What’s That Sound: Love In the Age of Digital

One of the few indulgences I started allowing myself in recent years is hunting for vinyl.

As a fan with eclectic tastes and a particular sweet tooth for the music of the 1970s, starting slow in the clearance sections of the used vinyl shops around Los Angeles, it didn’t take a lot of ambition or very precise aim or to get a running start on my new vinyl obsession. I’d camp out in the dollar section and could easily bring home a healthy stack of playable records, a lot of them 70s folk-rock, some in pristine condition (my collection boasts $1 near-mint copies of Ram, Teaser and the Firecat, Still Crazy After All These Years, and Honkey Chateau, among other works of genius). As my collection started filling in, I branched out to the $5 bin, always scouring clearance, grabbing anything good in playable shape, and after many trips to Amoeba and other local haunts, soon I had a decent, somewhat scratchy record collection that could sustain me through a lot, including a global pandemic. 

Because what’s wonderful about vinyl, aside from sounding better (more on that later), is that it’s ritualistic, experiential, and incredibly, unavoidably physical. Digital playback only requires one or two clicks to get music to appear, all the while that “skip” button lies in wait for our tempted, twitchy fingers. Playing records, on the other hand, requires a lot of involvement; vinyl forces you to engage at many levels.

First, you have to physically thumb through your collection, decide what you want to hear, pull the album out of the jacket, place it on the turntable, and start the platter spinning. Then, if you’re like me, you briefly clean out the grooves with your carbon fiber brush and carefully place the needle at the start of the album before the first track (I prefer using a manual turntable, but there are “automatic” options available). Unlike scrolling and clicking, all of these actions require intent, presence of mind, and somewhat steady hands, but that’s not where the real engagement of the vinyl experience lies. Listening to records is an activity unto itself. 

“Listen”

The average length of one side of an album is 15-20 minutes, a chunk of time small enough to justifiably set aside for one’s own mental health. As such, the ritual goes way beyond the physical. Just playing a record is by nature a meditative practice. The commitment to the act of playing a record and the intention behind it tends to put the listener in an appreciative state of mind conducive to valuing the music and the time devoted to listening to it. This might sound overblown, but a lot of you know it’s true. Unlike streaming, listening to music on vinyl is generally not a passive activity but rather, an event to be actively experienced and enjoyed in the moment. Not that you couldn’t set aside some time to actively listen to music on your computer, but the circumstance of vinyl makes the activity experiential by nature. 

Playing records requires a lot of involvement; it forces you to engage at many levels

And because it’s inconvenient to get up, lift the needle, and find the beginning of the next track, the practice of listening to albums almost always means taking in the whole side of music as its makers intended, with the long arc of the song sequence being allowed to take shape. This ambitious type of listening is more participatory with the artists and it elicits patience and a sense of inner calm, unlike the voracious shuffling and skipping nature that is consuming music in the digital realm. 

I know I’m starting to sound like an evangelist but I’m only just getting started. What follows is a little scientific, but it’s in support of a conclusion that is ultimately very human, so please bear with me.

“Catch a Wave”

Digital music offers greater convenience, affordability, accessibility, and a myriad of other undeniable virtues but true sound fidelity is not one of them.

By now, most of us are familiar with the basics of how the science of digital audio works. Music is encoded by a conversion process that essentially takes “snapshots” of the incoming soundwaves at a very fast rate (known as the sampling rate). For instance, compact discs hold 41,000 of these digital snapshots per second of music, each one stored as an individual string of ones and zeroes. Decoding that block of data is a sort of reassembling process but it’s important to understand that what is being reconstituted is not actual sound waves, but the long series of digital descriptors of what the conversion hardware heard, interpreted, and stored as binary code. Live music, on the other hand, is pure sound waves that are delivered in a linear, continuous fashion, not chopped up and reconstituted (Neil Young’s analogy is looking at a beautiful landscape through a screen door). Analog recording and playback is a process that captures the constant flow of those actual, uninterrupted soundwaves as the music is performed, magnetically storing them, and playing them back exactly as they were performed, with the air being pushed by vibrating speakers to recreate those same exact sound waves in the room — continuous, uninterrupted sound just like the original music (with trace amounts of noise and distortion that are inherent in any analog storage medium).

