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The MP3 Book, Chapter 1

May 09, 2000

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Back in early 2000 I was approached by a publisher to write a book about about MP3 audio technology; I only wrote the first two chapters before my senior project duties eclipsed book-writing and I needed to shelve the project indefinitely. 20 years later, in 2020, I’ve resurrected what I had written and am re-publishing it.

The Hype About Internet Audio

What Is Internet Audio and Why Do People Use It?

When people say “Internet audio,” they’re generally not speaking about websites that sell CDs online. Instead, they’re talking about the recent phenomenon of downloading files from the Internet that contain information about music in a similar fashion to the way that a CD stores music. This means that you can play music on your computer without a CD, or a tape, or a vinyl record! The song is stored in a file. These files tend to be very large, as it takes a lot of information to store high-quality audio. As a result, most people use programs that compress their music - this way their music files take up much less space on their hard drives, but the music maintains the quality of a CD. The most popular of these compressed music formats is known as MP3. (We’ll get into more of exactly how it works in Chapter 2!)

Once you have individual songs in files stored on your computer, you can have much more control over your music than if you had been listening only with a CD player. For instance: you could make a list of your favorite 100 jazz tunes, or send a song that you particularly loved to a friend who lives across the country. If you have a CD burner, you can even burn custom audio mixes onto CDs for your friends! Since files are copied perfectly, they do not degrade as you make more copies like a tape would. Programs are now cheaply and widely available to allow users to quickly make music files of their entire CD collection. For these reasons and more, in the last three years, it has become very popular among college students to store music on their computers.

Many people have complained that putting music on your computer limits you, because you can only listen to music while you’re sitting in front of your computer! Fortunately, several major manufacturers have solved this problem by introducing small devices that can store and play your music away from the computer: they are shaped like very small Walkmen, and tend not to weigh almost anything at all. Unfortunately, such devices are not yet compelling at the time of this writing, playing only an hour of music, after which you must run back to your computer to “refill” the device with new music - hardly suitable for a ski trip! There are, however, even newer devices that will likely be widely available by the time you’re reading this that will allow you to store many tens of hours of music.

Unlike most other technological revolutions before it (such as the introduction of CDs), MP3 and other Internet audio formats were not introduced by the record labels. Instead, they were introduced by consumers who, finding the technology exciting, passed the knowledge on by word of mouth. In fact, most record companies have been quite unhappy by the existence of MP3s, chiefly because it is now possible to quite easily obtain copyrighted music for free: the latest Beck tune is just a click away, regardless of what the label or the band thinks about it. Most labels are scared that free copying on the Internet will erase their ability to make a profit; or more importantly, to pay artists. In Chapter 10, we’ll see why they’re scared.

Some Thoughts on the New Economy

The Internet is changing our notion of a market. We used to think that an economy would be centered upon the sale of physical goods, with a small market for services. The rapid and nearly free redistribution that the Web permits morphs what were once products into services. News, once a physical commodity, to be delivered on pressed sheets of paper, has since become a service on the Internet. Obviously, the Internet cannot so dramatically change industries less centered on the circulation of ideas: the steel industry, for instance, has likely been undergoing far less rapid upheaval than the news industry.

The music economy has been particularly interesting: originally, music was a service. One paid to attend a concert - you did not receive any physical object that embodied the music; that would be unthinkable! But when Edison first recorded his voice on a wax cylinder at the beginning of the 20th century, that all was changed. Music could now be “bottled up,” contained within a physical object, and sold, just like bread and beef, as a commodity. New advances in production technology, such as Ford’s ingenious assembly lines, placed phonographs and radios in millions of homes, which in turned allowed for the rapid commercial distribution of music that exists to this day. Large record companies would solicit radio stations to play their music, which in turn would allow for rapid and widespread exposure and in its turn leading to increased sales of records. Pop stars could be made or broke in a twinkling; music as a commodity was thriving and labels (and a few lucky artists) were raking it in.

