Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg, one of the founding fathers of the MP3 player, gives a rundown of the history and future perspectives of the MP3

Remember the first time we heard an MP3? For me, it was a Creed song from a newly released album. Back then, we had to install something called winamp to play the track which took forever to download on our slow modem connection and the song wasn’t anything close to their other remarkable hits. We didn’t realise it back then, but we were listening to the future.

The man who envisioned this future, Prof. Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg was in Bangalore city recently to deliver a lecture at the Goethe-Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan and share his wealth of knowledge on the MP3.

Hosted for the science circle by the Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bangalore, Fraunhofer India and the Goethe-Institute, the lecture was part of a series designed to promote Indo-German scientific co-operation.

Known fondly as the father of the MP3 player, Dr. Brandenburg, however, did not work alone. He explains that with a team of eight people, he was one of the co-inventors of the MP3 in a story that spans over two decades and has interesting twists to it. This team, led by the Professor who was an expert in mathematics and electronics, started the research programme for coding music with the high quality and low bit rate sampling MP3 technology at the German company Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in 1987, the same year I was born.

“It all started with an old dream – a dream of perfect sound – which began with the invention of the phonograph by Edison.” Leading us through a technically sound talk on sound, the professor summed up that their goal was to compress music to 1/10th of its bit rate. This would make the file size smaller and thus allow more files to be contained in a storage device. That was how the MPEG Audio Layer III files became MP3s.

Playing a set of audio tracks, the professor demonstrated how sound evolved over the years and emphasised on how the need to accommodate more music in storage devices became a necessity.

It wasn’t easy, says the professor. “We started research in 1982 itself and it took us a decade to finish. Once we finished the research and got the technology ready, marketing it was another huge challenge. No one wanted the compressed format because they felt floppy discs and later audio CDs would do.”

“We finally got our breakthrough in the 1990s with the internet that had people adapt to the MP3 quickly. Today, MP3 continues to be the standard for digital audio.”

Looking ahead, Dr. Brandenburg also dwelt on the future of the MP3. “I am still learning and we are working on new technology, new ideas and new potentials. We are looking at better surround sound, more interactive machines and dabbling into the age of the social media which has just begun.”

Speaking after the impressive talk, the professor said he is a regular visitor to the country. “It’s always fun to be in the land which invented the numbers system and produce so many brilliant minds who contributed to the world’s growth and progress. India is one of the classic old cultures and I love every experience I have here.”