A Brief Essay on Digital and Analogue Sound

Digital

Digital, since the ballyhoo and bravado of its introduction in the late 1980’s, has spent most of its twenty plus year history, at least in the world of high end audio, fighting (or defending itself from) what many analogue fans characterize as ‘the problem of digital.’ Most agree that even at its best, which of late can be very good indeed, digital CD’s take somewhat of an analytic slant on things. If we like it, we hear it as stunning clarity and transparency and are drawn to the crispness of its leading edges. We admire its speed and transient response. Its fans tend to call all of this “accuracy to source.” Its critics hear instead a relative starkness, a lack of roundness and fullness; a sense that instruments have had some of their rich timbre stripped away. At its worst, which is rare these days, it comes through as edginess and/or glare. Those who speak of digital’s presentation as having a ‘problem’ attribute it to many things – too low a sampling rate and jitter chief among them. Based on my experience with some extremely good CDR’s made by recording engineer Da-Hong Seetoo, I have come to believe that what the critics of digital are talking about can be attributed at least in part to the manufacturing process, which is why so many tweak treatments to CD’s are at least to some degree effective. Recording engineers are frequently dismayed by the degeneration in quality from their masters to the CD’s we buy. Optrix, Auric Illumiunator, Vivid, Bedini’s Clarifier, even copying commercial discs onto CDR’s all seem in varying degrees to relieve edginess and glare, softening things up a bit and rounding them off appealingly. Upsampling, noise-shaping, and more radical nostrums aimed at CD’s allegedly too modest sampling rate strike me as less successful. Having heard redbook CD’s sound extremely good without any of this (and somewhat artificial with it) persuades me they are dead ends. Filtering, in both the analogue and digital domains on the premise that distortion is the root of ‘the problem’ have also demonstrated to me, through its absence in Audio Note dacs, that it too is a false path.

Audio Note. Blue Circle and Resolution Audio digital are virtually free of the qualities critics object to in the medium. And on truly good CD’s, treated with one of the elixirs – my latest find is Nanotec Systems’ Intro Project 8500 CD-DVD Coating Liquid – the ‘problem of digital’  seems no problem at all. In my house we find ourselves choosing music, not media.

Analogue

The truth behind the truism ‘if you have to ask yourself whether or not you’re in love, you’re not,’ is that, like grace to which it often likened, love comes unbidden. This is the kind of talk we frequently hear in talk about vinyl. It is true that with CD’s, we sometimes find ourselves reaching out with a willful effort at belief. The music itself can sometimes seem to have a forced quality about it.  With most vinyl, we more often find ourselves in a passive mode of acceptance. There is a perceptible ease about the proceedings and the issue of ‘belief’ seldom comes up. What does come up is a tendency to talk like this!

This lack in CD’s of ease and solicitousness, what some call appropriately “liquidity” in contrast to the somewhat dry sound they attribute to digital comes across to digital fans – to repeat myself – asobjectivity or transparency. It can sometimes sound like that. But extended time spent listening to live music tends to challenge this belief. CD’s almost deathly silence and uncanny separation of instruments can sometimes give digital reproduction a distant, unorganic, unworldly, astral character. Especially on pianos and most especially on harpsichords. It takes one hell of a good digital front end to handle, let alone capture the beauty of, a harpsichord. And then there is the difference between hearing the initial breaking of silence by an instrument – the first vibrations of the air which precede the impact – and the last vibrations fading away; and not hearing them. Coming to an analogue LP from a CD, this first arrival and final departure can sound like touches of softness, for which vinyl is both praised and criticized. Because CD’s generally don’t capture either of these as well as vinyl, dithering notwithstanding, they deliver a crispness, for which they are both praised and criticized. A clarinet’s reed must start out at very few milli-Bell, even if it only remains there for a millisecond. That is part of why we find even the most raucous clarinet appealing – it enters on a cloud. We notice that. We sometimes call it “air.” Digital adherents call it euphony or color. Its adherents tell us it is actually the difference between what a real clarinet (or violin) sounds like contrasted with a brilliant but incomplete imitation of one. This aspect of real sound reproduction can be mimicked by playing with output curves, filtering, up- and over-sampling, richer and softer output devices. But once you grow accustomed to the real thing or an excellent analogue of it, the vinyl fans tell us, you will not be fooled.

And then there is the sheer physicality and meatiness that many hear in analogue sound. Peter Qvortrup calls it “the medium.” Music coming from an analogue recording has  avoirdupois, a substance, a body, a roundness that we generally miss in digital.

Closely related to this physicality and the entry and exit quality I spoke of above and perhaps drawing on them both, is beauty – not prettiness but the savor, the quality of the sound of musical instruments that we respond to immediately at concerts of live music. This is the aspect of sound that makes even the raucous clarinet appealing in the midst of its rancor. It is what audiophiles are referring to when they praise an audio system for being ‘engaging’ or ‘involving.’ It is a feeling of satisfaction. Exceptional digital recordings can get some of this quality. I have heard it in some of the record engineering of Tony Faulkner and Da-Hong Seetoo. Good analogue recordings do seem to get it as a matter of course. It is, in the end, what music lovers come to analogue for.

Bad vinyl? Some LP’s can have a peculiar brittleness or dryness and also a hemmed in quality that reminds me of bad digital actually, though without bad digital’s excessive assertiveness or brightness. Only the most radically sentimental of audiophiles will deny that there is such a thing as bad vinyl. Vinyl is not a holy material: even analogue recording requires good engineering.

Gear? I have heard very few analogue rigs. My own of a generation ago was a Linn LP12 with an Itok arm and Kharma cartridge. I loved it at the time, or rather took it for granted. It had a seemingly natural warmth we all raved about. Next was an Audio Note TT2 with an Arm3/Vx, S-4 step-up and IO1 moving coil cartridge. Great rig, great value. Then a 20 year old Voyd Reference with a new Audio Note AN-1s/ANSgon arm mounted on it with an IO Gold cartridge. Twice as good. Both the TT2 and the Voyd sounded better to me than (my aural memory of) the Linn, mainly in seeming faster and more resolving. I am now enjoying an upgraded Audio Note TT2 Deluxe with external power supply and couldn’t be happier.

All of this said, I will not be giving up my digital front end. There is a great deal of music, mainly by contemporary musicians and composers, which is simply not available on vinyl. Also, unless I am in super critical A/B mode, digital in my house is so good at minimizing the ‘problem of digital,’ I am only occasionally aware of it.