How "Tom's Diner" Tuned the MP3

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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Attention Business Travelers: These Are the Countries With the Fastest Internet
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Whether you travel for business or pleasure, high-speed internet seems like a necessity when you’re trying to connect with colleagues or loved ones back home. Of course, the quality of that connection largely depends on what part of the world you’re in—and if you want the best internet on earth, you’ll have to head to Asia.

Singapore might be smaller than New York City, but it has the fastest internet of any country, Travel + Leisure reports. The city-state received the highest rating from the World Broadband Speed League, an annual ranking conducted by UK analyst Cable. For the report, Cable tracked broadband speeds in 200 countries over several 12-month periods to get an average.

Three Scandinavian countries—Sweden, Denmark, and Norway—followed closely behind Singapore. And while the U.S. has the fastest broadband in North America, it comes in 20th place for internet speed globally, falling behind Asian territories like Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, as well as European countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Spain. On the bright side, though, the U.S. is up one place from last year’s ranking.

In the case of Singapore, the country’s small size works to its advantage. As a financial hub in Asia, it depends heavily on its digital infrastructure, and as a result, “there is economic necessity, coupled with the relative ease of delivering high-speed connections across a small area,” Cable notes in its report. Within Singapore, 82 percent of residents have internet access.

Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, on the other hand, have all focused on FTTP (Fiber to the Premises) connections, and this has boosted internet speeds.

Overall, global broadband speeds are rising, and they improved by 23 percent from 2017 to 2018. However, much of this progress is seen in countries that are already developed, while underdeveloped countries still lag far behind.

“Europe, the United States, and thriving economic centers in the Asia-Pacific region (Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong) are leading the world when it comes to the provision of fast, reliable broadband, which suggests a relationship between available bandwidth and economic health,” Dan Howdle, Cable’s consumer telecoms analyst, said in a statement. “Those countries leading the world should be congratulated, but we should also be conscious of those that are being left further and further behind."

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Samsung Is Making a Phone You Can Fold in Half
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The iPhone vs. Galaxy war just intensified. Samsung is pulling out all the stops and developing a foldable phone dubbed Galaxy X, which it plans to release next year, according to The Wall Street Journal.

It would seem the rumors surrounding a mythical phone that can fold over like a wallet are true. The phone, which has been given the in-house code name “Winner,” will have a 7-inch screen and be a little smaller than a tablet but thicker than most other smartphones.

Details are scant and subject to change at this point, but the phone is expected to have a smaller screen on the front that will remain visible when the device is folded. Business Insider published Samsung patents back in May showing a phone that can be folded into thirds, but the business news site noted that patents often change, and some are scrapped altogether.

The Galaxy Note 9 is also likely to be unveiled soon, as is a $300 Samsung speaker that's set to rival the Apple HomePod.

The Galaxy X will certainly be a nifty new invention, but it won’t come cheap. The Wall Street Journal reports the phone will set you back about $1500, which is around $540 more than Samsung’s current most expensive offering, the Galaxy Note 8.

[h/t Business Insider]

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