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MP3 History


13 Apr 2012



Article on the history of mp3, written by Christopher Jones on 27 Jul 2000 and originally appeared on Lycos Webmonkey (no longer viewable)

Behind the Music: The History of MP3

MP3, an obscure compression format that has the music industry shaking in its gold-studded boots, is surely one of the Web's most unlikely heroes.

MP3 is short for Moving Picture Experts Group, Audio Layer III, and is a compression format that shrinks audio files with only a small sacrifice in sound quality. MP3 files can be compressed at different rates, but the more they are scrunched, the worse the sound quality. A standard MP3 compression is at a 10:1 ratio, and yields a file that is about 4 MB for a three-minute track.

It all started in the mid-1980s, at the Fraunhofer Institut in Erlangen, Germany, which began work on a high quality, low bit-rate audio coding with the help of Dieter Seitzer, a professor at the University of Erlangen. In 1989, Fraunhofer was granted a patent for MP3 in Germany and a few years later it was submitted to the International Standards Organization (ISO), and integrated into the MPEG-1 specification.

Frauenhofer also developed the first MP3 player in the early 1990s, but it turned out to be a pretty underwhelming application. In 1997, a developer at Advanced Multimedia Products named Tomislav Uzelac created the AMP MP3 Playback Engine, which is regarded as the first prime-time MP3 player. Shortly after the AMP engine hit the Net, a couple of university students, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev (who more recently created MacAMP), took the Amp engine, added a Windows interface and dubbed it "Winamp." In 1998, when Winamp was offered up as a free music player, the MP3 craze began: Music fiends all over the world started MP3 hubs, offering copyrighted music for free.

Before long, other programmers jumped in to create a whole toolset for MP3 junkies. New encoders, rippers, and players were sprouting up every week, and the movement was growing strong. Search engines made it even easier to find the specific MP3 files people wanted, and portable players like the Rio let them take MP3 tracks on the road.

And then came Napster.

Napster is the killer app that will be undoubtedly remembered more than any other MP3-related software. When Napster hit the Internet in 1999, it allowed anyone with a connection to find and download just about any type of popular music they wanted, in minutes. By connecting users to other users' hard drives, Napster created a virtual community of music junkies that's still growing at an astonishing pace.

However, the Recording Industry Association of America is currently trying to shut Napster down. The RIAA sued Napster, charging it with copyright law violations, and on July 26 won a decision in U.S. District Court that, in effect, orders Napster shut down. The RIAA also kept up the pressure on the political front: Digital music heavyweights recently gathered in Washington, D.C. to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on downloading and file trading. Their lament: All this free downloading is screwing us out of our deserved fees and royalties.

Even if Napster is eventually forced to shut down, MP3 has many other ways to survive and thrive.

The MP3 Advantage

The reason MP3 took off and became the audio standard on the Web is that the original patent holders made it freely available for anyone to develop a decoder, or player, for it. So the early MP3 innovators hacked around and developed players and other cool software that spread fast and wide. By contrast, several other digital audio formats, which are more efficient or sound better than MP3, are proprietary formats, developed by companies like Lucent, Yamaha, and Microsoft, which have restrictions on how outside developers can employ their technology. These other audio formats may gain wider acceptance in the future, as record companies use them to distribute popular music, but for now MP3 still has the momentum.

Another advantage of MP3 is that there are no security features associated with the files, so millions of them are posted and passed around on the Web every day. The files are small enough to be downloaded easily, or even attached to an email and sent to a friend. It's all this downloading and swapping that has attracted the attention of the RIAA, which represents the major labels and the owners of millions of valuable sound recordings. These labels view MP3 as a huge piracy threat, and the RIAA has tried to shut down several MP3-related businesses. Until the ruling against Napster, it had little success in stemming the tide.

One of the most compelling aspects of MP3 is the impact it will have on our listening habits. MP3 makes it a cinch for people to play DJ and mix and match their favorite songs, bands, or styles of music. Say you want to make a "tape" of all your favorite '80s songs, including those rare Bananarama bootleg recordings. If your MP3s are stored on a computer, all you have to do is search through your music folder by band name or genre and put the songs into a playlist. From there, you can send them on to a CD burner for recording -- imagine how much longer it would take to do all that by hand, searching through your extensive CD collection and popping CDs in and out. And once the mega-MP3 portables are available and affordable, you'll be able to take hundreds of hours of music wherever you go.

