Continuum The magazine of The University of Utah

Pioneer in Sound

The late University of Utah professor Thomas Stockham is known as the father of digital audio recording.

University of Utah professor Thomas G. Stockham, Jr., developed methods for digital audio recording and playback. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

University of Utah professor Thomas G. Stockham, Jr., developed methods for digital audio recording and playback. (Photo courtesy Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah)

The first person to create a practical method of recording and playing digitized sound was the University of Utah’s own Thomas G. Stockham, Jr., an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

Stockham was a pioneer in many facets of computer science, including computer graphics and the development of the Internet, but it is as the developer of digital recording and playback that the world owes much to his genius. His work helped pave the way for compact discs, iPods, and digitized sound in videos and video games.

“He won not only the respect of his peers but also major honors from the entertainment industry he helped to transform,” The New York Times wrote in his obituary in 2004.

Stockham was born in New Jersey and received bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He began working on early efforts toward digitized sound soon after he became an associate professor at MIT in 1957.

When Stockham came to the University of Utah in 1968, he focused on finding a practical way to digitize music. He and his students in the U’s Computer Science Department developed methods of digital signal processing.

Stockham demonstrated the fruits of his research by digitally processing and restoring RCA’s entire collection of early 20th-century recordings of the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. RCA began releasing the series in 1976. Later that year, Stockham made the first live digital recording, of the Santa Fe Opera.

At the height of the Watergate hearings, Stockham was one of a panel of six experts convened to examine the Watergate tapes. He discovered that the famous 18-minute gap in a crucial Watergate tape made in President Richard M. Nixon’s office was caused by at least five separate erasures and rerecordings. The findings led to the tapes being turned over to Congress.

Stockham left the University in 1975 to found Soundstream, Inc., the first digital recording company in the United States, located in Salt Lake City. The company developed new digital audio recording technologies for professional use—innovations that laid the groundwork for later technologies such as the CD and the DAT (digital audio tape).

Stockham returned to the U in 1983 and was honored with its Outstanding Teacher Award in 1986. He left the U in 1994, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The accolades continued to pour in for his landmark accomplishments. He had won an Emmy award in 1988 for his digital audio and editing systems. He received a Grammy award in 1994 for his “visionary role in pioneering and advancing the era of digital recording.” And he received an Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1999, for his “pioneering work” in digital audio editing.

—Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is a multimedia archivist with the J. Willard Marriott Library.

Web Exclusives

This archival video shows U professor Thomas G. Stockham, Jr., demonstrating his process for digitizing a recording by the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso:

 

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2 Responses to Pioneer in Sound

  • James Bevan says:

    Dr. Stockham was a very nice guy. I stopped by Soundstream back in the late ’70s and visited with him out of pure curiosity for what he was doing. He gave me a half hour of his time and explained what he was doing and how he was doing it. The disc pack shown above held 10 minutes (!) of music. The original Telarc masters at the dawn of the digital era were mastered by Soundstream at a higher frequency rate than the current CD standard. I’ve always felt those early Soundstream masters sounded much warmer (and juicier) than the Sony standard which became the norm. The Janowski recording of the Wagner Ring was mastered by Soundstream and, for me, is the best sounding of any of the digital Ring recordings. Yes, this guy was a major pioneer in the history of recording, from Edison to the present.

  • Jack Pelton says:

    I was a graduate student in geophysics at the University of Utah in the mid-1970s, and was fortunate to attend all of Dr. Stockham’s graduate courses in digital signal processing. He was a great teacher. I still remember some of the moments during his lectures when he made difficult concepts crystal clear to me.

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