The History of MP3 Technology

Fraunhofer Gesellschaft's Groundbreaking Audio Innovations Changed the Industry

An Mp3 player

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In 1987, with a project named EUREKA project EU147, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), the prestigious Fraunhofer Institut Integrierte Schaltungen research center (a division of the German Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft firm) began researching high-quality, low bit-rate audio coding. Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft now owns the licensing and the patent rights to the audio compression technology that was developed, a technology better known as MP3.

Dieter Seitzer and Karlheinz Brandenburg

The inventors named on the United States Patent 5,579,430 for a "digital encoding process," a.k.a. MP3, are Bernhard Grill, Karlheinz Brandenburg, Thomas Sporer, Bernd Kurten, and Ernst Eberlein but the two names most frequently associated with the development of MP3 are Karlheinz Brandenburg and University of Erlangen professor Dieter Seitzer.

A specialist in mathematics and electronics, Brandenburg—who is often called the "father of MP3"—led the Fraunhofer research. Brandenburg had been researching methods of compressing music since 1977. Seitzer, who'd been working on the quality transfer of music over a standard phone line, joined the project as an audio coder.

In an interview with Intel, Brandenburg described how MP3 took several years to develop—and almost didn't happen at all. "In 1991, the project almost died," he recalled. "During modification tests, the encoding simply did not want to work properly. Two days before submission of the first version of the MP3 codec, we found the compiler error."

What is MP3?

MP3 stands for MPEG Audio Layer III—a standard for audio compression that makes any music file smaller with little or no loss of sound quality. MP3 is part of MPEG, an acronym for Motion Pictures Expert Group, which is a family of standards for displaying video and audio using lossy compression (in which random partial data is irreversibly discarded, allowing the remainder to represent a compressed version of the original).

Standards set by the Industry Standards Organization (ISO), were launched in 1992 with the MPEG-1. MPEG-1 is a video compression standard with low bandwidth. The high bandwidth audio and video compression standard of MPEG-2 followed and was of adequate quality for use with DVD technology. MPEG Layer III or MP3 involves audio compression only.

Fast Facts: History of MP3 Timeline

  • 1987: The Fraunhofer Institut in Germany began research code-named EUREKA project EU147, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB).
  • January 1988: Moving Picture Experts Group or MPEG was established as a subcommittee of the International Standards Organization/International Electrotechnical Commission or ISO/IEC.
  • April 1989: Fraunhofer received a German patent for MP3.
  • 1992: Fraunhofer's and Dieter Seitzer’s audio coding algorithm was integrated into MPEG-1.
  • 1993: MPEG-1 standard was published.
  • 1994: MPEG-2 was developed and published a year later.
  • November 26, 1996: A United States patent for MP3 was issued.
  • September 1998: Fraunhofer began enforcing their patent rights. All developers of MP3 encoders or rippers and decoders/players must now pay a licensing fee to Fraunhofer, however, no licensing fees are required to simply use an MP3 player.
  • February 1999: A record company called SubPop was the first to distribute music tracks in the MP3 format.
  • 1999: Portable MP3 players make their debut.

What Can MP3 Do?

According to Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, "Without data reduction, digital audio signals typically consist of 16-bit samples recorded at a sampling rate more than twice the actual audio bandwidth (e.g. 44.1 kHz for Compact Discs). So you end up with more than 1.400 Mbit to represent just one second of stereo music in CD quality. By using MPEG audio coding, you [can] shrink down the original sound data from a CD by a factor of 12, without losing sound quality."

MP3 Players

In the early 1990s, Frauenhofer developed the first MP3 player—but it was a bust. In 1997, developer Tomislav Uzelac of Advanced Multimedia Products invented the first successful MP3 player, the AMP MP3 Playback Engine. Soon after, two university students, Justin Frankel and Dmitry Boldyrev, ported AMP to Windows to create Winamp. In 1998, Winamp became a free MP3 music player, which took the success of MP3 to a whole new level.