Compact discs contain digital files that could be read ("played") as music, the sound was already a collection of ones and zeroes, the issue was the size. A team of German researchers, the Internet, a hacker, and a couple of entrepreneurs later, and music underwent a hell of a ride that took it to where we are today.
Converting music in a digital format was a success, compact discs sales were booming, and the market adoption was pretty much ubiquitous. Now the 1980s were here, and with them the Internet came along and served as the catalyst that prompted change this time.
The challenge, as we discussed in the first part of this series, was to convert analog music to digital music. Based on the standard of the compact disc, a 3-5 minute song could weight a healthy 50 MegaBytes, which may not sound like much today, but please consider that the prevalent portable storage format during early-and-mid 90's was a Floppy Disk, with a 1.4 MegaByte capacity.
It was until Apple introduced their iMac in 1998 that CDs started being used as the preferred portable storage media, so music, as digital as it may have been, was still limited to compact discs.
But things did change in the mid-90's. In order to understand it we need to go back to the 80's, and put on some lederhosen.
In the early 80's, Dieter Seitzer was working on a problem related to the size of audio files at the University of Earlangen, in Germany. One of his students, Karlheinz Brandenburg, was working on his PhD thesis, so Dieter assigned him, as the topic for his thesis, with the mission of finding a way to reduce the size of audio files, and the world kept on spinning as usual.
By 1988, Brandenburg's team had developed the solution to the size problem in the form of a particular type of data compression method, using psychoacoustic* principles as the guide to remove non-critical bits, essentially removing the part of the audio information our brains does nor process, or those that are secondary to the experience of pitch and dynamics in the sound.
(* told you, psychoacoustics would appear again in the story)
The team of happy Germans met that same year with the International Standards Organization (ISO) in order to standardize the new method of encoding audio. ISO assigned a group to the project and called them the Moving Picture Experts Group, or MPEG. Now Brandenburg's team and MPEG worked on the proposal, and considered the effects of different layers of the proposed compression of various digital media files, and it was decided that the Layer 3 was the type of compression that gave the best results for audio at low bitrates. The name for the new audio compression type was ISO-MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 (kinda rolls off the tongue, huh? The name still required some work before being ready for marketing.)
Over the next few years the format was polished and perfected, and in 1992, the ISO included ISO-MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 as one of the standard methods for encoding audio. The main advantage over other methods was the file size, it got down to as little as 10% of the original file.
This was the successful conclusion to Brandenburg's thesis, and the solution to the presented problem, which was conductive to computer networks transfer. So, problem solved, who wants it?
Ok, Telos Systems, a company in Cleveland, Ohio, used the standard in the early 90’s to transfer files from a recording site to a studio over ISDN phone lines, which sure, was inventive and prophetic as it’s something done usually nowadays, but it wasn’t being adopted as any kind of new standard for doing audio, it just sat there.
By 1994, as the Internet was taking off, Brandenburg and team came up with the idea of making their encoding the audio standard for the Internet.
In 1995 they chose dot mp3 as the extension to the files, and the plan was this:
Fair and equitable, such naivete from those Germans...
Of course as soon as the products were up & running, and the Germans were expecting to change the world, fortune had other plans. They did change the world, just not in the way they had expected.
A student in Australia buys the professional grade MP3 encoding software using a stolen credit card from Taiwan, hacks it, breaks it down, reassembles it as an archive file, wires some copies to Sweden, and puts one in a US FTP-site, as a freeware.
I have this personal fantasy of them eating a Bratwurst with Kartoffelsalat, mid bite as they find out. One can only imagine the faces of Brandenburg and team as their work went viral.
They tried everything, they tried to contact the student, and told anyone willing to listen that it wasn't a freeware, that it was a stolen software, but it was too late, the cat was out of the bag and running free in the wild, duplicating itself along the way.
Brandenburg and team eventually had to let go and just became spectators.
Little by (not so) little, more and more people got hold of it, and started converting their CDs to MP3, and exchanging and sharing songs and collections with each other.
In the next and final post of the series, we'll talk about the evolution of file sharing, a couple of young entrepreneurs whose product got all the way up to the US Congress, and that lead the way to where we are today. Stay tuned!
Luis Garza is a professional project manager, and the head of strategic planning in Estratagema Records.