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Monday, July 14, 2003
MP3 creator speaks out

Several albums can be compressed into MP3 files and burned on a CD The term MP3 is well-known to millions of the world's teenagers but its mere mention sends shivers down the spines of record industry executives. The format responsible for a musical revolution allows you to compress sound into a file which is a fraction of the size of the original.

But a name which will be unfamiliar to many is that of Karlheinz Brandenburg - the German researcher who was one of the inventors of MP3.

He first began working on a way of making small sound files some 20 years ago as part of the doctorate thesis.

"We had dreams from the start," he told BBC World's ClickOnline.

But he never expected his work to achieve the popularity or notoriety it has.

"In 1988 somebody asked me what will become of this, and I said it could just end up in libraries like so many other PhD theses," he recalls.

"But it could become something that millions of people will use, that was the dream."

Discerning ears

Dr Brandenburg finished his thesis in 1989. But that was just the start of the story.

My sympathy is always with the artists and even with the record labels. They should get paid for the work they do

He went on to join the Fraunhofer Institute, one of Germany's most prestigious research facilities, and contributed greatly towards making MP3 what it is today.

Now, it has established itself as the de facto format for sharing music over the internet, even though rival formats have since been developed.

The big challenge in the early days was making sure that none of the sound quality was lost by squeezing a song into a smaller file size.

The researchers aimed for a MP3 file that would sound just like the original to discerning ears.

"There was a lot of testing," says Dr Brandenburg. "I remember sitting at the computer with very good headphones and always listening to a few items.

"I must have listened to some a thousand times."

One of the problems he faced was coping with the many different types of music. Each style, from pop to classical, reacted differently when it was compressed and it was hard to predict how much the sound quality would suffer.

New opportunities

The emergence of MP3 turned the music world on its head. Here was a format that allowed high quality music to be transferred over the internet and straight in to people's home computers.

With the advent of file-sharing services like the now defunct Napster, millions of people were downloading music, in many cases without paying for the tracks.

But Dr Brandenburg does not believe that by creating the MP3 format, he is contributing to the demise of the record industry.

"People should have easier access to music," he says. "They should be able to listen to it wherever they are and still pay for it.

"My sympathy is always with the artists and even with the record labels. They should get paid for the work they do.

"I don't like the Napster idea that all music should be free to everybody."

Instead Dr Brandenburg argues that the record labels need to look at ways of using the technology, rather than fighting it.

"There are so many new opportunities for the music industry if they catch on and use the technology."

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