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Friday, 15 June, 2001, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
The sound of shrinking
microphone close-up
Microphones have shrunk and so have MP3 files
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

Fans of digital music can now shrink their coveted collection of files even further.

The hugely popular MP3 encoding software that compresses large sound files has been overhauled by its creators Thomson Multimedia and the Fraunhofer Institute.

The updated software does a better job of encoding music files so they take up even less space on a hard drive or in a portable player.

Thomson and Fraunhofer hope the updated software will be adopted by record companies and online music sites that want to tap into the enormous popularity of online music. But it faces stiff competition from many other companies who are pushing rival encoding systems.

Make mine an MP3

The improved software shrinks files further and does a better job of handling some high-pitched sounds. The original MP3 standard threw away some of these sounds to avoid producing errors when music was heavily compressed.

The MP3 standard, or MPEG-1 Layer 3 to give it its full name, reduces the size of music files by discarding the sounds that the human ear cannot hear.

To improve on this the updated MP3 standard, called MP3pro, splits the audio stream it is encoding into two parts: one for low frequency sounds and the other for high pitched sounds. This trick means that the software has a narrower range of sounds to listen to and does a better job of encoding. The result is smaller files.

Using the old MP3 software one minute of music compressed at 128kbps, which is "near-CD" quality, took up roughly one megabyte of disk space. The updated software produces music of the same quality but in files half the size.

The two creators of MP3, Thomson Multimedia and the Fraunhofer Institute, released software this week that lets people record and play music files in the updated format. The program can be downloaded from the RCA and Thomson websites. The two companies first unveiled MP3pro in January.

New portable MP3pro players will be able to handle old MP3 files, but older MP3-only players will not be able to fully play files encoded using the updated standard. Older players will ignore the higher frequency encoding.

Computer conflict

When MP3 first appeared there were few other ways of creating music files that were small enough to swap via relatively slow modems but still sounded good.

Music has become popular online largely because MP3 encoders are easy to use and have no copy protection system built in.

This popularity has shown many companies how lucrative online music could be and now there are many competing encoders from Ogg Vorbis and companies such as Microsoft and Real Networks. The latter have signed deals with some record sites to use their proprietary formats that try to stop files being pirated.

Before the appearance of MP3pro some of these other formats could create music files that took up less space but sounded as good as those prepared with MP3.

Microsoft has never included software that can create MP3 files in Windows. This is because it did not want to pay licence fees to bundle it in. Thomson and Fraunhofer will charge $7.50 (5) for every player or software package using MP3pro.

But the main reason that Microsoft does not want to use MP3 is because it is now pushing its own Windows Media format as a replacement. It reasons that people will be happier to use software already on their PC rather than search for and install another program.

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See also:

16 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Big sound, small files
02 Apr 01 | New Media
MP3 player sales to soar
12 Jun 01 | New Media
Sharp rise in music piracy
12 Jun 01 | Business
EU opens online music probe
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