Like most people, I have been listening to music in MP3 format, it’s convenient and easy to store on your hard drive, iPod… but there is still a raging debate about how much we lose when we listen to an MP3, since this audio coding format uses a form of lossy data compression, which, according to Wikipedia, ‘is designed to greatly reduce the amount of data required to represent the audio recording and still sound like a faithful reproduction of the original uncompressed audio for most listeners’. Honestly, I think I am among these ‘most listeners’ as I can’t hear any difference when I listen to another format like FLAC for example… what can I say, I am old! And so is Neil Young, nothing against Pono, but I am just saying the difference these people pretend to hear is highly subjective.
Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. student in Composition and Computer Technologies at the University of Virginia Center for Computer Music – yes, that’s impressive – has investigated what parts of a track are lost in the compression process and he has created the following video with an audio file of all the bits and parts discarded for a song. He picked Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom Diner’ and posted it on his website, The Ghost in the MP3.
‘moDernisT was created by salvaging the sounds and images lost to compression via the MP3 and MP4 codecs,’ writes Maguire. ‘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 is the MP4 ghost of a corresponding video created in collaboration with Takahiro Suzuki. Thus, both audio and video are the “ghosts” of their respective compression codecs.’
So during these two minutes and half you can hear some ghostly sounds (the term exactly reflects the experience) excluded from the famous Vega’s hit song and reminiscent of the tune… and so what?
On Diffuser.com, Ryan explained that the format decided what should be excluded from the final audio file and that tests, determining which sounds were more important than others, were designed ‘by and for western-European men, and using the music they liked’. European men? What a surprise!
But he doesn’t know whether these lost sounds are ‘sounds which human ears can not hear in their original context due to universal perceptual limitations’ or whether they ‘simply are encoding detritus.’ However, his intention is to recover ‘these lost sounds, the ghosts in the MP3, and reformulate these sounds as art.’
To me, it sounds like static or washed out sounds used in horror movies, so am I missing a lot when I listen to an MP3 of ‘Tom’s Diner’ without these missing parts? I doubt because who has such an acute hearing to be able to get all these details? Recovering these ghosts is an interesting experience but I have always the impression that the same people who make a big deal about it, would not pass a blind test comparing the different audio files.
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