“The Ghost In The MP3” is what’s left when Suzanne Vega’s classic “Tom’s Diner” gets compressed down to size
image via wikimedia commons
Audiophiles like to argue over what format is best for musical enjoyment, with opposing camps falling roughly along a digital/analog divide. One of the fronts in the battle over the best sound is that of “compression”: the method by which large digital audio files are compressed down into a more accessible format. It’s how you’re able to stream albums to your laptop, and play hundreds–if not thousands–of songs off your smartphone.
In some cases, though, compression can lead to the loss of certain auditory elements of the file being processed. To demonstrate that point, Ph.D. student Ryan Maguire created “The Ghost In The MP3”, a project whose centerpiece is a strangely etherial track called “moDernisT”. At first, moDernisT seems like a random assortment of disjointed noises. In fact, it’s actually comprised entirely out of the audio lost during the MP3 compression of Suzanne Vega’s classic ear worm “Tom’s Diner.”
That Maguire’s track is full of vaguely familiar sounds, well within the normal range of hearing, is significant. As io9 points out, it’s commonly held that the audio lost in the compression process should be beyond what a human ear can perceive. Clearly, that’s not always the case. To further explore these effects, Maguire created an accompanying video comprised of visuals similarly “lost” during that piece’s MP4 compression.
As Maguire, who studies Composition and Computer Technologies at University of Virginia, explains in the video’s description:
the audio is comprised of lost mp3 compression material from the song "Tom's Diner", famously used as one of the main controls in the listening tests to develop the MP3 encoding algorithm. Here we find the form of the song intact, but the details are just remnants of the original. the video was created by takahiro suzuki in response to the audio track and then run through a similar algorithm after being compressed to mp4. thus, both audio and video are the "ghosts" of their respective compression codecs. version one
At Death And Taxes, Joe Veix makes the point that MP3 compression is a technique hailing from a time (the 1990s) when large, complex audio files needed to be streamlined in order to conserve storage and transfer space on the laptops and media players of that era. Today our devices are able to store and handle much more complex files. But while alternative file formats are available, MP3s are still the industry standard.
This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that all cases of compression loss are as drastic as that heard in Maguire’s project. Decades after the format was invented, audio recording is done with MP3–and the compression process– in mind. Compression loss can then be pre-factored into the overall recording process, minimizing its effect.
None of this, of course, is likely to put an end to the arguments over how best to listen to music. It should, however, make you wonder what else you might be missing the next time you open up iTunes.