From Analog to Digital: A (Very, Very Simplified) History of Audio |

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07.03.2019 11:03:42 - For better or worse, the democratization of recording equipment has put home recording, production, and distribution within the reach of anyone with a computer.

( - For better or worse, the democratization of recording equipment has put home recording, production, and distribution within the reach of anyone with a computer. But how did we get here?
"What microphone should I buy?" "What monitors are best?" As something of a "gear head," these are the kids of questions I hear all the time—as if there was a simple,


perfectly packaged answer I could pull out of my back pocket.

For better or worse, the democratization of recording equipment has put home recording, production, and distribution within the reach of anyone with a computer. A vibrant gear market has sprung up to pry hard-fought bitcoins from home recordists, selling them promises of recreating that quintessential vintage sound in their basement. But how did we get here?

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Analog is the way of the natural world: infinite detail, infinite resolution. Tape is one medium that represents analog audio information; vinyl records are another example. When something is converted from analog to digital, that infinite detail is distilled into a finite number of values, so when you digitize analog sounds, you naturally lose some information. The idea is that the detail lost is so minor you wouldn't be able to notice the difference, but of course, some nerd is bound to claim that you absolutely can. Audiophiles can range from boring—"Vinyl sounds better than CDs, and MP3s sound terrible!"—to puzzling—"These power chords sound more transparent." Whatever, dudes.

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Anyway, digital audio is a cornerstone of the broader computer revolution that has been going on since the 1950s. This whole home recording thing got really serious (assuming you don't think 4-track was serious) when computers and analog-to-digital conversion got good enough and cheap enough to be useful to the layman. Little did you know that the Garageband application included with the Macbook your daddy bought you before he dropped you off at your college dorm is built on a rig lightyears more more advanced than the multi-tracking tape setup Les Paul pioneered in the 1950s. Tape used to be what you recorded audio to, but tape is dead now. Digital is just too convenient and inexpensive. Maintaining and calibrating a tape machine is no longer necessary. So all hail the digital revolution; we lost a bit, but we—the masses—gained a lot.

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People get hung up on tubes a lot. Tubes are often associated with good sound, but what the hell even are they?

Tubes were our first means of amplifying and modulating signals. Vacuum tubes consist of a super hot metal plate that sends electrons whizzing off of it towards a receiver plate. Decades ago, lab rats in white coats and horn-rimmed glasses (not ironic) figured out that they could put a screen in between those plates and control how many of those boiled electrons got to the receiver. The tube amp sound that people flip over is due to two things: the first is the geeks in the lab coats—they were professionals who did good design for other professionals in the music production and broadcast world. Secondly, most of us—depending on how old we are—find tube sound comforting because many of the records we grew up listening to were recorded using tubes. While you were bopping along in your car seat in the back of your mom's Pontiac Sunbird listening to Linda Ronstadt as a child, your mental circuitry was getting wired to tubes.

Then there's solid state, which gets a bad rap. Solid state uses the same principle as tubes: a transmitter, a receiver, and a modulator, but what makes it different is that it employs doped semiconductors. Usually, silicon is the base material and then some other element like Boron is added to give a certain area a different electrical property. It is actually pretty interesting to sit through a Solid State Physics class, not because it's so cool to say, "I'm a science nerd" these days, but because this shit has changed the world.

Anyway, what's everyone's problem with solid state? It's mostly bad design and early technological limitations. Solid state gear was cheap to manufacture, and as a result, it became what was (and still is) in the hands of the masses. Most early solid state gear that flooded the market was designed to be consumer-grade (lower quality) and used chips that weren't designed for audio. The resulting sound was harsh. Add that to the fact that our brains were hardwired for the tube sound and solid state was doomed to be second rate. It's unfortunate because, with the right design and the right parts, you can get great audio from solid state.

These days, tubes and solid state stand side-by-side. As with the move from analog to digital, the trend is towards more power in the hands of more people at lower cost, which might also mean slightly lower quality.

Gear Collectors vs. Musicians
Gear fetishization is a problem. Many "musicians" are really gear collectors posing as musicians to legitimize their over-consumption of bullshit. Buying shit feels good. I've fallen victim to this myself, and notice peers who do the same. Some of the worst of these displays are vintage gear hoarders, who acquire the right gear to recreate some old Rolling Stones sound or some Beatles record. How is this a worthwhile use of time and bitcoins? These great records of the past have been done to magnificent effect by truly excellent musicians, and there's no chance that these gear collectors are going to come home from their 9-to-5 job and make Sticky Fingers Part 2 in their free time. This beautiful dream moves product and protects the investment price of the real gear collectors, who sell their wares to (mostly baby boomer) salarymen nursing their rock and roll dreams. You're either a gear collector or a musician; I suggest you pick one and get on with it.

We're heading into a brave new world where more and more people have the means to create and distribute music. This is a wonderful development and reminds me of the infinite monkey theorem: maybe if you give infinite musicians with infinite Garagebands an infinite amount of time, they'll eventually record something cool. Or maybe they'll put out another chillwave bedroom pop project. Only time will tell.

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Source: noisey.vice

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