great columbians: Suzanne Vega, “mother of mp3”

NYTimes: Singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega’s ruminations on her song Tom’s Diner.  The original MP3 codec developers in Germany debugged the early versions of the MP3 algorithm using “Tom’s Diner”, relying on the song’s warm acoustic tones to test the limits of the audio compression algorithm.

When I was at Barnard College in Manhattan, I used to go to Tom’s Restaurant for coffee, and after I graduated I also ate there before going to work. It was then a cheap, greasy place on 112th and Broadway, and it still is, in spite of its celebrity.

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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.”

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