Forgotten Audio Formats: MP3

The year was 1994.

Music was as popular as ever, with rock bands like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins, pop artists like Ace of Base and Mariah Carey, and soul artists like Boyz II Men and Janet Jackson selling millions of albums.

The music industry was healthy and investing in new artists. Thousands of people were employed to record, catalog, distribute, market, and keep the books for successful recording artists.

This B-side collection by The Smashing Pumpkins sold 1,000,000 copies in america in just a few months to go certified platinum. That’s 1 million CD’s sold, not youtube views.

Music could be consumed on multiple formats and most people had a mixed bag for their own collection: analog vinyl LP’s and cassettes along with digital CD’s.

Other physical formats existed like reel-to-reel and LaserDisc but were tiny markets. DAT and DSD were still years away.

File-only digital had just begun with the WAV format being released in 1991, but a CD held more data than most hard drives.


In the tech world a trend was accelerating that would forever change the music industry: hard drive price per megabyte:

1988 – $16
1989 – $12
1990 – $9
1991 – $7
1992 – $4
1992 – $2
1993 – $0.95
1994 – $0.81
1995 – $0.68
1996 – $0.21

1 CD worth of drive space would have cost $10k in 1988!

By 1994 it was $526. By 1996 you would have spent around $135 for 650mb of HD space.

But the 650mb CD cost pennies to manufacture and sold at retail for $20. Plus they were proving to be pretty durable and CD-R’s were coming down in price. CD was the digital format of necessity unless and until something drastically changed with either the bandwidth needed or bandwidth available.

Don’t forget: bandwidth = moving storage.  aka Storage = static bandwidth.


So the same software engineers who came up with lossy JPG image compression were called upon to investigate audio and video compression. Their goal – to get the file size small enough for 1990’s bandwidth.

For music testing they used contemporary music (Suzanne Vega) and developed what they called perceptual coding.

Perceptual coding targeted all the parts of mixed music that were open to perception beyond the main focus of the song (melody and beat): things like transients, pan/placement, room and soundstage size, timbre of instruments, blending of sounds, that type of thing.

Remember hi-hats? MP3 crushed them into non-existence.

These audible cues are all present in mixed music but are unmeasurable. They are all nearly impossible to explain and communicate verbally or through written language.

You may know it when you hear it, but it’s not possible to explain further in a controlled, consistent, scientific way. No matter how descriptive you are, the next person will use completely different terms.

This listener confusion and lack of terminology made the engineers jobs far easier. They found that they could remove nearly 90% of the audio data before testers consistently identified a difference using their flawed testing methods.

A few 90’s mp3 engineers, not audio engineers.

 

This gave them the green light they needed. The MP3 specification was published and started to catch on. A 50mb WAV file was now a 5mb MP3 file and life was good!

It was true – at first listen, they almost sounded like the original. It took a more critical listen, or repeated listens, to pick out the degradation, and over time many came to hate the MP3 sound. Casual listeners didn’t care as much, but professionals, musicians, and audiophile-types rejected MP3 as lossy.

Sound quality was secondary though. Finally computers could play near-full quality music! Digital file-based convenience had arrived.

Finally modems and networks could send the files around! Finally bootlegging was convenient!


MP3 was quite popular in it’s time. Nearly every device made could play MP3 files, including phone’s, video games, TV’s, and wireless speakers.

Early MP3 player

But MP3 had no artwork beyond a tiny cover. No lyrics. No credits. No booklet. No shout outs. Nothing to attach to. It was highly bootlegged and for some time, recorded music lost all value.

It also required almost no people to distribute or sell. Nothing to sell & nothing to move = nothing to promote. Nothing to invest in.

Bootlegging ran rampant and the music industry practically folded. Most musicians stopped making money from their music.

Limping along, MP3 got one quality improvement in 2009 (aac), but it wasn’t going to help much. By 2014 streaming was stealing the download market.

Streaming takes everything bad about MP3’s and extends it to the rental model.

Now you own nothing. You just pay a subscription to hear degraded versions of your favorite songs in between commercials. Don’t pay up? No music for you.


The current streaming business model is unsustainable for both the license holders and the license purchasers, but in this post-fact world it really doesn’t matter. Quality has been trumped.

Lossless formats like FLAC, around for years, finally took off around 2016, giving critical listeners an open format to rally around. Buying hi-res music from sites like HDTracks ProStudioMasters was a thing again. Hi-res hi-fi DAP’s finally emerged in many markets. 24bit FLAC continues to offer higher-resolution files with no DRM.

