The Ghost in the MP3

March 5, 2018

Since the 1990s music manifested itself as a digital commodity. Doing away with its material form (LPs, CDs, cassettes) had major consequences for its storing and sharing. Instead of closets full of vinyl or plastic, music is now stored in as a bunch of 1s and 0s, clustered to be a digital audio file. The MP3 has become nearly synonymous with such digital music files, and the reason for this lies hidden in the human ear.

 

 [ Ryan Patrick Maguire's moDernisT_v1 - the scraps of Tom's Diner ]

 

MP3 stands for MPEG-1, layer-3. But the MP3 does not stand for the third part, it stands for the third layer of audio coding in the MPEG standard. So, MP3 is really layer 3 of part 3 of the MPEG standard. That is to say, the file we share and store is only a fraction of the initial recording. MP3s are rather small in size, often no bigger than 10mb for a 4 minute song. The file extension was purposely designed this way so that it could be efficiently stored and shared. This manifestation of music meant a copyright nightmare for the record industry because it enabled online piracy. By 2018 the music business still has difficulties coping with the digital audio file. 

 

The process of stripping away audio layers generates quite some “scraps” - musical material cut away from the recording in order to create the final MP3 format. These leftovers are not selected at random,  but instead the content of the MP3 is based on a model of the human ear. The data that remains accords to the limits of human hearing, and all that is (nearly) imperceptible is done away with. This includes very high and low frequencies inaudible to humans, but also sounds that would probably be lost through the quality of shitty earplugs. 

 

One of the first MP3 ever made with Suzanne Vega’s Tom Diner, an absolute 90s classic. If you are curious as to what was lost in the compression process, check out The Ghost in the MP3. This project by Ryan Maguire features the scrap material of the song, alongside the video clip’s residue. Both audio and video are the "ghosts" of their respective compression codecs because they are remnants of what is now the MP3. 

 

Major streaming services like Spotify and Deezer make use of the MP3 format for “medium-quality” streaming too. However, with ever-developing technology and better internet connections, there might still be hope for recordings to remain as intact as possible. 

 

[ more information about The Ghost in the Machine at http://theghostinthemp3.com/ ]

[ further reading: Sterne, Jonathan. "The mp3 as cultural artifact." New media & society 8(5), 2006 ]

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