But how do they sound? First, it’s impossible to truly compare digital to analog, even if they were to be played back through the same amplifier and speakers because “digital” is a block of machine language that can’t be heard unless it’s decoded back, with the aid of a digital to analog converter (DAC) and reconstituted as new, similar analog soundwaves. There are DACs everywhere you look — in your computer, in your TV, and every device and they range in price and quality steeply (like $2 microchips to $1,000 and beyond for top-shelf components built into well-designed, complex units). Super high quality, professional DAC systems impose an expensive, stabilizing digital clock, which reduces jitter in the vital conversion process and improves the quality to the point where it rivals or (some maintain) even surpasses analog, given that the digital realm is virtually noise-free. Problem is that you’d need to carry around one of these $10,000 studio-quality clocking DACs with you and hook it up to your phone or computer whenever you wanted to hear anything. That’s not how we mortals listen to digital music on the terrestrial plane. So, while the endless analog vs. digital wars have been fought on which one theoretically sounds better, in the real world, there’s simply no comparison.

“Feel”

I admit that part of why I say that is that the styles of music I mostly listen to actually benefit from some small amount of noise and distortion that comes with studio production. The tubes and transistors in recording consoles, compressors, and other coveted equipment that goes into making records all introduce a measure of “pleasing” distortion to the signal which helps to soften the harshness of the treble, sweeten the midrange, and give added gravitas to the bass range of the music. And while recording engineers do their level best to overcome any resident hum and hiss in the signal path, the little bit of noise that is introduced by the circuitry itself is just part of the legacy and sound of the classic recordings of the past, beloved by so many and emulated in the production tools of today. All of this is to say that comparing analog to digital music based on which one is freer of noise and distortion is to miss the point. In fact, rather than ask which sounds better, it turns out that maybe the better question is “which feels better?”

Live music is pure sound waves that are delivered in a linear, continuous fashion, not chopped up and reconstituted

There may be a certain amount of myth-making on both sides of the analog/digital divide, but hearing 24-bit digital audio through a clock-stabilized $10,000 DAC system compared to the inexpensive microchips found in our devices invariably gets the same reactions from all listeners. Cheaper digital leaves a more distant, less involving, and generally, more “phony” impression than the expensive kind, which just feels more present, vibrant, “alive,” and real. And that phenomenon is exactly what’s so great about listening to music made on analog gear through an analog medium like vinyl. Playback of analog audio isn’t subject to any sort of clocking mechanism, sampling rate, or bit depth — analog is by nature full-resolution. It feels real because it is real.

By using a chain of processes (I’ll spare you the details) that retain the continuous, uninterrupted, linear flow of sound wave energy instead of chopping it up for storage and reconstituting it for playback, analog recording manages to preserve and reproduce the actual sound waves, the music itself, not any sort of high-res facsimile of it. And yes, you can hear and feel it as a different sort of experience. Apart from the tactile sensation of handling the records and absorbing the full-size cover art, apart from the calming and extended ride of taking in a full album side, actually listening to the music coming off the vinyl and out of the speakers is a transporting and involving, penetrating emotional experience that can only be rivaled by a live performance.

Simply said, we love vinyl because we love music. To those that have experienced it, analog is the only way to fly.

Digital music offers great convenience, affordability, and a myriad of other undeniable virtues

This is not to say that digital audio isn’t a major advancement, one of the greatest of our times. We live in a digital age. There’s no point in resisting or rejecting the profound advantages that living in the modern world affords us. My love of analog doesn’t keep me from being all-in on digital too. If you were there for the introduction of compact discs, you’ll remember how they were marketed as sounding vastly superior to the older analog technology. Let’s ignore that nonsense and try to focus instead on everything that is truly indispensable and fulfilling about the world of digital.

While “virtually noise-free” shouldn’t be a key selling point for most genres of music, classical is an exception. Much more than any other genre, classical recordings are naturalistic and transparent. Where popular music on record is a studio confection, often dipping into the surreal, the essence and purpose of a classical record is documentary and its currency is realism. Any audible artifact of the recording process and its technology is rightly viewed as an intrusion. So yes, the lack of noise and distortion is a big plus in “serious” music and when it was introduced in the late 1970s, classical producers and engineers rightly leaped all over digital recording as a way to capture and preserve the wide dynamic range of music that goes for long quiet stretches while still needing to present loud passages or entire movements. It took a while to deliver music digitally to the consumer, but recording and playback using digital technology were well established in classical music long before that time. The first major-label pop record to utilize digital recording, 1979’s Bop Till You Drop by Ry Cooder might now be criticized for its thin, sterile sound, but classical music has never relied on studio tech to lend it beef and gravitas. The advancement of digital recording technology was indeed a godsend for some.

