A (Brief) History of Digital Audio Recording: 50 years in 5 minutes!
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Virtually all technology has improved in the past 30 years - except digital audio! We're still using the same 16-bit / 44.1kHz PCM standard from 1982. You'll learn why in my (brief) history of digital recording, which features some very surprising facts.
For example, by the time CDs were invented, digital multitrack recording had existed for 10 years. Digital stereo was available in 1969, and we had 32 tracks of it by 1978. And, in the 80s, you could convert any VCR into a CD-quality digital tape recorder!
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- The digital audio story began way back in 1938, when British scientist Alec Reeves patented PCM, or pulse-code modulation, the technology still used today to quantize sound - eg. represent continuous analogue signals as a series of discrete values, which can then be stored in a digital form.
- PCM first saw use in the SIGSALY system during World War II, when it was used to encrypt Allied telephone conversations. This was a complicated piece of technology - the encryption key was stored on 16-inch transcription discs, and quantization of the signal was done with hundreds of vacuum tubes/valves - because, remember, the transistor wasn't invented until 1947.
- After the war, PCM continued to be adopted for more and more uses, including - by the mid-1960s - transporting civillian telephony, using a standard known as DS0 (data rate of 64kbit/s). But it wasn't yet considered high enough fidelity for music.
- The real breakthrough came in 1969, when Japanese public broadcaster NHK developed a stereo PCM recorder running at 13-bit, 32kHz, which results in a dynamic range of approximately 78dB and a frequency range that extends up to 16kHz - perfectly adequate for music.
- This development caught the attention of hi-fi manufacturer Denon, who were looking for ways to overcome the limitations of analogue tape for professional recording. They cut the first commercial digitally-recorded LP - "Something" by Steve Marcus.
- The next significant step after stereo had been perfected was digital multitrack. Probably the earliest machine that was widely used was the 3M Digital Recording System, introduced in mid-1978; it featured a stunning 32 tracks of 16-bit / 50kHz audio - yes, that's slightly better than CD quality - all stored on reels of 1 inch videotape running at 45ips.
- Around this time, an interesting hybrid system of recording was in use, since Digital Signal Processing (DSP) was low-quality and expensive.To achieve the sound that the producer and artist intended, the individual instrument tracks were recorded on 32-track digital, then converted to analogue and put through a conventional mixing desk.
- The first digital audio workstation (DAW) was invented by Soundstream in 1976, using a minicomputer (VAX PDP-11/45) connected to a washing-machine sized hard disk for storage. Their "Digital Editing System" had a text-based console for entering commands and an oscilloscope, for a waveform display. Its first role - believe it or not - was to digitally restore Enrico Caruso cylinder recordings. And it cost $160, 000.
- Throughout the 1980s, digital playback became far more affordable and within reach of consumers, especially when the Compact Disc (CD) was commercially released in 1982. But digital recording still remained prohibitively expensive. Interestingly, there were some early attempts to change this by marketing consumer versions of "PCM adaptors", which attached to a standard VHS or Betamax recorder and modulated CD-quality audio (eg. 16-bit / 44.1kHz) into the video signal.
- Of course, we all know that the situation finally changed in the mid-1990s, with a combination of more powerful desktop PCs
and the first generation of affordable CD burners. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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