The Next Phase of Digital Audio

The latest news about digital audio is that the Fraunhafer Institute is no longer licensing the software and algorithm for MP3. What this means is that the Institute no longer has exclusive rights to the pioneering audio format. It does not mean that this is the end of MP3. Rather, it signals the possible start of a proliferation of more MP3 software.

Audio Formats

There are now more digital audio formats available for use. One of the most stable is the M4A format, which is a direct descendant of the MP3. Another is OGG, and then there is also WAV and FLAC. Among these, the oldest is WAV, but the most commercially used lossless format is FLAC. Compared to MP3, M4A compresses better for larger files, with better audio rendition. For smaller files, it can still have larger file sizes than MP3. In contrast, the FLAC format is quite large but it has the best audio rendition among lossless file formats. OGG is a compression system which has is proving to have a good compression and even better audio rendition.

The Fraunhofer Institute has no longer license the MP3 format because their patent has expired. It has been 20 years since they introduced the format to the market. During that time, they have held the rights to the format, and every other software maker would have to get their permission in order to incorporate the file compression.

Going the Way of GIF

It has been reported that this signals the end of the file format as we know it. However, there is the contrary opinion about the possible demise of MP3. The analogy being referred is that of the GIF file format. The GIF file format was created by AOL and they held the rights to it. Some developers who did not want to pay for the licensing created their own. One of these is the PNG format. Both the PNG and the GIF format allow for multiple layers which can be animated.

When the AOL GIF licensing expired, there was the opinion that the format would no longer be used.

What happened instead is that more developers used GIF because there was no longer any licensing fee to the software. This resulted in an explosion of GIF files, especially for memes.

In the same token, without anyone holding the licensing rights, MP3 format could be used to develop more software. This is good news for developers. This is especially useful if you are going to create an audio software for mobile devices, or even for online use.

Incomplete Audio

There is one problem with MP3 and digital music in general. The quantization process lops off some analog data. This is the price paid in order to convert music from analog formats to digital files. There have been different studies about this. In CDs, there is a discernible fall off in the “s” sound. A further issue is that compression in general also tries to approximate the lossless sound. MP3 compression is much like JPG compression, as it uses an algorithm to average the sound, instead of compressing without any losses. With this method of compression, the user has a choice of whether to have a very small file, with poor audio quality and little faithfulness to the source or to have a relatively larger file which would be more faithful. Note that the MP3 format will always have some fall off, or some sound which is not included in the final audio file.

What is great about all this is that even those who have no idea about audio can create their own smartphone app to be able to convert audio to MP3. A good quality MP3 is still at about one-tenth the size of a comparable WAV file. This large discrepancy between formats has made the WAV file a limited use format.

Mobile Audio Apps

Getting it all done is a different matter altogether. There is still the reason for using MP3 algorithms for an audio app. What is obvious though is that there is a market for a music sharing app, which would be independent of existing music sharing sites like Spotify.

For one, if low-fi MP3 of lectures can be uploaded for sharing, that can be a big help for students. Audio notes can also be compressed to small files and stored in a streaming format, before sharing. The point is that not all audio files need to be of good high quality. There are a lot of applications which do not require high fidelity. An interview or a podcast does not have to be a large file size. The same is true of embedded files for presentation. Some presentations make use of background music, this does not have to be loud, nor does it have to be lossless.

Music is not the only audio file stored on the internet. There are a lot of other applications which can make use of novel ideas regarding sound. In the same manner, not all audio files need to be in stereo. Audio files may sound more full or well-rounded in stereo. However, as part of a podcast or an internet radio, being understandable is more important than being faithful to the source.

Although internet bandwidth is getting bigger, and internet plans are getting cheaper, there is still the problem of transmitting a large file from your smartphone, mobile device or computer, and transmitting it to other computers and smartphones all over the world. A small file size for a mono recording would do just as well.

The MP3 licensing agreement may have expired for the Fraunhofer Institute. However, it does not mean that the format is dead. There are still a lot of things regular developers can do to make use of this format. That means that it is still useable and can be re-purposed for other apps and online storage as well.