The arrival of the compact disc in the late 80s meant that once encoded, music would stay in the digital realm all the way up until the point when it was converted back to analog sound by the hardware in the consumer’s CD player. That wasn’t as amazing as it sounds given the low-quality DACs of the early consumer-grade digital machines. What was awesome was that large-scale orchestral works could be now delivered in a small, portable package that could hold up to 74 minutes of clean, continuous music (as opposed to a 15-20 minute vinyl album side), and you could play it in your car.



Since every newest thing in digital audio from its inception has been sold to us as a gift from the technology gods, it’s been hard to get a handle on what’s been an actual advance and what’s really been a backward step wrapped in shiny marketing paper. From the beginning, there have been tradeoffs with digital (to be expected with anything) but the downsides have been hidden from consumers in one way or another. From our vantage point so many years later, it’s easier to appreciate digital audio for what it can do and start to appreciate in which ways digital music is truly revolutionary and the ways in which we as music lovers can greatly benefit.

Hardware advancements in computers over these past 40 years have tracked closely with the same technological leaps in digital audio. Miniaturization, improvements in storage media and capacity, the falling price of memory chips, and the refinement of hardware design have all contributed to more vast, portable, and seamless libraries of digital music being made more accessible to more people over a brief time. The modern internet’s powerful packet-switching capabilities, advancements in streaming technology, and the most recent computer revolution, wireless network connectivity have been profound in changing the ways that music is delivered to the consumer and shared among listeners. All this has been great if you overlook a couple of minor details like seriously crappy audio and artists no longer getting paid for their works.

From the beginning, there have been tradeoffs with digital

Digital music today is plentiful, accessible, cheap (free, if you’ll put up with ads), and easily sharable through links and playlists, but the audio is heavily compressed and streamed, making it glitchy at times and generally distant and uninvolving in terms of how it sounds. Analog is how it’s always been. Expensive, fragile, hard to acquire, bulky to store, limited in playback time, and you have to wait to get home to play your latest haul from the record store. But when you get there, the sound is full-resolution and the music is real. Still, under all of digital’s “awesomeness” lies its true payoff, something that was worth waiting for.

“Just What I Needed”

Like any other computer file, every digital music file stored on disk or in the cloud has a header, a portion of its directory structure reserved to hold descriptors, tags, and other identifying data. Sounds mundane, but this is where the file’s metadata lives and it’s what ultimately delivers on the promise of digital audio and gives digital music its futuristic purpose beyond being cheaper to mass-produce and easier to store and deliver than analog. With digital audio, the sound is not the primary concern, it’s all about the header.

Metadata lets us music lovers unlock the potential and partake of the glorious bounty of our computer age, which is random access. Spotify currently holds 70 million songs in the cloud, but that would be a floating garbage barge without metadata, which allows the user to find, tag, and organize those songs, share our favorites via user playlists, or be exposed to new music via curated playlists — all on-demand, all as instantly accessible and a click away. The attachment of metadata to a piece of music allows it to be treated like any common entry in a database, enabling searching, sorting, and manipulation in an infinite number of creative ways (including algorithms that analyze and supplement your own musical database), all very powerful features, all impossible in the analog domain.

Big deal? It is for a lifelong explorer, borderline-obsessive like me (and the one I’m raising). Early mornings at the computer (I get up really early) are spent on Spotify quietly sifting through the previous day’s bookmarked articles, posted lists, suggested videos, or just following up on my newest obsessions (the iMac’s speakers are suitable for digital audio). Anything I encounter that I think has potential gets added to a miscellaneous current playlist that I maintain per month (I also add in older, more familiar stuff that I’m “feeling” of late). The idea is to limit the musical universe to 100-200 songs or so to shuffle in the hope of letting new love germinate. When the month changes over, I create a new playlist titled with the new month and drag in anything from the previous one that I want to keep listening to. This is a technique I picked up from my daughter and I’m indebted because it’s really working to expand, not just my awareness but affection and connection to music across genres, eras, and even generations. 

We live in a digital age. There’s no point in resisting or rejecting the profound advantages that living in the modern world affords us

Beyond what’s current in my musical world, I maintain lots of other playlists including… English Folk, Rock Instrumental, Dylan Covers, 70s AM Radio Hits, Krautrock, Proto-Prog, 70s Miles, not to mention “Jazz-Rock Rock-Jazz,” Funk and Soul Jams, Outlaw Country, as well as every Sonny Rollins, Gomez, Bee Gees, obscure Beach Boys, and early Black Sabbath, I’d want to hear, depending on my mood. I’ve also compiled a 282-song “1970” playlist that I blogged about, and its follow-up, “1971,” both the equivalent of gorging on oxygen and both the definition of fun to shuffle and drive around to. 

