Origins of the MP3

This one may be a doozy because of all the technological detailing that is included, so we hope you’ve already had your morning coffee! Before we get into dissecting and naysaying the MP3, we must remind ourselves of champagne problems. We’re so incredibly graced with luck to be living in this current state of technology. Despite that, we still have become a little spoiled and like things to be the very best that they can be.

So, what is the MP3 anyway? “MP3 (formally MPEG-1 Audio Layer III or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III)] is a coding format for digital audio.The MP3 was developed by the German company Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, who also holds the patent for MP3 technology, which they license out now. In 1987 the Fraunhofer Institut Integrierte Schaltungen research center, part of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, began research on high quality, low bit rate audio encoding.”

When it comes to audio quality, it’s akin to a painter painting with colors from the dollar store. The issue is not in the pricing, it instead lies in the nuances and characteristics of that paint - oftentimes the one that is more valued is done so because the elements are more curated. Audio is no different, yet it is a bit trickier because you are forced to work within the confines of software and technological structure. You must find something that is universally accepted with a high enough quality to be an industry standard, as well. Enter the MP3. 

The main issue of fighting off quality and the ability to exist on a multitude of platforms and devices is that of compression. It is the compression that can often squash all of those gorgeous little nuances that you and/or your engineers spent hours pouring over. “In regard to audio compression (the aspect of the standard most apparent to end-users, and for which it is best known), MP3 uses lossy data-compression to encode data using inexact approximations and the partial discarding of data. This allows a large reduction in file sizes when compared to uncompressed audio. The combination of small size and acceptable fidelity led to a boom in the distribution of music over the Internet in the mid- to late-1990s, with MP3 serving as an enabling technology at a time when bandwidth and storage were still at a premium. The MP3 format soon became associated with controversies surrounding copyright infringement, music piracy, and the file ripping/sharing services and Napster, among others. With the advent of portable media players, a product category also including smartphones, MP3 support remains near-universal.”

Adobe weighs in on the topic of what’s the very best file format if not MP3? “Advanced Audio Coding, or AAC files (also known as MPEG-4 AAC), take up very little space and are good for streaming, especially over mobile devices. Requiring less than 1 MB per minute of music and sounding better than MP3 at the same bitrate, the AAC format is used by iTunes/Apple Music, YouTube, and Android.” A lossless audio file format is the best format for sound quality. These include FLAC, WAV, or AIFF. These types of files are considered “hi-res” because they are better or equal to CD-quality. The tradeoff is that these files will be very large.”

So, if we’re stuck using MP3s sheerly due to their overall universability, then how can we make the sound just that much sweeter? Some audiophiles may argue that this is a fruitless mission that may be inaudible to their human ear, yet there are many who claim that we have a little wiggle room to work with when it comes to cleaning up your MP3 to be as shiny as possible! Windows Report states “MP3 is a lossy file format, which means that the sound quality won’t be identical like on the CD. However, you can somewhat preserve the sound quality by setting a higher bitrate. The maximum bitrate that MP3 can support is 320Kbps, so for maximum quality, you should always convert/save files using 320Kbps bitrate or download MP3 files that are encoded using the 320Kbps bitrate.This bitrate offers quality similar to the CD quality, and it’s the maximum quality that you can get from an MP3 file.”

This is a topic that we will certainly dig further into in the future, so stay tuned for ramblings on all those little brain-bending goodies such as how to name, prepare and deliver stems while working with both hobbyists and high level professionals. It’s about time we all get on the same sonic page in this department!