By Al Fasoldt
Copyright © 1997, The Syracuse Newspapers
A revolution is quietly upsetting the balance of computerized hi-fi sound.
Almost from out of nowhere, a new standard for digital audio is gaining a stronghold on the Internet and in millions of homes worldwide. The new method offers lifelike sound quality in a format that stores the audio in a fraction of the space required for standard digital audio files.
The new method is called MPEG Layer 3. It uses an advanced digital compression method to squeeze huge digital audio files by about 90 percent or more. This makes MPEG Layer 3 ideal for distributing hi-fi audio—selections from CDs, for example—across the World Wide Web.
MPEG Layer 3 is emerging as a rival for the current standard for Internet audio, a method called RealAudio. The advantage MPEG Layer 3 has is clear once you have heard the best that each system can produce: Whereas RealAudio's best quality is about as good as a distant FM radio signal, top-quality MPEG audio is indistinguishable from the sound of a CD.
What's more, MPEG Layer 3 recordings can be transferred to CDs using standard CD-ROM recorders, which cost as little as $300. I've created many CD audio disks using the MPEG method. They can only be played on computers equipped with MPEG decoders and good sound systems, but that's the only drawback of this new category of CD. Unlike standard audio CDs, which play for a maximum of about 75 minutes, MPEG Layer 3 CDs can hold seven or more hours of music.
Anyone with a modern PC or Macintosh can play MPEG Layer 3 (also called "MP3") audio, usually at no cost. Many of the players are free, and can be downloaded from sites on the Web. Adventurous audio fans can even make their own Layer 3 files by converting standard digital audio to MPEG format. Conversion software is usually free also.
MPEG players are available for PCs running Windows 95, for PowerMacs, for Unix computers and for Amigas, among others. Here are sites that have downloadable players for those computers:
Windows 95 PCs: My current favorite among many Windows 95 MPEG players is WinAmp. It's listed among other players at http://www.windows95.com/apps/sound-mpeg.html. To make sure you have the latest version, click on the link to the WinAmp home page. I strongly recommend that you start out with WinAmp if you haven't installed an MPEG player yet.
The standard software to create MPEG Layer 3 recordings is available from the inventors of the technique, at http://www.iis.fhg.de/departs/amm/layer3/.
I was not able to locate an MPEG Layer 3 player for the old version of Windows. A player called AMP (forerunner to WinAmp) is stored in an unusable form at the programmer's own site, and I could not find a usable (compiled) version.
PowerMacs: MacAmp is available from http://macamp.lh.net/. A link to another Mac player is at http://www.hitsquad.com/smm/edit/10000624.html.
Amigas: Go to http://www.terravista.pt/guincho/1139/amiga_mp3.html, a Portuguese site.
The standard software to create MPEG Layer 3 recordings is available from the inventors of the technique, at http://www.iis.fhg.de/departs/amm/layer3/. There are no actual Windows versions of the encoding software at this site—the software runs under DOS and is hardly easy to use—but a Windows 95 encoder is available from a site in the Netherlands, http://users.bart.nl/~soloh/. (Be patient; this is a slow site.)
MPEG Layer 3 recordings are available at hundreds of specialized Web sites and at countless thousands of ordinary Web sites where Layer 3 files are used for background music and other purposes.
A good starting point is the MPEG headquarters site at http://www.mpeg3.com/. A good independent site is in Australia called "Icon," at http://www.smh.com.au/icon/content/current/ . Choose the "Virtual Jukebox" link when you go there. An interesting site catering to Generation X is at http://www.eurodance.org/, and a site that searches for MPEG audio files is at http://www.lls.se/~holmen/mp3search.html.
Finally, sample MPEG Layer 3 recordings are posted on my own site. Choose this link for high-quality MPEG Layer 3 sample recordings from the Technofile Web site.