A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Forty Three


Karlheinz Brandenburg

You remember those carefree, innocent days when your only access to music whilst on the hoof was via your own vocal chords? And then came along the cassette tape and the mobile player which for all its imperfections got us into the groove of listening to music on the move. And then came the MP3 format which revolutionised it all. But who invented the format and what has Suzanne Vega’s opening track on her 1987 album Solitude Standing, Tom’s Diner, got to do with it? The latest inductee to our illustrious Hall of Fame holds the answers.

Born in Erlangen in 1954 Brandenburg was a PhD student and audio engineer who joined the Moving Pictures Expert Group, an international collaboration of scientists found in 1988, who were trying to develop an efficient compression tool which would compress full-motion video and high-quality audio into digital form.

The group achieved some early success, developing a large machine the size of a refrigerator which compressed a sound file to just 8% of its original size. Clearly this wasn’t really a practical option and what was needed was an algorithm which squeezes a sound file into the smallest possible file. And this is where our inductee came in.

His PhD study director suggested Brandenburg should look at how to transmit music over an ISDN telephone line in a way that maintained the quality of the sound and overall experience for the listener. The piece of music he chose to experiment on was Vega’s Tom’s Diner which, if you are familiar with the track, is an a cappella version and which meant that the algorithm had to be precise in what it retained and what it discarded. Eventually Brandenburg cracked it and the algorithm which made the MP3 format viable by shrinking the data while retaining the audio quality to a level that was acceptable to most listeners pace Neil Young was born.

You would think that such a discovery which has been pretty universally adopted would be the key which unlocked untold riches for Brandenburg. But, alas, it was not the case and that is the reason why our inventor has been inducted into our Hall of Fame. Following the successful completion of his doctorate Brandenburg joined the Fraunhofer Society, one of Germany’s major research institutions, and with his colleagues tried to work out what to do with the audio compression software.

Lack of funds for marketing meant that they released l3enc, the code necessary to translate .wav files into MP3 format, as shareware in July 1994. There was a modest charge for using it, around $250, and this was followed up in September 1995 with Fraunhofer WinPlay3, the first real-time MP3 software player, allowing people to store and play MP3 files on their PC.

But Brandenburg and Fraunhofer didn’t have the field to themselves. Other teams were working on ways to crack the problem and there were a number of competing software solutions, all vying to be adopted as the international standard. MP3, however, proved to be the most and efficient format as did AAC, another Fraunhofer development, which was adopted as the equivalent standard for iPods.

The inventions generated millions in royalty payments for the non-profit Fraunhofer. As for Brandenburg, he didn’t achieve mega-riches but at least German law allows researchers to a share in the profits of their inventions.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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