What is MP3?

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What is MP3? It's just a compressed file format used for sound. Video requires a lot of bandwidth, so they use fancy algorithms to compress it (make it as small as possible). Since video tracks also have sound with them, they did an exceptionally good job on sound as well. Thus, for doing sound compression we just use the video compression fromat's sound compression (Motion Picture Expert Group format for audio), called MPEG Audio Layer III, ala MP3.


In the news there are a lot of terms going by, like MP3, Napster, and so on. So what are these terms, and what does it all mean? Let's start a small series, by explaining MP3.

Each file (document) on your computer has a format (a unique way that the information is stored). Some of these formats are proprietary (unique to one program / application), and others are "open" formats or "standard" (so that many programs can all use the same files).

The format that data is in (your music in this case) needs a name so that you know which programs are going to be able to read and work with that file. The most popular one for music (for now) is Motion Picture Encoding Group (for audio), version 3. Since the full name rolls off the tongue so well, and no one wants to type that entire thing all the time, we abbreviate it to MP3.

Digital music takes a lot of computer memory to store, but more importantly, large files take a lot of time to move around and transmit across the Internet. What we need to do is "compress" that data, and make it smaller. I think of it like folding a map, if done right, the map is much smaller and easier to manage, and takes less space than the unfolded map. Compression can do something similar to data (files) -- and MP3 does this for music files.

MP3 is a way to compress songs that would take lots of disk space and take many minutes to send to someone else to a size that is much smaller and faster to move around on the Internet. This may not sound like a big deal, but it changed the whole viability of Internet (and computer) based music. No one was going to wait 10 minutes to download a 2 minute song that would take up so much space that you could only have a few songs on your hard drive. But with MP3, you could keep thousands of songs on your computer, and you can "stream" the song - which means listen to it as it is being sent to your machine.

Once MP3 encoders (compressors) and players (decompressors), came out -- people started moving their music collections onto computer. I encoded my entire collection of a few hundred CD's - now I can search and play songs and use my computer as a very powerful jukebox. This power changes music for me, and for many people who use MP3. The industry has even created little players (like the Sony Walkman's) that you can carry around your music on and listen to MP3 music in cars, while walking or riding, and have portable music.

Just to be confusing, a San Diego company, that does a website for making MP3 music available across the Internet, came along and decided to name themselves after the file format. So there is MP3 the format -- and there is also MP3.com the company, which owns the mp3.com website. Most of the time, when people are talking about MP3, they mean the music format and not the company by the same name. But if you read a few months back about a lawsuit against "MP3", that was against the company.

Just remember; computers store and retrieve information, the Internet lets you move that information around on a network, and MP3 is how most people encode and decode music.

Written: 2002.03.12

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