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Point of View

We asked renowned Australian bassist
and electronics engineer, Gavin Pearce
to answer the following question...

Gavin Pearce

December 2008

The Question:
Has ‘sound quality’ improved with digital replacing analogue?

Response by Gavin Pearce share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

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 recording process.

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

Have Your Say
Scroll down to the bottom of the page to post your comments.

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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