Monday, 13 February 2012

Analogue vs Digital, part 1

Here again is presented the ongoing argument of analogue versus digital sound, in today's Sydney Morning Herald. The battle between vinyl and CD/MP3 and all that kind of thing.

My thoughts? The argument is far more complex than anything.

MP3s are far from perfect. They're convenient. That's why they're popular. They sound acceptable, but the hardcore audiophile will not accept them as a substitute for anything.

In the recording studio, the music is recorded on state-of-the-art technology. No matter what format you listen to your music on, the audio quality if down-graded in order to be transferred onto the format of choice. Music may be recorded at 96kHz sample rate and 24-bit quality, but it is downgraded to 44.1kHz 16-bit quality for CD. Filter that through a lossy compression algorithm like the MPEG-1 encoder and you get a sound that may be significantly less desirable than what was originally recorded. Couple this with the poor mastering of music over the last 20 years, with the use of brick-wall limiters and extremely loud CDs with audible distortion in the top end, and you are even further away from what was originally created.

Vinyl is even worse. In order to cut music into vinyl, a ridiculous amount of signal processing needs to be done in order to make a good quality record. The dynamic range is compressed. As well, all bass frequencies need to be cut by up to 20dB and treble frequencies need to be boosted up to 20dB, thus making a frequency difference of almost 40dB. (This is called the RIAA cutting curve). This explains why, when you plug a regular, non-pre-amped turntable into a Line-In socket of an amplifier or sound card, you get a horribly bright and hissy sound with absolutely no bottom end. The amplifier needs to process the signal from the record by applying an inverse of the original cutting curve to get the audio to sound like something worth listening to.

CDs, being digital, contain audio data that cannot be heard by the human ear. The data on the disc needs to be processed with a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) before you can hear it. MP3s need to be decoded in a similar way.

In short, what you get in a studio is always going to sound different in a domestic setting. It will all depend on the time you listen, what's going on at the time (like kids running around) and the equipment you have. It's highly unlikely you'll have professional studio quality audio in your home, unless there is a recording studio in your home! We need to deal with the best we have available to us.

My format of choice is vinyl. I've always loved it, and it's always more fun having the album covers available to you and the coloured vinyl. I prefer that, because I've found that some CDs are mastered poorly. The original issues of many classic LPs on CD was so poorly done that the only real option was to seek out a good, clean copy of the original vinyl. "Harvest" by Neil Young and "Pearl" by Janis Joplin are two albums I can think of that sounded absolutely horrendous in their first releases on CD. The vinyl in both cases sounds way better!

The fact of the matter is that consumer recorded formats are highly unlikely to EVER be able to reproduce audio bit-for-bit as it was mixed and mastered in the studio. The only format that comes close is Blu-Ray, and I don't see many albums being released in that format.

Vinyl happens to be cheaper than CDs (in some cases) and is less prone to the brick-wall limiting and poor mastering of CDs, so I'd opt for that. CDs as a second option, especially if they're priced right....

more on this later...

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