Rationale and methodology
Developments in digital technologies during the last 35 years have had arguably the most profound effect on the sound recording and music industries since the invention of the phonograph record. Digital audio recording is now ubiquitous, inexpensive, and available to anyone with access to a computer and a basic audio interface. However, this was not always the case. During the 1970s, designers of emerging digital recording technologies collaborated with sound engineers, producers and artists, helping to establish standards for the capture, editing, playback and storage of digital audio; paradigms that would come to govern much of modern recording.1 This article takes the form of a case study, examining the introduction and development of commercial digital recording technologies in the United States between 1975-1983, through the experiences of an early innovator in the field.
Soundstream, incorporated in 1975 in Salt Lake City, Utah, was the first commercial digital audio recording company in the United States.2 Despite increasing competition from larger companies, and strong resistance from some areas of the ‘audiophile’ community, Soundstream played an important role in the developing standards of digital recording, editing and mastering during this period and their influence can still be observed today. Although one cannot assume that all companies operate in the same way as Soundstream, its experiences in the sound recording and music industries reveal a great deal about the introduction of new technologies generally. For users of recording technologies, this was a period of profound technological change in which emerging digital tools afforded opportunies for new ways of working. While pointing out why the work of Soundstream is significant in the history of sound recording, this article raises a number of questions about the take up of new technologies. For instance, are the specifications of new technologies determined entirely by designers and manufacturers? Do new technologies usually meets the needs of their intended users? Can user feedback make technologies more useful and more commercially viable? Do these kinds of innovations tend to immediately supersede extant technologies? Are the highest standards available usually the ones that become widely adopted by users? Are these kinds of technical and cultural innovations actually disruptive, or part of a broader continuity? And is resistance towards new technologies usually motivated by the preservation of technical standards?
Following the path laid by comprehensive studies of the social conditions of technological innovation, such as Théberge (1997), this research attempts to take a holistic approach to its subject, examining design and development, the agency of users and the context within which this activity takes place. This article takes the position that the design of new technologies cannot fully determine how they become embedded in the working practices of users; it argues that these relationships are negotiated over time in response to the needs of users and in accordance with the political economic and cultural forces that help to shape the opportunities available to producers of such technologies. This case study aims to illustrate some of the complexities in these relationships, providing examples of how these important drivers articulate the spaces within which designers and users participate in an ongoing negotiation between what is possible (and desirable) economically, creatively and culturally.3
This research is best contextualised by using concepts from the interdisciplinary field of sound studies (Pinch and Bijsterveld: 2004, 635). Sound studies aims to conflate the wealth of ‘conceptually fragmented’ literature on the ‘history and philosophy of sound’ (Sterne: 2003, 4), in order to make more meaningful connections between how technology is produced and ultimately used. As Durant (1990, 180) has suggested, ‘music is never simply led by technological invention, as is suggested in crude forms of technological determinism’. Indeed, users often find unconventional ways to achieve their goals, blurring the boundaries between design and use. Pinch and Trocco (2002) argue this point convincingly in their study of the Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesiser, as does Durant (1990, 180), who points out that technological developments can ‘lead to networks of reactions, responses and effects that cannot be predicted merely from the resources or design of the technology itself’.4
Reflections on the development and use of recording technologies have examined issues such as the agency of the record producer (Jarrett: 2004; Moorefield: 2010), the role of the recording engineer (Kealy: 1979; Horning: 2004) and new paradigms instituted by digital technologies (Stockham: 1971b, 1982, 1987; Durant: 1990; Levitin: 1994a, 1994b and Fine: 2008). Chanan (1995), Morton (2000), Warner (2003) and Katz (2004) are among those who have explored the relationship between recording technologies and the users who interact with them, while scholars such as Oudshoorn and Pinch (2003) have argued in favour of focusing on the user’s experience of technology rather than the inventor or the artefact itself. There have also been cultural studies of technological artefacts, how they are represented, produced and consumed, such as The Study of the Sony Walkman (Du Gay, Hall et al: 2003). However, as Pinch and Bijsterveld (2004, 636) have noted, ‘whole areas of music technology and vast areas of listener experience remain completely uncharted.’ Horning’s (2004) study, for example, explores the evolution of music recording from the acoustical era until ‘roughly the present’ (2004, 704). However, her analysis ends prior to the introduction of commercial digital recording technologies in the United States. This period during the 1970s marked the beginning of the modern era of sound recording. Examining the transformative nature of this period through the lens of the chosen case study can tell us a lot about the development and take up of new technologies within the sound recording and music industries, not only during that time, but in the present day.
During the process of conducting this research, interviews were recorded (or in a few cases, captured through written exchanges) with an array of individuals. These were primarily computer scientists (such as Jules Bloomenthal and Bruce Rothaar), recording engineers and editors (such as Sydney Davis, Rich Feldman, Tom MacCluskey, James Wolvington and Robert Woods) and producers who either worked for, recorded with, or were affiliated in some way with Soundstream (Ken Caillat, Tom Jung, Elaine Martone). Much of the literature described herein has been vital in informing this research. In particular, the work of Dr. Thomas Stockham has provided not only specific scientific details of digital recording theory, but also detailed accounts of the development, introduction and use of the Soundstream recording machine.
