Alamon: Digital versus analog

THERE is a great debate among music aficionados at present regarding the kind of format that is best for the storing and retrieval of musical data. I have been fortunate to have lived at a time when music came in various forms in the span of my short life-span. We had a four-track cassette player and a record turntable at home when I was growing up.

By the time I had allowance to save up, cassette tapes on Walkmans or boom boxes were all the rage. All these forms are considered part of the analog era when music was recorded on to physical media, whether this be magnetic tape or the pits and grooves of the vinyl record.

When the digital age for music arrived with the invention of the compact disc, it was considered a revolutionary period for music. Whereas before, there were so many factors to consider before one can enjoy quality sound such as the condition of the media, the pre-amplifier, and the dust and dirt that eventually get to tapes and records. This time it was all made simple by a laser reading the binary code imprinted on the discs and a converter transposing such data to sound coursed through speakers.

The quality of music in analog format depended immensely on the reliability and durability of the medium itself. Often times, cassette tapes would get “eaten” by plastic rollers or would get stuck within the plastic ribbons. The skipping record damaged by a physical gash and repeats itself again and again is one of the unpleasant experiences associated with the analog vinyl. All these were done away with in the interim by the compact disc because of the precision it provided in decoding binary musical data.

The CD paved the way, of course, to the invention of the mp3 format. By using the same binary code in storing musical data and compressing this in a packed and tighter form, the mp3 ushered in the demise of the CD and also changed the way music was consumed.

Before, in the age of analog, music was bought and experienced wholesale. Yes, there were singles that came out in 7 inch vinyl running on 45 revolutions per minute but the penultimate product then was the complete album in 12 inch vinyl running at 33 rpm. Thus, you did not experience music for a single song but bought a whole album set of songs that all in all told a complex story comprised of many peaks and movements. The album format allowed recording artists a wide canvas for their musical excursions and spurred a great deal of creativity and imagination.

The mp3 format changed all that by allowing the consumer to enjoy the single song of the artist as the penultimate product. The invention of digital musical players such as the Ipod changed the tastes and behaviors behind musical consumption. The album took a backseat to the playlists running on shuffle and repeat. It was also a symbolic retreat of the artist and his control over his product in favor of the consumerist and his preferences looking for a quick instant fix.

The mp3 format therefore is a sign of the times. These days, it is the consumer who is king and he should always be pleased. With a click of the dial, his favorite music of the week should be accessible. With another dial, his nostalgia for a 80s music should be within immediate reach. We are living at a time of quick music fixes. Heck, they have even done away with wires to make this happen! Imagine uttering wireless speakers in the 80s? You would have been laughed out of the record shop then.

But there is, at present, a resurgence of vinyl format. I read somewhere that that the overall sales of vinyl, yes, the plastic discs made from resin that your grandparents fawned over, has overtaken the sales of CDs for the first time this year. Tapes are not coming back because of the frailty of the medium, and CDs are surprisingly not standing up to the test of time. Vinyl, however, are very durable and are expected to last forever.

Digital aficionados swear by the purity and clarity of their format with some amping up the frequency and file sizes to come up with even more hi-resolution audio. But there is something more seductive about the imperfect rendition of the vinyl audio. Audiophiles on vinyl swear by the warmth of the analog sound. They insist on the wider soundstage, stereo separation, and clarity of music decoded from vinyl. They also appreciate the album format for the deeper and engaged gratification it provides.

Researchers have actually determined what is it that sets analog music apart from its digital twin. Comparing the same track across the two formats, it is actually the natural noise - the hiss, crackle and pop that comes from playing records – that is behind the attraction of vinyl. In my view, vinyl’s resurgence is actually a pining for a return to the slow and imperfect analog musical practices of the past versus the instant and antiseptic consumption of digital music today.