A brief history of audio

In the beginning, there was Bill Putnam…

…Him, and a few noble fools, who believed in that intangible thing called Sound Quality. And to that day & age – the 1940’s and the 1950’s – most people thought Sound Quality – much like the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Shankara Stones – to be something that didn’t exist. Well, it was the same time when some people believed that many of the best Hollywood writers and directors were Soviet spies, so these were strange times indeed.

Technical personnel called Sound Engineers would continually strive to push the technology boundaries further, and improve on that intangible thing that, much like high art, only a select few could feel and appreciate. They must have found something important, though, because even today we are marveling to the quality found in recordings like that of RCA’s Living Stereo series, or of Bill Putnam’s with Nat Cole (the first King in the business).

It was the noblest of times. All engineers were audiophiles, and no experiment was too weird. After all, it was Sound that made Hollywood an empire, and the next big thing in audio tech was constantly on the back of investor’s minds as a great opportunity to, possibly, stellar profits. McIntosh began its business in those days, and, at a time when people would listen to music through cardboard boxes which happened to have a speaker attached to them, its mention of things like amplifiers, dedicated turntables, and high-quality loudspeakers was truly revolutionary.

Then came the 1960’s, and the age of independent studios. Like one Stevie Wonder put it, some artists wanted to get away from the record companies’ offices and control, so they would choose to work and create in a recording environment which was not owned by the label they had a contract with. The studio market translated that aspiration quite literally. You see, back then, for an indie recording establishment to be successful, it had to be located as far from the record company’s offices as possible. But the technology of the day would not allow for significant achievements, and creative freedom often meant a serious compromise in the quality of an artist’s or band’s recordings. Just compare the sound of The Fab Four, who were working in the secure environment of the EMI-owned Abbey Road Studios, to that of any other contemporary band like, for instance, Led Zeppelin who chose the narrow path of creative freedom and made their records away from the recording company’s headquarters.

However, the demand for better sound was there, and soon the hardware companies would strive to meet it. As science was solving one analogue sound’s problem after the other, it became gradually possible to built a recording studio without compromise in quality, and without a record company’s financial backing. Listening equipment companies followed suit. In the middle of the 1970’s manufacturers like Mark Levinson, Wilson Audio, and Electrocompanient made their aspiring debuts with the ambition to change, once and for all, the way the audience would appreciate Sound.

It was the best of times. Artists would demand that the quality of their recordings was as good as it could get, and at the same time, listeners would invest serious money in enjoying music in the highest quality possible. Hi-Fi was born then, and everyone who loved music, either listening to it or wanting to create it, was eager to jump on board.

Then came the glorious 1980’s. Golden-eared engineers, in gold-plated equipment, would record golden hits, only to be enjoyed in systems paid with gold. Who can forget unbelievably sounding milestones like Dire Straits’ Love over Gold or Toto’s IV? Even releases targeting the top of the charts would boast superb sound quality like Michael Jackson’s top-selling Thriller, engineered by none other than the great Bruce Swedien who would later reveal his close – at the time – relationship with hi-end companies like Monster Cable, Kimber Cable, and Electrocompanient.

But then came the 1990’s, and the first major war between sound quality and ease of use began. Until then, ease of use, both from the engineer’s perspective as well as that of the listener’s, would never put sound quality in the line of fire. But with the arrival of Digital Audio and the Compact Disc, the professionals and the public had to face a serious dilemma: Ease of Use or Sound Quality? Well, Ease of Use, and subsequently Digital Audio and the Compact Disc, won, mainly because, for most consumers, the CD sounded better than their dreadful, cheap turntables, and their worn-out, dusty, old, vinyl records. To put it bluntly, digital offered a better sound to the masses. Larry Fishburne was right: Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

All these until 1995, when the internet came, and people stopped buying music because they could easily get it for free using peer-to-peer downloads of poorly sounding, even for the masses’ quality standards, .mp3 files. The huge revenue stream that was giving life to the music and sound industries stopped. People stopped buying Hi-Fi and started paying for Wi-Fi.

And it was a shame because in the 2000’s all problems plaguing analogue sound, and most problems with digital sound, were solved. Both the professionals and the public could choose the best possible solution for their music, regardless of the nature and form of the recorded medium. A recording studio would record to a digital audio workstation, mix in an analogue board, with digital automation, using digital effects, and analogue processors. Suddenly, it was natural to record music digitally, using vintage tube mics from the 1950’s, feeding computer sound cards clocked on 24bit/192kHz, and then pass everything through a class A solid state mixing console. Daft Punk’s recent masterpiece titled “Random Access Memories” is the perfect example of this paradigm, and it did indeed give life back to music, even if it was only for a brief period.

Now it’s the 2010’s, and looking beyond the Katy Perrys and the Chris Browns of this world there are little gems like Pharell’s and Lana Del Rey’s latest albums which, quite surprisingly, carry a lot of high fidelity on their backs. It seems that that era when the professionals had to compromise the quality of their work to get convenience and meet budgets, is gone for good. Now, record companies have realized that to succeed in the incredibly hard task of winning the audience back, they have to present works with high production values, all the way to the mastering process. That is why large digital music retailers like iTunes bother to host and promote audio files made with lossless compression algorithms.

But now the ball, as they say, is in the audience’s court. Will we, the audience, invest in serious audio equipment for our homes, and thus seriously upgrade our enjoyment of one of the very few pleasures in life that the more one tastes, the better it gets? Should we take our eyes off of screens and once more connect with that realm of the senses that our sight doesn’t need to go?

I think we should… I’d love to know what you think.

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