Computing audio's future (Jan. 1994)

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[How have philosophies and technologies about “digital audio” changed since the early 1990s?]

When computers and audio both used vacuum tubes, that was about all they had in common. Now the two worlds are converging. Digital technology, whose first major uses were computers and calculators, is now found in almost every audio system: CD players, DSP units, and even tuners with digital displays. Computers have long been used to run MIDI-controlled musical instruments. And technology that started off in audio is hitting the computer field: CD-ROM discs holding data and programs, and multimedia computers with soundboards that follow the audio CD standard of 16-bit encoding and 44.1-kHz sampling rate. The cross-pollination of these fields will affect all future recording media. That's already happened with recordable CD (CD-R) and MiniDisc as well.

So far, the main buyers of CD-R recorders are sound studios (which use them to make demo discs) and heavy-duty computer users (who use them to make CD-ROMs). High prices (about $4,000 to $8,000) keep the user base limited to those for whom the investment will pay off. Also, CD recorders today are write-once devices-fine for audio and computer pros, who are copying finished work from other sources, but not so good for home recordists, who need a chance to rectify their mistakes. The write-once problem may or may not find a solution, but the prices should keep coming down, eventually reaching affordable levels.

The advent of affordable home CD-R may encourage a reflexive fuss from the record industry, even though the fuss they kicked up over DAT has already gained them SCMS and compulsory royalties on digital recorders and recording media-or perhaps because that fuss gained them so much. I think they'll be less successful if they try blocking CD-R, because the computer industry needs this technology and is likely to fight harder for it than the audio industry can.

The MiniDisc should fit even better into the computer. It won't hold as much as a 4 CD-ROM but will still hold up to 140 megabytes of data, according to the MD-ROM standard that was established in the summer of '93. Home computer users are unlikely to need much more than that for any single application or database, and they will probably be willing to juggle MD-ROM discs as they now juggle floppies (especially as they'll have to do it only about a tenth as often). That juggling could be handled automatically by small inexpensive MD-ROM changers, possibly based on the MiniDisc changer mechanisms already appearing for car stereo.

If more capacity per disc is needed, data-compression schemes can be used to increase each disc's effective capacity by a factor of two to four (though the ATRAC data-reduction system used in audio MDs is probably unsuitable for data use). And there's no reason why MiniDiscs for computer use couldn't use blue lasers or other new technologies to cram more data on the disc. Such technologies would be incompatible with the vast body of CD and CD-ROM equipment already in the field-but that's no problem for MiniDisc, since there's no body of MD-ROM hardware or software in the field yet.

Moreover, MiniDisc drives can probably be made small enough to fit into today's small portable computers, and the discs are exceptionally well protected against accidental damage. Even if DCC should win out over MD as the medium that replaces the cassette, MD will probably be kept alive by data uses. And future media? They may well originate in the computer field, then migrate over to us.

(adapted from Audio, Jan. 1994)

Also see:

The Promise & Problems of Computer Sound Boards (Nov. 1995)

Digital Deliverance (Noise shaping, HDCD, etc.) (Apr. 1996)

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