What is MP3?
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There are a number of Internet-supported audio formats that are used for spoken word and music, but the main one that stands out is MP3.
MP3, also known in technical terms as MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 Audio Layer III, allows for patent encoding of digital audio, utilizing compression to deliver audio sound, without the need of an additional format, such as a compact disc. Using "lossy" data compression, unnecessary sounds are eliminated to greatly reduce the amount of data needed to fulfill the quality of the audio recording, which can be a song, a spoken word piece, or some cases, a podcast.
By using this format, data can be eliminated down to about one-eleventh of the size of a CD file would normally take, using a speed of around 128 kilobits per second (kbit/s). This enables portable MP3 players, including the iPod Touch, to store a significant amount of audio in a small amount of space. (The amount of songs that can be stored depends on the capacity of the MP3-playing device, usually ranging anywhere from 4 to 64 GB.)
History of MP3
The MP3 format was first designed by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG for short) in both MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards. The first Audio group was put together at Fraunhofer IIS, University of Hanover, AT&T-Bell labs and others. After being approved by a committee of ISO (International Organization for Standardization) and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) in 1993, it began to pick up popularity in 1995.
The Fraunhofer Society's Karlheinz Brandenburg first tested the format with a song by Suzanne Vega called "Tom's Diner," testing it over and over, refining the scheme so that the artist's voice didn't lose any clarity. Though the music wasn't built with MP3 compression in mind, it would soon create a popular digital trend that would be embraced by a number of digital retailers, including Apple and Amazon. (Hence, some people consider Vega the "Mother of the MP3".)
MP3 files may be far smaller than normal CD files, but the more data that is used for them, the higher the quality. Playing a song that sits at 2.5 MB is likely to have more feedback than that of a 12.5 MB file. As a result, effects from compression artifacts are likely to be heard, including ringing and pre-echo, when the singing and musical instrument effects aren't as strong as they should be in terms of quality. [Related: MP3 Software For the Serious Listener]
Over the past few years, the popularity of MP3s has grown, to the point that the music industry has become concerned with "pirate" MP3 sites taking a bite out of digital album and single sales. As a result, such sites, including The Pirate Bay, have become subject to lawsuits for copyright infringements, forcing the removal of songs from their sites. However, the site still remains active today, with a rise in active users and peers following a raid on their facilities back in 2006.
Most people, however, get MP3s legally (through such sites as iTunes or Amazon MP3) or download them through secondary sites. They've certainly changed the way we listen to music, as we can simply click a mouse button to hear our favorite songs or audio bits, rather than popping in a CD. And digital audio quality could possibly improve beyond that with better kbit/s formatting and player improvements as well.