How to Make Killer MP3s

Binaura SoundPets

To complement the magazine article, here are 26 MP3 links and four bonus MP3 articles. Click one of the following five links to jump directly to an article.

1. MP3 Links

2. ID Your MP3s

3. Winamp Tutorial: Converting MP3s to WAVs

4. How to Prepare Your MP3s for CD

5. Rapid Reviews: Hardware MP3 Enhancers


MP3 Links (Each link opens in a new window.)
Adrian Iosif Romanian programmer of the Winamp Enhancer plug-in.
Apple iTunes A top-notch Macintosh jukebox/encoder.
BIAS Makers of Peak and Peak LE sound editors (Mac).
CD-RW.org Information on burning MP3s to CD.
GMixon French developers of the Adapt X DirectX shell plug-in for Winamp.
Gracenote Operators of the CDDB online music-information database.
Microsoft DirectX Download DirectX for better multimedia performance on Windows.

MP3 Encoder Tests

Listening tests and WAV files for conducting your own encoding tests, courtesy of MP3Dev.org.
More MP3 Encoder Tests More listening tests, files, and utilities.
MP3 Machine A sister site to the mammoth Shareware Music Machine, focusing on MP3 software.
MP3-Tech Lots of technical information on MP3.
MP3Trim This windows program enables you to crop, normalize, and fade MP3 files without first converting them to WAVs.
MP3.com Software The best resource for evaluating and selecting MP3 software, featuring links, reviews, tutorials, and more.
MPEG FAQ Learn about MP3 and perceptual audio coding from the source.
MPEG.org Not the official Moving Picture Experts Group site, but packed with MP3 information.
MusicCity Home of the Morpheus file-sharing network, the next generation of Napster-type file-sharing programs.
MusicMatch Home of MusicMatch Jukebox player/encoder (Win/Mac).
Nullsoft Makers of the Winamp MP3 player and the central distribution point for Winamp plug-ins.
Panic Makers of the Audion player/encoder for Mac.
Power Technology Developers of the DFX plug-in for Winamp and the handy MP3 Connector cable.
Roxio Formerly the Adaptec Software Products Group, makers of Easy CD Creator (Win) and Toast (Mac) CD-burning packages.
Sonic Foundry Makers of the Sound Forge audio editor for Windows.
SOrient Makers of the SoftAmp VirtualSound plug-in for Winamp.
SRS Labs Semiconductor manufacturer and signal processing developers; creators of the Wow Thing hardware and software.
Xing Developers of the Audio Catalyst encoder, now creatures of RealNetworks.


How to ID your MP3s

Most MP3 players display information in ID3 tags, a data area in MP3 files that can hold information such as artist and album name, song title, genre, and even a picture or URL. Taking the time to fill out the ID3 tags for your music can pay off. Not only does it add another layer of communication with your listeners, it can increase your music's popularity, because an increasing number of search engines and file-sharing applications recognize tags.

Editing ID3 tags used to be a chore, with most players and encoders forcing you in and out of dialogs as you tagged one song at a time. Fortunately, Kevesoft MP3 Tag Clinic (Windows) makes tagging a snap. Its simple interface combines a Explorer-style folder browser with a spreadsheet-like window that displays the tag contents for multiple files simultaneously. You can quickly arrow-key and copy-paste down the columns to tag all your songs in a single pass. The demo version of Tag Clinic is limited to eight entries per folder in its unregistered state, but you can work around that limitation pretty easily. Better, if you like it enough to use it consistently, pony up the $19.95 registration fee.

Mac users running MacOS 9 or above might want to check out Three-2-One Interactive's ID3X ($9 shareware). For more on the ID3 tag format, visit ID3.org.

--Todd Souvignier


Winamp Tutorial: Converting MP3s to WAVs

In the magazine article, I reviewed four of the leading signal-processing plug-ins for Winamp, and explained how they can be used to restore and enhance MP3s. If you like a particular effect and want to apply it permanently to an audio file , or if you're just getting MP3s ready to burn to CD, you'll need to make an uncompressed file. The Nullsoft Disk Writer plug-in does just that, streaming Winamp's audio output into a WAV file. Disk Writer is a standard feature of the Winamp player, but it's buried two levels down in the Preferences dialog, so many people aren't aware of it. Here's how to set it up:

  1. Type Control-P to open the Winamp Preferences dialog.
  2. In the left panel, under Plug-ins, click on "Output."
  3. In the right panel, click on "Nullsoft Disk Writer plug-in" to select it. This records all played audio into a WAV file.
  4. Click on the Configure button.
  5. Select the folder where you want the new WAV files to be placed.
  6. Click "OK" to exit the Configure dialog.
  7. Click the Close button to exit the Preferences dialog.
  8. Press the Play button to record the current playlist entry to a new WAV file. Any DSP effects that are active will be applied to the file.

