Moulton Laboratories
the art and science of sound
So What’s So Good About Digital, Anyway?
By Dave Moulton
June 1993
1. The Controversy

Dave's take on the old debate over analog vs. digital audio.

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So What’s So Good About Digital, Anyway?

The View from 2005: Interestingly, the debate continues today. Digital has become ubiquitous and mainstream, the memory limitations I cited in 1993 are almost totally gone, but we still obsess about resolution and what analog can do. Many studios today maintain and offer analog multitrack and mastering decks for “pure” analog sound and as a statement of competence. Meanwhile, the study I cited in the article has never been replicated and is now generally discounted by those of us who worry about such things. Just so you know, I still support the conclusions.

The Controversy

I thought the controversy about digital audio was over.

I really did. I thought digital is boss, and analog is on the way down and out to join other abandoned and homeless technologies in the cybernetic Skid Row of 21st Century Future Shock.

Even the whacked-out audiophile guys seem to have accepted Compact Discs. No more bitter bar-room diatribes and heated debates about the relative merits of digital and analog. No more “analog is warmer” and “digital is steely and antiseptic.” In our studios at Berklee, the two realms happily coexist, with lots of analog decks and consoles, lots of digital processors and decks, and mongo synths and computers with Sound Tools and Pro Tools and Studio Vision and stuff like that. Our students make scholarly pronouncements like “analog sucks” and “digital is awesome.” We hardly worry anymore about how to teach analog deck alignment. DAT recorders are everywhere, and most of the students seem to have them too. Even our bosses at Berklee are into the act: “Hard disk recording is hip!,” they tell us. “Why haven’t you upgraded,” they ask in memos and at meetings, “getting rid of all those funky old Studer and Otari analog 8 and 24-track antiques so we can get the Xycyclonequest® SX495 Infinitrack® Virtual Digital Hardisk IIIcix with GigaStudio DSP/Storage Version 4.27 Software? We Need to Train Today’s Student on Tomorrow’s Technology Today!”

So, anyway, in the circles I run in, digital is boss. Totally!

Which is why you could have knocked me over with a feather when Neil Young came out with a really vitriolic diatribe in the May issue of Guitar Player. “Digital Is A Huge Rip-Off!,” he said, calling it “a farce”, likening it to “ice cubes washing over you,” and grimly noting that “From the early 80’s up till now and probably for another 10 to 15 years is the darkest time for recorded music ever.” In one odd digression, he asserted that only analog music can be used for therapy -- digital music isn’t therapeutic (excuse me?). In another, he likened listening to digital to looking at a landscape through a screen window. The only technical observation he made was that the sampling rate used for digital audio these days (44.1 or 48 KHz. -- take your choice) is too slow to provide adequate resolution for musical hearing. Everything else was raging rhetoric.

In the issues since Neil’s piece appeared, the mail has been pouring in, pro and con. One guy calls Neil’s piece a “nonsensical rant-fest.” Another says, “the techno-industry . . . has forced a stale cracker down our throats.” A third says, “Digital is a disaster. . . . Digital is about money, not sound.” One guy goes right for the jugular: “The CD is a fucking rip-off.” An electronics engineer charges that Neil’s piece is “completely lacking in substance,” and goes on to quote a computer(!) reference book in favor of the current sampling rate, and to talk about the limitations of “perceived reality.” A final anti-digital letter congratulates Neil on his conversion to anti-digital and with grave new-age conviction intones: “Music is not a finite art. The nuance of an individual artist’s timbre and tone as well as the therapeutic spirituality of his or her work is eradicated with most digital recordings.”

Holy Batman! I guess the debate ain’t quite over yet. Could we get a cybermedic over here to drag some of the wounded out of the line of fire?

So where does Neil get off? Where does he get this stuff? How can it be true that digital sound is crap? How can this view be reconciled with the scientific data? As Paul Harvey would say, What Is The Rest of The Story?

Neil Young is standing in here for a whole bunch of audiophiles who have devoutly and staunchly maintained that digital audio is defective and that analog recordings are more satisfying than digital ones. They present little scientific evidence to support this, which is part of why they have become regarded as a lunatic fringe. Nonetheless, they believe it strongly; they hear something different about digital vs. analog, in the privacy of their own homes, and they find the analog recordings more satisfying. They can’t measure it, but they know in their hearts and minds it is true.

So, we have an anomaly: we have reliably determined that humans have certain hearing limits that are satisfied by digital audio and we have objective tests comparing analog and digital audio that convincingly demonstrate that humans can’t tell the difference between them; we also have a group of people who consistently report that they prefer analog to digital audio. How can this be resolved?

