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The CompuSonics/MP3 Connection

Most of us think of the MP3 format and consumer disk-based audio storage as recent phenomena. However, some of the roots of the MP3 date back to a product

David Schwartz, circa 1984

Most of us think of the MP3 format and consumer disk-based audio storage as recent phenomena. However, some of the roots of the MP3 date back to a product launched on the AES show floor 25 years ago. The year was 1984. Apple announced the $2,500 Macintosh. IBM debuted its $4,000, 80286-based PC-AT. The world was ready and waiting for a revolution.

Yet change can come from an unlikely source. That same year, a musician and Carnegie Mellon University grad named David Schwartz (no relation to Mix‘s founder of the same name) made good on his theories about digital audio data compression, which enabled storage on limited-capacity media — such as floppy disks — or electronic transmission via modem or other connected systems. And at the 76th AES convention in New York City, Schwartz took his newly formed CompuSonics company to the audio public. He organized a spate of technical papers that formed the basis of what eventually became the MP3 file format. Among these were “Strategies for the Representation and Data Reduction of Digital Music Signals” by MIT researcher/CompuSonics VP John Stautner, which discussed reducing music file size to facilitate transmission/storage. Another MIT researcher/CompuSonics engineer, Hyun Heinz Sohn, contributed “High-Speed Telecommunications Interface for Digital Audio Transmission and Reception,” suggesting protocols for high-speed data transmission. And Schwartz’s own “Specifications and Implementation of a Computer Audio Console for Digital Mixing and Recording” laid out guidelines and specs for computer-based music recording/mixing music.

This may have represented a glimpse of digital audio’s future, yet “at the time we were ridiculed,” says Schwartz, recalling when Pioneer Electronics VP and AES fellow, the late Bart Locanthi, approached him, Stautner and CompuSonics consultant Gary Schwede at the podium after their presentations. Schwartz says Locanthi berated them for proposing compressed audio, saying they were “destroying the integrity of digital audio,” while “commercializing a lossy algorithm was heresy.” According to Schwartz, Locanthi was livid. “I didn’t know what to say. At the time, people were still critical of the CD at 44.1 kHz and 16 bits; they wanted 48 kHz and 24 bits as the standard. In 1984, we were the bad guys.”

Today, MP3 players are built into pocket devices, phones and computer operating systems, and at AES Schwartz debuted the first consumer digital disk recorder. Storing to 5.25-inch, 3.3MB Superfloppy disks, the CompuSonics DSP-1000 was a VCR-sized desktop unit with stereo I/O, 16-bit converters and a claimed 20 to 20k Hz bandwidth. The format never took off, yet the unit laid the groundwork for other CompuSonics products in the fledgling DAW market — certainly well in its infancy in 1984.

In the company’s pro line was the DSP-2000 Series console/recorder/editors, which were announced as 4-track modules that could combine to create 4/8/12/16-track systems with mixing and on-screen color(!) representations of metering, mix levels and parameters — pretty cool for 1984. Perhaps more successful was CompuSonics’ DSP-2002 disk-based professional 2-track, which found commercial use in creating and editing sound effects, with the first system going to Vitello & Associates and was used in production on Voltran — the first animated series produced in stereo sound.

“We did well in pro audio,” says Schwartz. “Our recorders were found in many major post houses, including Howard Schwartz Recording and Sound One; Bob Liftin used them on Saturday Night Live; and they were used for the audio post on several Woody Allen movies.”

After CompuSonics ceased operations in 1990, Schwartz headed a software group working on the first erasable CD recorder for Tandy’s Electronic Research Center, and served as that company’s representative at the ANSI and ISO MPEG initiatives, which were incorporated into MPEG Audio Layer 3 — the famous MP3.

“The concept of applying data compression to music was radical at the time, but it also had the potential to be world-changing,” Schwartz says. That vision sustained him as he brought the concept and the technology to record labels, which — while enjoying windfall CD-generated profits — uniformly dismissed him. He partnered with AT&T, hoping the long-distance giant would provide a ready-made distribution network for music files. But no major label would license content for the “electronic music stores” Schwartz envisioned and the scheme was further doomed by the government’s dissolution of AT&T in the mid-1980s, thus removing its potential as a national distribution network.

Schwartz was crushed by the experience. Yet he continued to innovate, designing DSP circuits and software for Atari’s Falcon 030 PC, the first home computer that could record/play 16-bit stereo audio and offer onboard DSP effects. Schwartz then headed the audio team for Atari’s Jaguar game console, with its 16-bit sound, software audio synth and CompuSonics’ audio compression codec for increased storage. Moving to Autodesk’s Discrete Systems division in the early 2000s, Schwartz developed new digital audio processing algorithms and worked with engineers in Autodesk’s Cleaner 5 group. In 2004, he began to offer his talents and vision as a private consultant through Schwartz Engineering & Design (SED).

Looking back over it all, Schwartz muses, “Leadership is following your vision and engaging others with it. Not everyone agreed with my concepts and not every effort proved profitable. But looking at the cumulative effect of those efforts, you realize that you helped change the world.”