But now the Internet is entering into the picture and erasing the concept of music as a product, returning music to the service market. Since music can be (and is!) freely copied, an individual song carries little value: instead, it is the arrangement and/or the branding of the song that is coming to be of value.

A Brief History of Internet Audio

So where did this notion of having computers play music come from? Truth be told, it wasn’t a sudden quantum leap; computer music has been evolving for over 30 years. If any one place or any one man can be said to be the source of this whole hullabaloo, though, it would have to be Max Matthew’s group at Bell Labs in New Jersey.

Bell Labs, 1957 - Computer Music Is Born

Max Matthews was working as a researcher for AT&T;, whose Bell Laboratories have produced some of the most amazing technological discoveries of the century, such as the transistor, the laser, the digital computer, and most relevantly electronic audio recording and the phonograph. While there had been a few individuals who had made machines capable of electronically generating music, Max was the first to generate music on a general-purpose computer. In 1957, Max released “Music I”, a program for a very early IBM computer that allowed music to be synthesized in the computer and output to a speaker. In the mid-60’s, famous movie director Stanley Kubrick heard a later and more advanced version of Max’s program actually sing the classic song “Daisy, Daisy, Bicycle Built for Two…” and was so impressed with the technology that he incorporated it into his movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Near the end of the movie, we discover that this song was the first thing that HAL, the film’s intelligent and self-aware computer, had learned.) The original version is included on the CD in the back if you’d like to have a listen.

Compression in Movies and Radio - MP3 is Invented!

If you did bother to listen to the sample, you too would conclude that music synthesis has come a long way since then, with “Techno” (primarily computer-generated music) emerging as a musical category in its own right, and most modern pop songs making heavy use of computer synthesis. But using a computer to synthesize music is only one part of the picture: since computers can perfectly copy music, it would seem to be most prudent to use a digital device to transmit and store music.

The film industry has been very interested in digital audio formats from the beginning, but there was a very interesting initial problem to adding digital audio to movies. Audio was stored in a very small band to the right and left of each frame of the movie: it would be impossible to store the full digital signal, so the music needed to be compressed in order to fit on the reel. Dolby Laboratories, along with several other companies, rose to the challenge and invented several compression schemes that survive to this day.

Radio stations also were keenly interested in digital audio, albeit for different reasons. Radio producers desired the ability to simultaneously broadcast a live show to many stations without a loss in quality. The solution would have to be for a broadcasting facility to “call up” a radio station and digitally transmit the audio. The problem with this is that the speed at which the telephone networks in the late 1980’s sent information was far too slow for uncompressed audio. As a result, several companies undertook extensive research to discover an effective way to compress audio enough to be sent over the telephone lines.

Karlheinz Brandenburg at Fraunhofer IIS, a German commercial research institute, designed one of the most effective algorithms for audio compression: as the third and most advanced method for compressing audio as standardized by the Motion Pictures Expert Group (MPEG), it was dubbed MPEG Layer 3 audio, or MP3 for short. MP3 was invented in 1989 and standardized by 1991. The algorithm was so complicated that only a very expensive and dedicated piece of hardware could run it, and the notion that a personal computer would be able to run such software some day was likely not in the heads of many.

The Net Circa 1996: RealAudio, MIDI, and .AU

Around 1991, the world’s largest inter-network (a network of computer networks) connecting U.S. government, educational, and research facilities, started to garner the public attention. It became known as the Internet, or even just, “The Net” for short. University students gradually started using electronic mail, or “email,” to send letters and messages to their friends on campus or at other colleges.

At the same time, Tim Berners-Lee was in Switzerland, developing the World Wide Web for CERN, The European Center for Nuclear Research (the acronym is from the French title). The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign soon decided to implement a high-quality graphical cross-platform web browser called Mosaic. Both Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator were built on Mosaic’s core.

