The MP3, its origins, and its impact

Continuing on the music theme for my forthcoming book, and the disruption caused by the Internet to established industries…
In 1996, the song ‘Until it sleeps’ by Metallica became the first track to be illegally copied from CD, encoded as an MP3, and made available on the Internet by a user operating under the nickname ‘NetFrack’. NetFrack announced the revolution in music piracy to Affinity disk magazine, a diskette based news sheet circulated in the computer underground:

I’ve thought of the idea of somehow pirating, music. … The problem in the past … was HD [hard disk] space. … We eliminated the size constraints. We use a new format to compress our music. The MP3 format.

The development of the MP3 marked a pivotal moment in the history of the recording industry, ruining distribution and business models, and challenging the future of the major labels. This revolution, as with much else in the digital upheaval, started in the early 1970s.

A researcher in Germany named Dieter Seitzer began researching the problem of transmitting high quality speech in digital form using standard phone lines. Sound waves generated by the human voice were generally relayed along telephone cable in anolog form. One could digitize them using pulse-code modulation (PCM), a system that recorded a digital copy of an analog signal by taking samples of it at even distances. This results in a digital version that sounds almost exactly the same as the analog version, and which can be reproduced indefinitely and perfectly. Yet, digitization required the transfer of far more data – so much, in fact, that standard telephone lines could not support it, and Seitzer’s initial patent application to do so was apparently rejected as infeasible. As Seitzer and his students at Erlangen-Nuremberg University worked on the problem a new generation of telecommunications infrastructure solved the problem for him. At the end of the 1970s, ISDN lines and fiber optic cabling began to provide far more bandwidth, and meant that digitized speech could be relayed. Seitzer turned his attentions to the transmission of high quality music, which, despite the higher capacity of the infrastructure, remained beyond its capacity to transmit.

One of Seitzer’s students, Karlheinz Brandenburg, approached the problem using psychoacoustics. Brandenburg realized that the parts of sound imperceptible by the human ear could usefully be excluded from recorded music, thereby reducing the amount of data required to reproduce a record. In 1987, Eureka, an intergovernmental European research fund, supported further development of digital sound encoding at Erlangen-Nuremberg University, now partnered and lead by the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits. In 1989 Brandenburg submitted his PhD thesis on ‘optimum coding in the frequency (OCF) domain’, which contributed to an encoding system that could allow the transmission of music in real-time at a reasonable quality over telephone lines.

The ear generally picks up sounds between 20 Hz and 20,000 Hz, though young adults may have an upper limit of 17,000 Hz and one’s useful lower limit might actually be around 60Hz. In addition, the human ear is incapable of deciphering sounds when masked by another sound occurring at the same time, or, depending on the sound, by a sound that makes a sound that follows it inaudible. Sounds beyond the threshold of audibility were excluded. ‘Simultaneous’ and ‘temporal masking’ can also be excluded from the digital recording. Since modern microphones are capable of picking up a range of frequencies far beyond the human ear’s threshold of audibility, the result when the surplus sound is removed is a far smaller set of digital data that represents a very high quality record of the original music. As NetFrack put it in describing the virtues of MP3 to his peers in the computer underground in 1996, ‘if you rip a song from CD … then you would end up with a 50 MB WAV’ file. To put this in context, the average modem on sale in 1996 was capable of making a connection that could transfer 33.6 kilobytes of data per second (Kbps). Downloading a single track on even a perfect connection could take between three and four hours. Yet from 1996 on, ‘that same 50 MB WAV would be 3 to 4MB in MP3’.

However, working on the initial concept in 1987, the researchers were using computers so slow in relative terms to those that would appear a decade later that sound compression took many hours on high performance machines. The team could initially only test the effect of this compression method on short sound samples, until May 1987, when they developed a system that could handle real-time implementation of an experimental music compressor and decompress or (“codec”). In 1991, the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) of the ISO considered a number of proposals for standards to adopt for the compressed encoding of digital audio. AT&T, Thomson and Hannover University refined the OCF system developed by the Fraunhofer Institute, which the MPEG adopted within a family of three codecs. It was adopted as ISO MPEG Layer 3 in December 1991. The codec made its debut as a high-end format for TV and radio stations. Fraunhofer built and supplied powerful studio equipment using the codec to allow the stations to transfer audio material by ISDN for use in broadcasts. By the mid nineties personal computers had become sufficiently powerful to perform audio decoding and allow their users to listen to music from the computer’s speakers. In July 1995, Fraunhofer decided on a file extension for its MPEG Layer 3 codec. Following an internal poll Fraunhofer settled upon “.MP3”.

To demonstrate MP3 to personal computer users who now had machines adequately powerful to listen to them, Fraunhofer released WinPlay3, a demonstration piece of software, which was promptly cracked and illegally released for free by a student in Australia. Within two years, the combination of efficient computers, free MP3 codec software, and increasingly faster Internet speeds brought the MP3 format into the public consciousness. In May 1997, USA Today announced ‘Sound advances open doors to bootleggers’. In August the previous year, NetFrack had founded the first crew of MP3 pirates. In March 1998, Saehan Information Systems of Korea released the MPMan F10, the world’s first portable MP3 player. It had a capacity of 32MB, sufficient for eight or nine tracks. On 23 October 2001, Apple Computer released the first iPod, an MP3 player that ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. In September 1998, Diamond Multimedia released a 32MB MP3 device called The Rio, and sweetened the deal by teaming up with new website to offer music. However, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) immediately sued Diamond Multimedia on the grounds that the device violated the US Home Recordings Act, about which, more anon…


4 thoughts on “The MP3, its origins, and its impact

  1. Looking back… It’s exciting to have been at the fore-front of a revolution…. but wondering whether you cost someone (or a number of people) their job gnaws at you a bit…not to mention the scores of young people which found themselves in legal troubles as a result of engaging in this “hobby”…..I’m just glad I got out of it before the “NET Act” was passed in 1997…

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