Analog Man in a Digital World
by Michael Braunstein
It didn’t have to be this way. We didn’t have to be so polarized, so binary, so coarse, so granular. But we made it happen like this because of who we are. We are the only species in existence that works day and night trying to control, evade, ignore and defile Nature. And I admit my minor role in prying open Pandora’s Box.
February 7, 1979 I overslept. Around 5 p.m., the jangling phone in my Laurel Canyon house rattled me awake. “Shouldn’t you be here? The digital session?” said the voice at the other end. He was right. I was to engineer the long-anticipated debut of the new 3M digital multitrack recorder with my friend and client Stephen Stills.
I showered and drove down the hill to the Record Plant before Stephen made it to Studio C. As guinea pigs for the landmark session, Stephen, his band and I were to record simultaneously on our usual tried-and-true analog multitrack alongside the digital machine flown in from Minnesota, then compare the two. And that’s what we did all night, until it was daylight again. By today’s standards, the fanfare in the control room was minimal. Some photographs from Billboard and Mix magazine and a few press notices followed in trade rags later that week. But the historic implications of what we were doing did not escape those of us in the trenches.
Shifting from analog recording to digital recording, as I was reminded by Sony tech Lon Neumann later, was not “evolutionary technology but revolutionary technology.” What we did that night was not the penultimate straw that broke the camel’s back but it did hand the reins of digital over to the public. Analog to digital may be the the tipping point that knocked Nature out of the balance. And digital audio became the first widespread example of that deviation. Within two years, analog vinyl was dead and CDs were on the horizon.
Close but no cigar. Nature is analog. It is continuously variable. It is never fully quantifiable and constantly bears nuance and shades of gray. Not so with digital. Digital is life “by the numbers.” Digital does away with nuance. A string of numbers is a string of numbers. A sunset or a musical note has nuance and is never exactly the same as it was just one nanosecond ago. Nature allows for change. Digital corrects for it. Nature is waves of energy. Digital is stair-step rough approximations of reality. In order for something, anything, to be digitized, it must be converted from nuanced, continuously variable reality to static, hard and fast numbers. Then and only then can those numbers be stored in such a way as they can be retrieved without change. But those digital samples of reality are but an estimation of reality. That’s why we call the digital world, virtual reality. A brief primer of how analog and digital audio differ is a capsule summary of how everything in the realm of Nature is converted to a mere estimation of reality.
Sound is a sine wave. It is a smooth curve of energy, continuously variable. Music, speech and natural sounds are a complex bundle of waves but always with the same characteristics of smooth variation. It’s easiest to understand the radical change analog undergoes when converted to digital by considering just a simple sine wave of sound (which is what a pure tone is.)
Analog-to-digital conversion is the process of turning that smooth curvy wave into a staircase of numbers so that the numbers can be stored as binary code, 1’s or 0’s in computerese. Digital anything is numbers stored as 1’s and 0’s. Everything and anything that has to do with a computer is stored as numbers represented as 1’s and 0’s. If it has to do with a computer, there is no middle ground. The information is stored as a series of either 1 or 0.
Imagine you’re climbing a hill. The slope is smoothly ascending. You want a friend on the other side of the world to build a hill with the same “exact” profile as the one you are climbing. So every ten steps, you put a stake in the ground and record the exact elevation, for example maybe “22 feet above sea level.” Then the next ten steps record the next elevation, say “24 feet” then the next ten steps “29 feet” and so on to the top. Well, your friend can take that information and build a replica but he’ll only know exactly what the hill looks like every ten steps. What about in between? How does he know that? The nuance of the hill is lost and will have to be estimated. In math, that’s simply known as estimating the area under a curve. Once those numbers are assigned to each elevation, you convert them to 1’s and 0’s so they can be stored in computerese.
Humanity as slave to technology. So what’s it all mean, this analog vs. digital? Well, as an audio engineer who was on the ground in the beginning, I fully comprehend the ramifications and the trade-off we made. What changed in the world of audio when we went digital holds true for anything digitized: we sacrificed nuance and the infinitely variable for the sake of control and convenience. Once inserted into the digital domain, we could manipulate sound and music in ways we could never control in analog. And the convenience factor is obvious. Humans listen to inferior quality MP3 downloads and streams because carrying 3000 songs in your iPhone is more convenient than carrying around 3000 CDs in the trunk of your car and certainly easier than the mechanical medium of vinyl. But like trying to describe a sunset to a blind man, unless you’ve heard full analog reproduction, it is incomprehensible what is sacrificed. And, for the most part, the product, the art, is dumbed down to the technological component.
But in our holistic universe, digital technology made possible almost everything we experience today that isn’t Nature. Nature is the only analog experience we have left and as we descend into a world that is more dependent than ever on the binary pulse of 1’s and 0’s that is digital, the very convenience of immediate communication, of lasting impressions that are permanently held for better or for worse, our attitudes reflect the technology we adopt. It has always been that way since human existence and only the artistry of nuance and imperfection will return us to the Nature that spawned us. Can Pandora’s Box ever be closed? Would the world be different if I had completely overslept and missed the session? Nope. Digital would happen anyway. But sooner or later we still must learn that healing depends not on harnessing Nature but on harmonizing with her.
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