"BUT IT'S ALL DIGITAL…"

By Todd Smith

It's the buzz word of the 90's for manufacturers of musical equipment. Music and recording magazines are saturated with the ads: "Digital this, digital that…" The message is that, if it's digital, it must be great. They don't say how or why, we are just asked to believe in the mystical powers of digital technology. Analog is dead, they say, and good riddance to all things analog.

But I'm here to tell ya, just because it's digital does not mean it sounds good. There are many links in the signal chain, and each one has to be strong in order to get a good sound. Let's use the signal path of the recording process as an example.

First step in the chain is the source; the instrument or the vocalist. If there is a most important step, this is it. Recorders are like computers (sometimes they actually are computers): garbage in, garbage out. Most of the work on the sound should happen at this stage, getting the source to sound good. The job of the signal chain should be to faithfully translate the sound waves into an electronic signal. Therefore, if you sound bad in the shower, you're gonna sound bad in the studio, too, digital or not.

Next step in the chain is the microphone. A golden voice will lose its luster once it passes through the poor electronics in a crappy mic. No amount of digital anything can rescue that signal.

After the microphone comes the preamplifier. This may be the most commonly overlooked stop on the signal path. Consoles have on-board preamps that do pass signal to the recorder, but how good are they? Oh, they pass signal… but a good outboard preamp can dramatically improve the quality of a recording.

Only now do we come to our storage medium, which historically has been an analog tape recorder, but nowadays could be a digital tape or a hard disk. But before we can record onto a digital tape or a disk, we must convert the signal, which up to this point has been analog, into digital code, the mighty ones and zeroes. And once again, we have another variable that will influence the final output quality of a digital recording: how good are the analog to digital converters?

For example, a DAT machine that costs $1000 has on-board analog to digital converters, as well as digital to analog converters on the outputs for playback, and a bunch of other stuff that makes up a DAT machine, all of which put together make it cost $1000.

And then there are outboard converters, dedicated solely to the task of turning your analog signal into digital code and back again, which can cost upwards of $3000. It's like the preamps on an inexpensive console: which will sound better, the converter that is "included" with the DAT machine, or the converter that costs three times what the whole DAT machine costs?

Once you have converted your analog signal into digital code, you are home free. From this point on, it's simply a matter of storing all those numbers. And since it is just a bunch of numbers, there is no quality issue; the numbers are either there, or they're not.

So, no matter what they tell ya, analog is here to stay, because all sound is born as an analog wave, and that's the only way it can go into our ears. If it's captured and coded as digital information in the meantime, well, that's okay, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's still going to sound good when it comes back.