The first versions of these browsers did very little with audio: they had enough on their plate as was and most people involved with developing the browsers were focused on the creation of a new publication medium: since journals don’t make music, why should a web browser? Nevertheless, one could still download sound files and play them back. Initially, there was one dominant format: Sun’s .AU files. .AUs sound awful, but they’re about as good as you could hear off of the tiny built-in speakers in a Sun workstation. I’ll cover them in more detail in Chapter 3.

RealAudio v1.0 came out of beta on July 26, 1995, allowing users for the first time to listen to music as it downloaded: people could begin hearing a tune as soon as they clicked on it, as opposed to having to wait until the download completed. That fall, NPR began posting 5 minute news segments on their website in RealAudio format. Streaming audio had come to the web. Unfortunately, even with their subsequent 2.0 and 3.0 releases, the audio quality was awful; unlistenable for everything except speech. People were amused by audio on the Internet, but few took it seriously.

Arguably the most annoying of all Internet audio formats is MIDI. MIDI files are stored in a very different fashion from most others. Instead of storing the recording of, for instance, a piano concerto, it stores the notes. That is to say, all the file contains is that at so-and-so time, a C# is to be played on a grand piano with such-and-such force. It is up to the computer that plays the actual file to figure out what that C# should sound like. Naturally, if you have very expensive gear hooked up to your computer, it will sound great. However, synthesis on most people’s computers sounds absolutely wretched. The two major pluses of MIDI files is that they take up almost no space at all (you’re just storing the notes!) and that they are editable (if you want to, say, bring the bass line up by an two notes, you can). For the latter reason, this format has been very popular with musicians. It is the former reason that enabled it to take off in the early days of the Internet: only MIDI would allow you to hear a 2 minute song after a 15 second download on a 14.4 modem! (In contrast, this amount of time would be sufficient to download only 2 seconds of MP3 audio.)

As computers grew faster and people started getting faster and faster connections to the Internet, an opportunity began to emerge for a high-quality audio compression algorithm.

The MP3 Explosion

As mentioned earlier, the MP3 algorithm was conceived in 1989 and standardized in 1991. It had not been anticipated to be widely run on personal computers due to its computational complexity. However, as Intel continued pushing out faster and faster chips, it became clear that once out-of-reach algorithms might be able to run in realtime. It was important that MP3 decoding be able to run in realtime. If it didn’t, users would have to wait several minutes as the computer created a decompressed copy of the song before it played. By being able to decode the upcoming audio as the song played, users could click on a song and immediately hear it play, making for a considerably more compelling experience. It was in 1996 that Intel finally released a processor fast enough to do this: the Pentium 120.

1996 - The Release

It was late in 1996 that Fraunhofer decided to release their MP3 encoder and decoder, simply dubbed L3ENC (for Layer 3 Encoder) and WinPlay3 (their Windows MP3 player), as shareware on the Internet. A few people heard about it, made a few MP3s, and spread the word. The MP3 buzz began.

One of the most impressive early websites was put up by a handful of students at Texas A&M; University with handles like “bongo” and “frixion.” Their site, called TEK, archived large quantities of high-quality streaming music: with a click you could be listening to a personalized country music, alternative, or R&B; station. TEK’s user interface was smooth and elegant, far beyond what any commercial entity would manage to pull off for the next few years. Sites like TEK exposed people to the MP3 revolution and greatly increased awareness around MP3. Unfortunately, early the next year TEK was shut down due to pressure from the University’s administration. It never went online again.

1997 - The Early Adopters

It was in 1997 that MP3s gained a strong “early adopter” following, including a good portion of the computer science types at colleges nationwide. As mentioned in the introduction, this was around the time that I had begun setting up my personal website to explain the intricacies of MP3s to the Internet public and give links to the latest players. Many great sites similar to mine were established; there was a real sense of community between those who were using MP3s and maintaining MP3 websites. It was not long, however, before the record labels began to act to stop MP3s from becoming popular.

My personal music website was shut down, along with several dozen other websites. None of us had made any attempt to avoid detection; we had instead made our sites as visible as possible, posting their location to all of the popular search engines. We had also made links to each of each other’s pages. It was, as a result, a simple task to discover and contact all of us rapidly: indeed, in one week early in 1997, just about every popular MP3 site on the Net disappeared.

