04 August 2008

MT9: Terrible marketing, better potential?

(Reposted from an Audioholics post.)

There was a little hubbub recently over this Korean codec called "MT9" that claims to attempt to unseat MP3. Most sane people rightfully call that bollocks. Even the English-language MT9 site calls it bollocks.

But I wouldn't count it out quite yet. There are a lot of subtle implications to MT9 that I don't think people have fully realized.

All MT9 appears to be is a container format for an unmixed record. That is, instead of taking a multitrack production and downmixing all the instruments to stereo, you encode each instrument to a separate track as .MT9 and let the player do the downmixing. There's no technical innovation involved here. MT9 is probably (well hopefully) just a container around a mainstream codec like MP3 or AAC.

Therefore, MT9 does not in any way compete with MP3 or other mono/stereo lossy codecs - although it may be able to use them internally. As is mentioned, it could be used as an alternative means to deliver music, but the odds of it ever catching on in popular music are rather slim. That all press discussion (and MT9's own web site!) have focused on that aspect is quite unfortunate.

From a encoder standpoint, this is still kind of a win - because there's a 1 to 1 correspondence between channel and instrument, you no longer have to worry about weird stereo collapse issues, you only have to tune the encodings for mono, etc. The bitrate would likely still be much higher than MP3 for high quality, simply due to the number of channels involved.

From a playback quality point of view, the MT9 system precludes the use of global dynamic range compression and limiting. That is, because mixing is deferred until playback, mastering must also necessarily be deferred until playback. This, of course, is a partial solution for ending the loudness war and is a huge win. Compression can still be applied to individual tracks, but because the listener has control over the volume of individual tracks, there would be much less impetus for producers to try to make a particular track stand out in the mix. Of course, this also strongly implies that producers would not need to employ mastering engineers in the traditional sense, bringing costs down.

This has virtually no chance of supplanting other formats for commercial music. But the deals with karaoke and possibly cell phones are probably the perfect application for this at the moment: very closed markets, and the music is often custom produced anyway so doing a multichannel production is not a big deal. But as I mention, I suspect I wouldn't mind buying normal music in this format either.

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