What is MP3?

The Layman's Version: With this new file format, beautiful sounds
that you can't tell apart from a CD will come roaring out your
speakers. You will be amazed, and never again look at your computer
the same way. But you may need a pretty speedy computer to make
it all happen. (And you'll probably want to upgrade your computer
speakers from those $7 Labtecs!)

The Other Version: MP3 is the file extension for MPEG-I Audio Layer
III compressed files. MP3 files are compressed about 12:1 for
CD-quality sound. If you record raw CD audio, it takes up a lot of
space: about 60MB for a normal length song. But with MP3
compression, you can turn it into a single 5MB file! There are several
utilities on the Net for creating MP3 files and for playing them back.
(Links to these sites will be added later) MP3 audio works by using
psychoaccoustic compression, which removes information from the
signal that your ears can't pick up, like the sound of a cat walking
during a thunderstorm. Due to their extreme compression, MP3 files
need a lot of CPU horsepower to play back. You're pretty much out
of luck with anything slower than a Pentium 90. Most of the good
players for MP3 exist on the PC platform, but there are some people
working on programming good players for the Macintosh.

I've seen some MP2 files around on the Net, what are they?

MP2 is short for MPEG-I Audio Layer II. It is a form of audio
compression that uses less CPU power than MP3, but is of lower
quality. If you've heard MP2 files and enjoyed them, keep in mind
that MP3 files sound much better! However, if you have a slower
processor (like a low-end Pentium, or a 486), you may only be able
to listen to MP2s -- MP3s may crackle and skip on you.

Can't I just compress an audio file with PK-ZIP or other
generic compression programs?

Yes and no. Yes, you can compress it, you can compress ANY file
with a compression program, but that's not to say that you'll get
good results: since the program doesn't know what kind of file you're
compressing, it has to use generic schemes for compression. As a
result, you'll get at BEST 1.4:1 compression. This isn't to say that
PK-ZIP is a bad program: it's just not designed to compress audio,
that's all. Audio compression schemes like MP3 have many different
tricky ways of compressing sound files. One thing that's used is
psychoaccoustic compression: if I am shooting a machine gun, you
will not be able to hear my shirt brushing against my pants -- we
don't need to have that information in the audio file and we can
save some space. (On the other hand, if there is dead silence, you
DO want to be able to hear that)

Isn't this all just like RealAudio or something?

RealAudio (and most other such formats) is an excellent audio format
for doing low-bitrate encodings. Translation: it allows people on 14.4
modems to listen to some of the best realtime audio they're going to
get. However, RealAudio does NOT sound like a CD. Anyone who has
tried to listen to music encoded using RealAudio knows what I mean.
Even at the highest bitrates it at best sounds like a reasonably good
tape dub. You wouldn't exactly play it in your stereo for your friends.
MP3s are different: you cannot tell the difference between an MP3
file and CD. (Other than the fact that the CD is round and shiny...)

Why is MP3 such a big deal?

The fact that people can now download (in reasonable time) and
listen to audio that cannot be distinguished from a CD may well
revolutionize the media distribution process. It changes people's
notions of a computer and what it can do, and presents a whole new
field to the market: digital audio distribution. David Weekly, M3C's
founder, is starting up a company called universal digital media, inc.
to do just that. A bunch of students down at Texas A&M University
who play critical roles in M3C are starting up a non-profit website to
distribute MP3 files as a university radio station. The media is
agreeing that this may be big: already the format (and this
consortium!) has [or is about to at the time of this writing] achieved
coverage in Rolling Stone Magazine, Wired News, USA Today, and
Fortune Magazine. See the Media section for updates and links.

Are MP3 files illegal?

Here, an important distinction is to be made between the media
(MP3) and the content (the actual song you compressed). There is
nothing inherently illegal in the creation of an MP3 file. It is just
another type of audio file, and you can't get into trouble for
encoding anything in the new format, versus encoding audio in a
WAV file, etc. What is illegal is making MP3 files of copyrighted
songs and redistributing them without a license. This is what the
underground MP3 scene does.