By Jeff Strong

You’ve probably already downloaded a few MP3s from the Internet and experienced firsthand the immediacy that the MP3 format can offer your music. You go to a website and choose a song to download. After just a short while, you have a copy on your hard drive that you can listen to anytime you want. You can even put that song on a CD or portable player and take it with you.

With all this convenience and immediacy comes a downside. That MP3 song doesn’t sound as good as one that was mastered to a CD. For most people, this is a small price to pay for the ability to download a song for free. After all, most people play their music on less-then-stellar stereos (Walkmans and boom boxes come to mind).

If you’re one of the lucky few with a stellar (or more-than-stellar) stereo system, you’re going to hear the difference, which may prompt the following question: “Why doesn’t a song in MP3 format sound as good as one mastered to a CD?” The answer: data compression.

MP3 is a process that compresses your music so that it takes up less hard-drive space. Data compression is necessary for MP3s to work. A regular CD music file can take up 30–40MB (about 10MB per minute). That same song can take up only 3–4MB in MP3 format.

This is important because, if you’re going to do any promoting of your music on the Internet, a 30–40MB file is way too big to download or to stream on the web (even for people with broadband Internet connections).

Although compression causes your MP3 to lose fidelity as well as megabytes, this loss of quality can be considered an advantage. Because your MP3 doesn’t sound as good as your mastered CD, you give listeners just a taste of your music. By giving people this taste, along with the opportunity to purchase a CD, you help them to decide whether they want to buy the high-quality version.

Other file compression formats being used, such as AAC (Apple Audio Codec) and WMA (Windows Media Audio), have improved on the sound quality of MP3 and are making some headway into the marketplace, so you may find that encoding your music into one of the other file types works better for you.

Some of the encoding software can encode into these file types as well as MP3, so you may want to try one of these on your music to see what you think works best, just make sure whatever file format you choose can be played by the people you want to hear your music.