Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Music Is My Hot Hot Sex

MP3 MP3 What Art Thee

In a world of high definition video and audio, Blu-Ray, players, high end game counsels, and portable compact computers; media for these devices can only exist if they develop with the hardware. Currently it seems a global goal for most technology is to make it smaller and faster without sacrificing quality. It is this same goal that fueled The Fraunhofer Institute of Germany to create compressed audio for digital media. And so was born the MP3…

What exactly is a MP3? A MP3 is lossy audio on the third layer of standard MPEG-1. The goal of any compressed audio is lower the bit rate, and consequently the size of the audio file, without noticeable degradation of the sound quality. When Fraunhofer’s research was completed on MP3s, they were reported by its creators to reduce an audio file’s original CD size by a factor of twelve without losing quality.

What do MP3s allow us to do? With MP3 technology we have been able to make use of high capacity storage in new ways (standard data on a CD vs. MP3 data disk), easily transfer music throughout the internet, and even make music more portable/customizable. Without compressed audio modern computer users would probably have whole hard drives just dedicated to the music we want to store (And if you already dedicate a hard drive to music… multiply that data used by twelve to get an idea).

Historical Context

The MP3 Fraunhofer project started in the late 80s with a seemly cliché code name “EUREKA Project.” In the 80s there was a huge uprising of interest in personal computing. Apple and Microsoft were both competing for ubiquity, but neither had a market for sound at this point. Computers were mostly designed in replacement of typing devices to do word processing, and also to give a graphical interface to programming.

The way we see digital technology now was created rapidly over the last twenty years. The uprising of computing brought a lot experimental programming to the plate and spawned many new interfaces or mediums if you will, for media to exist on. For example, some of the first MP3 players were technically created before MP3s even existed. As with most awesome inventions that are ahead of their time, the idea was there with no practical use… yet.

One other major event happening in sync with MP3 creation was the creation music videos for TV. MTV brought out a whole new interest and incentive for music. Not only could people listen to new high quality sound CD versions of the music, but they could also view the artist’s visual interpretations of music by watching MTV. MTV allowed for people to find new up and coming artists also. This created a new and thriving music culture that gave each person the ability to learn more about their musical preferences. Now if only there was an easy way to share all your CDs and preferences with the community.

Digital videos and audio seem like a ‘must have” by today’s standards. Unfortunately in the 80’s, there was really no common use for such a technology due to lack of available hardware. Two of the lead designers of MP3s, Prof. Dieter Seitzer and Karlheinz Brandenburg imagined this technology could be used to transfer data of phone/fax lines, but it would have to be compressed to work. If you think back, there was only really telephone modems to connect to the internet. Therefore thinking along the lines of music transfer through fax would be acceptable.

Computer media also had no function in the early years of computing. Computers weren’t toys, they weren’t entertainment centers, and they mostly just focused on data processing. Even if you had an MP3, what program would be able to play it? Why wouldn’t you just find a way to fit more music on a compact disc instead? Why bog up the limited hard drive space on a computer when you already have a personal media play in your home (VHS, CD player, Cassette Tapes, etc.)?

How Did The Creation Of MP3s Connect With The World?

The real question is why not have all of your personal media playable from your computer? Even after MP3 technology was published in 1993, there was still no way to play a MP3. As hard drives got a little bigger, computers got a little faster, and interfaces got a little more useable, Tomislav Uzelac was working on an MP3 player called AMP. Later, the program was adapted to the Windows operating system and renamed Winamp. Since Windows could previously only play proprietary files (wma/wmv), this was a huge step for digital media.

Apple was also working on its own proprietary audio playback engines but was nowhere near its productivity with the loss of Steve Jobs in 1985. Now that there is a way to play MP3 in the late 90s, Apple needed a way to compete in the digital sound market. Apple looked like it was in a spiraling downfall in 1998 until Jobs miraculously returned as CEO to save the day. One of his biggest remodeling ideas for the company was to run full steam ahead into the MP3 market.