This is the bounty of digital audio. I’ve also compiled and shared massive per-decade and genre encapsulating playlists on request with my music-obsessed daughter, which she’s seemed to have absorbed because now she’s hard to stump (we play lightning rounds of “name the artist” while shuffling). Of course, I made a playlist for my wife of every artist she loves as well as all the music specific to our life together and now we have something special to shuffle for long car trips.

Yes, I may have had some time on my hands over the past year.

Did you know Spotify lets you make nameable folders that can hold your playlists? Total game changer for me. I recently converted my classical CD collection to a Spotify library, alphabetized by composer, each large scale work a playlist along with “collected works,” “piano sonatas,” etc. Previously, I was struggling with finding classical works on the fly on Spotify due to its cumbersome search architecture specific to this genre (searching by “Brahms” gives you every movement from every work by every orchestra and conductor, not something you want to contend with while driving). With my new folder/playlist structure, it was easy and fun to spend time selecting my preferred version of each piece from Spotify’s universe of choices (sometimes two favorite versions, both getting into the playlist), as well as researching new tributaries and subgenres. I even spent a recent ear-stretching month, finding myself spending early mornings with Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg collecting new favorite atonal pieces and recordings. Anyone for Wozzeck?

Spotify’s folder feature gives me homes for my burgeoning glut of playlists, allowing me to reduce clutter and further organize my online database of music, increasing that most vital of features that digital music provides, accessibility. 

“Karma Police”

Last thing to talk about is that elephant in the room. Streaming is horrible for artists, no getting around it. I try to buy hard copies of the music I enjoy but vinyl isn’t always available, or more likely, the reissues you can find been through the digital wringer in the form of overcompressed remastering jobs. Once in a while, great care has been taken to find the original analog mixes and accomplish any mastering that’s needed for vinyl in the analog domain, but it’s rare among reissues so a lot of them end up to be digital facsimiles too.  I also try to buy concert tickets, but that’s not always an option. King Crimson tickets went on sale yesterday here in Los Angeles and they’re going for $200 for the cheap seats and that’s without paying the inevitable handling fees and all of the ancillary costs. We are all shepherds of our own karma and there’s only so much each of us can do.

King Crimson is one of those connoisseur bands I listen to on Spotify whose albums you just never find used. They didn’t sell a lot originally and used copies get snatched up immediately unlike, say, Chicago, another band I happen to love. I’ve added two of the new King Crimson vinyl reissues to my collection (Discipline and Lizard), and that accounts for three times I’ve purchased the same albums. Once originally on vinyl, then on CD, and now once again on vinyl (I sold my heavy record collection when I moved after college, oops). Plus, I’ve bought a few of their other albums along the way as part of my massive, now boxed-up CD collection. So, with King Crimson, I think I’m good. Same is true for most of the bands and artists close to my heart. Luckily, I’ve been buying records and CDs my whole life. I think my karma’s in pretty good shape, but only if I take the broad view. Fact is, there are lots of bands and artists I now enjoy digitally that I have not yet remunerated beyond the fractions of pennies I generate with my Spotify plays, but I’m trying and I’ll keep at it. Also lucky for me is that my daughter likes a lot of new artists (some of them I enjoy as well), and all she wants for gifts is vinyl and concert tickets, which makes her easy to shop for and also allows me to put into the karma bank, which is nice.

“Listen to the Music”

As music fans and dedicated listeners, there’s no sense being partisans. The abundance and accessibility of music in the digital realm makes the head spin, analog fills the heart, and the soul is the beneficiary of both. And though the realities of streaming require some way to navigate the ethics, I can’t see any virtue in remaining an anachronism or a Luddite in a technological age. Still, financially supporting the artists and bands that give us music to live our lives is essential; I see it as a moral imperative. I’ll keep shelling out for hard copies, concert tickets, or at least some authorized licensed merch and I hope you will too. And don’t you know, over the course of writing this article, I did score some cheap seats King Crimson tickets. I guess they held some of those back from the initial burst so true fans could sidestep the scalpers. Yeah, I’m psyched — it will be my first in-person concert since seeing Chicago last March.

EDIT: Fantastic show. Definitely catch King Crimson on this tour if you can!

Record Collection Photo by David Tobocman
Waveform Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay
Orchestra Photo by AfroRomanzo from Pexels
Binary Code Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay