back to article How digital audio ate itself ... and the music biz

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 …


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  1. Mondo the Magnificent
    Thumb Up

    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

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Final paragraph...

    Surely a recipe for a fistfight in the Register car park given the usual pieces published on the subject.

  3. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    No mention of the Loudness Wars?

    As title...

  4. Citizen Kaned

    MP3s still?

    in the days of broadband & terratytes of storage etc is a 600meg CD still worth ripping to MP3?

    i only wonder. we currently have a NAS HDD and the PS3 reads it and plays our music. i love the simplicity but after speding big ££ on a decent set of B&W speakers and nice denon amp i can hear the difference between lossy and lossless.

    MKV isnt widely supported still so why not just rip (i.e. duplicate) the audio to WAVs.


      MP3 Still

      Portable storage still isn't very cheap. Most mobile devices don't even have enough capacity to hold a decent sized MP3 collection. Never mind storing everything in pristine formats.

      That's not even getting into the question of whether or not some random device supports the format you want to use.

    2. Benjamin 4
      Paris Hilton

      ID3 Tagging

      I ripped my cd library as wavs using windows media player, and copy music off of vinyl, cassette and RTR onto the pc as wavs. All works brilliantly until another device tries to access it. WAVs are notoriously fickle about ID3 tags, and always will be. It's a nice idea, but a PITA to actually use.

      Paris, because I'm sure she's compatible with multiple devices.

    3. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

      "after speding big ££ on a decent set of B&W speakers and nice denon amp i can hear the difference between lossy and lossless."

      I don't think you have to spend big ££ to get decent HiFi, where you need to invest is in your transducers, since record players have fallen from favour, that more or less leaves only one thing, speakers. Practically everything else is just electronics.

    4. AdamWill

      not really

      depends on your setup, but not for me, no. I rip CDs to FLAC for storage on my NAS, and transcode to lossy formats on-the-fly when transferring to portable players with limited storage.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Pop Will Eat Itself

    Best. Band. Ever.

    I've saw them on the Galaxian Patrol 92 and the Reformation 2001 tours. Brilliant.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      What's the time?

      It's DefConOne.

      Spot the sample.

      Spot the "re-imagined version".

      But don't try to spot the Autotune.

  6. Timo


    I went to a "launch party" for the MiniDisc when it came out in 1992 or so. They had hired Ken Pohlmann, who is a respected audio writer, to explain the lossy compression (minidisc had 5:1 fixed compression.) The audio geeks in the room sputtered to think that bits of music would be tossed out. That all ended when they did a demo playing the CD version, the MiniDisc version, and then by subtracting the MiniDisc from the CD they were able to play only the stuff that was lost. On a challenging piece there was almost nothing there. I was amazed. Ken's message to the crowd then was that it was only the first-gen encoder and that the way that perceptual codecs worked they could improve the encoder and all of the players would be able to handle it.

    One of Ken's big ideas was that if the music could be preserved in compression, then to imagine going the other direction instead of minimizing space and/or runtime, to maximizing the amount of music quality that could be packed into a standard 74-minute CD. That never really took hold, did it. I'm not sure you could get a 5x improvement over CD quality although 24/96 was one of the last attempts at it.

    It is also a damn shame that Sony's content side screwed over their devices side and prevented the MiniDisc from being one of the better recordable and transportable data formats. The best at the time were Zip Discs which were completely awful. The MiniDisc might have owned the market, and the audio version may have benefitted.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Minidisc was Wonderful

      No trace of compression fatigue, and high quality recordings with a pocket-size machine and one of those 100-quid Sony stereo mics. As a music student, recording practice sessions and stuff to learn it was way, way WAY ahead of scratchy, hissy cassette and came at a just-about-affordable price.

      But Sony owned it, and wouldn't go further than licencing it to one or two other hardware companies, so, both as a hardware format, and as a compression algorithm, it went nowhere. Sad: I'm convinced it was superior to MP3.

  7. Nebulo


    As Mondo says above, how the world has changed, indeed. For me, the worst aspect of it is that now, all you have to do is fire up your favourite sharing software, and there's everything you ever heard of by everybody you ever heard of (and stuff you never wanted to hear by everyone else, come to that). I do miss the "thrill of the chase", hunting down obscure stuff by people your mates never heard of. That was fun!

    On the plus side, of course, even pretty scungy MP3s generally sound streets ahead of those grotty old cassettes we used to live with, so I'm not really complaining ... and I hate to think how much shelf space, not to mention cash, I'd need for vinyl equivalents of my digital music. On balance, a definite smiley, and thanks for a couple of articles which wrap up the story of the development of one of my earliest obsessions very nicely. PDFs of both to download, please!

    1. Citizen Kaned


      i remember back in 1999 when i first got broadband and hammered Napster.

      find someone with a T1 line and just leech everything if you found you had similar tastes.

      since then i ended up buying many of the albums i liked and it broadened my tastes a fair bit.

      the music biz forget that Napster also helped with some of their sales as it was a good way to find new bands and artists. remember when record stores had booths playing various CDs so you could listen to new stuff??

      i also used to DJ and spend many an hour in little record shops listening to vinyl.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Multitrack Minidisc

    Wasn't there a multitrack minidisc available? From memory it allowed something like 8 or 10 tracks per disc with a maximum duration of around 20 minutes. The idea was bands could have access to multitrack without needing to go to the studio. Neat idea but got sidelined by the advances in PC and Mac home recording hardware.

    1. rwbthatisme
      Thumb Up

      Yup Sony 4trk & Yamaha 8trk

      I had a Sony MDM-X4 which was a great bit of kit and used it on loads of demo-projects in the 90's until the minidisk DATA disk corrupted and you got a bit screwed, but it was very simple and easy to use and synced with all your midi setup. But multitrack recording rapidly went to HD and what was a great format died out.

  9. Antidisestablishmentarianist

    Tubes are good

    I'm now a tube convert. Sticking some on the end of a digital chain covers up all sorts of nasties (lossy encoding, bad bit rates etc). Yes yes, tubes introduce their own distortions but they are NICE distortions.

    1. MonkeyBot

      Tubes don't distort - they overdrive.

      That's why they sound better.

    2. Armando 123

      My feeling is "if it was good enough for T-Bone Walker, it should be good enough for me".

      Of course, I can't play like T-Bone Walker, but hell, who can?

      [Does El Reg have a Fogy icon somewhere?]

  10. junkmale

    and this is the problem for us creative types....

    ", not to mention cash, I'd need for vinyl equivalents of my digital music. "

    sure, just grab it, like you used to be happy to shoplift the records...

  11. Steve Evans


    An interesting read. Thanks for that.

    Just curious you chose to pick on Kate Bush's 80's samplefest as an example, she wasn't the first name to come to my mind from that era... Try the Art of Noise, 1984, Close to the edit.

    Although my favourite wasn't until 1986 - Paranoimia... I can feel a youtube memory trip coming on...

    Oh oh okay doors, Swiiiiing....

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I'm Sorry

    Did your copy of "junkmales Opus #9" go missing? No? You still have it you say? So it wasn't stolen then?

  13. Dave K

    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!

  14. Harmless


    I thought that History had established the the earlier win for DCC was down to the better DACs used in the DCC machine of the time? The earlier MD gear had not-so-great DAC quality. Run them both through the same good outboard DAC and there's not much between them.

    Random access and lack of tape wear made MD a much better bet.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I've still got a phillips DCC deck

    An impressive bit of kit for its time but it had a some serious issues. The first one is the bugs in the firmware which can cause lockups that only an off-on cycle can cure (but i'll let if off as it was 1st generation kit) and the second and most annoying one is the fact that if you play old style ferric analogue cassettes you were forever having to clean the damn tape heads otherwise it would just simply refuse to play DCC tapes after a short while.

    Other than that it has the same issues as all tape formats - you need to wait while it fast forwards or rewinds to find the track (which it often missed and carried on regardless). Annoying in the days of CD , completely unacceptable now.

  16. jcipale

    I have suffered through...

