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Editor's Note: The Quiet Digital Audio Revolution

Aug 22, 2009, 00:04 (13 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

The changes in audio recording in my lifetime have been phenomenal, bringing high-end recording and distribution to the masses.

I've seen vinyl LPs and singles, 8-tracks, two-track cassettes, and digital audio tape. (Remember the silly disclaimer on 8-track cartridges? "The silent portion at the end of the tape ensures the integrity of the performance". Yeah, right, it couldn't be leftover tape.) I've seen fire and I've seen rain...oops, sorry, random brain spew there.

I've listened to AM radio, FM stereo radio, Internet "radio." I lived through the (mercifully) short-lived quadrophonic sound fad. I have snatched my precious vinyl away from cretins who would put it on a changer. I still have my original Discwasher brushes, which is a good thing because the contemporary incarnations are junk. They do not have a real nap, and they are linty.

I have had energetic arguments over perfect listening chair placement, and perfect speaker placement. Tubes vs. solid state, "cold" vs. "warm", forty-slider equalizer vs. bass-midrange-treble. Though those are trivial in comparison to the modern trend of no tone controls, but only nasty push-button presets for "Rock", "Jazz", "Classical", "Pop", and so on. Ick.

Now in this shiny new digital era the audiophile who just wants good-quality recordings to listen to paradoxically has both the best and worst of times to contend with. It's either horrid lossy MP3s on lo-fi mobile devices or insanely agressive powered subwoofers that might be good for busting up kidney stones, but nothing else. Hi-deaf TV with gadzillions of speakers hanging all over the place is the hot trend. Replicating the movie theater experience, too loud in all the wrong places, subwoofers kicking in a fraction of a second late, and no nuances whatsover. Yay.

But contrarily, digital audio is fabulous, and don't let grumpy old analog-lovers persuade you otherwise. Every copy is perfect, and no matter how many times you play a digital file it doesn't get worn or damaged. The dynamic range and the signal-to-noise ratio are far beyond what analog could ever deliver. Remember the olden days of cutting and splicing tapes? Adjusting the spacing on recording heads? Endlessly rewinding and fast-forwarding? Timing errors caused by stretched tapes? Scratches on your precious vinyl? Pointy-clicky on a computer is ever so much better.

Here are some of the amazing digital audio feats you can do with an ordinary Linux PC and a little bit of audio gear:

  • Make top-quality live recordings
  • Create top-quality studio masters
  • Export a single master track to any number of playable formats: lo-fi, hi-fi, network streaming, CD, DVD, media server
  • Convert legacy media to digital
  • Easily create custom mix CDs
  • Join the podcast legions
  • Do your own Internet broadcasting
  • Tailor your music for different listening environments. One size does not fit all.
  • Store hundreds of hours of audio on a tiny Flash storage device
  • Make your own multiple-track surround sound recordings.
While commercially-recorded audio from the traditional big-name music companies is on a downhill slide in both technical and artistic quality, it's never been better for the do-it-yourselfer, the serious hobbyist, and independent artist. All this hooey about Linux needing to be more "business friendly"-- why should we even care? Look at what business has done for us: the RIAA, BSA, DMCA, insane copyright extensions, "intellectual property", patents, the near-death of Fair Use, corporate spyware, unchecked privacy invasions, a complete abdication of responsibility, a barren computing marketplace...who needs friends like that?

OK that's a bit of a tangent, sorry, just my usual blend of mixed feelings coming out: immense sadness at the overall sorry state of affairs, and immense gratitude that we have such a strong lifeline in Linux and FOSS.