1000 songs in your pocket."At the premiere of the first ipod in october 2001, apple boss steve jobs summed up the revolutionary concept of the music file format MP3.
The MP3 data reduction process made it possible to fit 1000 pieces of music on a small hard disk. MP3 was not invented in california – but to a large extent in the french town of erlangen. 25 years ago – on 14. July 1995 – researchers at the fraunhofer institute for integrated circuits agreed on the file name extension ".Mp3" for the file standard they had developed.
The origins of the MP3 project date back to 1982. At the time, the aim was to make music files small enough to be transmitted in decent quality over a digital telephone line (ISDN). The student karlheinz brandenburg made the seemingly impossible task the subject of his doctoral thesis at the chair of technical electronics in erlangen.
Soon, however, it was no longer 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 home 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 field before," remembers brandenburg’s colleague bernhard grill. "We also had no experience in broadcast technology. We started from scratch – on the green meadow."
In the beginning, the researchers from erlangen had to fight against 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, we were only going to think up things that would be so difficult to implement in practice anyway and that no one would do sensibly," says grill.
Because the moving picture experts group (MPEG) could not agree on a method, three different methods were standardized as to how music and audio should be stored, transmitted on the internet and via digital home radio in the future. MPEG layer 1 no longer plays a role. Layer 2 is still used for stereo sound in older televisions. However, layer 3, which is generally known as MP3 since the file extension was named 25 years ago, has gained widespread acceptance. "We had to pass a test on our technology," says brandenburg.
But the MP3 inventor found that his algorithm failed and sounded awful on one of his favorite songs, "tom’s diner" by suzanne vega. So he set to work optimizing the compression process countless times until the a cappella song finally came out as an MP3. "I must have heard this song thousands of times in this way. But because I like the music, I’ve never been sick of it."
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 broadcast technology, but also to completely turn the music industry upside down.
A criminal hack also contributed to this mp3 revolution. The researchers from erlangen had put a "reference coder" on the web to demonstrate the capabilities of MP3. He encoded only one minute of music. However, a student broke the playing time limit and posted this cracked version of the program on the web – triggering the MP3 wave that reached its first peak on 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 though the data lines were much slower than today’s gigabit connections. It was only with the success of the itunes music store from 2003 and legal streaming services such as spotify from 2008 that the music industry slowly recovered again.
Despite the constant improvements to the codec, i.E. Compression method, the criticism of MP3 and its successor formats does not rub off. An mp3 file is only a weak image of what analog music could once be; a modest substitute for the miracle that once took place in record listening, said canadian musician neil young in a tv interview: "analog music is like a reflection; like a lake reflecting the landscape in calm weather."
MP3-miterfinder brandenburg can still halay understand the criticism of the original MP3. The new codes such as AAC are now so good at higher data rates that they cannot be distinguished by the human ear from analog sound transmissions, for example from vinyl records. This was proven by numerous blind tests, including a study by the university of huddersfield in the uk. "It is really the expectation that is heard."
In the meantime, fraunhofer IIS is licensing the fourth generation of audio codecs "made in germany". "If you buy a cell phone today, it probably has other technologies from us implemented in addition to MP3," says institute director grill: almost all streaming services use the second and third generation of the AAC audio codec. "New in smartphones is our fourth generation."These enhanced voice services (EVS) for better sound quality in mobile communications (4G and 5G) are not about music this time, but about voice, which is technically a greater challenge than music.
MP3 co-inventor karlheinz brandenburg, who made it into the "internet hall of fame" in 2014, no longer accompanies the search for the perfect sound at the fraunhofer institute. After almost 20 years there he said goodbye in this june in retirement. But he remains active: with his own company, the "brandenburg labs," he is working together with fraunhofer on a new technology called "personalized auditory reality," or "party" for short, which is intended to make it possible to listen, hear or move away selectively. Headphones are supposed to help you hear, just like glasses help you see.
The "party" headphone should be intelligent, which means it should perceive the room and analyze all the sound sources automatically. "And then i can say i would like to talk to a certain person, which is hardly possible now because of strong background noise. Or I would like to talk to someone on the phone. It’s not supposed to be like now, where someone croaks in my ear, but where I really have the impression that the person is standing a meter away from me, and I’m having a normal conversation with him or her."