The Art & Science of Sound

The Storage Revolution - Disk Drives and Music

By Jack Sharkey, October 16, 2018


We have lived in a digital world since the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until the early 1990s that computers became an integral part of our everyday lives. In the 1960s and 70’s computers were huge and computing power was expensive so only the largest corporations and government agencies relied on them, but their impact on regular folk was still massive – it’s no coincidence the credit card revolution started around the same time mainframe computers became available: you need a lot of computing power to figure out all that interest you owe on that stuff you bought without paying for it first.

The world we live in today is completely different than the world we lived in a mere thirty years ago and that’s solely because of our ability to store massive amounts of data cheaply on incredibly small devices.

For better or worse, the digital revolution transformed everything – none more so than music. Thirty years ago the CD changed the paradigm of how we purchased, stored and listened to music but the CD was a mere rest stop on the way to a bigger transformation. By the middle of the first decade of the new century, storage had become so inexpensive and small that the CD suddenly seemed less revolutionary and more old fogey.

We are not witnessing a digital revolution as much as we are witnessing a storage revolution. It’s hard to argue the fact that the digital revolution – when it comes to music and everything else – is a direct result of our newfound ability to store massive amounts of data in a tiny space for very little cost. Truly a revolution in miniaturization.

Commercial digital recording has been around since the early 1980s – all of those 1’s and 0’s are nothing new to the music world – it’s just that we can now store trillions of them in a fraction of the space where once we could only store thousands of them. That’s the core of the revolution and the reason why music was able to go digital for the masses.

I have a 1TB Seagate external drive that I use exclusively to carry around 11,108 mostly high-resolution songs that are using up 230GB of data leaving me with approximately 767GB of free-space still available on this drive alone!

I also have a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive that gives me another 3TB of space of which I’ve used 122GB for videos (715), 41.66GB for photos (19,962) and 244.29GB for music (13,619). After all of this digital hoarding I still have 1.54TB of free space!

The first iPod was released on October 23, 2001 and contained 5GB of storage space which roughly equates to 40,000,000,000 bits of data. Seventeen years later, my NAS drive – after storing all of my songs, videos and pictures – still has available space equivalent to 200 iPods! Keep in mind, this is after storing 715 videos, 19,962 photographs and 13,619 songs!

This might also be a good time to mention that probably half of those songs sound better than they did on CD, and most certainly all of them better than they sounded on vinyl or cassette. Those of you born before 2008 have witnessed the single greatest technical advancement in the history of music (and a lot of other areas too). To those of you approaching my nearly antediluvian age – I worked on mainframe computers in the 1980s that required a 10,000 square foot room and their own HVAC systems – the storage revolution boggles the mind.

Since October is KEF’s month of reflection on the accomplishments that got us to where we are today, it’s a good time to look at the journey the devices that store our music have taken as well. 

The picture at left shows a Control Data Corporation 9762 Disk Drive (released in 1973) that was capable of storing 300MB of data. The platters were placed inside of the drive via black the door on top. Large computer installations might contain a dozen or more of these drives in use concurrently. Using the example above, my 1.54TB of free space would be the equivalent of 5,133 of these drives. I’ll repeat that slowly – it would take 5,133 of these disk drives to equal the amount of free space I have after storing all of my stuff on a storage unit that is 6”x8”x2” and is connected to my computer and audio system wirelessly!  

The CDC 9762 would set you back roughly $10,000 then which is equal to $29,000 today. I paid $84.99 for my NAS drive. It would take 10,000 CDC 9762 drives to replace my one NAS drive at a total cost of $290 million dollars adjusted for inflation. This is why we listened to music on vinyl and CD back in the day - $290,000,000 was hard to come by.

Just in the last ten years alone, storage capability has grown 1,000 times.

Here's a storage drive equivalent to the CDC 9762 hanging out with some washing machines.

In the mid-80s, 10MB of storage would cost you around $3398.00 ($9897.38 on 2016 dollars). Today you can get 10,000 times the storage for roughly .008% the cost.

Sure computing power has gotten cheaper as it’s gotten more powerful, but when we talk about computers changing the way we listen to music and pretty much everything else, we’re really talking about how storage capabilities have made the digital revolution possible.

If you really want to geek out, the video below gives a great description of how a disk drive works:

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