MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Sound compression and mobile audio storage are changing how we listen, finds Hillegonda Rietveld

August 9, 2012

Currently the most ubiquitous recorded sound file format in the world, the MP3 uses sound compression to enable mobile storage and - as the recorded music industry was to discover to its cost - easy and rapid exchange via the internet. Scholarly publications on this format usually focus on the social and industrial contexts of music consumption in relation to creative production, internet distribution, copyright issues and mobile consumption. Here, Jonathan Sterne instead uses the MP3 as a starting point to investigate how the hearing subject is historically conceptualised in the development of the format. From this perspective, the MP3 is not merely a simple sound container but acts as a procedure that constructs a way of listening.

Although it is structured in a seemingly linear manner, starting in the late 19th century, MP3: The Meaning of a Format is based on a genealogy that meticulously traces various technological strands that led to the MP3 being codified in 1992. Sterne's method allows for unexpected insights that break with well-ingrained presumptions about technological progress. For example, he finds that verisimilitude and high fidelity, integral to the development of hi-fimusic systems and surround-sound cinema systems, are not the only drivers in sound reproduction technology. Aiming for a "truthful" auditory experience seems a flawed goal because each format - from the 7-inch single to the CD and beyond - constructs its own specific sound qualities and embeds specific listening subjectivities. Although the MP3 reduces the bandwidth of a sound recording, this does not seem to be a problem for its millions of users, who are by now accustomed to its sonic qualities; instead, compression is the driving force of its success.

Hereby Sterne offers an example of format theory, which complements media theory by investigating mediality - the way in which communication technologies both cross-reference and operate simultaneously. Changes in formats signify cultural shifts - their adoption and success do not determine, or cause, change but rather show the complex interplay of industrial and social needs. The format of the MP3 responds to an interaction between miniaturisation, mobility and instant access to media content. Sterne shows that the MP3 is related to early sonic ideas in the development of telephony, where the compression of sound signals frees up space on telephone networks. Similarly, the MP3 format does not take up much bandwidth in internet exchange networks or on storage devices. The insights offered here are not only of interest to the study of sound and music but reach beyond to the theorisation of digital media technologies and the understanding of how communication formats develop.

After a dense introduction that lays out the theoretical framework, the book opens with a discussion of perceptual coding based on a specific model of hearing developed in psychoacoustic research at AT&T, the US telecommunications giant, to compress sound into a narrow bandwidth that, in turn, increases the capacity of its telecommunications system. The idea was to develop a way to economise sound signals, which Sterne calls perceptual technics, that would nevertheless leave them able to be understood as intelligible speech. These hearing standards were then universalised and applied to con-temporary compression techniques.

The psychoacoustic understanding of redundant sound, as well as ideas developed in telephony regarding signal transmission, were then applied further afield in information theory. Sterne argues that where psychoacoustics separated the process of hearing from the interpretation of meaning, information theory similarly separated the process of transmission from the production of meaning. He points to important work by Claude Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories, and in particular the introduction of the notion of lossless compression in 1948 - in other words, the elimination of redundant data without significantly changing the final output.

At the intersection of psychoacoustics and information theory, such a process of sound filtering is used in MP3 encoding, together with the economising practice of perceptual technics and new ways of understanding noise, which eventually resulted in the development of perceptual coding, audio coding that removes audible sound. Sterne shows that although the term emerged during the 1980s, its development was under way at least a decade earlier. Perceptual coding applies AT&T's insights into critical audible frequencies as well as the concept of masking sounds: when similar sounds are played simultaneously or closely together, only the louder sound seems to be perceived. Although noise can be hidden by louder intelligible sounds, it also means that similar frequencies may be eliminated in processes of auditory and temporal masking without any perceptual reduction of sound quality.

Having done the groundwork through this overview of technological developments that have supported telecommunications, the book's fourth chapter finally addresses the historical point of formation of the MP3 as a standard format. The International Organization for Standardization established the Moving Picture Experts Group in 1988 to create standard formats for digital video and audio in a range of industries, from satellite communications and broadcasting to digital music and video. The standard MPEG was agreed in 1992. Because perceptual coding was not yet associated with a single company or industry, the standard could be agreed. It is not a free code but instead brings revenue to its developers. The MP3 codec was modelled on a "neutral" laboratory-based listening subject, without user context. The process of creating its sound quality seems to address universal ways of hearing, yet Sterne argues that it is nevertheless culturally specific exactly because the history of sound reproduction established conventions in listening.

MP3 was the name given by the German institute Fraunhofer IIS to layer (or protocol) 3 in the MPEG-1 audio standard, which was developed by Fraunhofer, AT&T, Thomson and France Télécom. Fraunhofer made software available to encode and decode the format. Shortly after, the codec was cracked in Australia, aiding its ubiquity against other standards. By 1997, it was the preferred format for online file-sharing.

Here the story of piracy, not only of the codec but also in the form of file-sharing, echoes earlier moments where audio technologies and industrial inertia confronted each other, namely in pirate radio and in cassette piracy. Both heralded new ways of understanding sonic cultures as well as shifts in interaction with its artefacts. New industrial models are needed to address such shifts, in which technological developments are, in themselves, responses to both economic and social requirements. For the MP3, such needs particularly emphasise compression, mobility, reproduction and access rather than the stationary contemplation of carefully assembled music collections in high-fidelity quality.

In an approach that emphasises format, Sterne foregrounds infrastructures and protocols over distinct media content, policies and industries. Mediality may change over time, but references also shift across cultures. In this sense, despite the universalising effect of globalisation, a plurality of hearing may well be recognised in the future development of new audio formats. As Sterne shows, digital technologies need to be understood in a broad sense, and perhaps the difference between analogue and digital is not so very great after all. Instead, this study shows the importance of continuities and the cross-referencing of media formats, offering a fresh entry point in the histories of sound and communications as well as of digital technologies.

If any critique may be fielded here, it is that the linear historical structure and the density of references sometimes initially seem to distract from the main subject. Yet there is more than one way to present a complex web of connections, and to interrogate the minute, as Sterne has done here, is to achieve an innovative overview of format development.

The Author

"I fall in love with most of the cities I visit, then I come home and walk around Montreal and think, 'I can't believe I get to live here'," confesses Minneapolis-born Jonathan Sterne, associate professor of communication studies at McGill University.

"As an undergraduate, my career ambition was to be a graduate student: long hours, low pay, but living the life of the mind - at least that's how it looked to me at the time.

"Looking around now, it feels like an immense privilege and responsibility to be able to do what I do for a living.

"I think of McGill as an international institution in a cosmopolitan city; compared with my experiences in US universities, I feel much closer to the rest of the world.

"Being in Montreal has also taught me to think differently about the political possibilities for higher education, especially this year. The Quebec student movement has been truly inspiring."

A bassist since the age of 10, Sterne has also played synths and computers for the past 15 years. "The rest of my pastimes," he adds, "are standard-issue middle class."

He says that his own favourite audio format is "situational". "I buy CDs or digital files that aren't copy-protected - yes, I still buy music.

"I rip to lossless for home and AAC for the road (on the advice of the people I interviewed for this book).

"And I just bought a new needle and cartridge [for my turntable], so all my LPs sound better than ever."

MP3: The Meaning of a Format

By Jonathan Sterne

Duke University Press 360pp, £67.00 and £16.99

ISBN 9780822352877 and 52839

Published 6 August 2012

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