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. h/t

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

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Neil Young on the Travesty of MP3s

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