How digital audio ate itself ... and the music biz
Part Two: The attack of the clones
Special Report In the first part of this series, we looked at how digital audio emerged in the studio, going beyond its Compact Disc domestic debut. As Moore’s law impacted on the cost of digital audio recording, studio techniques were emerging to add colour to this transparent medium – first in hardware, then in software. Digital signal processing went beyond the studio and landed on everybody's desktop. The creative and corrosive consequences of these developments are explored in this final part.
In the 1980s, as digital recording developed, the technology quickly began to lead a double life. In the studio, in its more orthodox guise as a replacement for analogue tape, it could capture whole performances with pristine clarity. Yet being digital, the means existed for this audio data to be recorded to RAM for instant playback and much, much more.
Akai built better samplers but the low-fi Mirage won on price
Admittedly, even a second or two on early samplers was an achievement, but once in the digital domain, this audio could be trimmed, reversed, looped, pitched and mapped across a keyboard. Notes from instruments that proved difficult to synthesise, such as convincing piano sounds, were sampled with gusto. Also, like the analogue Mellotron before it, sampling would be used to put choirs and string sections at your fingertips – traditionally expensive ensembles to hire and record for sessions. Undoubtedly, classical session musicians were the first to feel sampling’s copycat consequences.
Sampling’s capacity to deliver rhythmic, as well as melodic output from just about anything that made a noise provided such a wealth of creative possibilities that the technology became an instrument in its own right. But as those who sat behind pioneering Fairlight and Synclavier samplers knew, such creative freedom came with quite a hefty price tag. Trevor Horn’s first Fairlight set him back £18,000 in 1980, equivalent to at least £60,000 today.
Control: made by affordable 8-bit sampling
By the mid-1980s, the Ensoniq Mirage-DSK sampling keyboard was a pioneer in terms of cost rather than quality. With its price settling at around £1000, the Mirage took sampling technology beyond sophisticated studios and into the hands songwriters and producers: think Janet Jackson’s album Control (1986) with Jam and Lewis running the show.
You had to program the Mirage in HEX from a two-character display – it was slow and repetitive and, as a studio engineer, I even found myself dreaming HEX after a lengthy Mirage session. At its 8-bit/32kHz maximum resolution, the Mirage only had two seconds of sampling time. Certainly enough for vocal snippets, percussion sounds and, if you were deft at looping, you could sustain sampled instruments, as it had eight note polyphony too.
While low-fi sampling could be masked by studio effects and buried in the mix, the consumer – now sold on CD – wasn’t going to be buying into the digital equivalent of a TDK D-90, they most likely already had a Walkman of sorts, perhaps even a Discman, but no domestic digital recorder. While musos could content themselves with RDAT and benefit from the Moore’s law effect on the cost of sampling, it would take until 1992 for digital recording for the masses to be realised in competing formats from Sony and Philips. Yes indeed, there were still a few bends in the road to get to drag and drop digital duplication of today.
The Philips DCC-900 was well-specified but enormous
Philips had devised the Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) – a tape based digital recording format that offered backward compatibility with analogue cassettes. You could only replay the latter, but Dolby B and C was on-board and the analogue tracks would even be relayed to the digital output. Sound.
As for the digital recordings, DCC was capable of 18-bit resolution and supported 32kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates. It also applied its own data reduction algorithm, PASC (Precision Adaptive Sub-band Coding) which works along similar lines to popular lossy data compression techniques used today.
The traditional wisdom here was all to do with masking. In short, if our hearing is unable to perceive certain musical signals, because there are louder parts playing at the same time that dominate, then don’t bother encoding the content that is masked by the more in yer face content.
Next page: Are you perceiving?
No mention of the Loudness Wars?
To rip or not to rip
How the world has changed. I recall seeing Thomas Dolby live in the 80's and his stage was adorned with keyboards and a modified light controller (ex Tangerine Dream) called "Henry" acting as an improvised (pre-Midi) keyboard sequence controller.
Depeche Mode was another bunch that would fill the stage with keyboards too, with the band members banging down on the Korgs and Moogs during their performance
I saw Dolby again in 2008 and he had three keyboards and a PowerMac acting as his sound library and Midi sequencer. What I did love about his show is that he puts the songs together piece by piece and explains what he's doing. Yes, old school with a modern flair.
I also saw Depeche Mode in the 90's in South Africa when I was living and working there. All the music was provided by a DAT player. Some were disappointed whereas I was impressed.
My son who is an aspiring DJ has a music room full of expensive items made by Pioneer, Numark, Korg and other brands. He uses a combo of custom burned CDs as well as a library of MP3s when he does his gigs (friends' parties etc.)
I am impressed by this kit, how he can add reverb, phasers, sample and loop turning the song into his own "interpretation". I occasionally hand him some old school techno like New Order and ask what he can do with that. He listens, plays with it a bit and gets bored as he's rather be emulating David Guetta than a mid 80's club DJ
He saves a lot of his creations onto the home server disk, where it's mirrored and backed up weekly. Backing music up, who would ever of thought of buying two copies of the same album in the 70's and 80's?
I often tell him how we used make compilations from Vinyl using C60/90 cassettes. He thinks it's comical, but I was born of the analogue era and have adapted to the digital era with ease thanks to portable music players, PCs and yes, factory fitted car radios that allow me to dock my music player and control every aspect of it from the steering wheel controls.
I still buy those 12cm silver discs that we call CDs and also download music too, but times are a changing and I wonder how long it will be before the MP3 download will replace the CD just like the Midi sequencer and keyboards are replacing the band members..
A great article again El Reg
I also missed the loudness war
I read through until I got to:
"Furthermore, those honourable intentions of delivering the best sonic reproduction were in tatters too."
Surely I thought there would then be the discussion about the music industry committing long-term suicide, deciding to throw sonic reproduction into the bin and just compress everything into a harsh wall of digital distortion, but no! Not a single word.
For me, no matter how much good the band does with using super-high resolution audio in the studio, and no matter how good the sampling and mixing is, it's all invariably wasted these days when the mastering engineer takes the excellent, clear and dynamic recording that they have produced, before turning it into a muffled and distorted pile of mush.
The rest of the process doesn't matter that much when the final stage has such a negative and destructive impact on the music.
And after they've turned the music into distorted mush of course, we're still expected to shell out £10+ for the result!