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Who invented the MP3 audio standard?

For the younger generation, digital music enjoyment is now standard. Streaming or downloading songs via music portals such as Apple Music have completely changed the way we all listen to music and also destroyed the traditional business model of record labels. Nowadays, only a few music purists still have meter-long shelves full of CDs or records. How did the triumph of MP3 come about?

The audio format MP3 is just in the late twenties. However, the development of the Moving Picture Experts Group Audio Layer III – the full name of this revolutionary file format – began in the early 1980s.

A dissertation makes history

The MP3 story begins in Franconia, more precisely at the University of Erlangen. Karlheinz Brandenburg was not the only student at the University’s Chair of Technical Electronics. Professor Dieter Seitzer was also working on compressing music so that it could be sent over a digital telephone line (ISDN). Because he was not making any progress with his research, he entrusted his student Karlheinz Brandenburg with this task. Brandenburg loves music and devotes himself to solving this task from 1982 onwards. At the same time, Brandenburg writes his doctoral thesis on the subject. What he doesn’t know is that the result of his research will turn all the music industry’s business models upside down.

Of course, Brandenburg is not working alone on such a complex task. Together with other music-loving fellow students, the student sets to work. Very soon, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits (IIS) in Erlangen takes notice of the students’ work. Experts at the Fraunhofer Institute are also working on the topic. In the meantime, it is no longer just a matter of transmitting music via ISDN, but also of the possibilities of transmitting music via the newly developed digital radio standard DAB.

The problem to be solved

At this point, we are now writing the year 1987, the group of students and researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute still has no idea of what other possibilities compressed music files can offer. The audio experts are still trying to disprove the textbook opinion: Music cannot be compressed. At that time, compression formats already existed for videos and speech.

To get closer to the solution, researchers also looked at how the human inner ear works. In the process, they made a groundbreaking discovery. Certain tones overlap during the normal hearing process, which means that these pitches sound the same and no differences can be heard.

Conversely, this means that some tones can simply be omitted because the human ear does not hear them separately anyway. This significantly reduces the size of the music file compared to the original digital file on a CD. The young researchers are basing all future work on this new insight.

“Tom’s Diner” defines the MP3 standard

The budding doctor Karlheinz Brandenburg takes on the task of procuring sufficient audio samples. He sets off with 1000 marks, roams various record stores in Erlangen and returns to the Fraunhofer Institute with a sack full of records.

Brandenburg procures music from all possible genres, from metal to classical. This later proves to be a great advantage. Because everyone in the research group has different musical preferences. This makes a decisive contribution to the work on the solution for compressing music. For example, the rocker can hear certain special features in rock songs that the folk music fan can’t hear.

Karlheinz Brandenburg loves the music of US folk singer Suzanne Vega. In a hi-fi magazine, the budding doctor reads that loudspeaker manufacturers use the voice of Suzanne Vega to test the quality. So Brandenburg gets the song ‘Tom’s Diner’ in a version without music and only with the voice of Suzanne Vega. With the help of this song, the research group achieves a decisive breakthrough and Brandenburg receives his doctorate.

MP3 conquers the world

However, the world outside the hallowed halls of research is still unaware of this groundbreaking development. As is so often the case, the story could have turned out quite differently. The industry was also researching a format for compressing music. From there, there are attempts to outdo MP3 and establish MP2.

In the end, it was not necessarily technical superiority that won out, but a considerable leap of faith in the work of the Fraunhofer Institute. On July 14, 1995, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen, Germany, states: “The extension for a new audio compression algorithm – technically ISO MPEG Audio Layer 3 – will from now on be called ‘.mp3′”.

By the way: the real MP3 boom goes back to a criminal hack. At the time, Fraunhofer researchers posted a reference coder on the fledgling Internet for demonstration purposes. This was supposed to encode just one minute of music. A student cracks the encoder and breaks the playing time limit. He puts his hacked version on the Internet for free. Within a short time, this becomes the business model for Napster and other illegal music download portals.

Apple helps the MP3 to fame

Only a certain Steve Jobs of Apple recognizes the true potential of MP3 and frees the download of music files from illegality. With the iPod and the slogan “1000 songs in a bag”, the Apple boss turned the music world upside down for good in 2001.

And today? MP3 itself has officially been history since 2017. That’s when the official licensing programs ended. MP3 lives on, however, in new, modern audio formats such as AAC, which is used by Apple, or the further development xHE-AAC. These formats were also significantly developed with the help of experts at the Fraunhofer Institute IIS in Erlangen.


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