Not Dead Yet: How MP3 Changed The Way We Listen to Music
Yanto Browning, 19 Jun 17
       

MP3 compression of digital audio files made music more portable. Shutterstock?Roger Jegg Fotodesign Jegg.de

First developed almost three decades ago, the MP3 format made large digital audio files relatively small and easy to pass across an internet that was largely accessed via a very slow (by today’s standards) phone dial-up connection.

Now the companies behind the file compression format, Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS, have decided to end their support for the licensing program for MP3. The last patent for the tech format is due to expire at the end of the year.

So the MP3 is dead. Again. Or is it?

What is MP3?

MP3 is a form of codec, a way of compressing (co) and decompressing (dec) the data in audio files.

The organisation responsible for defining the standards for audio and video compression and decompression is the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), a working group of several authorities. So MP3 is just short for MPEG-1, Audio Layer 3.

The development of MP3.

Full resolution digital audio files are relatively large, around 10MB per minute of stereo, CD-quality sound. Today, streaming 10MB/minute might seem trivial but in the early days of digitally transferred data it was a lot.

MP3s were initially developed with the goal of a 12:1 compression ratio achieving acceptable sound quality. A 60MB song could therefore be compressed into a 5MB file. Other compression ratios can be used, with higher ratios yielding more obvious sonic artefacts (unwanted sounds) and lower ratios resulting in higher file sizes.

Hear the quality (or not) of MP3 compression at different bit rates.

A “lossy” compression codec works on the theory that, as the human ear is already discarding a lot of information in the perception of sound, you might as well simply not encode this redundant information.

The term lossy comes from the fact that this data is lost, discarded and gone forever. MP3 and rivals AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) and WMA (Windows Media Audio) are all lossy formats.

The audio that gets edited out in MP3 compression, in this case from Suzanne Vega’s version of Tom’s Diner.

Conversely, lossless compression reduces file sizes, but does not reduce quality. Something like a compressed zip file is an example of lossless compression. Uncompressed files are a straight 1:1 transfer of the digital file.

MP3: dead or alive?

Developed in the late 1980s and standardised in the early 1990s, MP3 was first pronounced dead in 1995 and nearly abandoned as a technology. It was deemed commercially unsuccessful despite heavy investment from the Fraunhofer institute and a decade’s development by the project’s leader Karlheinz Brandenburg.

It was the victim of a format war, led by Dutch manufacturer Philips. Fraunhofer’s MP3 was consistently overlooked in the early 1990s by the MPEG standards group in favour of Philips’ MP2.

The MP3 format only found early commercial success in the sports broadcast market, with the compressed digital audio saving broadcasters thousands in satellite transmission costs.

So deeply unpopular was MP3 in commercial music applications that the developers effectively gave it away for free.

As a result, the format was close to being abandoned by its developers again towards the end 1996, in favour of the AAC format still patented and supported today.

The AAC format was developed initially by the same team behind the MP3, in part as a way to circumnavigate technical limitations imposed by Phillips on the MPEG-1 standard.

AAC generally performs better than MP3 at higher compression ratios, and the patent does not require a user to obtain a license to stream or distribute AAC encoded audio.

Listen carefully to the cymbals.

It was only the proliferation of filesharing internet sites, built around the distribution of pirated content, that revived interest in the MP3, first as isolated “warez” sites, and then as peer-to-peer networks such as Napster.

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