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20. For PC music lovers, MP3's the ticket

By Mark Alberstat

THE WORLD is available on the Internet, and much of that world is now in various audio formats, the most common and talked about being MP3.

There are, of course, other popular formats, such as WMA, which Microsoft promotes, and AAC, which Apple uses for its iTunes player. RealNetworks has its RealAudio and don't forget the often overlooked Ogg Vorbis format, which is free, open source and unpatented. If you go to the Web sites for these formats, they will all say they are the best and the format you should adopt.

If you are planning on copying, playing and manipulating your sound files on your Windows-based PC, MP3 and Ogg Vorbis are the ones for you. However, if there is some question in your mind as to which format to use, and you are PC based, go for MP3. After all, millions of MP3 fans can't be wrong.

The beauty of these formats is that you can become your own DJ or music company. You can often fit nine or 10 albums on one CD, which is hours and hours of playing time. If, however, you want to play your homemade CDs in your car's CD player, you will have to convert the files to WAV format. These files take up considerably more space but you can mix and match the files to suit your tastes; maybe a dozen different versions of On The Road Again for that trip to Fredericton?

Many of the newer car stereo systems can also play MP3s, a definite advantage if you are in the market for car audio gear.

MP3 is actually the file extension for the music format that is properly called an MPEG, Audio Layer 3. Layer 3 is one of three audio-encoding layers used for the compression and encoding of audio tracks. Layer 3 removes much of the information in the signal that cannot be heard by the human ear and is thus not needed. This routine makes for a smaller file, something always looked upon favourably by computer users. Layer 3 encoding shrinks the size of the file by a factor of 12 over that found on conventional CDs.

Although smaller size is usually good in computer lingo, with audio files this is not always the case. When creating MP3's (what is called ripping), you are given a choice in bit rates. The higher the bit rate, the better the sound quality. However, the higher the bit rate, the larger the file, so a happy medium has to be struck.

The default on most rippers is 128 Kbps (kilobits per second). If you have a lot of room on your hard drive - adding in a secondary 40-gig drive now often costs less than $150 - you might want to consider a higher bit rate, such as 192 or 256 Kbps.

You could create two files of the same song, at different bit rates, and see if your ear is good enough to hear the difference and then decide yourself which sounds best to use.

Downloading music has caused quite a storm of controversy in the past year, with the Recording Industry Association of America taking legal action against some users who are sharing large amounts of material under copyright.

Sites such as and, and a few others listed below offer freely available MP3s in a wide variety of music genres that will keep your toes tapping and the rest of you safely out of jail.

On the Web:

The Mousepad runs every two weeks. It's a service of Chebucto Community Net, a community-owned Internet provider. If you have a question about computing, e-mail If we use your question in a column, we'll send you a free mousepad.


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Originally published 26 October 2003


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