Analog vs. Digital
Contemporary Analogue Mastreworks
Is it really progress? Fifteen years ago we suffered the release of the digital compact disc. Some years before, digital recording was used as a master-recording process to make vinyl records. Prior to that, analog-tape recording was used to capture sound, and to an extent still is.

The volume of information necessary to thoroughly understand digital recording would be out of place here. Very simply, the information recorded is not the sound as you would hear it from a source, but a computer-language, numeric representation of the sound's intensity and pitch. It is stored as various combinations of 1s and 0s; as numbers, not sound. In the digital process, a computer looks at, or samples, the sound many times per second; during playback, it then reassembles the sound, filling in the holes, where the sound wasn't looked at, with what it thinks belongs there, based on what was looked at. What ends up being recorded is only a part of the sound. In the analog process, by contrast, the entirety of the sound is recorded as sound.

Ask the person nearest you to speak, and listen to their voice. Now, imagine listening to that voice for a fraction of a second, then stopping - listening for another fraction of a second and stopping again - and continuing this process ad infinitum. You are hearing only part of the harmonic or tonal structure and detail of the voice. You are hearing only part of the increase and decrease of its volume. You are hearing only part of the room's acoustic interaction with it, only part of the acoustic decay of the voice when it stops modulating.

Or think of a painting on the wall, next to which is hung a print of the same painting; cardboard strips have been placed across the print at measured intervals. While you might be able to predict what the print will look like without the strips, you cannot be completely sure. In fact, upon checking the painting without the strips, you will notice that certain details, perhaps entire small objects, were not visible to you at all Such it is with digital recording and playback: you only hear part of the music. And with the computer attempting to fill in the blanks, you actually have a synthesizer rendition of acoustic instruments.

While it is easy to be seduced by the background silence of digital recording and compact disc--which most people see as the primary difference between the digital and analog domains--this silence is unnatural. When "digital" sees no modulation, the computer code that it generates is, for the duration of the silence, to switch completely off or to mute. We know that when we sit in the hall listening to music, when the musicians aren't playing, even if no one is moving in their seats or coughing, there is still ambient noise of some sort, sometimes metabolic, which seems natural to the human ear. The seduction of silence, however tempting, ultimately detracts from the musical experience.

It has been said that all sound equipment is the same and that those able to hear subtle differences or improvements in various parts of the audio path are fooling themselves into thinking that they actually can hear these differences. This argument is most often used in the area of high-end home hifi, but also infiltrates the world of professional audio and recording. Some gifted individuals, much like their instrumental virtuoso counterparts, possess, through training, the ability to discern the most subtle change in the reproduction of sound, whether produced by an instrument or a sound-reproduction system. It is these individuals who are rejecting the digital recording medium and its in-home partner, the compact disc player, as an inferior sound source, regression in reproducing music, another example of a world of accepted mediocrity or of large corporations' marketing progress for progress's sake to finance ongoing digital research.

Far in the future, the sampling rate, or the number of times per second that "digital" looks at the music, will be increased. This will improve the technology significantly. That time is far in the future because it will mean that all home compact disc players will be obsolete. In fact, the industry will probably insult us again and wait to incorporate the improved sampling rate into whatever will be the next playing medium to usurp CD.

This is unfortunately a complicated and controversial topic, but those fortunate enough to be able to discern the differences continue to use analog recording tape to master music. At Contemporary Analogue Mastreworks, we are proud members of that community. Although not naive enough to believe that the recording artist will revert back to pressing vinyl records simply because we speak (particularly considering that most households no longer own a turntable), we do believe that pressing CDs from an analog master tape is going to produce as full, rich and sweet a recording as the digital playback medium will allow. This method of digital pressing from an analog master is championed by a great many labels around the world, small though they may be, whose primary objective is nothing less than the finest possible quality of music capturing and reproduction for their valued clients.

Contemporary Analogue Mastreworks still believes that music-making is a fine craft, and we will incorporate new advances in related technology when they prove to be honest improvements in recording and reproducing. Until then, because classical music is so unique, and capturing our client's craft is so important to us, we will continue to buck the system.

I thought it might be interesting to leave the above text untouched while I briefly update with a few thoughts.

Now 24 years since Compact disc was introduced, black vinyl LP records absolutely remain the superior standard for music reproduction in the hard-core audiophile community, however the use of highend vacuum-tube microphones and microphone preamplifiers are certainly making a difference in the recording chain. Also, continued improvement in digital over-sampling rates - 192 kHz and 384kHz as well as improvments in processing rates to 24bit and very soon to be the norm, 64bit actually have helped to tremendously improve the sound of digital recording. The need to be downsampled to 44.1kHz and 16bit (known as 'Redbook CD') to be played on common players remains the downfall. Battles between Digital Video Disc formats as music delivery systems continue to confuse the public and cause only a few to buy the players and duplicate titles already owned.

Also unfortunately, the lay public is getting more used to the sound of digital and the proliferation of .mp3 format - a format using way more digital compression, hence less quality - for convenience and portability has blanketed public use, once again forcing, marketing and thereby condoning accepted mediocrity .

Last Updated 19August2006