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Analog vs. Digital
March 26th, 2009 by NumberSix

Analog playback equipmentIn spite of the options offered by commercial radio – including terrestrial and satellite options – I often find myself listening to non-commercial Internet radio. One of my personal favorites is Radio Free Dishnuts, a 24-hour Internet radio station that also simulcasts the Skyscanner satellite radio network. Last night I was listening to Electric Cafe when I noticed that Bill Allen, the longtime host of the show, was back in the saddle after taking a six month leave of absence from hosting the show. When I realized this, I logged into the IRC chat room for RFD/Skyscanner. Bill is a self-described fan of analog technology, and supposedly, the only computer involved in the production of the show is the one that does the streaming. The rest is done with analog equipment – cart machines, turntables, and so on. My mentioning of this in the IRC sparked an interesting discussion of analog versus digital technology, with several people in the IRC coming down on the site of analog.

Skepticism of new recording technologies is probably not something that started with the transition from analog to digital. The late Gary Bourgois put together an interesting radio serial called “Floating Flash Frisbone, Radio Ace,” which tells of the amusing and ongoing saga of a radio DJ who cannot hold down a job. In one episode, he finds himself working for a station in Florida called Edison 78, a station that has not changed its format since 1922, and their disdain for anything new extends to their broadcasting facilities. All of the station’s spots are recorded on wax cylinders (“[t]hey tried to get us to use one of those newfangled wire recorders, you know,” muses morning man Victor Windup, “ehh, they’re nothing but trouble; always breaking down.”). But the early technology was so limiting in many respects that the need for improvement was obvious. 10-inch 78 RPM records, for example, were limited to about 3 minutes per side, and were rather fragile. 12-inch records allowed for a slightly longer track length, and some artists took advantage of this, releasing songs that were over four minutes long. The introduction of 33 RPM and 45 RPM records in the late 1940’s brought records with lower surface noise and longer playing time to the masses. 78 RPM records were still issued alongside their 33 and 45 RPM brethren for a number of years, but the 78 was a dying format and was more or less gone by 1960, although some children’s records continued to be issued on 78 until the 1970’s. The introduction of high-fidelity LPs, however, helped extend the hegemony of analog music, which would go largely unchallenged until the introduction of the compact disc in 1982, which brings us to the present debate over analog versus digital.

Indeed there are several factors working in favor of analog technology, at least as far as audiophiles are concerned. One is the lack of aliasing in analog technology – the tendency of different continuous signals to become indistinguishable from each other when sampled, as well as the distortion that results when a signal is sampled and reconstructed as an alias of the original signal. Another is the lack of quantization error – the error that results when analog input voltages are converted to digital (since digital signals are ultimately binary, a voltage that is smaller than the least significant bit will be rounded to either 0 or 1, while in the analog world, the original value would be preserved). Fans of digital technology, of course, will note the high quality of digital sound reproduction, along with the sensitivity of analog media to physical degradation (digital media is not immune to physical degradation, as anyone who has old CDs and DVDs can attest to, but overall they seem to have held up pretty well – I have CDs that are 20 years old that still play).

I straddle the line somewhat on this issue. On the one hand, I realize that the dynamic range of digital media is limited and that analog, under ideal conditions, can be better. [I remember hearing Neil Young’s “After The Gold Rush” on a linear-tracking turntable about 15 years ago and thinking how much better it sounded than a CD.] On the other hand, I don’t share the enthusiasm that some analog aficionados have for clicks and pops, wow and flutter and tape hiss – in other words, the defects of analog media. I was listening to the Stiff Records Box Set recently, and it pained me that the version of “Yankee Wheels” by Jane Aire and the Belvederes contained surface noise (actually, it pained me more to think that the master tape of the song might be lost and that they apparently used a vinyl record as the source).

Still, to some technophiles, I’m probably considered a dinosaur. After all, I still use my fourth-generation iPod even though I have a fifth-generation iPod; I swoon over my still-functioning Sparcstation LX. And the VT-100 manual that I rescued from the garbage at work is something I’ll be hanging onto for awhile. And updating this blog is hard to do on my VIC-20, so I guess I’d better wrap up this article.

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