Saturday, October 5, 2013

Breaking Down the Age Old Argument: Analog VS Digitaly Encoded Music

I've done a few blogs now on how to make a DIY Hi-Fi system, and adjusting a lower end record player, so I thought I should also break down the in's and out's of Analog VS Digital Media.

The argument of digital vs analogue sound has been around since Phillips and Sony debuted the Compact Disc format back in 1982. The core arguments of both sides are still very similar and it all ultimately boils down to this down to this: quality of product VS ease of accessibility. Vinyl (analogue) offers a 100% accurate reproduction of the original sound recorded, but is big and bulky while the digital market offers music that can be stored as data, but loses much of the source quality through the encoding process and as a result of what is being called the “loudness wars” plaguing digital media. This issue of low quality sound and high portability has been exponentially exacerbated with the advent of the internet and mp3s.  In this article, I will boil down the pro’s and con’s of the analogue vs digital debate not in an attempt to uncover the preferable format, but to allow the reader to decide where they fall on this issue.

For most of the 20th century, LP’s were the predominant way to distribute music to the home consumer. Originally formed out of shellac, and now polyvinyl chloride, people took great care of their music collections and spent tons of money on record players. However, in the late 1980’s the compact disc made it’s debut and within a few years became the new vehicle in which people enjoyed their music at home. Cassettes came and went, but were largely regarded as merely a way to enjoy music on the go, not for normal household enjoyment. This lasted until the late 1990’s when a hacker bought encoding software with a stolen credit card, widely spread it as freeware, and began the popularization of the MP3.

Before we compare and contrast the various mediums of audio delivery, it is first key to understand a few terms. The most important of which when speaking about digital music is the bit-rate. Essentially this is the quality of compressed digital audio. In digital, the analogue signal is sampled, taking bits and pieces of the audio rather than the entirety of it as a whole. The bitrate is the amount of data that is captured at any one second of the audio. These can range anywhere from low level MP3 encodes that start at 128 kilobits per second to 1,411.2 kilobits per second on CDs. With this, more data produces a better sound, but also produces larger file sizes. A standard 128KBPs encode will take up only a few megabytes of space, while a lossless cd track will take up between 30-50 megabytes. Lossless digital audio exists, but is accompanied by large file sizes. Analogue sound on the other hand, due to it being a complete reproduction of the source cannot be quantitated like this in regards to bit-rate.

Records, or LP’s, contain grooves in which a physical waveform (a direct reproduction of the source sound) is contained within the formed plastic. This waveform has a needle ran overtop of it in which a barely audible, completely authentic reproduction of the sound is played. The sound then transfers into an amplifier and out of the speakers generating a 100% authentic reproduction of the source material. This is lack of encoding and sampling the music is the prefered way to listen to music by “audiophiles”. The argument being that something sampled can never sound as good as an original reproduction.

However, vinyl has negative sides as well. It is big, bulky, and easily breakable. Also, although technology is readily available to have an amazing experience playing vinyl, due to it’s lack of popularity it is expensive to purchase the technology to properly utilize the format. There is also an audible sound with the needle dragging over the crevice, if a record is not completely clean, it will be filled with hisses and pops. This becomes even more of an issue due to the fact that you are essentially dragging a sharp instrument over a delicate surface. This means each time you play it, though it may be by an incredibly insignificant and minute amount, you are causing damage to the record. Additionally, a true hi-fi setup includes needle priced anywhere from $80-$5,000, direct drive motor, tube preamplifier, amplifier, and speakers. This can quickly total alot of money and is not a likely purchase for your typical consumer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum of vinyl are MP3’s. The average MP3 ranges in quality from 128 kbit/s to 320 kbit/s. While a 320 kbit/s is listenable to the normal everyday consumer, even the least trained ears can hear the obvious difference between the two extremes on the scale. MP3’s only take up a few megabytes of space on a hard drive, are quickly ripped (encoded) from a CD using the even the most primitive of computer systems, are easily shared, and contain the information about the artist, album, and even a small thumbnail of the artwork within them. This is the highest quality of portable music for the smallest amount of size. These are also largely popular with the public due to the fact that most online stores sell them for .99 cents a piece.

