Was Alan Turing the Father of Hip Hop?

binary-code-63529_1280The tragic story of brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing has been popularized in the award-winning 2014 film, The Imitation Game and recent books by Walter Isaacson and Steven Johnson. Turing’s work cracking the Enigma code, and developing the technology that would become modern computing has become part of the popular lexicon. Less well known is his work with “pulse code modulation”, the predecessor to today’s digital audio technology.

In 1941, as the United States entered the war in the Pacific, General George Marshall, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff faced a difficult challenge. He suspected that the encryption system used for military communications, the A-3 Scrambler developed by AT&T in the 1920s, was not secure. In fact, in the fall of 1941 the Deutsche Reichspost, tasked with handling telephone and telegraph traffic, had broken the A-3.

Enter The Green Hornet…

In the early 1940s, Bell Laboratories, under the direction of A.B. Clark and assisted by Turing, began work on what became known as “The Green Hornet”. The name was derived from the soundtrack of a popular serial radio show as eavesdroppers could only hear a buzzing noise. The system, whose official moniker became SIGSALY, digitally sampled speech, converting it into binary code. Consisting of 40 racks of gear, weighing 50 tons, SIGSALY successfully encrypted communications throughout the Second World War, mostly famously between Washington and London.

As with the development of the Internet decades later, military research broke technological ground, creating innovations that reach far beyond their original applications. While it may seem a stretch to connect Alan Turing and Kanye West, the world would not have seen the E-mu SP-12, or Pro Tools without the groundbreaking teamwork that developed SIGSALY.

Now what you hear is not a test…

Audio quality in the digital age

10 years ago with the introduction of audio compression technologies such as MP3 & AAC, it became possible to shrink digital audio file sizes and enable distribution across the Internet. While there was a distinct loss in audio quality (file sizes were typically one tenth of the original), the average music fan didn’t seem to mind and convenience ruled.

At the same time, sample and bit rates for digital audio recording were expanding as hard drive prices dropped, giving engineers and musicians the ability to work with higher quality digital audio. Since the early days of digital there has been ongoing debate in the professional audio world about the loss of ‘warmth’ inherent in analog recording technologies. Higher digital bit and sample rates make it possible for engineers to approach the sonic ideal, bridging both worlds.

As hardware storage continues to shrink and broadband speeds increase, music providers have increased file sizes, enhancing audio quality for portable and computer devices. Bringing back high quality audio to consumers can create scarcity in the marketplace, which music creators sorely need. A bootlegged MP3 can’t compete with an audiophile, metadata rich, listening experience.

The question is: “Will consumers support higher quality audio?” Engineer, producer, and musician Cookie Marenco, founder of Downloads NOW! says 96kHz downloads (super high quality) are outselling 44.1kHz downloads (CD quality) by 10 to 1 at her artist’s download stores. Last Sunday’s New York Times article, In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Steps Back examines this issue.

What do you think?

Has the appreciation of nuance and dynamics been lost to the generation that grew up on iPods, and what does the future hold?