Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Analog vs. Digital Distraction

Many musicians and listeners assume analog recording (tape) and reproduction (vinyl or tape) is better.

They claim it is "warmer", "more accurate", or that digital is inferior because it "slices sound into tiny pieces".

Mostly this is the music fan's version of wishing for the mythical good old days.

Analog is not better. It's worse, or at best, it's different than digital.

Those who actually lived and worked in the analog days, have a less-romanticized, more realistic perspective on this issue.

Analog wasn't that great. It was limited, it was noisy, it distorted, and it was expensive to use and maintain.

Noise sucks. Noise isn't a "sense of reality", as one blogger claimed. Noise is unwanted signal. As for "the ear-pleasing nature of analog distortion":
  • Not all analog distortion is the same
  • Not all analog distortion is"ear-pleasing"
  • You may not want distortion
The "new type of silence" noted above has been available in music since all-digital recording and gating of channels on mixers were available. Certainly from the late 80s, and arguably earlier.

The original poster argued that people are more tolerant of "noise" in music now. I disagree. People used to tolerate a ridiculous amount of surface noise on recordings. They had to, because listening through it was the only way to get to the music underneath. (Though I suspect the poster was referring to what he considers "noisy music", which is basically music with slightly more abrasive timbre)

In the last few decades, recording technology has removed surface noise and improved quality of reproduction. This means artists can now work with noise and more subtle sound treatments and have it heard.

Just as the first recordings favored loud voices and instruments, the newer, quieter, clearer technologies allow for softer voices and using sounds that would have been previously hidden behind tape hiss or vinyl surface noise. In fact, entire electronic pop styles have evolved out of using timbres that sound just like tape hiss or vinyl surface noise!

The relentless march of instrument technology has also put "noise tools" in the hands of composers in ways that allow them to precisely shape and sculpt any sound. The artists working in so-called "noise" genres are still addressing a niche audience, comprised largely of people looking for something different. The people listening to this music have always been more tolerant of non-traditional timbres.

Reasons people think "analog sounds so good":
  • They don't have it. You always want what you don't have. 20 years ago everyone wanted to ditch their 1/2" 8-track Otaris for ADATs and DA-88s, because the 8-track analog machines distorted and were too noisy!
  • People like what's familiar. Most of the "great records" people are familiar with were made on analog gear using old-fashioned methods. Digital recording and instruments allows for a whole different kind of music to be made, and neither the artists nor the listeners have a grip on it yet.
  • Mythology and a grain of truth. Early CDs and digital recordings did sound relatively less awesome when compared to top-quality analog recordings. But in the 21st century, the quality of analog/digital/analog converters is quite high even at low prices. The myth persists, however.
I can't think of an "analog" recording that wouldn't be just as good digital, or vice versa - when the tools are properly used. These days, digital sounds great - if you know what you're doing. Same with analog. You can make "clean" or "dirty" recordings with both technologies.

My issues with analog are that it's very expensive, power-hungry, and challenging to maintain. In other words, it's elitist - and that may explain why it is so popular amongst some musicians.

At least in my case, the problem with my music isn't that it's being recorded (or created) digitally instead of analog. I can best improve my music by improving the quality of what I'm creating, not how I'm creating it.

In the end, people listen to music, not recordings.

1 comment:

MMI said...

Nice rant. Couldn't agree more.