Want to impress someone the next time you're at a party? If there's a CD playing in the background, comment on its superb sound quality, then segue smoothly into this little-known fact: it is widely believed that the first digital audio recordings to be commercially released were made at Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis.
Sound 80 was founded in 1969 by Tom Jung and Herb Pilhofer. In the spring of 1978, a 3M engineer presented the partners with a digital tape machine. Head engineer Jung recorded the studio's landmark digital recordings--a jazz album with Flim and the BB's and two albums by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. One of the SPCO recordings, with Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring and Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, won a Grammy for Best Chamber Orchestra Recording in 1979 and was nominated for Best Engineered Classical Recording.
In a 2004 interview, Tom Jung described how and why he got involved in digital recording. "I could never get my head past all the noise and distortion coming off the surface of the disc. . . . It was always so hard to make something quiet. Some people's brains allow them to create a filter and hear through this and just listen to the music. Nothing's perfect, but good or bad, I made a conscious decision to go digital and leave analog behind. I jumped in with both feet and didn't look back.
"The thing that grabbed me in that first playback was the absence of wow and flutter. Most of the recordings we were doing included a piano, and getting a piano sound was always a real struggle. Doing it direct to disc or on digital tape, I could get a lot closer to what I was after."
Two more details, just in case you need some more conversation starters. The 3M people called their digital recorder "Herbie," after Jung's partner, Herb Pilhofer. And the building that housed Studio 80, which was sold in 1990, is now the home of Orfield Laboratories, Inc. It now contains an anechoic chamber (a room with no echoes) that is listed as "the quietest place on earth" in the Guinness Book of World Records.
"Guinness World Records Certificate: Sound 80 Studios, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, was constructed in 1970 and became the world's first multi-track digital recording studio in collaboration with the 3M Company, the developer of multi-track digital recording. The studio complex is now part of Orfield Laboratories."
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