Saturday, July 6, 2013

Digital Thinking In An Analog World

Some of us are old enough to remember listening to vinyl records. And then there are some, like my kids, that may have learned about them in school.

For those of us old enough to have experienced placing the needle on the turning record and hearing sound come out, it may come as a surprise when I tell you that vinyl records actually have a better sound quality than CDs or digital downloads.

You may say, “But! But! You’re crazy! I remember all the crackling sounds and ‘pops’ when I played records!”

But those “snap, crackle and pops” (no copyright infringement intended to Rice Krispies) on the records isn’t what I’m talking about. Those flaws had more to do with crappy equipment and poor handling of the records.

What I mean about the records having a better sound is that they were analog recordings and playback instead of digital.

“What?” you may ask.

Well, let me explain.

Sounds are made up of all sorts of frequencies. Low frequencies are deep sounds—think of the voice of Darth Vader. Compare that to high frequencies—like talking after breathing in some helium. Get the idea?

When music is made, all sorts of frequencies are created—some of which we can’t hear by themselves as humans. Remember those whistles that only dogs can hear? It’s like that.

Analog recordings capture every frequency—including those outside of our normal hearing range. But here’s a weird thing: when those unheard frequencies are combined with the ones we can hear, it makes the overall sound better. The deep notes are richer, the high notes sound brighter.

And then came digital music. It was quite brilliant, really. It broke down the information into very small pieces that computers could handle. How small? Into “1s” and “0s.”

In fact, any digital information is based on this concept of breaking down information into “1s” and “0s.” It’s easy for a computer to understand. It’s like a light switch—either the light is on or off. (And don’t give me the argument about dimmer switches—stay with me.)

As it turns out, when the people that created digital music that is put on a CD, they were limited on how much information they could fit on a disc. Their solution? The digital music doesn’t capture the whole range of frequencies—it excludes the really high and really low ones, the frequencies people can’t hear.

Sadly, something amazing is lost when analog sounds are converted into a digital format.

What’s my point?

We live in a world where there is a lot of “black OR white” thinking. (Also “good OR bad,” “success OR failure,” and “winner OR loser.”) Things have to be one way or the other. A “1” or a “0.” It’s a very digital way of thinking.

The fact is that life is very analog. Some people call it “shades of gray.”

And just like with recorded music, something is lost in conversion.

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