This is the Topic that has been widely discussed amongst audiophiles, engineers and industry reps for decades, So last week, when this came up at the studio I thought this could be something that’s addressed in my next blog post.
What’s better? Analog or Digital? In this article I attempt to explain the pros and cons of analog and digital technology and why one may prefer to choose one over the other. I’ll be as unbiased as possible as we explore the various aspects of recording that utilise both these formats.
Firstly, lets understand what Analog and Digital truly means. The world is analog. Simply put it means that things around us don’t have finite values. Take visual perception for example: Even though sometimes our eyes cannot discern between small different changes in colour, there still exist infinite colours in the universe. A sonic equivalent of this example would be: There are an infinite number of tones or timbers that exist, however our ears are unable to hear miniscule differences. What is the common denominator amongst these? They can all hold infinite values.Now, let’s look at this from an audio point of view:
Let’s say we are using a pre-amp that is connected to a microphone, what the pre-amp essentially does is that it amplifies the voltage that we receive from a microphone. Now this received voltage can hold any infinite value, say for example that the voltage from a mic can be 3.2765mV. With a better measuring device, we would have realised that this value actually is 3.27658712mV.
This shows us that the Voltage from the microphone is an analog value meaning that it can have infinite values provided we have a device that is capable of measuring infinite values.
Here is an image of what an analog and a digital signal looks like:
As you can see, the analog signal is continuous and smooth. On the other hand the digital waveform looks like steps that are set to finite, discrete values.
We all know that computers work in Binary i.e 1 and 0s. Which means that the computer can understand only finite values. So, with digital technology we have to take an analog source and convert it to digital by changing it into a finite set of values. It looks something like this:
The wave form goes through the process of sampling where the analog signal is measure at set values and then converted into digital.
Let’s look into one example of analog to digital conversion: So on the left hand we have a waveform, which is analog. Say we want to convert this into digital format. We would have to use a technique called as sampling to convert it into digital. Sampling is the process of measuring or taking samples at regular intervals. Once we know the sampling point we can assign a finite value as you can see above. Now the computer will store this value at the sample point. If you re-create the waveform by joining the dots, you can get back the original waveform. Now if we keep increasing the sample rate, the quality of our waveform will increase.
Now the image above is a very exaggerated image, but in real life with audio we work with sample rates i.e measuring rates as high as 192 kHz which means, information is sampled 1,92,000 times in one second! (Which is practically infinite)
Now that we have understood the basic concepts behind analog and digital formats, Let’s get to a point that’s discussed amongst audiophile communities. This is a discussion we’ve all been a part of: Do Vinyl recordings sound much better than mp3 recordings?
Yes and No. Yes a vinyl sounds much better than a 128kb/s Mp3 and But a 320kb/s mp3 sounds much better than a vinyl. When it comes to recording media, computers have far surpassed the old recording techniques of tapes and vinyls. Digital technology is able to capture and recreate it with much higher precision compared to what tapes or vinyls are capable of. Analog recording media aren’t great at re-creating higher frequencies, only with the advent of digital technology have we been able to recreate the high frequencies with utmost precision.
So, from a purely scientific standpoint the digital recording medium is miles better at capturing information than analog media.
But with everything that is audio, comes subjectivity. What sounds great to me, might not sound great to you. So a person who doesn’t like high fidelity sound will prefer the sound of a vinyl to that of CD.
This is an interesting argument, since today we work with DAWS where the entire recording process happens inside the software. In a recording/ Mixing session, engineers use tools like EQ, Compression and effects to blend the tracks together and make it sound like one cohesive recording.
In this case the actual analog counterpart turns out to be more effective than a software emulation. The reason behind this is how audio functions in the digital domain, when the signal goes through the actual circuitry, it tend to impart a certain characteristic sound to the signal which is what the engineer is looking for.
Although the digital counterpart has come very close to recreate the analog sound, the digital plugins still offer more nuanced sound.