The iPod was one of Steve Jobs’ greatest ideas for apple to date. Released in 2001, it was not the very first portable player of MP3 player on the market. However, Jobs combined fashion, state of the art technology, culture, and marketability to transform Apple into a power house in the music industry. Now people could fulfill that desire to bring their personal music preferences everywhere they go, and all in a new “micro-sized’ pakage. There was no more CD player or boom box with a whole flipbook of cds to carry around. All that was need was one device that could hold all your favorites at the time.

How Did MP3 Development Affect Other Industries?

Usually with hardware, the smaller it gets the more portable it gets. When hard drives, CPUs, and circuits got smaller, we had personal computers. When we had personal computers we had the power to convert analogue to digital. MP3s allowed us to store in essence multiple CDs on one CD. Once we learned about compression we tried to find new ways to perfect it. Apple came out with its AAC audio format used with MPEG-4. MP3 players started being created by every major electronics company. A new music culture was formed like the 80’s MTV.

The MP3 culture started with the iPod. It was trendy, you identify with others, and it was relatively expensive. Although there were plenty of other MP3 players on the market iPods sold more units than another competing company. I myself had a third party MP3 all through high school and never complained once about the quality I got at a quarter price of an iPod. What was different? I always knew the difference was the culture, but what I realize now that I never understood was why everyone thought that culture was so cool. It was all about the interface… not the “cool” silhouetted commercials or one hit wonder songs… but the interface.

Apple put mass amounts of time, effort and user testing into finding the right solution to portable media experience. This is shown through the decade of 2000-2010, by the mass increase in models of iPods. What they have done is create a unique instance of MP3 listening for every individual. With first iPod it wasn’t that you could just hear the audio, a little LCD screen showed who was playing with album art and touch sensitive volume. Then hard drives aren’t needed or top-of-the-line anymore, Apple switches to flash storage with the iPod Nano and shuffle. That is what the MP3 culture is about. The crazy part is because of MP3s … the culture has expanded way past just audio.

After flash memory was cheap enough for most consumers to own gigabyte thumb drives (Mid 21st century), it wasn’t about what kind of MP3 player you had… it was about where you had it. Now people can set MP3s as your ringtone for your phone, smart phones can store gigs of music through external memory, game counsels can download media from the internet, and the same MTV that was just for watching, is now interactive. You can download MP3 ringtones by texting a number on the screen. There was a lot of transfer being done from MP3 to computer, from computer to MP3 player, Mp3 player to other MP3 player (Zune). Where is the media convergence? I believe that the universal takeover of all Medias today lies in the iPhone’s hands. It has single handedly dipped its toes in almost every major market and it has succeeded because that’s what people want… a black box device…a universal remote

What can your MP3 player do? Mine can, browse through my picture, access the internet, play video games, create music, share files, write word documents, find a date and a restaurant to bring her… o yea did I mention play MP3s?… and this all was spawned from the convenience of a compressed audio file.

In Conclusion

Mp3s have affected production and user interfaces in many different industries, even outside of audio. Compression made it possible to fit hundreds of songs on one CD, which in turn made manufactures of any CD player (home stereo, car audio, personal walkmens, etc.) adapt to MP3 playable. Compressed audio allowed DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s to have more space for video. Visualization for audio became “hot” and now every player needed a graphical element. Computer players had to find new ways to organize mass amounts of MP3s (tagging). Tagging is now used for intelligent playlists. Omputers and operating systems have been designed to play MP3s. Mp3 plays have been turned into computers and phones. MP3s created a need for ubiquitous systems.

Will there ever be a totally universal black box?

In the case of the iPod the functionality was basically already created with Winamp, how did this affect the focus on its interface?

Besides turning MP3 players in to personal micro-computers and spawning ideas for ubiquitous computing, what other technologies did its creation affect?

Works cited :

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