Personally, I’ve never had a problem with digital audio. I bought my first digital deck back in 1984 and still use it a fair amount, when I’m allowed out of the office long enough to go home and hang out with my family and audio gear for a few hours. I always thought digital audio worked pretty well. CDs always sounded more like master tapes to me than analog disks did. Also, I had two experiences that pretty much clinched the argument, for me, in favor of digital.

The first occurred one summer in the middle 80's when I was working for National Public Radio and we were conducting a recording workshop. We’d rigged up a concert hall with a zillion different feeds going to a zillion different recorders for a variety of comparison purposes, and one of the things we thought we’d try, just for the hell of it, was a comparison of every analog format we had around and the Sony F1 PCM format as well. So we recorded a torture test of audio horror sounds (finger cymbals at 1 inch, P’s popping into a AKG 414, rude barnyard noises, percussion sounds, various difficult acoustic musical instruments, etc.) in parallel on all formats as well as direct to the monitors, and we spent the better part of an evening comparing the recorded quality of these formats. The PCM F1 format was the best by far, the others weren't even close - the F1 resembled the sound of the input far more closely than any of the other recordings, with fewer bad artifacts such as noise, distortion, wow and flutter, rocks, etc. So, Dave's Clincher Number 1 was: by direct comparison, digital recordings more closely resemble the input signal than do analog recordings.

The second clincher was an AES section meeting held at Manta Sound in Toronto in 1986, where the proprietors rigged up a shoot-out between an optimized analog deck (1/2” 30 IPS with Dolby®) and a digital PCM deck. Without boring you about the details of the test, what impressed me was just how good and how similar the two recorders sounded. Differences were quite subtle, and neither deck was conclusively better. Dave's Clincher Number 2, then, was: analog and digital recordings, at their best, are virtually identical, and both are very, very good.

So what is the deal here? Given that my experiences are true and verifiable (they are - others were present and there was general consensus), why is this pissing and moaning still going on? How can it be that, after 15 years of living with this stuff, people are still ranting against digital? Why isn’t it over? The principles of science seem to have been served. We have studied our hearing and have pretty conclusively shown that the current digital formats have no big audible problems and that they equal or surpass analog audio in terms of basic specs. There is general consumer acceptance of CDs, and DATs have taken over the pro audio community. Dare I mention synthesis and sampling? So, let me review some of the differences between analog and digital audio and maybe it will help you put it in perspective.
NEXT> In perspective    
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     May 18, 2007 10:50 PM
I have listened to CDs for years now. In the beginning I embraced them and thought that the sound was better. I was ready to toss out my vinyl records. But every time I listened to one of the LPs, the sound appeared to be more natural. I dared not tell anyone- they would laugh at me. My point is this--there are advantages to both analog and digital recording. Digital is good becouse it allows the convenience of recording sound with little hassle. Compact Discs are good for using in cars and in applications when you want to take the music with you. Analog is good because it has a warmer, more natural sound. Poeple can say all they want about how Digital has come a long way with better sampling rates, DVD audio, etc. But when I listen to high qualty analog it is more satisfying to my ears. Plus LPs are more interesting with the artwork on the jacket and sleeves.

Happy listening,
Bill Haller 
Seattle, WA     Apr 17, 2012 08:45 AM
I've read your article with special interest as I'm a great fan of your philosophy on acoustics and in the end it all comes down to individual choices. First off, Neil Young is a creator of music, someone whom we mere mortals commonly refer to as a musician, and as a professional musician, I share his angst (possibly frustration) which could be traced to being at the 'beginning' of the process and having the best reference of how these acoustic gems come into existence and that overwhelming desire to preserve the 'purity of sound'. Without daring to compare myself with Mr.Moulton, as an audio engineer (who lives well within the serious limitations of my auditory faculties) I am motivated by those initial sounds to attempt their recreation much to my disappointment both in the restrictive characteristics of the equipment, my inexperience and physical limitations. So I make the best choice from a combination of these factors and move on! That we should be so lucky to live in that utopia....that perfect world in which everything is gained and nothing is lost should be the objective of our well-intentioned pursuits.
S.Chandra Naraine 
     Jun 12, 2013 09:48 AM
I respect the view of loving analogue and almost dismissing digital sound. I can't criticize because obviously you have a very trained ear. What's unfortunate is that today's listener don't have a trained ear. In other words most kids for example have no clue about what is a great sound. We do. We've been there. They don't know what they are missing. Honestly though, ease of editing and recording via digital outweighs the loss in quality imo.

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