Fortune Telling

I’ve been asked a few times in my career to prognosticate about the future of audio. I recently ran across a bit that I wrote for the long gone High Fidelity magazine in the April, 1981 issue, their 30th anniversary. Along with my piece were ones by some very competent others such as Tom Stockham, David Hafler, Paul Klipsch, Harry Olson, Raymond Cooke, David Blackmer, Brad Miller, and Walter Stanton. Fortunately for me, I am distinguished from these other gentlemen by the fact that I’m still here, while they’re gone, and thus I’m around to see how I’ve done.

There are some very smart prognostications called out in headlines from the others:
• “When the consumer visits a record store, he will walk out with a small card or disc containing microscopic digits.” —Tom Stockham
• “The creation of the proper acoustic ambience promises more realistic reproduction, and digital systems will play a part.” —Harry Olson
• “Large-screen mural television combined with multichannel sound will be the core of typical home systems.” —David Blackmer

Wow, pretty good. But then there were some comments that didn’t quite come true, which I won’t ascribe to individuals in deference to their other industry contributions:
• “Vast quantities of data will be stored on a single disc, hundreds of recordings in a player no larger than a cassette deck.” Yes, but…. Nobody figured out a business model for selling lots of content all at once, which could be done technically, but who’s to pay all the artists? On the other hand, it’s right about size — look at the iPod.
• “Perhaps science will show us how to obtain the sensation of listening to a live orchestra by implanting electrodes in our ears.” Weeeellllll, maybe partially accomplished by cochlear implants, but not nearly at a musical level. Needs another 22 years.
• “I do not feel that digital techniques will add appreciably to the quality of sound.” I suppose this one is still argued strenuously in some quarters, but for most of the people, most of the time…. Certainly there’s no question regarding multi-generation copies, but then did we want ultimate transparency in multi-generation dubbing? Seems to have caused some economic problems, eh?

So let’s see how I did. First there’s the bold headline that the editors chose from my text:
• “The impact of digital technology on home high fidelity listening will be profound.”

OK, not too bad, although I guess it should be called obvious in hindsight, and not very controversial. Here’s the whole enchilada:
• “I expect video technologies to make many incursions into home ‘listening’ situations. Although we, as manufacturers of ‘pure’ audio products, may wish to duck our heads in the sand and ignore the overlap between audio and video, the marketplace knows no such artificial barriers. The pioneering work of people like Henry Kloss, who helped found the audio industry and has now moved into video, will prove to be prophetic: the Advent Video Theater, combining large-screen projection television with high-quality audio, ultimately will be seen as years ahead of its time.

“The impact of digital technology on home high fidelity listening will also be profound: When listeners can hear ‘through’ to the master without the intervening difficulties of records and tapes, they tend to hear the microphone technique, mixing techniques, and the like to a greater degree than ever before. This makes the record company with good technique all the more likable and the company with bad technique all the more despicable. Perhaps the potential quality of the medium will prevent the overzealous hand on the equalizer, but one must wonder if any technical improvement can change such habits. It has been shown that persons doing a mix tend to equalize for the monitor system they are facing: Thus two different rooms will yield two different equalizations on the final recording — the mixer is expending much of his effort correcting for difficulties in the listening environment. Improvements in this field emerge slowly, because one must build new rooms to expand the research horizon, rather than simply add a piece of equipment to the studio.

“The digital presence calls for greater dynamic range in all associated equipment. And the development of more circuits for improved dynamic range — like the feedback volume control used in the Holman Preamplifier — and higher output capability in loudspeakers seems all the more necessary.
“Currently digital technology inhibits adding ever more complex signal processing: a kind of “back-to-basics” movement has been born, because digital technology is not yet as sophisticated as analog. Since this movement is largely unintentional, it remains to be seen whether digital will go the way of analog, once it is “sophisticated” enough, or whether newly emerging techniques based on improved understanding of recording and playback geometry can lead to way better listening.”

With the one excursion into plugging my own gear (and others did it much more shamelessly), it’s not too bad. The ending is a fancy way of saying surround sound, but you had to be there. Quad had just failed a few years earlier, with diehards extending its narrow shelf life in small ways into the ’80’s, but it was basically a dirty word, so “improved understanding of recording and playback geometry” was apparently my attempt to slip under the marketing radar and plug multichannel sound, something which others with more apparent courage did directly (see Blackmer, above).

So what’s to prognosticate now? Well, I’m doing that all the time, too, with a talk called “The History and Future of Surround Sound” that I gave first at Sydney University a little over two years ago, and thereafter in various versions at multiple AES and other events, including for the upcoming Nov. 6 AES Chicago local section meeting. In this talk I discuss the upwards pressure on sample rate and word length as being saturating functions: You get enough and enough is enough, and getting more is simply wasteful. Thus, with the continuous decline in cost of hard drives, other media, MIPS of DSP, etc., the natural manifest destiny of audio is into a world with more channels, since we haven’t nearly begun to saturate that aspect of sensation. Stay tuned.

Surround Professional Magazine