Thursday, 26 September 2013

Melodies - Part 3 : That revolutionary codec!

To read Part 1 of this post, click here
To read Part 2 of this post, click here

At around the same time CDs sold like hotcakes and planet M bosses were laughing all the way to their banks, a ground breaking technology was already gaining ground and finding its way onto computers. Using an inherent limitation of human auditory system known as auditory masking, scientists at AT&T Bell labs were fine tuning some algorithms in the late 80s and early 90s. And sometime in 1991, a committee known by the name of Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG) adopted a lossy compression algorithm submitted by a Mr. Brandenberg as a standard for compressing audio files – MPEG – 1 audio layer III or more commonly known as MP3.

So, what exactly did this MP3 do? It used a lossy compression algorithm to discard all the unwanted bits from the audio file and compressed it into just 1/11th of its original size, which meant that a 5 minute song would now need only 4.6 MB instead of 50 MB!! Of course, there would be a little loss in the audio quality due to the compression, but that is where all effort of the scientists/researchers went into – to make sure that the drop in quality was too small to be noticed by the listener as compared to the significant savings in space required to save the file. This file would then require something called a CODEC – a coder decoder software which would uncompress the file and play the music encoded in those bits. It was not long before the codecs were developed using programming languages and distributed to computers leading to the launch of this:

Nullsoft’s Winamp, which installed and played that whipping llama introduction immediately after install was one software which totally revolutionized the way people saw PCs. If you had a PC that ran Windows, there is no way that you could have missed this software (unless ofcourse, you were a media player fanatic who thought WMP was the best thing that could have happened to Windows). By the beginning of new millennium, the MP3 codec was so ubiquotuos in PCs thanks to software like Winamp and WMP. But wait, if they could build a specialized computer device that played audio CDs, and they could build a universally available codec for playing MP3 on a computer, could they not merge the two?? Well, it was only a matter of time that this happened and we saw the emergence of these:

The Mp3 codec enabled Mp3 players were a totally unprecendented innovation in the music industry. Even when gramophone was replaced by the cassette player, the changes were not that disruptive. And as always it was met with strong opposition from the music industry who feared revenue losses by the unauthorised use of such files. They had every reason to be worried –but even with their scepticism, there was nothing that they could to do to stop the spread, because unlike a cassette or a CD which has a physical form and easy to track, there was very little knowledge among people on what a file is and where all it can be stored. A file is just virtual entity and can be present everywhere – on a mobile device, on a USB storage disk, on an encrypted/hidden area of the disk, or even on the internet (on the cloud). For that matter, one could just change the extension of .Mp3 files and no one would know what these files stored anyway, unless they knew more about computers and files. (Yes, there were a lot little people who knew about computers then as compared to today)

Those were the days of a booming PC market, combined with the entry of feature phones in India and the possibilities of having a high quality song reside in the form of a 5 MB file were limitless. With MP3, you could have almost 200 songs reside on a single CD and play it for hours together. With MP3 stored as files in your personal computer, you could choose the order of songs which you wanted to listen, and not stick with the same order that the cassette player played. You could even build your own playlists with only hits and choose to ignore or totally delete (SHIFT+DELETE) those unwanted songs. While playing ‘Rangeela’ songs on a cassette, I used to hate the fact that I had to listen to a rather boring ‘HAYE RAMA’ immediately after Asha Bhonsle’s hit song ‘RANGEELA RE’. After I got winamp on my system and an MP3 player at home, I have never listened to that song in almost 15 years now!!! With MP3, you could transfer a song onto your friend’s PC and it played with exactly the same quality as the original. With an MP3 player and just one MP3 CD on your car, you could travel 350 kms from Bangalore to Mangalore, without ever having listen to the same song! Combined with other add-on technologies which were launched that time, MP3s totally destroyed the AUDIO CD market in just a matter of 1-2 years, something which the cassette could not have done to gramophone in more than a decade. Which meant there would be no more of these:

And there would be emergence of single person, noiseless, non-disturbing headphones/earphones, where no one could make out what you are listening to. Something like these:

Apart from the fact that MP3 songs were of superior quality, they came packed with lot of inherent features: take the ID3v2 tag for example – you could store upto 20 fields of information embedded into the file itself. There is no need for any inlay card or additional details outside of the file – even the album art can be stored into the file itself. Easily available software allowed cutting of the files which was again a welcome feature, especially in some songs such as ‘aisa zakhm diya hai’ where you had to wait for like eternity till the nice part of the song set in. And since the codec was found on almost every mobile device, sharing of songs became child’s play. If I bought an audio CD and ripped it to MP3, I could use the same file on my mobile, my home audio player or any device and be assured of the same quality. Of course, the logical extension of this would be privacy – since there was ABSOLUTELY NO loss in copies of MP3, anyone could make any number of copies of a song and distribute to whoever needed them. The exclusivity of owning songs/music collection immediately became a thing of the past – all that mattered was how much the disk could store and people could store all the songs that bollywood has ever produced with them! Although, I liked the fact that more people now got a chance to listen to music than the proprietary cassette/CD days, what hurt me most was that absolute morons who had no sense of music now stored virtually every song ever composed (even the great, timeless compositions) without any intention of listening to all them!

