Suzanne Vega and the MP3 format

Apr 3, 2024


Reading time: 2 minutes

Yesterday I wrote about using an image from Playboy as a test image for testing image compression algorithms, and that reminded me of another anecdote from university where a piece of popular media was used in the development of a new technology.

I studied at the University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, which is closely connected to the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits in Erlangen, where the mp3 file format was developed in the 80s and 90s. I also used to work there during and after University for a while, but not at the Audio department.

Anyway, many of the mp3 developers were still working at Fraunhofer when I studied there, and I had a few classes about audio signal processing with them. And they used to tell the story where they would test the quality of the compression by listening to the song “Toms Diner” by Suzanne Vega over and over again, because the original version of the song (not the DNA remix) is purely a capella, vocals only and nothing else.

Because our ears are very finely tuned to recognizing human voices and spotting even the tiniest nuances and fluctuations in the sound of a voice, this song was the perfect candidate to test the compression algorithm on, since every tiny bit of distortion or compression artifact would stand out and be immediately noticeable.

And so, just like Lena Forsén was instrumental in developing the jpeg image format, Suzanne Vega was instrumental in developing the mp3 audio format.

Unfortunately, there is no such story about the development of video compression algorithms, at least not that I remember, so there won’t be a part three in this mini series.

This anecdote is also well documented online, but I’m pretty sure I heard about it first in a university lecture about mp3.