Follow the Money

Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format

Duke University Press, 360pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780822352877

reviewed by Robert Barry

In 1874, Alexander Graham Bell and Dr Clarence Blake, an otologist from Boston, devised a peculiar contraption they called the ‘ear phonautograph’. One of the very first devices capable of transforming sound into something else (in this case, a graphic mark), the ear phonautograph was constructed using the excised tympanic mechanism from an actual human ear obtained from the Harvard medical school. Not just the forerunner to the telephone invented by Bell two years later, the tympanic function extracted from the human middle ear which it operationalised - i.e. the beating of the tympanic bones against the ear drum - would provide the prototype for the transducers within all sound media to this day, from microphones to phonographs to loudspeakers.

Fifty-five years later, and 260 miles down the coast at Princeton, two psychologists created another strange bio-mechanical device. Removing part of the skull and most of the brain of a live cat, Ernest Glen Wever and Charles W Bray attached electrodes to the creature's right auditory nerve and one other part of its body. These were then hooked up to a telephone receiver by way of a valve amplifier in a soundproof room. Positioning one researcher at the receiver, the other spoke into the cat's ear. To their mutual astonishment, they found they were capable of communicating through this cat telephone ‘with great fidelity’.

In between these two curious experiments, a fundamental shift had occurred in the science of acoustics which would have profound consequences for another decerebrated cat wired permanently into a machine: the headphone-wearing ‘kitty head’ whose image would provide a logo for the peer-to-peer downloading service, Napster. For the extraordinary mobility of the MP3 presupposed a whole history of compression based upon a psychology of perception. Acoustics had moved from a physiology of dead subjects, centred around the bones and diaphragm of the middle ear, to a psychoacoustics of the living, centred upon the inner ear and auditory nerve.

Jonathan Sterne's MP3 traces the sonic genealogy of the much-maligned format from its roots in AT&T's drive to maximise profits by squeezing as many calls as possible into a given phone line, eking out the implications of each stage along the way. A sequel of sorts to 2003's The Audible Past, which offered a history of listening between the stethoscope and the gramophone; MP3 brings the story up to the present day, taking in information theory, architectural acoustics, and the vocoder along the way, before finally settling down to the development of the MPEG standard itself and some of the more philosophical implications thrown up by it.

The MP3, Sterne claims, is a ‘container format’, analogous with the shipping containers which permanently criss-cross the world's navigable waters. "Just as a shipping container can hold anything smaller than its interior space, an MP3 file can hold any recorded or transmitted sound." And as anyone who recalls season two of The Wire will tell you, the shipping container is as much a vector of organised crime as unfettered global capitalism - and tends to blur the distinction between the two.

Likewise, the MP3. Sterne argues strongly against the usual perception of bootlegging 'pirates' and the music industry inhabiting, as it were, two distinct boats. ‘Follow the money,’ as Dectective Lester Freamon used to say, and you'll find the industry fully embedded in the MP3's circuits of exchange through profits dervied from blank media, hardware and connection charges. Sterne brings up the instructive example of Sony Electronics releasing a CD player that would play MP3 CDs, even as Sony Music was engaged in a years-long lawsuit with Napster.

The present book developed out of a short essay for New Media & Society in 2006 in which Sterne rather damns the format for putting the human body ‘on a sonic austerity program. It decides for its listeners what they need to hear and gives them only that. Listeners' bodies, brains and ears then contribute a kind of surplus activity (if not quite labour) to make the system run ... it represents a liberation of just-in-time sound production, where systems give listeners less and ask their bodies to do more of the work. In the meantime, however, Sterne admits to have "changed his mind on lots of things since then.’ If there is a problem, then, with the book it is perhaps in its author's tendency to equivocate; to hedge his bets behind a facade of academic objectivity.

Which is not to say the perceptual coders and psycho-acousticians at Fraunhofer, developers of the MP3, are completely let off the hook. One telling anecdote speaks volumes about the interplay of gender and power behind this supposedly most universal of formats. Part of the mythology of MP3 history is the role played by Suzanne Vega's track ‘Tom's Diner’. The story goes that the fidelity of the format is the result of engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg repeatedly playing the song through his codec, endlessly refining until it had perfectly captured the warmth of Vega's voice.

So it happened that in 2007, the singer was invited to the Fraunhofer Institute - billed by the latter's PR team as a visit from the ‘mother of MP3’, much to Vega's horror at the implication that she was about to meet the format's various fathers. Before a gathering of press, a panel of engineers played first the distorted version Brandenburg had been so struck by, and finally the ‘perfect’ MP3 copy. Sterne quotes from Vega's own account.

‘See,’ one man said. ‘Now the MP3 recreates it perfectly. Exactly the same!’

‘Actually, to my ears it sounds like there is a little more high end in the MP3 version? The MP3 doesn't sound as warm as the original, maybe a tiny bit of bottom end is lost?’ I suggested.

The man looked shocked. ‘No, Miss Vega. It is exactly the same.’

‘Everybody knows that an MP3 compresses the sound and therefore loses some of the warmth,’ I persisted. "That's why some people collect vinyl . . . " I suddenly caught myself, realizing who I was speaking to in front of a roomful of German media.

‘No, Miss Vega. Consider the Black Box theory!’

I stared at him.

‘The Black Box theory states that what goes into the Black Box remains unchanged! Whatever goes in comes out the same way! Nothing is left behind and nothing is added!’

I decided at this point it was wiser to back down.

‘I see. OK. I didn't realise.’

A better example of the phenomenon defined by author and journalist, Rebecca Solnit as 'mansplaining' would be difficult to come by.
Robert Barry is a senior editor at Review 31.