MP3

You Call the Tune

Hear an intriguing new song? With a tap or click it’s yours—thanks partly to MP3s.

By creating smaller audio files, MP3s helped make music instantly available and easily shared. You could download tunes from the internet and fit your collection on a pocket-size player.

MP3s transformed music distribution, creating industry winners and losers. But some questioned if we were sacrificing quality for convenience.

Impact

Instant, Cheap, and Portable

The ease and speed of downloading MP3 files revolutionized how people buy, listen to, and profit from music.

MP3s made it easy to purchase songs individually and cheaply (or trade them—often illegally). Portable devices let listeners carry entire collections with them.

But as online inventories grew, brick-and-mortar stores began to vanish, along with the industry’s traditional business model.

Left: By Caldorwards4 at English Wikipedia, GFDL 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons Right: d8nn/Shutterstock.com

Left-Tower Records, Portland, Oregon, 2006 Right-iPhone

MP3s gained popularity in the late 1990s as they spread over the growing internet. Digital music eventually put most brick-and-mortar music stores out of business.

More Choice...Less Chance

Traditional music shops offered limited inventories and hours. Few let you sample music before buying. Online stores, by contrast, have virtually infinite capacity. Popular or obscure, recent or vintage—it’s a click away, 24/7

Yet online shopping does limit one thing: chance discoveries, whether from a clerk’s quirky advice or eye-catching album covers

Left-October 1952 Decca Records catalog; September 1952 Columbia Records catalog Right-May 1919 Columbia Records catalog; July 1917 Columbia records catalog

Before online music stores, record companies published catalogs with their upcoming offerings. Customers could pick up their favorites at the local store. Columbia Records released catalogs on the 20th of each month.

Mix tape library

Mix tape library

Predating MP3s and CDs, cassette tapes made it a snap to copy and share music. You could also make your own mix tape for particular occasions—or for a special someone.

<strong>Left</strong>-Teenagers shop for the latest records, December 1, 1944 <strong>Right</strong>-Screenshot of The Beatles 2010 release on Apple iTunes, November 16, 2010

Left: Photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Right: Courtesy of Amit Chowdhry

Left-Teenagers shop for the latest records, December 1, 1944 Right-Screenshot of The Beatles 2010 release on Apple iTunes, November 16, 2010

Before MP3s and digital storefronts made buying music a solo experience, sampling and purchasing music was often done with friends at the neighborhood record store.

Zero Frietas, April 23, 2014

Zero Frietas, April 23, 2014

<em>Screaming for Vengeance</em>, by Judas Priest, LP, 2012 reissue

Screaming for Vengeance, by Judas Priest, LP, 2012 reissue

Seeburg model 201 jukebox, ca. 1958, The Pontiac Grill, Santa Cruz, California (original location)

Seeburg model 201 jukebox, ca. 1958, The Pontiac Grill, Santa Cruz, California (original location)

Disruptive Innovation

Downloadable music challenged the music industry. Then transformed it.

The challenge came from the ease of sharing (and stealing!) music, bypassing retailers. The transformation came from Apple’s sleek iPod players and iTunes store, which made Apple the world’s biggest music vendor…and squeezed publishers’ profits and artists’ royalties

Court document citing the IXI digital audio system

Credit: Apple Computer Inc. v. Burst.com, Inc. California, Northern District Court, January 4, 2007

Court document citing the IXI digital audio system

IXI was an iPod-like device, developed by Kane Kramer and James Campbell in 1979. The plan was for customers to download songs from a virtual store. During a 2008 legal battle with other manufacturers, Apple acknowledged IXI as the first digital audio player.

Rio PMP300 box, 1998

Credit: © D+M Group

Rio PMP300 box, 1998

The Rio PMP300 was the first commercially successful portable MP3 player. It held up to an hour of music, and you could buy songs with its RioPort software.

Apple iMac &ldquo;Rip. Mix. Burn.&rdquo; Advertisement, 2001

Credit: © Apple Inc.

Apple iMac “Rip. Mix. Burn.” Advertisement, 2001

The 2001 Apple iMac featured iTunes, Apple’s new “jukebox” software. Users could build and manage their own music libraries and create their own CDs with the built-in CD-RW drive.

