How would the music industry have been today if music streaming services had been created 35 years ago? Currently we see services such as Spotify or Apple Music not only as a novelty, but as an alternative to combat P2P downloads. For that reason, perhaps everything would have changed if Spotify existed before the MP3.
Unfortunately creating it was impossible in 1982, but someone tried to patent it. It was Dieter Seitzer, and today we are going to tell you that story about his 1982 Spotify that could not be, and how that search for a better and lighter digital music started a path that one of his students took the opportunity to create later a codec called … MP3.
It all started with psychoacoustics
Much of Seitzer’s inspiration came from his thesis director, physicist and engineer Eberhard Zwicker, who was the father of the discipline of psychoacoustics. Psychoacoustics is a branch of psychophysics that studies the relationship between the physical properties of sound and the brain’s interpretation of them by the brain.
In his study for more than a decade of this relationship, Zwicker discovered that the human ear did not act exactly as they thought. Yes, I was able to distinguish, for example, two musical tones separated by half a note or more, but when these two tones approached, the ear interpreted them as one. In other words, he discovered the limits of the perception of our hearing, and that what we hear is just an interpretation of the real sound that is sounding.
Zwicker was mostly an anatomist, but his student Seitzer was a computer scientist, and he soon began to suspect that his teacher’s discoveries could be used to record high-fidelity music using less data . This could be achieved by discarding everything that the human ear would also discard due to its own limitations.
This knowledge of psychoacoustics made him have a unique perspective and different from the rest of all his colleagues, and this was noticed after the arrival of the compact disc in 1982.
The Spotify that was never
In 1982 Sony and Philips began to commercialize the compact disk, also known as CD-ROM. The industry sold this new format as the only one capable of offering “a pure and perfect sound forever”, but Seitzer was one of the few to consider it an exaggeration, since he knew that the human ear and the brain could not process or “listen” each tone, note or sound of a CD.
His ambitions went far beyond this format, they seek to be more practical, and that led him to start a project to create a digital jukebox or “digital jukebox.” This service would have a central server on the one hand hosted all the music, and users could connect to it to request the song they wanted to hear.
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With Digital Jukebox you could request the playback of a song hosted on a central server through your phone.
Seen from a 2017 perspective, Seitzer came up with the first Spotify long before the MP3 even existed. To request music, users would simply have to press the keyboard of the new digital telephone lines that were just beginning to be implemented in Germany, their native country. The service could be based on subscriptions, and users would only have to connect their music device to the phone.
In fact, he came to present the patent of his system in 1982, but was rejected because it was considered impossible. It just could not be done, these first digital lines were pretty rudimentary, and the digital files of the songs were too big to be transmitted through them. The music “weighed” too much.
A standard CD used a pulse-code modulation (PCM) sampled at 16 bits per sample. Translated, this means that 1.4 million bits were needed to store a single second of audio in stereo. While, to send music through a cable, I needed to compress digital music to one twelfth of its original size so that it occupied only 128,000 bits per second.
Seitzer fought several years to get his music streaming system, but finally he could not get it . During his aftershocks he mentioned Zwicker’s work several times. And in fact, after withdrawing the patent application, he kept that idea alive. It was necessary to use Zwicker’s work to reduce the weight of digital music.
And that led … to the MP3
In spite of the attempts of Seitzer, neither he nor other researchers could quantify mathematically the limitations of the ear to apply it to the reduction of digital audio files. But he did not give up, and started looking for some doctoral student to take care of the subject. And that’s where he ran into Karlheinz Brandenburg.
Brandenburg was a PhD student at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, and was studying electrical engineering and mathematics, and the areas where these disciplines intersect. He saw in Seitzer’s interest a simple way to get his doctorate showing that it could not be done, but he ended up becoming the father of the MP3.
“He [Seitzer] was looking for a PhD student to take care of the subject,” Brandenburg said a posteriori. And I have to admit, I knew enough about the subject that I thought: ‘Okay, the patent examiner is right; I will do an analysis to show why this is not possible. This will get me my PhD and then I’ll go to something real.”
He started to investigate and realized that what Seitzer asked for was not entirely impossible. He combined several works and lines of code, and managed to create an algorithm that eliminated the sounds that the brain was not going to interpret, thus reducing its size. That work gave rise to years later, and after much research, Brandenburg developed the MP3 codec.