By the mid-’90s work was well underway on the controversial, game-changing format that would become the MP3.
German electrical engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on his compression algorithm, with the hopes that he would be able to replicate the hi-fidelity sounds of compact disc within a largely compressed file. One song became pinnacle to this testing process, largely because he knew compressing the file while keeping the purity of this particular song would prove a monumental task.
“I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm”, Brandenburg explained to Business 2.0 Magazine. “Somewhere down the corridor a radio was playing [the Suzanne Vega song] ‘Tom’s Diner’. I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a capella voice.”
Brandenburg became obsessed with the nuances of her vocal performance, playing the song thousands of times over the subsequent months, fine-tuning the algorithm each time to make sure the subtleties of her performance were not lost. He used the song as the blueprint from which he built the format. If he could nail this song, then others would sound just as rich and lossless.
As Business 2.0 wrote: “Because the song depends on very subtle nuances of Vega’s inflection, the algorithm would have to be very, very good to select the most important parts of the sound file and discard the rest.”