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Suzanne Vega, the mother of the mp3

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 25, 2008

A rumination by Suzanne Vega on technology and her hit song, Tom’s Diner. The song was used as a reference when Karl-Heinz Brandenberg was working on the mp3 compression method.

So Mr. Brandenberg gets a copy of the song, and puts it through the newly created MP3. But instead of the “warm human voice” there are monstrous distortions, as though the Exorcist has somehow gotten into the system, shadowing every phrase. They spend months refining it, running “Tom’s Diner through the system over and over again with modifications, until it comes through clearly. “He wound up listening to the song thousands of times,” the article, written by Hilmar Schmundt, continued, “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.”

Vega once went to listen to the final mp3 version of her song. She could not agree with Brandenberg that the track sounded “exactly” like the original.

“Actually, to my ears it sounds like there is a little more high end in the MP3 version? The MP3 doesn’t sound as warm as the original, maybe a tiny bit of bottom end is lost?” I suggested.

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