Digital audio uses pulse-code modulation and digital signals for sound reproduction. This includes analog-to-digital conversion (ADC), digital-to-analog conversion (DAC), storage, and transmission. In effect, the system commonly referred to as digital is in fact a discrete-time, discrete-level analog of a previous electrical analog. While modern systems can be quite subtle in their methods, the primary usefulness of a digital system is the ability to store, retrieve and transmit signals without any loss of quality.
Overview of digital audio
Digital audio has emerged because of its usefulness in the recording, manipulation, mass-production, and distribution of sound. Modern distribution of music across the Internet via on-line stores depends on digital recording and digital compression algorithms. Distribution of audio as data files rather than as physical objects has significantly reduced the cost of distribution.
In an analog audio system, sounds begin as physical waveforms in the air, are transformed into an electrical representation of the waveform, via a transducer (for example, a microphone), and are stored or transmitted. To be re-created into sound, the process is reversed, through amplification and then conversion back into physical waveforms via a loudspeaker. Although its nature may change, analog audio's fundamental wave-like characteristics remain the same during its storage, transformation, duplication, and amplification.
Analog audio signals are susceptible to noise and distortion, unavoidable due to the innate characteristics of electronic circuits and associated devices. In the case of purely analog recording and reproduction, numerous opportunities for the introduction of noise and distortion exist throughout the entire process. When audio is digitized, distortion and noise are introduced only by the stages that precede conversion to digital format, and by the stages that follow conversion back to analog.
The digital audio chain begins when an analog audio signal is first sampled, and then (for pulse-code modulation, the usual form of digital audio) it is converted into binary signals—‘on/off’ pulses—which are stored as binary electronic, magnetic, or optical signals, rather than as continuous time, continuous level electronic or electromechanical signals. This signal may then be further encoded to allow correction of any errors that might occur in the storage or transmission of the signal, however this encoding is for error correction, and is not strictly part of the digital audio process. This "channel coding" is essential to the ability of broadcast or recorded digital system to avoid loss of bit accuracy. The discrete time and level of the binary signal allow a decoder to recreate the analog signal upon replay. An example of a channel code is Eight to Fourteen Bit Modulation as used in the audio Compact Disc (CD).
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