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Behind the Files: History of MP3

by Gabriel Nijmeh

In just over a couple of years, the MP3 audio file format has caused a big stir and captured the minds and hard drives of millions of people worldwide.

MP3, short for Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III is a compression format that compresses audio files with only a small sacrifice in sound quality. MP3 files can be compressed at different rates, but the higher the compression, the lower the sound quality. A typical MP3 compression ratio of 10:1 is equal to about 1 MB for each minute of an MP3 song.

It all began in the mid-1980s, at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany, where work began on developing a high quality, low bit-rate audio format. In 1989, Fraunhofer was granted a patent for the MP3 compression format in Germany and a few years later it was submitted to the International Standards Organization (ISO), and integrated into the MPEG-1 specification. Frauenhofer also developed the first MP3 player in the early 1990s, which was the first attempt at developing an MP3 player. In 1997, a developer at Advanced Multimedia Products created the AMP MP3 Playback Engine, which is regarded as the first mainstream MP3 player to hit the Internet. Shortly after, a couple of creative university students took the Amp engine, added a user-friendly Windows interface and called it Winamp. The turning point was in 1998, when Winamp was offered to the public as a free music player, and thus began the MP3 craze.

As the MP3 craze mushroomed, it didn't take long for other developers to start creating a whole range of MP3 software. New MP3 encoders, CD rippers, and MP3 players were being released almost every week, and the MP3 movement continued to gain momentum.

By early 1999, the first peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing software application was released, one which shook the world overnight. Napster, the name engraved in Internet history was developed by nineteen year old university student, Shawn Fanning and his idea for Napster was to allow anyone with an Internet connection to search and download their favourite songs. By connecting people, Napster created an on-line community of music fans.

However, along came the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) which as a representative of the major record companies and owners of the sound recordings, has successfully battled Napster for copyright law infringement and an injunction was issued that effectively shut down Napster. The RIAA argument is that all the free downloading is in breach of copyright laws and therefore promotes audio piracy. As a result, file sharing impacts their ability to sell CDs and make a profit. Despite the legal problems that Napster continues to face and the fact that they are currently not operational, MP3 file swapping and has continued on, and for a number of reasons.

Why the massive MP3 movement?

The big reason MP3s have became the de-facto audio standard is that the original patent holders made it freely available for anyone to develop MP3 software. This open source model allowed early MP3 pioneers to develop MP3 software that accelerated the acceptance of the MP3 audio format.

MP3 being just one of several types digital audio formats is not necessarily the most efficient or of highest sound quality. Better compression technologies have existed for some time now, but the success of MP3 is due to the relatively open nature of the format. Companies such as Microsoft and Yamaha have developed proprietary formats, but have placed restrictions on how developers can utilize their technology. For example, Microsoft's Windows Media Audio (WMA) audio file format which they claim is a higher quality audio format at smaller file sizes is starting to gain more acceptance as it comes bundled as the standard audio format in Windows 98/2000/XP. Microsoft might be able to challenge the dominance of MP3s or at the very least offer a second, popular audio format choice.

All the downloading and swapping of MP3s has attracted the wrath of the RIAA because there are no digital copyright protection associated with MP3s, so millions of songs are freely shared everyday by millions of users. The files are small enough to be downloaded easily, or even sent to a friend as an email attachment.

Another thing that makes MP3s very exciting and compelling is that it is easy for people to become DJs by remixing their favorite songs. A lot of people have created their own compilation CDs where they take all their favorite songs, mixed them to their personal liking and burned them onto CD using their CD burner.

Webcasting or Internet radio has also become very popular allowing listeners to "stream" audio on their computers. Unlike downloaded MP3s, streamed MP3 files aren't stored on your hard drive, but are broadcast like traditional radio through your MP3 player. RealNetworks was one of the first to offer streamed audio software, which uses a proprietary format known as RealAudio. Microsoft allows offers their own proprietary streaming audio through their Windows Media Application. If you do a search for "Internet radio" or "webcasting", you will find hundreds of Internet radio stations offering every imaginable type of programming.

Legal Matters Concerning MP3s

Of course, as exciting as MP3s are, there are some legal matters that are being battled. MP3 itself is not an illegal audio format, but when people offer up MP3 versions of copyrighted material that is considered copyright infringement.

The Home Recording Act allows you to make copies of your music CDs for personal use but by law, you are not allowed to distribute or share these files with friends or family if they do not own a copy of the CD.

The debate rages on as to whether or not MP3 and P2P file sharing programs are good for the music industry. MP3 proponents believe that MP3s help promote music and musicians by getting the music heard far and wide. On the other hand, MP3 critics argue that free music will kill the music industry and the artists who depend on it. Essentially, it is a battle for control of music distribution. Artists can now bypass record labels and distribute their music very easily and effectively.

In my opinion, a balanced and compromised solution should benefit artists and music labels. There is no doubt that artists and musicians should be compensated for their efforts. Yet, a lot of new and upcoming bands distribute free MP3s as way to get their music heard. As the buzz and excitement builds around the band, people are more inclined to support the bands by buying their CDs and other merchandise. Ultimately, bands and music labels probably don't want to bite the hand that feeds them.

