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All About Audio: The MP3

It’s everywhere. Spotify, YouTube, Pro Tools — almost every program or piece of software that deals with streaming and transferring audio data utilizes the MP3 format for file compression. However, there are a lot of things you might not know about one of the most important inventions in the digital age of music.

To start, the MP3 is short for Moving Pictures Experts Group Layer Audio Layer III. The Moving Pictures Experts Group was formed in order to standardize formats for audio and video compression and transfer.

The MP3 was invented in part by Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg, a member of the MPEG and currently a professor at the Ilmenau Technical University. Dr. Brandenburg visited Belmont this past spring semester in 2017 and gave convocation talks surrounding his research with audio, as well as information surrounding the MP3. If you want to read more about the creation of the MP3, definitely check out the book “How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy.”

There are two main methods of data compression: lossy and lossless. Formats such as AAC and MP3 belong to the lossy category, because they remove auditory information to cut down on the amount of data they take up. By using psychoacoustic principles, Dr. Brandenburg and his team came to the conclusion that what we couldn’t hear very well didn’t need to take up space. This is why certain MP3-encoded songs sound terrible — and also how I know you used “free YouTube to MP3 converter.” Shame on you. Pay for your music.

The other type of compression, lossless, does not remove any audio quality. It encodes the file in such a way so that when it is decoded, it is exactly the same as the original file with no loss or alterations to its data structure. This means that it sounds exactly the way it was intended to and there are no negative effects on the audio quality.

The AAC file format — short for Advanced Audio Coding — was invented to replace the MP3 because it generally yields better audio quality at the same bit rate. Apple and YouTube are just two of many major companies that utilize this format because it is almost as small as the MP3 and sounds just as good, if not better. If you’re listening on either of these platforms, the quality of audio is much higher compared to others that exclusively use MP3 formatting.

Bit rate is a term used when streaming digital media. It is the speed at which the data can be transferred over a digital network. All streaming services that store the data on a server must be accessed remotely and are susceptible to quality loss due to both initial file compression and streaming compression. Basically, if the file is not stored completely on your personal device, it has to be accessed from the server that it is stored on and will sound worse as a result.

The higher the bit rate is, the higher the quality the media will sound on the receiving end. Of course, this all depends on the audio quality of the file itself. The phrase “trash in, trash out” is a good analogy here because if the audio is poor on the way in, it will be just as poor if not worse on the way out.

All things considered, the MP3 was a revolutionary advancement in the field of all digital media. Its convenient size allows for thousands of works to be stored in a very small amount of digital space. However, there is always some sacrifice for the convenience of storage — in this case, the audio quality.

The average listener cannot discern high bit rate MP3 audio from studio-quality WAV audio, so that is not an issue for most people. For the audiophiles out there, there is not much you can do until data storage becomes even cheaper, smaller in physical size and larger in capacity. Even so, most digital music vendors will not supply extreme high quality audio because it costs them more to store it in their database.

To make a long story short, the MP3 and its cousins have become so advanced that it really does not make enough of a difference to sacrifice the convenience of its small data footprint.

In other words, learn to love it, because it is never going to go away.

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