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An innovation birthday card…

(Video version here…)

We’re cutting it fine but right at the end of July it’s still worth pausing for a moment to think some ‘Happy Birthday’ thoughts.  But first…..

What’s your take on Suzanne Vega?  Like her? Loathe her? Never heard of her?  In case you fit the last group she’s an American singer in a folk style with a long and distinguished career.  (Confession: I like her music).  One of her best-known pieces was written in 1982 called ‘Tom’s diner’ which was resurrected by UK producers DNA and became a word-wide dance remix hit in 1990.  It’s the kind of song that keeps getting rediscovered and successfully adapted, most recently by Britney Spears and Giorgio Moroder.  So it’s sold a lot.

It has another claim to fame, arguably of an even longer-more lasting kind, one which ensures that it has a place in every music lover’s collection.

But at least one person might have good reason to dislike it.  His name is Karlheinz Brandenburg and his job involved him listening to the track over and over and over again.  Try it – pick your favourite piece of music and then play it repeatedly 2,3,4 500 times over and over – my bet is you’ll not be such a fan at the end, or at least need a little time before you listen again?

The work in question was research into audio compression – how to make digital copies of music in files small enough to broadcast or share.  Brandenburg needed a piece of music to test his latest algorithm.  As he explains:

“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.”

Which is how it comes about that Suzanne might have quite a good claim to being a Mother of Invention.  Because the invention in question here was the mp3.

What’s an mp3? 

Without getting too technical it’s what enables the music and other sound files to fit on your phone, tablet, computer or other device.  We’ve had the idea of sound reproduction for nearly two hundred years, although Edouard Leon Scott (inventor in 1857 of the phonograph) didn’t think we’d want to listen and would, instead, be content with looking at traces scrawled on paper emerging from his machine as it captured the incoming sound.  So while he invented recording it wasn’t until Thomas Edison in 1877 added the possibility of playback that things really began to happen.  The rest is history. 

Or rather a series of challenges to improve on the basic innovation, not least in terms of how we store and manipulate those recordings.  Wax cylinders gave way to shellac discs which improved in capacity and reliability as newer materials became available.  Other options emerged such as magnetic oxide coated on tapes, optically readable compact discs using lasers and, eventually to digital media.  The trouble is that fidelity (which in Edison’s day was pretty low) can only get higher at the expense of having big files carrying the recorded information.  To put it in perspective, by the 1980s when Brandenburg was working it took 10 hours for a mainframe computer to decode one minute of digitized music.

This was a big barrier – many people could see the possibilities in digital media in fields like music and films, but it wasn’t going to happen if the storage problem couldn’t be solved.