Later MP3 websites focused less on the specific distribution of MP3s and more on MP3 resources: how to make them, where to get the latest players, what sort of places to get them, etc. Michael Robertson acquired MP3.COM in late 1997 and developed an effective MP3 portal of this type (popular initially because of the domain) and also began signing bands up to non-exclusively distribute their music on the site.

The media caught on starting in the middle of the year, and articles began appearing in all sorts of business and technology magazines, discussing the future of the record industry. Microsoft near the end of the year quietly added MP3 playback and encoding to their Netshow (later renamed Windows Media) tools.

Many programmers began to look at the Fraunhofer’s programs and improve upon them, writing their own audio players from scratch. Tomislav Uzelac, then a Croatian student, decided to make a low-level engine to play back MP3 files that would let other people put a nice user interface on it or integrate it into other software players. A number of people noticed that this would make it very easy to create new players and began doing so. Justin Frankel, also a student at the time, constructed his MP3 player “WinAMP” based on the engine. WinAMP had a very straightforward and attractive interface. WinAMP quickly gained a massive following, which it maintains to this day. Nullsoft, Justin’s holding company for WinAMP, was bought by America Online in June of 1999.

1998 - The Explosion

The underground MP3 phenomenon continued through the next year, with the introduction of high-quality software and extremely rapid word-of-mouth growth. By the end of 1998, most college students had heard about MP3s and most major news outlets had written at least one story about the new music explosion.

The Annual MP3 Summits Around February of 1998, I was talking on the phone with Michael Robertson. I mentioned to him that I had had plans to host the first MP3-oriented conference in the fall of 1997. Unfortunately, plans had fallen through, due to my not being able to personally pay the down payment on the hotel and funding coming through too late. Michael sympathized and told me that MP3.com would sponsor such a conference if I decided to try again. I told him I was too busy, being a full-time student at Stanford. The next week he called me and told me that MP3.com was going to put on the conference, just as I had envisioned it: an annual event with discussion panels from the legal, music, and tech industries, mingling time, and music at the end. I was greatly pleased. The Annual MP3 Summits were formed, the first one taking place in June of 1998. My report on that first Summit is still on their site. Sonique was perhaps the most exciting software release of the year, offering a slick and dynamic interface that felt right out of a sci-fi movie. WinAMP continued to develop advanced features, like a customizable user interface and an advanced “plugin” architecture that allowed third-party developers to integrate new functionality into WinAMP. Hardware manufacturers began to show interest in the growing MP3 market and Saehan, a Korean hardware manufacturer, announced that they would be selling a portable MP3 player called the MPMan. The RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America) launched their SoundByting campaign and website in an attempt to steer college-age students away from music piracy and convince people that sharing music wasn’t “cool.” Unfortunately for them, the notion of sharing music has shown itself to be compelling to wide numbers of people; most people who knew about SoundByting were already heavily involved with MP3s. In early 1999, the RIAA dumped the PR agency that had been managing the campaign, but the site remains to this day.

1999 - Commercial Acceptance

1999 signified the complete acceptance of MP3 by hardware, software, and Internet companies. MP3.com went public as MPPP, eMusic began signing popular bands to exclusively sell their albums online (including Bush, James Brown, Phish, and They Might Be Giants). WinAMP’s parent company, Nullsoft, got bought out by America Online along with Spinner.com, a set of online radio stations. Yahoo! acquired online audio/video giant broadcast.com while Lycos purchased Sonique. Nullsoft introduced new software and services allowing individuals to listen to, create, and broadcast their own online radio shows called Shoutcast; an OpenSource variant by the name of Icecast soon showed up to compete. Startups live365 and myplay jumped onto the scene to allow people to manage their own MP3 collections and freely outsource their broadcasting.

