My Guide to MP3 – Part 1

or A Podcast Primer for People Over Thirty

If you get frightened when you overhear conversations about iPods and MP3 and Podcasts you’re not alone. Portable music players have become so incredibly popular in such a short amount of time it’s easy to feel like we’ve been invaded.

But all is not lost, fellow Boomer. It is possible, even for the curmudgeonly, to understand and possibly enjoy the magic of tiny machines that store a huge amount of music. So shut off the turntable and set your cassettes aside for a moment and read on…

Killing Yourself to Live
Up until about twenty years ago most recorded noise involved mechanical devices to store the sound. Grooves on a record or patterns on a magnetic tape were the most common. The downside to these nostalgic music players is they all rely on physical contact. A needle follows a groove or tape is rolled past magnetic heads. Basically, to enjoy your music collection you must destroy it.

But suddenly the world went digital and now everything is stored as bits and bytes of data. That binary data (that means it’s really just zeros and ones) can still be stored on a magnetic tape, but unlike analog data it can also be stored on many other formats. The compact disk is the most common introduction most people had to digital music storage. And while the CD may appear similar to a vinyl record (they’re round and spin and sorta’ have grooves) the way they store and reproduce sound is very different. The music is bits and bytes on the surface and a laser reads that data using light. Presto… no more physical contact, no more worn out albums!

You might say the CD, by using light waves to read the music, was the first consumer music player that was “non- destructive.” So now we have a virtually indestructible format to play all our favorite tunes. What could possibly be better?

It Always Gets Better
Most portable music players have no moving parts. That’s one of the coolest things about this stuff. Shake it, throw it, bounce it all you want… nothing skips or jumps! If you’ve ever been jogging with a portable CD player you can probably appreciate this aspect.MP3s from Amazon.com
It’s Your Media

You’re probably set up to make MP3s (or the Microsoft equivalent) and didn’t even know it. If your Windows computer has a CD drive you’re ready to get started:

* Drop in your favorite music CD and open Windows Media Player (there’s a good chance that will happen automatically). If you need to open it manually look under Accessories | Entertainment.
* Now click on the File menu and select the item CDs and Devices. Click on “Rip Audio CD” to see a list of the songs. Tick the checkboxes beside the songs you want to convert and click Rip Music.
* Media Player will commence to compress and copy each selected track to you’re My Music folder. From there you can enjoy them from your computer (but without the disk, of course) or copy them to a portable player or e-mail them to a friend!

Notes (there are always notes):
The file created by default will be Windows Media Audio format or WMA.
Earlier versions of Windows Media Player have the menu labeled simply Copy From CD.

There’s another benefit of storing those bits and bytes in a digital format instead of bumps and waves required for the old analog stuff. Without going into way geeky stuff here’s the bottom line: digital audio can be copied or played over and over again without any loss of quality. Imagine the digital data starts out as 001011010110 and we copy it… it’s still 001011010110. So my first generation recording of Gruppo Sportivo’s Greatest Hits sounds exactly the same on my cousin’s twelfth generation dub. Now that might piss off a record company executive– but I call it revenge for all those worn out compact cassettes I bought in the Eighties!

But the best part of this revolution is the way digital information can be tweaked and tuned to cram more information into a smaller space. Just as computers have continued to outperform previous models, software engineers and programmers work on new ways to manage and store data. One way of storing audio and video data is a format known as MPEG.

MPEG is what geeks call a “codec” because it compresses and decompresses digital information. You may have seen video on your computer that was stored as an MPEG file. You’ve no doubt heard of MP3, which is simply the third variation of the MPEG codec. Guess they didn’t get it quite right the first time?

The prime directive for any codec is to squeeze a huge file as much as possible without screwing up the quality of the sound or image. Video on the Internet would not be possible without these codecs and the much smaller files they create. The MPEG codec is particularly good at this. In fact, it’s so good at it that MPEG-2 is used for the video on DVDs. It didn’t take long for some nerd to apply the same idea to the audio, and MPEG-3 was born.

“MP3, MP4… whatever it takes.”
Before anyone had heard of an MP3 player there were MP3 files. About 1995 someone noticed that a CD full of music required about 650 million bits of data to store. However, by compressing it with the MPEG-3 codec it suddenly became about 70 million bits and still sounded killer. “Killer!” someone exclaimed. So now instead of listening to a CD with only ten songs, we can burn a homemade CD that holds a hundred.

But burning CDs and changing disks is such a drag at parties. Plus you had to have a CD player that supported this new MP3 format or listen to them on a computer CD drive. Bummer, dude. Eventually these audio files (that’s code for copyrighted material) created using the MPEG-3 codec were shared with others (strictly for educational purposes I’m sure) over the Internet. That’s how that whole Napster thing happened, but that’s another story. More importantly….

This is where MP3 players come in.

To be continued

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