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