How Music Got Free ~ 1.

in music •  2 years ago

Many of us know very little about the profound changes in the record industry in recent decades.

The mp3 files on your smartphone have a fascinating story behind them, dating back to an audio lab in Germany, shady workers in a CD-pressing plant in North Carolina and, finally, to industry-changing lawsuits between piracy groups and the world’s biggest record companies.

When the very first CDs started appearing on the shelves of music stores, people who were familiar with data storage already knew these discs were an inefficient delivery system. This was especially true for those who studied psychoacoustics, the science of sound perception.

As early as the 1980s, one German team working with empirical psychoacoustic data started experimenting with digital music compression.

In 1987, a team lead by doctoral student Karlheinz Brandenburg came together at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Their goal was to reduce the size of digital audio files by way of extracting bits of information and sound that were scientifically proven to be imperceptible to the human ear.

Originally, the goal was to reduce the size of a CD track, which averaged about 1.4 million bits, to one-twelfth of its size, i.e., about 128,000 bits.

After years of testing and collaborating, the team finally reached their goal. They took music from every genre and used the recordings of a single human voice, bird sounds and even jet engines in order to perfect their compression methods. Interestingly, the human voice on its own proved to be the most challenging sound to deal with. Fun fact: the team tested it by using the acapella intro to Suzanne Vega’s Tom’s Diner.

The group continued perfecting their work and it wasn’t until 1989, when Brandenburg collaborated with James Johnston, who was working independently on his own psychoacoustic algorithm at AT&T-Bell Labs, that the quality of their compressed files started to sound indistinguishable from that of a CD.

Armed with decent-sounding compressed files and funding from AT&T, the Fraunhofer team was set to submit their work to the technical standards committee: the Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG.

While awaiting approval from MPEG, the team was oblivious to what lay ahead: a format war and a host of political battles.

The Fraunhofer team was suddenly up against the developers of Musicam, a different compression format. Musicam had the advantage of being backed by Philips, who owned the manufacturing license for CDs and were also formidable lobbyists.

MPEG ended up accepting both formats, naming Musicam’s format MPEG Audio Layer II (mp2) and Fraunhofer’s format MPEG Audio Layer III (mp3).

MPEG, however, selected the mp2 as the format for digital FM radio, CD-ROMs and digital audio tapes, neglecting to assign anything to the mp3 format.

While Philips continued to invest in the mp2 format, the ever-improving mp3 was coming out on top in head-to-head comparison tests and, by 1994, the team reached its goal of having a one-twelfth compression ratio that also sounded good.

Nevertheless, in 1995, the mp3 came close to complete defeat when MPEG opted for the mp2 format for use on DVDs.

However, just when it seemed that the mp3 was going to lose the format war, an unexpected win occurred. The Fraunhofer team made a deal with the National Hockey League (NHL), installing licensed mp3 conversion boxes in every stadium in North America. Although it was a small deal, it was a significant victory for the mp3, and it gave the Fraunhofer team enough financial support to keep going.

Even though the financial support from the NHL helped keep the mp3 afloat, the Fraunhofer team knew it wouldn’t be the answer to winning the format war in the long term. They weren’t discouraged, though, as they knew they had a superior format. What they needed was for people to listen to it.

So the team decided to make a bold move that would, unbeknownst to them, mark the beginning of the music-pirating revolution. In 1995, under the threat of being driven out of business by the Philips-backed mp2 format, the Fraunhofer team decided to give away their mp3 conversion software – called L3Enc – and their PC mp3 player application – called WinPlay3 – for free on their website.

Just one year later, people started using this conversion software to share songs ripped from CDs over the internet. This became increasingly easy, as broadband internet connections cropped up all over the world. Suddenly, internet chat channels with the name #MP3 started forming and gathering momentum.

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