The Listening Revolution
As the sun set on the last major analog recording format–the cassette tape–in the 90’s, the world of recorded music began a shift into the digital realm. Nearly all music we hear today is through a digital medium–CD players, mp3 players, computers, and with good reason. Playing music in digital format has a distinct advantage over analog (cassette, 8-track, or vinyl) because of its high-fidelity, super-clean sound. Generally, digital technology is also more compact and reliable.
Technically speaking, a digital signal is less precise than an analog signal. However, if the digital signal is sampled at a high enough rate and bit depth (in the case of audio, typically 44.1kHz/16bit or 48kHz/24bit), our ears cannot discern any loss of data or sound quality (represented by the steps in the image shown).
However, as during any season of significant change, the traditionalists rose up and declared “Digitizing music will make it sterile and emotionless! This technology will destroy music as we know it!”
The Recording Revolution
Behind the scenes, another revolution was taking place. As the cost of ever more powerful computers plummeted, studios which traditionally relied on enormous racks and consoles of analog electronics to create music began introducing computers into their workflow. Hardware signal processing gave way to software emulators with virtual signal processing code. Mixing and mastering tasks that previously dictated the need for rooms full of equipment could now be handled inside a single powerful PC.
As was always the case, analog microphones were used for recording. However, for the first time ever, engineers were digitizing that analog signal using A/D converters, which opened up myriads of new ways to process and mix music with computers and digital devices. In essence, not only was the final musical product becoming digitized, but the tools used to create that music were changing as well.
However, the audio engineers began to notice a very interesting side effect of these new technologies:
They were too perfect.
All of the little imperfections and distortions that came through old equipment–tape distortion and saturation, rumble, flutter, “wow”–were no longer present. At the processing level, digital equipment could deal very transparently with transients that tape gear would have smeared together. High end frequencies weren’t being unintentionally rolled off as with the old analog gear. The resulting sound, though clinically speaking much more perfect, lost an element of character and pleasantness which many simply began to refer to as “analogue warmth”.
Many engineers working with digital audio systems embarked on quests to capture “warmth” in their recordings. Some intentionally processed their audio through analog compressors, reverbs, and tape recorders, while others used software distortions, saturators, and other effects in an attempt to replicate the analog sound.
Others still decided to embrace the digital sound, pooh-poohing the idea that the old analog sound was ever better at all!
So, is cleaner, more accurate, high-fidelity music also more “emotionless”?
As you might guess, this is a rather subjective question. Assuming “emotional” music is that which provokes emotional response in the listener, I have been emotionally moved by both digital and analog music. Even that simple test tells me there are a lot of things that matter much more than having (or mimicing) the analog sound. You know what I want to mimic? GOOD sound!
“Analog warmth” is simply a set of sonic attributes. We can use them, we can simulate them, or we can ignore them. While production and format choices can enhance or detract from the end result, they are not the magic bullet which determines whether our music is emotional or emotionless.
All of this is to say, that there is ONE element which MUST be present. That element is EMOTION.