The Ghostly Remains of "Tom's Diner"

Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков
Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков / Vimeo / Авессалом Изнурёнков

When the MP3 audio compression system was being developed, then-doctoral student Karlheinz Brandenburg needed a test track to hear whether his compression was messing up the sound too much. He chose "Tom's Diner" by Suzanne Vega, an a cappella song, to test his MP3 system.

Because MP3 uses "lossy compression," a system in which some data is thrown away in order to make the file smaller, it was important to sort out whether he was throwing out data that could afford to be lost and still have the track sound natural. "Tom's Diner," with a melodic human voice, reverberation, and occasional silence, fit the bill nicely. In other words, while a full pop band might sound okay, the MP3 compressor really showed what it was doing when it crunched on a single human voice.

When Brandenburg ran "Tom's Diner" through his early MP3 encoders, the result sounded terrible, which led to substantial tweaking, paving the way for substantially better-sounding MP3 music in the future. (Yes, I realize "better-sounding MP3" is an oxymoron to audiophiles. Let's just move on.) All of this led to Suzanne Vega becoming known as "the mother of the MP3."

All of this is history to get us to the video below. Musician Ryan Maguire and video artist Takahiro Suzuki collaborated to make "The Ghost in the MP3," which has two important components, both dealing with loss through technical means. First, the audio track is everything that MP3 "threw away" from "Tom's Diner." Second, the video is everything that MP4 "threw away" from the "Tom's Diner" music video, though I'm not sure which version of the video was used. (MP4 video compression is similar to MP3 in that it is lossy; it throws out things that it guesses humans won't perceive much.) The result is weird and ghostly, but bearing a resemblance to the original song in an eerie way. Enjoy, and then check out the original videos for comparison.

Here's Suzanne Vega's original a cappella track, used for tuning the MP3 algorithm:

And here's the "DNA remix" video many of us of a certain age remember (it was a huge hit in 1990). It's not clear to me which part(s) of this video may have been used in the ghost video, or if there's a third video in play. Anyway, this happened, and it still rocks today:

If you're into technical details, go read all about it. Also note that I covered some of this way back in 2008 on this very blog!

(Via Waxy.)