Friday, May 26, 2017

The Death of the MP3 Format

With progression comes the inevitable. The format known as mp3, used to listen to music on iPods and iPhones, which some collectors use to store their old-time radio programs, is considered dead. That's the official statement from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the German research company that licensed the mp3 patent to software developers. There can be no dispute that the mp3 format, a form of compression for audio files, when joined with the Apple iPod, changed the way millions listened to music.

What is mp3? The simplest way to describe it without going into scientific jargon is to compress an audio file from one size down to a smaller file size and maintain as much of the original sound as possible. Storage was, for over two decades, an issue when it came to collecting record albums and compact discs. A CD could only hold 70+ minutes so for collectors of old-time radio programs only two half-hour recordings could fit onto a single CD. When compressed to mp3 format, 18 half-hour programs could fit onto a single CD. 

How does this work? The simplest way to explain this is imagine taking an five-minute audio recording and breaking it down into one million bits of info. One long string consisting of one million bits. Now take away every other bit away and play it back and you'd never notice. As a friend of mine once explained, it would be like running an old movie from a 16mm projector with one out of every ten frames removed. Considering a projector plays back a movie 24 frames a second, would you notice the difference? Probably not.

There are many rates of compression for mp3 and some are much better than others. Collectors of old-time radio programs for years used software on computers to compress recordings of radio programs into mp3 files, many unaware that they used the wrong compression causing digital artifacts to the soundtrack. As far as they were concerned, the smaller the file -- the better. In fact, most of the radio programs you download off the internet are horrible because of the terrible rate of compression. Not a month goes by someone isn't on Facebook asking where they can find better sound because what they downloaded sounds terrible. From an archival standpoint, wav format (which is what is used on standard CDs) is considered the required format. Last year at a preservation conference with more than 300 librarians across the country gathered in the same spot, it was voted unanimously that mp3 was not an archival format.

All of which led to a dispute among collectors of old-time radio. Which format is the best? Almost everyone agrees wav format is essential from an archiving standpoint but the smallest fraction in the hobby believed mp3 should be the norm. (I would like to note that supporters of mp3 were in favor because wav format took way too long to download off the internet for free, especially if they used dial-up, and they justified the horrible sound quality for the money they did not pay. As one was quoted last year of saying, "It's old, so shouldn't it sound old?")

In a statement from Fraunhofer, "there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today." As I mentioned, technology advances and what was a starting point for Steve Jobs and his revolution that 300 songs could fit on a single iPod device and thus eliminate the bulky portable cassette players, is now considered obsolete.

There are multiple new formats that collectors have been experimenting with. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is considered the successor of MP3, used for iTunes and other music-streaming services. When someone uploads a video on YouTube, the audio is also converted to AAC, to ensure a smaller audio file (thus quick download to stream), then synched with the video. Collectors of old-time radio have been re-shifting their focus on Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) but there are again a number of critics. As one remarked recently, "It is still a compressed file using less kilobytes so I cannot understand how an audio file of smaller size can maintain the high standard of wav. There still has to be something missing. After all, I can only load so much into my car before the windows break. A compressed pillow loses something after being squished in size over time."

All of this does not mean mp3 files are no longer going to work. It simply means that all the major companies that license the mp3 technology for use on their websites and products have moved on to a better format. For the few who use an mp3 player, a CD player or DVD player to listen to their audio files... sound systems that are capable of playing mp3 format may eventually vanish over time. 

Me, I prefer to maintain wav format. Not only is it archival but the fact I can have a little more than 10,000 wav files on a 3TB external hard drive the size of a VHS video cassette is a blessing because that is 5,000 CDs on my shelves that are no longer taking up room. If I want to listen to old-time radio programs I merely connect the drive to my computer and burn a copy onto a blank CD, transfer them to my smart phone to listen to whenever I want, or stream it from my computer to any device in and outside of the house. A friend last month saw my twelve external hard drives and insisted I should take the thousands of man-hours to convert the files to mp3 or FLAC so the amount of material on three drives would fit onto two. (Yeah, I don't think that is going to happen. Really? All that work to lose sound quality and save eight inches of shelf space? Nah.)

