In this post, we will explain to you further what’s the difference between analog and digital sound signal. The question is – does analog sound better than digital? It’s a debate that has been ongoing since the time digital systems came into the scene.
Before we jump into the argument why analog sounds better than digital, let’s first understand what makes a sound either analog or digital.
Analog vs Digital Audio: A Quick Overview
Here’s the deal. Music isn’t just a tone or a sequence of numbers. Music is about soul, emotion, and when the music is good, it connects with people across different cultures, speaks to them and gets them on their feet dancing to the rhythm.
Speaking of the soul, analog has more of that than digital. You would have expected digital sound with all its advanced technologies, but that’s not the case.
Let’s break down these two common recording methods to give you a better understanding of how they work, so that next time you’re in a heated audiophile debate with cousin Derrick, you’ll be ready with hard facts.
The analog signal is a continuous wave, making it difficult for anyone to detect the exact moment when the pitch changes.
An analog recording system is what is required to record this continuous wave. This system records on vinyl or cassette exactly what the microphone hears.
It’s that feature that audiophiles stake their claim that analog sounds are the only accurate representation of the exact sound.
Here’s the kicker, wait for it. Digital sound isn’t a recording of the actual sound but a combination of binary code – remember the ones and zeros way back in school?
Yes, those ones.
The ones and zeros represent the sound’s intensity and pitch at different intervals with relative accuracy. The binary code is arranged in a specific pattern that informs a computer how to recreate the sound.
It is a composite of multiple segments which represent moments of intensity and pitch as opposed to analog, which is a single wave.
Analog and Digital Recording Processes
Both Analog and Digital recording process share one thing in common, which is that both processes are created by having a microphone turning air pressure/sound into an analog electrical signal.
An analog recording is made by imprinting that signal (the one we got from the microphone sound) directly onto a master tape via the process of magnetization or onto a master record (remember the LPs) via grooves. These master tapes or records are then used to create multiple copies of cassette tapes and vinyl records.
Digital recordings, on the other hand, take the analog signal (still remember how we get signals?) and convert it into a digital representation of the sound. As we had said earlier, this is basically a series of numbers (ones and zeros – wasn’t good in maths either) for digital software to interpret.
Some Key Definitions
We can’t define bandwidth without understanding what a sample rate is.
A sample rate is the number of samples of audio carried per the second and measured in Hz or kHz. One kHz equals 1,000 Hz.
Bandwidth is the difference between the highest and lowest frequencies carried in an audio stream. That’s the nerdy definition of audio bandwidth, So, let me break it down again.
You would say that bandwidth is the ability of a recorded signal to be reproduced at varying degrees of resolution. If you substitute signal with an image, you’ll get a clearer understanding.
It’s similar to enlarging a low-resolution image versus a high-resolution image.
During the process of enlarging that image, you will begin to notice that lower-resolution images begin to lose clarity and are difficult to see, whereas the high-resolution images resize clearly without any loss of clarity.
Audio signals have limited bandwidth, just like images. Therefore, digital recordings are saved together with their limited bandwidth. Since its set at a specific bandwidth, any audio manipulation results in loss of data and degrade its sound quality.
On the other hand, analog recording has unlimited bandwidth.
What this means is that its sound recording can be moved to a higher resolution without losing any of its original quality.
The Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) is a measurement usually expressed in decibels (dB) of the level of signal power to a level of noise power.
The rule of the thumb is that the higher the decibels a signal has, the better it is. This is because a higher number translates to that signal containing more useful information (signal) than unwanted data (noise).
Analog recordings have lower signal-to-noise ratios as compared to digital recordings but depend on the bit depth of the recording.
Let me illustrate this concept by using an example.
Let’s say that you’re having a conversation with someone at your backyard and it just happens that the electricity went off and the diesel operated generator is running with its usual loud hum. Let’s assume the generator is generating 50dB of hum (that’s the noise).
The person you’re speaking with chooses to converse in whispers or low tones, well his wife is somewhere in the house – you get the picture.
His voice is 20dB (consider this as the signal). You definitely won’t be able to hear a signal word because it’s being drained by the diesel generator’s hum.
You will obviously ask him to speak louder, perhaps at 40 dB which even though it’s much louder, you still won’t hear him clearly and you’ll keep telling him to repeat his words.
Speaking at 80 dB may sound like a shouting match, but at least both of you will be able to hear each other. Now, that’s the idea behind the signal-to-noise (SNR) ratio.
Differences between Analog and Digital Sounds
By now, you’ve come to the realization that digital and analog recording definitely produces different sounds and levels of sound quality.
Analog recording produces a sound containing a smooth wave of energy that seems to vibrate directly from the source just like in a traditional setup that uses a vinyl record.
The Vinyl Record consists of grooves that vibrate a needle which feeds that energy directly into a cone that produces sound.
Digital recording involves the sampling of sound waves at specific intervals and turns each part of that wave into a block of information defined by a certain number of ones and zeros.
The sound is naturally an analog signal and flows in a continuous format without any breaks or interruptions.
What this means is that, if you were to start humming a song in an ascending note, people would notice the change in your pitch, but they wouldn’t be able to detect at which particular points your pitch was changing.
Now, when it comes to digital signals, the flow is not continuous and uses very specific values to represent information. That’s why a sound wave is represented as a series of values that represent the volume or pitch over the length of the recording.
Quality of Source
Good quality headphones are awesome to have, but unfortunately, they aren’t the determining factor in the quality of the music you hear. It is the quality of the source of your music that created it that matters.
Now, for analog, the source was the recording studio. A high-quality band needs to be recorded using a high-quality microphone and saved to a high-quality master tape for it to remain in its high-quality reusable state.
