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Monday, May 14, 2001
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Have a song, a million songs

Once you have got a hang of the concept, nothing will be able to keep you away from MP3s, if you love music, that is. The fun and flexibility possible is amazing, says Kuljit Bains

AS I WRITE this on a PC, there is music playing in the background, and it is from a choice of a few hundred songs. It could well have been a few thousand, but for my lack of initiative, or maybe because I have been late in taking to it, just as so many others in India.

MP3: this is the phenomenon that makes it possible. It holds the promise to make the fantastic desire for a virtually infinite choice of music at your fingertips a reality. The West has already been stormed by the concept, while in India it is yet largely the computer-savvy kid that has gone in for it. It cannot be long before anyone who has access to a PC and the slightest affinity for music would fall for it.

The MP3 format is nothing but a compressed form of music files. It reduces the size of an audio file without compromising on the quality. With this system you could reduce a CD audio track to one-fifteenth of its original data quantity and save it on your hard disk or any other data storage device.

The technology is simple—in fact, it employs previously existing concepts for data compression, which we will discuss further on—but it is the possibilities that it opens up that is amazing and has brought about a virtual music revolution.

The simple fact that these music files are small and, thus, handy to do what ever you want to do with them is what is spreading this craze. You can download music from the Net; store it on your hard disk without really bothering about the space it takes up; share music through the Internet or swap it with your friends at no material cost; carry around huge quantities of music while you are on the go—the applications are limited only by your imagination. This wide spread of conveniently sharable files has lead to a build-up of large databases of music on the Web that can be searched and you can come upon that rare song you always wanted but couldn’t lay your hands on.

The technology

MP3 stands for MPEG audio Layer-3. This is a system to compress sound data and is part of a larger video data compression system developed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG).

Traditionally, sound has been stored in rather large files because it is analogue; it is converted to a digital format for CDs and this digital format is further compressed by MP3.

Using the MP3 compression technology you can reduce a 30-megabyte (MB) CD-quality song to 3 MB, or even 2 MB. The quality of the sound is unharmed, at least not discernable enough for you to realise. Most of us are familiar with image formats like JPG or GIF, or even zip text files. These are all compressed data files that use certain compression algorithms. A similar concept has been used for MP3 files. A method called "perceptual noise shaping" is used. It is based on the knowledge that the human ear cannot register certain sounds. These sounds are there on CDs and take up a lot of space. MP3 gets rid of these sounds to begin with. The rest of the data is then compressed using previously known data-compression techniques.

This gives you a file that is one-tenth, or less, the original size, but the quality is as good as that of an audio CD.


How to go about it

To begin with, the system requirement is that you should have a multimedia PC, i.e., it should have a sound card and speakers. How do you know if you have a sound card? If you have speakers, you have a sound card, even though it may be on-board as part of your chipset. If you plan to build a collection of MP3 songs, you will need at least a 4 GB hard disk, though the standard fixture nowadays is 20 GB. So if you have bought a PC in the last two years, the chances are it is good enough.

The next obvious requirement is the MP3 files themselves and software to play them. As we know MP3 files are compressed, they need software to uncompress them before they can be played. You will need a CD drive to source your MP3 files or even simple audio tracks if you want to make your own MP3s. In case you want to store MP3 files on a CD, you will need a CD writer, too, but most people may not want that, or may get it done as a paid service in the marketplace.

Playing software

While there are plenty of good software available that play MP3 files for you on your PC, the most commonly used is Winamp. Most of these, including Winamp, have free versions that are good enough for all your needs and are downloadable from the Net within 10-20 minutes, though that may vary with the speed of your Internet connection. These software are also found regularly on the CDs that come along with computer magazines. You can always ask a friendly youngster to lend you one that has the requisite software.

Getting MP3s

Convert: While you may have a large number of audio CDs with music of your choice, or even borrow CDs from your friends, all that music is not stored in one database and is not conveniently searchable. Now MP3 allows you to have just that. You can convert music from regular audio CDs into MP3s files and then store them on your hard disk or a CD (could be up to 300 files per CD). The best part is that you don’t have to be a "techi;" anyone with basic knowledge can do it.

This process involves two stages— ripping (jargon for copying) an audio track and then converting it into an MP3 file. Both these jobs are performed efficiently by software available free on the Net, or even on computer magazine CDs. One of the most commonly used software is Audiograbber. It gives you a list of tracks that are there on the CD and you choose the one you want. The software then copies and converts the track into an MP3 file.

Music can also be taken from sources other than your CD drive. You can use a common music system—whether tape, CD or DVD—to get an audio output and give it to the line-in socket behind your PC (or even a microphone socket), using a special connector available commonly in electronics shops. When you play, you should be able to hear music on your PC speakers. This input can be detected and recorded by software like Audiograbber and then converted to MP3 format. You may need to adjust the mixer controls on the software. However, this procedure might need a bit of a hit and trial as you need to adjust the sound levels.

Such conversion will enable you to build a large searchable collection of music of your choice on the PC.

Download: While there are many sites that offer MP3 files for downloading, this has not become a very popular source for music in India, particularly when people are using their personal connections, as the speeds are not good. However, downloading may not be a bad idea late in the night or early in the morning, when the connections are good. Afterall, the main idea behind MP3 is that you can send it wherever you want or receive it from a friend, or even a stranger.

