LAME: A Case Study in Mathematical Programming


This is the second in a series of articles on mathematical programming starting with The Scope of Mathematical Programming Projects. This article discusses LAME (LAME Ain’t an MP3 Encoder), a widely used free open-source MP3 (MPEG Layer 3) audio encoder. MP3 is probably the most widely used audio compression file format. It is part of the MPEG (Moving or Motion Pictures Expert Group) audio/video family of audio/video compression and transmission formats. MPEG is organized under the auspices of ISO (the International Organization for Standardization). Despite appearances, ISO is not an acronym.

3.98.4 2010-04-14 1,221,748 downloads
3.98.2 2008-09-22 2,055,166 downloads
3.98 2008-07-03 443,886 downloads
3.97 2006-09-24 2,541,738 downloads
3.97beta3 2006-08-20 193,458 downloads
3.97beta2 2005-11-28 261,121 downloads
3.97beta 2005-09-18 94,215 downloads
3.96.1 2004-07-25 680,257 downloads
3.96 2004-04-11 148,512 downloads
3.95.1 2004-01-12 118,610 downloads
3.95 2004-01-11 15,134 downloads
3.94beta 2003-12-18 16,485 downloads
3.93.1 2002-12-01 262,901 downloads
3.93 2002-11-17 30,596 downloads
3.92 2002-04-15 213,508 downloads
3.91 2001-12-29 164,299 downloads
3.90.1 2001-12-22 19,157 downloads
3.90 2001-12-21 26,509 downloads
3.70 2001-09-12 88,364 downloads
3.88beta 2001-09-12 13,523 downloads
3.89beta 2001-09-12 58,914 downloads

Table 1: Downloads of the LAME MP3 Audio Encoder from SourceForge

LAME is probably most widely used as a plug-in to add MP3 encoding to the widely used free open-source Audacity audio player and editor. By default, due to MP3 patent and licensing issues, Audacity can import but not export MP3 audio files. LAME can be installed as a shared library of dynamically linked library which adds MP3 encoding to Audacity and other programs on a computer. LAME is chosen for this case study because it is a successful, widely-used, free open source mathematical programming project which is also relatively simple. A number of successful free open source mathematical programming projects are toolkits or libraries of many functions and algorithms, often incorporating other free open source projects as components. LAME is largely a self-contained implementation of the MP3 audio compression algorithm; it does incorporate parts of the free open-source mpg123 MP3 audio decoder player and decoder library.

LAME is chosen in part because it is of high quality and clearly comparable to successful high quality commercial mathematical programming products. Indeed, it is probably more widely used than many commercial products. Mathematical programming projects tend to be components such as shared libraries or dynamic linked libraries that are incorporated within other systems. From a usability point of view, one usually wants to hide complex mathematics from most end users. Exceptions are specialized technical tools where the intended end users are technically sophisticated: engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and so forth. Examples are mathematical prototyping and development tools such as Mathematica and MATLAB. Comparable free open source examples include Octave, Scilab, SAGE, R, and similar tools. This article seeks to address the question of what is the actual scope, cost, schedule, quality, performance, and risk level of successful mathematical programming projects.

In this article, mathematical programming refers to programming largely consisting of advanced mathematics beyond the basic arithmetic used in, for example, bookkeeping and bookkeeping software. Some programming such as user interface software makes little or no use of even basic arithmetic. Many business applications certainly make heavy use of basic arithmetic. Programming projects that involve more advanced mathematics are more the exception than the rule, especially in the commercial world. In this article, specific mathematical methods referred to by mathematical programming include calculus, analytic geometry, linear algebra, transforms such as the Fourier transform, and so forth. In practice, mathematical programming projects typically use mathematical methods taught in late high school (11/12th grade) and the first two years of a good college or a university in the United States. One occasionally encounters more advanced mathematical methods. Specific applications include image, audio, and video compression, speech recognition, the Global Positioning System (GPS), risk models in insurance and other financial fields, and many other specialized technical applications.

