Analog vs. Digital Sound: What's the Difference?
The art of recording audio has come a long way since it first got its start. In the early days of recorded sound, making music was a process that depended entirely on using microphones to imprint sound waves on reels of tape. For decades after the invention of audio recording and playback devices, the only way to create a recording was with this type of setup. Likewise, in the years before iPods, CD players, and streaming services came along, the only way to listen to recorded music was in an analog format – this usually meant on vinyl records or, later on, 8-track cassettes.
Even now, in the modern era of recorded audio, recording engineers and producers still rely on a majority of the gear that was used to record sound decades ago. Many of the same microphones are still used today that were staples in recording studios in the 1950s, and some artists still choose to record their music on tape rather than through a digital interface. In addition, many audiophiles and music enthusiasts still prefer to listen to analog audio – why? It’s not just for the sake of nostalgia.
In order to understand why analog audio has stood the test of time, it’s important to first unpack some of the key differences between analog and digital sound. There are a few primary points that have driven the long-running debate of digital vs. audio, and for any lover of vinyl records, this debate is definitely worth knowing about.
Both Analog and Digital Recordings Start With a Microphone.
Whether sound is being recorded in an analog or digital format, an audio engineer will need a microphone to produce a recording. A microphone gets hooked up to either a digital or analog recording interface, which will then make a recording as the microphone picks up sound waves from a musician or vocalist. This recording can then be played back – either as a digital audio file on a computer or manually on tape.
The key difference between recording digital audio and recording analog audio is the type of recording interface that an engineer uses. If the engineer wants to record digital audio, they can use an audio interface linked to a computer to record sound from a microphone into a digital audio workstation (DAW). From there, the engineer can process the sound and blend it with other recorded sounds to arrange a full song. If an audio engineer wants to record analog sound, they will need to route a microphone into an analog interface and mix it with other recordings using an analog mixing board.
Mixing Analog Sound vs. Digital Sound
In the days before digital audio, recorded music was not only made with analog gear, but mixed with analog gear as well. This meant that audio engineers had to carefully adjust a series of physical knobs whenever they wanted to make adjustments to the sound of a recording. Before digital audio came along, the recording and mixing process was typically much more hands-on and happened in real-time. Now, through the use of a digital audio workstation (DAW), an audio engineer can use a computer to edit and adjust recordings with much greater ease.
However, some audio engineers still favor the distinct feel of mixing a song on an analog console. As is the case with any type of artist, the tools of the trade can have a huge impact on the final product. For an engineer, the method used to mix a recording is no exception. An audio engineer’s workflow can look dramatically different when mixing on a computer than when using an analog mixing board. This experience is highly subjective, and there is no clear winner between the two mixing methods in terms of quality.
When it comes to convenience, mixing music using a digital audio workstation on a computer takes the cake. A DAW makes it incredibly easy for an audio engineer to adjust the volume of recordings of different instruments, add audio effects to specific tracks, and undo any mistakes that they might make. While analog audio mixing offers a unique experience, digital mixing tends to be much lower-maintenance.
Digital Recording: The Industry Standard of Today
Although some artists and producers will make the decision to record their music on tape today, most modern music is recorded digitally. Many audio purists favor the distinctly warm sound of analog recordings, but the decision to record digitally often comes down to the inherent limitations of recording analog audio.
Modern pop music is largely reliant on digital audio workstations, virtual instruments, and other computer-based tools for production, recording, mixing, and mastering. The sound of pop in 2021 owes quite a lot to the advent of digital recording – without it, the creative process for most modern musicians would look completely different, and recently-released songs that you know and love would not exist.
Many of the most popular genres of music that you might hear on today’s charts are heavily dependent on digital recording for the elements that define their sound. For example, although electronic music was made before the advent of digital audio, the use of digital synthesizers and MIDI instruments has had a massive influence on the modern pop sound, with its abundance of electronic elements. Digital recording has given producers, engineers, and musicians a wide array of opportunities to innovate and create in a way that has never been seen before.
But Does Digital Audio Sound Better?
Here’s where things get tricky – digital recording may have a lot to offer artists and engineers, but it isn’t without its drawbacks. When it comes to sound quality, the key difference between digital audio and its analog predecessor is in what is known as bandwidth.
When it comes to recorded audio, bandwidth is the measurement of a recording’s ability to retain its quality at various resolutions. Like photos, audio recordings have a resolution – but instead of pixels, the resolution of a recording is measured in hertz (Hz). When audio is recorded digitally, it is recorded at a specific sample rate – a certain number of Hz per second). The higher the sample rate, the higher the audio quality will be.
However, unlike digital recordings, analog recordings have an adjustable bandwidth – they can be translated into different resolutions without losing any sound quality. This means there is much greater potential for higher sound quality with analog recording than with digital recording. Once a digital recording has been made, it has reached the highest possible bandwidth (and audio quality) that it can ever reach. However, with an analog recording, the bandwidth is unlimited, meaning you can get a much higher quality of sound when listening on a great setup.
<h3> Listening to Analog Audio in 2021 </h3>
So, what’s the best way to appreciate analog recordings in 2021? You guessed it – with a turntable. An excellent vinyl listening setup gets you access to the infinite bandwidth of analog recordings, along with the distinct vintage warmth of the sound of vinyl. If you want to hear an album as it was meant to be heard, the way the artist intended, vinyl is the way to go.
Digital audio may offer plenty of convenience to a listener, but that convenience is as much its downfall as it is its main selling point. Infinite access to every song and album under the sun does not necessarily make a listener appreciate music more. In reality, streaming services and massive digital libraries of music can reduce the listening experience to something much less immersive than it was meant to be. In contrast, listening to music on vinyl gives you a chance to get lost in a great album by engaging more than just your ears.
When you listen to vinyl, you’re engaging fully with the music. Even if you’ve just got a record playing in the background, giving the music the moment it deserves allows it to break through the distractions of daily life. And in the most distracted decade yet, that’s a valuable thing.
<h3> Analog Audio Isn’t Going Anywhere Anytime Soon. </h3>
The potential for unparalleled sound quality from analog gear is a big part of what has given vinyl such a devoted following over a century after its invention. Many record collectors love listening to vinyl because of the listening experience they get out of the audio format. Others appreciate the hands-on, tactile experience of listening to analog music. Like mixing engineers who prefer to use analog gear, many vinyl listeners simply appreciate the experience of interacting with something tangible.
As you might have guessed, there are plenty of pros and cons to recording music on analog or digital gear. Likewise, there are quite a few perks and drawbacks to listening to analog and digital audio as well. Still, the case for listening to vinyl records is a strong one, as is the case for musicians and producers continuing to use analog gear to record in the 2020s. Analog audio has something truly special to offer to both artists and listeners, both in terms of creative potential and an excellent listening experience.