The First Perfected MP3 In History’s Opening Lyric: “Doo”

In Business Week’s profile of Karlheinz Brandenburg (often cited as the inventor of the MP3) the mag traces the history and development of Microsoft’s favorite audio file format and reveals that the reproduction of Suzanne Vega’s deviously simple “Tom’s Diner” was the litmus test for the technology’s success. (via

Brandenburg’s involvement in digital music compression began in the early 1980s when he was a doctoral student at Germany’s University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. A professor urged Brandenburg to work on the problem of how to transmit music over a digital ISDN phone line. It wasn’t just a computer coding problem. Brandenburg had to immerse himself in the science behind how people perceive music.

That was where Suzanne Vega came in.

Her song “Tom’s Diner,” though seemingly a simple ditty, proved devilishly difficult to reproduce without annoying background noise. “Suzanne Vega was a catastrophe. Terrible distortion,” Brandenburg recalls. “The a cappella version of Tom’s Diner was more difficult to compress without compromising on audio quality than anything else.”

When MP3 developers refined the technology to the point where “Tom’s Diner” sounded true to the original, they had made a major breakthrough. “I’ve listened to this 20 seconds [of Tom’s Diner] a thousand times. I still like the music,” says Brandenburg, who met Vega years later when both attended an event in Cannes to mark the creation of MP3.

Interesting! Don’t know much about sound and engineering, but reproducing “Tom’s Diner” couldn’t have been that difficult. Right? Pretty sure this was an elaborate Brandenburg come-on attempt. And who can blame him? She can even make an apple look sexy. On a related note, did anyone catch “Blood Makes Noise” on The Sarah Silverman Program the other week? It was when Sarah gets an AIDS test. Anyway, file this one away for your next Jeopardy! night.

Tags: Suzanne Vega