getting the music to your ears

There are millions of words on the internet and on paper about digital music. Here are a few more to help set the stage for the future.

My wife and I attended the Consumer Electronics show and sat in on one of the first demos of the Compact Disk by Phillips and Sony. Somewhere I may even have the brochure from that presentation. The technology and engineering behind the CD is a revelation in delivering music to the home. But it was really the gateway to what we have today, direct streaming audio services. The CD player is a streaming system in a box, as is a computer hard drive with digital music files saved there.

We still need a bunch of “gear” to get the sound to our ears. The turntable is the analog predecessor to the CD, player. The CD has data stored on it that is a digital representation of music. To get that to our ears we have to read the data from the disk, understand it, then translate it into an analog form that can be fed to speakers or headphones to vibrate the air so our ears can receive the music!

All of this data transfer and analog conversion kind of take place behind the scenes. As The Wizard of OZ said; “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” For now, we are going to do precisely that. Digital music has to come from someplace and get converted into something we can hear.

I am going to break this down in smaller steps. I think the best place to start is where the music is first recorded. This is overly simplified on purpose.

The sound in the air of the hall or studio where the recording is taking place is picked up by microphones placed there to capture the “essence” of the sound. The audio is then recorded on either an analog device such as a tape recorder or a digital tool that stores the audio on disk drives. The audio engineer then manipulates that data into what she/he and the artist desire. We now have a “Master Recording.” As you can guess, this recording has a lot of human and electronic modification and curation. It is at best a representation of what was heard in the air at the time of the recording. It is very likely that this recording is in some sort of digital format. This format has to be translated again to be delivered to you. It will have to be transcoded into the right form for the CD you buy or into various quality variants for direct download or streaming.

Ultimately this recording is now a digital file stored somewhere. Now, how do we turn that file into sound for our ears? That is the job of what I like to call a Digital Music Source. This computer system is the tool that takes that digital music file from wherever it is stored and “streams” it to your stereo. Just like the needle on the record, the music information is sent to the speakers in real time.