Track of the Day: 'Tom's Diner'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Today’s the day in history—July 14, 1995—that the MP3 format was released to the public. Suzanne Vega’s a cappella song “Tom’s Diner,” off her 1987 album Solitude Standing, was the first song used to test the revolutionary format:

(The most popular version of “Tom’s Diner” is a dance remix by a British group called DNA, which appeared with a handful of other covers on Tom’s Album in 1991.)

The story goes: While German electrical engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg was working on a type of file compression that would make CD-quality recordings available as computer files, he heard “Tom’s Diner” playing down the hall from his office. He figured it would be nearly impossible to compress the song without detrimental effects to Vega’s “warm a capella voice” and decided to make it the test subject for his development of the “MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3,” a.k.a. the MP3.

According to Vega, Brandenburg’s early attempts at reformatting the song produced “monstrous distortions, as though the Exorcist has somehow gotten into the system, shadowing every phrase.” In spite of these early failures, he used the song to fine tune his compression techniques, making sure the format was capable of picking up incredibly subtle vocal and instrumental effects. The end result of this experimentation is likely how you’re listening to Tom’s Diner right now. Its use in the process became a folk tale among engineers and Vega became known in audiophile circles as “The Mother of the MP3.”

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