Where do people find MP3s

By now you are probably asking, "Where can I get find MP3s?"

This is where Napster started it all and since then so many other P2P file sharing networks such as Gnutella, Bearshare, Limewire, iMesh have followed. These are free software downloads which enable users to search for songs by searching the hard drives of thousands of users who are online. File sharing programs come and go. Some reach critical mass while others eventually fizzle out due to lack of developer support or user interest. Up to now, there has been difficulty in stopping file sharing because of the decentralized nature of these P2P networks. Zeropaid.com is an excellent P2P portal that is up-to-date on all the happenings in this area. Sites like MP3.com allows you to download MP3s from artists whom have agreed to share their music for free. MP3.com was the first site to offer this service on a large scale, but many other sites have come on the scene, offering more various style of music and services.

MP3 Tools - Software required

You now want to listen to your MP3s that are quickly filling up your hard drive, and that's where an MP3 player comes in. Since no licensing fees are required to develop MP3 players, many are available as free downloads. Popular players include Winamp and Sonique. An MP3 player works by converting your MP3 audio file back to a standard audio format and sends them to your computer's sound card, which outputs them to headphones or speakers. If you want to play your MP3s on your car or home stereo, you will have to burn your MP3s onto CD using your CD-R drive. What happens during the burning process is that your MP3 files are first converted into a wave (.wav) file and then burned on CD. In the past, you would have to manually convert (decode) each MP3 into wave before burning. But, MP3 CD burning software has integrated all of this into one process making it so much easier for users. Almost all CD burning software does this and a good example is Acoustica MP3 CD Burner, which is a very easy-to-use and reliable program.

MP3 Software Tools

You will also come across a few other MP3 audio tools that you may or many not need depending on what you are planning on doing. Let's take a look at CD rippers, MP3 encoders and decoders a bit more closely.

CD Rippers

One of the easiest ways to create MP3s is from your own CD collection. To do this, you'll need to use CD ripping software. A CD ripper extracts the data from a CD and converts it to a wave file, which is uncompressed and interchangeable audio data. Once audio data is in this format, it's a snap to create an MP3 file. When a ripper extracts CD tracks into wave files, you are looking at 40 to 50 MB per song. Now, with most new systems coming with 20 or 30 GB hard drives, space is not as big of an issue as it was in older systems. The speed of your CD-ROM drive determines the ripping speed of your CDs. Most CD-ROMs will do a fine job, and rip at speeds of 8 to 12X. At that speed, you can convert an entire CD to wave files in about 10 minutes.

MP3 Encoders

After extracting your audio CDs into wave file, you would use an MP3 encoder to convert (encode) your audio files into an MP3. This is where an MP3 encoder does the job. These applications take the sound data and compress it at a ratio that determines both its sound quality and size. MP3 To Wave Converter PLUS! is as easy a tool you can use to encode and decode your MP3 and WAV files. Some encoders come bundled with MP3 players, CD rippers and CD burners, so if the all-in-one software package interests you, please visit this link. These programs will rip and encode all at once, so you don't have to work with two separate programs to make an MP3 file.

An MP3 encoder takes sound data and strips out some of the frequencies that are in the outer range of what the human ear recognizes. Converting a song to an MP3 is a considered a destructive process, so you will lose some sound quality. Depending on the encoding software used, you can determine what the best encoding rate is for you depends. If you are converting spoken word audio you might not need the same sound quality as some of your favorite songs.

The majority of MP3 encoders offer constant bit-rate (CBR) encoding and/or variable bit rate (VBR) encoding. CBR allows you to choose between several encoding rates and the software will compress the file according to your specifications. For instance, the standard encoding rate is 128 kilobits per second, or 128 Kbps. (Take a look on your MP3 player where it is usually displayed as 128 when a song is being played.) In this case, the bitrate refers to the average number of bits that one second of sound data will require. Higher quality audio files mean larger file sizes. You can encode songs at 192 Kbps, or even 256 Kbps, which is considered CD quality.

The other encoding option that is available in many MP3 encoders is variable bit rate encoding which is a good way to maximize sound quality and file size at the same time. When a song is encoded using VBR, the program analyzes the file and works within a range such as 128 Kbps and 192 Kbps, to find the optimal encoding rate for each frame of sound. The end result is an MP3 file that is optimized for both size and sound quality. When playing your song in your MP3 player, you will notice the kbps number displayed quickly switching within that range.

MP3 Decoders

Another tool you might add to your MP3 software toolkit is an MP3 decoder. An MP3 decoder works by taking an MP3 audio file and decoding it into another format like wave (.wav). The reason some people choose to decode MP3s is if they want to edit or mix audio files, which has to be in a format like wave in order to do so. MP3 Audio Mixer is a good example of a program that lets you take wave files and edit and mix to your liking.

Heading into the future with MP3s

As we have seen many times over the years, technology trends come and go. However, MP3s have really captured the minds of music aficionados worldwide. With millions upon millions of MP3 audio files out there, and hundreds and maybe even thousands of MP3 related software that has been developed by software developers worldwide, there is no doubt that MP3s are here to stay.

Source: MP3-CDBurner.com


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