If you believed everything Jack White said, you’d think digital recording was the root of all evil. His insistence on vintage equipment on the meteoric rise of the analogue-only Toe Rag studios has started debate on recording technology.
Traditional audio is analogue: from microphone through mixing desk to tape, sound waves are represented by electrical signals. At one end the microphone uses the vibrations in the air. All the knobs, buttons and faders in the studio switch circuits and adjust voltages and currents to alter those sound waves and store them on magnetic tape. Simple.
Digital circuits use a different principle entirely. The audio signal (be it a voice, amp or whatever) is turned into digital form with an analogue-to-digital converter, which measures the signal at regular intervals and generates a sample each time. A converter that runs at a sampling rate of 44.1kHz (the sample rate for CDs) samples the signal 44,100 times per second. From then, the audio signal is represented by a sequence of zeros and ones.
As any satisfied CD owner will tell you, digital technology has its benefits. Records and tapes degrade over time. and most importantly – as millions of file sharers know – digital information is easily transferable.
In a recording environment, this is seriously useful. Manipulating recordings digitally may be sacrilegious in some quarters. but the option of digital effects units and music software is a hard one to resist. A digital signal is non-degradable and, as it can be saved, you can experiment as much as you like while always keeping the original intact. You can even take the files away with you and work on it at home.
With analogue, every adjustment is permanent. Not keen on how the day’s mixing turned out? You’d better have written down the exact position of every knob in the studio at the start of the day.
Still, at the professional level, digital audio loses out to analogue on pure sound quality. In the eternal quest for the mythical sonic attribute known as ‘warmth‘, analogue equipment traditionally pisses all over digital. Similarly, cranking analogue circuits creates distortion. It sound great with guitar amps, and you can use the same principles in the studio to create what engineers would call ‘hot‘ recordings of drums and vocals, but you can’t do it digitally.
Essentially, the choice is as much about working methods as sonic nuances. The lure of digital is growing as the technology gets better and cheaper, and it’s versatility is hard to resist. But even Jack will tell you, if the music’s not up to scratch, the recording method’s not going to make a bit of difference. Robert Collins