Thursday, 11 October 2012

Tom's Codec

Above: a reworking of Suzanne Vega's track 'Tom's Diner' using only sounds from a poorly-ripped MP3 in various stages of distress.

Below: an extract from this review of Jonathan Sterne's new book, MP3: The Meaning of a Format.

Part of the mythology of MP3 history is the role played by Suzanne Vega's track ‘Tom's Diner’. The story goes that the fidelity of the format is the result of engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg repeatedly playing the song through his codec, endlessly refining until it had perfectly captured the warmth of Vega's voice.

 So it happened that in 2007, the singer was invited to the Fraunhofer Institute - billed by the latter's PR team as a visit from the ‘mother of MP3’, much to Vega's horror at the implication that she was about to meet the format's various fathers. Before a gathering of press, a panel of engineers played first the distorted version Brandenburg had been so struck by, and finally the ‘perfect’ MP3 copy. Sterne quotes from Vega's own account.

 ‘See,’ one man said. ‘Now the MP3 recreates it perfectly. Exactly the same!’

‘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.

The man looked shocked. ‘No, Miss Vega. It is exactly the same.’

‘Everybody knows that an MP3 compresses the sound and therefore loses some of the warmth,’ I persisted. "That's why some people collect vinyl . . . " I suddenly caught myself, realizing who I was speaking to in front of a roomful of German media.

‘No, Miss Vega. Consider the Black Box theory!’

 I stared at him.

‘The Black Box theory states that what goes into the Black Box remains unchanged! Whatever goes in comes out the same way! Nothing is left behind and nothing is added!’

I decided at this point it was wiser to back down.

‘I see. OK. I didn't realise.’

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