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Beginner's Guide to MP3

What is MP3?
MP3 is an audio file format that can be stored on a computer. You can recognize it by its extension: MP3. Audio files (WAV files) can be quite large. An MP3 file is an encoded WAV file that has been compressed (anywhere from 1/5 to 1/17th of its original size), without any noticeable loss in sound quality. MP3 files sound great but are small enough to be downloaded and stored on your PC. They are much more manageable than WAV files, simply because they are smaller.

Recording Quality
As a rule of thumb you may state that one minute of MP3 music will correspond to 1 MB of disc space. Consequently, a five minute track will have an MP3 size of about 5 MB. It actually depends on the desired recording quality of your MP3 file. While encoding, you can select the compression rate of your choice: CD-quality, near CD quality, or FM radio quality. The standard 44kHz/128kbps (128 Bit Rate) is generally recommended and provides near CD quality. Thus, most MP3 files will have a Bit Rate of 128. The higher the Bit rate, the bigger the file will be. You will have to select the desired quality (Bit Rate) before you encode.

Downloading
How long it will take to download an MP3 file depends on the speed of your modem connection. A cable modem will download MP3 files much faster than dial up modems. Heavy users of MP3 technology will invariably end up with cable or ISDN modems.

MP3 Player
To be able to listen to MP3 audio files you need special software in the form of an MP3 player. Currently the most popular free MP3 player is Winamp but many others are available for free too. Obviously, your computer system requires a sound card and speakers to play music.

Audio Formats
It is always possible to decode an MP3 file to its original WAV format again. This is something you would have to do to write a CD which can be played on a normal CD player. A CD player cannot read MP3 files burned on a CD. When "ripping" a CD, a CD track is converted into a WAV format audio file which can be stored on your computer. Then the WAV file is encoded to MP3 size to make it smaller. Thus, a 50 MB WAV file is reduced to 5 MB. The MP3 file is played by means of an MP3 player. If your computer has a CD writer and you would like to create a CD from a number of MP3 files, you would have to decode the MP3 files into WAV files again so that your CD writer software can create an audio CD again.

What software do you need?
Here's a list of possible types of conversions and the associated software need to perform the conversion:
  1. From Audio CD to WAV format: CD Ripper
  2. From WAV format to MP3: MP3 encoder
  3. From MP3 to WAV: MP3 decoder
  4. From WAV to Audio CD: CD writer
CD > WAV > MP3 > WAV > CD

Of course, it is perfectly normal to enjoy MP3 files entirely without decoding and writing them to audio CD again.

Integrated MP3 software
All this sounds pretty complicated but you can actually download one integreated software package that can do all this so you don't really need different software. Music Match Jukebox is a free CD ripper/MP3 encoder/decoder/CD writer with lots of other interesting features. It allows you to download, organize and play digital music on your PC in a user friendly way. But of course there are many other MP3 players and encoders too. Not all of them are free though.

When not rooting for the Dutch soccer team, Dick Onstenk plays jazz at the Crow, the fruits of which can be heard at http://livejazzatthecrow.iuma.com