Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Audio Argument: Digital vs. Analog

Most of the people who read this blog know me as a guy who strums a guitar and sings, and you're correct. That's what I am, but it's not the only thing I am. I'm also someone's dad. I'm someone's significant other. I'm a guy who owns and operates a small marketing communications company. And while my background and my career has always been integrated with the music world, a good portion of my actual education was in the technical side of audio recording and music production. While I've always been a performing musician -- nearly my entire life -- I also spent a good amount of time on what we call "the other side of the glass", meaning that I've engineered and produced music.

Circa 1993, if you wanted to find me, I'd usually be in a recording studio somewhere. Here I am getting ready to strangle my friend and fellow engineer Mike Gale (who I'm sure deserved it at the time).

As you would imagine, there are entire communities that revolve around the art and science of audio recording, and no single aspect of recording has been as divisive as the argument of "digital versus analog". Even today, some 28 years after the Compact Disc ushered in digital audio to the masses, nothing starts a good 10-page thread on audio forums than someone opining about their preferences and reasons for choosing one over the other. I thought it might be nice to talk about this a little and explain the fast version of why this remains such a hot topic.

1. Analog Sounds Better
"Sounds better" is a stupid thing to write. Listening to music recording is subjective, meaning that what I like might not be what you like. However, without getting into the science behind it, most people prefer the sound of a song that was well recorded on analog tape than those recorded via digital systems, and most people prefer the sound of music being played back on a clean vinyl LP record than from a CD or especially from an MP3 file. Analog simply represents a better approximation of the original sounds being recorded, and there's a warmth and depth to analog that digital recordings fail to completely achieve.

2. Analog Doesn't Sound Better
All this nostalgic talk about analog sounding so much better than digital leaves out one key element: the tangible act of playing back music! Records almost immediately get scratches, and often even the new ones have clicks and pops that happen in the manufacturing process. Cassette tapes were never a good format for listening to music; the noise floor of a cassette meant that when you turned it up during quiet moments, you always heard the hiss of the tape. So while it's great in theory, it's not always great in practice.

Let's face facts: LP records sounded good for awhile, but most eventually ended up like this. The songs on your iPod don't get scratched up.

3. Analog Is Expensive
Whooo boy. Below, you'll see me holding a reel of 2" tape that I used for a 24-track recording back in the early '90s. The machine that I used to record this music was an MCI JH-24, which at the time cost around $50,000. But let's say you don't need the machine; you just need the tape. A reel like the one I'm holding below currently costs about $500. Running at standard speeds, that reel will hold maybe two songs' worth of music. The amount of tape needed for a full album ends up being about $2500 or more. That's fine if you're a wealthy rock star, but for typical people who just want to record, the cost is way too prohibitive.

If tape didn't sound so damn good, this debate would be null and void.

4. Digital Offers More Creative Tools
It's not even debatable. What people can do by recording with digital audio workstations (i.e., computers) is simply amazing. I can copy and paste audio tracks. I can add processing that simply plugs into the recording software I use. I can change the pitch and timing of a performance as needed. While some of these things were possible on analog tape, the process that was required to achieve them was incredibly time consuming, and could ruin an entire recording with one small error (as opposed to hitting the "undo" command when you screw up).

Each year that goes by, more and more creative tools are added to digital recording systems that allow for amazing creative expression and faster workflow.

5. Digital Is Convenient
It would take me pages and pages to explain "the old way" of recording and distributing music. First, you didn't do it. It was a process reserved for musicians/bands that were signed to record labels, who would invest the thousands of dollars it took to go into a recording studio and create singles and albums. Then, the master recording was sent to a plant -- there weren't very many of them -- where albums were pressed and sent to stores. And to sell the music, people had to physically go to the store and buy the album.

Today, a skilled person can make a professionally recorded album in his/her bedroom on a pretty typical computer, and their song can be made available around the world via services like iTunes. My "tape" is the amount of space on my hard drive, and with the price of large drives continuing to dwindle, it's easy to do an entire album on a drive that costs maybe $100. The person buying the music can do so by clicking a mouse and entering a credit card number. While the process of opening the world of professional recording has its downsides (like a lot of people being able to release less-than-spectacular music), I can't help but be in favor of something that democratizes a process that used to be reserved for the wealthy elite.

Even some no-name guy like me can now record their best stuff and offer it for sale alongside the infinitely more famous people on iTunes. None of this would have happened without several levels of revolution in digital audio. By the way, you're welcome to go buy my album right now. You don't even have to keep reading. Seriously, go get it. I'll just wait here.

6. Everyone Listens To Digital Playback Systems Anyway
I'll get yelled at for writing that, but it's really true. How do you listen to music? If you're like 95% of people in 2011, you listen to digital audio downloads like MP3 or AAC files you buy online, or you listen to CDs. Whether it's your iPod, your car stereo, or even the radio, almost every playback system you hear today is digital based. Even with those old records that were recorded in analog before the digital revolution, you are almost certainly listening to newer digital remasters by now.

One good piece of news for analog lovers: due to a couple of different factors, the use of turntables and vinyl LPs has actually had a resurgence over the past 7-8 years, and more artists -- especially indie musicians like myself -- are opting to do runs of record pressings of their new recordings. While I can't justify the cost of doing this for my own music (I don't sell enough albums to break even on it), the idea is constantly tempting. I find that I yearn for the day of hearing the needle plop down on some fresh vinyl and hearing my own recordings come out of the speakers. And I'm not alone; the recent Foo Fighters album Wasting Light was completely recorded on analog tape and is offered in an LP version. The reason for this was that Dave Grohl and his band were adamant that they wanted a rock album that sounded as good as music can be experienced, and I applaud their effort; it was worth it.

Want to hear what rock can sound like when recorded and played back in analog? If you don't have a perfect copy of Led Zeppelin's "Physical Graffiti", try the newest Foo Fighters album "Wasting Light" on a nice turntable.

So, Which One Is Better?
Both... and neither. There's no clear cut winner in this now-old argument, and the act of arguing about it is a massive wate of time. No one is going to be convinced, be it through scientific explanations or evangelizing the subjective sound of one over the other, that the opposite side is correct. The good news in all of this is that while digital audio isn't ever going away, it does continue to evolve and improve, and there may come a point in the not-distant future that audibly, one will be indistinguishable from the other. Until then, as I always say, the most important part of making good music is writing good songs... a much better use of someone's time than arguing about the technological side of things.

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