Reflections on the MP3

MP3 files first started creeping into mainstream consciousness about twenty years ago, although it wasn’t until the late 90s (97-98-99) that they began to go prime time. Still, enough time as pass for us to start looking back at the technology to see what it has wrought.

This article is from Computational Culture, which calls itself a “journal of software studies.” Take a read of “Reflections on the MP3 Format: An Interview with Jonathan Sterne.” (Sterne is a professor at McGill who specializes in communication studies.)

Used by hundreds of millions on a daily basis, there is finally a comprehensive study out on the MP3 audio standard. Sound theorist Jonathan Sterne not only describes the political economic background of how this technology came into being in the early 1990s but also provides the reader with an interesting history of sound and hearing in the 20th century in which telephones and radios play surprising roles. MP3 was born out of the challenges of how to ‘push’ live audio through the existing copper infrastructure. This is a story of monopolies, compression, and perceptual capital, “the accumulated value generated by a surplus definition.” In his book Sterne develops the notion of MP3 as the product of perceptual technics, through which a company can economize a channel or storage medium in relation to perception. The MP3 saga boils down to the question of how to make a profit from the insufficiency of the human ear or the distracted state of most listeners.

In terms of discipline and methods Sterne has come up with an interesting mix of cultural studies, science and technology studies (STS), and what he calls ‘format theory’. I can’t wait to read similar studies in the same genre on Skype, Android, on the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) itself, HTML5, .zip, the Rails programming language and internet protocols such as SMTP, SSH, IPv6 and IRC. Let a thousand software (case) studies bloom! Jonathan Sterne is author of The Audible Past (Duke, 2003) and editor of the The Sound Studies Reader (Routledge, 2012). He teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies of McGill University in Montreal, Canada and recently edited an anthology on the politics of academic labor in communication studies.

GL: Jonathan, can you describe for us, in detail, what happens when we create an MP3 file? Whatever computer we use there is still a delay, there is some digitization happening, some compression, but what exactly is going on?

JS: First, thank you for asking all these great and difficult questions. And to readers, thanks for plowing through what’s about to be a lot of prose. Brevity in print is not one of my strong points.

My simplification of the official version goes something like this. You start with a full size digital audio file in .wav or .aiff format. It could be on a compact disc or already in your computer. First, you tell the mp3 encoder how big you want the final file to be. MP3s are measured in kilobits per second, which is essentially how much space they take up in a digital line or on your hard-drive. With that information, the encoder goes to work. First, it removes all the redundant data, and reorganizes things. This is called Huffman coding, and it’s basically the same thing that happens with a .zip file. That process yields a file about half the size of what you’d find on a CD. So far so good. No changes to the sound, just to how the computer handles the data. Today, FLAC and Apple Lossless files are made with a technique like this.

Then it gets interesting.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ 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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