Happy 20th Birthday, .mp3!

The history of attempts at squishing audio goes back more than a hundred years but we really didn’t get serious about it until scientists began investigating the principles of auditory masking and psychoacoustics.  Various compression algorithms were either theorized or demonstrated starting in 1959 and culminated with a full-court press on the problem in the late 70s and early 80s.

The father of the MP3 is Karlheinz Brandenberg who studied the problem of shrinking a digital audio file into something more easily transmissible while working at the Fraunhofer Institute in what was then West Germany.

Using theories and practices from ancient codecs with names like OFC and PXFM along with an emerging standard called Musicam, Brandenberg and his team used standards set by the Motion Pictures Experts Group and its Layer I1 and Layer II (MPEG-1, MPEG-2 and even MPEG 2.5) encoding to come up with what they called Layer III.

The story of perfecting Layer III is well known. Taking the pure vocal recording of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” the Fraunhofer teams listening to ripped versions of the song tens of thousands of times, carefully listening for glitches and unwanted audio artifacts that their algorithm left behind.

By the spring of 1994, it was ready. The next year was spent publishing papers full of specs and attending engineer conferences all over the world to convince everyone that Motion Pictures Expert Group, Layer III should be adopted as a standard for audio compression.

On July 7, 1995, they released the first encoder for the new algorith. I3enc, as it was known, could compress a standard CD .wav file to one-tenth its original size. Finally, on July 14, it was decided that the filename extension from the compressed files should be changed from .bit to .mp3.

And we all know what happened next, right?

The full story of how we got to .mp3 here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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