The quality of sound within a digital recording environment is determined by the amount of data used in defining the initial analog waves. These analog waves are commonly referred to as audio’s bit rate. The higher the bit rate of an audio signal, the more data it holds.
The Audio Processor
The sound from your source must be fed through an audio processor. The audio processor would either be the soundcard connected in your computer or one that is located in the headset.
Most audio processors can handle 16-bits though it must be understood that this 16-bit differs slightly from those of MP3 files. Current audio processors use 24-bit recordings. Therefore a high-quality recording fed through a low-quality audio processor degrades the sound output quality.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Analog and Digital Sounds
Our decisions in using whether Analog or digital audio technologies are often influenced by a multitude of practical and ergonomic factors such as buying price, maintenance costs, portability, among others.
Each of these audio technologies has its pros, cons, and below is a list that outlines them.
- Blue Color Represents Digital Signal and Red Analog Signal
Analog Sounds: Advantages
- The recording is done directly to tape and stored in the same quality to create future copies.
- Analog recordings are more accurate as they capture exact signals
- Analog tape is a tried and tested format used for a more extended period of time
- Editing limitations on analog tapes encourage first time recording excellence
- It’s challenging for music company executives to mess up the audio on analog formats
- 12” Vinyl LPs and 45s have got big sleeves that provide a space for promotional material
- Use less bandwidth and has a natural compression
Analog Sounds: Disadvantages
- Right analog equipment and systems are expensive
- Cheap analog tape recorders have high levels of distortion, cross-talk, flutter, etc
- The tape is costly and vulnerable to deterioration
- The tape is increasingly becoming a difficult item to acquire.
- It is extremely difficult to perform advanced editing procedures on tapes as they lack an undo button.
- They are harder to synchronize
- Copying deteriorates the sound quality of the master copy
Digital Sounds: Advantages
- Provides better sound with cheap equipment as compared to analog recording.
- Ability to recall sessions and mix the operations.
- Non-linear operation/random access to signals
- Provides a variety of recording options such as tape, optical, SSD, RAM, etc
- Multiple options for editing and recording tools
- Ability to access any part of the recording instantly
- Highly portable – you can move with the recording anywhere and easily
Digital Sounds: Disadvantages
- The computer can crash and lose all its data
- Software compatibility issues found in operating systems, drivers, plug-ins, etc
- Music doesn’t sound natural or warm.
Frequently Asked Questions on Analog and Digital Sounds
Can You Simulate Analog Sound with Software and Plug-ins?
Many people are obsessed with having the ‘warm’ feeling of analog signals as it sounds fuller and more human. However, the price of analog equipment to experience this sensation is entirely out of reach for most audiophiles.
Here is the good news.
Modeling technologies are now available that can effectively stimulate the effects of analog circuitry using a variety of computer hardware and plugins such as Virtual Studio Technology VST applications.
Let’s take a look at what people refer to when they say warm analog sounds:
The following are a couple of Virtual Studio Technology – VSTs which significantly improves how your tracks and sounds will feel.
The SGA 1566 is a single channel vintage-looking tube preamp.
Among the pros of this preamp is that it is operated in a real-time giving you that authentic analog sound. The newest version is lighter on your CPU; therefore, uses very minimal computer resources.
TDR Slick EQ
Coming in with sleek, classy and upmarket design the TDR Slick EQ uses a three-band that gives even the most discerning analog enthusiast a fantastic sound.
Take your sound a notch higher with its non-linear option under output stage adding subtle harmonic distortion and texture
Based on a classic 1950s style tube amps, the ACE amp takes you back in time.
It gives you the options for controlling the volume, feedback, input, and output.
It’s exceptionally light on computer resources so you can be rested assured your computer won’t hang while loading the preamp.
How to Recognize Analog Signals from Digital Signals?
Unless you got superpowers, you’re not going to hear any digital signals.
We can only hear analog signals. Digital signals must be converted to an analog format before humans can listen to them.
How does it work? A digital audio signal goes through a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC), which then passes it to the amplifier and finally to a speaker or headphone.
It isn’t easy to differentiate between an analog or digital sound, but most experienced audiophiles can tell the difference by listening for the intricate, crispy melodies in the background that only analog signals can produce.
Should I Invest in Analog Equipment If I’m Beginner
Yes, you can. However, it largely depends on several factors such as your budget and nature of work you intend to use the equipment on.
Even though analog equipment is of superior quality than digital sound equipment, they don’t come cheap.
Here’s the deal. If you can’t afford high-quality analog sound equipment, you’ll be better off going for digital sound equipment.
This is why. Standard analog sound equipment is much worse than digital sound equipment of the same range in terms of price and expectations.
So, you’re better offer with going for high-quality digital sound equipment which will be less pricey than first-grade analog sound equipment.
- source: wikimedia.org
Audiophiles describe audio systems sound quality using various terms such as full, warm, and airy. Full or warm sounds describe those systems that reproduce low frequencies.
Airy sound refers to those sounds that seem to come from a spacious environment, especially those sounds in the high-frequency range.
By saying that, analog sounds are much more superior as compared to digital sounds. This is made possible by its recording process which enables sounds to be copied directly to tape in its original format.
If you’re obsessed with listening to music with warmth and which feeds the soul, then your best bet is to go with analog equipment.
Based in Ampang, Malaysia. I go by M4-P. Started as a rapper/songwriter back in 2015 then quickly and gradually developed my skills to become a beatmaker, music producer, sound designer, and audio engineer. I currently work in a local underground record label called KOKADAIMON that has a number of very talented artists and producers.