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Digital Snow Job

This morning in the supermarket parking lot, I was assaulted by a loud, unpleasant sound coming from the wide-open door of a shiny new sport utility vehicle. The sound was a commercial music recording played through one of those wildly over-powered stereo systems most often heard in the vehicles of suburban teenagers as they cruise with the deafening thud-bump-thud of rap pounding on their, and possibly your, eardrums.

This music was unrecognizable to me as anything more definable than radio-friendly pop, relatively inoffensive by itself. What was so unpleasant was the amplification, what the owner of the vehicle and millions of other consumers proudly call their “state of the art” — digital — system.

This is a matter of some controversy among musicians, people who just enjoy listening to music, and the elite snobs who like to think of themselves as “audiophiles.” While there is renewed interest in analog sound (you know, plain old records, vinyl LPs and 45s), and some musicians are currently releasing music on vinyl, the digital juggernaut is still picking up steam.

The disputed point is the quality, or more correctly, the nature of the sound. The noise from that SUV stabbed my eardrums almost to the level of pain. It was loud, but not that loud. Sheer volume is not always the issue. There's a “cold,” piercing effect from high-powered digital (solid-state) amplification, and not everyone can hear or feel it, but there are enough who can tell the difference to keep sellers of old analog records in business.

A friend of mine likes this stale old joke: “Better not look through that screen door, you might strain your eyesight.” This is a crude but adequate analogy for the digital music phenomenon. So is a computer screen. If you look closely enough, even the most fabulous graphic is composed of pixels, or little squares. In essence, digital recording and amplification breaks music into little right-angled squares of sound.

One of the pro-digital arguments is “no more tape hiss.” When was the last time you said, “This is a great piece of music, but that darn tape hiss just ruins it.” It puzzles me that audiophiles, people who “must have the very best” and regard themselves as possessed of superior hearing ability, do not miss the “warmth” that is absent from digital sound. If you go to a concert hall and hear a symphony orchestra, you're hearing pure analog sound, and the musicians up there are sweating, probably farting and belching and grunting or even dropping things or kicking music stands. Such inadvertent noises are human but are easily removed digitally. Digital music is de-humanized.

Mr. Science, a well-known guitar-amp designer in Seattle puts it this way: “When electrons are moving through transistors (digital), they're marching single file at gunpoint. When they're moving through vacuum tubes (analog), they're dancing.” Certain harmonic frequencies are clipped off by digital equipment before reaching the speakers, and those frequencies are often what makes music sound good, at least to some ears.

If you go out and pick a music trade magazine like Guitar Player, you'll find ads for digital amplifiers that “emulate” analog (tube) amps. You will never see manufacturers of tube amplifiers claiming emulation of digital equipment. Why? Because they all know analog sound is superior.

Digital sound equipment is well-promoted, and a lot of people are fooled by the phrase “state of the art,” but the newest, most technically advanced thing is not always better.

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