MP3 explained: a beginner's guide

MP3 has changed the way people listen to music on the Internet. It wasn't so long ago that the average pop song converted into a Wav file took hours to download on a 28.8Kbs modem connection and ate up around 50 megabytes of disc space. With the same song converted into an MP3 file, download time gets reduced dramatically to around one-tenth the original size while sounding just as good as before.


Consequently, music has become really popular on the Internet. While garage bands MP3 their demos, others are grabbing their favourite albums, converting them to MP3 and uploading them onto the Internet. This generally happens without the consent or knowledge of the artists or record companies. Call it what you will, but it's music piracy at the end of the day. MP3s get traded online, posted to newsgroups and uploaded to web servers simply because they generally lack any security features or digital watermarks to prevent mass distribution. And it's worthwile to emphasize that MP3 is not an illegal file format, but the unauthorized compression and distribution of copyright material is illegal. It's the content of a file which may breach copyright, not it's file type.

Despite opposition from certain elements of the music recording industry, MP3 is extremely popular as a file format. MP3 isn't much of a bandwidth choker, the sound quality is generally quite good and just about every major artist's music has been pirated and put online. It's no wonder that claim that MP3 is one of the most popular search terms, second only to sex.

What is MP3 and what does it stand for?

MP3 is a form of compression. It's an acronym which stands for Mpeg 1 Audio Layer 3.

How does MP3 work?

As a form of compression, MP3 is based on a psycho-acoustic model which recognizes that the human ear cannot hear all the audio frequencies on a recording. The human hearing range is between 20Hz to 20Khz and it is most sensitive between 2 to 4 KHz. When sound is compressed into an MP3 file, an attempt is made to get rid of the frequencies that can't be heard. As such, this is known as 'destructive' compression. After a file is compressed, the data that is eliminated in the creation of the MP3 cannot be replaced.

When encoding a file into MP3, a variety of compression levels can be set. For instance, an MP3 created with 128 Kbit compression will be of a greater quality and larger file size than that of a 56 Kbit compression. The more the compression level decreases, the lesser the sound quality. Ultimately, the benefits of MP3 compression mean that people can back up their music collection onto hard disc or burn their own music selections onto CDs which hold over 100 songs.

What's the best software for listening to MP3?

Before you download any software, you will want to have at least a Pentium 75, Mac PPC or a similar processor. Don't forget that you need a soundcard and speakers. When it comes to MP3 players, to each their own. However, Winamp is widely regarded as being the most popular MP3 player for Windows 95 users. It features a wide variety of plug-ins and can be customized to the user's requirements. Winamp can also be used to tune into SHOUTcast broadcasts. Check out the SHOUTcast article for more details on some of the coolest 'radio stations' run out of a bedroom. Macintosh users might want to try out MacAmp.You can explore the MPEG section for a variety of MP3-related programs across several operating systems.

Finally, if you're looking for some quality, legal MP3s head to's Top Forty

Geoff Nicholson

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