This is a legacy blog. It was about the intersection of music and digital audio technology, and was called 'The Verge'. Today, of course, the existence of a much more famous blog of the same name precludes my use of it.

The main focus of this weblog was to assess digital technology as both an enabler of, and an obstacle to, musical progress.

While the tech press usually fixates on exciting new trends, I have always been more interested in trends of a longer scale: in the large scale cultural implications of digital music production and distribution as a whole; and in the effects that these developments have had, or might have, on the nature and evolution of musical culture specifically.

All of the statements of opinion anywhere on this page, reflect my views and only my views.

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Older blog posts:

The Unintentional Empowerment of the Composer Part 3
Part 2
Part 1

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

The Digital Audio revolution: A primer

March 19, 2008
A revolution in audio technology has taken place. A revolution with deep and largely unexplored cultural implications.

I am not talking about the ubiquitous iPod, though it and the other mp3 players on the market are certainly important. No, what I'm talking about is a revolution not in consumer audio technology, but in the technology of audio recording and production (though as we shall see, the distinction is not always clear anymore).

In the past 50 years, the price of recording technology has dropped dramatically, while it's power and usefulness have increased at an equally dramatic pace. In fact 'dramatic' doesn't begin to do the process justice. It is just out of all proportion with normal cycles of cultural change.

To try to give this some perspective, we're going to do a little historical thought experiment: a quick little walk through time.

We will start in 1949, which is as good a time as any. Because in 1949 the Ampex 200, one of the first dependable, high quality magnetic tape recorders on the market, sold for 4,000 dollars US. This is a single track monophonic reel to reel tape recorder, selling for an amount of money that, when adjusted for inflation, amounts to over 36,000 US dollars in 2008.

Remember this: 36,000 US dollars for a monophonic single track tape recorder.

Now it is true that magnetic tape was a brand new technology in 1949, and that competition did help to drive down prices. But even as monophonic recorders became more affordable, more expensive stereo and multitrack recorders became the 'industry standard'. This economic trend of expensive audio recording equipment created a situation in which the process of making good recordings became its own profession, requiring considerable up-front investment capital.

This hadn't changed much in the late 70's when some of the first digital recorders were made and sold. Sold, that is, for 150,000 US dollars.

Remember this: 150,000 US dollars....for a 4 track 16 bit recorder!

Digital recorders commanded this price because even back then they had features that no magnetic tape recorders could offer. Perhaps the most attractive of these features was the fact that digital recording media, unlike all previous recording media, have no surface noise (vinyl crackles, tape hiss) to deal with. This means that the available dynamic range is greater, because the lower amplitudes aren't eaten up by the noise floor. What we call 'CD quality' digital audio (16 bit/44.1 kHz, which is what was adopted as the standard) has a theoretical dynamic range of 96 dB, while analog tape has a dynamic range of someplace between 55 and 60 dB.

This can translate very impressively into a much more satisfying listening experience when the recorded material has lots of dynamic contrasts (e.g. Romantic era orchestral music). And this is because the range of normal human hearing is about 130 dB (measured from the threshold of hearing to the threshold of pain), which is obviously much closer to 96 dB than to 60 dB.

And so, for these and other reasons, digital audio seemed impressive enough to justify a 150,000 dollar price tag in the late 70's. Since then the specs have only gotten better, while the price has plummeted. 'DVD quality' digital audio (24 bit/96-192 kHz) has a theoretical dynamic range of 144 dB, and can record and play back sounds so high in frequency that even your dog can't hear them. The ability to play music in this format has quickly become a common feature of consumer electronic audio devices.

And one can easily, in about 30 minutes on the internet, purchase a recorder (along with the computer and software you need to run it) that can record up to 8 separate simultaneous tracks of pristine 24 bit 192 kHz digital audio. And this is just how many tracks you can record at a time. With overdubs, the available track count is practically unlimited. And the software doesn't just record. It can do and add all sorts of things to the recorded sounds: echo, delay, chorus, flanger and reverb effects can all be added to the sounds in any combination, along with equalizers and dynamics processors, all of which are equipped with elaborate controls that can be automated, (i.e. the controls can be manipulated by numerous invisible hands that all work according to your instructions.) And, finally, this software allows you to use virtual instruments, which are a whole world of fun in their own right....

And the staggering fact is that this recorder/manipulator/creator/editor thingie will cost you, not the 150,000 dollars of thirty-eight years ago, nor yet the 36,000 in inflation adjusted dollars from sixty years ago, nor even any amount in that ballpark. No, one can get this pristine audio recorder thingie for less than 4,000 dollars: The original price of the Ampex 200.

That's 4,000 of today's dollars. Not adjusted for inflation.

But no, we still haven't quite gotten to the punchline. The punchline is that the 4,000 dollar recorder thingie just described is a really expensive recording package by todays standards. One can actually get a perfectly functional machine that can record 8 tracks of dvd quality digital audio for less than 1000 dollars.

Pretty cool, huh?

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