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 30+ 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.

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

  • February 19, 2015 at 9:32 am
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    Is this what the audiophiles are complaining about losing? Sounds like a good trade off to me? Or am I missing something?

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  • February 19, 2015 at 2:46 pm
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    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

    Reply
  • February 19, 2015 at 2:47 pm
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    Hmm. I wonder if a mash-up of the two would do anything???

    Reply
  • February 19, 2015 at 7:08 pm
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    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.

    Reply
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