Dozens of hardware companies began to pump out portable players with no moving parts, including such heavy-hitters as RCA, Diamond Multimedia and Creative Labs, with players expected in 2000 from Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Casio.

The RIAA conceded that digital audio is likely to be the future of music distribution and instead focusing exclusively on trying to stop the MP3 revolution, they redirected their efforts towards creating a new, secure music format. Their Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) tried to formalize a standard in time to allow hardware manufacturers to incorporate protection into their devices before the Christmas rush, but negotiations dragged on longer than expected and not a single SDMI-compliant player was sold in the holiday season.

Napster was also released in 1999, allowing users to connect with music on each other’s computers, achieving particular infamy for its sheer effectiveness at letting users exchange music. We’ll go into more detail on Napster in Chapter 9.

The MP3 revolution was well on its way, with artists signing to online sites left and right, hardware and software companies making it ever easier to use and manipulate MP3s, and increasing number of listeners flocking to the format. That’s the “how” of the MP3 revolution, but there’s another important question to ask…

Why Did It Happen?


The MP3 revolution happened as soon as it was capable of happening - as soon as computers came onto the market that were fast enough to cope with playing back MP3 files, the technology took off. Coincidentally, storage space in 1997 was entering into the multi-gigabyte range, allowing regular users to store many hours of music on their computer without necessarily buying new storage. As hard drives continued to increase in size and lessen in price, it became possible to cheaply build absolutely massive (200+ CD) audio collections on a regular PC; understandably, this has made MP3 usage all the more compelling. As broadband (high-speed) Internet access is extended to the U.S. population, it’s quite likely that rich-media activities such as MP3 sharing will continue to explode.

Open Source -> Free, Convenient Software

When Fraunhofer released L3ENC, they also released the source code to play back the resulting MP3 files. This enabled a whole generation of free MP3 playback engines that in turn became today’s popular MP3 players. Without this source, there might not have been such a diversity of compelling software players, and MP3 might never have gained the popularity that it did. Many other formats exist today that are more technically advanced than MP3 but that do not allow people to freely create players and, consequently, do not have much of a following.

Fraunhofer was also quite generous in licensing its encoding technology and as a result there are a fair number of high-quality MP3 encoders available, some of which are entirely free, others of which can be purchased for a very modest fee. Some other companies won’t license their algorithms for any price; Apple has restricted Sorenson, the makers of QuickTime video technology, from using it anywhere else. Such closed policies have made it nearly impossible for other formats to encroach upon the much more open turf of the MP3 world.


It is also equally important to MP3’s success that it is a very well-defined standard. As a result, there is complete software and hardware interoperability: any program that makes an MP3 can create a file that is playable on any hardware or software MP3 player. New uses of the format, such as with Icecast and Shoutcast, can be rapidly deployed and integrated into the existing architecture. Without a standard, such interoperability would be impossible.

Memes: Idea Viruses

It’s also important to note that the MP3 revolution could never have happened (or it would have taken much longer) if the Internet had not been widely popularized; the Internet allowed participants to post information about the format, exchange messages, inform, and share. It let people quickly learn about what MP3s are and obtain software to make and listen to MP3s. Once people found out, they would often rush to tell their friends about it, spreading the word rapidly. The Internet especially enables this kind of rapid propagation of ideas; in some ways the ideas spread like viruses through a population: you catch an idea from a friend and once you’re infected, you pass the idea on to other friends of yours. Richard Dawkins called such ideas “memes.” Since it’s easy to share ideas with people over the Internet, memes can be rapidly propagated. The Internet enabled the MP3 meme.


MP3 has been a long time coming; we’ve seen how the development of the Internet and of audio technology led up to the MP3 explosion and the way that MP3 has grown from an underground movement into a popular and widely-accepted activity. Hundreds of companies are now engaged in MP3-related activity, working on making music easier to make, share, find, and hear. MP3 is everywhere. I hope you have a better understanding of how and why MP3 has grown to the level of hype now pervading the media.

© 2020 David E. Weekly, Built with Gatsby