If you have listened to a podcast or other files on a digital device or on a computer you’ve likely listened to an MP3 file. Why is MP3 the predominant podcast format? You may or may not have stopped to think, what exactly is an MP3 and why are they so popular.
What exactly is an MP3?
If you’re experience with audio and the internet spans time and geekdom, you’ll remember other audio formats like RealPlayer’s RA (RealAudio) and you may have other formats on your phone, computer, or tablet right now. In terms of ubiquity, MP3s have certainly won the battle of audio files and formats in podcasting (at least for now).
First a short bit of history because you may just win trivia night with this. What is an MP3 and where did it come from? MP3 is a shortened version of the term M-PEG 3. M-PEG stands for Moving Pictures Experts Group, and the number 3 refers to Audio Layer 3. Yes, that means that MP3s were originally thought of as an offshoot of the audio layer of video files. It was invented by a German company called Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft who now licenses the patent rights to the digital encoding process. The inventors named in the MP3 patent are Bernhard Grill, Karl-Heinz Brandenburg, Thomas Sporer, Bernd Kurten, and Ernst Eberlein. Brandenburg is often referred to as the “father of MP3,” but Dieter Seitzer, a professor at the University of Erlangen, was already working on high-quality audio transfer over a phone line and was very involved in Fraunhofer-Gesellshaft’s work as well.
Karlheinz Brandenburg specialized in mathematics and electronics and had been researching methods of audio compression for about 14 years before succeeding at the creation of MP3. He has stated that his work began because of a problem that the thesis advisor for his PhD, Dieter Seitzer, ran into. Seitzer requested a patent for using ISDN phone lines for audio transmission but was turned away after being told that his idea was impossible. He turned to Brandenburg for assistance. Real progress wasn’t made, however, until 1986 when Brandenburg first considered how he could use the limits of human hearing to create digital files to transmit audio. When it was successfully launched in the 90’s, it became the standard for digital audio files as the popularity of the internet exploded (more on that later).
What does MP3 technology have to do with the limits of human hearing? Let’s talk about two other terms first — lossy and lossless. Lossless formats are digital copies of audio that are identical to the original. Examples of lossless formats are WAV, AIFF, and FLAC files. With these formats, data is compressed, but the exact waveform remains intact so nothing is lost. A lossy format, on the other hand, removes audio frequencies at the highest and lowest ends of a recording, the ends that can’t be heard by the human ear or have minimal overlap with regularly occurring sounds. Data is compressed like with lossless formats, but the file is smaller because parts of the waveform are lost. MP3, MP4, WMA, and AAC are examples of lossy formats.
Converting audio to an MP3 format can compress the audio by a factor of between 10 and 14, so if, for example, a podcast with that’s originally 100 megabytes in a lossless format is converted to an MP3, the resulting file can be about 10 megabytes. The smaller size of the file means that downloading the podcast is much faster and can more easily be put saved on a variety of mediums that the original file, making it more accessible to more people.
Like any technology, MP3 has its fans and its detractors. Audiophiles and people with a sharp ear for subtle nuances of sound object to what they perceive as a loss of quality that results from the elimination of the highest and lowest ends of the audio spectrum. Most casual users, however, don’t perceive the difference and place a great deal of value in the convenience and time saved by the technology.
Why are MP3s so ubiquitous for podcasts?
MP3s take advantage of compression and data omission to result in smaller file sizes. The MP3s innovation in smaller file sizes, a lack of digital rights management, with “close enough” to CD quality audio made it spread far and wide starting in the 1990s. These technical innovations combined with others in computing an internet history (see the rise of ripping CDs, Winamp, and Napster), and the MP3 and P2P (peer-to-peer) file sharing fed off each other.
Podcasts have a long and storied association with the iPod portable music player, which like many portable players of the time took to playing the most popular audio formats of the time. The reason MP3s became the format of choice for podcasts are because they were the format of choice for free and open sharing of music and the near ubiquitous support for the format across devices and operating systems. Another piece of trivia is that the final patent for converting audio to MP3 expired on April 9, 2017 (see US Patent Filing, MP3 licensing and legislation) in the United States (expired in Europe in 2012) which is quite into the MP3’s popularity.
As a format, Backtracks believes that podcasting allows independent voices to share their stories and messages with a narrative all their own. It’s only fitting the ubiquitous digital file format of MP3 powers podcasting as it continues to grow in popularity.