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What is the Difference Between Analog and Digital?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 16, 2024
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The key difference between analog and digital technologies is that the first records waveforms as they are, while the second converts analog waveforms into sets of numbers, recording the numbers instead. When played back, the numbers are converted into a voltage stream that approximates the original wave.

Analog technology brought us Chuck Berry, Elvis, and The Beatles on vinyl records, 8-tracks, and cassettes. Using today’s digital devices, original studio recordings can be cleaned up, re-mastered, and distributed as digital files that sound better than those long playing records (LPs) ever did. While tapes and LPs wear out with use, a digital recording sounds exactly the same no matter how many times it’s played. It’s also easily copied and moved between storage devices.

It might seem counter-intuitive that a technology that converts an analog waveform to numbers would sound better than one that records the waveform as it is, but digital technology accomplishes this feat through sampling. When a waveform like music is recorded with a digital recorder, the music is sampled several thousand times per second. For a CD-quality recording, the average sampling rate is 44,000 times per second. That’s 44,000 numbers stored for each second of music. The higher the sampling rate, the more accurate the recording, though there comes a point of diminishing returns considering the file grows larger while the human ear ceases to be able to hear a difference past a certain point. When the device plays the digital file back, the waveform is reconstructed, one bit at a time at lightening speed.

You might compare digital technology to drawing a cartoon on the bottom edge of a notepad, slightly changing the drawing on each successive page. If you repeat the drawing all the way through the pad, then flip the pages, the figure appears to be moving smoothly in whatever way you drew it. It might walk across the page, sneeze, bend over, or run. In the same way, the digital device plays back the numbers so quickly that the samplings combine to “redraw” the analog waveform in its original form.

When buying digital music online, some people choose a lower sampling rate for smaller files. When playing MP3 music on a handheld device or an inexpensive portable player, it might be hard to tell the difference between music sampled at 44,000 times per second and music sampled at lower rates. However, when playing the files on a decent car stereo, home stereo, or surround sound system, the loss of quality will be more noticeable.

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Discussion Comments
By anon347499 — On Sep 07, 2013

People have to realize that (almost) every record produced today is all digital. That includes the ones that are released on vinyl. There is almost nothing analog about modern vinyl records; the songs are created on computers, the digital files are then sent to another computer, and then this computer will create the mold for the album. Back before CD's became popular, all vinyl albums were produced by analog processes. Nowadays, spending the extra money to get an LP copy of a brand new record is just dumb.

Don't get me wrong, I love my old LP's but when you look at the technology nowadays, if you think you're getting a more "natural" sound on brand new LP's, you're wrong. It's simply a digital file written onto a vinyl disc.

By anon296906 — On Oct 13, 2012

I work with digital audio every day and have no qualms about it as an excellent reproduction format. It's difficult to quantify, but while digital certainly sounds "clean" and "accurate", vinyl sounds "real" and has depth. Digital is "technically correct", but is flat, while good quality vinyl sounds astonishingly like the original performance. Subtle but palpable nuances that are not captured by digital equipment are preserved in the old tape-to-vinyl recording process.

Compared side by side, I'll still pick vinyl over digital any day.

By anon293723 — On Sep 27, 2012

Digital sounds flat and boring. I use it for convenience, but I would always prefer vinyl over digital any day.

By anon250148 — On Feb 24, 2012

"While analog tapes and LPs wear out with use, a digital recording sounds exactly the same no matter how many times it’s played."

What a bunch of crap. Obviously an uninformed writer. He never heard of BLER (BLock Error Rate) and how it increases with the most minor of physical scratches.

What's next? He's going to tell us that hard drives and solid state drives are better than tape? Then maybe he can investigate MERS (Mortgage Electronic Record Service) and how they are in deep crap because electronically stored records have disappeared within as little as five years.

I own open reel master tapes from the early 1950's that play perfectly. I own hard drives with recorded music from eight years ago that are compromised. (unusable)

By anon164733 — On Apr 02, 2011

I look at it this way: sound waves > microphone > tape machine = is "true" to the original waveforms. It is electromechanical physics. Digital uses sampling which are lots of pictures each second. Some of the original information is left out.Old school multi-track is best, in my humble opinion.

By lotusfeet — On Jun 15, 2010

I definitely prefer the analog sound myself. I find the little ambient noises that creep into analog recordings charming in their own way. I think part of what makes those old recordings sound the way they do comes from the slight warping of the vinyl over time. And I think they last quite a long time as long as you take good care of them. Old blues musicians just wouldn’t sound the way they do if they had been recorded digitally.

By klo — On Jun 15, 2010

I don’t know about that last part astor. There are a lot of people that prefer buying and listening to vinyl LP’s. I tend to buy albums I really like on vinyl because I think that the sound produced by analog technology interacts with the acoustic space of a room better than a flat, compressed digital recording. I can definitely tell the difference. Though I do listen actively for those little differences in recordings, so maybe I’m a biased opinion on this.

By astor — On Jun 15, 2010

Modern digital technology has spawned a bit of a backlash amongst musicians and producers. Editing analog tape is far more difficult and time-consuming than digital editing. Tape editing requires technicians that can make precise cuts along the physical length of the tape. All manipulation of the tape comes through physical contact with it. With digital technology, programs allow for a very simple editing process. Often, musicians learn to edit their own material this way. However, many in the music industry berate the newer technology for taking away the “warmth” of the sound. To the casual ear however, there is very little difference between the sound of an acoustic guitar for instance, that has been recorded digitally or with tape.

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