“Analog versus digital” – the discussion, it seems, is everywhere. The problem is, many people simply don’t understand what these terms mean. In one 25-minute video – engaging and entertaining to watch straight to the end – the biggest myths all get busted.

In short:
1. 16-bit, 44.1 kHz really is okay for many tasks. (You’re saving that data for the computer and processing rather than your own ears. Hope to talk about this question in more detail soon.)
2. Digital audio doesn’t involve stairstepping.
3. Digital signals can store and be used to reproduce sound that’s identical to what’s stored in analog form.

“Choosing” between analog and digital, as categories, therefore doesn’t make any sense at all. Now, choosing between individual filters, for instance, or caring about the physical design of electronic instruments, or recognizing that you can screw up a digital or an analog recording – all those things do matter. In fact, they matter so much that obscuring them with misinformation is a very bad thing.

The video is the work of Monty Montgomery at xiph.org. (See also: http://xiph.org/video/vid2.shtml and http://xiph.org/video/) Watch the video, but here’s some discussion:

Digital technology is fairly simple to define. A system using digital signal simply represents information as discrete, sampled values. An analog signal use a continuously-varying electrical signal. Both are means of encoding – neither is the literal sound. A digital system is so-named because those discrete values are akin to counting (hence “digits,” as in counting on your fingers), whereas an analog system uses an electrical signal that is analogous to – though not literally – the original, in that it varies in the way that (for sound) pressure would.

The problem is, people imagine digital signals to be something other than what they are in reality. Ubiquity can breed ignorance. Before digital became so widespread, recording and photography were the first revolution. And perhaps part of the problem is that our society has become so comfortable with those processes – ones that would have seemed magical to someone just over a century ago – that we have failed to distinguish between the representation and the real. But any photograph, any recording is distinct from its original subject.

Analog and digital signals are, like words and numbers, a means of encoding information. Each has limits. In sound, those limits are measured in the dimensions that measure audio, frequency and amplitude.

Digital is no less “real” than analog – and because we listen, in the end, to sound and not the signal, the two can achieve the same results. That means that you don’t have to choose. This is not a religious matter. It’s an implementation detail.

That’s not to say that the difference between analog and digital itself is irrelevant – implementation details can be very important. If you realize that fundamentally, digital and analog signals can create and capture the same sounds, then you turn instead to all of the other potential decisions a designer might make. There are many varieties of different filters, for instance, each with different characteristics. The choice of analog or digital circuitry then becomes dependent on what is most economical, most logical, and what desired sound and usability characteristics a circuit would have.

And as people over-emphasize the difference in signal and fundamental sound characteristics, they also ignore everything else.

The choice of analog control or digital control, for instance, is significant. (In short: without smoothing, digital controls can cause stair-stepping effects, and likewise analog controls may be more limited in terms of features like automation.)

This also puts in sharper relief the other reasons people favor analog technology. Analog’s “warmth,” for instance, may not be a fundamental characteristic of analog signal, but it is characteristic of other tendencies of analog designs. It tells us in part that having more literal data fidelity is not always better. Analog gear also behaves in unique ways, susceptible to variations in climate, age, dirt, and other features – something that can be positive in some cases and negative in others, but that is harder to model in digital form.

Most of all, it’s unfortunate that the term “analog” has substituted for “physical,” particularly outside sound contexts. No hardware is truly “digital.” All of it incorporates some amount of analog circuitry, for one, and it’s also the sum total of many design decisions. The fact that we think of computers as not having physical interfaces is perhaps itself a critique of the physical interaction design of computers – we’re in a way used to the mouse and keyboard that we may forget we’re having a tangible experience at all. The advantage of other designs can be to remind people of that experience.

When people describe the appeal of vinyl records, hardware synths covered in knobs and switches, patch cables and modulars, and other “analog” experiences, what they’re really saying is that they like the physical qualities of these things. And there’s no reason digital technology can’t be involved. Increasingly, it is: music is now very often digitally recorded, mixed, and mastered before being pressed to vinyl, and digital instruments are making use of more knobs and switches and even patch cords, rather than focusing on “virtual” experiences of screens and the like.

Instead of getting stuck in meaningless debates like whether analog or digital is “better,” in other words, we need to have very meaningful debates about design, sound, music, and art. But that sounds, by contrast, like a good use of time.

Spend the 25 minutes – you won’t regret it, even if this stuff is review. Thanks to Chris Randall for the tip.