“Steve’s New Act,” <em>Fortune</em>, May 19, 2003

Credit: © Time Inc.

“Steve’s New Act,” Fortune, May 19, 2003

In 2003 Steve Jobs convinced major record companies to let Apple’s new iTunes store sell individual songs instead of albums—a move they had long resisted. Customers were thrilled.

Pete Townshend, November 22, 2012

Pete Townshend, November 22, 2012

Spotify application

Spotify application

Taylor Swift Tumblr letter to Apple, June 21, 2015

Taylor Swift Tumblr letter to Apple, June 21, 2015

MP3 Software Makers and Users Poster

MP3 Software Makers and Users

Edison-type phonograph doll and wax cylinders, 1940s

Edison-type phonograph doll and wax cylinders, 1940s

A. Massim music box, Paris, 19th century

A. Massim music box, Paris, 19th century

Criterion music box disc, ca. 1890

Criterion music box disc, ca. 1890

Walt Disney's Bambi storybook recording, 1940sErtl Company child's record player, 1960s

Walt Disney's Bambi storybook recording, 1940sErtl Company child's record player, 1960s

<em>An Evening with John Denver</em>, by John Denver, 8-track tape cartridge, 1975

An Evening with John Denver, by John Denver, 8-track tape cartridge, 1975

Sony Walkman and headphones, 1970s

Sony Walkman and headphones, 1970s

Portable RCA RP-2365RC CD player, 2000

Portable RCA RP-2365RC CD player, 2000

Audible music player, ca. 1997

Audible music player, ca. 1997

Rio Riot MP3 player (prototype), 2002

Rio Riot MP3 player (prototype), 2002

Rio PMP300 player and ear phones, 1998

Rio PMP300 player and ear phones, 1998

Dynamic Naked Audio MP3 player, ca. 2000

Dynamic Naked Audio MP3 player, ca. 2000

Nomad Jukebox MP3 player (prototype), 2000

Nomad Jukebox MP3 player (prototype), 2000

Apple iPod (5GB), 2001

Apple iPod (5GB), 2001

Zune MP3 player, 2006

Zune MP3 player, 2006

Apple iPod Nano, 2005

Apple iPod Nano, 2005

iPod shuffle (1st generation), 2005

iPod shuffle (1st generation), 2005

iPod shuffle (4th generation), 2010

iPod shuffle (4th generation), 2010

House for Hunger playbutton, 2014

House for Hunger playbutton, 2014

Technology

Can't Hear it? Don't Save it!

Travel is easier when you pack light, taking along only what you’ll use. MP3s use a similar principle.

In the pre-internet era, when huge file sizes didn’t matter, CDs offered high fidelity and hours of music. MP3s, by contrast, “pack light.” They discard tones too high or low for human ears to hear, or that are masked by other sounds.

Credit: © Motorola

Shirt-pocket radio ad

Like the transistor radios of yesteryear, MP3 players put music in your shirt pocket.

Tricking Our Ears

MP3s fool our ears by discarding sounds that enter our ears…yet aren’t heard.

Hearing combines physical structures that capture sound waves, and neural systems that interpret them. Our brains suppress sounds that follow each other too closely, or are drowned out by louder sounds. MP3s exploit these psychoacoustic principles.

Sound waves, frequency, and amplitude

Derived from scienceaid.co.uk

Sound waves, frequency, and amplitude

As sound waves travel through the air, they cause air molecules to vibrate. Frequency refers to how often the air molecules vibrate. Short waves make them vibrate more frequently, producing high-pitched sounds. Amplitude is the intensity of the wave; taller waves sound louder.

Vastly magnified image of stylus in groove

Courtesy of Dr. Tony Brain/Science Photo Library

Vastly magnified image of stylus in groove

See the especially wiggly groove to the right of the stylus? For loud passages like this, the stylus needs to move more to create those louder sounds. Talk about groovin’.

Anatomy of the ear

Anatomy of the ear

The MP3 process

The MP3 process

Size vs. Sound

Your favorite delicious dish probably includes ingredients you don’t notice individually, yet which enhance the overall flavor. Is the same true of audio recordings?

MP3's “lossy compression” discards tones you’re unaware of. But some audiophiles argue that they’re not completely inaudible and that they enrich the overall sound.

