The FezGuys
We Will Serve No Algorithm Before Its Time
[ No. 18 - April 1998 ]

Things That Are New

Realaudio encoder 3.1 was recently released and it seems to sound better! Available on their website <>. Perhaps in a latent response to Microsoft's acquisition of V-Xtreme, Real Networks also announced the acquisition of Vivo Software, Inc. This is unlikely to have any effect on Real's audio quality, however RealSystem users may find in the near future it improves the visual image you send with your music.

Recently it was brought to our attention that a tutorial on the much-touted MP3 format would be useful. Why MP3? Well, it's the "People's Encoder." Unlike other proprietary formats (such as Dolby Laboratories' AC-3; the guts of Liquid Audio and RealAudio) MP3 is an authentic open standard. It's not licensed and owned by a privately held company. Anyone can use it.

The MP3 codec "sounds" better too. And, because it's an open standard, MP3 can be used, hacked and modified to perform in pretty much any Internet audio application. How can this be? I can have it for free and it's a superior product? Why don't I know about this? That's what we're here to find out.

The scientific name of the MP3 audio compression algorithm (codec) is: MPEG 1 (and 2), Layer III. MPEG stands for Moving Pictures Expert Group, a bunch of honest-to-God scientists under the joint direction of the International Standards Organization (ISO) and the International Electro-Technical Commission (IEC). The MPEG group is responsible for implementing standards for the coding of "moving" pictures and audio. MP3 was specifically designed for "good" quality audio compressed for transfer over lower bitrates (ie, phone lines). Layer II wouldn't compress below 32kbs and that meant 28.8kbs modems weren't going to be fast enough to actually stream realtime audio. Soundfiles were simply too big to fit through that little telephone connection. MP3's compression makes it possible to not only stream audio over a 28.8kbs line, but also provide near-CD quality at higher bitrates in a download-and-play environment. The real beauty of MP3 is that it's an approved industry standard available to anyone. A "for-profit" organization (say, Microsoft) can purchase the specifications from the standards commitee and create their own player and encoder with attendant features, or an individual (say, you!) can download any number of shareware applications and create their own streaming audio files on a personal website. This is what "open-standard" is all about.

MP3 Web Resources

There are resource sites dedicated to MP3 on the web. Here are a few we suggest you take a look at.

The "Original" MP3 Resource <>
The MPEG Audio Layer 3 Directory <>
MPEG Audio Consortium <>
Macromedia's SoundEdit16 <>
Audioactive's MP3 solution <>

Let's take a quick look at the current state of MP3 encoders. Fraunhofer Institute for Software and Systems Engineering, which created basic MP3 compression software, has forced the freeware applications which were using its software without permission to remove these unauthorized copies from the net. Windows users can, for a fee of around $200, purchase the Fraunhofer code and enable many of the freeware front-ends. They can also use another application, mpegEnc, to create higher-bitrate (for download-then-play) files. For information on the Fraunhofer code, email <>. Macintosh users who have a copy of SoundEdit16 (available for $419 at <>) can freely download and use the ShockWave Audio (SWA) export plug-in to easily create files at all bitrates. In this column, we're going to take you through the process to create a web-ready near-CD quality 112kbps MP3 file with mpegEnc. So let's download it and fire it up.


We're going to assume that, like us, you have access to a PC running Windows95/NT with a sound card (such as a Soundblaster). A 100MhZ Pentium or better with 32MB (or more) of memory is recommended, as slower computers may have you nodding off at the keyboard while it sluggishly encodes your music -- or worse, it just plain doesn't work. A great resource for Windows encoders is <>. MpegEnc is freeware and only takes a few minutes to download over a 28.8k modem connection. Unzip it, and make sure you can launch the extracted MPG.EXE application.


First, choose and queue up an audio excerpt of about 10 seconds to test with. Select a clip which is representative of the dynamic range and instrumentation. This way you'll be able to become comfortable with the encoding process, quickly trying out different encoding options and hearing the different results.

Most MP3 encoders don't encode in real time. You first must encode to a raw WAV or AIF file, and then use the encoder to compress that to MP3. This allows your computer to do its best while compressing, deciding which pieces of the music aren't needed. Real time encoding limits the quality of the final compressed file to how fast your computer can think -- something you want to avoid unless you have no alternative (such as live broadcasts).

Ok, make sure you've got you source (cassette, DAT, live, etc) plugged into your sound card's line input and set your levels. If possible, throw a compressor into the chain and get the highest level you can while avoiding peaks into the red danger zone. You can then use a program (we use CoolEdit95 <>) to create your WAV file. If you are encoding directly from a CD in your CDROM drive, mpegEnc allows you to bypass this step and compress directly!


Launch the encoder application and select the WAV file as your input file (or source). Choose the bitrate you'd like to compress your clip down to: we're using 112kbps. Make sure "Layer III" is selected in the "Compression Layer" option. Your resulting output file will be named file.mp3, where file.wav is your source. Click "Encode" and go make yourself a hot cup of coffee while it does its work. Macintosh SoundEdit16 users will choose the "SWA" option in the Xtras menu to set the desired bitrate and then select the "SWA File" option in the Export menu (under the "File" menu) to export it to an SWA/MP3 file.


You are publishing your work to the web and want your audience to have the best experience possible listening to it. We FezGuys always test our soundfiles before placing them on the web, and you should too! Choose a player, test your bouncing baby MP3 file, and recommend it on your web site along with your music. We're using WinAmp, available from <>. If you are Mac-based a version is available at <> (Power Mac only). Spend some time trying other players out there (check our MP3 Resources sidebar for where to find them) and compare features and ease-of-use yourself.


Just because it's an MPEG encoder doesn't mean that they all create compressed audio files of the same quality. The technical wizardry behind compressing the ones and zeroes of your music into fewer ones and zeroes is a complex art. Why pay money for an encoder when there are freeware versions available? A company's staff of well-paid geeks and scientists are going to create an encoder which not only creates a better sounding file, but also is quicker, and even comes with support if you have problems! Also evaluate whether it's worth a one-time investment which will result in an ongoing payback of spending time in the studio rather than drinking those cups of coffee staring at your screen as it compresses.


There is a running reputation amongst the music industry folks associating MP3 with pirate sites getting sued by organizations such as the RIAA. As it has been said, a tool is only as useful as s/he who wields it-- your task is to wield MP3 well, legally, and help dispell this association. The more people who apply MP3 in a productive useful way promoting their work in a legal way, the more accepted MP3 will become to the industry as a whole.

After spending last month answering our questions backlog, we're taking this month off! Send us your questions/comments to us at <> or join in our community areas at <> Don't forget to share your successfully encoded MP3 music with the world!

We do the hokey pokey when you get involved in the online community. Visit us at: <>.



About the authors:

Jon Luini is a working technophile, a musician (bass player/singer) with full-blown facility and extensive experience on the Web and no free time. He is a co-founder of IUMA and MediaCast, co-creator of Addicted To Noise, and runs an Internet and music consulting and technology company, Chime Interactive (formerly Evolve Internet Solutions). <>

Allen Whitman is a working musician (bass player/singer/producer) with a keen, real-world interest in the practical use of the Web. Music credits include: The Mermen, "Brine-The Antisurf Soundtrack, biL, Deep Field South, Doormouse, Delectric and Drizzoletto. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, Wired, EQ, Revolution, Yahoo Internet Life, Prosound News, Surround Professional, Replication News and others. <>

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