Into another dimension

Does it ever occur to you that the whole idea of digital audio is rather amazing? Can you recall that in the early 80s you might actually have been extremely curious to hear how music made from numbers – something apparently completely unrelated to vibrations in the air – might sound? Maybe you were disappointed to find that it just sounded like music, and from then on you found it rather mundane and became quite dismissive of it.

In fact, do you ever stop and think how amazing it is that we have the ability to conjure up music, photographs and moving images at all? I think it is more impressive than most people realise, and a good example of how ‘magic’ quickly turns into the mundane, once we ordinary people get hold of it!

If you could put yourself back a thousand years, or even back to your own childhood, then simply suggesting how natural sound and images occur would be beyond you, never mind knowing how to capture and transmit them. While we may think that modern audiovisual technology is clever, the initial, gigantic leap occurred centuries ago when it was discovered that images are simply rays of light, and that sound is merely fluctuations of air pressure. Rays of light can be focused, collected or projected with lenses, and sound waves can be detected or emitted by a vibrating diaphragm.

A subsequent step was to work out ways to record and reproduce these physical phenomena, and maybe by that stage it was relatively obvious how to do it. Images could be captured automatically using a photo-chemical reaction, mimicking the action of an artist who uses a camera obscura to trace smudges onto a surface in response to the projected image. Sound could be captured by mechanically tracing the motion of a diaphragm into a wobbly groove that could later be used to re-wobble the diaphragm. (To this day people are occasionally struck by the thought of how interesting it is that a simple paper cone can duplicate any human voice or any musical instrument or an entire orchestra. Wouldn’t you have expected to need to build an artificial larynx etc.?)

The further step, of introducing electricity into the equation, would certainly have provoked my curiosity at the time: how would ‘electricity’ sound? By converting sound into electrical signals, it is transformed from one physical domain into another. The sound can be sent instantaneously from one side of the world to the other without any moving parts involved. Astounding! In fact, a human voice is in some small way part of a person, so in effect we are suddenly in a world where something of the essence of a living person can be stored and re-animated after his death, or can be sent into space, or duplicated a million times. Was there a time when people contemplated how weird this was, or within two seconds of hearing a radio or having their first phone call did the whole thing seem terribly dull?

Going digital was another ‘obvious’ step. It is both an unbelievably simple process akin to join-the-dots, and yet a mind-blowing transformation. While electricity is a different physical domain from the mechanical vibrations of sound, digitisation takes sound out of the physical completely and turns it into an abstract quantity! Numbers are perfect. Numbers can be stored perfectly. Numbers can be manipulated perfectly using mathematics. Once turned into numbers, the sound can be transmitted and duplicated without error, or stored without degradation until the end of time. It can be manipulated in an infinite number of ways. Things can be done with it that compensate for errors in the transducers that are used when we finally wish to bring it back into the physical world.

All of this can be done to any arbitrary level of precision. All of this can be done with minuscule chips that cost 50p and never wear out. Digital audio storage and transmission is cheaper to implement than analogue. It can be built into the trashiest consumer electronics. No special care or ceremony is needed to use it. It is so brilliant and so simple that the true magic is concealed.

And once it was launched, it took about two seconds for people to find the whole idea very dull!

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