Music and mathematics make the unlikeliest of pairs. Arguments
abound about how the two are interrelated, and how mathematics can be used to
understand, evaluate and analyze music. Some even passionately debate how at the
core of a composition is an algebraic equation. Still, the correlation between
the genius of Fibonacci and the brilliance of Beethoven is a little hard to
swallow. Notwithstanding the debate, the contribution of mathematician Karlheinz
Brandenburg to the mellifluous universe of music is incontestable. The audio
engineer, by using simple algorithm, unshackled music in a way it was barely
Brandenburg (and his team of inventors) invented the Motion
Picture Experts Group (MPEG) Audio Layer 3, more popularly known by the file
extension MP3, at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in the early nineties. It
was on July 7, 1994, that the Fraunhofer Society released the first software MP3
encoder called l3enc. And it completely changed the way we looked at and heard
music. All of sudden, music had turned portable; it could be played anywhere and
was more or less freely available. Over the next few years, MP3 completely
lorded over all the music formats that existed in the past and the present.
But instead of basking in the glory of his invention, or raking
in money by the millions, Brandenburg decided to return to Fraunhofer as the
director of the Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) in the picturesque
town of Ilmenau, Germany. He now enjoys simple pleasures of life like listening
to music on his iPod Nano, swimming or trekking.
Widely regarded as the father of MP3, Brandenburg is
currently working on futuristic technologies in the same domain, like a program
that automatically discerns and unearths music based on the type of music that
we listen to from the Internet. In an interview with Dataquest,
Brandenburg talks about his invention and himself. Excerpts.
It has been around thirteen years since the MP3 format was
publicly launched, and yet it continues to be the most popular format for music.
In this rapidly changing world isnt that a sort an anomaly?
I think MP3 is a common ground for compressed music; it is one format that
is supported by all kinds of equipment and can be decoded and listened to
anytime, anywhere. People like this continuity; they dont want to change the
format of their music every other year. It is due to this universitality that
MP3 continues to be popular.
MP3 is the second most popular search item on the Internet, and,
ironically, it wasnt even invented keeping the computer in mind. Did you have
an inkling of how popular it would be?
Yes and no. One always has dreams, when I did my PHD work, I was dreaming
that my work would be used by millions of people. But I dont think I or
anybody else in the group had a feeling of how large our work would really be.
How do you feel about the marriage between Internet and MP3?
In was in late 1994 and early 1995, that we at Fraunhofer had an internal
discussion about the future potential of the Internet. We knew that we had a
window of opportunity to make MP3 the Internet audio standard. Quite shortly
after we released the shareware encoder and decoder software, we saw the first
people using MP3 on the Internetthat was in 1995.
How does it feel to be referred to as the father of MP3?
I am certainly not the father of MP3. I know who else contributed in the
development of MP3, whose shoulders I stand on and who else worked on the topic.
Hence, I never refer to myself as the father of MP3, I do know that I
contributed significantly to the development of the standard, so feel very
connected to the MP3, thats it.
Your views on MP3 and P2P servicesdo you not think that like
any other commodity, users have a right to share and trade music?
I always had the opinion that IP should be treated with respect. A musician,
and others in the creative process, should benefit from their creation, so I
didnt like the idea of Napster. That does not mean I endorse every move and
idea of the music industry. I do think, there should be a chance for musicians
to make money from their creation, while others continue to enjoy music.
The music industry seems to hate MP3, do you think their fears
Justified to an extent, but highly exaggerated. In fact, this exaggeration
became a problem by itself. They feared MP3 and would not embrace it, and it
took a long time for legal services to come up. Internet provided lots of
opportunities for lesser-known musicians. It is important that websites like
Myspace and others provide a way for these artists to showcase their talents.
The music industry did not capitalize on this opportunity.
What do you think of DRM? Should there be some sort of
protection for MP3 files?
MP3 by itself is a format that plays everywhere and a blank MP3 does not
have any sort of protection. Though I do understand that people do want some
sort of protection. But having multiple proprietary systems that do not work
with each other complicated things. It was a bad idea. DRM should work in a way
that as a customer you should not notice it. If you are a legal customer, you
should do whatever you are entitled to with your music without getting into any
difficulties. For instance, if your computer breaks down or you have to replace
files from another computer, or if you have different brands of devices, so on.
All the current problems we have with DRM is bad in terms of usability. Ideally,
DRM should not be visible at all to the consumers and as long as we dont have
that, it is better to have no DRM (the current multiple format one) at all.
What do you think of the numerous patent disputes that have
arisen over the use of MP3?
Some of these issues have been very bad for the industry and the population,
as commercial interests have driven them. As nowadays, everybody tries to get in
and make quick money. Patents themselves are a good idea. I cant comment on
any specific legal dispute. But it is clear that a lot of things have happened
that make us all worried as to what the future will be.
