Exploring Music's Complexities

Comparison of Analog and Digital Recordings

Analog or Digital Sound?

It just takes a stroll through an antique shop to make one aware of the changes that have taken place in the music world for both the listener and the performer.  Looking back to the time prior to Thomas Edison and Emil Berliner creating the first devices for recording and playing back the sound, music teachers were engaged in the act of teaching students how to make music. These students, who were often family members, in turn, performed locally or traveled to small towns to provide music for special events.  It wasn’t until the 1920s that networks of regional performance centers were established (1).  In her book Homo Aestheticus, Ellen Dissanayke further noted that early on all art forms were communally made and contributed to group cohesion (2).

 Analog Sounds

The phonograph changed all that.  This device contained a cylinder that rotated and a needle that “recorded” what was said onto a tinfoil cylinder.  The resulting record stored a copy of sound waves as a series of undulations in a wavy groove inscribed on its rotating surface by the recording stylus. When the record was played back, another stylus (needle) responded to the undulations, and its motions were then reconverted into sound (3).

As the technology developed, musicians found they were expected to not only write music but also to make it available for use in clubs and concert halls.  This demand resulted in musicians having to adapt to the new technologies to survive.  Microphones created quality vocals when the singer sang to the microphone creating an intimacy not heard before.  DJs substituted for the band, discos appeared and dancers took the music in other new directions.  Sports arenas became a popular venue and let us not forget the car radio.

During this period, musical recordings were stored on cassettes or vinyl records in an analog format.  Unfortunately, analog recordings wear out.  This is caused by the physical contact between the recording and the player.  Vinyl also posed problems due to their lack of portability.  Cassettes were more portable but did not sound as good as vinyl.  Because the analog sound wave replicates the original sound wave its fidelity depends on the sensitivity of the equipment and medium used to record and play back (4).

Digital Sound

Then in the late 1970s Sony and Philips Electronics and Polygram together came up with the design for the compact disc (CDs).  This recording system has changed the way music is recorded and played.  The advantage this new technology offered is digital sound.  Unlike analog audio that replicates original sound waves, digital sound waves take samples of the original sound wave at a specific rate.  Digital breaks the signal into a binary format (a series of 1s and 0s) and transfers it to another device that reassembles the numbers in the original sound.


 This figure illustrates the digital sound  An analog recording system takes a wiggly line and tries to make a direct copy.  The digital recording system the computer divides up the page with the wiggly line on it into a lot of little squares.

No longer did one have to deal with background noise, humming and pitch problems associated with tapes. It enabled users to hook up a complete surround-sound system in their living room.  While vinyl and tapes wear out digital recordings can be played over and over again and are easily copied and moved among storage devices (5).

While there are many ways of storing musical information all the techniques convert sound into stored information and make it available for decoding to get the sound back.  For those interested in the mechanics read more at http://www.ehow.com/about_4673943_was-first-cd-player-invented.html#ixzz33hXveRLf.


  1. Byrne, David.  Amateurs!  How Music Works.  p.268.    McSweeney’s.  San Francisco, CA.  2012.2.
  2. Dissanayke, Ellen.  Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. p.225. 1992 , New York: Free Press.
  3.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/phonograph
  4.  Analog vs. Digital…..In a Nutshell.  http://centerpointaudio.com/Analog-VS-Digital.aspx
  5. What is the Difference Between Analog and Digital?  WiseGEEK clear answers for common questions.  http:  www.wisegddk.org/what-is-the-difference-between analog-and digital.

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