Another up-and-coming area for MP3 is webcasting, or "streaming" audio. Unlike downloaded MP3s, streamed MP3 files aren't stored on your hard drive, but broadcast like traditional radio to a receiver (in this case, your MP3 player). RealNetworks has made a business around streamed audio, but uses a proprietary format, RealAudio, to transmit it. Now many content sites, knowing that MP3 is free to broadcast and play, are starting to offer MP3 streams as an alternative to the RealAudio and Microsoft's Windows media streaming formats.

Wired News, for instance, offers Audio Spin, a daily discussion of top news stories. Slashdot serves out Geeks in Space, a program that is just what it sounds like.

These are just some of the reasons that you might start dabbling in MP3. But there are some legal and ethical issues you might want to consider before going hog wild.

Legal Unease

MP3 itself is not an illegal format, but when people offer up MP3 versions of copyrighted material they are breaking the law, plain and simple. In the last year, examples were made of several people serving out large numbers of copyrighted songs.

So does that mean your door will be beaten down by Uzi-toting Feds if you download Lil' Kim's newest, nastiest track?

Well, no.

The RIAA has said it won't target people downloading songs, but it has no mercy for those posting large numbers of songs on a site for download. This leaves applications like Napster in a grey area. Metallica recently targeted more than 300,000 people who were trading their songs on Napster and had them booted from the service.

Whether or not MP3 and programs like Napster are ultimately good or bad for the music industry is the multibillion-dollar question. MP3 proponents argue that the more music people listen to, the more live shows they will attend and CDs they will buy. MP3 critics counter that free music will kill the industry and the artists who depend on it.

So the answer probably lies somewhere between these extremes, and companies like MP3.com have already learned - albeit the hard way, in court - that compromise is the best solution. So in the future, you can probably expect to get free music, but with more and more strings attached.

If you want to delve deeper into the political and business side of MP3, check out Adam Powell's article.

Still willing to risk it? If so, the easiest way to get started is to go hunting on the Net for some ripe MP3s.

In Search of MP3s, Searching and File-Trading

There are a bevy of MP3 search engines available on the Net, where you can type in a song title or artist's name and find sites where MP3s are available for download. But be warned: Search engines often lead to dead links, error messages, porn sites, and other such wastes of time.

If you're going to look for songs online, better to stick with Napster, or other file-sharing utilities which provide easier access to the songs you're looking for by searching the hard drives of thousands of other Napster users. The program not only returns all the matches for a particular artist or song, but also tells you the connection speed - cable modem, DSL, T1, etc - of the user on the other end. The faster the connection, the faster you can download a file. A three-minute song might take only one minute to download from a cable modem host, but it could take up to 15 minutes from a 28.8K modem host. So if you're looking for a fast and easy way to find a particular song, Napster is hard to beat.

Some of the other popular file-trading applications include Gnutella, CuteMX, and Spinfrenzy. And for you Mac folks, Macster is a good bet.

Of course, the easiest way to download music is from one of the many MP3 sites, which offer tracks from artists who have agreed to post their music for free. MP3.com was the first site to offer this service on a large scale, but many others have cropped up, offering more discriminating services that give nice descriptions of the bands and their music. Check out Epitonic to see a good example.

If you're in the mood to drop some cash, a few sites sell MP3 files from established bands. Emusic is the biggest of these sites, and has a wide collection of artists to choose from, with albums at $8.99, and single tracks at 99 cents. Emusic also started a subscription service that offers unlimited access to all of EMusic's 125,000 tracks for $19.99 per month.

After you've filled up your hard drive with MP3s, you might want to listen to some of the booty. If you have a recent version of Windows, a media player is built into your system that will suffice. But if you're interested in a more funky, feature-filled MP3 experience, you should download one of the other available MP3 players.

MP3 Players

Since no licensing fees are required to build an MP3 player, many are available for free. Some of the more popular players include Winamp, Sonique, and MusicMatch. A platform-specific list that includes many other options is available here. Also, Microsoft's Windows Media Player and Real Network's Real Jukebox will play MP3 files in addition to each company's proprietary audio format. In the Macintosh realm, the choices aren't as many, but an extensive list of software is available at Mac digital audio.