This article proceeds with a brief history of Soundstream and an introduction to its key personnel. In setting out the case study, the findings have been organised into three sections. The first section examines the design and development of Soundstream’s digital tape recorder and considers the conditions under which the product was produced and tested. It demonstrates the development of a product from prototype stage through to testing in real world environments, the gathering of user feedback from within the sound recording and music industries, and the ways in which these responses can transform the specifications of the final product. Section two looks at the opportunities available to Soundstream to sell its product and examines the challenges faced by the company in achieving widespread adoption of the recorder. This is important because responses to new technologies are often not as predicted by designers and manufacturers. Understanding and acting upon this kind of feedback can affect both the reputation of a new technology and the commercial opportunities available to its creators. Finally, section three presents an analysis of the competition faced by Soundstream and examines the context for the company’s demise. As with most fields marrying commerce with creativity, the sound recording and music industries are a complex synergy of political and cultural forces that can have ramifications for new technologies, regardless of their features, functions, or specifications. These facets of the process are illustrated with reference to the experiences of Soundstream, the exemplar in this case. The article ends with some brief conclusions relating the findings to current practice.
Soundstream and the introduction of digital audio
Soundstream Inc. was a digital audio recording company founded by Dr. Thomas G. Stockham Jr. at the University of Utah during May 1975. Soundstream was the first commercial digital audio recording company in the United States providing on-location recording services and computer based digital audio editing.5 Stockham established Soundstream out of a desire to tackle what he perceived to be problems with analogue audio, particularly distortions such as background noise and the effects of recording horns in vintage records (Stockham: 1971a; 1982). Stockham earned his degree at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in 1959, becoming an Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Institute and a researcher at the famed Lincoln Laboratory. In 1963, Stockham helped fellow MIT scientist Amar Bose design the corner 2201 loudspeaker.6 He also advanced a now widely accepted computer model for human vision and developed ‘blind deconvolution’, a process which permitted the restoration of blurred photographs and the restoration of old acoustic recordings.7 This was evidenced most notably by RCA’s Enrico Caruso series.8 He left in 1968 for the computer science department at the University of Utah. Stockham received an Emmy in 1988, the first technical Grammy award in 1994 and a scientific Academy Award (Oscar) in 1999 for his contribution to the development of digital audio. He has been described as ‘the father of digital sound’ (Scull: 1998). Stockham was also one of the six-person panel to examine the famous 18-and-a-half minute gap in the ‘Watergate’ tapes created in the office of then President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon.9
Digital Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM) is the digital representation of a sampled analogue signal. It was invented at Bell Labs during the 1930s for sound transmission and recording in the telephony industry (McGinn: 1983; Fine: 2008, 2). In 1962, while still at MIT, Stockham had begun making digital audio tape recordings using a TX-0 computer and an ‘analogue-to-digital’ (A/D) converter (Levitin: 1994a). Because digital audio is transferred to tape as binary data, the audio is not subject to the conventional distortions that can be induced by analogue tape recording such as hiss/noise, generational loss and print-through. Likewise, distortions introduced by the limitations of analogue playback formats, such as ‘wow’ and ‘flutter’, were un-measurable in the digital domain. The promise of sample accurate editing, copying, flat frequency response, and seemingly indefinite storage options also seemed advantageous. By 1969, engineers at the Technical Research Laboratory of Japan’s NHK broadcast network had developed a fully operational two channel stereo recorder with a 32 kHz sampling rate and 13-bit resolution (Fine: 2008, 2).10 In January 1971, Denon used the NHK recorder to produce the first digitally recorded commercial release; a jazz recording by Steve Marcus called Something (1971, Nippon Columbia, NCB-7003) (Fine: 2008, 3).11 In 1972, Denon demonstrated the DN-023R, an eight-channel recorder operating at a sampling rate of 47.25 kHz and 13-bit resolution.12
In 1975, Soundstream began work on its prototype digital audio recorder. Tom Stockham was the company’s President and designed the architecture for the machine. Richard Warnock, also from the University of Utah, was Soundstream’s Chief Electrical Engineer during this period; he designed the circuitry that would realise Stockham’s design. Warnock hired Bruce Rothaar (a graduate student in Electrical Engineering) as a Junior Electrical Engineer. Several other students, mostly from the Computer Science department, were hired as technicians to wire and test the circuitry. Jules Bloomenthal was one such employee and the only one to stay with the company. Bloomenthal joined Soundstream in September 1975 as a technician, helping to build a computer interface that would allow direct, real-time transfer of digital audio data between a computer and a recorder. At this time, Robert B. Ingebretsen was also hired to take charge of the company’s software. In 1976, Richard Warnock left the company and Bruce Rothaar became Soundstream’s Chief Electrical Engineer.
Design and development
From the start, a progressive culture was cultivated at Soundstream. Like many technology companies incubated in academic communities (Demain: 2001), Stockham’s affiliation with the University of Utah provided access to scientific research excellence and opportunities to capitalise on expertise in emerging fields. The machine consisted of a commercially available instrumentation tape drive made by Honeywell and a custom chassis of electronics including A-D/D-A (analogue-to-digital and digital-to-analogue) converters and tape encoding and decoding electronics. Jules Bloomenthal relates that he and colleague Bruce Rothaar were awarded responsibility for its visual design with the simple instruction that it ‘look as professional as possible’.13 A parallel ‘Unibus’ interface, also designed by Soundstream, would transfer data between the DTR and a Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-11/60 computer that was used for editing. Digital audio was stored for editing on two ‘RP04’ disk pack drives connected to the 11/60, which were also manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation of Massachusetts.14 The 11/60 ran a software program called ‘DAP’ (Digital Audio Processor) written by Soundstream to perform ‘random access’ digital audio editing; typical commands would include splices and cross-fades.15 A Tektronix storage scope (a digital calligraphic line-drawing terminal) provided the waveform display. Commands were entered using a text terminal that had been carefully chosen for its hermetically sealed flyback transformer, which made it absolutely silent. Tom Fine (2008, 4-5) notes that ‘Stockham’s editing system…was a direct precursor of the modern digital audio workstation and computer based recording and editing.’16
In the years since, the digital audio workstation has transformed from a high price commodity operated by experts, to an accessible form of technology that is frequently found in the domestic space (Théberge: 1997, 234). As Moorefield (2010, xvii) has pointed out, this widespread democratisation of recording technology has come about because of ‘cheap digital memory, miniaturisation, and the increasingly globalised economy.’ Moreover, the representation of such technologies as the tools of liberated artists in magazines aimed at young, male, technically engaged musicians is a powerful catalyst in their ubiquity (Théberge: 1997, 125). Warner (2003, 20) suggests that ‘this transition to digital technology has not only brought about a revolution in working practices but has also played an important role in determining how pop music as an art form has evolved in the past 25 years.’
