Analog vs. Digital Recording
Just a quick write on the history and some thoughts I’ve personally came upon regarding the matter. It was Initially a paper for class, but I think it’s fitting to blog.——- For the past few years there has recently been huge debate with regards to recording methods centering around our most beloved analog methods to our more convenient and fast methods of digital recording. With analog being favored by the old generation and digital being preferred by the new it has sparked many arguments as to which method reigns supreme. Regardless of anyone’s opinion both of these methods have quite the history and to the contrary digitals are just as historically inclined as analogs. This selection is going to break down the history of both, while comparing and contrasting them to come upon one common compromise between the two. Naturally we will start with analog.
Surprisingly analog shoots all the way back to the use of mores code dating from the year 1866. A few years later good old Thomas Edison invented the phonograph which enabled recording through technique commonly referred to as tracks on wax. This new invention was commercially released in 1888, but was not specifically sought after due to its poor playback. However a year before the gramophone was introduced which operated on a disk which resembles today’s vinyl. In 1885 commercial pre-recorded disks were available for sale and following the year 1910 recordings on disks became the primary medium of recording sound. These disks were generally recorded between 78 to 82 rpm, and were available in 10 and 12 inch formats. If we shoot a few years up the line, RCA releases a 45 rpm disk in 1949. They measured in at 7 inches and enabled recordings to be almost twice as long as 12 inches, and 9 years later Stereo recordings are commercialized.
As we dwell even deeper in the history of analog recording we transition from disk recording to tape recording. By the 1950s reel to reel audio tape recording machines were commercially being sold by big companies like Ampex. By 1953 the first 8 track recorder was invented and 11 years later Phillips released the compact cassette. This was a significant conversion as each tape generally had 45 minutes on each side, and the cassette also made recording at home extremely simple and easy accessible. It also opened up the first large occurrence of music pirating due to double cassette decks. This enabled easy copying of tapes. After this transition the digital era shot into action, but before we get ahead of ourselves lets investigate where it initially began.
Naturally digital recording does not date back as far as analog, but it still holds a large portion of our history, starting from military use just as analog did. In 1937 Alec Reeves invented pulse-code modulation which grew to be the basis of all things digital later in the future. Exactly 20 years later the development of actually recording sounds via computer was brought about, and the 10 following years, in 1967, brought about the first digital audio magnetic tape recorder. By the 1970s digital audio recorders were regularly being commercially released via companies like Soundstream. By 1972 Denon invented the first reel to reel digital recorders, and in 1979 the first digital compact disks prototype was developed. This was intended to boost the sound quality and also enable easier accessibility. By 1982 the first digital compact disks were being marketed and commercially sold by Sony and Phillips. Following Alesis’s release of the ADAT in 1991, in 1996 optical disks and DVD players were being commercially released. Conforming to its nature digital recording grew much faster than analogs. However at the end of the day which is better? That is what we will discuss next.
In general the claim is that analog recording presents more warmth and natural characteristics than digital. On a general claim to digital, it’s said that it is more accurate, much faster, convenient, and simply easier to conform to. On a general spectrum this is true, yet it does not necessarily make one recording method better than the other. There are many factors to consider when comparing the two that include: gear being used; an individual’s knowledge and understanding of this gear; the proper use of the gear; the proper use of the software or DAW; the quality of the gear or software; and most importantly an individual’s personal preference. Each needs to be considered before a solid discussion is made. For example it would not be fair to consider digital better than analog if you have only ever recorded on low fidelity analog consoles, and high fidelity digital ones (and vice versa). It is only fair to consider all possibilities. In my opinion, if we do this it will become more apparent that they both present equally compatible means of recording. Let us discuss some ups and downs of each.
In regards to analog it does present warmth and a natural uniqueness, which has become distinct enough to not be emulated by other digital setups. In other words it would require huge sampling rates for some digital consoles to imitate what analog consoles easily accomplish. This would put a load on processing power and PCU usage that would inevitably cause problems in some digital setups. In many cases analog setups also enable the user to be able to feel what they are doing. Given that many digital consoles are operated via computers or digital interfaces analog comes out on top if you are one that enjoys twisting a knob here and there. Although analog may seem like the way to go after this explanation, unfortunately it is extremely expensive to afford equipment that produces the sounds that we have grown to appreciate throughout the years. When adding up outboard gear with consoles, tape machines, recorders, patch bays, etc., it may be virtually impossible to afford a home studio. Not to mention the painstaking tasks required to successfully and accurately record analog signals. These are the main drawbacks of analog.
In regards to digital it’s always accompanied with how easy, convenient, and fast the recording methods are. It is as easy as downloading a DAW with preset midi activated sounds and wav files straight onto a home computer and BAM! You’ve got your own studio without any outboard gear, consoles, tape machines, and recorders that would otherwise leave you in a tremendous financial debt. It’s definitely the best way to save money. What is even better is that a digital setup can emulate anything an analog setup has whether it is outboard gear or any other form of audio manipulation or recording devices. In a way it would seem more ideal to invest in a digital setup, but this is only looking at one side of the spectrum. Digital recording is often noted to be cold, gritty, and unnatural. In many cases as mentioned earlier digital setups can only provide an imitation sound of analog setups. It’s difficult and quite expensive to get a digital setup to accurately emulate an analog’s distinctive sound. In some cases it is near impossible to do so. Although it is less expensive you might lose out on sound quality. The mediums of distribution share the same characteristics.
In this day and time there is a war going on between mp3 formats/ CDs in comparison to vinyl. Vinyl being analog of course it gives off more of a warm and natural feeling when played through a record player. Given the sounds physical presence it outputs what is on the vinyl, presenting unique sounds depending on the vinyl’s manufacturer and age. This is highly preferred by some people. On the other hand mp3/ CD formats offer the same accurate sound for every playback, and in some cases offer a better resolution sound than that of vinyl. MP3s and CDs are also cheaper and easier to come by, unlike its vinyl competitor. However if a MP3 file was to be corrupted, or if a CD were to be scratched the probability of playback would be very low. On the flip side if a vinyl were to be scratched or damaged it would still play back offering that scratchy or phono sound that many have grown to love. Yet if you intend to preserve the vinyl’s true sound you would be required to occasionally clean it, and insure its safety from outside elements such as dust and sunlight. Another drawback of vinyl is that is more expensive to produce thus costing more to consumers.
In conclusion both the recording methods have their pros and cons, but in the end it depends on your budget and personal preference. Neither is necessarily better than the other as both have somewhat similar capabilities in this day and time. With huge innovations within sound, and large spectrums of genres in circulation today it is unreasonable to reign one method over the other. It is all determined on your vision and what you intend to capture through them.