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Music Everywhere

It's all about the algorithm--but which one will win?

12 min read

Of the countless human pursuits touched by technology, music has been among the most profoundly transformed. Beginning more than a century ago, when Thomas Edison's phonograph gave rise to the recorded music industry, technology has brought music to the masses with steadily increasing efficiency, fidelity, and convenience. Today, the Internet, digital recording, and new storage technologies are coming together to prompt another momentous shift. It is liberating music from the last link to Edison's era: the dependence on physical, recorded media that has long confined it.

Of all the technologies fomenting this revolution, one of the most pivotal, and interesting, is the compression algorithm. The most common example is the ubiquitous MP3, which was a key enabler of Napster's rise in its copyright-flouting initial incarnation. MP3 is just one of an expanding array of such algorithms--more than 100 at last count--that also includes such contenders as WAV, WMA, Ogg, AAC, and AC-2. All of them use a variety of clever tricks to compress music files 90 percent or more, so that the data can be more economically transmitted over a network, such as the Internet, and stored on a computer or music player. They're all vying for a central role in the global recorded music industry, which now generates US $32 billion a year in revenues.

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Deep Learning Could Bring the Concert Experience Home

The century-old quest for truly realistic sound production is finally paying off

12 min read
Image containing multiple aspects such as instruments and left and right open hands.
Stuart Bradford

Now that recorded sound has become ubiquitous, we hardly think about it. From our smartphones, smart speakers, TVs, radios, disc players, and car sound systems, it’s an enduring and enjoyable presence in our lives. In 2017, a survey by the polling firm Nielsen suggested that some 90 percent of the U.S. population listens to music regularly and that, on average, they do so 32 hours per week.

Behind this free-flowing pleasure are enormous industries applying technology to the long-standing goal of reproducing sound with the greatest possible realism. From Edison’s phonograph and the horn speakers of the 1880s, successive generations of engineers in pursuit of this ideal invented and exploited countless technologies: triode vacuum tubes, dynamic loudspeakers, magnetic phonograph cartridges, solid-state amplifier circuits in scores of different topologies, electrostatic speakers, optical discs, stereo, and surround sound. And over the past five decades, digital technologies, like audio compression and streaming, have transformed the music industry.

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