We asked renowned Australian
and electronics engineer,
to answer the following question...
Has ‘sound quality’ improved with
digital replacing analogue?
by Gavin Pearce
On the net it's very easy to find multiple references to people
claiming that digital has superior ‘sound quality’ to analogue. They
then go on to talk about noise, distortion and dynamic range etc. All
very good arguments to engineers and physicists who think that these
attributes will most definitely improve ‘sound quality’. Throw away
those Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan records, those distorted guitar
tones do nothing for the ‘sound quality’ of the guitars. Burn those
Steely Dan records recorded on those distortion laden tape machines. The
analogue tape compression has ruined the dynamic range!!
When I was working as a design engineer at Melbourne University myself,
and a much more educated colleague of mine, were frequently chastised by
another prominent academic about our love for tube audio equipment. On
more than one occasion we were labeled ‘luddites’. We were eventually
informed that this same prominent academic went on to purchase a tube
hi-fi system for his own use, much to our amusement. When we asked him
why he bought a tube system rather than a solid state system he replied
simply, “It sounded better”.
Most people who listen to music would agree that tubes SOUND better
than solid state (not more linear, lower noise etc) but that is not
enough to stop solid state because it was cheaper and more convenient
than tube equipment. Here we are again, most people who are involved in
the recording process know that analogue equipment SOUNDS better than
the digital equipment and emulation software, but the latter is cheaper
and more convenient.
Which brings us to the digital age; isn’t it wonderful? Mountains of
cheap, disposable electronics we can use for a couple of months until
the next updated, feature laden product appears. A lot of it will have
terminal faults right out of the plastic bubble wrap you purchased it
in. The rush to market has robbed design engineers of the time necessary
to fully develop and test new products before they are released. We live
in a strange time where the word ‘value’ has changed dramatically.
‘Value’ used to mean a product was inexpensive considering its quality
and/or usefulness. Now ‘value’ simply means ‘cheap’. If something is
cheap enough nobody seems to care if the product can perform its alleged
function at all!! They just put it in the bin where it belongs.
Digital electronics has primarily given us convenience. I can carry
around my whole bookshelf of CD’s on half the hard drive of my iPod. Has
it improved ‘sound quality’? Absolutely not; it sounds heavily
compressed as well as quite bright and harsh, even with my new
headphones. The compression does add punch though so I don’t have to
listen to the inane chatter of other people on the tram. It is useful to
show someone a track when I am at a gig and to make playlists of the
repertoire I have to learn. I would never listen to it at home because
it is too fatiguing to listen to for long periods of time but it is much
more convenient than carrying around LP’s or even CD’s. The Class D amps
used in these portable products are not known for their sound quality
but for their energy efficiency. The manufacturers of the chips used in
Class D amps know this so that is how they are marketed. Not on ‘sound
quality’, but on ‘greenness’ and extended battery life.
One area where digital equipment has definitely improved ‘sound quality’
is in the home studio. Previously the home studio would consist of an
analogue 4 track Tascam tape recorder and some old low quality analogue
desk. With the price of Protools and other software falling all the time
the home studio can suddenly produce good recording. These recordings
can compete with larger studio if they have a few pieces of quality
analogue outboard gear to reintroduce musicality into the digital
So it would be true to say, for the money, digital does produce better
sound than analogue. But in my opinion digital will never truly supplant
analogue for having superior ‘sound quality’. Digital equipment's main
attributes are convenience and cheap price. High quality analogue front ends
and outboard gear will always produce better ‘sounding’ recordings than
high quality digital even if they have 0.01% more noise and distortion.
As Cannonball Adderley once said “Music is the art of listening”.
© 2008 Gavin Pearce
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I know Gavin and I swear he is capable of simultaneously lip reading an inane conversation on a tram whilst listening to his ipod, designing a Class A amp and learning a chart for that night. I want his brain when he's finished with it.
Posted by Tony King on Friday 26 November 2010
How do you know the chatter of the other folks on the tram is inane if you're listening to your iPod?
Posted by Wil Sargisson on 2 December 2009
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