In 1976, Soundstream completed the first digital tape recorder (DTR) in the United States, a two-track, 16-bit machine with a sample rate of 37.5 kHz.17 The first exposure of Soundstream equipment to a commercial recording session was during August of that year. The Soundstream two-channel prototype was shipped to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to record its light opera company in a performance of Virgil Thomson/Gertrude Stein’s The Mother of Us All. According to Best (1978, 13), the digital recording was intended as a backup to the analogue recording. There was, however, some interest expressed by the label, New World Records, in comparing the two results.18 The album was released initially from the analogue tapes but subsequently from the digital masters. This secondary use of the equipment during the recording process was a way for companies to try out the new prototype without a large increase in cost or risk. During commercial recording sessions, Soundstream technicians were typically responsible for ensuring the smooth operation of the digital recorder and did not ‘engineer’ recordings in the sense that they would choose microphones, decide on their placement, or interact with musicians. Rather, Soundstream staff would collaborate with recording engineers and producers in the service of capturing the musical performance.
Jones (1992, 75) notes that, just as with computer software, the manufacturers of sound recording equipment often use musicians and recording studios as ‘beta-testers’ in order to get practical feedback about how the equipment performs in real world operation. Changes or modifications are then made which can maximise the commercial potential of the product, enhancing the fortunes of the company and saving time and money for users who wish to engage new technologies in critical applications. This product design model (prototype-testing-production) is common for manufacturers in most fields (Jones: 1992, 75).
Despite positive responses from audio experts and record producers, Soundstream’s 1976 prototype recorder was ultimately regarded as sonically deficient.19 Its sampling rate of 37.5 kHz implied a maximum audio frequency of 18.75 kHz (in practice, this was closer to 17.5 kHz). Stockham had calculated that this was high enough for most music, but was informed by Jack Renner and Robert Woods of the classical recording company, Telarc, that it was not sufficient to capture the complete frequency range of the human ear necessary to achieve so-called ‘audiophile’ quality recordings.20 Recognised for their attention to engineering and audio quality, Renner and Woods recorded extensively with Soundstream in the late 1970s.21 Renner made the following entry in a Telarc newsletter: ‘October 1977: We met with Thomas Stockham and heard a demo of his digital recorder. While very impressive sounding, the cut-off in frequency response above 17.5 kHz bothers us. Dr. Stockham agrees to extend the upper limit beyond 21 kHz if we will agree to do a major project’ (Renner: 1992b).
Ultimately, Soundstream had to modify the technical specifications of its recorder and offer a sampling rate 12.5 kHz higher than the original estimate before Telarc would accept that the recordings had the ‘air’ they were missing.22 As a prominent recording engineer, Renner’s request was a powerful incentive for the company and helped to initiate an upgrade of the Soundstream machine. In August 1977, Soundstream built a four-track recorder that would sample at 42.5 kHz and this was quickly upgraded to 50hHz.23 The sound quality of the four-track machine was a significant advance over the two-track model. It was also now possible to record two tracks in addition to the standard stereo, thus enabling some mixing to occur. The first sessions with the four-track model were with organist Virgil Fox playing the 116-rank Ruffati organ in Garden Grove Community Church, California, August 28-31, 1977. Again, the Soundstream system was intended as a backup for the primary recording method, which was direct-to-disc. The resulting records, The Fox Touch: Volume One (1977, Crystal Clear Records, CCS7001) and The Fox Touch: Volume Two (1977, Crystal Clear Records, CCS7002) were pressed from the direct-to-disc lacquers. The Soundstream digital masters were released from 1981 onwards once it was discovered that the direct-to-disc masters had deteriorated.24 On April 4-5, 1978, Soundstream made the first ‘audiophile’ commercial digital recording of an orchestra in the United States when they recorded the Cleveland Symphonic Winds at Severance Hall for the Telarc label.25 Eddy (2005) notes that World Book Encyclopedia’s 1978 yearbook described the recording as ‘the bass drum heard ‘round the world’ due to the dynamic bass drum sounds captured in Holst’s suites.
