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Chapter 1. Start Here > About Digital Music Technology

About Digital Music Technology

“But wait,” you might be saying. “I thought compact discs were all about digital audio, which is what made them better than cassette tapes 20 years ago. How is that different from what is considered digital music in the iTunes' world?” And that's a fair question. In fact, it's got a good illustration built right into it. Think of digital music in the iTunes' age as being to CDs what CDs were to tapes. CDs are a digital medium, which means that the player can access any given song on the disc on command; with a CD, you can do such things as program the tracks to play in a certain order, randomly select songs from various discs in a changer, and so on. These features just weren't possible on an analog medium like the cassette tape, where the audio content consists of nothing more than a long, unbroken stream of magnetic material that is interpreted during playback as louder or softer sounds. The same huge leap in flexibility that we enjoyed in moving from tapes or vinyl records to CDs is now present as we move from CDs to pure digital music on our computers: Instead of the music data being stored on a physical disc that has to be moved around and manually loaded into a player, it's stored in the form of easily portable data files that can be played back in any order, modified, or copied from device to device by simply giving a command in software.

To accomplish this quantum leap in portability and control, a certain breakthrough or two was necessary. In the mid-1990s, these breakthroughs occurred. First, a compression algorithm was developed that shrunk the digital audio data from the uncompressed format in which it's stored on CDs (about 10MB per minute, far too large to be practical) to one in which large music collections could be conveniently stored on typical computer hard drives or transferred easily over the Internet. Additionally, processor speeds rose to the point where desktop computers could quickly and easily convert CD music data to the compressed format.


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