Digital Music Renaissance

Dick Burwen's algorithms may bring back analog's rich, complex sounds

2 min read

Neil Young has called the digital recording era the "dark ages" of music. Bob Dylan, in a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, called music from CDs "static" and "small." Just a couple of grumpy old rockers who can't get with the program—or visionaries who see that the times, they are a-changin'? A retired engineer's basement in Lexington, Mass., is the unlikely wellspring for some technology that could hold the answer.

Richard Burwen, designer of everything from stereo sound chips to the Pioneer spacecraft's magnetometers, has spent nearly 50 years building and tweaking his own 20 000-watt ultrahigh-end hi-fi system. And some of the tricks and algorithms he's developed could someday make your CDs and digital music files sound better than you ever thought they could.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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