bitsandpiecesBy Michael R. Lee, Ph.D.

As we approach the new millennium, the dynamics of audio production continue to change. Perhaps it's time to look at some of the trends just over the horizon.

When it comes to digital audio, there have been so many improvements in signal processing, time domain manipulation, and other relatively esoteric areas that it's kind of neat to see the emphasis return to the quality of the digital audio signal itself.

The first front of enhanced digital audio is bit resolution. Not long ago, many audio theorists and practitioners believed that 16 bits were enough to last forever. But audio poker prevailed, as it often does, and the next wave was 18 and 20-bit audio. Indeed, ADAT II and several other mid and lower level audio systems are already claiming 20-bit resolution. Following the lead of such audio purists as Apogee, DAW manufacturers like Digidesign are now promoting their 24-bit systems. Tascam is the first with 24-bit DAT. Surely more will follow.

Actually, the internal architecture of digital audio is rising at an even faster rate. Eventide's DSP 4500 now boasts an astounding 58-bit internal bit resolution.

But the most profound change in the quality of digital audio since enhanced bit resolution is lurking just down the road. It's time for sampling rates to double. Cutting-edge audio people have known for a long time that 96kHz sampling was the wave of the future. The future is closer than ever, as several pro audio makers are now out with 96kHz sampling rates.

Even more mind-boggling is the introduction of 192kHz sampling rates by two companies, dCS, a British company, and the venerable location recorders by Nagra. Early testing of these units has spawned some rave notices. Those raves have been tempered though by the astounding prices--$7,500 for the dCS and $22,000 for the Nagra. Obviously, these technological advances are not being sought for radio.

The larger question remains: can our ears discern the difference between 16 and 24-bit and 44.1 and 96kHz sampling? The answer is apparently a qualified "yes." It is really more dependent on the type of audio material. For instance, a violin is much more responsive to elevated bit resolution and sampling rates than a drum or a bass sound.

For radio users, the answer is further complicated by the bandwidth of AM and FM. Can a listener tell the difference between 16-bit digital and analog, much less 16 versus 24-bit or 44.1 versus 96khz sampling? The answer here is apparently a qualified "no."

One of the big trends in audio today is to create more elaborate control surfaces than ever before. The "virtual console" has caught on in radio circles, meaning that the control surface is more knobs and faders than ever before. Of course, these emulations of the past are merely icons that control a bunch of electronics racks that can now be located down the hall. Look at the control surface battle for ProTools alone. First, Mackie came out with its long-awaited HUI (human user interface). Digidesign has come out with its even longer-awaited Pro Control. You can spend $2,500 to $25,000 on a control surface that does nothing more than the computer screen and mouse you already have. You have to wonder who this is being done for, in that most young producers and even many of the older guard are already used to visual control from their computer.

While the glamour of bit resolution, sampling rates, and control surfaces rages on, it appears that the more mundane aspects of audio have been pretty well ignored in radio circles. For instance, what about the acoustic environment and monitoring? How many stations have abandoned their antiquated speakers for quality time-align designs? How many stations have a truly solid grounding system for the gear? How many stations do a spectrum analysis of their rooms and optimize dedicated EQs for monitoring purposes?

On the non-technical side of radio production, imaging work is being moved out of the station itself more than ever before. Production Directors have increased working out of their homes with better quality gear, and more work is being farmed out to independents. The trend has been for a Production Director to take his former station as an initial client and then add from there. Price-cutting by the independents is already becoming a major factor in radio's unrelenting desire to reduce costs.

The most avoided question is whether this is improving or hurting the quality of on-air imaging. For smaller markets and as an adjunct to efforts in major markets, it often helps. The smaller markets get a big-time feel in many cases; the larger markets can get more variety in their imaging. The other advantage is that there is more of an opportunity to exploit great production pieces in multiple markets.

But the danger is whether too much of a factory approach is at work. The economics of low rates means higher quantity, and that reduces the creative upside. Expectations of super-speedy delivery (when immediate is not fast enough) further limit the creative options. In an era of ever-expanding workloads, this is a legitimate concern for programmers and producers as we head into the next millennium.