The Relevance of Analog in a Digital World

Does the process of analog recording and signal processing have any relevance in today’s digital world?  Do the benefits of digital recording, processing and editing outweigh any advantage that its’ analog equivalent can bring to the table?  What is more important to the audience – quality or convenience?  Can analog and digital coexist or is analog dead and gone?

 

The question of analog vs. digital recording and signal processing is something I’ve debated with myself and others over the past few years but it seems to come up even more often these days.  There is no doubting the advantages that digital methodology brings to the table, especially in a quick paced production environment with looming deadlines.  There is also no doubt that digital recording and processing is exponentially less expensive than its’ analog cousin.  And, there is no doubt that the cost and convenience has evened the table for the creative masses.

 

But, there’s the elephant in the room that a lot of folks just don’t like to talk about – quality.  Let’s consider a few facts:

 

  • Sound itself  is the movement of air through space.  It is air pressure, wavelengths and all those other pesky things that creative people would generally not like to spend their time and energy thinking about.  But it is these pesky little things that bring your emotion to life and allow you to share it with others.  That is, until someone figures out a telepathic equivalent.
  • Sound itself does not exist in the digital world. The digital world is a purely mathematical world.  No matter how many numbers you write on a piece of paper, they will never make a sound.  Philosophers have posed the question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound”?  Let me settle this once and for all – YES, you idiot, there is still air there – and that’s what sound is.
  • No matter how many binary numbers you have or how many mathematical calculations you impose on those numbers, the numbers themselves can never make a sound. They can only represent someone’s mathematical idea of what a sound wave is.  In the end, those numbers must inevitably cause some mechanical device to vibrate and physically move air, thus creating a sound.

 

I hear many people make the argument that computers have become so powerful and so fast that they can reproduce anything.  Well, at first glance, that might seem true.  But, consider this:  Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) has become great in video games and movie production but you can still tell that it is CGI.  I mean, it is way better than my first PONG video game in the 1970’s, but you can still tell it is computer generated.  So, can your ears also tell the difference with computer generated sound?  You might argue that a digital recording is not the same as a sound generated by a synthesizer – and that’s true.  But, in the end, the computer has to run those numbers through a digital-to-analog converter to generate mechanical sound through the vibration of some mechanical device such as speakers or headphones.

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I completely acknowledge the fact that digital recording, non-linear editing and signal processing have gotten really, really good.  In fact, for a lot of applications, there is really no reason to do any of the above in the analog domain.  I have a friend that does a lot of work that is purely digital including many of the blockbuster movie trailers that you see on TV and at the theater.  He produces amazing, quality results and can do it much faster and more efficiently than anyone could in the analog domain.  In today’s world, it simply doesn’t make sense to record analog in a fast-paced environment like film or television.  In fact, I bought my Studer A820 two inch 24-track machine from ABC in New York for that very reason.  The time and cost constraints have made the analog workflow useless in these types of environments.

 

So, with that being said, is there any relevance to analog recording and processing?  I say the answer is “yes”.  My logic has to do with a few things:

 

  • Microphones are analog. They capture the vibration of air.  The higher quality of that analog device, the better your recording results can be.
  • Analog compressors, EQ’s and limiters sound better than their digital cousins. Now, I must qualify that statement.  I mean “quality” analog devices – not the inexpensive “pseudo-analog” processors that really just contain digital chips and cheap integrated circuits.
  • High quality analog recorders (Studer, Ampex, Otari, etc.) can record at a higher resolution than their digital cousins. A single track on a tape running on a machine at 30ips contains roughly 8 times the data that a digital recording running at 192Khz/24-bit.  And, despite what you might think, very few studios do much tracking at that rate unless they’re only using a few tracks.  Most high-end studios use 88.2K/24-bit when recording and mixing.  And, I’d argue that the majority of the recordings being produced in small or home studios never rise above 48K/24-bit!  I will explain all of the math and do a bit-to-bit comparison in another article – it’s a big subject!
  • The process of linear recording with a limited number of tracks provides for a better way of recording musical performances. I have not met a musician that can resist the non-linear temptation of “moving tracks” or having an unlimited number of tracks on a DAW (digital audio workstation).  I have a rule when recording digitally – if it takes me longer to “edit” your mistake than it takes you to play it correctly, we’re doing another take!  Believe me, I’ve pissed off more than one musician making them do another take.  Quite simply, to record analog requires that you capture a great performance – not create one!  And, a limited number of tracks forces artists to make musical decisions up front – not later.  Both of the factors lead to better music.
  • Lastly, speakers are analog. They are the last link in the chain – the actual mechanical device that moves the air that hits your ear that then vibrates a number of little bones and hairs inside your head to communicate that sound to your brain.  No vibration, no sound.

