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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 4


by Daniel Paquette / December 1, 1999

Version française...

The Internet is now popular thanks to electronic mail and to the opportunities for retrieving information. With the availability of faster computers in recent years, people have been turning to the Internet more and more frequently to retrieve music. There are currently several competing formats for this purpose, one of the most popular being MP3. . . But what is MP3?

To understand MP3, it is necessary to know that, to be transmitted successfully via computer, information must first be translated into a specific format. The choice of a compatible format allows the computer (with the help of software or an adapter) to present the information just as the author conceived it. For example, in the case of text, selecting the right format ensures that not only the words but also the punctuation, paragraph breaks and the shape of letters will appear identical to their original form.

The compact disc offers another example. In contrast with vinyl, which captures the forms of the sound waves, a CD is merely a sequence of 0's and 1's -- digital information -- that nevertheless successfully represents the waves.

Unlike Internet music software, however, any compact disc can be played by any consumer, because the various manufacturers have agreed on a standard format. When one wants to digitize a piece of music, one encounters the following dilemma: to increase sound quality is to increase the size of the file. One minute of CD-quality stereo music can occupy approximately 10 MB of memory, making downloading a rather long process. However, when MP3 is chosen as the format, the same minute occupies only approximately 1 MB, thanks to data compression.

Briefly, MPEG compression functions as follows: In a file, there are always repeating blocks of information. The MP3 software records such blocks only once, but also encodes the places where the blocks repeat. When decoded, the sequence of blocks is restored to its original presentation. While the compression of an audio or video file always occasions loss of quality (variable according to the software), with MP3 the loss is light and the results are very satisfactory.

MP3 is short for MPEG Audio layer 3. The MPEG, or Moving Pictures Experts Group, works jointly with the ISO (International Standards Organisation) and the IEC (International Electro-Technical Commission) to develop standards for video and audio coding. These standards are the ones used for the MP3-compressed files one can obtain from the Internet.

Then, to listen to these files, special software is needed (some versions are available free on the Net). Some manufacturers also offer MP3 players capable of storing approximately 1 hour of music and accepting memory cards that permit the listener to wander away from the computer with their favorite selections, just as they would with a portable CD-player. Prices begin at around $200 and exceed $1000 for models containing an integrated hard disk (the high-end models aren't Walkmans, of course). There are also models for use in the car.

Since MP3's files are stored (as opposed to physically engraved), they have the advantage of not skipping, unlike CDs. On the other hand, the MP3 system can also be viewed as less functional than conventional players due to the transfer time needed between formats -- whether it be from the Internet to the computer, CD to the computer, the computer to the player, or the computer to the memory card. Reloading is also mandatory when switching between player storage and memory cards -- a far cry from the instantaneity possible with cassettes and CDs. Finally, if one wants to preserve files acquired via MP3, they must ultimately be transferred to a tangible medium, whether it be a hard disk, a floppy, or self-manufactured compact disc.

All that said, MP3 can still be regarded as one of today's most effective systems of audio compression. It's possible that its current popularity may continue well into the future, but since things progress rapidly in the world of data processing and as there are already more effective systems, no one can predict what will actually happen. In my humble opinion, performers and composers have the most to gain from MP3s. Combined with the Internet, this technology offers a way of reaching an audience around the world that is unprecedented in history.

To learn more about MP3s, visit www.mp3.com.

[Translation: Tom Levitt]

Version française...

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