Through its relationships with Telarc and other classical labels, Soundstream was able to field test its recorder under real world conditions. Evidently, clients within the sound recording and music industries will not typically allow a prototype recorder to become the primary recording system without rigorous testing. In this case, the Soundstream recorder was tested as a backup solution with the opportunity to make comparisons with the analogue master recordings after the fact. In many cases, the Soundstream recordings eventually became the primary masters used for release either because of their fidelity, or in some cases, because of their durability. This case shows one example of how a prototypical technology was adopted as a secondary tool in support of an extant primary tool and superseded the primary tool over time. Acceptance within user communities is often expedited by the tendency for users to suggest or carry out modifications and upgrades to equipment (Lindsay: 2003; Perlman: 2004). User feedback can guide companies into operating in particular spaces that are more advantageous to them economically. In the case of Soundstream, this ‘beta-testing’ process involved modifying the sound quality of their recorder resulting in the opportunity to record internationally renowned orchestras in world-class concert halls; a series of activities that furthered the widespread acceptance of classical music in the digital format.26
Finding a market
Soundstream Inc. premiered its prototype digital recorder at the 55th Audio Engineering Society convention during October 1976 in New York City (Warnock: 1976). By 1976, analogue recording had become a sophisticated multi-track medium. With Soundstream’s prototype digital recorder capable of recording only two tracks at a time, it was ironic that innovations in digital technology would enforce a brief return to stereophonic ensemble recording. As a result, digital recording was immediately popular with classical music companies that wanted to achieve ultra high quality stereophonic reproduction of the concert hall environment. A discography (Soundstream: 1982) published as part of the company’s promotional materials confirms that Soundstream’s earliest clients were classical labels such as Telarc, Varese Sarabande, Delos and Chalfont. According to Jules Bloomenthal, during the late 1970s, approximately 50% of all classical music that was recorded digitally used Soundstream equipment.27 This claim is supported by Ranada’s (1980) article, A Dozen Digital Demo Discs, in which he recommends twelve of the finest digitally recorded LPs on the market; ten of the selections were recorded on Soundstream equipment.28
There has been a tendency for new technologies to achieve widespread acceptance in contexts where their limitations do not apply or can be exploited in ways that were not necessarily intended by the designer (Jones: 1992; Théberge: 1997; Milner: 2009). In terms of this case study, the Soundstream system was inherently compatible with the recording of classical music for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was portable and reliable on location at concert halls around the world. Secondly, Soundstream’s analogue circuitry was transformerless, permitting a low noise floor and wide dynamic range, ideal for both delicate musical passages and thunderous crescendos.29 Thirdly, an orchestral ensemble is balanced or ‘mixed’ by the conductor using the dynamics of the live performance, the acoustics of the auditorium and by the recording engineer who positions the microphones. Consequently, a pair of stereo tracks was often all that was required to achieve the ideal reproduction.
Despite a small number of favourable magazine articles (Easton: 1976; Penchansky: 1977) and a growing reputation among producers of classical music, Soundstream’s staff was by and large made up of computer scientists, not sales people. The most prominent discourse about Soundstream and its services was to be found in presentations/papers by Soundstream staff for the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society and its annual conferences (Ingebretsen: 1977; Stockham: 1977). These were often highly technical accounts populated with sampling theory and mathematical calculations. Unlike the marketing campaigns that preceded consumer audio innovations such as the compact disc (Milner: 2009, 218), Soundstream was not adept at marketing its recording equipment to the audio industry. The cost of the machine was also a prohibitive factor. Jules Bloomenthal was able to produce a receipt from October 1981 that detailed the sale of a Soundstream recording system to the New York Institute of Technology for $65,000.30 Given the expense of building the machines, a handful of sales would not be enough to sustain the business.
It became clear shortly after developing our four-channel machine that recording companies would not buy it, mostly because of its price. Our raw parts were between $40,000 and $45,000. Plus, record companies were concerned they wouldn’t be able to maintain the machines. So, we quickly decided to become a service company, renting our machines – always operated by us – doing editing and mastering.31
Milner’s (2009, 308) account of the introduction of the Linn drum machine, the Fairlight synthesiser and the Synclavier synthesiser establishes similar themes and lays the ‘conceptual groundwork’ for the modern ‘Pro Tooled’ world. In this case, emerging sampling instruments were adopted and widely used by wealthy pop artists because their high price tags (at least $25,000 for the basic Fairlight system in the mid 1970s) made them inaccessible to the mass market.
Bloomenthal notes that a total of eighteen recorders were built, eight to ten of which remained in use.32 The remaining machines were sold to Telarc, Delos, RCA, Paramount Pictures and the Department of Justice, for use by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who had a need for reliable, high quality, low-speed location recording. In the short term, for recording engineers and producers, digital systems necessitated a new set of working practices, increased costs, and the fear of highly complex technical or maintenance issues. Recordists had to rethink approaches to gain structure, equalization (EQ), mixing, processing, editing, copying, storage and reproduction in this new environment (Warner: 2003, 22). This rapidly developing field gave rise to new possibilities, but also introduced constraints on established working practices. Soundstream’s clients preferred a different way of working, one that required the presence of Soundstream technicians as intermediaries alongside engineers, producers and artists. As a result, Soundstream adapted its business model and focused on providing digital recording, editing and mastering services, sending its operators and equipment to concert halls and recording studios worldwide.
Rich Feldman acted primarily as Soundstream’s representative based in Los Angeles, travelling with the equipment and operating it during recording sessions. He notes that the company became very busy once they established this mode of operation: ‘the amount of records that I did in the amount of time I worked there is staggering. I went to London, Mexico and worked with just about every major orchestra in the United States. I worked with Delos, Chalfont, Telarc and a bunch of other labels.’33
Soundstream engineer Bruce Rothaar describes the ways in which Soundstream adapted to the role of mobile record engineering: ‘we built a small fleet of recorders and charged something like $15,000 to bring the equipment to a studio, set it up, do the recording, editing and mastering.’34 At this price, clients who wanted to record commercial albums could justify the expense without any of the burdens of purchasing the digital equipment. Feldman notes that the routine for Soundstream’s mobile operators was as follows: ‘Soundstream would rent a station wagon. I’d pick the equipment up at the airport and take it to the session, do the session and ship the equipment back. I would travel wherever they needed me to travel.’35 The cost of developing and manufacturing new technologies can mean that products are very expensive when introduced. As a result, users are sometimes hesitant to invest in new technologies, especially if they necessitate a steep learning curve or feature a proprietary system that might be difficult to maintain without support.
