Not so long ago, downloading music was slow and impractical for anyone but a few advanced users. MP3 hadn’t yet become a buzzword, and the phrase “burn a copy” evoked images of book burning rather than sharing a CD with a friend. The abilities of a PC or Mac to record and edit music were severely limited by the speed and storage space available at the time, and only a few pioneering musicians attempted it. But the technology progressed rapidly, and today, anyone with a personal computer and an Internet connection can enjoy the remarkable benefits of downloadable music and streaming audio and forever leave behind the inconveniences of records, tapes, and CDs.
Here are a few examples of what you can do:
Turn your computer into a digital jukebox that holds your entire music collection.
Carry that music collection around with you in a device the size of a pack of gum.
Sample and download music from the Internet.
Listen to Internet radio stations from all over the world.
Stream music from your collection to any room in your house.
Use your computer as a digital recorder and mixer.
Digitize, clean up, and preserve audio from your old records and tapes.
You can do all this and much more, tackling in minutes tasks that used to take professional engineers hours—and you can do it all without expensive equipment and a technical degree.
Digital audio is simply sound that’s represented by numbers (digits) and stored on a CD, computer hard drive, or other digital media. By contrast, analog audio is sound that’s represented by a continuously varying signal and stored on analog media such as records and tapes.
For many of us, our first exposure to digital audio was the compact disc, which debuted in 1982. The CD represented a revolutionary leap in technology that solved many of the problems common to records and tapes.
The most obvious improvement was the quality of the music, with better dynamic range, improved frequency response, and none of the noise (from turntable rumble to tape hiss) that we’d come to associate with records and tapes. CDs were also far less susceptible to the effects of dirt and minor scratches. And unlike records and tapes, CDs did not lose a little bit of fidelity every time you played them. For anyone who had experienced the auditory pain of listening to scratched records, stretched tapes, and lousy second-generation copies, the CD was a godsend.
The down side of the CD was that the audio was still effectively tied to the physical media. While you could copy songs from a CD to a computer hard drive, the resulting files were so large (typically 30–40 MB per song) that it wasn’t a viable option until the late 1990s, when hard-disk capacity began to shoot up by leaps and bounds. Even then, you could fit only one or two CDs’ worth of songs on a typical hard disk.
The next advance made it practical for anyone to work with digital audio on a computer: the development of the MP3 compression format, which reduced audio files to about one tenth of their original size; the continuing boom in hard-disk capacity and processor speed; and affordable DSL and cable broadband connections.
Together, these factors give you an amazing degree of flexibility, convenience, and control over your music experience. Bits that were once tied to a plastic platter can now flow without restriction over cables and wireless connections to different media, such as a hard disk, a portable player, or even a cell phone. A new digital music industry has emerged, and the underlying technologies have matured greatly since the pioneering days of MP3.com and the original Napster.
Still, one thing never changes. The people who come up with the ideas and create the programs usually don’t have the patience to sit down and explain things in real-world, understandable terms. That’s why we wrote this book—to provide users with a comprehensive, reader-friendly guide to the world of digital audio on computers and the Internet.