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Analog Vs. Digital: Exploring The Pros And Cons Of Both Worlds In Music Production

Wanna have some fun? Gather a bunch of recording engineers together and ask them which is better: analog or digital. The pandamonium that follows is sure to be entertaining. Needless to say, both analog and digital technologies have their own unique pros and cons. In this post, we’ll dive into the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Prior to the mass adoption of digital recording technology, recording engineers relied on high-quality magnetic tape to capture sound. While analog technology gave us what are arguably the most coveted recordings ever created, the engineers of the day were in a constant struggle against limited dynamic range, hiss, dropouts, and wow and flutter.

That said, while early adopters celebrated digital recording technology for its pristine, hiss-free sound, the format came with its own set of complications, such as aliasing, quantization distortion, jitter, and shrill-sounding AD/DA conversion. In fact, many engineers and audiophiles found — and still find — these issues more objectionable than the shortcomings of analog technology. 

Analog Audio Explained

Analog, literally speaking, is an analog — a replica or representation — of something. In professional studios, magnetic tape is the highest-quality method for analog recording and playback.

With a tape machine, continuous changes in voltage function as an analog to changes in amplitude, which are stored as magnetic charges on the tape.

During recording, electrical audio signals are routed through a coiled wire surrounding a magnet, which is in close proximity to a reel of magnetic tape. This coil of wire surrounding the magnet is called the record head.

As the tape passes through the magnetic field created by the record head, the particles along the tape are magnetically charged. The magnitude of the magnetic charges along the tape is analogous to the changes in the amplitude of the audio signal sent through the coil of wire.

When the tape is played back, the reverse happens. The charges on the magnetized tape create continuous changes in voltage on the playback head, which can then be routed to an amplifier and played through a transducer.

Since analog systems rely on continuous physical measurements, their accuracy of representation is limited by how precise your machine is calibrated, as well as by the characteristics of your storage media and playback system. 

Digital Audio Explained

Unlike analog, digital recordings don’t make use of continuous amplitude measurements. Rather, digital technology relies on samples, or static pictures of a sound at a specific point in time.

A single sample doesn’t indicate changes in a waveform. Therefore, digital technology creates an approximation of a real-world sound by stringing multiple samples together.

During recording, a real-world sound is routed through an A/D converter, which converts analog voltage into digital information. This digital information can then be stored and manipulated in the same manner as any other computer data.

When played back, the digital signal is routed through a D/A converter, which converts the digital information back into analog voltage, which can then be sent to an amplifier and played back through a transducer.

Since digital recordings rely on momentary snapshots, their accuracy of representation is limited by the number of bits, as well as how many samples, that are employed. 

Limitations of Analog

Many analog adherents are quick to point out the theoretical shortcomings of digital audio while failing to recognize the physical limitations of analog audio.

To start with, the rate at which magnetic tape passes the record head affects the quality of the recording. For example, a faster tape speed (the pro standard is a brisk 30 ips) yields greater frequency response, less hiss, and shorter dropouts than a slower speed. ………….

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Tags: analog, analog vs. digital, desktop music production, digital, ios music production, mastering, mixing

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