Which is better, digital or analog? Four experts attempted to solve the long-running argument at an international symposium in Cologne last weekend. One thing was clear: there are no easy answers.
Digital makes music more portable but does it make it sound better?
In theory, the whole discussion should be null and void. But nevertheless it is a debate that continues to rage in certain circles, despite the fact that one side of the argument has seemingly eclipsed the other: Which technology is better, the increasingly omnipotent digital or its increasingly obsolete predecessor, analog?
Digital technology has been slowly replacing analog since as early as 1957 and therefore has been heralded as the "new technology" for over 40 years. But for every adherent to the argument that digital has ousted analog based on its superior acoustics, there are is another who will defend analog as superior .
Attempting to defend their respective corners, a number of the world's pre-eminent electro-acoustic experts flew in to Cologne, Germany from all over the globe last weekend, to take part in a round table discussion on the ongoing argument.
Chewing the technological fat
The debate "Analog versus Digital: Did this fight ever exist?" was staged as part of the University of Cologne's annual international symposium "Audio Visionen," a three-day event featuring lectures, performances and exhibits based on the latest electronic audio and visual technologies. Attempting to build cases for the technologies they support were four professors and composers of electronic music, all of whom have had vast experience in both technologies.
The misty parameters of the debate were set early in the discussion when Daniel Teruggi, a professor of Sound and Visual Arts at the Sorbonne in Paris, began by saying the argument was difficult to resolve because the two technologies were, in general principle, the same.
The main difference, he continued, was that while analog sound is a continuous acoustic wave converted into a continuous electrical wave, digital is a wave made up of separate points that are so close together it appears to be continuous. As a result of such similarities, early digital technologies were basically copies of analog systems.
Early pioneer advocates digital
Luckily, Jean-Claude Risset, one of the world's leading researchers into computer generated sound synthesis, had a more focused outlook and sparked the real debate with his opening statements. "Digital is better," he said. "Analog systems are more susceptible to noise while the nature of the digital wave allows it to be manipulated to reduce noise in recording."
Flo Mendez, a professor of composition and electro-acoustic music at the University of Sao Paulo, defended analog by highlighting a flaw in digital technology. "We gain a lot from the new technology but we lose other aspects," Mendez said. "It is an illusion of new technology. Digital is not a linear progression from analog. Not everything is bettered by the new technology."
Digital distances us, says Mendez
Old Skool advocates prefer vinyl and analog.
Mendez continued: "Analog brings the listener closer to the original sound…there is a depth, warmth and atmosphere to the sound but it does lack certain things. Digital may provide those things that are missing, such as durability of quality, but at the same time, it distances us from the original sound."
Risset countered from the digital side by addressing the differences at a research level. He argued that analog distanced people from the music when one had to spend days trying to wire up transistors to get an amplifier or oscillator to work. "By the time you have an analog system in place, you have forgotten about the sound you wanted to create."
Familiarity brings control
Hans Tutschku, a professor of electro-composition at Harvard University, argued that it had more to do with control and personal preference than distance. Tutschku, who was born and raised in Dresden in the former East Germany, began his career dealing purely with analog equipment.
"Knowing what can be done with a certain system and technology can give you control over it. If your experience is in analog, you will know how to control the system and get the best out of it."
So it still appears to boil down to personal choice.
Let's agree to disagree
While digital technology continues to advance and become standard, there are still those who believe that evolution is better than revolution. Just because digital has evolved from analog, they say, is no reason to consign the other to the scrap heap of the past.
Whether the fight between the two technologies ever existed in the first place is another discussion which could just as likely have no end.