The Rise of the MP3 – Internet Audio Files That Changed the Music Industry

As an avid music listener and maker, it has been interesting to look back through the history of music availability and the changing formats in which music has been presented. 

With the advent of internet and computers especially into the 1990s, it introduced an entirely new way of storing music. 

There are two different categories of music file formats: lossless and lossy. Lossless, as you may surmise, indicates a file format that retains the original quality of the music whether it came from vinyl, CD, et cetera.

This includes AIFF, made by Apple, WAV, a universal format, FLAC, ALAC and APE. Most of these are uncompressed file formats, meaning there is no loss in quality or detail from the original music. 

Lossy refers to a slightly lower quality file format that is designed to save storage space, which leaves you, the listener, with more room for more music.

However, you will notice a significant difference in sound quality. This is because lossy file formats (MP3, AAC, et cetera) are typically compressed in order to make them smaller.

What matters in these formats is bit rate. If you’ve a file with a high bi trate then you won’t notice much difference, if any, between this and lossless files. 

What is an MP3?

MP3 is one of the most – if not THE most – popular file format available. It is a form of codec (COmpressing and DECompressing data).

Sometimes when people download music they look specifically for the MP3 format because it is so ubitiquitous and therefore well known, and some of us believe it is the only file format out there. Since it’s so popular, other formats like APE or FLAC can look rather daunting or untrustworthy. 

MP3 refers to a mass-produced file format that lacks proper and due quality, but people still love it. 

Its name, MP3, is short for MPEG 1 layer 3. It is an audio-coding technology that takes the information from CDs (and others), compresses the information into tiny files suitable for Internet transferring and computer storage.

This way, the music does not take up much space, allowing the user to download or copy as many songs as they please. Mostly these came from CDs.

CDs contain digital files too, but one song can be up to 40 megabytes in size, and that is a lot of space when you take into consideration a full-length CD multiplied by your entire collection.

Think of it this way: one minute of CD quality audio sound takes up about 10 megabytes. This is for full-resolution files.

The MP3 file would take up about 3.5 megabytes instead, making the files eleven times smaller. That’s quite a significant change and you can imagine the bits of detail that may get quashed during the process, since there just isn’t room for it.

However, MP3, like other lossy formats, are built on the theory that the human ear doesn’t really pick up much information to begin with, therefore it’s not even worth coding in.

In addition to allowing for more storage on your personal computer, MP3 files, being so much smaller, can be downloaded in ten minutes instead of several hours. It is important to note that once the files are compressed, the lost data is lost forever.

The sharing of music and MP3 downloading was, in 1999, as popular as people searching for sex online. 

When was the MP3 invented? 

The MP3 was developed in the late 1980s and used in the early 1990s. It was nearly abandoned, considered a dead format by 1995. It was replaced by the AAC format in 1996, a format that could get around technical limitations imposed on the MP3.

Initially the MP3 was used for sports sites. The internet however really took off in the 1990s, with tons of websites popping up that were dedicated solely to pirated music and file sharing. Remember Napster?

The MP3 was named in popular press in 1997 and fully reborn by 1999. Technicolor and Fraunhofer IIS are the companies behind it. A lot of people had computers and internet service at this time.

The MP3 subsequently appeared for those who wanted to use the Internet as a new and powerful tool to share their creative works with others. It was a fast and easy way of sharing music with people all over the world. 

Its rise in popularity

When MP3 websites were first available, it was a lot of college and university students sharing files of bootlegged albums with each other since they lacked the funds to purchase CDs.

However, these young people also had passionate interest in lesser known artists and the internet was the perfect place for them to both find and share new musicians.

The very first MP3 player was the MPman, released in 1998, and then Apple soon joined the market in 2001 with iTunes and the iPod.

This meant an entirely new relationship of music and listener. The same file could be shared by thousands of people anywhere in the world, just by the click of a button, whereas previously, a cassette, vinyl or CD physically belonged to a person, and they could only share it at home with friends or family.

This also meant that people now had access to an infinite library of music. You could download another person’s entire music collection and there was no more worrying about returning CDs or scratching someone’s vinyl.

