The FreeBSD 'zine
March 2000 : MP3s

An Introduction to MP3
by Brett White <[email protected]>

What are they?

I'm sure that by now most of you out there have heard of the term 'mp3', but do you know what it means? Well to put it simply, mp3s are just another way of storing sound on your PC, but as you will see it has some rather large advantages over conventional sound file formats.

Almost everyone will know of the wav file format (the format used to store all the sound effects for Windows like that annoying error sound you get every few minutes because of another 'stable' application crashing). Due to the large size of these files (about 10MB/min) it was near impossible to store lengthy or large numbers of these files. So, by applying mpeg compression to the wav files mp3s (or MPEG layer 3) sound files are created with a compression of around 10:1. The method of compression exploits the properties of the human ear and produces CD quality sound allowing you to store nearly 11hrs of music on a normal CDR. Understandably so, this has caused some concern in the music business with the possibility of an artists whole life's work being able to packed onto one CD resulting in a large loss of revenue to the artist and the record company. But not all musicians are against the mp3 revolution. David Bowe's latest album is only available on his web site in mp3 format, downloadable at a price of course.

How do I get them?

Well, there are 2 main ways that you can get your hands on mp3s. You can either create the mp3s yourself or find them and download them from the web.

Creating them yourself

Probably the quickest way to get your mp3s is to create them yourself from your own music CDs (or other sound sources). To do this you first need to get the music off the CD and into wav format, this can be done using a 'ripping' program. Two of the programs that I have used in the past are cdda2wav (comes in the cdrecord port) and cdparanoia (you'll have to port and compile this one yourself). Once you have generated the wav files you will need to compress them into mp3 files using an mp3 compressor program such as bladeenc or mp3encoder. Personally I have found that the FreeBSD/Linux based encoder software introduces a high end clipping (difficult to detect, but once noticed becomes very annoying) in the resulting file. The best encoder to mind was a Windows based compressor called MP3 Compressor that is unfortunately no longer available on the web.

One thing to be careful of when compressing wavs into mp3s is the high CPU percentage required. On a newer system (PII/PIII) with a fair amount of RAM this is not too much of a problem, but on older systems this can render the system almost unusable during the compression.

Downloading them from the web

Due to the ability to convert music into smaller files without losing quality, mp3 archives have popped up all over the place on the web. The thing to be careful about if you choose to get your mp3s from the web is that you are not allowed to own any mp3s that you don't actually own on the original media (sort of like the situation with downloadable ROMs for Nintendo emulators).

But that aside, there are a few different way of getting your mp3s on the web:

  1. Download archives - these sites are usually an archive of links to mp3s that you can download for free from other sites all over the web. A lot of these do suffer from a large amount of 'broken links' though and can be frustrating to use.

  2. FTP servers - a lot of FTP servers use the 'upload before download' system where you have to upload a file that they want or don't have before they will let you download from them. These are pretty annoying as most of the files that you have will already exist on their server and hence it is hard to get access to downloading from them.

  3. Email swap - a fair number of people publish on their sites a list of mp3s that they own and mp3s that they want. This methodology is similar to that of the FTP servers, where you email them an mp3 that they want and in return they will email you your requested file. Can't say that I've ever used these as there is just a little too much trust required.

  4. Online music stores - these have started to take off recently and as you would guess, you have to actually pay to get the files that you want from the store... bummer!

  5. Napster - this funky application allows you to log into a community of users specifying that genre of music you are interested in. While you are logged in, others can see what mp3s you have and they can download directly from your machine (and visa versa). You can specify a maximum number of connections to your machine so as to not clobber your bandwidth too much.

How do I play them?

Once you have obtained your mp3s you will require an mp3 player. These come in two flavors, console based and X based. Two of the more popular console based mp3 players are amp and mpg123 (both ported to FreeBSD).

When it comes to X based players xamp and x11amp/xmms have been my favorites. xamp has the one advantage that it is just a graphical front end to amp so you don't end up having 2 players on your system for console and X. x11amp/xmms is my current choice as it is a clone of Winamp and has recently moved to support plugins as well as skins (to make it look pretty) and many different sound file formats.

For a greater list of available rippers, compressors and players see the Audio section of the FreeBSD ports archive.

Well, that pretty much covers all you will need to know to get your own MP3 library up and running... happy ripping! >:-)

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