Analog or Digital

…last week our millennial granddaughter emailed me for advice about buying a turntable for her millennial boyfriend for his birthday.  I told her everything my fuzzy memory could recall.  Funny, this technology just won’t die.  There’s something about mechanical motion that apparently makes music sound better! [emphasis added]

In an email from Walt, a recording engineer, DJ, and former audio components salesman.

Analog or Digital

It’s interesting to me that my friend Walt should write the above. I recently presented my latest talk to several local groups, The History of Recorded Sound. I spent over two years researching the topic. I read over 30 books and PhD. dissertations. I read thousands of web pages and scientific articles on the topic. I even borrowed a 1904 Edison Home Phonograph from a friend, bought a 1912 Blue Amberol cylinder to play, and spent a few days learning how people listened to recorded sound 113 years ago.

I believe I now know as much as many professionals about recording and playing sound. I certainly know more than the average person.

I grew up during the heyday of vinyl, LPs and 45s. I still have LPs, 45s and turntables stored in the basement. The only time I play my records is on an inexpensive, non-audiophile approved ION USB turntable,  to rip the records to digital files. I can’t be bothered playing them on my A/V system.

I am not a fan of turntables and vinyl. They are cumbersome, inconvenient and waste space. Do they sound better? Define “better”, please. Analog media sounds different than digital, no argument there.

I think the recent resurgence of vinyl or tape cassettes is a retro/Luddite bias at play.

My reasoning

Most professionally recorded music is recorded digitally, at 192 kHz, 32 bit floating-point. It is then mastered in a DAW (D for digital) and transferred to CD or WAV file, at 44.1 kHz, 20 or 24 bit fixed. DVD and Blu-ray audio is normally encoded at 48 kHz. When the digitally recorded music is eventually stamped to vinyl the recording has to be run through a DAC beforehand. (DAC is an acronym for Digital-to-Analog Converter.)

Uncompressed digital recordings are as faithful to the original sound as an analog recording. A copy of a digital file is an exact duplicate of the original. But transfer a DAC converted digital file or an original analog tape recording to analog media, vinyl or tape, and there is a loss of quality.

Vinyl enthusiasts often unfairly compare compressed digital—MP3 or AAC—with a pristine LP. They should make the comparison to an old worn and scratched LP or 45 to be fair.

Experienced listeners, e.g. my brother-in-law, a professor of electronic music and a composer, my friend Walt, and perhaps you, can tell the difference between vinyl and digital playback in a blind listening test. Why? Because the DAC, turntable, phono cartridge, vinyl or the tape and tape transport introduce artifacts—rumble, hiss, etc.—which distinguish its sound from the “uncolored” digital file.

Format wars

Format wars are nothing new to recorded sound. They first arose when the Bell-Tainter Graphophone started using a wax compound on a cardboard cylinder in the mid-1880s, which was superior to Thomas Edison’s 1877 tin foil Phonograph. In the late 1880s, Emile Berliner’s Gramophone, a disc-based system, disrupted the cylinder worlds of the Thomas Edison Phonograph and the Bell-Tainter Graphophone.

Edison insisted for decades that cylinders sounded better than discs. He was right but the listening public preferred the disc. Victor Talking Machine, the successor to the Berliner Gramophone Company, and later Columbia Phonograph, which began selling discs and disc players in 1908, trounced the Thomas A. Edison company in sales because Edison refused to make disc recordings and players until 1912.

The recorded music business finally developed a standard in 1925 with the introduction of electrically recorded 78 RPM records.

78 RPM, shellac discs were superseded by Columbia Records introduction of the Long Playing, 33⅓ RPM, microgrove, vinylite 12” record in late 1948 and a bit later by the RCA Victor 45 RPM format, introduced in early 1949.

Reel-to-reel tape, introduced commercially in the US at about the same time, never got much traction, even though its sonics were superior to all records. Tape would morph into many forms, most notably the 8-track tape (AKA Stereo 8) and the compact tape cassette.

In 1982, the compact disc system, jointly developed by Philips Electronics and Sony, was released. That led to video optical formats, such as the DVD in 1995 and, more recently, Blu-ray.

Digital media files, freed from physical media, began to become a thing in the 1990s with the invention of the MP3, a compressed media file that saved disc space at the cost of reduced audio quality. Other digital formats, both lossy (i.e. compressed) and lossless (i.e. uncompressed) appeared on the scene to make the consumers’ choices even more bedeviling.

Nostalgia

Today there is a resurgence of vinyl record sales and audio systems that focus on the turntable as the media player.

Since I grew up listening first to records or radio playing records, I often find the artifacts introduced by vinyl media systems pleasing to my ears. But think about going to a live concert and having a turntable’s rumble and the vinyl’s scratches, hiss and other noise, introduced as background sound. Would you want that? Would the musicians?

A similar phenomenon exists in the visual world with retro filters that kids like to put on their photos posted to Facebook or Instagram, or the VHS imperfections that many, younger YouTubers put on their videos.

For most people digital is more pleasing than vinyl. It is more convenient and its audio quality is just as good if not better. Today, it is available anywhere, anytime. And of course its sound doesn’t deteriorate with each play like vinyl and tape.