Rebuilding Sound From the Ground Up: Dr. Thomas Stockham
Whenever you listen to any form of digital music or entertainment, you’re listening to technology built on the work of one of Sonic’s founders, Dr. Thomas G. Stockham. Long before he became a driving force behind the digital technology that underlies all of our hearing products, Dr. Stockham was a world-famous innovator in digital recording and signal processing. As creator of the Soundstream digital recording system, Stockham helped bring digital sound recording to music, movies, and broadcast entertainment. For these achievements, he was honored with an Emmy award in 1988, a Grammy award in 1994, and a Scientific and Engineering Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1999.
But Dr. Stockham’s interest in digital sound goes back to his days as a doctoral student and as a young Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1962, he experimented with a mainframe computer to digitize his own voice. This led to more serious work on digitizing sound for the audio recording of speech and music, and using digital processing to minimize noise in those recordings.
While at MIT, he worked closely with another pioneer in sound reproduction, Dr. Amar Bose, on the use of digital computers for measurement and simulation of room acoustics, and on psychoacoustics, the study of sound perception by the human brain.
In 1968, Dr. Stockham left MIT for the University of Utah and was soon recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on sound recording.
In 1974, he was asked by Judge John Sirica to use his digital audio processing techniques to examine the infamous 18-minute gap in the Watergate tapes. His research, showing a deliberate erasure, and the report he co-authored helped to change history.
In 1975, he founded Soundstream, Inc., and developed a 16-bit digital audio recording system. In one of the first applications of the new technology, Dr. Stockham began transferring the decaying recordings of Enrico Caruso, the operatic tenor superstar, to a digital format, re-shaping frequencies and removing pops and hisses. These recordings, initially made between 1902 and 1920, were the first ever to be digitally restored, and are still available today.
In 1978, the first Soundstream contemporary classical recording was released, and within 3 years, 50% of all classical digital recordings were made using the Soundstream system, initially appearing on vinyl LP. Ultimately, his efforts in digital audio led to the development of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and the compact disc. Today, all of the digital sound we hear, from streaming music to video games, is based on his pioneering work.
Dr. Stockham’s brilliant work did not stop there. He also had plans to use digital sound processing to change the lives of people suffering from hearing loss. In the 1990s, he combined forces with Dr. Douglas Chabries, an expert in sound recognition and noise elimination at nearby Brigham Young University, to develop a prototype of a fully integrated digital hearing device. Then, Dr. Carver Mead of Caltech joined the duo and reduced the prototype to one tiny chip. As a result, the first Sonic product, Natura, was born in 1998.
Each of our three founders had wide interests in different areas of technology, but all had a deep understanding of how sound is generated, received by the human ear, and processed by the brain. When they combined their lifelong knowledge, their breakthrough results improved the quality of life for millions of people.