And, because people had access to nearly anything they wanted, they could acquire much more music in a shorter amount of time.

For example, instead of buying your favourite band’s new CD once a year, you could have thousands and thousands of new songs and artists to check out, all within a matter of days.

While some artists saw the amazing potential in the MP3 and this newfound ability to share music with a global audience like never before, many feared the MP3 and foresaw problems with copyright and a loss of rights for the artists or producers.

For those artists who did see the potential with the MP3, they found they could share bits of music that didn’t make it onto the album, or tease their fans with hints of new songs.

This was a bonus not just for the artist but also the diehard fans, who would appreciate tidbits of unreleased material, as a way of accessing virtually everything their favourite artists had created rather than enjoying the final cut of an album.

Record companies, being the mega-capitalists they are, with money as their bottom line, were not so jazzed about the MP3 and would beg their artists not to share the music for free.

They preferred to instead wait until they had figured out a way to make the fans pay to hear these tidbits or unreleased songs. This would force the listener/fan to not only pay to download the song, but that the file would have a limitation of number of plays before the listener had to pay again to download another file for the same song.

Of course, the smart ones would have burned everything onto CDs before the files expired.

Everyone from ultra-popular Beastie Boys to lesser known artists saw the MP3 as a way to reach the world if they couldn’t afford a tour or didn’t have a record deal. Before the days of internet music file sharing and MP3s, how were these smaller bands to get their music heard?

They would, like record companies, release a song for free to titillate the audience and then release a full album that the audience would then purchase.

MP3s are especially favoured by smaller bands and independent artists who are looking for new and exciting ways to get their music out there in the world.

If you’ve ever recorded an album or toured as musician you will know it’s very expensive to rent studio time and to then produce music and release it.

For musicians who are not signed to record labels, it is a lot easier and more affordable to record music in home studios and upload it as MP3s, which fans or listeners would find on MP3.com, one of the first major file transfer websites.

Digital distribution allows the artist to keep a much higher percentage of the sale price, too, and allow artists greater control over distribution. The MP3 file format is truly a revolutionary tool in the music industry, allowing artists to take over from the bottom up. 

However, despite all its benefits, there have been some downsides. 

Where it is now

When MP3s first came out, back in 1999 (that’s nearly 20 years ago), things were different. There was only dial-up internet. MP3s were made for dial-up internet when everything could be shared across the globe but took a lot longer than it does today.

Some artists and record companies blame the MP3 for killing the music industry, but other musicians, like Radiohead or Amanda Palmer, for example, have taken the cue and separated from their record companies; preferring to instead release their music independently, online, and letting listeners pay whatever they want, whether it’s ten cents or twenty dollars.

Today there are many, many online file sharing websites like Spotify and Apple Music. You can buy songs on iTunes for a dollar.

It really shows how music providers and artists have changed with the times, listening to the demands of the public and offering them what they want. The quality of these files is incredibly good; you just need good speakers to play them.

Of course, there are still websites where you can download music for free, and there are still record companies and musicians releasing their work through them.

And the public are still buying them.

There’s one thing online files will never have: the physical experience of interacting with music. The booklets, the artworks, the cover themes and fonts. The CD that sits like a book on a shelf with a title on its spine that you recognize immediately and pull out.

It is that very immersive and real experience that comes with physical music that you would never experience with downloaded files, and so many of us music appreciators tend to be artistic and exploratory folk.

We say immersive because it is so rewardingly consuming to sit down with your favourite record, pull out the booklet, read the lyrics, study the artwork while the music plays: to be immersed in that full experience designed intimately from the artist to the listener. 

In conclusion, we don’t hate MP3’s.  They were invented for a reason, and in the big picture, they serve a purpose or two, so why treat them with disdain?

Mixing And Recording With Compressors – Why You Need Them!

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Any record old or new has used at least a few compressors, AKA levelling amplifiers.

