There is a look of fear in the eyes of the music industry moguls. Once again the web has caused the ground to shift under the feet of business and the music industry has been too monolithic and slow moving to catch on. The fear in their eyes is caused by the MP3 sound format. MP3, which is short for MPEG Layer 3, is a digital audio format for quick-downloading files that sound almost as good as CDs. The music industry has been slow to establish a copyright protected downloadable format for music. Their fear is that downloading music will cause two fundamental changes. The first worry is increased piracy of music. The second is a major change in their business model. Their entire network of promotion and distribution will have to change. What becomes of music stores when music is delivered over the web? Why download the whole album? Why not just the hit songs? If a band can distribute its own music, why have the recording industry at all? Instead of responding to this strategic inflection point in their business by being proactive, they have responded with inactivity. Into this void the non-copyright protected MP3 format has moved.

MP3 is an outgrowth of the same standards body that brought us MPEG video. MP3 files are highly compressed compared to the original files recorded to CD. The typical compression ratio is somewhere around 1:10. This small size, a normal file is around 3-4 MB, is great for downloading even over relatively slow 33.6 kbps modems. The most important thing is that the sound quality is still comparable to CD. I know people that have gone out and bought a large hard drive and plugged their stereo into their sound card. Then they encode their entire CD collection to MP3 and have all their songs available at the click of a mouse. The best part is that you can mix songs any way you want and as long as you use it only for personal use it is still legal.

By this time you're probably wondering about the software used to do this. There are several steps. First the music needs to be "ripped" from the CD to your hard drive. Then it needs to be encoded to MP3. After that you'll need a player to play the music back. Fortunately a lot of people have been working on this and there are some nice integrated programs that do it all.

Ripping

CDs contain digital information. This digital information can play back from the CD or from your hard drive. However, you'll need a program to read the CD and store it on you hard drive as a WAV file. A good list of rippers can be found at C|Net Downloads. One of the top rippers is Audiograbber by Jackie Franck which can be found at C|Net. It allows you to edit the audio file including removing silence at the start and end of tracks and normalizing sound levels. It also will work directly with some Encoding programs. I personally prefer Music Match JukeBox, an all in one program that goes from ripping to playback. It allows you to go straight from CD to MP3 without cluttering up your hard drive with WAV files. On the Macintosh side the best ripper/encoder is MPecker Encoder.

Encoding

Now that you have a raw audio file saved in WAV format you're ready to convert to MP3 format. The top stand-alone encoder is MP3Enc. This command line program will take source files in WAV, AIFF, AIFF-C, WAV/RIFF and raw PCM and convert them to MP3. It also allows you to vary the bit-rate of encoding to produce files of even smaller size. Normal MP3 encoding is done at 128kbps, though 80kbps sounds good to me. Remember that audio quality will suffer at high compression levels. Again, I prefer Music Match JukeBox, as I don't like messing around with command line programs.

Player

The king of Windows MP3 players is WinAmp. WinAmp provides lots of options without getting in the way of doing simple playback. It is also extremely customizable and can import different "skins" which allow for custom changes to the look and feel of the interface. WinAMP automatically downloads the information about the CD from CDDB, an online database of albums and track titles. This saves you the effort of entering all the information about album names and track titles. On the Mac side be sure to check out MacAMP which supports all the same features as WinAMP. Music Match, also contains a playback program, as well as integrating with WinAMP.

The MP3 file format has done a lot to scare the record industry into changing their stance on downloadable music. The entry of portable MP3 playback devices such as Diamond's Rio player have also gone a long way to popularize the format to mainstream consumers. The grassroots effort that has grown up around MP3 will eventually drag music recording kicking and screaming into the Internet Age.