Episode 190: The Analog Vs. Digital Debate

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Conventional wisdom would suggest that consumers of music have benefited greatly in the digital age. Aside from the obvious advantage of portability, other long standing issues with the formerly predominant analog formats (vinyl records and cassette tapes) have become a distant memory.

For the iPod generation, the mere suggestion that repeated listens could induce degeneration of an album is incomprehensible. The digital revolution has ensured that never again will a song skip during playback. Never again will an audible hiss serve as the unofficial introduction to a track. Never again will it matter how conscientious the owner is with respect to preserving their music.

However, there is a growing sentiment that digitally encoded music may inherently lack elements once present in older media – vinyl specifically. So-called audiophiles, individuals who are heavily concerned with the playback and quality of their music, have consistently argued that a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ is conspicuous by its absence in newer recordings. While the average consumer remains largely disinterested in debating the relative merits (or lack thereof) of a digital copy, favoring convenience over quality, concerned listeners and sound professionals alike have argued that an almost imperceptible ‘warmth’ cannot be achieved with the modern approach to making music. In an appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, musician Jack White made his case for why analog simply sounds better:

With automation now ensuring that everything from the drum track to the guitar solo is perfectly quantized, many forms of popular music resemble less and less a human creation. The charm of many older records, in retrospect, is that they are not quite perfect. The snare drum sometimes does not hit exactly on beat. The lead singer may temporarily deviate from being exactly pitch-perfect. The tempo of the song tends to organically vary depending on intangible elements such as mood and emotion.

Of course, the concerns associated with computer-assisted music are hardly new. In 1993, MTV News reported that the industry was already trying to cope with the disadvantages of the digital, CD format:

If so much of the analog vs. digital debate involves intangible aspects that often are only noticeable to the trained ear, what are the tangible reasons for why the difference is obvious? Veteran audio engineer Carl Beatty explains:

In short, an analog signal is continuous, meaning that there are no breaks or interruptions, whereas the conversion of sound to digital data (1s and 0s) involves the loss of information due to the compression necessary to reduce file size.

Some have even suggested that the human ear itself is hard-wired to respond better to an analog signal. Perhaps this explains why the tactic of auto-tuning the recorded performances of vocalists is so jarring. With auto-tune, even a novice can be made to sound passable, as reporter Tanya O’Rourke discovered:

Although numerous, cost-effective hardware and software now make composition and recording easier than ever, an increasing reliance on computers has arguably led to a more ‘hollow’, even soulless sound becoming the norm. It is for that reason, along with the others mentioned earlier in this podcast, that some are rejecting MP3s in favor of the physical records of years past. Vinyl has made a resurgence in recent times, with sales reaching a 15 year high in 2013.

My experience with both analog and digital media has led me to believe that if the original performance was recorded using analog technology, the physical record does in fact reveal noticeable differences, particularly in the low-end frequencies. There is a certain warmness in the bass, and the lack of digital compression allows for a more realistic sense of dynamics and space.

Hip-hop producers in particular have long known of the virtues of vinyl. To this day, some prominent beat makers remain ardent followers of ‘digging in the crates‘ – the process of finding obscure dusty vinyl samples to construct a holistic instrumental. Lo-fi drum samples are particularly valued for their punch and grittiness – despite the litany of digital plug-ins that purport to manipulate digital files in a similar manner.

If a song was recorded using digital means, the CD or a very high quality WAV file appears to be the way to go. However, as noted by Carl Beatty, the standard mid-range mp3 files listened to by most of the public have been deemed as more than acceptable for some time:

As of yet, there is no definitive winner in the analog-digital debate. It could be possible that some listeners may be so clouded in nostalgia for their dusty old records that the reported differences in fidelity are too subtle to be significant. Others have suggested that the actual physical mechanism present in playing a record is more aesthetic than auditory in its appeal. Could there be an ‘analog placebo effect” at play?

I’ll give the final word to Dave Grohl, who insightfully weighs the pros and cons of each perspective in this final clip of the day:

This is a transcript of Episode 190 of the Smells Like Human Spirit Podcast (‘The ‘Analog Vs. Digital Debate’), which can be downloaded here.

Smells Like Human Spirit is a DAILY podcast that covers society, culture, and everything in between! Previous guests include Professor Noam Chomsky, Dan Carlin, Michael Ruppert and many others…

1 Comment to “Episode 190: The Analog Vs. Digital Debate”

  1. Thanks for tackling this subject. We’re at a point now where you can literally make a professional record all in the box. Amazing times we live in!!!

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