Suzanne Vega, “The Mother of the MP3,” Records “Tom’s Diner” with the Edison Cylinder

An oft-repeat­ed piece of sound engi­neer­ing apoc­rypha holds that the cre­ators of the MP3 for­mat geared it specif­i­cal­ly to repro­duce, as faith­ful­ly as pos­si­ble, Suzanne Veg­a’s “Tom’s Din­er.” You might know the song in the orig­i­nal; you prob­a­bly know the song in its DNA remix; you could even know the song in that ver­sion Bil­ly Bragg and R.E.M. put togeth­er, or in any of the count­less trib­utes, falling in unusu­al places on the spec­trum between remix­es and cov­ers, that oth­er artists have paid. Alas, that sto­ry isn’t quite true: when we lis­ten to MP3s, we aren’t lis­ten­ing to music com­pressed by a pre­ci­sion-tuned “Tom’s Din­er” deliv­ery sys­tem. But the song did influ­ence the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of what MP3s do to turn songs into small, man­age­able dig­i­tal files. Karl­heinz Bran­den­burg, a key con­trib­u­tor to the MP3 com­pres­sion algo­rithm, did indeed put MP3 tech­nol­o­gy to the test ear­ly in its devel­op­ment by using it to com­press Veg­a’s hit. Upon play­back, he heard enough dis­tor­tion in the singing to per­form some seri­ous tweak­ing.

Evi­dent­ly such a “warm a capel­la voice,” in Bran­den­burg’s words, does­n’t take com­pres­sion well. So how does it stand up to the brute rig­ors of one of the old­est record­ing media in exis­tence? In this video Vega sings “Tom’s Din­er,” with­out ampli­fi­ca­tion, into the horn of a vin­tage Thomas Edi­son phono­graph machine as its nee­dle digs the song straight into wax. Not “wax” as in the vinyl we’ve all played music on — wax as in wax. The tech­ni­cian then read­ies the cylin­der for play­back, winds the crank, and releas­es “Tom’s Din­er 1890”: a speed- and pitch-incon­stant war­ble beneath a car­pet of sur­face noise, but unmis­tak­ably the same stark, haunt­ing­ly jaun­ty melody that worked its way into our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness for decades, touch­ing even those who lack the audio-geek enthu­si­asm to get excit­ed by this bridge between the first era of imper­fect son­ic repro­duc­tion and our own era of imper­fect son­ic repro­duc­tion.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Neil Young on the Trav­es­ty of MP3s

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