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Sounds of the future

What format was the first record you bought? CD? Cassette? Vinyl?

Music formats change radically every 20 years or so, reflecting advances in technology, with the 21st century’s format of choice so far being the MP3. But past trends suggest the MP3’s days are numbered. We look at two recent advances in technology that could revolutionise how we listen to music once again.

From Downloads to Real Time

Downloading music is made possible by peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. This works by establishing a large network of ‘peer’ computers that each give up a small amount of storage space, processing power and bandwidth to a P2P network.

The speed at which you can transfer data depends on your internet connection’s bandwidth - the amount of data that can pass through a particular point in a specific amount of time. Improvements in connections and reductions in wi-fi interference have allowed internet connections to speed up dramatically over the past 10 years, with profound implications for how we listen to music on portable devices.

Sites such as Soundcloud and Spotify provide listeners with real time music streaming without the need to store files on a hard drive or portable device. The song data is transferred to your device in a constant stream of 0s and 1s while you are listening to it. As the songs are no longer stored on your device, compatibility of formats is no longer an issue – Spotify encodes its songs in a format called Ogg Vorbis which both takes up less space and is of higher quality than the MP3.

3D Storage

3D Optical Storage could see the return of the physical music format. The 3D CD is the same shape and size as a CD, but with the potential to hold over 300,000 songs per disc.

An ordinary CD stores data in the form of lots of tiny grooves. A concentrated laser scans the surface of the disc and the altered reflections that bounce back from these grooves determine whether the sensor registers a 0 or a 1. This data is converted to electrical current which drives a speaker, outputting the electrical energy as sound.

A 3D CD uses a similar principle, but it stores its data on multiple layers throughout the depth of the disc - imagine getting 100 CDs and squashing them down to the thickness of one CD and you’re not far off the concept behind a 3D CD. The grooves in a 3D CD are filled with a fluorescent material which glows when hit by light from the laser.  The detector then registers the difference in the wavelengths of the laser light and the fluorescent glow as a 0 or 1.


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