MP3 music on the Internet: A user’s guide

Question: Can you write a little bit about MP3 files? Are they usually free to download and what software is required to run them? Can you suggest some web sites that offer them to download? — JB

Answer: MP3 (for ‘MPEG, aka Moving Pictures Experts Group, layer 3’) is a downloadable audio format that has created enormous controversy because it allows the distribution of high quality music across the Internet, sometimes without the permission of the artists.

The format was co-developed by the Fraunhofer Institute of Germany and Thomson Multimedia SA of France and published as a standard in 1993.

MP3 files are to sound what ZIP files are to software files. The ZIP format takes repetitive information out of a data file and puts markers where the repetition occurs. A file becomes smaller as a result. MP3 works much the same way. In fact, with MP3 technology, it is possible to compress a digitized audio track to only about 8 per cent of its original size, or a compression ratio of 12:1. That means near compact disc quality music can be stored on the web and downloaded quickly.

A typical song is about two to three Mbs in size. Music-creative types are afraid that, since MP3 files are easy to copy, they won’t receive royalties for pirated versions of the songs. On the upside, independent unsigned music artists can use MP3 as a cheap way of distributing their work internationally.

The Recording Industry Association of America and the Digital Media Association are in continuing negotiations over MP3 legal issues. Once that dispute is resolved, expect pay-for-play MP3 files to flood the Net. The bickering could go on for years, but I suspect a resolution will be forthcoming this year since they recently extended talks into the summer after a stalemate.

Meanwhile, you can find libraries of free MP3 files as well as illegal versions of commercial music on the Web. The MP3 format has become extremely successful. “MP3s are a hot topic these days among web people. Search engines everywhere are reporting MP3 as their second most queried word (behind sex),” reports the Webmonkey MP3 Guide.

You can find MP3 files almost via any search engine, just type in MP3 and wait for the data deluge of sites to flow onto your screen. A good place to start your search is at That site has references to software players, MP3 file resources, and general information about the technology.

A few places to look for MP3 sound files are:

  1. E-Music
  2. Wal-Mart – Music

The Rio MP3 player is a nifty little pager-sized device that allows you to play MP3 files you create on your PC or download from the Internet. The idea is you drag and drop the music files onto a software interface, it dumps it through a port in your computer onto the Rio and – voila! Instant custom CD to go.

For those who aren’t ready to go mobile and are happy to play MP3 on their home PC, there’s a shareware program called WinAmp by NullSoft at that plays MP3 and other sound formats on your desktop. There’s a small fee if you decide to register the product. Of course, you’ll need a sound card and speakers to make it useful.’s RealPlayer also supports MP3 playback.

There’s a list of Windows players at

At home, I play my MP3 files on a Cambridge Soundworks Desktop theatre system. It’s a six-speaker system with amplifier, which is powered by Creative Labs Soundblaster Live! card. Though I’ve had lots of trouble installing the card and getting it to work well, the combined system sounds better than the stereo system in my living room. More info at SoundBlaster.