One of the major problems that stems from the popularization of MP3’s is the multiple-encoding that sometimes arises from them. Basically, this is the unfortunately popular practice of taking an encoded MP3, burning it to a disc, giving it to a friend, and having them re-rip (encode) it to their system, resulting in a complete and total fidelity loss for no reason whatsoever. Although an MP3’s file size is incredibly small, so is the quality of the sound. Despite these drawbacks, the consumers have spoken and ease of use and portability are what today’s general customer crave the most.

This huge cost and lack of portability is what largely drove consumers to CD’s in the first place. CD’s offer a mid to high quality level of sound while providing a very small delivery vessel. CD’s are also harder to damage than the traditional LP, and most of the time the damage is able to be repaired. Being a physical format it is immune to hard drive crashes, and unlike records it causes zero wear and tear when you use it each time. CD’s have a relatively high bit-rate of 1,411.2 KBPs, meaning that they have much more depth and clarity than MP3’s, but oddly enough, CD’s greatest asset is not being utilized in the least...

Technically speaking, a CD’s low-end dynamic-range is greater than that of the LP. This means that a CD can technically produce more low end frequencies than that of even a vinyl. Now on the outset, discovering that CD’s have a lower potential dynamic range, but they are in fact inferior to a wave-form may seem complicated, but it’s not. Yes, a CD designed directly from a professional mixer can in fact have audio levels that are not possible with an LP. However, due to what are being called the “loudness wars”.

The record labels are understandably in a competition to have their music heard over those of their competitors. This has resulted in labels pushing CD producing plants and digital distributors to make their music as loud as possible through what is defined by  Scott Metcalfe, the director of recording arts and sciences at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University as “the range from the loudest notes being played to the softest notes being played”.

This practice effectively removes the peaks and valleys of a waveform making the entirety of it to sound as if it is louder as a whole. Unfortunately, this removes much of the character and subtlety of music, or as Bob Dylan puts it “You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static.” Although this affects CD’s and MP3’s, this is one of vinyl’s main draws for many people as record producing plants are not able to perform excessive compression with vinyl due to its physical constraints.

Based on all of the positives and negatives of each of these formats, the consumer seems to want portability and ease first, and quality second. Enter the FLAC file. FLAC is an acronym for Free Lossless Audio Codec. FLAC encodes at the maximum data rate of which humans can hear, but does not compress the audio, it compresses it as a file. For instance, with zero quality loss, FLAC zips the file to make 40-60% smaller with absolutely no quality degradation. The file size ends up being around 40 megabytes, more than small enough to fit on today’s 8, 16, or 32 gigabyte phones/players.

FLAC has a lot going for it. You can create a FLAC file out of your CD with just a burner. With just a little experience with audio, you can even rip a copy of your favorite LP’s and output an identical FLAC file that is just as clean as the original vinyl. This allows the portability of a vinyl collection and the ability to create a backup of any of your audio to keep for years to come. Most importantly, FLAC has one thing going for it that other lossless formats do not: It is entirely free to use. Is FLAC for everyone? No. Many people cannot differentiate the difference between a 320kbps MP3 encode and a CD, for them, they will go with MP3. But for those who care about audio quality AND portability, FLAC seems to be the best option around.

So what does this mean for the future of the record industry?  Which format will prevail? Well, records and vinyl have been steadily selling more each year since 1998 and appear to be on an upswing that is not going away anytime soon. CD’s certainly are suffering dimension sales and do not appear to be a long term solution as they are quickly falling out of popularity. MP3’s are still reigning supreme at the moment, but with the cost of affordable, high quality audio equipment coming down each year, that may not last. One amazing idea that has been prevailing among indie record labels is selling vinyl copies with a CD or download voucher with it. Sometimes even both. This allows the user to choose their experience and how they want their media, essentially taking the power out of the hands of the labels, and putting it where it truly belongs…. in the users hands.

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