Karlheinz Brandenburg and The Secret History of MP3 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Karlheinz Brandenburg and The Secret History of MP3

2 Conversations

The entertainment industry has seen many standards and inventions, but the emergence of the software music standard MP3 has turned the music world on its head. Here is a format that allows high quality music to be transferred over the Internet and straight into people's home computers and in the case of many small bands and labels, it allows them to reach out to their audience directly.

The word MP3 (standing for Moving Picture [Expert Group Level] 3 [Compression]) has become second only to 'sex' on the world's most popular search engines and has become a business that has created millions, mostly through stock market floats, for companies such as MP3.com.

The Untold Story

However, behind the huge business headlines and ringing cash registers remains a story that has remained mostly untold; the story of a man whose combined knowledge of maths, sound and electronics brought the whole thing about - but, amazingly, for no personal profit.

It is also a tale of how a small scale German government project to explore how music could be fed down a phone line later helped create an Internet music standard which has all the hallmarks of becoming a postfix to stand alongside audio CDs and PAL televisions.

Fraunhofer Institute

The Fraunhofer Institute is one of Germany's most prestigious research facilities that spreads its work over several sites and employs around 250 people - most of them postgraduates. Their name and reputation guarantees some of the best minds in Germany, although the pay is reputed to be below the levels found in the industry.

Its involvement with technology has been long and fruitful, often seeing itself as the European equivalent of the famous MIT Media Lab in Boston; which also develops technology as a partnership between government and industry (although not all projects carry this model). FI won the DigiGlobe in 1999 with its so-called VR-Shop project: a kind of shopping mall where the customer can browse, shop and bank from an Internet or network terminal.

Karlheinz Brandenburg

Today Karlheinz Brandenburg has a title of Section Leader (Abteilungsleiter) and draws his sole salary from the State. However, it was his research and development project that created MP3 and later he marketed it as shareware. This meant that anyone that wanted to could register with the FI and create their own MP3 files or software that could present/translate work in to the compressed music format.

In truth, there wasn't much choice in this move as the project had no direct software partners and had no budget to create a marketing and distribution chain.

Within Germany, his invention got few headlines, but he got a big reception when he took the format to Silicon Valley in 1997. He demonstrated he could reduce a WAV file to a fraction of its length without the listener knowing the difference. Several parties showed interest in buying the project or else having local rights to it but, to date, the FI has retained all rights; although it has little budget to patrol them.

Brandenburg claims that he is satisfied with his work and has not personally profited from the fortune that has since been spun around the standard. He claims that he owns not one share in any Internet company or any other firm involved in the MP3 standard. In fact he shows little interest in money at all,

I don't care what the numbers are in my bank account, but I am satisfied with my work, the people I work with, and what it has brought about.
- told to the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

However, Brandenburg doesn't think that the system is about to bring the downfall of the music industry as so many are predicting,

I think that will not happen, but we have changed the industry... The industry needs to know how to harness the new digital mediums and opportunities. They need to explore the positives rather than the negatives.

Nevertheless, the MP3 license money has been reinvested in new technology and research projects which look to creating new standards making use of their expert knowledge in digital compression. Looking at ways of creating compact transmission and storage facilities for phones, faxes and even video recorders. However, Brandenburg states that the MP3 money 'is not making anyone rich (at the FI)', which might suggest that they have sold themselves short somewhere along the line.

Early History

Brandenburg first came to wrestle with the problems of compressing music as early as 1977. Professor Dieter Seitzer had the idea of creating a method of transferring music over a standard phone line. His ideas were ahead of their time and he was initially refused any research money to develop them, but nevertheless established a group of technicians and scientists that had an interest in the subject. Brandenburg's interest in mathematics, electronics and off-the-wall ideas made him a natural ally.

Basic compression techniques and theories were formed long before the pre-computer era, but not a lot was known about applying them to set mediums such as sound. Today, Brandenburg has expressed surprise that so few projects had explored the area previously; especially when it had a huge commercial potential.

With little previous research to build on, the team had to create their own methods, theories and research. They used quiet tracks such as Suzanne Vega's 'Tom's Diner' as their test bed. Here the compromises and faults would be easier to pick up. Therefore Vega can claim to be the first artist of MP3.

Much of their work was not about how much they could reduce the file in length (sound is distinguishable on only a short section of the audio range - the telephone only works on a quarter), but to what level the sound could be reduced before the deterioration became noticeable. Their research contract with the FI was not to produce a compressed music stand per se, but to create a 'high standard' compressed format.

The main part of the work was creating software that scanned and removed sound that was below or above the human ear, but other theories and mathematics have been employed.

Brandenburg's Most Generous Gift

With such a major success under his belt Brandenburg has many tempting offers before him, including many professorships in the USA. However, he remains down to earth and modest and seems happy with his small world just outside Berlin - although the FI works over a collection of sites.

He told the German press that everyday he logs on to the Internet and looks for new MP3 sites and people making use of the standard he helped bring about, 'This gives me the best feeling of all' says Brandenburg today. He doesn't have too much time to ponder his success as new digital projects now take up most of his time; including applying his knowledge to the digital video recorder.

However, even if they crack that one neither Brandenburg or his team will personally profit from it. All rights and moneys will belong to the Institute and the Institute alone - just like with MP3.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more