Page Tuner: Digital Audio in 1960

12 Great Classics of Science Fiction

“Most recordings were like jigsaw puzzles since the advent of wave-matching. Although some old fashioned conductors and performers still adhered to the old hit-and-miss methods, what usually happened these days was that a master was prepared, a blueprint for a particular performance, a sort of picture of the desired orchestral sound. This visual master could be easily transferred direct into sound, but, if it were, it would only be of interest to music students. It would be entirely too mechanical for anyone else.

When the master was complete, the orchestra would record the music and an automatic process of comparison would be carried out. The machines would ignore the nuances of expression and phrasing which they didn’t understand, but would point out the factual, measurable differences which they did—where the second trumpet played an E natural instead of an E flat, where the second violins swamped the first, where somebody in the woodwinds squeaked during a rest. The engineers, conductors, soloist if any, and supervisor would go over these points carefully, deciding what didn’t matter, what they preferred to be played to what was on the master, and what would have to be done again.

This system didn’t produce music of any greater artistic worth, it merely produced much more immaculate music much quicker.”

These are the words of Scottish writer J.T. McIntosh (the sci-fi pen name of James Murdoch MacGregor). It is an excerpt from a short story called “Immortality…For Some”, which was first published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, in March of 1960.

This forgotten story that I found in an obscure book accurately predicts modern digital recording with shocking accuracy, including all of its strengths and drawbacks. This was 54 years ago, and about 30 years before any of these things came to exist in any practical way.

What he’s describing in the above excerpt is the essential concepts of MIDI, pitch and rhythm correction, and quantization, all of the foundational concepts of digital audio.

The amount of prescience he had about this is truly astounding to me. I love the fact that he also intuited that the digitization of the recording process wouldn’t necessarily produce aesthetically superior results.

We should pay more attention to speculative fiction.

10 thoughts on “Page Tuner: Digital Audio in 1960

  1. I think the notion of “prediction” is rather fallacious. He also predicted 100xs of things, which he needed to make his future worlds really cool, which didn’t come about. SF authors are not prognostic who have glimpses of the future. If something does “come about” it’s often down to sheer coincidence. The authors were interested in creating fun future worlds for their characters and less about some sort of extrapolative process (which is impossible anyway).

      • But, guessing that a new way of recording would produce a superior quality is, well, pretty obvious.

        I predict that cars will get better guess mileage in the future and hybrid engines might be the cause. bingo!

        (this is one of my pet peeves. SF’s merit somehow linked to their coincidental ramblings about bits of technology)

      • But he’s not just saying that is produces “superior quality” as you put it. Read it again, it’s more nuanced than that. He’s saying that technology would allow us to produce music that is more “technically” precise, but not necessarily that it leads to aesthetically superior art. He’s saying it’s NOT superior in quality.

        BTW, this isn’t about sci-fi for me, and I’m not disputing your point that fictional extrapolation is arbitrary and not very difficult. This argument about the “human factor” of music is something that I have with people all the time, as there is a view in modern musical thinking that the “correct” way of capturing audio is through the corrective efforts of machines. I just thought it was intriguing that a random sci-fi writer from 60 years ago intuitively hit upon something that is, for many modern musicians, the defining issue of our era.

      • Fair point. The “prediction” thing is tricky to define and often wrong.

        And I’ve read that his work is riddled with problems, like the genocide thing you mentioned. I know nothing about this guy and I’m certainly not advocating for his work. The collection that this is from is filled with distasteful stuff from all kinds of writers: sexism, racism, class issues, blatant prejudices galore. It’s so interesting to me that SF is always written through the lens of its contemporary era. For example, a lot of these stories describe technologically advanced societies, but the men are still in charge, they still have secretaries and servants, and women are treated poorly. They could imagine a world where pure energy beings exist, or where animals have evolved into humanoids, but they couldn’t imagine a world where women or people of different races are equals. To your earlier point about inaccuracy of these “predictions”, I suppose.

      • I personally love 50s-70s SF — but yeah, you have to always read it keeping the era in mind. And, when an author bucks these trends I always try to point that out in my reviews.

      • Thanks! I enjoy the late 60s and early 70s the most — the New Wave movement, anti-technological ruminations, etc. And, a conscious attempt, at least for some authors, to be literary. Something which was cast off rather rapidly by the late 70s.

        But, I delve in to the 50s frequently.

      • But yes! It’s cool that he actually thought about sound recording 🙂

        But yeah, his actual SF can be really awful — he has the horrible tendency to advocate genocide in numerous of his novels.

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