Digital recording technology

Digital recording has made possible much higher quality sound reproduction on much smaller and less expensive media but, at the same time, has made it easier for users to make high-quality copies of copyrighted materials, thereby cutting into sales of these materials.

Digital sound recording required several important developments seemingly unrelated to audio reproduction. The first foundational discovery was Claude Elwood Shannon’s development of information theory, which provided the tools for translating the continuous variation of sound into discrete ones and zeros, a process known as digitizing. The second innovation was the development of small, lightweight computers that could be produced economically in large numbers, making them affordable to the average consumer. The third component was the development of cheap, reliable low-power lasers, creating a mechanism for reading recorded data without mechanical contact and its resultant wear.Digital recording technology

Laser Discs

The earliest laser discs were developed during the 1970’s to hold analog television information. However, they failed as a consumer product because the laser playback mechanism was expensive and delicate, and therefore could not be brought down to a price that any but the wealthiest consumers could afford. Furthermore, a twelve-inch disc, the size of a long-playing phonograph record, could hold only twenty-five minutes of programming. A feature-length motion picture required five discs, resulting in constant interruptions, whereas videocassettes not only could hold an entire motion picture but also could be used to record television broadcasts.

However, Music industryexecutives at Phillips saw a potential for laser technology as a recording medium for the digital audio technology they were developing. In 1982, Phillips unveiled the first digital audio compact disc (CD). Smaller than a 45-revolutions-per-minute (rpm) single, it could hold as much music as an entire long-play (LP) record. Furthermore, the fidelity of sound reproduction was limited only by the quality of the amplifier and speakers. Because users could not record music on CDs, audio cassettes, which could be used to tape music, continued to sell briskly. Recording industry executives became increasingly concerned about loss of income due to piracy, and numerous congressional hearings about copyright protection for sound recordings were held during the late 1980’s.

The real piracy problem came from advancements in personal computer technology. Computer companies quickly recognized the value of the CD to carry information other than music. Because CDs were write-protected by design, an unwitting user could not corrupt original disks. The 1990’s saw increasing numbers of consumer computers equipped with CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory) drives as standard equipment. The inability to write to a CD hit the computer industry even harder, resulting in the CD burner, which used a higher-power laser to record data onto special blank discs. As a result, people with the right software could copy digital music files from a commercial audio CD and burn it onto their own CD.

iPod Nation

The marriage of computers and sound recording was completed by Apple (company)Apple Computer in 2001. Only weeks after the September 11 terrorist attack, Apple’s chief executive officer Steve Jobs, SteveJobs announced the iPodiPod, a music player that would allow people to upload music directly from their computers and carry a thousand or more songs in their pockets with no discs to switch. Along with this remarkable device, he introduced the iTunes Music Store, at which people could buy individual songs as well as albums, all as digital files that could be downloaded onto their computers without the need for manufacturing or transporting a physical disc.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs holds a new iPod with video capabilities during an address in 2005.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The iPod was a tiny computer with a limited operating system, which stored music files on a miniature hard drive and allowed users to control how they were played back. Sleek and beautiful, it quickly made Apple Computer a leader in the consumer electronics industry, to the point where the company dropped “Computer” from its name. Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, Apple improved the iPod. As flash memory became cheaper, hard-drive-based iPods gave way to solid-state ones. As market research discovered that many iPod users rarely used the playlist function, instead preferring the shuffle feature, the smallest iPods were made with a simplified interface that allowed only shuffle play. At the same time, high-end iPods such as the iPod Touch, introduced in 2008, became more similar to the iPhone, a high-end smartphone that combined digital telephony and handheld computer functions.

Digital recording also made it easier for small players to enter the recording business. Although professional-grade analog audio recordings required an entire system of expensive equipment, a professional-grade digital recording could easily be recorded and mixed on a consumer-grade computer with software such as Apple’s Garage Band, then burned to a CD to send to a recording company. The only special investment a band would need was the high-quality microphones to accurately capture the sound of their voices and nonelectronic instruments for digitization, since most electric guitars and synthesizers generally could be jacked directly into the digital mixer board. Whereas aspiring bands in the analog era generally had to rent a professional recording studio to produce suitable demo tapes, the rise of digital recording technology meant that bands could produce a demonstration CD using the equipment and skills of a computer-adept friend.

Further Reading

  • Day, Timothy. A Century of Recorded Music: Listening to Musical History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Sets digital recording in the larger context of sound recording.
  • Espejo, Roman, ed. What Is the Future of the Music Industry? Detroit, Mich.: Greenhaven, 2008. This collection of articles discusses the music industry’s future. Covers illegal file sharing, CDs, and digital rights.
  • Levy, Steven. The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. A study of Apple’s iPod and its role in making MP3s popular.
  • Morton, David L., Jr. Sound Recording: The Life Story of a Technology. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Although this work contains substantial material on the predigital era, it also looks at the development of digital recording.
  • Pohlmann, Ken C. The Compact Disc Handbook. Madison, Wis.: A-R Editions, 1992. A specific study of the compact disc.


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