    The onslaught that is apple's 'contribution' to the music world. I think I will pass. MP3 is fine if I want to work out or plug in my own tunes while driving through the barren outback of the US Desert Southwest, but if I am at home, I will play my vinyl till the day I pass on from this world. I do have CDs, but with the exception of the CD player, everything is analog in terms of the amp and signal.

    Long live the Sine Wave!

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Good articles, but...

    I did have a sense of all the best stuff being in part 1, and part two being subtitled 'skip to the end of the story, with a couple of 'boxes' thrown in.

    Those 'boxes' did not work: it was like reading a sandwich

    Still,highly rated, with minor quibbles and a request for more detail next time. Hope there will be a next time, on this subject: it is one of my favourites!

    1. Cpt Blue Bear

      Agreed. A really good article, but reading the first I got the feeling that there was a logical three parter here. The first was really good, the second seemed like a rush to get to the end. Maybe that is because the first covered what is history for me, the second what I lived through.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Love the quote

    "[...] unadulterated digital capture has a talent for the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary. Hence the creative need to fuck it up somehow, just to make it different."

    I recall talking to a professional PA guy about those newfangled digital mixing consoles. Yes, it was all clean and colourless, missing that je ne sais quoi like you'd get from valve or even 'tor based analogue gear. But then, he said somewhat sourly, there'll be a button for that, to put it back in.

    I recall a certain university announcing they managed to put something that acted quite a bit like a valve, including sounding similar, on a chip, making it an integrated circuit. Wonder if anything came of that or whether most if not all digital kit will fake it all in software.

    And yes, perhaps loudness wars would've been interesting to mention, though since you can make software sound like just about anything, now that we're fully digital there's no longer kit to worry about. And these two (somehow thought it'd be three too, but anyway) articles were about the hardware.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      There's heaps of kit to worry about --- and a round up of that would have been interesting, although I'll admit that there are sites, magazines, etc that specialise in just that.

      The sound card is a humble thing. Even when it is of high quality /and/ sports an amazing array of ins and outs, digital and analogue, balanced, unbalanced, pro, domestic, coax, toslink, not to mention the interfaces that add mic and instrument inputs, and comes at quite a considerable price if it is from one of the pro-oriented companies like RME. It lacks the hype of hifi. It is sold in a way to appeal to someone who may want the best quality they can get (their work may depend on it) but is not interested in Audiophoolery marketing

      There is a heap to discuss here, from internal boards to the various external interfaces; from the USB1.0 debacle to the USB2.0 success, and the evergreen (in this area at least) Firewire.

      Leaving that aside, we could come back to audiophoolery --- for lo, the hifi market noticed the sound card, and realised it could sell /half/ (or less) of its functionality at much greater prices. This was born the DAC.

      Yes, I know, this had nothing to do with the birth of the DAC: there has been a DAC in every CD player, not to mention every motherboard with a soundcard builtin, let alone dedicated board since these things began. But, those marketing men decided, however many dacs we may already have, we Must Buy A stand-alone DAC! Of course, there are honest and decent DACs, which have a place at the centre of a system with multiple digital inputs, but there is also a hell of a lot of audiophoolery and hype-fi nonsense.

      With the rise of the PC as a music source acceptable to the hifi world has come all sorts of nonsense and dogma, some of which is just nonsense, and some of which may be based on some theoretical factor which could never result in something that could actually be heard. Most of us who work with computers are /fairly/ rational about what goes on inside our boxes: not so the new generation of audiophile audio or home-theatre PC builders. They want to muck up our world with their nonsense. Thus, for instance, we have the high-priced /audio/ USB cable. There has even been a suggestion that the SATA cable can influence the sound.

      (I have to credit Ethan Winer for the word 'audiophoolery.' He may not have coined it, but that is where I got it from:

  19. 27escape

    Streaming takes the power away from us again

    As Wifi and 3G get cheaper and faster, there is less need to have copies on our own systems, this will give power back to the studios as we will just be streaming content.

    Harder to sample and mix music coming off a spotify stream

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