Suzanne Vega, “Tom’s Diner,” and the birth of the MP3

I didn’t realize this, but Suzanne Vega is known as the “the mother of the MP3”, because Karl-Heinz Brandenberg — one of the audio engineers who developed the compression method — used Vega’s song “Tom’s Diner” as the reference track as he worked. “Tom’s Diner” is purely a capella and has minimal reverb, so Brandenberg thought it was the perfect gold standard: If his MP3 algorithm could compress the song without destroying its lovely timbre, he’d knew he’d have succeeded. As a result, he listened to “Tom’s Diner” thousands and thousands of times as he tweaked. The first compressions had “monstrous” distortions, but he kept at it until it was — to his ears — perfect.

Perfect to his ears — but not, apparently, to Suzanne Vega’s. Vega just published a wonderful essay on the New York Times’ web site where she describes visiting Brandenberg’s lab in 2001. As she writes:

The day I visited — “The Mother of the MP3 comes to the home of the MP3!” said the woman in charge of press (the slightly weird implication being that I would be meeting the various “fathers” of the MP3) — we had a press conference at which they played me the original version of “Tom’s Diner,” then the various distortions of the MP3 as it had been, which sounded monstrous and weird. Then, finally, the “clean” version of “Tom’s Diner.”

The panel beamed at me. “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.

Heh. Vega points out that although she is herself pretty computer illiterate, her life has some remarkable intersection points with high-tech development. For example, her mother was a computer scientist who used to drag a seriously old-school modem — “the size of a small refrigerator” — home so she could log into the Hunter College library from her kitchen. Then, in 1990, DNA — a two-man producer team — produced one of the first commercially successful folk-music remixes, by setting “Tom’s Diner” to an R&B dance track.

There’s an even cooler scientific coincidence that Vega doesn’t note. “Tom’s Diner” is based on the real-life Tom’s Restaurant, which Vega used to eat at in the 80s; it sits at 112th and Broadway in Manhattan and is famous, as Vega explains, for being the exterior shot of the diner in Seinfeld. But it’s also downstairs from a huge NASA lab — the Goddard Institute for Space Studies! It’s where NASA produces some of its most authoritative climate-change simulations; in fact, it’s the headquarters of James Hansen, the NASA scientist famous for predicting global warming twenty years ago.

(That photo of Vega above is courtesy possan’s Creative Commons photostream on Flickr! And thanks to Morgan for correcting me: The real-life version of “Tom’s Diner” is called Tom’s Restaurant.)

blog comments powered by Disqus

Search This Site


I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

More of Me


Recent Comments

Collision Detection: A Blog by Clive Thompson