ANALOG OR DIGITAL: WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?
Music, like all other art forms, is a process-oriented medium. The way you arrive at the end product determines the feeling and artifice of the end product. If you are playing a song on a real piano it’s going to feel very different than a digital keyboard. The way a piece of art is created has a direct impact on its final form.
The same can be said for the recording process. The debate between analog and digital audio is a hotly debated topic in the music world. Which sounds better, digital or analog? Is there a drastic difference? Is there a meaningful impact on the end object that the end consumer can notice, or is it just gearheads and music industry aficionados that really pay attention to this minutia?
It’s impossible to understand the difference completely without understanding what distinguishes analog audio from digital audio. Analog refers to a continuously changing representation of a continuously variable quantity. Digital, however, refers to representing these variable quantities in terms of actual numbers, or digits.
Differences Between Analog and Digital
The last two sentences seem a bit complex, but let’s try to simplify them with an example. If you consider the numbers 1 and 2 on a number line, there are actually an infinite number of points between 1 and 2. This is what analog represents—the infinite number of possibilities between 1 and 2. Digital, on the other hand, only looks at a certain number of fixed points along the line between 1 and 2 (for example, 1 ¼, 1 ½, 1 ¾, and 2).
Can you see the difference? Digital takes a few “snapshots” of the number line, while analog takes the whole line into account.
Let’s bring this idea into audio, music, and the studio. Sound occurs naturally in analog–that is to say, sound occurs in a continuous set of waves that we hear with the human ear. When we capture that sound in a way that represents all the possible frequencies, we’re recording in analog; when we use computers to translate the sound into a series of numbers that approximate what we’re hearing, we’re recording in digital.
Thus, a purely analog recording would be something that was recorded on tape and produced using manual equipment to mix, master and press into a vinyl LP. A purely digital recording would be recorded on a computer program such as Pro Tools, mixed, mastered and produced digitally, and eventually burned onto a CD as an MP3 or audio file.
The most ironic aspect of the debate about digital vs. analog recording is that nowadays a lot of music is a combination of the two. For example, you might record a song onto analog tape, but mix and master it digitally, or release it on the Internet as an MP3.
Analog vs Digital: Why Choose?
So what’s the difference in quality between analog and digital? The idea between digital recording is that our ears and brains technically can’t determine the spaces between the digital values, just like our brains interpret film as continuous motion. However, to many people, analog sound tends to be warmer, has more texture and is thought to capture a truer representation of the actual sound. Digital is felt to be somewhat cold, technical and perhaps lacking in analog’s nuance.
However digital is much cheaper. Recording an album with analog technology can require a whole studio full of equipment, but with digital recording technology, it’s possible to record a whole album in a bedroom on a laptop. And whereas analog technology can wear out or be damaged, digital media can last for an indefinite length of time.
Today many recording artists, both major and independent, record using a mixture of digital and analog techniques. While analog audio does give warmth and a truer sound quality, digital is cheaper to work with and offers more control over the finished product.
Most up-and-coming producers and musicians live in a hybrid liminal space. They take the best from each approach and apply it to the specifics of the genre they create. Some genres of music also are weighted in one direction or another. Most punk and indie rock bands use many more analog techniques than high hop or electro pop or EDM acts. So, if you’re debating on which approach is correct for you, a large amount of that info could come from what the people in your specific niche are doing.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer. It’s all about what yields the best end product. It’s all about what will facilitate your creative goals the easiest. At the end of the day producing work is not easy, it’s time-consuming. But if you find the right workflow for yourself, that’s something that could be very effective in generating a body of work that will pull in supporters and fans.