The basic function of an MP3 player is to convert your MP3 files back to a standard audio format and send them to your computer's sound card, which outputs them to headphones or speakers. Not all MP3 players, however, are created equal. Although every MP3 player uses the same source code, each player interprets it differently. The upshot is that your MP3 tracks may sound slightly different on each player. So, once you've got an MP3 player up and running, you might want to listen to some music to determine if it's the right player for you. (For more info on specific MP3 players and their features, check out Nate's Nuts and Bolts article.)

And for you movers and shakers, MP3s can also be played on traditional CD decks, boom boxes, and other devices.

MP3 On the Road

Playing MP3s on a computer is cool and all, but at some point you'll want take these tracks on the road or put them on a home stereo so you can pester the neighbors.

But one of the drawbacks to MP3 files is that you can't play the songs in your car or home stereo because standard CD decks won't recognize MP3s burned on a CD. To play MP3 files from a CD you need a specialized device, such as the Genica MP3/CD Player or the Brujo. But you don't necessarily have to buy one of these to get your MP3s out on the street.

In order to listen to an MP3 file on a normal CD deck - be it portable, car, or home unit - you'll need to convert it into a wave (.wav) file first, and then burn it onto a CD. The easiest way to accomplish this is with an MP3 player such as Winamp or Sonique. In both of these players, it's a fairly painless process to convert MP3s to wave files:

Using Winamp, select some MP3 songs and put them in your playlist. Turn the shuffle and equalizer off. Go to the options/preferences menu (ctrl p) and select plugins/output. Select the Disk Writer Plug-in option and hit configure. Now select a directory where the files will be sent. Close the menu and go back to the player and hit play, and the MP3 files will be converted to .wav files and sent to the target folder. Once you've finished converting the songs to wave, go back to the plugins/output menu and select "waveout" to return the player to its normal mode.

Using Sonique, make sure Shuffle, Loop, and EQ are turned off. Go to Nav mode and click Setup Options. Click the General button at the bottom and then select the Audio tab. In the Select Output box, scroll down to .Wav Writer Plugin. Click Configure and then select an output directory. Right Click to go back to the main menu. Hit play to begin writing the current file(s) to disk. Make sure to go back to the audio tab and select Windows Output when you're done writing to disk.

Once in wave format, these files can be burned on a CD using any CD burning software, and then played in a standard CD player. But since converting MP3 files into wave files essentially reverses the compression process, they're no longer just 4-5 MB files -- they're about 10 times that size.

If you don't want to go through the hassle of converting MP3 files into wave files, you can just record them directly from your soundcard into a cassette or Minidisc recorder. This is very simple, and only requires a one-eighth-inch stereo miniplug cable. Connect one end of the cable to the output on your sound card and the other into the recorder input. Queue up some songs on your computer's MP3 player and record away.

DIY: Rippers and Encoders

Besides players, there are only two other MP3 applications to worry about: rippers and encoders. A bunch of these MP3 tools are available here. If you are a Mac user, this site may be a better bet.

There are several things to consider when choosing a program: the operating system you use, the size of the application, the features you want, and the cost (though many are free). So let's have a look at each of these applications up close, and then you can determine what to start with.

MP3 Rippers

One of the easiest ways to create MP3s is from your own CD collection. To do this, you'll need to get a hold of some "ripper" software. Here is a site that will point you to rippers for all different operating systems.

A ripper takes the data from a CD and converts it to a wave file, which is uncompressed and interchangeable audio data. In the Mac realm, the generic audio file format is called Audio Interchange File Format (AIFF). Once audio data is in either of these formats, it's easy to create an MP3 file.

When a ripper converts CD tracks into wave files, the resulting data consumes around 40 to 50 MB per song. So unless you have many gigabytes to spare on your hard drive, don't go converting your whole CD collection at once. One of the important variables with CD rippers is the speed of the CD-ROM drive on your computer. Most modern CD-ROMs will do a fine job, and rip at speeds of 8 to 12X. At that pace, an entire CD can be converted to wave files in about 10 minutes.

