The emergence of MP3s can be traced back in 1982 when Karlheinz Brandenburg was a PhD student at Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg studying electrical engineering. It was as this great institution that his thesis adviser posed a challenge to him to find a way through which music could be transmitted over digital phone lines.
In 1986, the progress on the project became more tangible when advanced technology was used to separate sounds into three layers or sections. Each layer had the capacity to either be saved or discarded depending on its role and overall importance on sound. Brandenburg together with his colleagues leveraged on a phenomenon known as auditory masking to enable them compress the size of the file on which the music was recorded.
Simply explained, auditory masking is exactly what happens when the human ear is incapable of hearing certain sounds. Sounds with lower frequencies can effectively mask other sounds which mean the obscured sounds can then be discarded from the particular recording without any noticeable loss in sound quality. The ability to obscure sounds and later discarding them gave rise to the possibility of encoding files with decreased bitrates which in turn resulted in smaller files that could retain unacceptable amount of the initial sound quality.
The Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) was a group charged with the responsibility of creating worldwide standards in audio recording. This group was created by the International Standards Organization abbreviated as ISO in 1988. The standard created by MPEG included three layers; Layer I, II and III. Layer III gave the highest sound quality at the lowest bitrates.
Low Fidelity Recordings and Loss of Information
Though work on digital encoding continued, there were problems at some point because voices were being recorded in very low fidelity. Further experimentations continued with the psychoacoustic models which were finalized in 1991 when MPEG-1 Audio Layer III was developed. It was later discovered that MPEG-1 Audio Layer III was a lossy audio data compression format which lost some information each time the digital file is uncompressed and then recompressed. The compression algorithms employed by MP3 take advantage of the limitations in human hearing to discard sounds that were not well perceived by the human ear thus resulting in very small music files.
Advances in the compression technology led to complex encoding algorithms which allowed for things such as variable and average bitrate encoding where complex parts of the audio are recorded at relatively higher bitrates compared to the less complex ones hence higher quality sound.
After it was realized that the new format could be used over the internet, Brandenburg and MEPG decided to have the .MP3 file extension in 1995. At about the same time, the cost of MP3 decoding software fell thus making it affordable to a large majority of people. One of the common and widely downloaded decoding software was WinAmp which was partially free and partially paid for.
Peer to Peer Music Sharing
The rise of peer to peer music sharing gave rise to Napster, one of the most infamous companies of the internet age. Napster was a simple to use free peer to peer file sharing service which focused on MP3 sharing. By 2001, Napster had close to 25 million verified users. Napster recorded huge amounts of traffic largely from college networks. Napster was brought down in 2001 following lawsuits by Metallica, Dr. Dre, and the Recording Industry Association of America who accused the service of violating the Digital Media Copyright Act. Despite Napster shutting down, other peer to peer file sharing services such as Kazza, Scour Exchange, Madster, and LimeWire sprung up. BitTorrent is one of the file sharing service that exists up to today.
The listening of MP3 music was boosted by the proliferation of electronic gadgets including the MPMan, Audio Highway’s Listen Up MP3 Player, Creative Nomad Jukebox, and the Apple iPod which was released in 2001.