Analogue rules

This article originally appeared on the now-defunct dbrmuz blog.

The compact disc, introduced in 1983 is still the king of digital. But because of the need for internet distribution, sound quality has gone backwards.

Steve Jobs’ statue in Hungary Science Park, courtesy of Derzsi Elekes Andor.

Yeah, that’s the late Steve Jobs picking his nose. Seriously, though, Steve loved his music. According to the Australian:

[Neil] Young said the Apple co-founder [the late Steve Jobs] was such a fan of music that he didn’t use his iPod and its digitally compressed files at home. Instead, he used a physical format well-known to have better sound. “Steve Jobs was a pioneer of digital music. His legacy is tremendous,” Young said. “But when he went home, he listened to vinyl (albums).”

An Ipod Touch 4G, courtesy of Matthieu Riegler

Professional mastering engineer Ian Shepherd explains why he thinks MP3 sucks. His original article has been commented on for almost three years now!

How does [MP3] fail ? That depends a little on the encoder being used, but some of my own pet hates include:

    * MP3 sizzle – the artificial, unnatural swirling metallic noises that sound like someone’s added chime bars to everything, or there’s a mosquito buzzing in your ear. Some people actually say we prefer these noises in MP3s – I say bullshizzle!

    * Added distortion – Yet another side effect of the so-called Loudness Wars. MP3 encoders rarely include any headroom for the encoding process itself, so the added processing pushes the music even further over the limits, generating inter-sample peaks and adding even more distortion in the process.

    * Flat, two-dimensional sound – MP3 works by throwing away musical information that we supposedly can’t hear – up to 90% of the original information, at 128k. That means all the subtle, delicate stuff, like ambience, space and realism. So a lush, three-dimension original is reduced to a flat, cardboard replica of itself.

    * Mushiness – All but the very best MP3 encodes just sound fuzzy, muddled and – well, mushy.

These babies are the first to distort on MP3. Image courtesy of Joe Grimaldi.

Zero Paid journalist Drew Wilson explains in plain English:

A WAV file is essentially an uncompressed sound file. When someone encodes it to MP3, the “highs” and “lows” start being lost in an effort to make the file smaller. A good way to demonstrate to yourself what the sound differences are between a high quality and a low quality version of an MP3 is, listened to a song that’s at 320k, then compare that to the same song that’s in an MP3 format of 128k. If the differences are seemingly minimal, pay attention to the high hats or cymbals. You may notice that the hats get a little scratchy or distorted as quality is reduced. If you’re listening on, say, a subwoofer system, listen to how heavy the bass is as well. 

Nanook describes his impression of how MP3 ‘falls apart’:

With MP3 encoding quality at 320k is generally near CD quality but even at 320k high frequency details get lost. Symbols sound like paper scratches instead of metallic crashes. At lower bit rates the first thing I notice about MP3’s is that high frequency details tend to get mushy and bass tends to get muddy as well. At 160k, MP3 sounds roughly equivalent to FM broadcast. At around 128k, the highs take on a swishy quality and complex sounds become blurred. Individual instruments in a band tend to lose their distinction at 128k and below. At even lower rates the swishyness becomes very annoying and instruments begin to sound like they’re off-key and broken up like a cheap cassette recorder with bad wow and flutter and tape with drop-outs. 

Image courtesy of

Analogue can be a simpler and more resilient medium to work with than compressed audio (MP3, WMA, Minidisc ATRAC, DVD AC3, et. al.). The primary weakness of analogue has simple and effective remedies. Improvement of the signal-to-noise ratio on dirty vinyl, video or compact cassette can be performed digitally using software such as Audacity and Nero. Getting rid of digital artifacts however is next to impossible on MP3 clips, although downmixing to mono can help. If you record digitally on a PC, there are tricks to make the recordings sound more like analogue.

With the pre-recorded product, you get full album liner notes. I’m talking photographs, lyrics and history. Pulling out a CD, record or cassette is an experience. Ownership of an album gives the listener their slice of history. Significantly, you know the artist gets paid properly.

