Inventing the MP3: The one song critical in the format’s development

Written by Nathan Jolly on 8th May, 2018
Inventing the MP3: The one song critical in the format’s development

By the mid-’90s work was well underway on the controversial, game-changing format that would become the MP3.

German electrical engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on his compression algorithm, with the hopes that he would be able to replicate the hi-fidelity sounds of compact disc within a largely compressed file. One song became pinnacle to this testing process, largely because he knew compressing the file while keeping the purity of this particular song would prove a monumental task.

“I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm”, Brandenburg explained to Business 2.0 Magazine. “Somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing [the Suzanne Vega song] ‘Tom’s Diner’. I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice.”

Brandenburg became obsessed with the nuances of her vocal performance, playing the song thousands of times over the subsequent months, fine-tuning the algorithm each time to make sure the subtleties of her performance were not lost. He used the song as the blueprint from which he built the format. If he could nail this song, then others would sound just as rich and lossless.

As Business 2.0 wrote: “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.”

Funnily enough, the ‘Mother of MP3’ herself remained unconvinced by the so-called untouched nature of the format. The book MP3: The Meaning of a Format by Jonathan Sterne recounts Vega’s visit to the Fraunhofer Institute, in which she was placed in front of a mess of German media in order to be suitable wowed by the exact replication of her song.

Here’s Vega’s telling:

Vega quote

Of course, as anyone with a decent stereo system can attest, Vega was correct: the format doesn’t provide a perfect digital replica of the original, nor could it ever have done. Regardless, it was still a game-changing moment in the music industry, collapsing CD sales, causing widespread industry panic akin to the Home Taping Is Killing Music outcry of the ’80s (with less-cool logos, though), eventually leading to the iTunes/Spotify driven marketplace we now see.

The rise of MP3 also inadvertently drove up concert ticket prices, as artists struggled to make up the costs of falling CD sales, and lead to a number of unsigned/indie acts being able to build substantial fanbases and careers due to the easy distribution of music the format allowed.

A final interesting(ish) side note is that the titular diner in the song is actually ‘Tom’s Restaurant’ in Manhattan, the very same diner used in Seinfeld as Monk’s.

So, you could say that George Costanza is the Father of the MP3. Right??


The article was originally published on The Industry Observer