MP3 Encoders

If you want to take a CD or wave file and turn it into an MP3, the only piece of software you need is an "encoder." These applications take the sound data and compress it at a ratio that determines both its sound quality and size.

Until recently, there were plenty of encoders available on the Internet, but since Fraunhofer started enforcing its patent on MP3, many of the free encoders have disappeared. So all of the current encoding applications require a small fee, around $20, so the companies can pay the licensing fee.

Here is a site that will point you to an encoder that suits your operating system. Some of these encoders come bundled with MP3 players and CD rippers, so if the all-in-one software appeals to you, check out packages like MusicMatch, AudioCatalyst, or RealNetworks' RealJukebox. These programs will rip and encode all at once, so you don't have to worry using two separate programs to make an MP3 file.

Essentially, the MP3 encoders take sound data and strip out some of the frequencies that are in the outer range of what the human ear recognizes. Remember that converting a song to MP3 is a destructive process, so you will lose some sound quality. That said, determining what encoding rate is right for you depends on how much space you have on your computer and what level of sound quality you want.

Most MP3 encoders offer "constant bit-rate encoding," which means that you can choose between several encoding rates and the software will compress the file accordingly. For instance, the standard encoding rate is 128 kilobits per second, or 128 Kbps (you'll notice that 128 or another number appears on most MP3 players as you're playing a track). Here, the bitrate refers to the average number of bits that one second of sound data will require.

For higher quality sound - and bigger files - you can encode songs at 192 Kbps, or even 256 Kbps (which is true CD quality). If you have very limited space to store your MP3 files, you might even go with 96 Kbps, but the sound quality can be pretty lame at that setting.

Better yet, most MP3 encoders offer "variable bit rate encoding" which is a good way to maximize sound quality and file size simultaneously. In variable bit-rate (VBR) encoding, the software analyzes the data and determines the optimal bit rate for encoding each frame of sound. For instance, cymbals are troublesome for MP3 because they represent "white noise," or a combination of many different frequencies of sounds. By contrast, a bass drum beat has a fairly straightforward frequency that can be easily represented in MP3. So when a song is encoded using VBR, the program analyzes the data and works within a range -- say, 128 Kbps and 192 Kbps -- to find the optimal encoding rate for each frame of sound. The end result is an MP3 file that is optimized for both size and sound quality.

To get a sense of how the encoding rate affects sound quality, you could take the same wave file and encode it at 128 Kbps, 160 Kbps, 192 Kbps, and then VBR. When you're finished, listen to each of the files and decide which encoding rate suits you. But, as a rule, if you're working with something simple like a voice recording, there is no need to go much beyond 24 Kbps because the file will sound fine at that rate and you're saving lots of space on the hard drive. This is especially important to keep in mind if you plan to stream any of your MP3s. The smaller the file, the easier and faster it is for an audience to stream it off a website.

Considering how easy it is face the music with MP3, odds are it'll be around for a long time to come.

The Future of MP3

It's always hard to say how long any given technology will stick around, but given MP3's company -- all the applications and infrastructure -- MP3 is gonna be around for a while. Better compression technologies have existed for some time now, but MP3's success is due to the relatively open nature of the format.

It's a situation, however, that may change. Next year, Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft Institute (which created the MP3 codec) will demand licensing fees on every stream on the Web that carries an MP3 file. Notified of this upcoming fee, MP3 broadcasters went into a tizzy and launched an open-source MP3 project called the Ogg Vorbis format. (An interview with the Vorbis founders is available at Wired News.) The group is trying to develop "a completely open, patent-free, professional audio encoding and streaming technology with all the benefits of Open Source."

Like MP3, the Vorbis format will determine which parts of a sound file are not audible and drop that from the bit stream as it's encoding. Unlike MP3, it will be a completely open format which people can contribute to, just as with other successful open-source projects like the Apache Web server and Icecast streaming server. The Vorbis group currently has a beta version of the format which anyone can tinker with and offer changes.

Meanwhile, public awareness and use of the MP3 format continues to grow, and it has become an grassroots industry on the Web with no end in sight, especially since it's just so easy. All it takes is a little computer time to get all your MP3 programs in order, and the payoff is mo' music, mo' music, mo' music.

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