If you do go on the Net, the benefit is that you will have access to an extremely large database of songs, including Hindi and Punjabi. There are many sites for music that allow free or paid downloading of music files.

Another source of music on the Net—the more revolutionary one—is sites that make it possible for you to access music files on PCs of thousands of music lovers world over. The combined database of music thus becomes fantastically huge. At one time the number of files available could be in tens of millions. These have been made extremely easy to search by software companies and sites like Napster. Thousands of users are able to make the music files on their PCs available to each other directly, helped by a searchable index on the site. This system of exchanging files is called peer-to-peer file sharing. The relevant software can be downloaded from the site www.napster.com. There are other such sites too—like Gnutella, or OpenNap—that offer similar services and are gaining in popularity.

While all this sounds exciting, it has thrown up legal issues too. People are passing on to each other music that is copyrighted. This has not pleased music companies and they are taking to court companies that aid transfer of such music. While it is legal to have MP3 music, distributing that which is copyrighted is illegal. But to catch the public at large doing this is not easy.


As described earlier, MP3 is a compressed file that lacks some elements of the original sound. There is thus a difference between the original and the MP3, however imperceptible.

One factor that affects the quality is the source of the original track. While the best source is a CD, some people who are expert in the technique, can even convert music from cassettes or vinyl records, though that may not the best quality.

The more important factor for quality is the rate at which the recording is done, which is measured in kilobits per second (kbps). The software that converts lets you control this rate. However, the free versions of software that we get from the Net may not allow this control, though there default settings are good enough.

A rate of 128 kbps is considered CD quality, though lower rates of 64 kbps may also do. You can try a few times to suit your liking. The only thing is that the higher the rate, the bigger will be the file size.


This is the main convenience derived from the extremely small size of MP3 files as compared to simple audio tracks. All the fun also follows this as you can store a very large number of songs on your hard disk without any problem. For example, if you have a 20 GB drive, and want to use only half of it for music, you can still store up to 2,000 high-quality songs!

The other place where you can put your MP3s is CD. For this you’ll need a CD writer to record the MP3s from your PC to a writeable CD (CD-R). This would give you the freedom to carry a large choice of music while on the move. Each CD can hold up to 200 songs as compared to the 30 odd of a conventional audio CD.

What’s more, if you have a good connection, you can even treat the vast Internet base as your virtual music store and play online (directly) from music sites without downloading a file to your computer.

MP3 players

These are small portable devices that can store, decode and play MP3 files and you can listen to the music through headphones. The convenience allows you to listen to MP3 music while on the move and you are freed from your PC.

These players are almost the same as the common Walkman, just that they have solid-state memory (akin to RAM)—32 MB, upgradeable to 64 or 96 MB. Transfer of files from the PC to these devices takes place through the parallel or USB ports, though USB is better because of its data speed. Most devices come with the software that facilitates this transfer. These players also consume lesser batteries than the Walkman as there are no moving parts.

Despite the convenience and fun, MP3 players have not picked up in India, essentially because of the price. Depending on the features, an MP3 player could cost anywhere from Rs 10,000 to Rs 30,000. However, now a few conventional music systems have come in the local market that have MP3 players along with the usual CD and cassette players. These are only marginally more expensive than systems without the MP3 player.

Not to be beaten by the price, you can always take an output from your computer’s line-out, using a special cable with the required jacks, and give it to the amplifier of your home music system and let the PC play the MP3s. This may not give you the mobility, but you can enjoy the "blast" of big speakers instead of the smaller PC speakers. Caution: do not give the output directly to the big speakers, go only through the amplifier, or you may damage your sound card.

The fun

Once you have got a hang of the concept, nothing will be able to keep you away from MP3s, if you love music, that is. The fun and flexibility possible is amazing.

To begin with, you have a huge music base. You can share it with your friends and get music from them (you may want to keep the copyright laws in mind, though). Also you can search for a specific number on the Net.

The MP3 playing software that you use allows you to create "playlists," each of which can have songs of a particular kind. So for a party all you need is to connect your PC to your music system and start a playlist of dance music that will play on endlessly. Also, there are plug-ins available on the Net for your MP3 player that add fun to the experience. For example, one plug-in has a female character that dances in a separate window to the beat that is playing. There are also software that allow you to mix music like a DJ.

The mountains of cassettes and CDs that pile up in your house may have flustered you when you try and search for a particular one. This problem can be of past as you can manage and search your collection with a few clicks using MP3 management software, also available free on the Web. This huge database of yours is also much more secure than the conventional devices like cassettes. If you want, you can have a back-up on a few CDs, for that hard disk crash that you may have some day.

MP3 has also given power to the struggling singer or music artiste who wants people to check out his music. He can make MP3s of his number and put them up on a Web site for free downloading. This can also be done on sites like MP3.com and Napster among many others, the advantage being the large number of visitors they have and, thus, the exposure.

Though right now the peer-to-peer file-sharing software have caused more than a flutter in the music industry, it might lead to new business models for music distribution, in which the consumer is bound to be a gainer for he has the upper hand right now. Not only music, the file-sharing software that have come up for MP3 are now being developed further to make it possible to share other kinds of files too. A case of incidental benefits!

Whatever direction MP3 takes, music handling and distribution is never going to be the same again.