 

All of this brings us to the topic of “quality”.  What is quality?  One could argue that quality is subjective, and to a certain extent that is true.  Some would argue that Vinyl sounds better than CD’s and I think that is “subjective”, whereas I believe there is a technical aspect that is more important to the question of quality.  I touched briefly on the tape resolution vs. digital sample rates.  But, how important is that really?  I would argue that it depends on your audience.  If my audience is a bunch of kids with A.D.D. that can’t listen to more than 12 seconds of a song before skipping to the next song on their device full of crappy mp3’s that store 1 gazillion songs, then quality can take a back seat.  And, unfortunately for music, it has.

 

When the music industry developed the CD through a joint venture with Philips in the 1970’s, their criteria was to be able to get Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on one disc (about 74 minutes).  Of course the scientists also determined that the human ear could only detect a range of sound in about the 22Khz range so they just doubled it and came up with 44.1Khz.  Sounds good on paper, right?  Well, with that and the adoption of the new industry standard (not to mention a hell of a lot of marketing), the CD was introduced to the masses in the early 1980’s.

 

But, rewind a bit… Why the change in format from Vinyl?  Most of the reasons had nothing to do with quality.  Sure, a CD had no “noise floor”, and that was all that was needed to sell the general public.  But, the real reason was sales.  Record companies wanted to create a format that was “perceived” better not just for future recordings, but so that they could re-sell their entire catalogs!  And re-sell they did.  The problem, at least in the beginning, was that nothing from their existing catalogs had ever been mastered for this format so they simply dumped their old tape masters straight to disc.  The result was that some CD’s sounded “louder” than others and the consumer (and even many artists) perceived that as bad.  They thought that the louder a CD was, the better quality it must be!  Let the loudness wars begin!

 

In response to feedback from consumers and artists alike, companies began compressing their masters even harder so that the poor consumer didn’t have to use the volume knob on their stereo.  Just like FM radio, the compression sounds like crap and sucks the life out of music.  That kind of compression and even hard limiting is great for talk radio but it sucks for music!  Still, no one seemed to care.

 

Meanwhile, back at the studio – Digital Tape started to make its’ appearance and later Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s).  But that’s a whole other article too!  Everyone (including me) thought digital recording was great and we jumped on board.  We started recording on ADAT’s and computers with devices that would synchronize with our MIDI devices.  It was awesome, we could do anything!  But, there was one problem that we didn’t quite think out – STANDARDS!

 

As the digital recording craze evolved, everyone had their own standard.  Were you using a Sony reel-to-reel digital deck, an ADAT SVHS, Tascam MiniDV, a DAW (Pro Tools, Cubase, Cakewalk, etc.) or some combination of the above?  What happened when you went back to re-mix a project from 10 years ago?  Uh-oh.  My software won’t read the file.  I don’t have that synth anymore.  What plug-ins did I use?  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of albums from the ‘80’s-‘90’s that can never be re-mixed like their old analog cousins.  Today, digital still fights with those same issues.  We have learned to export “stems” which are individual uncompressed mono .wav files for each individual track.  But even that has issues: What was the sample rate of the stems?  Do they contain metadata?  Arrrgggghh!!!!

 

But back to the consumer.  MP3’s came around in the 1990’s as a way to compress the size of a digital audio file.  So, Fraunhofer (inventor of the MP3), in his infinite wisdom, made the decision for all of us as to what we could really hear (or not hear).  And this algorithm was based on a concept called “auditory masking” that was nothing more than one guy’s theory (Alfred Mayer) in 1894.  Gee, thanks.

 

So, with this algorithm he chose what to throw out for every level of size compression.  Even the best mp3 at 320Khz still compresses the size of a file by about 10:1.  So what is the 90% of the sound he threw out?  Well, that gets down to psychoacoustics.  In short, we may be doing psychological damage to ourselves by prolonged exposure to mp3’s including depression and anxiety.   That, again, is a topic for another article.

 

Over the past couple years there has been a resurgence in Vinyl.  Why?  Could it be that people are starting to discover what they’ve been missing with crappy, over-compressed mp3’s?  Could it be that a new generation is just looking for something different and there’s a fascination with the format?  I think it’s both.  The discussion of Vinyl quality and experience is, again, a great topic for another article but suffice it to say that music lovers are returning to the idea of quality – High Fidelity.  I see a very bright future for the music industry – which brings me back to where we started.

 

Does analog have relevance in a digital world?  The answer is an unequivocal YES!  The process of linear analog recording through musical sounding analog gear has a bright future for creating music.  Digital recording and processing has a bright future for film, TV and similar time/cost restricted production.  They are different processes used for different reasons – like painting is different than photography.  Digital music formats have a bright future for distribution but analog formats have an equally bright future.  My conclusion is that both can coexist quite nicely – and will for a long, long time.