Interview: Karlheinz Brandenburg (Inventor of MP3)

Getting to interact with Prof. Brandenburg was really a high-point for me. It was not only because he is renowned as the ‘father of the MP3’ (which he disputes), but also for the person he is, a true academic genius. I really admire the values that Prof. Brandenburg stands for. A few decades back, the fledgling IT industry was dominated by people who were inventors, people like Gary Kildall, Gene Amdahl, Seymour Kray, Bob Kahn, Vincent Cerf, and so many others. Today, it is mainly dominated by business magnates (Yes, there is Steve Jobs and one could argue even Bill Gates, still).

In those days, inventors tinkered with technology not for the money that could be made out of it, but how it would aid people in their everyday lives. Prof. Brandenburg belongs to that genre, he was instrumental in inventing MP3, and once he had done so, he returned to Fraunhofer Institute to aid other people. When during the conversation, I talked about money and compared him with Sir. Tim Berners-Lee, he baulked and said that he had made money (thanks to a German legislation) from his invention and he seemed quite content with it. His simplicity is truly touching.

The whole interaction was published in Dataquest: (


‘For the next decade, MP3 will exist and be alive’

Music and mathematics make the unlikeliest of pairs. Arguments abound about how the two are interrelated, and how mathematics can be used to understand, evaluate and analyze music. Some even passionately debate how at the core of a composition is an algebraic equation. Still, the correlation between the genius of Fibonacci and the brilliance of Beethoven is a little hard to swallow.

Notwithstanding the debate, the contribution of mathematician Karlheinz Brandenburg to the mellifluous universe of music is incontestable. The audio engineer, by using simple algorithm, unshackled music in a way it was barely conceivable.

Brandenburg (and his team of inventors) invented the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG) Audio Layer 3, more popularly known by the file extension MP3, at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany in the early nineties. It was on July 7, 1994, that the Fraunhofer Society released the first software MP3 encoder called l3enc. And it completely changed the way we looked at and heard music. All of sudden, music had turned portable; it could be played anywhere and was more or less freely available. Over the next few years, MP3 completely lorded over all the music formats that existed in the past and the present.

But instead of basking in the glory of his invention, or raking in money by the millions, Brandenburg decided to return to Fraunhofer as the director of the Institute for Digital Media Technology (IDMT) in the picturesque town of Ilmenau, Germany. He now enjoys simple pleasures of life like listening to music on his iPod Nano, swimming or trekking.

Widely regarded as the father of MP3, Brandenburg is currently working on futuristic technologies in the same domain, like a program that automatically discerns and unearths music based on the type of music that we listen to from the Internet. In an interview with Dataquest, Brandenburg talks about his invention and himself. Excerpts.

It has been around thirteen years since the MP3 format was publicly launched, and yet it continues to be the most popular format for music. In this rapidly changing world isnt that a sort an anomaly?
I think MP3 is a common ground for compressed music; it is one format that is supported by all kinds of equipment and can be decoded and listened to anytime, anywhere. People like this continuity; they dont want to change the format of their music every other year. It is due to this universitality that MP3 continues to be popular.

MP3 is the second most popular search item on the Internet, and, ironically, it wasnt even invented keeping the computer in mind. Did you have an inkling of how popular it would be?
Yes and no. One always has dreams, when I did my PHD work, I was dreaming that my work would be used by millions of people. But I dont think I or anybody else in the group had a feeling of how large our work would really be.

How do you feel about the marriage between Internet and MP3?
In was in late 1994 and early 1995, that we at Fraunhofer had an internal discussion about the future potential of the Internet. We knew that we had a window of opportunity to make MP3 the Internet audio standard. Quite shortly after we released the shareware encoder and decoder software, we saw the first people using MP3 on the Internetthat was in 1995.

How does it feel to be referred to as the father of MP3?
I am certainly not the father of MP3. I know who else contributed in the development of MP3, whose shoulders I stand on and who else worked on the topic. Hence, I never refer to myself as the father of MP3, I do know that I contributed significantly to the development of the standard, so feel very connected to the MP3, thats it.

Your views on MP3 and P2P servicesdo you not think that like any other commodity, users have a right to share and trade music?
I always had the opinion that IP should be treated with respect. A musician, and others in the creative process, should benefit from their creation, so I didnt like the idea of Napster. That does not mean I endorse every move and idea of the music industry. I do think, there should be a chance for musicians to make money from their creation, while others continue to enjoy music.

The music industry seems to hate MP3, do you think their fears are justified?
Justified to an extent, but highly exaggerated. In fact, this exaggeration became a problem by itself. They feared MP3 and would not embrace it, and it took a long time for legal services to come up. Internet provided lots of opportunities for lesser-known musicians. It is important that websites like Myspace and others provide a way for these artists to showcase their talents. The music industry did not capitalize on this opportunity.

What do you think of DRM? Should there be some sort of protection for MP3 files?
MP3 by itself is a format that plays everywhere and a blank MP3 does not have any sort of protection. Though I do understand that people do want some sort of protection. But having multiple proprietary systems that do not work with each other complicated things. It was a bad idea. DRM should work in a way that as a customer you should not notice it. If you are a legal customer, you should do whatever you are entitled to with your music without getting into any difficulties. For instance, if your computer breaks down or you have to replace files from another computer, or if you have different brands of devices, so on. All the current problems we have with DRM is bad in terms of usability.

