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Analog vs Digital - Pop Science for a Day

by November 15, 2007

In last week’s episode, PBS pop-science magazine show Wired Science covered the issue of analog vs digital sound – and predictably, the piece was highly compressed and lacked in dynamic range.

The Wired piece opens with the promise of a competition between compressed mp3 file formats and audio engineers who take exception to compressed digital sound. But that debate never actually surfaces. In keeping with pop-science-show format, you get a lot of disjointed clips strung together to keep things fast-paced and shallow.

The episode touches on the recording industry and how it has converted from analog to digital. Great Northern is their example of a digitally recorded band. They also happen to be an indie band, and like most of the genre, are receptive of digital distribution.

Representing the die-hard analog proponent is accomplished recording engineer Steve Albini. He kicks off the so-called debate by making a statement nobody can argue… to paraphrase:

A well-made LP record will sound better than a compressed MP3 downloaded from a bogus website.”

Then we’re introduced to Ken Andrews, another successful sound engineer, who describes the superiority of the digital recording process. Even though nobody tries to argue Steve Albini’s position on LPs vs highly compressed MP3s. The show gives a quick science lesson describing the difference between analog and digital sound, graphically illustrating the process of pulse code modulation by sampling analog sound. Then, the narrator makes the blanket statement that audiophiles find sampled sound to be a cheap imitation of the original.

That depends on your definition of audiophile!

Even analog proponent Steve Albini admits digital recording has come a long way. So, everyone seems to agree there’s a wide disparity between digital recordings.

An ABX test is taken by self-professed “golden ears” and members of Great Northern. The test is between an analog studio recording and a digital studio recording. No spoilers here, you’ll have to watch the clip for the result.

Even though it was a lightweight pop-science show, one underlying idea it captured is that there are differences in quality between recordings. Introducing mainstream viewers to differences in acoustic quality is something we should all appreciate regardless of where on the analog/digital divide you stand.

About the author:

Wayde is a tech-writer and content marketing consultant in Canada s tech hub Waterloo, Ontario and Editorialist for Audioholics.com. He's a big hockey fan as you'd expect from a Canadian. Wayde is also US Army veteran, but his favorite title is just "Dad".

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Recent Forum Posts:

krabapple posts on December 20, 2007 12:29
I'm kinda wondering what the ‘lousy low quality lossy’ codecs being referred to, are. Because the mp3 codec I use – LAME – can create lossy versions of .wav music files, that are transparent to me, and lots of other listeners, in ABX comparisons.
no. 5 posts on November 18, 2007 12:51
MDS, post: 330902
It's funny that nobody ever complains about the fidelity of Dolby Digital or DTS even though it is the exact same principle!.

That's because they are too distracted by the flashy audio effects coming from the surrounds them to care.
MDS posts on November 18, 2007 04:38
One thing I find disturbing is when people equate bitrate to fidelity. Just because a CD (16 bit / 44.1 kHz PCM) requires 1411 kbps does not necessarily mean it is of higher fidelity.

In the same vein, folks will say that a 192 kbps MP3 ‘threw away’ 80% of the bits. It does not work that way! For all intents and purposes an MP3 or other lossy encoder does digital to analog to digital conversion. It converts the origninal digital data to analog, analyzes it and discards any information that its model deems unhearable, and then re-encodes it to digital. It works well in many cases, but naturally there are exceptions. It is a general purpose codec and by definition cannot be optimal for every single case.

It's funny that nobody ever complains about the fidelity of Dolby Digital or DTS even though it is the exact same principle!.
mtrycrafts posts on November 18, 2007 02:20
TLS Guy, post: 330865
… It has a maximum data stream of 300 kbits/sec. A CD has 1400 kbits/sec. Worse this 300 kbit/sec stream can be divided between several programs on the same carrier. So if three programs are sharing the same carrier, each will get 100 kbits/sec. In think you can all see were this will lead in this money grubbing age.
HD is just one more lousy low fi lossy codec, and we have far to many of those already.
.

Are you implying that the Hi def audio formats on hi def DVDs are low def in reality? Or, you are talking here about AM and FM broadcasting audio?

Wikipedia states that this for the hi def audio on DVDs

HD DVD discs support encoding in up to 24-bit/192 kHz for two channels, or up to eight channels of up to 24-bit/96 kHz encoding. For reference, even new big-budget Hollywood films are mastered in only 24-bit/48 kHz, with 16-bit/48 kHz being common for ordinary films
MDS posts on November 18, 2007 01:46
TLS Guy, post: 330865
I'm going to start a thread on codecs, and the hope offered by the available lossless codecs, that really do deliver CD quality.

A lossless codec delivers the original source as it was before encoding just as WinZip delivers the original source after unzipping. The only hope a lossless codec delivers is the ability to shrink file sizes without altering the original recording in any way.

I'm not implying you are stating that lossless codecs are something special but too many people seem to think that a lossless codec does something to the audio that makes it ‘cd quality’ or whatever. It does not alter the original recording in any way - if it did, it would not be ‘lossless’.
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