In the author’s experience, it is quite common to encounter extremely optimistic ideas about the scope of mathematical programming projects and mathematical research and development. Today, in practical and applied projects, mathematical programming and research and development usually overlap a great deal. One may encounter expectations that a project can be completed in a few weeks or at most three calendar months, a fiscal quarter, that past experience would indicate is likely to take anywhere from six months to several years, or are even technically impossible. To the extent that projects of this type are actually funded and undertaken, they probably often end badly with much wasted effort, time, money, and frustration. These fantasy projects may crowd out funding and support for more realistic efforts, whether short term alternatives more appropriate for organizations with limited resources or time scales, or longer term projects that are much more likely to succeed.

Let it be clear—and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make—let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action—a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal ’62—an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.

from the speech

The Goal of Sending a Man to the Moon (May
25, 1961)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

While mathematical programming projects are generally much smaller in dollar cost than the successful Apollo Moon program, it is worth recalling President Kennedy’s words. Serious successful mathematical programming projects tend, with some exceptions, to take a significant amount of time: six months to several years. They also often involve large amounts of especially nit-picky painstaking debugging. Without a firm commitment based on realistic expectations, they are likely to fail and it is probably better not to start.

With the widespread adoption of powerful computers, mathematical programming is becoming more widespread. Mathematical programming may enable us to harness the vast power of modern computers to solve a wide range of pressing problems ranging from cancer to energy shortages. Remarkably the cost to society of unrealistic ideas about mathematical programming and research and development may already run into the trillions of dollars due to the sizable contribution of inaccurate models of the value of mortgage backed securities in the current economic downturn.

The Development of LAME

According to the LAME project web site, LAME was originally developed by Mike Cheng from 1998 to 1999. After he retied, Mark Taylor maintained the project until early 2003. The project was then taken over by a team of developers who have maintained and expanded LAME. This is a list of the developers and some of their contributions from the LAME web site:

Primary developers:

Robert Hegemann Tuning, optimizations,

Alexander Leidinger Multiplatform
configuration, libraries handling, release management…

Rogério Brito Debian packaging,

Primary developers – Retired:

Gabriel Bouvigne Tuning, optimizations,

Takehiro Tominaga Psychoacoustics,
bitstream, optimizations, assembly code…

Mike Cheng Maintainer of LAME v2.x.

Frank Klemm Psychoacoustics,

Naoki Shibata Psychoacoustics (NSPsytune
model, NSSafeJoint).

Mark Taylor Maintainer of LAME v3.x,
initial implementer of GPsycho psychoacoustic model.

Additional developers:

Roberto Amorim Web pages and

John Dahlstrom Adaptive ATH.

John Dee LAME extended VBR header.

Dominique Duvivier Speed optimizations.

Albert Faber Author of CDex and

Joseph Flynn LAME DirectShow Filter.

Peter Gubanov LAME DirectShow Filter.

Guillaume Lessard

Steve Lhomme LAME ACM codec.

Don Melton id3v1 and v2 code.

Darin Morrison Presets tuning.

Josep Maria Antolín Segura Documentation.

Kyle VanderBeek Python bindings, website

LAME is now hosted by sourceforge. The earliest release available on the sourceforge site is LAME 3.70 from October, 2001. The following table lists the size and scope of most major releases of LAME from 3.70 to the present.