There is often the discussion about your own personal gains, you
could have benefited a lot more. Does that thought ever occur to you?
Thats a frequently asked question. But then, I have indeed benefited
commercially from MP3. I am holding one patent that is about to run out, and am
on a number of patents that Fraunhofer Institute holds. In Germany, there is a
law that the inventor gets a fraction of the revenues generated from royalties
so not only me but also a lot of others get a share from the royalties, as well.
There are a lot of patents and lot of people who contributed to MP3, so it is a
What do you think of the current generation of MP3 players, do
you feel they are good enough?
There is always more to come. What I think we will see is more of
connectivity, like it will get easier to connect to my computer to get music.
What I would like to see, and we are working currently at Ilmenau, is an
automatic play list generator. Even when companies have done a lot in improving
the user interface, I still have to search for what I need to listen to next.
The MP3 player or the iPod could help with that selection. Otherwise, I really
like the current breed of MP3 players.
What do you think of the iPod?
It is quite good. I own a couple of iPods and other MP3 players as well.
How many MP3 players do you own?
I must have bought close to 15-20 MP3 players over the years. At the moment,
I use my 8 GB Nano, but I recently bought Samsung, and have several Creative
What is the future of MP3?
On one hand you have the AAC format. We worked quite a bit on AAC as well.
We all at Fraunhofer are proud of what became of AAC. My colleagues are also
working at MPEG surround and MP3 surround. I think for audio in general, we will
see a big step forward beyond the current surround systems. The current systems
are based on ideas that have been around for over two decades. We are now
working on it and calling it Ozono, there you can have immersive audio, you feel
like you are somewhere out with much better sound quality. It gives you a much
better idea of surrounding, of being somewhere else versus 2-channel or
You have also been involved with a program called Soundslike,
what is the progress on it?
Work on Soundslike has been continuing. The original Soundslike did not work
that well, the newer version discerns music patterns and helps with the
selection of music. If I understand right, we can see the first products
incorporating Soundslike to be out this year. It would be some PC software
A lot of people have argued against the idea, saying that an
algorithm can hardly choose music?
The debate is quite interesting. True it is difficult for machines to
understand all the different nuances and finally decide for me whether I like
the music or not, and generate a play list. There are a lot of Web 2.0
technologies involved in this, like sharing play lists, doing the metadata,
synthesizing the style, etc. In the future, we will have a combination of those,
the automatic system will help us in a limited way. I heard reports that on
testing, people enjoyed it a lot. It is intuitive, wont be cent percent
right. But it will work enough so that it can help in the selection process.
What other projects are you involved with?
I am now the head of the institute in Ilmenau and am responsible for all the
activities here. In many ways life has come full circle; two decades back I was
working on audio compression, now my job is to look around for what could be
interesting, and work out the money and people issues.
MP3 is not a very fancy name, did the team think of any other
name at that time?
We just needed a 3-letter extension, because that was the time of the
Windows 3.1 OS and the file extension could not be more than three letters.
Others had in fact used the term MP2 for layer 2 music. If I recall correctly it
was the Internet Underground Music Archive that already had music in Layer 2
format. So we had an internal discussion on what extension to take and then it
was just a file extension. Little did we realize that this file extension would
be used as a generic name for the whole technology. It wasnt a conscious
decision by us, we always referred to the technology as MPEG Layer 3, and only
later on started to use the term MP3, after the term had gained popularity.
What do you feel about MP3 and open source?
MP3 on one hand is a patented technology but its source was available for
free for a long time. We do support the idea of open source and feel that it is
a good idea. But that does not make MP3 free in terms of no strings attached
because it still is patented technology. Of course, I did watch what was
happening with Ogg Vorbis and so on, and, overall, I think for the whole of the
software industry and the whole of the Internet culture it is a good thing if we
have both. We need a world where people cooperate without commercial interests.
I think it is a very nice model, but things would not work if it were the only
model. We need a free software and free technology model as well as companies
investing money and resources to do work, apply for licenses and patents and
work on proprietary technology. In the end, if both systems co-exist it will be
of advantage to all.
It has been 13 years, how much longer will it stay with us?
MP3 will stay the common denominator; it will continue to be the format for
a lot of different equipment for the next ten years at least. What will happen
after that is hard to guess. Over the past years, more bandwidth and more
storage capacity has been available to us, so you could have newer formats for
multi-channel sound. It will be very interesting. Will it be MP3 Surround for
portable devices or will we go for different format altogether, is anybodys
guess. But, for the next 10 years while there will be new systems, MP3 will
co-exist and be alive.