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Goodbye MP3, Hello...Ogg Vorbis?

Dec 10, 2000, 12:11 (8 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by John Townley)

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Over the past few years, the cry of "I Want My MP3!" has revolutionized Internet music marketing and spawned countless copyright suits based on MP3-distributed music. Just as it looks like the suits are over, it may be the folks who bred the format are about to put the squeeze on users and, in effect, kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

By John Townley, Streaming Media World

Beware the Suits

This time it's not lawsuits, it's the suits at Germany's Fraunhofer Institute that are the problem. Programmers have used it freely for years, but MP3 is in fact the intellectual property of the Fraunhofer Institute and the MPEG Consortium. In September 1998 Fraunhofer sent letters to software developers saying it planned to start charging licensing fees. Fraunhofer (and other MPEG Consortium members) claim that it is impossible to create an MP3 encoder without infringing on their patents. To create/use an encoder, the law says one must pay royalties to Fraunhofer and other MPEG Consortium members. In other words, you can play what you like, but you're not allowed to contribute without paying the ante. MPEG-4, destined to be the next generation of internet audio, is even more tightly controlled. More worrisome perhaps is the prospect of behind the scenes alliances between MPEG (which dominates the audio technology) with the RIAA/music industry which seeks to control all distribution.

Whenever increasing numbers of participants take an increasingly larger piece of the pie, the market goes out and finds a new pie. So, for the last year or so, the race has been on to find a new solution to compete with the current, and ever more costly and restrictive, technology.

They say there is no problem a good solution cannot cure, and in this case the hot contender is:

Ogg Vorbis.

Ogg Vorbis? Yep. Ogg Vorbis is a fully open, non-proprietary, patent-and-royalty-free general purpose compressed audio format for high quality (44.1-48.0kHz, 16+ bit, polyphonic) audio and music at fixed and variable bitrates from 16 to 128 kbps/channel. This places Vorbis in the same class as audio representations including MPEG-1 audio layer 3, MPEG-4 audio (AAC and TwinVQ), and PAC.

Ogg Vorbis From Xiphophorus

The curious name comes from novels by science fiction writer Terry Pratchett, and it has been pioneered entirely by volunteers.

"Licensing will be used to control music. It's just not clear how much control will become the norm," says Christopher Montgomery, the head of the Ogg Vorbis project. His Xiphophorus has released a new beta version of Ogg Vorbis, and promises a fully functional release sometime around the beginning of the 2001.

When Fraunhofer came out with its 1998 dictum, Montgomery, then a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began work on Ogg Vorbis. Since then a number of programmers have joined the project. The format already boasts a few early adopters who are building support for Ogg Vorbis files into their software, including the FreeAmp player and the Music Exchange Media Jukebox.

Montgomery claims Ogg Vorbis files are the same quality as MP3 files and at least 25 percent smaller. He also says the final version will compare well with a new wave of compression technologies, such as Advanced Audio Coding, whose licensing may be more expensive and restrictive than MP3s. "Companies that don't want to pay for the licensing will be able to switch to Ogg Vorbis instead," Montgomery opines.

Here's the basic skinny on the new audio compression technology, as put forward by its designers:

Fundamentals

Ogg Vorbis has been designed to completely replace all proprietary, patented audio formats. That means that you can encode all your music or audio content in Vorbis and never look back.

Ready for Prime Time?

It is headed towards a final 1.0 release very soon. However, the file format has been finished for some time. A Vorbis file created today will still be compatible with future decoders for years to come. The format has been designed to be flexible, so that the developers can continue to improve file size and sound quality without "breaking" older encoders and players.

Format License

The Ogg Vorbis specification is in the public domain. It is completely free for commercial or noncommercial use. That means that commercial developers may independently write Ogg Vorbis software which is compatible with the specification for no charge and without restrictions of any kind. However, developers that wish to use the open source software we have written must adhere to certain rules.

Copyleft Software License

The Ogg Vorbis software is released under the terms of the GNU GPL, or GNU General Public License. The libraries or SDKs are released under the more business friendly LGPL. These standard open-source licenses require that any modifications to the software also must be rereleased under the GPL/LGPL. Developers are still free to use the specification to independently write closed-source implementations of Ogg Vorbis which are not bound by these licenses. If there aren't any licensing fees, how are they going to make money off the format? Will they charge fees later, after Vorbis becomes popular? Says Vorbis:

The benefits of a patent-free, license-free format outweigh the concerns of making money directly from the format. Vorbis will always be free and in the public domain. No one needs to place intellectual property restrictions on Vorbis in order to benefit from it. Well, we've heard that one before. Nevertheless, it's a good start if it stays that way. So on the product itself. Does Ogg Vorbis sound better than MP3? Since Vorbis uses very different mathematical principles from MP3, it has different challenges when compressing music. In current listening tests, Vorbis and MP3 files encoded at the same bitrates have similar sound quality.
What About Quality?