Cut to present day – the digital revolution has created superabundance in almost every aspect of the music industry. There are like umpteen technologies which compete with MP3 like WMA, aac, avi, mp4, RM and even the proprietary ones like itunes/zune audio. There are a million ways to buy music – internet downloads, mobile downloads, online marketplaces like Amazon/flipkart, itunes shop and what not! There are again a thousand device types on which you can store music – DVDs, mobiles, memory cards, flash drives, hard disks, ipods, the internet CLOUD, etc and I don’t even have to tell you where all you can listen to songs. And the option of selective listening has taken a new meaning altogether. We have the option of buying just one song or in some cases, just parts of a song to set as ringtones. Those days, we were forced to listen to many bad songs in a movie just to listen to one great song – but today, only one hit song of the movie gets downloaded leaving the others as “also theres”. I don’t think i will ever get time to listen all songs of ‘Aashiqui2’ anytime even when that is touted as the biggest hits of 2013!

The problem that the end-user faces is not that of lack of music but an overexposure to it. If you like ‘kolaveri di’, you can have it as your alarm tone, your call ringtone, your message alert tone, your hello tune, the default song on your ipod/phone, create a ‘i love kolaveri’ page on facebook without knowing what kolaveri means :P, listen to it while you drive, and even watch it while at work if your company is benevolent enough to allow youtube! And all this, without even having to know which movie the song is from and which are the other songs of that movie! Guess it’s time to throw all the ‘marginal satisfaction’ theories of economics out of the window ? The only things that have continued to remain exclusive are some of the shows/tidbits on FM Radio (for example, I eagerly wait for SULTAAN on FM94.3 to learn two English words daily! :)

My original purpose while writing this blog was to delve into listening experiences. I know that every time we listen to a song (regardless of how many bits coded/decoded/compressed on what device), there is some feeling which you experience – maybe you go off to the sunflower fields of Punjab while you listen to 'Tujhe dekha to', maybe the Darjeeling train comes to your mind when you listen to ‘Mere sapnon ki rani’ or you totally associate the song with a personal memory – but poignant listening experiences are those when you get completely lost in the song. I wanted to write about some of such awesome listening experiences which I have had till now. But I guess, I let my technology instincts take over:) Anyway, I plan to write more on the same in the coming posts. Till then, I would want to know from all of you on some of the best listening experiences which you have had till now. Drop me a note or leave a comment below about such wonderful experiences you might have had. I’ll come back soon with some of my own. Till then, happy listening.

NOTE: There has been a lot of talk about all this digital revolution has put the artists in losses because of piracy issues, which is not totally baseless. I understand that due credit should be given to the composers. Apart from the sound which I recorded, I have always been used to buy cassettes and Cds and had a nice collection of these till very recently. But that does not mean we should do away totally with convenient formats like “MP3”/”WMA” just because of the threats. At the end of the day, even with their vulnerability, the fact remains that technologies like MP3, mp4, avi, etc have let a lot more people experience, enjoy and appreciate music instead of limiting it to a few elite. Because it is very easy to share, well made audio and video can go viral in a matter of days (even hours sometimes) earning a lot of traffic and revenue for the producers. In turn, this has encouraged more and more people to take up careers in the digital music and recording industry. We see a lot more people employed in the music industry today than before, which cannot be a bad thing, right? And then there a lot of options like mobile formats, ring tones, hello tunes, itunes, etc each of which can be major sources of revenue for the artists by their sheer volumes. Steve Jobs got it right when he thought of pricing per song instead of selling an entire album. Today, lot of music sales happen by song. And I am sure we can work out pricing issues amicably such that the composers and artists get their due, eliminating all the middle men and unwanted costs, thereby creating a win-win situation for composers and listeners.

1. Images courtesy: Google images and Wiki images. All images are copyrights of their respective owners, used here purely for illustrative purposes
2. WMP : Windows Media Player - a prorietary music playing software that comes pre-loaded on MS-Windows Operating systems. It plays MP3s and also supports compression on its own proprietary format - WMA (Windows Media Audio)


Giria said...

Loved this part
If you kept the cassette write enabled, there could be a chance of some moron taking your cassette to get it copied and wiping it off “by mistake”


And yeah loved the part about bits bytes and MBs :) I always used to wonder how a big song got compressed and the WAV was a huge file. Those were the days when we used to tag all the songs. The time has come now to download music from iTunes or Nokia Music which has the tag preloaded.
Inlay cards? What are those? :P

And Happy Birthday :)

Anonymous said...

I must say a very long post but worth reading as it's truly informative.

Great work in adding the minute details which we usually over look..

And finally happy birthday :)

Hope we get to see more posts this year :-P