Bavaria’s best-known music export features neither yodeling nor the shrieking of fat ladies in helmets. It’s not even something you can hear: It’s the sound-compression algorithm ISO MPEG-Audio, Layer-3, better known as MP3. While the format has become ubiquitous and pirated MP3 files have terrorized the record industry (particularly since the creation of Napster, which facilitates the downloading of files), few people are aware of its Teutonic origins. MP3 was born at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, in the town of Erlangen; its father was a professor named Karlheinz Brandenburg. In an age when it is possible to become a multimillionaire on the strength of a half-baked idea, Brandenburg has done the unthinkable: He has failed to reap either wealth or publicity from his role in the creation of a staggeringly successful technology. And, even more remarkable, he feels pretty good about it.
Brandenburg’s study of music compression began before Napster creator Shawn Fanning was even born. In 1980, Brandenburg -then a 26-year-old student researcher- joined a newly assembled team of scientists working on the compression of music files. Brandenburg soon wrote his dissertation on the subject and rose to become the head of the music-compression project. By 1988 the team had built a refrigerator-size machine that could reduce a sound file to 8 percent of its original size. The system required eight powerful fans just to keep it from overheating; Brandenburg’s team nicknamed it „the helicopter,“ he says, because „we were always joking that the fans would someday make it take off.“
Given that people didn’t actually want helicopters in their homes, Brandenburg and his team members dedicated themselves to replicating its effects through an algorithm. As a result of their efforts, MP3 fools the ear by eliminating the least essential parts of a music file. For example, if two notes are very similar, or if a high and low tone occur at exactly the same time, the brain perceives only one of them; the MP3 algorithm selects the more important signal and discards the other. To create MP3, Brandenburg had to appreciate how the human ear perceives sound. A key assist in this effort came from folk singer Suzanne Vega. „I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm,“ Brandenburg recalls. „Somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing [Vega’s song] ‚Tom’s Diner.‘ I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice.“
Because the song depends on very subtle nuances of Vega’s inflection, the algorithm would have to be very, very good to select the most important parts of the sound file and discard the rest. So Brandenburg tested each refinement of his system with „Tom’s Diner.“ He wound up listening to the song thousands of times, and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega.
Although the Fraunhofer Institute has received millions of dollars in licensing fees from its patents on the MP3 algorithms, Brandenburg has seen only a tiny portion of the revenues. The same will be true for his team’s next invention, MP4, a more secure version of MP3. But he doesn’t seem especially concerned, since the institute has rewarded him in a way that more befits a man of science: It has given him the opportunity to do even more research. The German government, Brandenburg boasts, has done him the „great honor“ of asking him to found a new Fraunhofer Institute that will specialize in audio research. „Maybe I didn’t become rich and famous,“ he says, „but I’m not the typical starving inventor.“
* * *
Suzanne Vega in the New York Times about being a one hit wonder and about „Tom’s Diner“ as the inspiration for a German scientist when inventing the MP3 format: „So Mr. Brandenberg gets a copy of the song, and puts it through the newly created MP3. But instead of the “warm human voice” there are monstrous distortions, as though the Exorcist has somehow gotten into the system, shadowing every phrase. They spend months refining it, running “Tom’s Diner through the system over and over again with modifications, until it comes through clearly. “He wound up listening to the song thousands of times,” the article, written by Hilmar Schmundt, continued, “and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega.”