While the opportunities available to designers of new technologies are often not as predicted or hoped, Soundstream succeeded in finding a market through their willingness to adapt and to respond to feedback. Technology companies can help to speed the take up of new technologies through embracing a culture of excellence in engineering and quality control. This in turn can change the culture of how particular tools are used, understood and talked about within user communities or domestic spaces (Keightley: 1996; 2003; Lindsay: 2003). Although the company could not have known at the time, the sound recording and music industries were to enjoy an inexorable march towards increasingly inexpensive digital recording systems. As Moorefield, writing in 2010, notes: ‘a recording console which cost $150,000 in 1995 can now be had for about $2,000’ (2010, xvii). By the late 1990s, companies such as Digidesign were offering a 24-bit, 48-track version of the Pro Tools system with built in sequencing capabilities. Pro Tools, a descendant of the Soundstream DAW model, achieved a high degree of penetration into professional recording studios worldwide and transformed the affordability of home studio systems (Milner: 2009, 338).
Despite the popularity of the Soundstream machine with producers of classical music, the recorder remained largely incompatible with the recording practices of rock and pop musicians who were accustomed to the extensive overdubbing facilities offered by analogue multi-track tape systems. Nevertheless, some rock musicians did experiment with Soundstream equipment. In the late 1970s, Fleetwood Mac became one of the first rock bands to use the Soundstream recorder on Tusk (1979) and Fleetwood Mac Live (1980). However, as Soundstream engineer Bruce Rothaar notes, this was not a recording process as such, but a digital mastering process, making stereo mix masters from an analogue multi-track.36 As with the classical music producers who used digital recording systems as a backup to established solutions, rock and pop artists also employed the equipment at less critical junctures in the recording chain, typically as a method of saving on generations of tape copies.
Rich Feldman notes that the editing facilities offered by the Soundstream system also did not appear to be a necessity for rock and pop musicians:
I gave demos to a bunch of different bands. Nobody bit. They really didn’t need the Soundstream sample-precise digital editing on computer. The only people that needed that were the classical people because they wanted to create “perfect” performances.37
Here, Feldman draws out debates around the impact of technology on the aesthetics of recorded music and the reluctance of some engineers and musicians to adopt new recording platforms solely to take advantage of new features such as sample-accurate editing or improved technical specifications. Bloomenthal recalls that Soundstream staff were dismayed that some people preferred analogue audio with all of its ‘imperfections’:
It seemed to satisfy every audio engineer we worked with, except those that, for reasons we considered quite irrational, categorically rejected the notion of digital audio. These engineers felt that a digital representation of sound would be inherently unmusical. The Rolling Stones, so we were told, decided against use of digital in the early ‘80s, because they felt the grittiness of analogue recording was part of their sound.38
While the advantages of digital recording may have been obvious for those seeking to produce orchestral recordings for a classical music audience, Soundstream had not predicted the reactions of users who might wish to preserve their analogue sound for aesthetic reasons. Simon Frith (1996, 25) has stated that during the introduction of the compact disc, its detractors argued that ‘digital sound storage was actually “unfaithful” to those musical forms (like rock n’roll) which were essentially “impure”’. If we agree that, in a practical sense, sound only exists in a recorded form, then as Frith says, ‘the distinction between the noise that is necessary and the noise that is unneccesary…is an aesthetic as well as a technical judgement’ (1996, 235). Indeed, it was not only musicians who demonstrated their commitment to these kinds of aesthetic decisions, but also recording engineers (Sax and Archibald: 1983). The most vocal opponent of these advances at the time was Doug Sax of Sheffield Lab, a highly respected mastering engineer and an expert in direct-to-disk vinyl recordings. Greg Milner devotes a few pages to this period in his book Perfecting Sound Forever (2009, 206), noting that Sax helped form a group known as M.A.D (Musicians Against Digital). Sax was extremely critical of what he perceived to be weaknesses in digital audio, especially the sound of early compact discs in the early 1980s.39 Perhaps less scientifically, Milner’s book also recounts the tale of the New York psychiatrist, John Diamond, who stated that listening to digital recordings had a debilitating effect on human beings. Diamond demonstrated this in several public demonstrations with volunteers whilst alternating between analogue and digital sound sources.
As the production of popular music has moved into the multi-track era and now the digital era, the time taken to make recordings has increased. For classical producers, recording a live performance to a pair of stereo tracks using a digital recorder was an efficient way to achieve pristine recordings. For those seeking to experiment with overdubbing and layering large numbers of tracks, early digital recorders were often not the ideal technical or sonic solution. However, it must also be noted that some groups of users will reject new technologies outright, either for aesthetic reasons, or more frequently because they signal the forthcoming redundancy of particular professional skills (Sax and Archibald: 1983). It is within these kinds of contexts that the ongoing negotiations, concerning what is possible (and desirable) economically, creatively and culturally, take place.
In addition to sonic and aesthetic considerations, for the computer scientists at Soundstream, the culture of rock and pop lifestyles also proved incompatible with their way of working. Bruce Rothaar edited Fleetwood Mac’s recordings and discovered that rock musicians did not necessarily appreciate that the digital editing had to take place in Utah. He notes: ‘Fleetwood Mac flew to Salt Lake City for the editing session. There was pressure to get the editing completed by four a.m. so they could be in their Lear Jet, over the Grand Canyon, on drugs, at dawn.’40 When asked about using the Soundstream equipment, Fleetwood Mac’s recording engineer Ken Caillat responded: ‘it worked great, except that we had to fly in to Utah to edit.’41 Rich Feldman concurs that this was not a practical solution for high profile rock clients, noting: ‘for them it was a pain.’42
Jones (1992, 47) has identified three possible motives behind the user acceptance of a particular medium. They are: cost, realism and editing. Soundstream provided a powerful way to capture and preserve the space and time of musical events, however, for some in the sound recording and music industries, the cost of the machine was perceived to be too high. Despite the fact that the equipment provided sample accurate random access editing, the lack of portability of the editing suite was also perceived as a weakness. Examples such as these indicate some of the ways in which political, economic, cultural and aesthetic interests impact upon the professional take up of new technologies. In some cases, technologies that become consumer standards, for whatever reason – be it convenience, marketing penetration etc – fall below the specifications of already available technologies, outmoding the more advanced technologies before they can achieve widespread adoption (Immink: 1998; Lipshitz: 1998). This kind of evidence maintains continuity with a long history of resistance (for aesthetic, professional and commercial reasons) to disruptive technologies like the printing press, the radio and the VCR among others (Keller: 2008, 140).
