In the world of musical recording, the enemies are wow and flutter, limited dynamic range and print-through, and audio engineers have now thrown a new electronic weapon into the battle. With highly sophisticated equipment, they have begun converting sound into numbers to create LPs that are amazingly free of distortion. The technique is called “digital recording,” and the music industry is buzzing with speculation that this may be the wave of the future in reproduction of sound.
Artists who have tried digital recording have mixed reactions. Rock star Stephen Stills found a certain “transparency” in the sound, but adds, “The system is there. It just needs tinkering with.” Arthur Fiedler of the Boston Pops has no reservations. “It’s such good, clear, clean sound. I love it.”
The pioneer in America in the new field is an MIT-trained electrical engineer and computer scientist named Thomas G. Stockham Jr. “Digital recording isn’t a fad,” he insists. “It’s a whole new concept, like a new alphabet. It has stunning implications. Digitals will cause a music revolution.”
The 45-year-old Stockham is making news with his Soundstream, Inc. of Salt Lake City. But he was no stranger to headlines before this: In 1974, during the Watergate investigation, he was one of six experts who testified on the 18½-minute gap in the Nixon tapes. He and the others agreed that the segment of conversation between the ex-President and aide H. R. Haldeman had been erased from five to nine times, although they stopped short of saying that the so-called accidental erasure was apparently deliberate.
In 1975 Stockham left his professorship at the University of Utah to set up Soundstream, which built the first successful digital recorder in the U.S. the next year. Since then other companies, like 3M and Sony, have developed rival digital systems independently.
Today Soundstream is producing digitally recorded discs for 11 record companies, and the LPs are being sold at selected stores. Though the discs look the same as conventional ones, they can be identified by the word “digital” stamped on the jacket and by their premium prices, ranging from $11 to $18.
After Thomas Edison invented the first machine to reproduce sound, the essential principles of the phonograph remained unchanged for 102 years. Conventional albums, called “analog recordings,” employ minute variations in the grooves (or patterns of magnetized particles in the case of tape) to correspond to the sound waves.
The common practice in the industry is to record first on tape, where flaws in performance can be edited out before the music is transferred to discs. But all recording equipment is inherently imperfect, and each stage inevitably means variations in speed, tape noise and range.
With the “digitals,” numerical values are assigned to sound waves. Subtle shadings in pitch and tone are more accurately preserved due to the electronic equipment’s high-speed ability to digest great masses of numbers—as many as 50,000 per second in the Soundstream system. Since the relationship between numbers and sound remains constant, the sound can be reproduced with stunning precision. As Bob Ingebretsen, a Soundstream vice-president, puts it: “Analog recording is like looking out a dirty window. Once the window is washed, you see a different picture although the view itself has not changed. That’s what digital has done for the industry.”
Without doubt, digital recording enhances the reproduction of almost any orchestral performance and that of soloists with multidimensional voices. Another plus is that the new discs can be played on ordinary stereos, and the improvement is obvious even with a basic $400 system. While digitals will not necessarily make conventional records obsolete, the question is whether fussy listeners will want to play their old library after hearing digitals. Or whether performers will be content any longer with analog recordings of their work. One record company official admitted: “Someone like Streisand will badger the hell out of her studio to get her a digital system once she hears what the wonder machine can do.”