The closer the present approaches an imagined future, the more it inspires a look backward. As computers became Star Trek pads, people got more interested, for instance, in Babbage’s analytical engine or the Antikythera mechanism.

So it’s no surprise, but it’s still awesome, that a wad of nerdlingers has decided to compare a new wax recording (a la Edison) to one of the first songs to be compressed into an MP3, with both versions sung by the same singer, Suzanne Vega.

According to Colin Marshall, on OpenCulture, Vega’s a capella song served an important function in the development of that now-ubiquitous soundfile format.

“Karlheinz Brandenburg, a key contributor to the MP3 compression algorithm, did indeed put MP3 technology to the test early in its development by using it to compress Vega’s hit. Upon playback, he heard enough distortion in the singing to perform some serious tweaking. Evidently such a ‘warm a capella voice,’ in Brandenburg’s words, doesn’t take compression well.”

Tweaking the format to allow for a more natural vocal sound was part of the MP3’s development, and that was done, in part, via Vega’s song.

Below, at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in New Jersey, the park’s curator, John Fabris, John Krivitt of the Audio Engineering Society and a group of Bay State College students record the songwriter singing the same tune into a vintage Edison wax recording device.

curt hopkins