There’s been a flurry of articles lately about the death of the MP3, and most of them have got the story wrong. The format itself is, in fact, far from dead, and I’m going to prove it to you.
First, what is an MP3? It’s a file format that basically takes a very large-sized high-bandwidth audio format (like the AIFF or WAV audio file master) and essentially shrinks it so it takes up less room size-wise. Think of an inflated bicycle tire. When you let its air out it can fold up inside a small box. It’s still a tire but it’s in a different form and it’s properties have changed. The same thing happens with an MP3. In order to make the master file smaller, the MP3 codec throws away parts of the audio that it thinks you won’t hear anyway to make the file size smaller. Many of us can’t hear the difference between the master and the MP3, especially when the encoder correct settings and file preparation is used, but done using automatic settings, the changes are sometimes easy for everyone to hear.
What really happened is that the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits that created the MP3 and Technicolor, which administrated the patent, are terminating the format’s licensing program thanks to the patent expiring, and the fact that most of the action is now with the AAC (Advanced Audio Codec) format that Fraunhofer ISS also helped to create. AAC is actually much more efficient in terms of taking even up less bandwidth than the MP3 while doing less harm to the audio quality. It’s been used by the iTunes store from its inception, and is currently used by Apple Music, Deezer, Amazon Music Unlimited, iHeartRadio, and YouTube, among many others, as their audio codec. A license was required by a manufacturer making some hardware like an MP3 player, and of course, you don’t see much of that happening these days, so there’s no use for Fraunhofer and Technicolor to be worrying about the licensing program
But the MP3 dead? Far from it, actually. I know from my own experience as a mixing engineer, the MP3 is still a way that approval mixes are ferried around to clients. They may not sound the best, but they’re convenient and everyone has a means to play the the format just about on any device. Then as a podcaster, every one of my Inner Circle podcasts is uploaded via MP3, and that goes for just about every other podcaster as well. Why? Anyone using any device can play an MP3, and they’re a lot easier to make than other comparable formats.
Then there’s the fact that at least some of the music that you consume every day is delivered via MP3. Record labels routinely deliver the format to radio stations for broadcast, or their playout systems convert a file to MP3 first. You’re also listening to the format if you happen to use Pandora, Slacker, Google Play Music, or SoundCloud. MP3s are everywhere, and while the world may change completely to some form of AAC in the future, that won’t be happening for a while as the format is entrenched in so many facets of our daily audio life.
The MP3 came to life with some difficulty (read How Music Got Free by Stephen Witt for the whole story), but gained traction against a host of competitors more because it lacked digital rights management (which everyone hated at the time) and was therefore easier to use, and the fact that Fraunhofer was never all that aggressive looking for license violations. The format has led a long successful life so far, and while it’s indeed showing its age, there’s still has a bit more left in it.