Release Date Lines of Code (LOC) Mythical Man Months
Notional Dollar Cost
18,573 51.4 $410,990
3.90 2001-12-21 49,897 145.3 $1,162,000
55,998 164.3 $1,314,900
61,249 179.8 $1,438,500
80,046 239.0 $1,912,300
81,336 243.1 $1,944,900
3.97 2006-09-24 84,907 254.4 $2,035,400
87,694 263.3 $2,106,000

Table 2: Size and Scope of the LAME MP3 Audio Encoder Releases

Notes: The realease number and date are from the SourceForge download page. The lines of code is the total number of lines of code returned by running the free open source CLOC (Count Lines of Code) utility on the entire LAME release. The “mythical man-months” is the number of man-months of estimated actual effort using the “organic” versoin of the Basic COCOMO (Constructive Cost Model) software estimation model. Both the total lines of code and COCOMO are very rough ways of measuring the size and effort of a software project. The Notional Dollar Cost is computed by assuming that a “mythical man month” from COCOMO is 160 hours of paid effort at a rate of $50 per hour ($8,000 per month). Note that the lines of code, mythical man-months, and notional cost are essentially cumulative numbers since the start of the project, which must include the mpg123 project from which some of the code is derived.

The total lines of code reported by the CLOC utlity combines lines of code in all programming languages: C, C++, assembler, HTML, the Bourne shell, and so forth. The actual MP3 encoder algorithm in LAME is implemented in the C programming language (mostly) and C++. Most of the code in releaes 3.70 and 3.90 is code of this type. The amount of C/C++ code increased dramatically from version 3.70 to version 3.90. Since then, most of the actual code development is in the Bourne shell, especially the Unix configure script for building and installing the LAME package.

A computer program is analagous in function to a mechanical clockwork device. In fact, clockmakers in the past built programmable robots and automatons comparable in function to simple electronic and computational devices. A line of code in a computer program is comparable to a moving part in a mechanical clockwork device, an engine, or something similar. Developing a computer program with 80,000 lines of code is comparable to designing a clockwork device or machine with 80,000 moving parts. A computer program of this size is probably more complex than a twentieth century automobile with no embeded computers and software.

Detailed Results of CLOC for the latest version of

C:\Documents and Settings\John F. McGowan\Desktop>cloc lame-3.98.4

     320 text files.

     306 unique files.

     124 files ignored. v 1.53  T=34.0 s (5.6 files/s, 3510.5 lines/s)


Language                     files          blank        comment           code


Bourne Shell                    10           4308           5015          34297

C                               49           5837           5359          28421

m4                               2            809             58           7085

C++                             17           1904           2269           6969

HTML                            11           1172             11           5264

C/C++ Header                    67           1509           2835           4455

make                            24            161             50            542

Teamcenter def                   4             89              0            285

Pascal                           1             50             75            178

Visual Basic                     1             19             53             86

DOS Batch                        3             11             45             45

Perl                             1              5             17             33

CSS                              1              3              0             21

XML                              1              0              0             13


SUM:                           192          15877          15787          87694


One can see that the amount of Bourne Shell code now actually exceeds the lines of C code. LAME is very easy to install on Unix, Macintosh, and Windows computers. This is important for a successful widely used product.


The LAME MP3 audio encoder project has taken several calendar years. Most of the work appears to have been done between 1998 and 2004 (release 3.95.1). This includes both development and implementation of the core algorithm and a substantial amount of work on packaging and installing the encoder. It is difficult to estimate the actual effort (e.g. hours actually worked) of an open source project. Many projects are volunteer or partially volunteer. Some contributors may contribute more than full time, e.g. a student working 80 hours per week, while others may work work only a few hours per calendar week or even less.

Nonetheless, it is pretty clear that LAME in its current widely used, successful form is a substantial effort. It almost certainly could not be produced in a calendar quarter or less. A full time paid team of professional software developers would probably take anywhere from six months (a very aggressive target) to a few years to produce a comparable MP3 audio encoder from scratch.

© 2011 John F. McGowan

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. is a software developer, research scientist, and consultant. He works primarily in the area of complex algorithms that embody advanced mathematical and logical concepts, including speech recognition and video compression technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Matt J. February 15, 2011
  2. Basil February 16, 2011
  3. John F. McGowan February 16, 2011
  4. John F. McGowan February 16, 2011
    • Basil February 18, 2011

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