guess I’ll have to read the help files, and FAQs at the download site. Next, I tried to rip one of my oldies CDs to start a playlist to record from. First, I created a new folder to hold the new MP3 files. Then started MusicMatch7 and opened file convert. Inserted the CD in the CD drive. Since I have the Alternate CD file system installed, I drilled down to the stereo, 16 bit, 44.1 wav files on the CD and hi-lighted all the wav tracks. Set up for wav files in the source window, and set MP3 at 192 Kbps with the destination folder. Hit convert and about 8 minutes later, I had 22 new MP3 files. Opened Windows Explorer and renamed the new files to their song titles, and closed it. Clicked open in the playlist window, selected My Computer and went to the folder with the new MP3 files. The song titles appeared in the playlist window. Clicked save, and my playlist was started. Since at 192 Kbps the wav files are about 4 MB each (about 8 to 1 compression), all I need is about 8 or 9 more CDs to fill an MP3 CD. Is this fun or what? When I burn the MP3 CD, MusicMatch7 will normalize the volume level for the 200 or so music tracks as it burns. Piece of cake! A word of caution. Folks get anxious to burn that MP3 CD and have a tendency to grab MP3 files from everywhere. Most MP3 players, other than your computer, are real picky

about what they will play, so, be consistent! Listen to your files before you burn that CD. Quantity should never be your standard, always go for the best quality and you will be rewarded with years of listening pleasure.


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