Analog vs Digital
The Analog vs Digital war battles on and will likely continue through the ages, however year by year digital has tightened the gap and is getting warmer all the time. Some of the softsynth reproductions of “analog” warmth has been pretty impressive as well. Although I’m not planning on taking sides, I am going to defend digital a bit for all the heat it seems to get from so called “analog purists”. I am also not planning on getting into the math on this one. That kind of stuff bores me to tears and defeats the point of this little blog.
Digital strengths vs Analog strengths
The Art of Mastering Audio by Bob Katzs makes some good points on this subject. Being one of the most respected mastering engineers, I take what he says as coming from years of experience in both the digital and analog world. This is what Bob has to say:
Analog recordings tend to excel at producing accurate detail in the lower frequencies and get less detailed and fuzzy at the higher frequencies.
Digital recordings excel at accurate reproduction of the higher frequencies and get fuzzy on the bottom end.
Bob uses this analogy to give you an idea of how this works:
Analog recordings would be like looking up at a skyscraper from the bottom whereas Digital would be like looking at the same skyscraper from the rooftop down.
From this perspective you can see where both digital and analog could both be used to good effect, depending on what you are going for. You can say that analog has a pleasant muddiness (I’m using this term loosely so don’t throw a fit) and digital has a sharper sound overall.
The thing many of us love about analog is that it’s imperfect and thus more human. The artifacts created in an analog recording keep a recording a bit more dynamic and unpredictable whereas digital recordings come across much more sterile and with virtually no artifacts or imperfections. Many producers keep this in mind when recording in the digital domain and do their best to inject some variation and unpredictability to the recordings. Many high end virtual instruments and fx plugin’s do a good job of recreating analog-like artifacts and “analog” warmth. If you know the right tools to use in the digital domain, you can fool most people most of the time.
Many people think that a professional mastering studio only uses analog equipment to do their work but this isn’t the case.
Most engineers agree that taking your wav or aif file master recording, running it through analog equipment and then back into the digital domain will usually do more harm than good even if they are using excellent converters. More often than not, if an artist wants everything mastered in the analog domain, they will deliver their reel to reel masters to the mastering house, otherwise the work will most likely have the best results staying in the digital domain.
For Studios on a small budget, the cost of comparable analog gear, the converters and all the highest end cables would not be worth it. Also remember all the maintenance to keep the equipment working top notch. That isn’t cheap. On top of that, you can’t expect to have an artist come back to you years after your first session and have presets that will deliver identical results. Analog gear can’t be expected to get the same results day after day because its not crunching numbers like in the digital domain. There will always be a little chaos added to every piece of analog gear. This can be wonderful during the recording phase but can make it very difficult to master an album over the course of months or years.
The Real Test
Go ahead and go through your CD collection and pull out your warmest analog recordings. Pink Floyd? Stevie Wonder? Air? Notice the difference you hear in those recordings. Notice all the warmth from the tape saturation. Notice the difference between that and the most obvious digital recordings and these old recordings. Some of you might prefer the clean modern sound and that’s totally fine. To each their own.
The most important point that I want to end with is that digital must be pretty damn good at reproducing analog sound since the best CD you’ve ever heard is still a 16 bit digital representation. It might not be vinyl, but most of what you listen to these days ends up digital at some point. In fact, don’t doubt that some of your vinyl is just an analog representation of a digital recording.
This blog wasn’t meant to answer all the questions in the analog vs digital debate but rather to open up a healthy conversation on the topic. These days there is so much great technology at our fingertips whether it be Analog or Digitally produced that it’s hard not to be attracted to both. Even with free software you can create release worthy music. Don’t get hung up. Use what you’ve got. If it sounds good to you, roll with it. When it comes to your art, it’s your opinion that matters most.
Happy Music Making,
The classic problem. I think I will expand on your article on our Ableton site. Here are some initial thoughts.
First – I use a TON of analog outboard gear in my Ableton Live performance. The digital and analog blend is far superior because I extrace strengths from both.
Next – Chaos! Digital is ruled (100%) by math. The only random variables are those entered into the programming by choice. Analog, by nature, introduces chaos.
Items in the circuit such as shielding, capacitor age / condition, wire (and board connection) gauge, bad timing (poor crystals or sync methods), power conditioning, type of amp (opt, pre, etc, also class of amp). The list goes on. The point is chaos.
This is why no 2 tape multi-tracks are the same. Now the same IS true for digital, but the variance is much less in the digital domain.
The chaos created is one of the most important and overlooked areas in the analog realm. The slight de-tuning, noise introduced, EM system failures, and so on, create the lush sound scape that makes analog sound better. The “better” is actually worse because it is not perfect. The brain (of a human) digs on the imperfection. If this was not true we would have computers write “perfect” music for us and all us musician would quit what we are doing.
Just because you are able to use 32, 64, or even 128 bit floating (or preferably NOT floating) point precision does not make the sound better. It only makes it more exact.
In our modern world exact and better come from a blend through the understanding of digital and analog. Neither will be able dominate the sound market, ever. (I can defend this ad nauseum from a pragmatic view)
Thanks for the fodder for a GREAT article on our Ableton site. I will get it up very soon.
Your article is right on, but ultimately is the tip of the iceberg on the (never ending) topic.
This argument has always intrigued me.
I actually met a mastering engineer who works out here in Century City at Atomix who runs the mix out through outboard analogue gear and returns it to digital. To each there own I guess.
Very cool Topic, Being a guitarist I actually like the sound of analog, but for how many times I can error in a recording it sure is worth a ton of money to just hit delete.