We live in exciting times, right in the midst of a digital revolution. The earlier were a little iffy at best, but now times have changed.
In its infancy, digital audio was often considered inferior to analogue audio. Much of this was based around the lack of warmth in the sound and no tape compression. Early digital audio also often lacked bass and sounded quite flat without any character – it took quite a bit of effort to get it to sound good.
In recording studios, equipment manufacturers started increasing bit depth and sample rates, the sound gradually improved. Whilst the sound quality was now on a par with 2″ tape in recording studios, the equipment was still extremely expensive. Some 16-24 track hard disk recording systems such as Radar cost in the region of £20,000.
At this time while we had CD’s there were few other options. DATs and Minidisc were attempting to find their way into consumer homes, but both failed miserably.
As the recording industry continued to lead the way with digital audio – big technical advances were made in leaps and bounds. The primary big advances were mostly due to Protools & Logic Audio, both software platforms providing digital audio recording, editing, processing and mixing in a computer environment. Logic Audio was originally created by a company called Emagic. As this was the time of Apple’s huge growth with the iMac and early gen iPod etc, they were always on the search for new technologies to buy. Apple bought Logic Audio (now known as Logic Pro) and set their place at the forefront of digital audio music production.
With Apple now having the iPod out in consumerland and owning one of the premium studio audio platforms, progress was inevitable. The early iPods, in retrospect didn’t sound great at all – couple that with the actual hard drive inside them & the performance was pretty poor. How much of a coincidence is it I wonder, that the quality of the following generations of the iPod improved so dramatically after the purchase of Logic Audio. You have to assume that some of the technology they bought was instrumental in changing the way in which we all now listen to music.
Obviously since then we have moved on yet again – smart phones now rule the high street & the MP3 file that the early iPods pioneered are now everywhere along with streaming audio.
<h2>But what has this actually meant for us, the consumer?</h2>
Because we take our tiny portable devices for granted, I think we forget just how much they have impacted our daily lives. If you dropped a smart phone loaded with music and a streaming service in the lap of someone sat in 1987, how do you think they would react? They would be absolutely blown away by it. Back then cassettes were the only option – hissy tape with very little bass that would often get tangled or unraveled…which would then need to be carefully untangled and rewound by hand. This unbelievable accessible modern audio is of a far higher quality than was available back then. The depth and details that can now be heard in music is exceptional – and it all comes from something that sits in the palm of you hand!
While our modern digital audio is fantastic high quality – we haven’t yet had the equivalent of the 1080P HD TV revolution in audio. Hopefully this will happen one day – but it is probably still a long way off. CD’s are now possibly our limitation – they have a sample rate of 44.1kHz – DVD’s and Blu-Ray both use 48kHz given extra depth and definition, but at the cost of file size and disc space. MP3 files can be generated at both 44.1kHz and 48kHz – but they do essentially compress data to save file space. This means that even at the highest sample rate and available bit rate, audio data is still removed – so the MP3 will never truly be hi fidelity.
There is still room for our audio world to expand in the mainstream and yes there are other audio file formats out there like AAC, but these aren’t common place & the storage space on smart phones isn’t yet big enough to really use them.
Only time will show us what the next step in home or portable audio is. Right now, any improvements, however minor will be major milestones and it will be incredibly exciting to hear the results!