Neil Young at Robert Berman Gallery, November 3, 2014

Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Neil Young at Robert Berman Gallery, November 3, 2014

Rock legend Neil Young was so frustrated with what he felt were the shortcomings of MP3 that he developed his own music player, Pono, to make full resolution, studio-quality recordings portable.

Comparison of &ldquo;Jeux de vagues,&rdquo; by Claude Debussy, in WAV and MP3 formats

Visualization created by Len Shustek

Comparison of “Jeux de vagues,” by Claude Debussy, in WAV and MP3 formats

This visualization compares the same passage in “lossy” MP3 format and lossless WAV format. Notice how the MP3 is slightly different due to discarded data.

Optimal record plant in Roebel, Germany, February 11, 2015

Optimal record plant in Roebel, Germany, February 11, 2015

Four Barrel Coffee, San Francisco, February 2, 2015

Four Barrel Coffee, San Francisco, February 2, 2015

Pono Player, 2015

Pono Player, 2015

History

Phoning It In

Could digital phone lines become a new medium to deliver on-demand music?

Karlheinz Brandenburg’s thesis advisor hoped so. In 1986 he challenged the German engineering student to compress music files sufficiently for delivery over digital phone lines. A week later, Brandenburg had developed the code that blossomed into MP3.

Audio team in 1987 (Brandenburg with headphones)

Courtesy Fraunhofer IIS

Audio team in 1987 (Brandenburg with headphones)

Brandenburg’s first MP3 patents were as a graduate student in 1986. But years of refinement lay ahead, with help from colleagues at Bell Labs and especially the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany. Brandenburg heads a laboratory there, at the Fraunhofer, where MP3 patents have earned the institute over $100 million.

Draft of the Layer IV of the ISO/MPEG Audio Codec (excerpt), November 29, 1990

Draft of the Layer IV of the ISO/MPEG Audio Codec (excerpt), November 29, 1990

”Tom's Diner”

While refining his MP3 code, Karlheinz Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega’s hit “Tom’s Diner” playing on the radio. He realized that this a cappella song would be nearly impossible to compress successfully. Nearly.

“Tom’s Diner,” Brandenburg’s worst-case scenario, became his test song and Vega herself got dubbed the “Mother of the MP3.”

Album cover, &ldquo;Tom's Diner,&rdquo; by Suzanne Vega

Album cover, “Tom's Diner,” by Suzanne Vega

Why was this a cappella song such a challenge? Because our ears are most sensitive to the human voice. Brandenburg’s team adjusted their psychoacoustic models over and over again before getting it right.

Suzanne Vega Video Poster

Suzanne Vega, Singer-Songwrite, Record Producer, “Mother of MP3”

Steal That Song!

Downloadable? Great. Stolen? Not so great—at least for music publishers.

Paralyzed by piracy fears, publishers couldn’t agree on a standard for online sales. Services like Napster.com filled the gap, letting users share millions of songs for free.

After industry lawsuits buried Napster, Apple’s iTunes satisfied demand with an affordable, legal alternative.

Napster.com, 2000

Credit: © Napster Inc.

Napster.com, 2000

In the late 1990s broadband internet access increased and disk drive capacities expanded, making “peer to peer” music sharing services, like Napster, practical. Users could freely and (and often illegally) exchange MP3s among themselves.

Metallica's Lars Ulrich, July 11, 2000

Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images

Metallica's Lars Ulrich, July 11, 2000

Musicians Lars Ulrich and Dr. Dre sued Napster for copyright infringement, as did the Recording Industry Association of America. Not all musicians were upset—rapper Chuck D. defended Napster before Congress, and English band Radiohead credited Napster for its first US hit album.

Mark Weinstein Video Poster

Mark Weinstein, Co-Founder Amoeba Records

Napster/Nopester bumper sticker, ca. 2000Napster-branded CD, ca. 2000

Napster/Nopester bumper sticker, ca. 2000Napster-branded CD, ca. 2000

Napster logo sticker“Stick This Up Yer Napster” CD
Napster Time magazine cover, October 2000

Napster logo sticker“Stick This Up Yer Napster” CD Napster Time magazine cover, October 2000

MP3 bumper stickerSupra 56K modem, ca. 2000

MP3 bumper stickerSupra 56K modem, ca. 2000