All the ghostly sounds that are lost when you compress to mp3

In Music by Joe Veix / February 16, 2015

Right now, you’re probably listening to music on your computer. The source of that music — whether you’re listening to an mp3 file or streaming — is a compressed version of a file that was much more detailed, but way larger. It’s worth interrupting your music for a moment and asking: What sounds are you missing?

To get a sense, watch the video above, created by Ryan Maguire, a Ph.D. student in Composition and Computer Technologies at the University of Virginia Center for Computer Music, for a project called The Ghost In The Mp3. It’s a song made with only the sounds that were left out when compressing Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” to mp3.

As his site explains,

“‘moDernisT’ was created by salvaging the sounds lost to mp3 compression 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. Similarly, the video contains only material which was left behind during mp4 video compression.”

Beyond just creating a great new genre of ambient ghost music, the piece makes a few interesting points. First, these are real, actual sounds that your ear can easily hear. You don’t have to be some snobby audiophile asshole. The sounds are perceptible even through crappy MacBook Air speakers and earbuds. Hm.

Second, mp3 compression was released in the early ’90s, to serve purposes very specific to a time when storing and transferring data was expensive. It was a compromise in regards to how much can be stripped from a song without our ears recognizing the difference — and it worked really well. (If you want to get really wonky, Maguire writes in detail about it on his website for the project, explaining it way better than I ever possibly could.)

But roughly 20 years later, mp3s are still a standard, despite better alternatives existing, and our computers being capable of handling more complex files, which is kind of weird, right? Look at the kind of computer that was standard at around the same time. That’s the kind of machine mp3 compression was designed for. Hmm.

Anyway, sorry for interrupting, hope this didn’t ruin the music you were enjoying.

[h/t Jack Rusher]