Let’s Have a Listen to the Stuff MP3 Compression Leaves Behind

Back in the 1980s, boffins at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany were looking for ways to make digital files smaller so they could be transferred down copper phone lines. After much experimentation, they came up with the with an compression algorithm called Motion Pictures Experts Group, Layer 3: MP3 for short.

The algorithm is based on the principles of psychoacoustics. Much of what a song contains is masked by other sounds, making them impossible for us to hear. Subtract those inaudible sounds from the song and you can reduce the size of its digital file by a factor of ten.

This brings me to Ryan McGuire, who is a Ph.D student at the University of Virginia Computer Music Centre. He figured out a way for us to hear the what the MP3 algorithm strips out. But what song to use in this demonstration? The same song that the Fraunhofer Institute used to create the MP3 in the first place: Suzanne Vega and “Tom’s Diner.”

The Fraunhofer guys played that song over and over and over again until they shrunk it down by 90% while maintaining its sonic integrity. So what did they strip out? That’s what McGuire managed to capture.

Cool, no?  Read more on this sonic experiment at io9.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38466 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

6 thoughts on “Let’s Have a Listen to the Stuff MP3 Compression Leaves Behind

  • Is this what the audiophiles are complaining about losing? Sounds like a good trade off to me? Or am I missing something?

  • Holy cow! There is a ton of depth to that, way more than the white noise I expected. IMO, This adds more credence to Alan’s theory about MP3’s possibly lacking the dynamic range and texture that invoke certain emotional responses i.e. tears, goosebumps, joy, etc. This is not to say that songs that have always affected you in a cerain way, will not if listened to in MP3 format. Also, not to say that some new songs listened to for the first time in MP3 format won’t invoke the same emotional responses. I just wonder what we’re missing. j

  • Hmm. I wonder if a mash-up of the two would do anything???

  • Thanks for this follow-up. I remember the episode of “on going history of music”, where you mentioned the first mp3 being Tom’s diner.

  • Pingback: Listen To All The Sounds That Are Lost When You A Song Into An MP3

  • Pingback: A Journal of Musical ThingsGeeks&Beats Podcasts, Episode 95: Batteries Not Excluded - A Journal of Musical Things

Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.