When Tape Op's 420th issue rolls out in 2040, the way we record, edit, mix, and master audio will be transformed entirely from the processes we use today. Currently we are separated by physical barriers — big consoles, big speakers, large acoustically designed rooms, outboard racks, patching bays, monitor screens, mice, and keyboards. This is the "fourth wall" that remains between creators and the music. Within three decades, that wall will all but disappear. Audio engineering will become virtual and immersive.
TECHNOLOGY IMPROVEMENTS FOLLOW A PREDICTABLE TREND
Fifty years ago, people thought Alan Turing was crazy. The father of algorithmic computing, Turing predicted that computers would employ around one gigabit of storage by the turn of the century. He was right. In 1965, Gordon Moore famously speculated that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit (IC) would double every two years. He was right too, if a tad conservative. We've since learned that virtually every technology follows a similarly predictable growth slope.
For example: since 1990, the cost-performance efficiency (CPE) of wireless devices has doubled every seven months. From 1980, the CPE of video display technology has doubled every 18 months. And since the early 1950s, magnetic storage bits-per-dollar has doubled every 18 months.
Since 1970, power consumption per data instruction has halved every 18 months. DNA sequencing cost has halved every ten months since 1990 (NEC is now shipping a portable crime-scene DNA analyzer that takes just 25 minutes). The cost of transistors has halved every 16 months since 1970. One transistor now costs less than the ink for one letter printed in Tape Op.
Similar CPE slopes are seen for dynamic RAM since 1970 (18-month doublings), calculations-per-second since 1950 (24-month doublings), MIPS-per-dollar since 1950 (22-month doublings), Internet global backbone bits-per-second (14-month doublings), Internet data traffic (7-month doublings), and growth in supercomputer FLOPS since 1990 (14-month doublings).
The list continues for scores of technologies, (especially!) including audio engineering technologies.
AUDIO DYNAMIC RANGE INNOVATIONS FOLLOW A TREND
In the beginning of commercial recorded sound (1890), we achieved a systemic dynamic range of around 15 dB (3 bits equivalent). By the 1930s, vacuum tubes, condenser mics, and electric cutter heads improved dynamic range to around 35 dB (6 bits). Magnetic tape gave us a 60-70 dB range and more, especially once technologies like Dolby SR were available (12 bits). With the advent of commercial digital recording in the 1970s and '80s, early systems were capable of 90 dB dynamic range (15 bits).
Today, we're achieving a best-case unweighted systemic dynamic range of around 110-115 dB (19 bits) — from concert halls to home playback; but only under controlled, pristine lab-like conditions (a high-quality home system playing better-than-average program material is possibly delivering around 16 bits).
Let's visualize the history of audio dynamic range on a grownth chart.
Looking at technology growth with too narrow a time frame obscures the long-term trend. For instance, from 1885 through 1925, acoustic dynamic range didn't improve much — it took the breakthrough innovation of electric recording to significantly improve dynamic range. This is known as the "nested S-curve," or "step and wait" theory of growth. Also, economic incentive drives innovation and improvement. Generally, those technologies with the greatest economic incentives improve the fastest.
When we "average" (or "smooth") 120 years of dynamic range, we see that its growth slope is predictable. From the beginning of audio recording, commercial dynamic range has improved by roughly 0.8 dB per year — the equivalent of around one-bit every seven years. Thus, we can confidently extend our growth slope into the future, and expect the trend to continue... until real-world dynamic range is no longer limited by technical or economic factors in audio systems.
TRENDS PREDICT THE FUTURE
We've seen how and why technology advances and how we can confidently predict its growth over time. Let's now turn our attention to the next 40 years. And finally, let's attempt to anticipate the next two generations of audio engineering. It's important to recognize that the professional audio market will not be the primary driver of our future tools. The economic engines driving key changes in pro audio will be gaming, film, and television, as well as military — combined global revenue of over $500 billion. Pro audio will be the beneficiary of this massive...