Competition and demise
In 1978, a digital multi-track machine manufactured by 3M entered the marketplace.43 Like Soundstream’s DTR, 3M’s recorder was a 16-bit recorder which sampled at 50 kHz. Data was stored on one-inch digital tape running at 45 inches-per-second (ips). 3M delivered a two-track (stereo) prototype of its digital recording system to producer/engineer Tom Jung at Sound 80 studios, also based in Minnesota.44 Fine (2008, 9) notes that in June 1978, the recorder was used to capture the first Grammy award-winning digital recording, Copland: Appalachian Spring / Ives: Three Places in New England (1978, S80, DLR-101), featuring conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.45
With the success of the prototype, 3M went on to develop a 32-track model. According to Jones (1992, 43): ‘the deck was a 32-track system using tape, with a cost of $150,000.’ With its extensive multi-track facilities, the 3M machine more closely targeted the needs of rock and pop musicians and was adopted by those artists and labels that possessed the necessary financial resources and a desire to experiment with digital multi-tracking in the recording studio.46 Notable examples include guitarist Ry Cooder, who used the 3M recorder to make the first all-digital pop record Bop Till You Drop (1979, Warner Bros., 7599-27398-2) and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, who recorded The Nightfly (1982, Warner Bros., 7599-23696-2) with this system.
With major label support for 3M’s technology, Soundstream was aware that the company represented significant competition. However, they could not afford to develop competing multi-track recorders. Bloomenthal confirms that Soundstream was limited to the four-track recorder because ‘anything greater would’ve been prohibitively expensive to build’.47 Bloomenthal believes that the quality of Stockham’s original design was the key to their ongoing operation during this period of intense competition: ‘it was more portable than the 3M multi-track, very reliable, had superior editing, superior error-correction and superior quality control.’48 Although Bloomenthal could be accused of bias in this regard, Jung’s comments in Lander (2004) support Bloomenthal’s assertions that the 3M machine was a less robust design:
Nothing was soldered. Herbie (the 3M) was a machine with a mind of its own. You just hoped that if you recorded a good tape it would play back without glitches, but sometimes it didn’t. Oftentimes it would just make a horrible noise in the middle of a playback, so you’d have to start over (Jung cited in Lander: 2004).49
In addition to sample-accurate editing and high-resolution sound quality, the Soundstream recorder proved to be extremely reliable. Each of the four audio channels of the DTR were fully, independently error-correctable against digital ‘drop-outs’.50 According to Bloomenthal, they would typically measure ‘between one and three recoverable drop-outs per thirty minutes of recording.’51 The four-channel DTR used eight tape tracks, two for each audio channel, each reading redundant data. If a drop-out occurred on one track, the DTR switched to the other track. Since drop-outs don’t distribute themselves vertically on tape, this method proved to be completely reliable. With the exception of a loss of 31 samples on an early recording for the Delos label, Bloomenthal confirms that their redundant data on tape never failed to completely recover from an error.52 It is a testament to the integrity of the machine’s design that Bloomenthal is able to recall the precise number of samples that were lost and eventually spliced out digitally.
As Thebérge (1997, 153) has noted, a continuous flow of capital is required to bring any technology to its full development. He suggests that ‘the ultimate test of a product in the synthesiser or music software industry today is not its technical excellence but its market success.’ The reliability of the Soundstream DTR undoubtedly helped speed the uptake of digital technology as a primary recording medium. However, as this research demonstrates, products demonstrating quality control issues can still achieve comparable levels of market penetration due to other factors, such as additional features or commercial support from large companies. Indeed, competition grew as other products emerged. Comparable systems, such as the Mitsubishi X-80 for example, were adopted by a number of professional recording engineers. Companies such as Sony, Technics and dbx made PCM adapters such as the PCM-F1 (1981) for video units to enable digital recording in the home, whilst other formats like ProDigi, DASH and ADAT followed on.
In 1980, Soundstream merged with Digital Recording Corporation (DRC) and became DRC/Soundstream. Together they developed a consumer digital player that used an optical card to store music.53 Soundstream editor Sydney Davis notes: ‘they owned a business card style memory device that would play back the 1812 Overture at 50 kHz.’54 In an effort to expand, Soundstream also opened an editing facility at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood and one at Bertelsmann in Germany. However, this work was abandoned when the compact disc, developed by Sony and Phillips, became the mass-market consumer choice (Fine: 2008, 1-2). Philosophically and financially, the introduction of the compact disc was a problem for the company because it brought about the redundancy of Soundstream’s optical card based home playback technology and because Soundstream staff regarded the standard 44.1 kHz sampling rate as audibly inferior to their catalogue of 50 kHz masters. Although equipment was developed that allowed for recordings made at 50 kHz to be converted during transfer to the standard mastering consoles of the time, such as the Sony 1600, Soundstream editor Sydney Davis recalls: ‘we couldn’t compete against Sony. We lost the high end of all that stuff because they brought it down to 44.1 kHz. That was my first experience of what I would consider a technical tragedy.’55 As a result, Soundstream ceased to operate in 1983.