From rock to pop and even electronic music, compressors are essential for a solid sounding mix. Some instruments can survive on their own without it, some cannot.  If you’ve never gazed upon one, they look a little something like this…

la610comp

Compression 101

All a compressor really does is turn down the volume during loud parts of any given audio source. Compressors essentially help even out sound sources.

The most important, and universal, setting on any compressors is threshold (or gain reduction). Threshold is the level the audio signal must be before the compressor engages.

Any signal that passes below the threshold will remain unaffected by the compressor, whereas any audio that passes the threshold will be reduced in volume. In effect, the quieter parts will become louder and the louder peaks reduced in volume.

For those who wouldn’t mind seeing this explained in video form, it just so happens we found a video that explains the concept very well.

A common feature on almost all compressors is a gain setting. The gain settings allows you to make up the loss in overall volume from the initial stage of compression.

Here’s Richard Kaplan, Neil Young’s audio engineer explaining one of the most basic, and popular compressors of all time the Teletronix LA-2A:

As you can see from this video, some producers and artists can be very finicky about their choice of compressors.

Why You Need A Compressor

If you want a quality sounding track a compressor is an essential tool. Almost every instrument can benefit from the taming of dynamics that a compressor provides.

For vocals, a compressor comes in real handy when dealing with the variability inherent to the human voice. Recording vocals without a compressor usually will cause problems during later mixing.  That said, too much compression can ruin a mix as well.

Take heed of these words by Brett Manning from the Singing Success YouTube channel, where he talks about when compression can push your vocal mix over the line from a good sounding vocal (just enough compression) to a bad sounding vocal (too much compression).

If a compressor is used wisely, it will simply do wonders for your mix as it can balance things out. Without proper compression, some parts of a vocal performance will punch through loud and clear, while other parts will simply get lost in the mix.

Bass guitars, as a general rule of thumb, must be compressed, because their strings are not equal in volume.  This means, you have to be quite the whiz on the bass to make all the strings sound equal, so producers are often keeping an ear open for this and have their compressor at the ready. With bass, compressors both even out the strings lending to consistent bass lines and can even make the bass nice and punchy!

Even both electric and and acoustic guitar can both benefit from some compression. Lead guitar especially!

Extra Credit Viewing

If you really want to get specific with what compression does, here is an excellent educational video which we recommend watching by Michael White from MPGInsider, a YouTube channel about audio engineering.  We like this video because it talks in depth about the nature of compression.

I Want One… Where The Heck Do I Start!?!

If you are already recording digitally, chances are good that your software will come with at least one type of compressor. If not there are countless freeware options out there on the net that can get the job done. The software compressors provided with software like; Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, Audacity and even Garageband, will often do the job transparently.

Yet not everyone wants a transparent compressor! Many producers and engineers actually prefer compressors with their own sound and character, often referred to as color.

Types of hardware compressors range from tube (like the most renowned Fair Child,) optical (like the aforementioned LA-2A,) FET (like the punchy 1176) and VCA (like the ubiquitous dbx 160).

The sky really is the limit when it comes to the variety of compressors on the market. The same is true when it comes to the price tags that some classic compressors can fetch, as with the pricetag of $10,000+ for a mono Fair Child!

Here is producer/engineer Jack Joseph Puig talking about vintage compressors and why they’re so much more sought after than modern day compressors.

If you are unhappy with your recording software’s native compressors I’d highly recommend checking out some third party plugin manufactures like Waves and Universal Audio for high quality digital emulations of studio classics like the Fair Child.

If your dead set on getting a hardware compressor, I would highly recommend you check out both FMR Audio’s Really Nice Compressor and Warm Audio’s 1176 style compressor as affordable choices.  Here’s a link below to some great deals on Amazon.

Feature Picks

Art Pro Channel Ii Microphone Preamp/Compressor/Eq Professional Tube Based Selectable Vu Metering

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Warm Audio Wa76 Limiting Amplifier

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Fmr Audio Rnla 7239 Really Nice Levelling Amplifier Stereo Compressor

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Now for a quick compressor shoot out!

https://open.spotify.com/album/1ccn5njCoBKCnaiWJHcp7i