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Book Reviews

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mp3: Music on the Internet

by Rod Underhill and Nat Gertler

I Want My Mp3! How to Download, Rip & Play Digital Music

by Bill Mann

Mp3: The Definitive Guide

by Scot Hacker

MP3 technology is revolutionizing the music business. Now, with the click of a mouse and a little expertise, listeners can download their favourite tunes from a cyberspace menu of thousands of songs and either listen to them on their computer or burn them onto a CD. Just last year, the term “MP3” surpassed “sex” as the most-searched-for item on Internet search engines.
For those who haven’t graduated beyond eight-track tapes, or are still using an old Vic 20 computer, MP3 refers to a file compression technique that squeezes songs into an audio file about one-tenth of its regular size, with a minimal loss in sound quality. As a result, MP3 files can be easily sent across the Internet and stored on home computers (although MP3 requires at least a Pentium processor and a decent-sized hard drive: 2GB will hold about 500 MP3 songs).
The format has caught the eye of independent bands, who are now able to post music directly to the Internet, bypassing the major record companies. At the moment, however, uploading music on MP3 is purely a promotional tool – a cost-effective way for new bands to introduce their songs to a large potential market.

MP3 simplified
Of course, MP3 has its detractors – primarily the major record companies – who see the technology as a threat to their bottom line. How will they make money from selling music when MP3 allows people to copy it and give it away? The companies are looking for a way to reliably encrypt MP3 files so they can be downloaded once – for sale – but not copied or reuploaded. In the meantime, publishers are racing to capitalize on the free MP3 trend, with a variety of books aimed at all levels of computer user.
As a rule, computer manuals leave me cold. It’s difficult to get excited over prose like “the width attribute serves as advice to the browser, not as a fixed rule.” The language is generally hard to understand and not very intuitive. So it’s something worth noting when a book uses clear, simple language, easy-to-follow examples with illustrations, screenshots, and detailed glossaries that provide definitions for most of the terms used in the book. For this reason, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to MP3: Music on the Internet is a promising place for the beginning MP3 user to start. The most accessible of the three books being reviewed, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to MP3 covers such basics as downloading and installing MP3 recorders and players, locating music on the Net, and instructions on how to post your own music for fans to download. Also included in this boxed-set package are the discs required to set up a digital jukebox on your PC.
Using the tried-and-true Complete Idiot’s formula, writers Rod Underhill and Nat Gertler present their subject in an ordered, unintimidating way, beginning with what digital music is, what compressed digital music is, and what MP3 is, and leading eventually to more complicated topics such as creating your own CDs and posting your own music to the Net. The guide is written in the lighthearted tone that characterizes the series: a section on naming song files is called “Your Own Secret Code (Sorry, No Secret Decoder Ring).” This shouldn’t be mistaken for frivolity, however: this part of the book is packed with essential information for bands that want to post music on the Net – format requirements, posting a band photo and bio, and making changes or additions to an MP3 band page.
Bill Mann’s I Want My MP3! How to Download, Rip & Play Digital Music is not for rank amateurs. Terms like “pathnames” and “bitrates” appear often in the text without explanation (though there is a detailed glossary), assuming some knowledge on the part of the reader. Nevertheless, Mann is a seasoned writer, having produced 11 such books, and his explanations of technical manoeuvres are exemplary, if dry. He presents some personal experiences in a conversational voice (about downloading a track from a CD that prompted him to buy the CD online, for instance), but these asides aren’t particularly interesting or enlightening, and add to an already long book.

Diagnostic tips
On the plus side, there is a great deal of diagnostic information, ranging from the “if it doesn’t work, jiggle the cord variety” to more complicated moves that require some expertise, to common-sensical tips. In one chapter Mann suggests laying an old towel on the floor beneath your computer when making repairs in case a screw goes missing. If it lands on the towel it will be easy to locate. This seems oddly old fashioned in a book about high technology, but is valuable advice nonetheless.
Mann also discusses the latest MP3 newsgroups and newsletters, flash memory, and offers useful tips on increasing a computer’s storage space. Another appealing feature of I Want My MP3! is a detailed and comprehensive glossary defining everything from “Internet” to “ID3 tag” (which is the short chunk of data attached to many MP3 files that includes the title of the song, the artist, and the name of the album on which it appears). I Want My MP3! How To Download, Rip & Play Digital Music is a well-
designed book for those who want to get a leg up on this new technology.
MP3: The Definitive Guide, by Scot Hacker, is the most expensive guide included here and the only one without a disc. However, it is the most detailed book of the three, including sections on broadcasting, a process known as streaming – wherein an MP3 file is played back on the client machine as it’s being downloaded – optimizing your encoding times, and performing diagnostic tests on your equipment.
Hacker is passionate about this technology, and writes with energy and wit. In a section dealing with achieving optimum quality from MP3 files, he describes the advantages of saving more information than you currently need. “Music with a lot of smooth or synthesized tones (such as techno) will be far better at lower bitrates. Note, however, that no matter how high you set the bitrate, Garth Brooks will still suck lemons.” (Okay, it’s not a great joke, but not bad for a tech book.) MP3: The Definitive Guide is an excellent technical guide written with the computer nerd in mind, and may be beyond the scope of the casual user.
One of the more interesting facets of the MP3 phenomenon is the potential legal tangle caused by copying and burning copyrighted CDs. Is it illegal to upload music from CDs you own? Is it illegal to download songs? All three books offer legal advice, though Hacker’s is the best of the bunch. He offers detailed and thoughtful discussion on copyright, fair use, and permissions, but with the caveat that he is not a lawyer. Hacker and the other authors suggest MP3 users consult with a copyright lawyer who specializes in the Internet before using any music from the Net for individual web sites, or commercial purposes.