Analogue cameras. Pretentious enough for Scarlett… Image courtesy of Ruud

Hugh Robjohns from Sound on Sound magazine writes:

In many cases, the technical limitations and imperfections of analogue systems have become an integral part of the quality of the recorded sounds that we all grew up with — and the end result is perceived by many people as being more pleasing than we can easily achieve today with all-digital recording chains. Further than that, some of the sounds resulting from ‘abuse’ of analogue gear have become recognised effects in their own right (tube overdrive and tape saturation being obvious examples).

Interestingly, sound recording isn’t the only industry that has found this. Digital cameras and imaging software usually provide a range of ‘picture-style image processing’ options. My own camera offers Standard, Portrait, Landscape, Neutral, Faithful, Monochrome, and three user-defined modes, for example, each changing the tonal balance, colour saturation, sharpness, and contrast in different ways, to enhance the subject.

In short, enjoyment of an artistic product (be it a sound recording, a photograph, a film or whatever) isn’t necessarily about precision and accuracy: more often, it’s about mood, character and subtle enhancements that make the end result more vivid and interesting than real life.

Read more about why musicians might want to record using analogue equipment only. For everyone else, Nanook offers these precautions for those taking advantage of the convenience of digital recording:

In the old days of analog recording, most recording devices did not clip hard. Magnetic media in particular has a linear region which can reproduce the signal faithfully. After that analog region is exceeded there is a non-linear region where the signal is distorted, but it isn’t hard clipped. This made analog recording much more forgiving of recordings made at too high of a level. Because of the soft nature of clipping on these analog devices, the distortion that is produced by the occasional clipped peaks tended to be mainly even order harmonic distortion.

Digital recording is less than forgiving. A digital signal can’t be less than all zero’s or more than all one’s, so a digital recording is said to clip hard. Hard clipping produces mainly odd order harmonic distortion which humans tend to find aesthetically more objectionable than even order harmonic distortion produced by soft clipping.

A Melbourne photographer captured Metallica live in Munich in 2009.

This article is teetering on pretentiousness, so let’s return to the big picture. Whatever format you choose it is WHAT you are listening to that matters! I’ll end with an article from Sound on Sound by Richard Buskin about the analogue recording of what many consider to be the greatest Metallica record ever made:

In January 1988, Metallica regrouped following the release of three increasingly successful studio albums and the death, some 15 months earlier, of bass player Cliff Burton, who had been crushed beneath the band’s tour bus when it crashed in Sweden. Bassist Jason Newsted joined singer/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich to begin work on …And Justice For All.

Recorded over the course of four and a half months in LA’s One On One Studios, this would turn out to be the breakthrough project for the Californian thrash-metal virtuosos, reaching number six on the Billboard 200 en route to eventually being certified eight times platinum by the RIAA. In what has since been named one of the 10 biggest upsets in Grammy history by Entertainment Weekly, the musically complex progressive metal album lost the ‘Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance’ award to Jethro Tull’s Crest Of A Knave.

Despite its popularity, the record also courted controversy among Metallica’s growing legion of fans. Many listeners were critical of what they perceived as the album’s overly dry and clinical sound; one which, for reasons that will be explained a little later, was largely devoid of Newsted’s bass. And for another, a lot of diehard fans weren’t happy that the band joined the commercial mainstream and courted the likes of MTV by shooting their first music video. Said video accompanied ‘One’, the fourth single off the album and Metallica’s first record to crack the Top 40 in the US, climbing to 35 on the Billboard Hot 100. With a running time of just under seven and a half minutes, its lyrics were inspired by Dalton Trumbo’s provocative anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun, in which a WWI soldier lies helpless in a hospital bed, trapped inside what’s left of his body having lost his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, arms and legs in a mortar shell explosion. Despite struggling to get radio airplay, ‘One’ became Metallica’s first hit single, and remains a staple of their live performances.

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