Ideally, DRM should not be visible at all to the consumers and as long as we dont have that, it is better to have no DRM (the current multiple format one) at all.

What do you think of the numerous patent disputes that have arisen over the use of MP3?
Some of these issues have been very bad for the industry and the population, as commercial interests have driven them. As nowadays, everybody tries to get in and make quick money. Patents themselves are a good idea. I cant comment on any specific legal dispute. But it is clear that a lot of things have happened that make us all worried as to what the future will be.

There is often the discussion about your own personal gains, you could have benefited a lot more. Does that thought ever occur to you?
Thats a frequently asked question. But then, I have indeed benefited commercially from MP3. I am holding one patent that is about to run out, and am on a number of patents that Fraunhofer Institute holds. In Germany, there is a law that the inventor gets a fraction of the revenues generated from royalties so not only me but also a lot of others get a share from the royalties, as well. There are a lot of patents and lot of people who contributed to MP3, so it is a win-win situation.

What do you think of the current generation of MP3 players, do you feel they are good enough?
There is always more to come. What I think we will see is more of connectivity, like it will get easier to connect to my computer to get music. What I would like to see, and we are working currently at Ilmenau, is an automatic play list generator. Even when companies have done a lot in improving the user interface, I still have to search for what I need to listen to next. The MP3 player or the iPod could help with that selection. Otherwise, I really like the current breed of MP3 players.

What do you think of the iPod?
It is quite good. I own a couple of iPods and other MP3 players as well.

How many MP3 players do you own?
I must have bought close to 15-20 MP3 players over the years. At the moment, I use my 8 GB Nano, but I recently bought Samsung, and have several Creative Labs players.

What is the future of MP3?
On one hand you have the AAC format. We worked quite a bit on AAC as well. We all at Fraunhofer are proud of what became of AAC. My colleagues are also working at MPEG surround and MP3 surround. I think for audio in general, we will see a big step forward beyond the current surround systems. The current systems are based on ideas that have been around for over two decades. We are now working on it and calling it Ozono, there you can have immersive audio, you feel like you are somewhere out with much better sound quality. It gives you a much better idea of surrounding, of being somewhere else versus 2-channel or 5-channel audio.

You have also been involved with a program called Soundslike, what is the progress on it?
Work on Soundslike has been continuing. The original Soundslike did not work that well, the newer version discerns music patterns and helps with the selection of music. If I understand right, we can see the first products incorporating Soundslike to be out this year. It would be some PC software product.

A lot of people have argued against the idea, saying that an algorithm can hardly choose music?
The debate is quite interesting. True it is difficult for machines to understand all the different nuances and finally decide for me whether I like the music or not, and generate a play list. There are a lot of Web 2.0 technologies involved in this, like sharing play lists, doing the metadata, synthesizing the style, etc. In the future, we will have a combination of those, the automatic system will help us in a limited way. I heard reports that on testing, people enjoyed it a lot. It is intuitive, wont be cent percent right. But it will work enough so that it can help in the selection process.

What other projects are you involved with?
I am now the head of the institute in Ilmenau and am responsible for all the activities here. In many ways life has come full circle; two decades back I was working on audio compression, now my job is to look around for what could be interesting, and work out the money and people issues.

MP3 is not a very fancy name, did the team think of any other name at that time?We just needed a 3-letter extension, because that was the time of the Windows 3.1 OS and the file extension could not be more than three letters. Others had in fact used the term MP2 for layer 2 music. If I recall correctly it was the Internet Underground Music Archive that already had music in Layer 2 format. So we had an internal discussion on what extension to take and then it was just a file extension. Little did we realize that this file extension would be used as a generic name for the whole technology. It wasnt a conscious decision by us, we always referred to the technology as MPEG Layer 3, and only later on started to use the term MP3, after the term had gained popularity.

What do you feel about MP3 and open source?
MP3 on one hand is a patented technology but its source was available for free for a long time. We do support the idea of open source and feel that it is a good idea. But that does not make MP3 free in terms of no strings attached because it still is patented technology. Of course, I did watch what was happening with Ogg Vorbis and so on, and, overall, I think for the whole of the software industry and the whole of the Internet culture it is a good thing if we have both. We need a world where people cooperate without commercial interests. I think it is a very nice model, but things would not work if it were the only model. We need a free software and free technology model as well as companies investing money and resources to do work, apply for licenses and patents and work on proprietary technology. In the end, if both systems co-exist it will be of advantage to all.

It has been 13 years, how much longer will it stay with us?
MP3 will stay the common denominator; it will continue to be the format for a lot of different equipment for the next ten years at least. What will happen after that is hard to guess. Over the past years, more bandwidth and more storage capacity has been available to us, so you could have newer formats for multi-channel sound. It will be very interesting. Will it be MP3 Surround for portable devices or will we go for different format altogether, is anybodys guess. But, for the next 10 years while there will be new systems, MP3 will co-exist and be alive.

Shashwat DC

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