Vorbis has a flexible format which allows significant tuning of sound quality and training of the algorithms even after the file format is frozen. Vorbis sounds very good today, and will continue to sound better every day. Vorbis sounds better. Vorbis is open. Vorbis doesn't have intelluctual property retrictions to get in the way. And Vorbis doesn't just try to sound better, it tries to do things fundamentally better in all the ways that it can.

OK, you said that already. You're claiming that Vorbis has great audio quality. Have you done any listening tests to back this up?

Over the last few public beta releases, we've fixed many of the outstanding bugs that affected audio quality. We're still working on fixing the rest as we move toward a 1.0 release. The beta releases are primarily intended for developers and early adopters to sample our technology. When we reach the 1.0 release, we're hoping to conduct double blind listening tests with a variety of test samples to fairly compare Vorbis with competing audio formats. Based on informal listening tests by the developers and other interested parties, we are confident that Vorbis will fare well in these tests. These tests will be used to further tune the format as development continues.

How big are Ogg Vorbis files? How do they compare to MP3 files at similar bitrates?

Two files encoded at the same bitrate, will always be the same size, if they are both encoded with CBR (Constant Bitrate). The current Vorbis Beta only encodes files in VBR (Variable Bitrate) which can produce smaller files with better quality, since it doesn't have to waste data for audio that is easy to encode. The current files produced by the Vorbis Beta will be similar in size to 128kbps MP3 files, but will sound better.

What is the maximum bitrate that Vorbis can be encoded at?

Theoretically, there isn't one. Vorbis is tuned for bitrates of 16kbps to 128kbps per channel. But there's nothing in the spec that says you can't encode a file at 512kbps or 8kbps. The current beta encoder supports the following bitrates: 128, 160, 192, 256, 350 kbps in mono or stereo. Lower bitrates will be available in future versions.

Embeded Information

Does Ogg Vorbis have the capability to show song titles and artist information when the file is played or streamed?

Yes, Vorbis includes a flexible, complete comment field for song and artist info, as well as other track data. The current beta encoder now allows you to enter comment info at encode-time. Other 3rd-party encoding tools also let you enter or edit track data.

How fast are the encoders/decoders?

Right now the encoder is about as fast as some of the commercial audio encoders, but not nearly as fast as some others. Since we are using unoptimized beta code, this is to be expected. As the vorbis tools mature they will become faster. The decoding is roughly the same complexity as MP3 decoding, and once the Vorbis decoding tools are optimized, they should decode at similar speeds. Decoding speed has increased 3-4x over the first beta already, after the first stage of optimization.

How about video and streaming?

We have done some preliminary work on a video codec that will work within the Ogg framework. However, video presents a new set of challenges, and our primary focus is on audio for the time being. Streaming is an important component of Vorbis. The format has been designed from the ground-up to be easily streamable. The designers of Vorbis are working alongside the creators of Icecast streaming media software to make Icecast Vorbis-compatible. We are also working on player support for streaming Ogg files. Streaming Ogg files from the web will be supported by the player plugins at the 1.0 Vorbis release.

What software and hardware supports Ogg Vorbis?

Ogg Vorbis encoding and/or playback is now native in a wide variety of popular software. It's included in popular players such as Sonique, FreeAmp for Windows, and Unsanity Echo for MacOS. It's also supported in popular audio applications such as CDex, Siren Jukebox, and GoldWave. For a more complete list, refer to our software page. On the hardware side, iObjects has announced Ogg Vorbis support in their Dadio 2.0 OS, designed for portable audio players. Along with other hardware providers, this development should ensure that Ogg Vorbis support is widespread in future consumer audio hardware.

What unique features does Ogg Vorbis have?

Vorbis has a well defined comment header that is easy to use and extensible and obviates the need for clunky hacks like ID3 tags. Vorbis has bitrate scaling - a feature that lets you adjust the bitrate of a Vorbis file or stream without reencoding; just chop the packets up in the sizes you want them. Vorbis files can be sliced and edited with sample granularity. Vorbis has support for many channels, not just 1 or 2. Vorbis files can be logically chained together.

OK, Enough Questions

The next logical step is to stop talking about it and go try it out for yourself. It's not where it's going to be, quite, but it's free and the Big Brothers of the tech and entertainment industry will not be insisting on taking a bite out of you when you use it. It may indeed, in time, become an open-source developer's dream like Linux, allowing faster and more flexible development as the result of not being tied to corporate apron strings.

For a demo, check out the Vorbis site.

For all the latest news, try GoVorbis.

For even more software support, explore the Angry Coffee vorbis section.

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