Why Vorbis?

This is an essay about why people should switch over to using Vorbis as their main music format instead of MP3 or WMA. If you're at this site it probably means that you've downloaded a music file from me and don't know how to play it, or you're doing a search on the Vorbis music format. I've written this assuming the reader doesn't know much about digital audio formats, so if you're already an audiophile, you won't learn much about the format, but you may learn a bit about the philosophy behind it.


Digital Audio

It seems like everywhere you go these days you're seeing digital music in the works. People are burning CDs, listening to portable music players, and sharing it across the world. Thanks to new technology, even our grandparents have the ability to burn their own compilation CDs with ease by ripping music from their CDs to their computer. Terms like MP3, rip, and burn are becoming part of the public's vocabulary. Legal or not, nothing is going to stop this new found musical freedom. But it wasn't always like this.

The music industry has been a billion dollar industry for years and for most of that time the control of that music has been solely in the hands of the record companies. Sure, you could copy tapes and record from the radio, but this was in an analog format that degraded every time you copied it, and there was no easy way to find rare songs or get local bands out across the world. Computers and the Internet have certainly made this easier, but they wouldn't be anywhere without compression.

Audio Compression

Storing raw digital audio takes up a lot of space. One song can easily make a 30 MB file that is cumbersome to store and copy. You'd never be able to fit a song on a floppy, and CDs can only hold about 20 songs. Also, a 30 MB download over a dial-up modem will take hours. You can zip the file but sound data doesn't compress well, so you're only looking at maybe a 10% file size decrease which is still too big to work with.

Up until a few years ago, there wasn't any way to get high quality audio data in a small format. A company called the Moving Pictures Experts Group saw this problem and created a way to compress audio data. The final result was MP3. It uses a form of compression called "lossy" which analyzes the data and removes sections that you won't notice missing. By doing this you can get very high levels of compression. Instead of 30 MB, a song can now take 2 MB. Instead of 20 songs on a CD, you can fit 400. Instead of hours downloading a song, it can be done in minutes. MP3 quickly became a standard audio format, and thanks to Napster, became a household word.

Patents

As the old adage goes, nothing is free. Technology costs money to develop and MPEG needed to recuperate some of its costs of developing MP3. They were able to do this by patenting their method for compressing the audio data. Whether you like it or not, you are indirectly paying for this patent whenever you listen to an MP3. Here's why:

We're going to create an imaginary product called "RIPPER". This program has the ability to rip songs from a CD to your hard drive and play them. Currently RIPPER only supports raw, uncompressed, music files. The company that creates RIPPER spent $200,000.00 developing it, so they place the product on the market for $50.00 expecting to sell enough to recuperate the development costs. They find that the sales aren't so good, because everyone these days wants the audio files to be smaller. So, the guys that make RIPPER decide to add MP3 support to their program. Well, in order to do this they have to pay the patent holder in order to license the MP3 format. This increases their development cost to $250,000.00. So now, their $50.00 product must jump up to $60.00 in order to get back the costs of paying for MP3 licensing.

If the company decides to add WMA format as well, they have to pay even more licensing because that format has its own patents. You can see how a $50.00 program can quickly turn into a $100.00 program simply because of licensing costs.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't mind paying for my music. I've spent thousands of dollars on music and I'll no doubt be spending thousands more before I die. But it bothers me that I should have to pay extra money to move music from my CDs to my computer just because the formats that I save my music in are patented. I wish there was a way to do this for free.

Vorbis

Vorbis is a reaction to the licensing problem. Vorbis is similar to MP3 and WMA, with the exception that it is better in every way, as you will see below.

First, Vorbis compresses better. A song that takes up 3.5 MB in MP3 might take only 3.0 MB in Vorbis. This can save a few minutes of download time and add several more songs to a compressed CD. Second, Vorbis sounds better. At the same compression rate, Vorbis sounds better than any other format, whether it be MP3, WMA, etc. Third, and this one is the killer, Vorbis is totally free. Any company can use Vorbis without having to shell out tons of money on licensing, which keeps the cost of the final product cheaper so everyone wins except the greedy patent holders.

As you can see, Vorbis is better in every way. So why is it that people aren't using it as much?

Compatibility Issues

If you're reading this essay, it's probably because you don't know what Vorbis is, and that's a problem. Your iPod can't play Vorbis, Windows Media Player can't play it, Nero can't burn it, and plenty other programs can't save into it. Why not?

Vorbis is a relatively new audio format, and many software programs have not incorporated it yet, but are working on it. However, there are even some products, like Macintosh's iPod, and Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which don't seem to care about giving people access to free audio formats and would prefer that people spend the extra money on licensing their formats. This is a problem that needs to stop.

There are many programs out there that have begun switching over to Vorbis format because it can save them a lot of money. Winamp is a very popular audio player that natively support Vorbis on the full version (and has a plug-in for the lite version), CDex (a great ripping program) supports Vorbis, Gold Wave is a nice sound studio that can open and save Vorbis, and there are many others. You can also get plug-ins for many programs that will allow it to use Vorbis.

For portable music players, the following companies currently have a portable music player that supports Vorbis: iRiver, JetAudio, pqi, Rio, Samsung, Sorell, and Vantec. This list has grown considerably in the past year.

The Log Road Ahead

Vorbis isn't going to become the standard in audio compression over night. It takes time for standards to change, even when the new product is far superior. Take, for example, the PNG graphic format. It's better than GIF is nearly every way, and it's free, unlike GIF which supports the same licensing problems of MP3. However, GIF is still more popular than PNG on the Internet, but PNG has become much more popular over the years and will most likely over take GIF before too long.

Most people don't care about creating new standards to free up some money and introduce better technology. But for the few of us that do, we can make a difference. You can help by sending emails to the developers at your favorite software companies for audio software. Ask them to start supporting Vorbis format. You can also start storing your own music collection in Vorbis format. Not only will you be able fit more songs on your computer, but they will sound better too. You can also get a lot more free programs to rip, burn, edit, and open your music. For those of you who use P2P music sharing, try to keep Vorbis format music in your shared folder.

Stopping unnecessary patents can be done, and you can help. For more information on how to get Vorbis working for you see the links at the end of this page.


Links

I can tout Vorbis all I want, but that's not going to get you to start using Vorbis unless you can actually listen to it and save to it. So here are some links to very u seful programs and plug-ins that will get you going with Vorbis.

vorbis.com - Vorbis' official site.
winamp.com/player/free.php - Download Winamp, a -much- better music player than Windows Media Player.
WinampPlugin-OggVorbis129.zip - A Winamp plug-in to support Vorbis playing. (121KB)
NeroPlugin-OggVorbis.zip - A Nero plug-in to support Vorbis burning. (204KB)
vorbis.com/software.psp - A huge list of software that supports Vorbis.
Vorbis - My Pointless Database entry for Vorbis.