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How "Tom's Diner" Tuned the MP3

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Suzanne Vega's catchy tune has made her "Mother of the MP3" -- though it took a while. Vega wrote "Tom's Diner" as an a cappella song way back in 1982. By 1984 it has been released on an obscure folk compilation, and didn't appear on Vega's studio albums until 1987's Solitude Standing. In 1990, the song was remixed by The DNA Disciples, adding a danceable beat and instrumentation -- this version hit the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #5 in the US.

So what does this have to do with MP3? Well, after its release in 1987 audiophiles began using Vega's a cappella track to test speaker systems for clarity. It was considered a good, warm recording of a human voice -- something that could reveal flaws in an audio setup. Working at the Fraunhofer Society in Germany in the 90's, audio engineer Karl-Heinz Brandenburg was hard at work developing the MP3 audio compression scheme. Brandenburg used Vega's a cappella version of "Tom's Diner" to tune the compression system, playing the track before and after compression was applied to tell whether MP3 sounded good enough. He figured Vega's song would be a tough track to compress (as it was already favored by audiophiles), and would be a good test for whether MP3 was really listenable. Although many audiophiles ended up hating MP3, Brandenburg seems to have done pretty well for himself -- MP3 became an incredibly popular technology. On the choice of "Tom's Diner," Brandenburg recalled: "I was ready to fine-tune my compression algorithm...somewhere down the corridor, a radio was playing 'Tom's Diner.' I was electrified. I knew it would be nearly impossible to compress this warm a cappella voice."

In last week's New York Times, Vega reminisced about the song and her career as a "two-hit wonder" (the other hit was "Luka"). From her article:

So Mr. Brandenberg gets a copy of the song, and puts it through the newly created MP3. But instead of the "warm human voice" there are monstrous distortions, as though the Exorcist has somehow gotten into the system, shadowing every phrase. They spend months refining it, running "Tom's Diner through the system over and over again with modifications, until it comes through clearly. "He wound up listening to the song thousands of times," the article, written by Hilmar Schmundt, continued, "and the result was a code that was heard around the world. When an MP3 player compresses music by anyone from Courtney Love to Kenny G, it is replicating the way that Brandenburg heard Suzanne Vega."

So goes the legend. The reason I know what that MP3 originally sounded like is that last year I was invited to the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen, Germany, where I met the team of engineers who worked on the project — including Mr. Brandenberg, who I had met once before at the launch of the Mobile Music Forum in Cannes in 2001.

All the men are obviously intelligent, but Karl-Heinz is a character. He stands out, because he looks like a mad scientist. His hair and tie always look as if they have been blown askew in a stiff wind, and he taps the tips of his fingers together constantly, smiling beatifically.

Read the rest for one artist's thoughts on her nearly thirty-year career in music -- and the unexpected resonance of a song scribbled on paper back in 1982.

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Health
Growing Up With Headphones May Not Damage Kids’ Hearing
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A study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery finds no increase in child and adolescent hearing loss despite a rise in headphone and earbud use.

"Hearing impairment in children is a major public health burden given its impact on early speech and language development, and subsequently on academic and workforce performance later in life," the authors write. "Even mild levels of hearing loss have been found to negatively affect educational outcomes and social functioning."

As portable music players continue to grow in popularity, parents, doctors, and researchers have begun to worry that all the music pouring directly into kids' ears could be damaging their health. It seems a reasonable enough concern, and some studies on American kids' hearing have identified more hearing loss.

To take a closer look, researchers at the University of California-San Francisco analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected from 1988 to 2010. They reviewed records from 7036 kids and teens between the ages of 12 and 19, checking each participant's hearing tests against their exposure to noise.

As expected, the authors write, they did find a gradual increase in headphone use and other "recreational noise exposure." And they did see an uptick in hearing loss from 1988 to 2008 from 17 percent to 22.5 percent. But after that, the trend seemed to reverse, sinking all the way down to 15.2 percent—lower than 1988 levels. They also found no significant relationship between noise exposure and hearing loss.

The results were not uniform; some groups of kids were worse off than others. Participants who identified as nonwhite, and those of lower socioeconomic status, were more likely to have hearing problems, but the researchers can't say for sure why that is. "Ongoing monitoring of hearing loss in this population is necessary," they write, "to elucidate long-term trends and identify targets for intervention."

Before you go wild blasting music, we should mention that this study has some major limitations. Hearing loss and other data points were not measured the same way through the entire data collection period. Participants had to self-report things like hearing loss and health care use—elements that are routinely under-reported in surveys. As with just about any health research, more studies are still needed to confirm these findings.

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Design
Glow-in-the-Dark Paths Come to Singapore
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Studio Roosegaarde's Van Gogh path in the Netherlands in 2014.

Glow-in-the-dark materials are no longer for toys. Photoluminescence can help cities feel safer at night, whether it’s part of a mural, a bike lane, or a highway. Glow-in-the-dark paths have been tested in several European cities (the above is a Van Gogh-inspired bike path by the Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde) and in Texas, but now, the technology may be coming to Singapore. The city-state is currently developing a 15-mile greenway called the Rail Corridor, and it now has a glow-in-the-dark path, as Mashable reports.

The 328-foot stretch of glowing path is part of a test of multiple surface materials that might eventually be used throughout the park, depending on public opinion. In addition to the strontium aluminate-beaded path that glows at night, there are also three other 328-foot stretches of the path that are paved with fine gravel, cement aggregate, and part-grass/part-gravel. The glow-in-the-dark material embedded in the walkway absorbs UV light from the sun during the day and can emit light for up to eight hours once the sun goes down.

However, in practice, glow-in-the-dark paths can be less dazzling than they seem. Mashable’s reporter called the glowing effect on Singapore’s path “disappointingly feeble.” In 2014, a glowing highway-markings pilot by Studio Roosegaarde in the Netherlands revealed that the first road markings faded after exposure to heavy rains. When it comes to glowing roads, the renderings tend to look better than the actual result, and there are still kinks to work out. (The studio worked the issue out eventually.) While a person walking or biking down Singapore’s glowing path might be able to tell that they were staying on the path better than if they were fumbling along dark pavement, it’s not the equivalent of a streetlight, for sure.

The trial paths opened to the public on July 12. The government is still gathering survey responses on people’s reactions to the different surfaces to determine how to proceed with the rest of the development. If the glow-in-the-dark path proves popular with visitors, the material could eventually spread to all the paths throughout the Rail Corridor. You can see what the glowing path looks like in action in the video below from The Straits Times.

[h/t Mashable]

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