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The bumpy road traveled by digital audio

In last week’s post about iHeartRadio I focused much of my criticism on the sound quality of the service, or lack thereof. Since the debut of the compact disc in the 1980s digital has become nearly synonymous with good sound in the world of audio, but this is not always necessarily the case. When listeners first replaced their mediocre turntables and scratchy LPs with CDs that exhibited no surface noise it seemed like digital was the way to go. But as we’ve seen in the MP3 era, not all digital audio is the same, and some of it can be even more awful and grating than a cassette that’s been baking for weeks in the hot summer sun on the dashboard of a 1985 Camaro.

The UK tech site the Register last week published an excellent two-article overview of digital audio from its birth to the post-Napster era, entitled “How digital audio ate itself and the music industry.” In part one writer Bob Dorman covers the first practical digital recorders used in studios. Part two picks up with the first home digital home recorders, such as DAT and minidisc, and digital sampling, taking the story through the modern post-Napster age. It’s a concise summary of the forces that have shaped our modern digital audio and music environment that, somewhat ironically, often finds artists searching to replicate the analog sounds and timbre of the past.

While not strictly related to radio, the question of digital vs. analog looms over broadcast radio as the commercial industry continues to try to push digital HD Radio, as it faces competition from all digital internet and satellite radio. But, as I must point out, with all of these technologies digital does not ever equal better sound quality. The advantage of digital is more often enjoyed by efficiencies the broadcaster can exploit rather than improved fidelity and experience for the listener.

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