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In Defense of the 128 Kbps MP3: The Greatest Music Media Format Ever

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You’ve just bought a 180-gram audiophile pressing of your favorite album on vinyl. Getting home, you slide it lovingly from the sleeve. As your boutique turntable spins gently, you carefully place the stylus at the record’s edge, settle back on your beanbag with $400 headphones comforting your head, and savor the music just as the artist intended.

For many, this is the dream. But not for me. My eyes become misty when I think of my teenage PC’s dial-up modem croaking into life, a low-quality MP3 of “Guerilla Radio” or “Ms. Jackson” seeping onto my hard drive through the unregulated glory of vintage peer-to-peer technology. Long Live Limewire!

But there’s more to it than just nostalgia. While audiophile cork-sniffers shout out the virtues of vinyl or lossless FLAC from their rooftops, the humble 128 kbps MP3 is the true MVP of music mediums, the black sheep diamond in the rough with more than swagger and noise floor to go around. Here’s why.

1. It’s an anti-elitist medium.

Let’s face it: the music industry’s obsession with audiophile culture benefits big business more than anyone. 100 years ago, people’s minds would have been blown by a scratchy recording mechanically amplified through a gramophone. Today, we’ve been erroneously convinced that we need the best-of-the-best tech in order to truly connect with that music. At the end of the day, it’s just more money in the pockets of the 1%.

It’s time to say no. Not only have audiophile tech innovations like Pono and Tidal been hilarious failures, they are priced out of reach of the average music consumer and self-consciously pitched towards those with disposable income. In contrast, low-bitrate MP3 is the Occupy to vinyl’s Wall Street. No matter how crappy your internet connection is, how basic your device is, or how little money you can spend, anyone can pirate low-quality, lightweight audio files or rip them off YouTube. Now, what a beautiful thing that is.

2. The MP3 is incredibly efficient and precise.

There’s no arguing with this point. It’s science. The dot-com boom geeks who wanted you to have all the world’s music for free were clever enough to deploy basic concepts in psychoacoustics, or the study of how the brain interprets sound, in the architecture of the MP3 format. A quick-and-dirty summary of the compression processes at play includes the use of minimum audition thresholds, and simulated masking and bit/sample-rate management via the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem to discard any sonic information that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to a human’s listening experience.

In plain speak, FLAC is like buying an Axe-FX with all these guitar sounds that you’re never gonna use, and MP3 is like buying a Boss MT-2 Metal Zone — there’s less in there, but it doesn’t screw around with needless bells and whistles. It just takes you straight to Toneville.

In his book The Meaning of Human Existence, Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson argues that “healthy people believe intuitively that they can hear every almost every sound. However… we walk through nature like a deaf person on the streets of New York, sensing only a few vibrations, able to interpret almost nothing.” So I hope your cat or dog is a music fan, because they are far more likely to appreciate the crisp top-end preserved in your favorite lossless audio format than you are.

3. It has a unique aesthetic.

In an excellent think piece, Pitchfork’s Adam Ward waxes nostalgia for the low-bitrate file and its ability to transmit an artistic feeling unique to the medium:

“I’ve come to love these awful quality files. In most cases, listening to their lossless versions just doesn’t sound right to me. My 128 kbps version of Mario’s ‘Let Me Love You’ still has the intro skit from the music video attached, hearing the song without it is jarring. With each layer of compression you can practically hear the thousands of others who shared and copied the same MP3, like a destructive digital fingerprint…. I’ve got dozens of tracks like these on my computer still. A 58 kbps copy of Kyuss’ ‘Supa Scoopa and Mighty Scoop’ that sounds like it’s being played through a payphone. A bootlegged CD of Hendrix demos transcoded up from somewhere to 128 kbps.”

Much like vinyl imparts a certain imperfect-but-adored sound through time, dust collected, faulty needles, and warped records, the same can be said of the MP3. Arguably, retro-MP3 production value is more in line with the tenor of our digital, postmodern age. We now have free apps on our phone to imitate crappy VHS camcorders. We share dank Instagram content that harnesses the style of visual degradation, mash-up and retro Windows ’98 artifacts — why not bring back the 128 kbps MP3 as well?

4. The turn of the century was a file-sharing golden age.

Sorry if you weren’t there, but the late ’90s and early 2000s were fantastic. Once P2P was pioneered via Napster, the floodgates opened and the world of music sharing was here to stay. As an artist and a listener, my personal opinion is that we’ve regressed from that time. The problem with the P2P era, admittedly, was that artists were not getting remunerated for their recordings as disruptive tech eagerly pulled down the bloated major-label system. But, well, we’re still not getting paid that much anyway.

The promise of the era was that through intellectual property reform, we would move to a more artist-friendly and less commercial music business. But the more things change, the more things stay the same.

The 1% skim milk of the music industry has survived the barbarians at the gate, born again within the world of music streaming. In 2019, the listener pays only a little more for the convenience of streaming, but the money they do pay is vacuumed up by large tech and labels via the gated publishing communities like Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play. Artists still struggle, as the innovations of tech revolutionaries were co-opted and sanitized by corporate interest.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go scope some torrents and dream about what might have been. Happy April Fools’ Day.

 

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Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson

Alex is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer from Sydney, Australia. He founded the post-rock band sleepmakeswaves, with which he has toured Asia, America, Europe and Australia. In his spare time he writes music for short films, produces bands and subsists on altogether too much coffee. Alex is the instructor of the free Soundfly course, Live Clicks and Backing Tracks.