15th February 2019

Analogue vs Digital

Well what an emotive subject in the world of Pro-Audio.  For every Sound Engineer out there, there will be a different opinion as to which is ‘best’, as it’s far from cut and dry. Maybe it’s more of a spectrum – analogue this with a smattering of digital here, or perhaps all digital recording with playback on a record player. I could go on.

Of course there is probably no definitive argument either way, and the debate is certainly not just the domain of musicians. Photography certainly springs to mind, where a similar discussion is a regular topic down at the pub. In photography, as with audio, ‘traditional’ techniques and equipment all create a degree of romance and, for the most part, a lot of ignorance, but what probably sets the audio debate apart from other art-forms is a continuing need by musicians to capture ‘that sound’. Of course, before the Analogue vs Digital debate was imagined we had the AM radio/FM radio debate, the Vinyl/CD debate, cassette/mini-disc debate, even Drummer/Drum Machine debate was rife in the ‘80’s. It seems that for all the industry’s fads and gimmicks, digital this and analogue that, the age old debate as to what sells records is frankly still about writing a great song followed closely by a great performance. Of course it needs to be captured and distributed and in this forum I mean ‘tape recorded’ and made available in a form that facilitates playback, these days – any place any time. So great song, great voice, great tape recording. If only it was that simple.

So we can begin to see that the debate is not just about ones and zeros against AC current, knobs verses menus, it’s about what’s right for the song, for the recording. Rock n Roll usually sounds right when played on a record player, when listened to on the radio, live at a gig. Why?

How come traditional recordings and playback sounded as good as they did?

Sounds are captured by a microphone which basically converts changes in air pressure to AC current. This electric push pull is amplified and connects to the real world by exactly the opposite process. Electricity moves a cone back and forward to create air pressure changes which our ears perceive as sound. This process can be stored on magnetic tape as a fluctuation in magnetic charge, or on a piece of vinyl as peaks and troughs. For CD or other digital delivery this has to go through a process known as digitisation, analogue to digital conversion. It is this that causes most of the debate, flux to ones and zeros. We have so-called digital microphones which interface with our computers via a computer friendly cable, USB etc., but the microphone still captures the audio signals exactly as they always have. We have so-called digital speakers which again connect via computer cables but operate in the same manner as they have always done. We still embrace analogue no matter what and until we have audio captured and piped direct to the part of the brain that deals with sound then analogue is here to stay, and be embraced.

Tim A. Duncan