Home Features A tribute to the MP3 format which turned 25 years old this month

A tribute to the MP3 format which turned 25 years old this month

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It’s almost impossible to think back to a time when we listened to music on a physical medium. Such has been the success of iTunes and other music streaming pioneers, who rewrote the rulebook on digital adoption so many years ago. But perhaps they all owe their success to the mp3 music format, the first digital audio codec that was capable of encoding high-quality sound at low bitrates and meant that music could now be stored in a digital format on machines without taking up loads of storage. Or killing your 56k modem during a download.

That technology is now 25 years old as of this month. Yes, think back to a time when the name Pentium was a new cutting-edge technology and when clock speeds above 100MHz were considered to be blazingly fast. Indeed, it was a simpler time.

The journey towards music digitization all started in 1988 when the Moving Picture Experts Group called out for an audio encoding standard. This pushed many companies to explore possible options of how to do this, with many proposals over the years trying to identify the best method for compression. It was eventually through a process called MUSICAM that the breakthrough came about. MUSICAM utilised the effect of auditory masking, a perceptual limitation of human hearing where some sounds mask others from being heard at the same time. People realised that by eliminating data corresponding to these sounds that aren’t perceived anyway, it became possible to store more audio in less space without any perceived loss of effect for the listener.

It was this approach that led to the original MPEG 1 Audio Layers I and II before a team of researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute were able to create a new Layer III codec that could deliver the same quality at 128 kbps as Layer II could at 192 kbps. However, this was still back in 1993 and the institute hadn’t quite realised the potential of their new technique. It was only in July 1995 that the team decided to adopt the now famous .mp3 extension that led to a rise of digital MP3 layers and music finally getting distributed over the internet in larger quantities.

Their initial intention was to monetise their new format, but thankfully they decided against it and instead we got blessed with the likes of programs like MusicMatch Jukebox and WinAmp (it whipped the Llama’s ass) that paved the way for many people to rip their CDs into the digital format create an explosion of large scale music-piracy.

It was the start of a downward trend for the record industry that relied on the sale of physical albums for the majority of their revenue, but it was also these important moments that would lead the way for Apple and the creation of the Digital Music store and the evolution of the music industry into a digital one.

Yes, sadly, record labels made far less money as a result and many artists suffered. But if we look back on it, would we really listen to as much music as we do if it were not for the evolution of this digital trend and the creation of the MP3 format?

So yes, MP3 might be on its way out and considered a dinosaur these days, but we have it to thank for the industry we have today

For good or bad.

Last Updated: July 30, 2020

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