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Main | Why The "Record Store" Is Going To Be Sorely Missed If We Let Them All Die »
Thursday
Feb 19 2015

The Mother of the MP3, Or, How A Great Song Helped Up-End the Music Business's Apple Cart

Sometime between 1989 and 1990, at the AT&T labs in Murray Hill, NJ, a scientist heard a song. That scientist was Karlheinz Brandenburg . Brandenburg was just your average, everyday, audio engineering genius who also happened to be working on the codec for a new digital music format.

"I was ready to fine tune my compression algorithm and 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 cappella voice," Brandenburg recalled several years later in a magazine interview.

In a documentary for Swedish television in 2009, Brandenburg explained how Tom's Diner continued the journey to becoming the Mother of the MP3. "I was finishing my PhD thesis and I read in some hi-fi magazine that they had used [ Tom's Diner ] to test loudspeakers. I said, 'okay, let's test what this song does to mp3.' And the result was, at bit rates where everything else sounded quite nice, Suzanne Vega's voice sounded horrible." While Brandenburg and others on his team used a variety of music to test samples of the burgeoning mp3 compression format, Tom's Diner was a track they repeatedly relied on to test the effects of the data compression on the recording.

For a little context, here's some information about storage capabilities in 1990:

  • 1988: Prairie Tek releases the first 2.5-inch hard drive designed for the new notebook computer market; it uses two platters to store 20MB.
  • 1991: IBM introduces the 0663 Corsair. It has eight 3.5-inch platters and stores 1GB. (Emphasis mine, plus this drive was only available commercially)
  • 1992: Hewlett-Packard's C3013A Kitty Hawk drive uses two 1.3-inch platters to store 2.1GB.
  • 1998: IBM releases the Microdrive, the smallest hard drive to date with a capacity of 340MB on a single 1-inch platter.

Of course, none of these storage devices were small enough – or battery-powered enough – to carry around in your pocket.

Now let's look at how much data storage space a song can take up:

  • Average songs, when compressed to mp3, take up between 3 and 5MB of data. Let's call it 4MB.
  • A stereo .WAV file (uncompressed) averages around 10.584MB per minute , so a four minute song will take up approximately 42.336MB

For reference the iPod Shuffle had a storage capacity of 2GB (around 400 songs in mp3 format or around 47 songs in an uncompressed format).

Fifteen years ago or so, as a point of marketing, it was not the quality of the music you could now carry around with you, it was the amount of music you could carry around with you. So, here we are now still using a format that was a cutting edge technology at the time it was developed, even though that format (and the storage capacities of the devices we now use) has long ago been surpassed with other compression codecs that don't mess up our music so much.

Here's what you miss when you listen to a compressed mp3:

This cool little video was taken from the Ghost in the MP3 Project a research project done by Ryan Maguire at the Virginia Center for Computer Music , and it perfectly illustrates the otherwise intangible bits of music that we don't get to experience with a lossy music file. To add another layer of coolness to this video, the images are the ghosts left behind when the video to the song was compressed into mp4 format .

Here's the song in it's original form, (yet still compressed for Youtube):

So, the usual preaching from this Blog Pulpit about the evils of compressed music notwithstanding, there's a cool little bit of history about why we listen to music today the way we do.

Jack Sharkey

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