Last week someone wanted their VHS videos of family home movies converted to DVD. I asked if they still had the Super 8 reels because transferring from those reels to DVD would be better than converting from 30-year-old VHS videos that already suffer from magnetic breakup. No, they threw the reels away after they had them transferred to VHS. I mention the futility of this story as it leads to a question I now ponder.

For the few people in the hobby who kept scolding me about not converting my recordings to mp3 like "the rest of the world," not understanding I have superior sound quality from archival masters and never entertained the thought of compressing audio files to something inferior (and now obsolete), I guess they have to reconsider the next phase of audio formats. But are they going to be working from a compressed file (mp3) or from archival transfers (wav)?  


Danny said...

Fraunhofer considers the mp3 "dead" because their patent on it has expired and they can no longer make any money off of licensing it. What that means is that the mp3 format has achieved the patent equivalent of falling into the public domain. If anything, the mp3 format is likely to become even more ubiquitous because it can now be bundled into software by anyone anywhere without having to pay a dime to Fraunhofer. It's the same situation as when a drug company's patent on a drug expires. Anyone can then manufacture a generic equivalent. The drug company who has lost their patent responds by disparaging the old drug and by offering a new drug that they insist is much better than the old one, anyway.

That said, I'm no fan of the mp3 format. It's done irreparable damage to the hobby of collecting old radio shows. In the early days of the internet, thousands of old radio shows were dumped into Usenet groups as lossy, artifact-ridden 32 kbps mp3s. In too many cases, those files are the same ones still circulating today on most internet sites that offer old radio shows. (Upconverting a low bit-rate file to 128 kbps or higher, a not uncommon trick to make mp3 files look better, doesn't do one thing to improve the sound.) Combine that with the problem that far too many of those mp3s were mastered from cassette tapes that were either badly recorded and dubbed or were a dozen generations away from the original, and you have the situation the hobby is in today. Yes, there are tens of thousands of old radio shows readily available, and most of them sound like garbage. And too many people defend this junk by saying stupid things like, "Well, old time radio isn't supposed to sound good." Or they blame the recording techniques of the era when these shows first aired. The latter argument is particularly ridiculous, as anybody knows who has heard an old radio program straight off of a well-recorded transcription disc.

I collect in WAV format, too. (The raw WAV files or CDs. The CDs get backed up to a hard drive. CD-Rs, in particular, have unpredictable life spans and can and do fail.) Everything I transfer from my discs or open reel tapes gets transferred and stored as WAV files. I've had people point out to me that their collections -- mp3s -- are far larger than my WAV collection, but personally I'd rather have one high quality wav file from as close as possible to the original source than ten junky, low bit-rate, artifact-ridden mp3 files.

Regarding FLAC: I don't quite understand it, myself, but studies show that you can convert a file back and forth between WAV and FLAC, and not one frame of data will be lost from the WAV file. Bounce it back and forth a dozen times. No loss to the WAV file. I feel more comfortable sticking with WAV, though.

A lot of old radio's audio problems started in the cassette era. Badly recorded cassettes containing shows that were many generations removed from the original source were all too common. There was a time when it seemed like everybody who accumulated a few hundred cassettes was buying a high-speed duplicator and some cheap bulk cassettes and calling himself a dealer. Talking about shortsightedness, I know a surprising number of collectors who transferred all their reels to cassette tape, then dumped the reels, a move they regret making now. Not that open reel tape is flawless, but in open reel days the number of people collecting old radio in that format was much smaller, so tapes weren't as far removed from the original source material as happened in the cassette tape era.

Sharon Beck said...

Your preference for archival quality is appreciated. I just tend to doubt that mp3 playing ability will disappear so quickly. It is not a hardware product like a cassette tape but rather a software product which can be heard using the right software. I doubt software players with mp3 compatibility will disappear.

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