MP3 and Me : Perceptual Encoding for the Professional Singer

You have been hearing about it for months; you may have been using it, too. But what the heck is MP3 and what does it mean to you?

I’ m going to tackle the question from several points of view with no more technical stuff than is needed. You will also get some grade-A buzz words with enough information so you can use them even around experts and sound as though you know what they mean. Fortunately, you don’t really need to know what they mean — you just need to sound as though you do.

Some years ago, a group of engineers got together to form the Motion Picture Experts Group — MPEG for short. They developed standards for digitizing movies including both picture and sound. They left the standards open-ended, though, so various extensions have been developed and designated MPEG1, MPEG2 and so on.

Within MPEG1, it was necessary to develop a format for sound. We already have a format for sound recording. The one for Compact Disc — Digital Audio (CD-DA) is familiar to you. It works just fine, but it’ s big. Each minute of CD-DA sound takes about ten megabytes of storage. If you were to download a three-minute selection in CD-DA, a normal modem could fetch it in about an hour and a half. Whoops.

There are ways to squeeze the sound down by going from stereo to mono or cutting the high frequencies, but they cost quality pretty quickly and don’t save a lot. So the experts decided to develop “perceptual encoding” – a way of squeezing size out of a file by taking out the parts least perceived (heard) by the audience. The more sophisticated that encoding is, the more computing it takes to squeeze the signal down and to expand it.
Three levels of sophistication have been developed so far (more are coming). The top grade, MPEG1 Level 3 audio, is called MP3 and fits nicely in the technology of modern computers.

With MP3, an audio track can be compressed by a factor of eleven without serious loss of quality. A CD-grade sound track goes from 10 Megabytes per second to less than one; if it’s not compared directly with the original, the MP3 sounds darned good. Now that three-minute selection takes only about nine minutes to download. If you will give up some highs and stereo, you can actually retrieve it in “real time” – that is, as fast as it plays. As a result, you can “stream” it on a computer; you can listen to it while it is being downloaded from the Internet.

Enough for theory – what does this mean in practice? Why do you care as a professional singer? As the poet said: Let me count the ways.

First, it means that your recordings cannot be protected by their publisher. It has always been possible for people to copy them with tape recorders, but the loss of quality was significant. Now people can make their own MP3s and “share” them with others. It gets quite complicated, but despite the best efforts of RIAA and others, personal piracy is made so easy with MP3 that it cannot be stopped.

Second, you can take it with you. New CD players are coming out which will let you play a CD-ROM with ten hours or more of very good sound on a single disc. Solid-state players on the market now will hold a CD’ s worth in a $200 player that has no moving parts. You can even leave your music on a computer, dial in through the Internet, and hear anything in the collection wherever you may be.

Third, every live performance is now recordable with ease. Strictly speaking, MiniDisc recorders don’ t use MP3, but they use an equivalent format which lets a shirt-pocket recorder hold 80 minutes of very good stereo on each disc. A high-quality electret microphone is all but invisible. The whole package costs less than a pair of good tickets to the Met. In short, you are now preserved for posterity every time someone in the audience is even mildly interested.

Let me suggest how all this can come together thanks to the efficiency and economy of this technology. You end your recital in Hartford with a favorite encore, but crack the high C. The audience is sympathetic – they loved everything else and you follow the crack with a quip that leaves them in a good mood. When you get home, you drop in on an Internet newsgroup and discover that everyone is concerned about the deterioration in your voice.

Joe was at the concert and recorded that encore. He e-mailed the MP3 to Jane, who encoded the same selection from your CD and posted both of them at her website. She then told a few thousand Internet friends where they could hear your debacle. Long before you got home — probably before you got out of Hartford — your fans and foes had heard the flub and expressed their concern at the damage done to your voice.

Ain’t technology wonderful!

Just a note on the MP3.COM business.

It doesn’t matter. Neither does the Napster business. They are both concerned with the wrong part of the story, the business-to-business side. The real story is an outgrowth of the Napster situation and I’ll summarize it for you.

Anyone can post a file at a website or transfer it from one person to another on any network, particularly on the Internet. There are newsgroups out there with whole symphonies and even operas posted as MP3 files and no one can stop them. Still, that’s not as efficient as it might be. MP3.COM offered schemes for making selections or whole discs available with some level of protection — not much — to ensure that only people who owned the recordings could download them. That let someone hear a favorite selection whenever he could connect to the Internet even if he didn’t have the original with him.

Napster carried it a bit farther by letting you connect to another private individual’s file of music on her own computer; all Napster did was give you access to the files she wanted to let you play. Well before RIAA shut that down, schemes were being developed to do it without the central index Napster provided; those schemes are now public and working. They will become more sophisticated and thousands of people will be using them.[Ed note: the Napster shut down was stayed by court injunction.]

Another approach is seen at Yahoo’ s MyMusic. They give you (free) a chunk of storage for your music files. You then tell others where they are and they can come by and download at will. You are then responsible for what you post and Yahoo has the right to come by, check your material and kill the site if you are violating copyright; obviously, they will only do that if there is a complaint and even then there are ways around it.

There is a fundamental fact which the music industry is failing to recognize: The product that they can sell is the sizzle, not the steak. In this world of MP3, their product is the packaging, the documentation and the artwork, not the music itself. That is effectively free. It isn’t fair, but life isn’t fair.