Back in the days when both bandwidth and digital storage were precious, there was a miniaturization race. How could a big, fat, digital file — say, a song from a typical compact disc — be shrunk so it could easily be transferred down a copper wire?
After a very convoluted competition and series of meetings to set worldwide standards, the winner was a group of scientists and engineers at the Germany Fraunhaufer Institute. And on July 14, 1995, they chose the file extension for their new creation — .mp3.
MP3s work by taking an advantage of auditory masking, which basically means a loud sound will render a quiet sound inaudible to the human ear. And if you can’t hear the quiet sound, what’s the point of it being there? Why not use a mathematical formula to strip it out? That will make the digital file smaller and thus easier to transport and store.
The invention of MP3s transformed the music industry. It gave us Napster, iPods, falling CD sales, angry Metallica drummers, higher concert ticket prices, MySpace and freaked-out record company executives. MP3 technology is also lowering our standards for what qualifies as “good sound.”
Several studies seem to indicate that if you’ve grown up with MP3s and the less-than-high-fidelity sound coming out of cheap ear buds, your perception of what sounds “good” is different from previous generations who remember listening to records played through big stereos and expensive speakers. In other words, the flatter, tinnier sounds that come out of iPods are considered by a growing number of people to be superior to the full frequency recordings that come out of a proper stereo.
For eight years, a professor of music at Stanford got his freshmen students to rate the audio quality of various songs he played for them. Some were compressed MP3s while others were hi-fi analogue recordings. And sure enough, as the years pass, the number of kids picking MP3s over glorious high-fidelity sound continues to increase.
It’s to the point where some record producers have taken to mixing new recordings not while listening to honkin’ massive studio monitors, but through cheap iPod headphones. Why? Because that’s the quality of sound with which more and more kids are comfortable.
It’s just another example of how technology has the ability to change the way we perceive beauty —whether we want to admit it or not.