The Vision Thing: Music for the Masses

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Convergence is the bogeyman of media megacorporations. In the music industry, where so much is made by so many for doing so little, the idea that artists can now eliminate the middleman and deliver their content directly to their admirers is a frightening thing indeed.

These music publishers should be afraid–very afraid. Because MP3 has finally arrived on the Mac. And once this emerging standard for encoding and distributing high-quality audio combines with Mac users' creative zeal, the resulting tidal wave will be big enough to swallow media moguls whole.

In the last couple of months I've finally had the opportunity to tinker with MP3, an extension of the MPEG multimedia file format now famous for housing extremely good-sounding music in fairly small sound files. And while audiophiles are practically frothing at the mouth over claims that MP3 sound quality is as good as that of compact discs, one thing that can't be challenged is that MP3 files are much smaller, about one-tenth the size of the equivalent data on an audio CD. MP3 files can be downloaded over the Internet, or you can create your own from your personal CD collection by using MP3-encoding software. Best of all, you can download your own custom mixes to pager-size portable MP3 players, in addition to playing them on your Mac.

Diamond Multimedia recently announced the $269 USB-based Rio PMP 500, the latest version of the leading MP3-player hardware. The new Rio works with any Mac with a USB port, can store two hours of music on its built-in RAM, and has a slot that can use removable SmartMedia cards to add another hour of music to the mix (see News, elsewhere in this issue). Because MP3 players like the Rio store music in RAM, they're the tops in terms of stability. There are no moving parts, so there's nothing to bounce, jog, or otherwise disrupt the playback of your favorite tunes.

The only thing holding back MP3 on the Mac has been software. Around the Macworld offices, we've been testing the first two commercial Mac MP3-encoding programs: Xing Technology's $30 AudioCatalyst (already in version 2.0) and Casady & Greene's $49 SoundJam MP, which should be available by the time you read this.

With MP3 encoders like these, copying an audio CD to your hard drive is about as easy as sticking it in your CD-ROM drive. In both SoundJam and the shareware MacAmp, you can create custom song sequences (or playlists ) by clicking on and dragging tracks from the CDs you've recorded and from MP3 tracks you've downloaded from the Net.

Then there's the issue of sound quality. I'm here to tell you that at higher sampling rates–say, 144kHz–I simply can't tell the difference between songs recorded in MP3 and those on a conventional audio CD. I'm sure there is a difference–I just can't hear it. And truth be told, I'm not that concerned about what I can't hear.

Copying your favorite CDs to your hard drive is great. But the real power of MP3 will be in the sounds you tune in over the Internet.

Ever wonder why a CD can cost upwards of $18 when the cost of materials is about a buck? Distribution. Marketing. Advertising. Corporate profits. By the time everyone's done getting their share of that price tag, the artist is left with only a modest percentage of the take.

With MP3, suddenly the infrastructure disappears from the equation. Musicians can charge a couple of dollars for an entire CD's worth of music, keep most of the proceeds (considerably more than they'd see from the sale of a CD), and you, the consumer, save a bunch and get your music in easily managed files. Ever try to mix a custom MiniDisc or audiotape? Let's just say the interfaces were designed by the same folks who invented VCRs. With MP3, you get to use your Mac as your audio dashboard. You can even use plug-in "skins" to completely customize your MP3 player's interface. How cool is that?

Now that MP3 is finally on the Mac, the revolution it embodies will only accelerate. The Mac is already the platform of choice for many musicians. And with MP3, those musicians will be able to encode their works for distribution over the Internet with ease.

Just add a few digital groupies who will breathlessly follow a musician's files around the Web, and the record companies won't have any enticements left to offer the aspiring rock virtuoso.

September 1999 page: 23

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