Bandwidth/storage is now available. I have 60+ full lossless albums on a card the size of my pinky nail. I have the bandwidth into the house to stream 24bit audio, if anyone offered it.

One can only hope that the MP3 era is the last time we accept such a massive downgrade in quality.

#SaveTheAudio

 

The Ultimate (Final) Digital Music Collection

I’ve got my DAP that plays everything wonderfully. It’s got expandable storage and prices are low enough that I think it’s time to abandon the iTunes catalog I’ve spent 15 years curating to the smallest size possible and build a full-quality digital music library to last me the rest of my life.

This will be moved from my various hard drives to MicroSD flash storage using 64gb and 128gb cards. I am going to start at ~ 1.3tb and grow from there, achieved with 10 128gb cards.

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The tech is all simple and affordable. I’m looking at $40 for a multi-slot card reader and storage book for the cards. The reader plus my laptop will give me 3 slots for easy file management.

The cards themselves are priced about $60 for 128gb right now, so I’ll eventually spend about $600 on media. For $650 and lots of feeding discs into the ripper I will have all of my digital music in a single booklet, forever available at the highest quality I own.

Here’s the challenge, I call it my #1 modern problem — how to index/organize the cards?  I have been thinking on this for weeks now, and have asked several people’s opinions, and here’s a chart laying out how I see my various options:

How to organize 10 terabytes of music?

How to organize terabytes of music?

 

As you see, I’ve already excluded 2 methods A & B, leaving 6 more suggested ways to file all this music away. Each has pros and cons and none are scoring ahead of the others based on listenability, findability, and variety.

I will post more on this as I work out this problem. What are you thoughts on the best way to organize over a 1TB of music?

Also, see previous post on this topic of new storage space and great Rip 2.0

Project Overview: 

Combine 1000+ CD collection with a 20gb-sized MP3 collection, ripping the CD’s as 16/44 FLAC, (replacing any lower resolutions), purchasing some new 24bit albums, and storing it with a single index across 10+ MicroSD cards. Managed either manually or with JRiver/Ponomusicworld client.

The PonoPlayer contains 64gb of fixed memory plus the MicroSD card slot. I plan on using the internal storage as my “favorites” library and then I can load an additional separate card for separate occasions. If I’m stuck without a card I will still have over 100 of my favorite albums on the internal storage.

 

Rip 2.0

cdstack1

Hello old friends, it’s been awhile

Rip your CD’s again.  Do it right this time.

Most of us went through ripping phases where we created gigs of MP3 files and either traded back in our CD’s or hid them in the basement. We’ve been walking around living with MP3 for over a decade now, either from our files or streaming from the network.

When we ripped our CD’s, we wanted the music from the CD in a small file. The file had to be small because our hard drives were small. A CD holds 0.7 GB, so if you wanted to rip 50 CD’s without compression you needed 35GB of space for them.

If you wanted to rip 300 CD’s like me and you didn’t have 200 GB of space for music – and no iPod/iPhone could hold that much anyway – you made them MP3’s.  Nearly all of us did it. And we could appreciate our music, understand it, sing to it, dance to it, enjoy it in MP3 format. It was the iPod decade.

But this is the thing — that MP3 is actually just a photocopy of the real thing, and the second you go back to using the original CD quality file (16/44) you really hear it.

If you have a real good player, such as the PonoPlayer or Fiio, you can really hear an advantage at 16/44.

So I’ve begin the process of ripping my favorite CD’s again, this time as 16/44 FLACs, loading them onto my DAP, and am finding myself enjoying these CD’s more than ever before.

Then there comes the moment that has come to define this process: I have the FLAC’s next to the MP3’s and I can delete the MP3’s forever, just a bad memory of years past. Like a faded photo of someone you didn’t like much anyway. See ya! Got a better version now!

F1.medium

 

BTW – this image of the spaghetti — that’s the various parts of the brain used to process sound and vibration.

That’s why when you feed it degraded quality it knows, and it affects your psyche in ways they have yet to trap for.

 

The New Kid On The High Resolution Block – MQA

Well this is getting interesting. British company Meridian has come up with something that goes beyond just a format or delivery mechanism, and also involves lossy compression, yet it still looks like a potential future audio technology we need to pay attention to.

Continue reading

Bring On The Competition

Can’t wait for that Pono?

Can’t handle the power of the triangle?

Here’s the Fiio X1 finally available in the US at around $100, and that ain’t too much to pay for some serious hi-res music playback. Pono’s are gonna be about $400 and probably not 4x better sounding, since they are basically similar in important specs.

You know that iPod and that phone just don’t sound that good. Investigate with your own ears.