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GENIUS! #2: Professor Karlheinz Brandenburg and MP3

“It became an avalanche that nobody could stop"

Sometimes the academics strike pure gold. The Working Group for Electronic Media Technology in Ilmenau, between Frankfurt and Leipzig, is just one of 56 Fraunhofer Institutes established by the post-war German Government specifically to bridge research and industry: to kick-start new business with good ideas. It worked. And one of the most commercially successful ideas became MP3, or Layer 3 of the Motion Picture Expert Group standard for compressed audio, to give it full billing. Professor Karlheinz Brandenburg led the team that developed it.

Compressing audio became a good idea as soon as the Fraunhofer placed Integrated Circuits at the heart of its agenda. “For me it started with my PhD in 1982,” reveals the professor, “when my thesis advisor suggested – theoretically – ISDN for music as well as speech. I did, eventually, prove to the exam board that it was possible!”

It all kicked off with ISDN codecs, with Fraunhofer supplying software for both the Telos Zephyr and Dialog4’s MusicTaxi in groundbreaking OEM deals. Research has led the organisation into every area of media delivery from digital broadcasting to internet streaming, but MP3 changed the world.

Published in 1993, MP3 offered the nascent World Wide Web audio files a fraction of the size of those used in CDs. The exchange of file formats ending ‘.mp3’ quickly caught on and, although professionals pointed to an unacceptable breaching of psychoacoustic barriers, consumers didn’t mind at all. “It became an avalanche that nobody could stop,” reflects Professor Brandenburg, who remains very positive about the commercial future. “Overall people spend more money on ‘industry content’, especially if you include live sound,” he says. “It’s just that they expect it to be with them everywhere, on portable devices. In other words, it’s still something to be valued.”

Now that digital delivery is ubiquitous, the vested interests in every layer of audio and video transport have exponentially compounded. Still, while Fraunhofer pushed MPEG-21 towards “a complete framework for multimedia in a commercial environment”, MP3 players had a clear run until just recently. However: whether the smartphone really suits MP3 usage remains to be seen.

+ Hail to the boffins… Genius! is all about celebrating those clever people whose inventions have transformed the world of professional audio. Mailed out with the February print edition of PSNEurope, the 36-page supplement is also available to read in handy digital-edition form. Read it online, or download as a PDF.