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Free and Easy

Date: 7th December 2018

Free and Easy

2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of the MP3 format coming of age. Although every self-respecting audiophile will shiver at the thought of this mediocre sounding lossy digital music file, there’s no denying how important it has proved in the great scheme of things. It was the ‘enabler’ of computer audio, going on to become the common currency of today’s cloud-based music streaming. Yet this didn’t come to pass by accident, as the format had to battle a threat to its very existence two decades ago. Had things gone differently, the world might have become another place – and that’s why it’s interesting to reflect on this format’s past, present and future…

For many audiophiles, the certainties of the pre-MP3 world endure. Plenty of people still play digital audio discs, and the idea of using computers, network attached storage devices or internet music streaming still seem pretty alien. Yet others understand that we’re now in a changed world, one that would not be where it is today without the emergence of MP3 two decades back. The world is so different because this innocent little file format carved out a path that has permanently transformed the way we buy and listen to music.

“MP3” is a snappy way of saying Moving Picture Experts Group Audio, Layer I Part 3, or MPEG-1 Part 3. The format was first published in 1993, as an ‘open source’ way of coding music in a lossy way. The level of compression was variable, but the compression system was not – indeed it was the result of a protracted struggle between two competing systems during the nineteen nineties. It used so-called ‘perceptual coding’ that takes advantage of the phenomenon of auditory masking. Way back in 1894, American physicist Alfred M. Mayer first showed that tones could be made inaudible by the presence of others, and fifty five years later, an algorithm was finally created. From this a psychoacoustic masking codec was proposed in 1979 by Bell Labs. The Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was formed in 1988 to create global standards for digital video and audio, and then exactly thirty years ago this month, MPEG called for an audio coding standard, and work began.

The codec was reputedly refined over and over again by listening to Suzanne Vega’s Toms Diner, a particularly well recorded American folk rock standard of the late eighties that developer Karlheinz Brandenburg loved. MP3 took on much of the technology already developed for MUSICAM – a professional audio broadcast codec – and finally, researchers were able to get the same sound quality from 128kbps MP3 as they could from MP2 at 192kbps. The final international standard was published in 1993 with scant public interest, but little did we know that five years later, things would be dramatically different. On 9th September 1995, the first real-time software player was launched; WinPlay3 made it possible to store a modest amount of music on the average 500MB hard disk drive of that time.

The internet revolution was in its infancy, but really beginning to heat up. By the late nineties, many tech-savvy people had access to it, and one of the star attractions was the large amount of ‘open source’ music in MP3 format. Nullsoft’s Winamp player was released in 1997, and this drove the underground ‘free music’ craze overground. Indeed, computer hardware sellers and internet service providers began to sell the idea of free music as an attraction for their wares, while record companies looked on nervously. In 1998, the first portable solid state digital audio player – the MPMan – was released, and then the Diamond Multimedia Rio PMP300 appeared. One year later, the Recording Industry Association of America took the makers of the Rio to court in a bid to get its sale prohibited – and failed.

Ironically the publicity that this generated drew ever more people’s attention to MP3, and the fall in price of solid-state memory meant the players became increasingly affordable. Launched in 1999, Napster became an overnight sensation; for several years it was able to hold off lawsuits by claiming itself to be a peer-to-peer website that held no pirated music. But it wasn’t until October 2001 that MP3 went truly mainstream. Although a number of ‘MP3 players’ had been on sale for a year or more, the first Apple iPod offered a seamless way of getting and playing music. It was a step change in convenience and took the geekery out of the format. In doing so, it catapulted the idea of ‘computer audio’ into the public’s imagination. The Jonathan Ive design sported a distinctive scroll wheel that made it very easy to use, and the stylish polycarbonate player came in a choice of 5GB and 10GB capacities, starting at just under £300.

In order to use the iPod, users could either download MP3 files from the iTunes Music Store or ‘rip’ their own Compact Discs using their computer’s CD-ROM drive and the iTunes app for Macs or PCs. Many people did the latter and never looked back – the die for using computers for the enjoyment of recorded music was cast. That’s how we get to where we are today; the past fifteen years have seen an explosion in the amount of storage available for a given price, and ever-faster broadband.

Cheaper memory and faster internet speeds opened the door first to hi-res music files, and then streaming. This venerable open source file format is still alive and kicking in 2019, now used as a ‘lowest common denominator’ music carrier in a world where hi-res PCM and DSD files are the choice of the cognoscenti. Without this iconic digital music file, we would surely not be where we are now – looking towards the forthcoming world of ultra-high resolution digital musical enjoyment, and the associated new formats that will surely follow. Because of the unique design of our products, you can be sure that dCS will be there too.