This section has demonstrated some of the ways in which competition can transform the opportunities available to designers and users of new technologies. That a Soundstream staff member would characterise the widespread acceptance of the 16-bit/44.1 kHz compact disc format as a ‘tragedy’ reveals a great deal about how Soundstream staff members thought about and understood the work they were doing during that time. Of course, companies will spend vast amounts of money to develop products that offer similar functionality to the offerings of their competitors and this kind of activity can push technology forward rapidly. However, in some cases, products developed in this way are less robust and this can have a negative effect on the overall reputation of a new technology (Lander: 2004). Accounts such as these also illustrate the broader ways in which consumer technologies frequently do not represent the most advanced solutions available, but instead the most convenient, or those produced by companies with extensive financial backing from major corporations. These sorts of ‘wars’ for dominance in the marketplace are played out repeatedly, especially with consumer formats such as Betamax vs VHS, CD vs SACD, or HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray (Brookey: 2007). The introduction of new technologies to the sound recording and music industries is an activity that can be viewed as a confluence of all of the afforementioned political economic and cultural forces. Perhaps Durant (1990, 175) said it best, when he described a ‘new kind of digital musical culture, or interlocking set of conditions and relations in which the sounds of music are produced, circulate and are understood’.
During the 1970s, computer scientists and electrical engineers designed digital recorders and assembled them according to the imagined needs of the user. These recording technologies presented constraints that had to be negotiated by engineers, producers and artists in order to achieve high quality productions. Sound engineers in the field gave feedback to designers, establishing new recording paradigms and improving sound quality. This article has argued that the design of new technologies and the ways in which they become embedded in the working practices of users evolves through complicated relationships negotiated over time in response to critical feedback and opportunities afforded by the political economic and cultural milieu. Through the experiences of the designers and developers involved, this case study of Soundstream has illustrated the complexities of these relationships, described the sorts of challenges faced, and raised a number of questions about the take up of new technologies.
Soundstream is important to the modern sound recording and music industries because it was the first company of its kind in the United States. Soundstream originated the modern DAW and several of its key features, including major advances in random access digital editing and cross-fades. With its attention to quality control issues, Soundstream highlighted the importance of error correction, setting the gold standard for symphonic recordings. Although Soundstream did not achieve mass-market success with its products, or gain notable traction in the popular music industry, its work helped to bring about the widespread acceptance of audio production and consumption in the digital format. Digital audio recording and editing brought down barriers to access and transformed existing technologies, such as analogue recording, into the standards of previous eras. The transformative effects of digital audio on the sound recording and music industries, resulting from its low cost and its powerful feature set, are still being experienced in the present day. While this transition into the modern era has been disruptive for many practitioners, the general tropes of business, innovation, marketing and competition have remained continuous.
This case study has shown that the specifications of new technologies are not determined entirely by designers and manufacturers, but that the agency of the user can be a key ingredient in the development of such tools. User feedback not only helps to make technologies more useful to their intended market, but also can influence the commercial viablility of a product. The take up of new technologies by professionals can be a slow process in which new equipment is gradually integrated with extant technologies. It is not always the highest standards available that become widely adopted by users, but other factors, such as cost, convenience and accessibility play important roles. Resistance to new technologies is not always motivated by the preservation of technical standards, but can also be about the protection of established professional skills, services and livelihoods.
Between 1975-1980, Soundstream created an archive of almost 200 digital masters. This indicates that, despite their lack of marketing power, Soundstream was ultimately successful in convincing the music industries that digital was the dominant format of the future. As Jules Bloomenthal has suggested, Dr. Stockham’s credentials and his focus on audio quality issues (Stockham: 1982; 1987) helped to silence critics and speed the uptake of the new technology. Like many independent business operating in the technology sector, although Soundstream found a market for their services, ultimately they could not compete commercially with the larger corporations entering the field. This case study of Soundstream demonstrates that the design and development of new technologies and the marketing of such products to users is a complicated negotiation shaped by the opportunities available to all parties. The future of recording will inevitably be linked to this ongoing negotiation between artists, studio intermediaries, technology and commerce. In different circumstances, the adoption of digital audio as a highly portable consumer format might have come about even more quickly. As Tom Stockham wrote in 1977: ‘it is not outrageous to imagine carrying several hours of music in a box the size of a deck of cards’ (Stockham: 1977, 895).
About the Author
Dr Simon Barber
Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research
Birmingham City University
Tel: +44 (0)121 331 7280
1 See Blesser (1978). For a detailed account of The Dawn of Commercial Digital Recording, see Fine (2008). For a general overview, see Lipshitz (1998).
2 See Easton (1976).
3 Kidder’s (2000) non-fiction book The Soul of a New Machine, about the race to design, develop and sell Data General Corporation’s next generation computer, is a model approach from a different, but related, area of industry.
4 See also Lindsey (2003) for a related study from the computer industry.
5 See Easton (1976) and Levitin (1994b).
6 For a discussion with Stockham on this project, see Levitin (1994a).
7 See Stockham (1971a) and Stockham, Cannon and Ingebretsen (1975).
8 See Drake (1976), Penchansky (1977) and Gold (1985). The restoration process is documented in the liner notes of Caruso – A Legendary Performer (1976, RCA Records, RL11749). There is also a complete 12 CD set The Complete Caruso (1990, RCA Records, 82876-60396-2).
9 Gilpin (2004) notes: ‘early in 1974, Dr. Stockham and other panel members reported that the gap was caused by at least five separate erasures and re-recordings, not by a single accidental pressing of the wrong button on a tape recorder as the Nixon White House had suggested.’
10 A sampling rate determines how frequently an analogue signal is measured per second during its digital conversion. In this case, a sampling rate of 32 kHz indicates 32,000 samples per second.
11 Marcus was a jazz saxophonist who recorded and toured with Stan Kenton, Herbie Mann and Buddy Rich.
12 Myers and Feinberg (1972) have addressed advances in digital recording during this period. Fine (2008, 3) notes that the first LP made with the Denon recorder was Mozart: String Quartet No. 17 in B flat minor, K. 458 ‘Hunt’ (1972, Nippon Columbia, NCC-8501) by the Smetana Quartet. Recorded April 24-26, 1972 at Aoyama Tower, Tokyo, the resulting album was released in October 1972.
