25 Years of the mp3 format: when the music revolution began in germany

"1000 songs in your pocket."At the premiere of the first iPod in October 2001, Apple CEO Steve Jobs summed up the revolutionary concept behind the MP3 music file format. The MP3 data reduction process made it possible to fit 1000 pieces of music on a small hard disk.

MP3 wasn’t invented in California, however – but in large part in Erlangen, Franconia, Germany. 25 years ago – on 14. July 1995 – researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits agreed to use the file name extension ".Using "mp3" for the file standard they were instrumental in developing.

The origins of the MP3 project date back to 1982. At that time, it was about making music files small enough to be transmitted in decent quality over a digital telephone line (ISDN). The student Karlheinz Brandenburg made the seemingly unsolvable task the subject of his doctoral thesis at the Chair of Technical Electronics in Erlangen.

MP3 was invented in Erlangen

Soon, however, it wasn’t just a matter of enabling music transmission via ISDN telephony. A small team in Erlangen set out to define the next generation of sound for radio and television. The research was financed primarily by the EU’s "Eureka" project.

"We were absolute newcomers; we had never built a device in this area before," recalls Brandenburg’s colleague Bernhard Grill. "We also had no experience in broadcast technology. We started from scratch – on a greenfield site."

In the beginning, the researchers from Erlangen had to fight massive reservations, especially from competitors in the business world. "We were researchers, and the competition took advantage of that to give us a certain reputation – according to the motto that we would only come up with things that are so difficult to implement in practice anyway and that no one will do sensibly," says Grill.

MP3 compression method optimized countless times

Because the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) couldn’t agree on a method, three different methods have been standardized for how music and audio will be stored, transmitted on the Internet and over digital radio in the future. MPEG Layer 1 doesn’t matter now. Layer 2 is still used on older TV sets for stereo sound.

On the other hand, Layer 3, which is generally known as MP3 when the file extension was named 25 years ago, has prevailed on a broad front. "We have had to pass over our technology," says Brandenburg.

But then the MP3 inventor found that his algorithm failed on one of his favorite songs, "Tom’s Diner" by Suzanne Vega, of all things, and sounded terrible. So he set to work optimizing the compression process countless times until the a cappella song came across naturally as an MP3.

"I must have heard this song thousands of times in this manner. But because I like the music, I never got sick of it."

MP3 has revolutionized music industry

The development work of Brandenburg and his colleagues Heinz Gerhauser, Ernst Eberlein, Bernhard Grill, Jurgen Herre and Harald Popp was not only to fundamentally renew broadcasting technology, but also to completely turn the music industry upside down.

A criminal hack has also contributed to this MP3 revolution. The Erlangen researchers had put a "reference coder" on the net to demonstrate the skills of MP3. He encoded only one minute of music.

A student, however, broke through the playing time restriction, put this cracked version of the program on the Internet – and thus triggered the MP3 wave, which reached its first peak in the Napster platform.

The format with the file extension ".mp3" shook the music industry to its foundations, because in one fell swoop it was possible to exchange music worldwide via the Internet, even if the data lines were much slower compared to today’s gigabit connections. It wasn’t until the success of the iTunes Music Store starting in 2003 and legal streaming services like Spotify starting in 2008 that the music industry slowly recovered.

Criticism of the MP3 format

Despite the constant improvements to the codec, that is, compression method, criticism of MP3 and its successor formats does not stop. An MP3 file is only a weak reflection of what analog music could once be; a modest substitute for the miracle that once occurred when listening to records, said Canadian musician Neil Young in a TV interview: "Analog music is like a reflection; like a lake in which the landscape is reflected in calm weather."

MP3-Miterfinder Brandenburg can still halay understand the criticism of the original MP3. But the new codes like AAC are now so good at higher data rates that they are indistinguishable to the human ear from analog sound transmissions from vinyl records, for example, he said.

This would have been proven by numerous blind tests – including a study by the British University of Huddersfield. "It is in fact the expectation that is heard."

Meanwhile, Fraunhofer IIS licenses the fourth generation of audio codecs "made in Germany. "If you buy a cell phone today, it probably has other technologies implemented by us besides MP3," says Grill, the institute’s director: almost all streaming services use the second and third generation of the AAC audio codec, he says.

"What’s new in smartphones is our fourth generation."However, these Enhanced Voice Services (EVS) for better sound quality in mobile communications (4G and 5G) are not about music this time, he said, but about voice, which is technically the bigger challenge than music.

MP3 Miterfinder no longer at the Fraunhofer Institute

MP3 co-inventor Karlheinz Brandenburg, who made it into the "Internet Hall of Fame" in 2014, now no longer accompanies the search for the perfect sound at the Fraunhofer Institute. After nearly 20 years there, he retired as institute director at the end of June 2019.

But he remains active: with his own company, Brandenburg Labs, he is working with Fraunhofer on a new technology called "Personalized Auditory Reality" or "PARty" for short, which is intended to enable targeted listening, hearing or hearing away. Headphones are supposed to help with hearing like glasses help with seeing.

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