Remember to de-select Disk Writer and return to Direct Sound output when you're finished, so you don't fill your hard drive with WAVs.

--Todd Souvignier


How to Prepare Your MP3s for CD

Any MP3 can benefit from some signal-processing touchup before it's burned to CD. Although popular CD-burning programs such as Roxio Easy CD Creator and Ahead Nero offer a few enhancement effects, detailed MP3 polishing requires a more powerful audio editor. Depending on the content of the MP3, here are the steps you might take:

  1. Convert the MP3 to a WAV, SDII, or AIFF File (see Winamp tutorial above).
  2. Open the uncompressed file in an audio editor such as Peak or Sound Forge.
  3. If this is a mono file, do a mono-to-stereo conversion.
  4. Select the entire file and add a stereo-widening or 3D effect if desired.
  5. Add exciter, paying attention that you don't end up increasing noise or accentuating any aliasing.
  6. If the bass response seems flat, add a little bass maximizer, being careful not to overwhelm and muddy the high end.
  7. Check the results while listening through a graphic equalizer plug-in, notching down any frequencies that are distorting or too prominent. You may wish to use a spectrum analyzer to check visually for any imbalances.
  8. At this point you've probably used up all the available headroom, but if levels still seem low or uneven, you can contemplate a final normalize or limiting pass.
  9. Save the file as a stereo WAV or AIFF at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution. Finally, import it into your CD-burning application.

You'll likely get the best results with a program that supports professional (e.g., DirectX, VST, MAS, or TDM) versions of each DSP effect mentioned above. However, lacking such tools you can still apply these processes to MP3 files using one of the Winamp multieffect plug-ins mentioned in the magazine article and outputting the result to a WAV file through Winamp's Disk Writer plug-in.

--Todd Souvignier


Rapid Reviews: Four Hardware MP3 Enhancers

There's a spate of sound improvers for casual listening and gaming, some of them made by the same firms that make Winamp or DirectX plug-ins. To use these devices, you insert them between your computer and speakers, or between your cable box or game console and home stereo. While not appropriate for recording or critical monitoring situations, any of these devices can add a nice quality boost to recreational sound. (All links open a new window.)

The TDS Passive Audiophile is exceedingly simple -- one solitary toggle switch. Essentially a harmonic exciter, it's built using passive analog electronics, so it requires no power supply or battery. Also notable are its gold-plated in/out jacks; rugged metal housing; and subtle, tasteful processing. TDS appears to be retooling its product line and cooking up a software version.

The Binaura SoundPet widens the stereo image and adds a little volume. The device offers three different settings for this effect, but you'll probably want to leave it on the top setting all the time. Winning points for their permanently attached AC cords and novel industrial design, SoundPets look like little robot hamsters or space pigs.

QSound Labs' UltraQ, like the SoundPet, is a stereo image increaser. The UltraQ offers a little more control, with separate settings for music and games, mono-to-stereo conversion, and automatic mono/stereo sensing. UltraQ loses points for weak-feeling switches, a large desktop footprint, and an external AC adapter. QSound makes some of the finest professional 3D and spatial processors; this offering is not quite in that class, but then neither is its price. The company also offers a Winamp plug-in, although it hasn't been updated since its 1.0 release in 1999.

SRS Labs' Wow Thing is the pick of the litter. It sounds significantly better than its software counterpart, and has knobs to adjust the effects. The device's Wow effect sounds like a combination of stereo widening and exciter, while its TruBass is a tight, warm bass boost. It also features a volume control, bypass switch, and neat translucent housing. This unit delivers the most obvious results of any of the devices mentioned here. It's quite pleasant sounding and by virtue of combining exciter and super-stereo with bass maximizer solves more sound-quality issues than the other boxes. It loses half a star for its cheapo wall-wart adapter, but it's still the top of its class.

--Todd Souvignier


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