Friday, June 12, 2009

The Digital Domain: A Demonstration (1983, CD)

I have a lot of CDs that I'd like to comment on eventually, and not just stick with the old records that I've been converting, so I thought I'd start with some that are odd or unusual, or at least more interesting than the average (whatever that is).

The Digital Domain: A Demonstration is from 1983, when the CD was still very new and digital recording was still fairly new. I think I first heard of the compact disc in that year, although it would be a couple more years before I actually saw one. I probably bought this one is '85 or '86.

This CD was made to demonstrate three different things, really: the compact disc itself, digital recording, and the capabilities of various synthesizers.

Track descriptions:

1. The Digital Domain - It starts with 15 seconds of dead silence (all bits set to "0"), then fades very slowly into a recording of a creek, with trickling water and insect noises. From the distance you can hear a jet airplane approaching. Brace yourself. This was one of the most mind-blowing things I ever heard. With a good system (such as I had back then) you could make walls vibrate and windows rattle. Someone who didn't know what was happening might easily dive for the floor and say their final prayers. It gets louder and closer until you'd think the jet was going right over your head. The jet lands and is followed by other sounds of other jets taking off and landing. This fades into a monstrous synth chord and one final jet taking off.

2. Study for Reverie - A soprano voice and a trombone were recorded separately, all kinds of cool things were done to the sounds, and then they were placed in simulated reverberant environments--the trombone in a cathedral and the voice in a concert hall.

3. Lions are Growing - Words from a poem called "Rommel Drives on into Egypt" were recorded, broken down and rebuilt with a computer. Strange, but a good example of how far audio technology had already come.

4. Hologram 9 - A digital recording of a harpsichord piece. No synthesizers or computers on this one, just a harpsichord that was mic'd to emphasize the overtones produced by the instrument so the recording produces audio "illusions." You think you hear notes and chords that aren't actually being played.

5. Colony V (excerpt) - This one is all synthetic. An "orchestra" of 50 simulated violins with some other synthesized instruments and voices and digitally recorded birds, frogs and insects.

6. Specific Racquetball - A one-minute digital recording of a racquetball match. Nothing musical about it, just one of those gee-whiz things to show how sharp the sound could be with digital recording and a digital medium.

7, 8 and 9. - Excerpts from a piece called "Shaman." Percussion, bass and synthesizer. This was actually a theatre piece that was performed by a belly dancer.

10. Towers of Hanoi - All of these tracks have extensive descriptions of what's going on, how the sounds were recorded and the equipment used to record and produce them. This is one that I would have to quote the whole thing to describe it. It's based on a puzzle game in which you have to move a tower one disc at a time without it collapsing, but in this piece the discs are different pitches and the towers are different timbres.

11. Generic Racquetball - Another racquetball track, but this time instead of a specific match, it's a recording of all the courts surrouding the court that the recording equipment was in.

12. Love in the Asylum - A synthesizer piece that combines simulated real instruments with new sounds created by the composer. Like several other of the musical tracks, this would fall into the "ambient/experimental" category.

13. Venice Beach - Digital recording of said beach layered with other recordings made by something called a "waterphone."

14. Silicon Valley Breakdown (excerpt) - This is my favorite, I think. Quote: "...scored for a symphony of imaginary plucked stringed instruments. These range from a tiny 'piccolo mandolin' to an immense bass 'plucked Golden Gate Bridge.'" This is another one that is entirely synthetic.

15. Foothill Park - Digital recording of a redwood grove, featuring a bluejay and other environmental sounds.

16. Helicopter - An almost four-minute digital recording of a Huey helicopter.

The remaining tracks (17-29) are test tracks, beginning with one that allows you to check correct speaker placement, then followed by several noise generation tracks that you could use to test the output of your system. The final track is one minute of dead silence, all bits set to "0" so you can test your system's noise floor.

Like I mentioned before, the booklet that came with the CD is packed with a wealth of technical information on exactly what kind of instruments and equipment were used and exactly how they were used, often right down to describing microphone placement. This CD is no longer produced, and getting a new one will cost you more than your usual new CD, but Amazon has used ones available quite cheap. I think it would be a good buy for anyone with a CD player.


  1. The very first CD I bought was Skyscraper by David Lee Roth, which features a track called "Hina" in which Steve Vai intros the song with some very faint touches of the pick on his guitar strings (which builds into a lot of sound quickly, of course). I was sold on the technology when I turned up the volume all the way on my system to hear when these faint clicks first began, and I realized that I could hear no hiss, crackles, or pops in the background.

    I went totally digital from that point on. Oh, I had the standard tape deck to record my new purchases on so I could listen to them in the car, but I haven't bought another vinyl album since.

  2. I've still got one of these! I love the first track.