The Difference Between Analog And Digital Guitar Effects Pedals

Music is my passion. I literally hear everything that’s going on with a musical presentation when I listen to it. The purity of sound and the fresh, clear words that jump out of the speakers tell me one important characteristic of the music … it’s an analog presentation. Listen for yourself and tell me what you think. I have a full vinyl album collection of Chicago in their early years in which their song, “It Better End Soon” in five movements is in pristine condition. The second movement is a guitar solo. I also have that same collection on a digitally remastered CD. If you put on a good pair of noise canceling headphones (mine are Bose) and listen to both in succession, the analog version is superior in every way. The renaissance of vinyl is no fluke. You can also make the comparison between a recording artist at a live concert and the same recording artist performing the same song on CD. You will be amazed.


The Techie Stuff About Analog

The difference between analog and digital is that the former sounds just like Mother Nature created sound. It’s natural and continuous. If we get out the signal analyzer or oscilloscope and look at digital and analog signals, this is what you see.

The analog signal is smooth with no breaks or discontinuities in the pattern. It is pure. The digital signal is what we call a sampled representation of the analog signal. The physics of the transformation process just cannot reproduce the natural sound because time is your enemy. You can only sample the analog signal so many times per microsecond and never approach perfection. Thus, the digital signal is a discontinuous representation and does not sound as natural or smooth. It simply cannot happen.


Digital Guitar Effects Pedals

The same concept is at work on digital guitar effects pedals. It’s actually a mathematical anomaly that can be easily explained through a discussion of differential and integral calculus. Yeah, I thought so. I can see your eyes glazing over already. Calculus is a highly abstract subject in which they introduce mathematical concepts that you simply have to accept on faith. Concepts such as sampling rates that can approach infinitesimally small intervals approaching but never theoretically reaching zero are at the heart of the subject. The sampling frequency at a zero sampling interval just cannot be defined mathematically which makes it a discontinuity in the signal conversion process. The effect from the digital pedal would not be predictable.

In effect, digital signals are a man-made imperfection. We seem to like doing that. In fact, this introduces a rather unusual comparison. Musical instruments, like a guitar, will not repeat the same analog sound from one performance of the song to the next because as the instrument is used, the tuning of the strings degrades or is tuned differently and the sound changes. If you had two separate performances of the song recorded on an analog vinyl album, both songs would have different sound properties. A digital recording is always the same because it’s a processed signal. The machine will always faithfully reproduce what it gets. Cymbals seem to a good litmus test of the issue. A digital cymbal sounds much different from an analog cymbal.

Thus, we see the issue between the digital guitar pedal and the analog one. It’s all about the quality of the signal produced and what you natural ear hears.



So, to wrap this up, what we are seeing is the effects of man-made interventions with natural sound. Basically, if you have a digitally created signal, there are imperfections that analog pedals will never have. We have sampled sound, pre-programmed effects and constraints on the hardware in that voltage levels must be kept relatively low. A vintage analog fuzz pedal sounds good because the circuit reacts to all subtle nuances of your playing (small changed in voltage and current) and instrument changes as time goes on. That happens because circuit elements are analog. So in my humble opinion, analog will always be better than digital for these types of circuits because the listener experience is superior and pure. Digital has its place, but it is in preprogrammed effects and gimmicks that can’t physically be accomplished on an analog guitar pedal.



Your Turn to Sound Off!

What type of effects do you prefer?

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