the metaphysics of analog vs digital & gramophones

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dfuruta
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the metaphysics of analog vs digital & gramophones

Post by dfuruta » Mon Apr 08, 2013 6:01 pm

It's fairly common to see people state a preference for recording to tape on the grounds that analog storage is somehow closer to reality than digital. Frequently this comes out as the claim that digital chops up smooth, unquantized reality into little chunks, losing something in the process, and that magnetic tape is better able to hold on to the continuous nature of sound in the physical world.

Ignoring the fact that this is, at best, a gross misunderstanding of how digital and analog work, I have to wonder if tape goes far enough. Recording, like photography, is designed to steal souls; are spirits really happier being shoved into a finite number of magnetic domains (after passing through an electrical state) than into digital storage?

I had the wonderful experience recently of listening to some old recordings on wax cylinders and 78s. The machines were spring-powered, with no electricity involved, and several of the recordings had been made with purely mechanical means as well. The sound, of course, was not very accurate, but there was a charm I've never experienced with digital recordings, tape, or more recent vinyl.

So, beyond analog & digital, what have we lost with the obsolescence of strictly mechanical recording? When the sound leaves the physical domain, towards whatever storage medium, does some of its magic vanish forever?

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Post by markjazzbassist » Mon Apr 08, 2013 8:03 pm

we've lost the sound itself. in digital there is no waveform, just 1's and 0's that make up what they call a waveform. you can put the wolf in whatever sheeps clothing you'd like and say it's more accurate or has better headroom and dynamics, blah blah, but at the end of the day it's no longer a waveform, it's 1's and 0's. i prefer waveforms (call me old school or sentimental i guess).

it's like the difference between thanksgiving turkey and tofurkey, there's no comparison (and this is coming from a vegetarian!).

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Post by Snarl 12/8 » Mon Apr 08, 2013 8:13 pm

I think we've mostly lost the ability in most humans to get together in one room with other humans and rock the fuck out.
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Post by MoreSpaceEcho » Tue Apr 09, 2013 1:55 am

markjazzbassist wrote:we've lost the sound itself. in digital there is no waveform, just 1's and 0's that make up what they call a waveform. you can put the wolf in whatever sheeps clothing you'd like and say it's more accurate or has better headroom and dynamics, blah blah, but at the end of the day it's no longer a waveform, it's 1's and 0's. i prefer waveforms (call me old school or sentimental i guess).
it's a good old fashioned waveform once it comes out the d/a converter.

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Post by engelen62 » Tue Apr 09, 2013 3:08 am

markjazzbassist wrote:we've lost the sound itself. in digital there is no waveform, just 1's and 0's that make up what they call a waveform. you can put the wolf in whatever sheeps clothing you'd like and say it's more accurate or has better headroom and dynamics, blah blah, but at the end of the day it's no longer a waveform, it's 1's and 0's. i prefer waveforms (call me old school or sentimental i guess).

it's like the difference between thanksgiving turkey and tofurkey, there's no comparison (and this is coming from a vegetarian!).
Obs: There are no waveforms once its converted into electricity..
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Post by ubertar » Tue Apr 09, 2013 6:50 am

All sound ends up as ones and zeroes, whether it's recorded or not. Neurons either fire or they don't. Human brains are digital, like it or not.
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Post by apropos of nothing » Tue Apr 09, 2013 7:54 am

ubertar wrote:All sound ends up as ones and zeroes, whether it's recorded or not. Neurons either fire or they don't. Human brains are digital, like it or not.
They also don't really matter that much individually, so much as the mass of them firing at once. Humans think in gestalt. If brains are digital, they are also analog. 8)

Something that I respond to in old recordings that is frequently not in new recordings is ambience. By which I mean, the sound of the location in which the intended sound message was captured. This does literally give an aura to a recording.

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Post by dfuruta » Tue Apr 09, 2013 8:24 am

Ones and zeros in the computer seem, at most, only slightly more abstract than tiny little (discrete) polarized magnetic domains on the tape.

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Post by Gregg Juke » Tue Apr 09, 2013 9:08 am

>>>>Something that I respond to in old recordings that is frequently not in new recordings is ambience. By which I mean, the sound of the location in which the intended sound message was captured. This does literally give an aura to a recording.<<<<

When studios were designed as a "sound-stage!"

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Post by GooberNumber9 » Tue Apr 09, 2013 10:09 am

dfuruta wrote:Ones and zeros in the computer seem, at most, only slightly more abstract than tiny little (discrete) polarized magnetic domains on the tape.
QFT. Besides, those ones and zeros in the computer are really just tiny little polarized magnetic domains on the hard drive.

Here's the big difference I see between old recordings and newer recordings: As technology has "advanced", the cost of recording something has gradually decreased. That means the barrier to recording something has come down (very dramatically in the last 20 years or so, but gradually all along), which means today that almost anything can be recorded easily and cheaply. Compare that to maybe the 1920's. Back then, audio recording was difficult and expensive. People only recorded stuff they really wanted to record (mostly; of course we have Edison reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). For the most part, the farther back in time we go when listening to audio recordings, the more valuable the recordist thought the recording was, which means we are filtering more for quality as we go backwards in time. Was the music better back then? Not necessarily, but the music that has survived all those years has done so because of how good it is.

