The Mother of the MP3

By Deane Barker on March 5, 2005

Ich Bin Ein Paradigm Shifter: Here’s some trivia: “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega was the first song ever compressed as an MP3.

To create MP3, [MP3 creator Karlheinz] Brandenburg had to appreciate how the human ear perceives sound. A key assist in this effort came from folk singer Suzanne Vega. “I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm, Brandenburg recalls. Somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing ‘Tom’s Diner.’ I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice.”

Because the song depends on very subtle nuances of Vega s inflection, the algorithm would have to be very, very good to select the most important parts of the sound file and discard the rest. So Brandenburg tested each refinement of his system with Tom’s Diner.

He wound up listening to the song thousands of times, and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega.

Incidentally, Suzanne Vega’s Web site is a great example of how to do a musical artist site. It may not have all the bells and whistles (no Flash that I could find), but I could find what I needed right away and it seems to be a great repository of information on her. Well done.



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