Analog Versus Digital Recordings

Which sound is preferred in today's recordings --digital or analog? Is there even really a noticeable difference? More importantly – does it actually matter? That's the topic of today but before we get into each side of the debate, its best to find out what exactly makes a sound digital or analog beyond what you use to record it.  

Essentially, it has to do with the way we record sound. With an analog recording, the signal wave is taken straight from a microphone and saved directly onto the tape. The wave being recorded is an analog wave meaning the wave on the tape is also analog. This recorded wave can then be read, amplified and sent to a speaker in order to produce sound. With a digital recording, the sound wave starts off as analog when it is being recorded by a microphone but is then sampled at some point and turned into binary code (a series of 1s and 0s) that is then saved onto a digital storage medium.

These digital recordings are usually very large so often, recording engineers will compress them to make their size more manageable but unfortunately, this can affect sound quality. The good news is that today, advances in analog-to-digital conversion techniques have greatly improved the quality of digital recordings. Furthermore, many would say that the high sampling rates and increased precision of digital recordings have all but erased any clear distinctions between it and analog, although there are still many out there who strongly disagree. There are a good number of purists and audiophiles that stand by the belief that for the highest quality sounds possible, analog systems provide the better solution.


The Difference between Analog and Digital Signals

Sound is naturally an analog signal. An analog signal is continuous, meaning that there are no breaks or interruptions. One moment flows into the next. If you were to hum a descending note, people hearing you would be able to detect the change in pitch, but not point to specific moments when the pitch jumped from one note to the next.

Digital signals are not continuous. They use specific values to represent information. In the case of sound, that means representing a sound wave as a series of values that represent pitch and volume over the length of the recording. In a primitive digital recording of that descending note you hummed, you'd hear a single long sound as a collection of shorter sounds. Some audiophiles argue that because analog recording methods are continuous, they are better at capturing a true representation of sound. Digital recordings can miss subtle nuances. But as digital recording processes improve, digital devices can use higher sampling rates with greater precision. Although the signal still isn't continuous, the high sampling rate can create a sound similar to the original source.

Before the 1970s, musicians recorded their performances on analog recording equipment. Microphones recording the sound generated an analog wave that other devices would then transfer directly to the proper media (usually magnetic tape). Assuming the recording artist used reliable equipment, the sound recorded was an accurate representation of the original sound. With digital recording, audio engineers convert analog waves into digital signals. There are many different kinds of equipment that can convert analog to digital. Some audio studios record a performance on an analog master tape first, then transfer the sound to a digital format. Others will use special equipment to record directly to digital. Early digital recordings sacrificed fidelity, or sound quality, in favor of reliability.

One of the drawbacks of an analog format is that analog media tends to wear down. Vinyl albums can warp or get scratched, which can dramatically impact sound quality. Magnetic tape eventually wears out and is vulnerable to magnets, which can erase or destroy information stored on the tape. Digital media like compact discs can reproduce sound indefinitely. Another advantage digital media has over analog is that you can make as many copies of the original sound file as you like without hurting it. Eventually, even an analog master recording isn't going to sound as good as the original performance. As long as nothing corrupts a digital file, it will stay the same no matter how much time has passed or how many copies engineers make.

Today, technology in the audio recording industry is so advanced that many audio engineers will tell you there's no detectable difference between analog and digital recordings. Even if you were to use the best stereo equipment, you shouldn't be able to identify one medium versus the other just by listening to the sound. Many audiophiles disagree and claim that the analog format is still supreme.


Which is Sounds Best?

Some audiophiles believe that digital recordings fall short when it comes to reproducing sound accurately. They use an intricate language filled with jargon to describe an audio system's capabilities or shortcomings. Most of their criticisms deal with sound frequency. Humans can hear sounds ranging from 20 hertz (Hz) to 20 kilohertz (kHz) [source: Hyperphysics]. A sound wave's frequency corresponds to our perception of a sound's pitch. The higher the frequency, the higher the pitch we hear.

Audiophiles describe an audio system's sound quality regarding different frequencies by using terms like full, warm and airy. A full or warm sound comes from a system that reproduces low frequencies well. An airy sound means that the music reproduced gives the listener the impression that the instruments are in a spacious environment and usually refers to sounds in the high frequency range.

Some audiophiles say that vinyl albums perform better in the lower frequencies, meaning they provide a warm sound. They argue that compact discs aren't as accurate at reproducing sounds at this range. Other people insist that there is no detectable difference between a well-produced digital file and an undamaged vinyl record. An audiophile would likely point out that your sound system will be the most important factor when listening to music, not the media you put into it. But assuming you've put together a really strong system that can handle both analog and digital formats, which format should you choose when shopping for a new album?

It depends on the recording method. If the recording artist used an analog format to create the master recording, audiophiles would argue that an analog copy of the music is best. That's because there would be no need to convert the sound from analog to digital. The copy should be an accurate representation of the original track. But if the artist used digital recording, then it would be best to buy the album on CD. In order to press a vinyl album from a digital recording, audio engineers must first convert the music from a digital signal back into an analog sound wave. Any time engineers have to convert a recording from one format to another, there's a chance that the quality will suffer.


The Verdict

Two people standing in the same room listening to the same music might have very different opinions regarding the quality of the recording. One might describe the music as warm and airy, while the other could say it was harsh and flat. That can happen whether the listeners use digital or analog media. So when it comes down to it, the question of which sounds better – analog or digital – all really depends on who you ask. 

One thought on “Analog Versus Digital Recordings”

  • Studio139

    Not to be unkind but I am unsure who this article was intended for.
    For audio professionals it doesn't contain any new or relevant information, for the total novice, they are probably only vaguely aware that analog recording exists. Even with the minor revival of vinyl, most of the recordings are more likely to have originated or the material processed with in the digital realm at some point. The assertion that if the source material originated in the digital domain then a CD is the way to listen to it, does not really mean much as most source material starts out at a much higher sampling rate than the final product, so you never hear the material with the same quality as the source. Maybe it is just me, but this entire article really could have been just the last paragraph.

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