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Post by Nick Sevilla » Tue Apr 09, 2013 11:00 am

Snarl 12/8 wrote:I think we've mostly lost the ability in most humans to get together in one room with other humans and rock the fuck out.
This.
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Post by dfuruta » Tue Apr 09, 2013 11:08 am

GooberNumber9 wrote:QFT. Besides, those ones and zeros in the computer are really just tiny little polarized magnetic domains on the hard drive.
Well, they might be charges on capacitors or the state of a few transistors (in RAM or an SSD), but that's splitting hairs :)
Here's the big difference I see between old recordings and newer recordings: As technology has "advanced", the cost of recording something has gradually decreased. That means the barrier to recording something has come down (very dramatically in the last 20 years or so, but gradually all along), which means today that almost anything can be recorded easily and cheaply. Compare that to maybe the 1920's. Back then, audio recording was difficult and expensive. People only recorded stuff they really wanted to record (mostly; of course we have Edison reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). For the most part, the farther back in time we go when listening to audio recordings, the more valuable the recordist thought the recording was, which means we are filtering more for quality as we go backwards in time. Was the music better back then? Not necessarily, but the music that has survived all those years has done so because of how good it is.
Sure, I certainly don't think music used to be better! There's stuff now as wonderful as ever. But, there's a serious charm to old gramophones that I haven't experienced with newer formats. Of course, it's probably just the nostalgic qualities and the distortion from the horn, but my superstitious side has to wonder if some little bit of the artist's soul is lost when the sound leaves the physical domain (which it doesn't with these old records).

My point, I guess, is that magnetic-based analog and digital are more alike than different in this woo-woo quasi-metaphysical sense, at least when compared with the older technology.

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Post by honkyjonk » Wed Apr 10, 2013 3:03 pm

I'm not gonna claim I really know anything about the nature of electromagnetism in the human brain, or our inherent binariness, but the intangible "soul" or "essence" is pretty obvious to me what's missing when things go digital. I have a Radar II. Not bad conversion at all. But there's still something missing in comparison to my 1/2" 8 track. It's hard to put a finger on because it's hard to put a finger on the metaphysical. But it's not increased distortion that makes tape sound better.

I know you hear the gearslutz and a miliion people say that if you can't go "pro" and get a 2" 16 track or whatever, then it's not even worth it. I hope people keep believing that so I can get parts for my 8 track at a reasonable price in the future, but . .

Anyway, it's the same things that are missing in regards to film vs. digital video. Depth, emotion, soul. All one can do is claim to see/hear/feel the difference. The bullshit callers are always going to call bullshit and point to specs.

It's an interesting idea that since analog appears to exude more soul than digital, then perhaps something that doesn't even convert waves to voltage can capture that elusive intangible thing even better than magnetic tape? At the cost of fidelity, albeit. Hmmmmm.

Tom Waits says songs don't really want to be captured, or even written. That you sort of have to sneak up on them, or devise ways of catching them unexpectedly.

Perhaps, in a Waitsian sense, it's actually pushing away the soul by continually increasing the fidelity at which we capture the music. That would sort of be a bummer because I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to hear what a quantum converter sounds like. Heh.
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Post by fossiltooth » Thu Apr 11, 2013 9:18 am

It's worth noting that sound can not truly be "captured" -- ever -- whether on wax cylinder or solid state hard drive. Sound exists only as momentary vibrations in the air. We can not bottle it. The best we can do is measure the energy of sound and represent it in another form: as etchings on a surface, as magnetism or as electricity.

Whatever the format, we can attempt to draw a continuous line (known as "analog", which is very tricky to do well) or store discrete impulses, which are then used to perfectly redraw the line, using what we know about the laws of molecular motion.

The question then, is which of these measurements is most accurate and true to life? The no-nonsense answer to that is "good digital". Like evolution, and the earth's path around the sun, this is not a matter of debate. But we can also ask: Which charms us the most, regardless of accuracy? There is no correct answer to that one. Whatever floats your boat.
honkyjonk wrote:I have a Radar II. Not bad conversion at all. But there's still something missing in comparison to my 1/2" 8 track. It's hard to put a finger on because it's hard to put a finger on the metaphysical. But it's not increased distortion that makes tape sound better.
Well, it's that and your stated preference for tape that make it sound better and to you. So you've got both unconscious subjective bias as well as the objectively measurable addition of noise, harmonic distortion, frequency degradation, etc. Both factor in to how we perceive things.

Fact is: there are only two variables that play into our perception of sound: 1) the physical properties of sound and hearing, which can be measured objectively. And 2) Our own psychology, for which measurement is kinda silly.

And for the record, I also like tape. A lot. I just don't like assertions about the stuff that fly in the face of science. The sun does not travel 'round the earth, and tape is not inherently more accurate or "true to life" than digital. Plain and simple. When you study this stuff, that part of the debate disappears, and all you're left with is knowledge.
Last edited by fossiltooth on Thu Apr 11, 2013 12:48 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by GlowSounds » Thu Apr 11, 2013 10:37 am

fossiltooth wrote: The best we can do is measure the energy or sound and represent it in another form: as etchings on a surface, as magnetism or as electricity.
Good point. Everything from amazing old wax cylinders to vilified digital formats all have that fundamental trait in common.

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