As much as I try to stay abreast of the software world, publishing TidBITS can prevent me from sitting down with a new program or exploring a new technology. As a result, I almost missed the massive change that’s happening with music thanks to MP3. Almost a year ago in TidBITS-455, Kevin Savetz wrote an excellent introduction to MP3 in "Move Over MTV, Now There’s MP3," but only in the last few weeks have I internalized how deep the changes go.
Quick Recap — MP3 stands for MPEG 1 layer 3 and is a highly compressed file format for storing audio that can be replayed without significant loss of quality. The term "near CD-quality" is often bandied about, but the important fact is that non-audiophiles probably won’t hear the difference between music on an original CD and the MP3 version. People who have excellent hearing or are trained in music probably will notice the difference, but MP3 isn’t an incremental change from the top of the audiophile food chain, it’s a grass roots revolution begun outside the music industry. That said, I gather audiophiles are pondering the implications of MP3 as well, since bringing music into a computer makes possible all sorts of manipulations and auditory tweaks that were previously impossible.
We’ve seen significantly more MP3 software since Kevin’s article, with support for MP3 appearing in QuickTime 4.0, plus a number of free (SoundApp, GrayAmp, and QuickMP3) and commercial (SoundJam MP, Macast, Audion, and the beta MVP) applications that offer more full-featured interfaces than the QuickTime Player.
Thanks to MP3, the Internet has become a more viable publishing medium for independent musicians, who often release recordings in the tightly compressed and royalty-free MP3 format, either enticing you to buy the full CD or to pay a small fee for a particular track. MP3 is also now being used by a variety of sites like SHOUTcast and The Green Witch for streaming radio broadcasts that most of the commercial MP3 players can play back. A program called Ampcast helps you find these MP3-based radio broadcasts, and if you want to play disk jockey, check out BayTex Fiesta and MegaSeg, both of which let you mix and fade between MP3 songs.
MP3 has started to leak out into the physical world as well, and we’re seeing numerous featherweight MP3 players like the Diamond Rio 500, the I-Jam, and the jazPiper. These devices rely on small memory cards that store MP3 files downloaded from a Mac or a PC.
Being Really Digital — Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab often writes about the importance of digital over analog, and MP3 provides an interesting take on the difference. After all, music distributed on CDs is digital, and much is often made of the superior sound quality of CDs, supposedly because they’re digital. In fact, the reason CDs provide excellent sound quality is that they provide more bandwidth than many analog methods of playing recorded sound, such as cassette tapes, and the quality of the CD-based audio doesn’t deteriorate over time and with each use. Sound quality is unrelated to the digital/analog divide.
Although they use a digital storage format, CDs feel like members of the analog world. You buy CDs in stores, and they come in cardboard and plastic packages. You can damage CDs, and you must constantly swap them in and out of your CD player. Simply put, CDs are physical objects that you use much like analog audio cassettes and vinyl records.
I can hear the muffled protests in the ether already, because you can put CDs into your Mac, download title and artist information from the Internet, and work with their contents as though each track were a file. That’s true, but most people don’t because of the sheer size of those files – often 30 to 50 MB each. Someday we won’t think twice about working with files that size, but for most purposes now, a 40 MB file is too large to store conveniently on your hard disk, copy over a network, or download from the Web. A full CD might hold between 450 MB and 740 MB of audio data, which means I could store approximately 2 of them on the 1.2 GB hard disk in my Power Mac 8500. There’s no reason to bother working with these massive CDs on the Mac – my $250 bookshelf stereo holds 6 CDs at once.
That’s where MP3 waltzes in. You can convert a song from a CD into MP3 format and in the process, reduce its size by a factor of ten. A 30 MB original might drop down to 3 MB, and although a full CD might still occupy 45 to 75 MB, that’s a far cry from its original size.
Broadcasting the Revolution — Before going on, let me explain how Tonya and I joined the MP3 revolution. Last year, our Sony CD player started having tracking problems. I searched the Internet, found instructions for repairing CD players, and, after a bit of puttering, solved the problem by refocusing the lens. It worked wonderfully for about a week, when the problem came back. I kept fixing it for some time, but eventually became annoyed at taking the CD player apart every time it stopped working.
The repair route was too expensive, so we started shopping for a replacement CD player and were irritated to discover that the higher quality players with decent feature sets and interfaces haven’t come down much in price since we’d bought the previous one. We didn’t want to spend a lot, so we gave up on buying a new player and instead replaced our old player with the bookshelf stereo that had been in Tonya’s office, figuring that eventually we’d resign ourselves to the cost and buy a new one, possibly a 100-CD jukebox unit if we could find one with a decent interface.
This solution was acceptable, but the stereo components still had to be in the living room, far from the kitchen where we spend most of our free time. We could hear the speakers well enough in the kitchen, but changing the volume or changing a CD required a journey to another part of the house, which was impractical when we just needed to answer the phone, for instance. Ideally, we did want the speakers in the kitchen, but there was neither room for them nor an easy way to run the wires.
What is in our kitchen, however, is our PowerBook G3, which is always available for recreational Web browsing and shared calendar and contact databases. The pieces had started to fall together.
Enter SoundJam — After Macworld Expo, Casady & Greene sent me a copy of Jeff Robbin and Bill Kincaid’s $40 SoundJam MP (currently at version 1.1) to review. Since SoundJam requires a PowerPC 603e-based Mac or better, I first installed it on my main desktop Mac, a Power Mac 8500, and tried to use it for a few days, but it became clear that it wasn’t going to change my work life. I have a few hundred megabytes of free disk space, but even MP3 files eat vast quantities of storage that I occasionally need for temporary work files. Playback tended to sputter when I launched a program or did something that required a lot of disk access. And I already had the six-CD bookshelf unit with good speakers in my office, complete with a remote control to pause the music at the press of a button when the phone rang. To pause SoundJam, I would have had to switch into the program and press the spacebar to pause the music every time I answered the phone. Although I could have automated that process using KeyQuencer, it might still have been difficult to do quickly, depending on what I was doing. And, if my Mac crashed or needed restarting, I’d have to start SoundJam playing again each time. It was simply too much trouble to integrate SoundJam into my existing desktop Mac and methods of working.
As I was relating all this to Tonya while making dinner one night, it finally hit me: all the problems I’d faced in my office disappeared in the kitchen. The PowerBook G3 had a ton of free disk space, it wasn’t used heavily for other tasks, so turning the music on and off wasn’t a big deal, and with a decent pair of powered speakers I had lying around, it could take over from our main stereo system when we were in the kitchen.
That night I installed SoundJam and the powered speakers and started to convert tracks from some of our favorite CDs. Within seconds after the beat of Abbey Lincoln’s "Who Used to Dance" came through the speakers, it became clear that this was the future of our music listening experience.
In the second part of this article, I’ll look at SoundJam in more detail, plus muse about some of the ideas that stem from realigning my head to think of music as MP3 files.