Battle of the Bandwagons – Analog Vs. Digital

Digital audio is brutally clean. Even though it can be sterile and lack character, I think that’s a good thing. Tonal character should not be a byproduct of the recording process. It should be something employed as a tool to define a desired sound when, and only when, it is desired. With the limitations of analog technology, control of the underlying tone is finite. It can’t be added or subtracted at will. It’s always there.

The magic of analog audio is largely derived from the imperfections of analog technology. Like technology in general, its existence is a brilliant testimony to the ability of humankind. When you consider it, the use of tape as a recording media is nothing short of miraculous. It’s no small feat to create miles of perfectly consistent mylar tape designed to perform with perfect consistency and resist deformation and stretching while perfectly distributed iron oxide particles are securely bonded to the tape. Any flaw in manufacture of the media can lead to detectable aberrations.

Mechanical recording devices are also wrought with their own imperfections. Transformers transform, tape speed and magnetic fields vary and shift as tape streams across recording and playback heads while dutifully transmitting the anomalies and fluctuations in quality down the signal chain– where it is then imperfectly passed along to the next device.

Each component tends to add or remove a certain character which lands at the end of the signal chain. With analog, this is duplicated again and again during the process while quality degrades and changes yet again. The result is a very imperfect mechanical interpretation of the original audio input. But, the hiss, noise, bias, wow, flutter, distortion, and dropouts– that’s part of the magic. With a 30 minute reel of two inch Quantegy 480 tape now costing around $300, or what amounts to $10 a minute, that had better be some mind-blowing flutter.

Of course digital recording has its own character, or rather– lacks it. For example, the same microphone that may have been used side by side in comparison with an analog sound recording may digitally sound a bit tinny or sharp. This isn’t really a flaw. The frequency response curve is actually more accurately represented digitally and in the long run, is more easily manipulated. Analog tape recordings are often biased in a way which reduces higher frequencies for the sake of improving audio quality. Mics were designed with a peak in the higher frequencies to compensate for this. Technologically it’s inferior, but the result sounds good. There’s that magic.

With the seemingly endless supply of sofware simulations available today, it’s quite possible to replicate the archaic aberrations of analog machinery predictably and with great precision.

The largest drawback to working with digital audio might ironically be its greatest strength. It’s possible to refine a sound with such precision that it yields something entirely synthetic and inorganic– but, as I’ve mentioned before, I think this depends on the engineer. There’s a big distinction to be made between bad engineering and bad technology. Similarly, whatever sound the artist desires– organic, inorganic, or a matrix of the two– it’s the engineer’s job to perfectly translate this vision. Digital certainly has an edge here.

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