apple-151070_640The 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.

Auditory Masking

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.

The Radio Corporation of America introduced a device in 1958 that changed the consumption of home music; the RCA tape cartridge. Before the tape cartridge came into the scene, people were using the magnetic tape which according to the experience of many was not a realistic option for home use. This is because magnetic tapes were used on reel to reel players which were relatively complicated for consumers compared to record players.

The RCA tape cartridge introduced the possibility of encoding 60 minutes of high quality audio for home listening. However, despite this breakthrough, these tapes disappeared from shelves by 1964 because their sales dipped as a result of hesitance on the part of hi-fi enthusiast and retailers to adopt this technology.

The 8-Track Tape

Screenshot 2016-06-27 at 1.43.08 PMLater, a number of competing systems came into the market in an attempt to gain dominance through magnetic tapes, but this was not possible up until 1964 when the 8-track tape was developed. This tape was an improvement of the 4-track tape done by Bill Lear of Lear Jet Corporation together with representatives from General Motors, Ford, Ampex, RCA, and Motorola. The 4-track tape was also an improvement of the 3-track model.

8-track players were then integrated in cars in the 60s and 70s making this format the most dominant of the day despite its 46 minute play time. Towards the end of the 60s, all cars manufactured by Ford had 8-track players fitted in them as an upgrade and this contributed significantly to the release of hundreds of tapes. The Lear tape dominated the market, but the 8-track tape still remained an iconic music storage method.

Compact Cassette Tapes

In the early 1970s, Phillips came up with compact cassette tapes which had a capacity to carry high fidelity musical content. These tapes rose to domination very fast with the demand in the automobile music market reaching record highs. They were small in size, an attribute that favored them because smaller tape decks in homes and cars were preferred to the large ones. Even solders fighting in Vietnam grow fond of these tape decks because of their size and portability.

When manufacturers started making smaller and more portable tape decks, he Phillips cassette had its place in music cemented. Portable stereos became a common scene as people found them more feasible than those that were in existence during the times when the 8-track was the standard format.

The Impact of the Walkman

In 1979, Sony came up with the Walkman which is considered an innovation more important than the cassette. These gadgets which were in essence tiny portable stereo tape players deepened the acceptance of tapes among the music listening public. They brought a personal touch to music. Originally released as the Stowaway in the UK, the Sound-About in the US and the Freestyle in Sweden, the Walkman changed how people consumed music. They were no longer tied to large home record players or portable tape decks, but rather listeners could easily carry their music along with them irrespective of where they went. Since the first Walkman came with two headphone jacks, you could enjoy music with a friend.

For the first time, cassettes outsold vinyl in 1983 because of the popularity of the Walkman and other devices similar to it that had been developed by manufacturers. With continuous innovation, AM/FM radios came into the scene as well as rechargeable batteries, bass boost, and auto reverse all of which enhanced the utility of the Walkman. To prove that the Walkman name was indeed an iconic development, it is still in use on a range of devices today amongst them cassette players, CD players, and video MP3 players.