13 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, July 19, 2007. Personal communication.
14 The RP04 drives were large and delicate and used only for editing audio at the Soundstream facility in Utah. They had a capacity of 28 megabytes each, which allowed for approximately twelve minutes of audio. However, the instrumentation tape (made by Ampex) held 30 minutes of digital audio. The Honeywell instrumentation tape drive itself was designed to meet military rigour and was consequently very reliable when used for location recording.
15 A ‘cross-fade’ allows two separate regions of digital audio to be joined seamlessly with no audible edit point. Soundstream carried out the first digital cross-fades on a commercial release on the soundtrack album Kings Row (1979, Chalfont, SDG-305). See Ingebretsen (1977; 1982).
16 For an overview of its features, see Keene (1982).
17 A criterion for the two-track system was outlined in Warnock (1976).
18 The other commercially released recording that used the 1976 two-track prototype was Karen Gibbs’s Window Panes (1977, Romar Productions, RPS-107701). This record, produced by Soundstream’s Robert Ingebretsen, was recorded conventionally but mastered digitally.
19 Interview with Jules Bloomenthal: July 20, 2007.
20 The human ear can typically hear from 20-20,000 Hz.
21 Telarc International Corporation is a Cleveland Ohio based record label founded in 1977 by two classically trained musicians and former teachers, Jack Renner and Robert Woods. See Levitin (1993a; 1993b).
22 See Scull (1998). ‘Air’ is usually defined in the audio profession as clarity and dimension in the upper registers of a recording.
23 Where both Soundstream and 3M used fixed head tape recording, Japanese competitors such as JVC and Sony developed machines that sampled at 44.1 kHz, using video recorders to store digital audio. Sony’s PCM 1600, for example, used a U-Matic video recorder. Later models such as the Sony 1610 and 1630 became the standard for compact disc mastering. The 44.1 kHz sampling rate was chosen as the standard in order to be compatible with video frame rates; see Doi (1978) and Lipshitz (1998, 38). It is also more than double the maximum audible range of human hearing (20 kHz), in accordance with Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem.
24 They were issued in two volumes as The Digital Fox (1981, Ultragroove, UG-9001 and UG-9002). As a result of the delay, these sessions are not regarded as the first all-digital commercial recordings released in the United States. As Fine (2008, 3) has noted, the first digital recording for commercial release made in the United States was, in fact, a jazz recording. In November 1977, a series of jazz sessions engineered by Jim McCurdy took place at New York City’s Sound Ideas recording studio. The sessions resulted in the first digitally recorded jazz album, saxophonist Archie Shepp’s On Green Dolphin Street (1977, Nippon Columbia, YX-7524), recorded November 28, 1977 and released in May 1978.
25 Frederick Fennell/Cleveland Symphonic Winds, Holst: Suite Nos. 1 and 2 / Handel: Music for Royal Fireworks/ Sousa: Stars: Marches, Fanfares and Others (1978, Telarc, 5038).
26 Soundstream collaborated with Telarc for several years, setting the gold standard for symphonic recordings; the earliest of these are described in Renner (1992a). See also, Levitin (1991; 1993a; 1993b).
27 Interview with Jules Bloomenthal: July 20, 2007.
28 This conclusion is achieved by cross-referencing the Ranada article with the Soundstream discography.
29 The signal-to-noise ratio exceeded 90 dB with total harmonic distortion as low as –92 dB. The frequency response of the Soundstream DTR was flat from 0 Hz to 22 kHz and editing could be performed at sample accuracy.
30 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, July 19, 2007. Personal communication.
31 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, September 13, 2007. Personal communication.
32 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, July 19, 2007. Personal communication.
33 Interview with Rich Feldman: July 4, 2007.
34 Interview with Bruce Rothaar: March 16, 2004.
35 Interview with Rich Feldman: July 4, 2007.
36 Interview with Bruce Rothaar, March 16, 2004.
37 Interview with Rich Feldman: July 4, 2007.
38 Interview with Jules Bloomenthal: September 14, 2002.
39 One Soundstream engineer quipped that there could just as easily have been a group called ‘Musicians Against Direct to Disk’ because of the notoriously taxing process of capturing an entire side of an LP in one performance.
40 Interview with Bruce Rothaar: March 16, 2004.
41 Ken Caillat, engineer, June 21, 2007. Personal communication.
42 Interview with Rich Feldman: July 4, 2007.
43 3M is a multi-national American corporation based in Minnesota that manufactures products for a variety of industries including electrical materials, electronic circuits and optical films.
44 Sound 80 was a recording studio in Minneapolis founded by Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer in 1969. See Lander (2004). It was described as the ‘oldest digital recording studio in the world’ in the 2006 edition of Guinness World Records (2006, 156).
45 The Grammy award was given for Best Chamber Music Album in 1979.
46 The 3M machine did not use computer editing. The machine was designed to accommodate physical splicing of digital tape.
47 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, July 19, 2007. Personal communication.
48 Jules Bloomenthal, engineer, Soundstream, September 13, 2007. Personal communication.
49 The 3M prototype was nicknamed ‘Herbie’ after Sound 80’s co-founder, Herb Pilhofer.
50 A ‘drop-out’ is a gap in the audio information usually generated by a failure to read binary characters from tape.
51 Interview with Jules Bloomenthal: July 20, 2007.
52 Interview with Jules Bloomenthal: July 20, 2007.
53 See Stockham (1977), Miklosz (1981) and Hansen (1983).
54 Interview with Sydney Davis: February 29, 2004.
55 Interview with Sydney Davis: February 29, 2004.
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