Is the MP3 dead?

Licensing program for the MP3 digital file format ends


The MP3 isn't dead yet, but it's now on its last digital legs

Digital file formats don't usually get the rock star treatment when it comes to entering the public's consciousness, but if one ever did, the MP3 format is it.

But that's all coming to an end - or at least that's what recent events point to.

Just last month, the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the Germany-based organization that began developing the audio data compression algorithm in the '80s, ended its licensing program for the MP3 digital file format.

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The MP3 is dead - long live the MP3!

The MP3 is dead! May it rest in peace...sort of. The actual file format is still alive and well, and will not be disappearing from your computers or phones any time soon. However, the MP3 is being disowned by its parents.

The Fraunhofer Institute, responsible for its creation, has officially terminated its licensing program. They have admitted that their baby is inferior to higher quality MPEG formats, such as AAC (Advanced Audio Coding).

The original MP3 format, developed to convert audio into digital form, took five years to complete, according to the BBC. The MP3, born in 1987, was created to compress music into a file size that made it easier to transmit.

The Mother of the MP3 was “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega, used by Karlheinz Brandenburg as a reference track while he was developing the format. He used the track after overhearing it on the radio. Ready to fine-tune his compression algorithm, he decided on the Suzanne Vega song as "it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice".

MP3s work by stripping out sounds in a song that cannot be heard by human ears. This process makes the MP3 file 11 times smaller than uncompressed music tracks.

This compression, however, may be having a negative effect to our listening pleasure. Research from the Audio Engineering Society found that compression "reinforces perceived negative emotional characteristics in musical instruments to the detriment of positive emotional characteristics".

Musical instruments have "distinct timbral and emotional characteristics", but this can be changed when audio processing is applied to the sounds. MP3 compression can strengthen neutral and negative emotional characteristics (mysterious, shy, scary, sad), and weaken positive emotional characteristics (happy, heroic, romantic, comic, and calm).

Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young was so aggrieved with low-quality digital music, including MP3s, he launched the Pono Player in 2015, with only high-resolution audio tracks available to play.

The MP3, however, may not quietly fade into history. Terminating the licensing program does not necessarily spell the end for a format, as Mac Observer notes. In 2003, the Unisys patent on the GIF format expired, and three years later, the company officially ended its efforts to license the technology. The GIF continues to survive (see Tumblr), despite the emergence of more modern file formats.

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The MP3 Is Officially Dead, According To Its Creators

"The death of the MP3 was announced in a conference room in Erlangen, Germany, in the spring of 1995."

So opens Stephen Witt's How Music Got Free, an investigation into the forced digitization and subsequent decimation of the music business, from which it has only very recently started to recover. That ironic conference room eulogy actually took place just before the compression algorithm caught on (don't worry, we'll explain in a bit).

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