Analog vs. Digital (Part MCM)

The other night, <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Tobias</a> treated me to a demonstration of <a href=”” target=”_blank”>Traktor Scratch</a>, a digital DJ setup.  Basically, it involves the usual two turntables and a mixer, plus a digital interface and a laptop.  The DJ uses special records striped with timecode, special needles and a digital interface reads the timecode off the records and uses it to control digital music files playing off a laptop’s hard drive (which could be as simple as an iTunes library).  

The setup has a few main advantages: the DJ no longer has to cart around boxes of records and can presumably have more access to music (by carting around a laptop with a full hard drive and the relatively small interface instead).  The setup also allows for the use of all sort of digital effects, again giving the DJ much greater flexibility.  And, for the first time, the DJ’s collection can be “backed up” so even if the laptop were to disappear before or after a show, the person could have another copy of his or her collection.  Finally, because it uses traditional DJ technology (two turntables and a mixer), the DJ can still use his or her skills — manually beat matching, scratching, starting and stopping music.

But that’s where there are some interesting differences.  On a regular analog record, the DJ can see the breaks and can learn to see where, exactly to drop the needle.  Because the timecode records are in timecode, the DJ now has to make an extra step of intellection: “the break I want is at 3:53” and then drop the needle onto the corresponding part of the timecode record.  There is, of course, also the matter of the additional visual interface of the laptop screen, which is somewhat more involved than simply thumbing through a stack of records.  Spontaneity in song selection works quite differently.  The timecode records “like” a certain kind of needle, and though this needle can play records, it’s not necessarily the needle a given DJ would want if analog records were also to be played.

And then, of course, there’s the sound.

We did a few unscientific tests.  Most notably, the high end coming off the laptop and off an analog version of the same track was different.  There could be lots of reasons for this that have nothing to do with “digital” and “analog” — the traktor-scratch needle, the D/A conversion of the laptop, an EQ setting we missed, etc.  The mids and lows were basically indistinguishable.  But the place where the difference really came through was when it got down to things that DJs do: stopping records, slowing them down, playing them backwards, scratching, etc.  Drag the needle backwards over the timecode record and the digital file sounds very different from the analog record.  Slow it down and the bass takes on a different character. I won’t say that digital sounded worse, because I don’t think it did.  But as we “abused” the file like a DJ would “abuse” a record (and by that I mean simply “not playing it like you’re supposed to” even though at this point records more or less <em>are</em> “supposed to” be manipulated by DJs), it broke down in a completely different way.

The differences between .wav and high bandwidth .mp3 versions (at least I <em>think</em> it was 256k though I never checked) of the same song were much more subtle.  They also “broke down” slightly differently, but the difference was had to perceive.  Tobias pointed out that with 20,000 watts behind it, the difference may be more noticeable, but we didn’t have an opportunity to do <em>that</em> test. Whether it would affect people’s enjoyment at a show is also questionable.

What does all this mean for the arguments about analog vs. digital?  Not a whole lot.  I’ve never claimed the two storage modes sound exactly the same, only that the ontological arguments for digital’s inferiority are based on faulty premises and misreadings of the sampling theorem.  That said, it’s interesting to hear the different modes of decomposition: the different formats and storage media <em>reveal</em> themselves differently when under duress.  You can sort of hear the sampling theorem breaking down as the record slows to a stop–the apparatus is revealed.  And that difference, unlike the difference between a 320kmp3 and a .wav file, is plain for anyone to hear.

2 replies on “Analog vs. Digital (Part MCM)”

  1. This has little to do with this post, but per your panel at ICA and the general topic of discerning audio quality from mp3s, my theory — following the purchase of some high end ear buds — is that much of what is taken to be inferior encoding quality is really inferior headphone quality. Files that I had thought were compressed into sounding dodgy sound great when I listen on $350 headphones instead of $50 headphones — to say nothing of what they sounded like in those ones that come with the iPod.

  2. I’ve been playing more with Traktor Scratch and getting into it since our session. Quite a few significant, world-class DJs are using the set-up (Richie Hawtin, Carl Cox, etc) so evidently it is good enough to see the rounds. I mean digital vinyl systems have been around for about a decade, starting with Final Scratch, and RANE’s Serato set the benchmark for a stable, reliable interface. But Traktor Scratch has a few advantages — it can do 4 decks; it can do on-the-fly looping (and the loop can be kept in sync yet moved throughout the track); it has full onboard digital effects with a MIDI interface so you can hook up a knobby box; and the outboard soundcard can be used for just that — an outboard soundcard (unlike Serato’s dedicated hardware).

    For me the big deal will be sound quality (I think there *are* ontological differences between the analogue and the digital, though in a complex way that takes into account that all expressions of the digital remain perceived through the body). Until FLAC is fully supported, which it currently isn’t, it’s going to be a long haul using WAVs which take up a lot of space, even with big hard drives. The compressed format just doesn’t work well at high volume, whether MP3 320 or MP4 256, or when manipulating files — and that’s because of an aesthetic choice that doesn’t need to be justified, because it’s an aesthetic choice. There’s also the problem that digital compression can’t render lower-end waveforms that are *unheard* — and these waveforms come into play when the body is being beat into sonic submission at 20,000 watts. That’s what techno (and the Who, and Led Zeppelin) is all about.

    (The ‘microsound’ genre in some instances is even built around the structural problem of trying to create tracks that are scarcely ‘hearable’ because their frequencies attempt to exceed the cut-off range of digital compression — ie above 18, 000 – 20, 000 hz. This easily shows that the digital cannot accurately depict the full range of sound. And if one’s art is sound, than the ‘digital revolution’ is like someone coming along to a painter and removing the near imperceptible shades between black and grey, and white and the presence of a colour. There are fewer options, fewer gradients, to play with — which all comes into play on the level of affect and the unconscious.)

    But the big difference for me with TS will be how to organise tracks and arrange sets. Generally my crate digging experience is a tactile, hands-on process wherein the record label or sleeve triggers visual recognition of the sounds on that particular piece of wax. Though I know more or less the artists I am playing (the days of endless pseudonyms has passed), I still rarely think of tracks by name — especially their odd titles in electronic music land. Somehow this will have to be change when using a text-based search function in the database. I’d prefer something like iTunes’ CoverFlow to search for tracks, but this is now proprietary and would require scanning all the covers. Heavens.

    For the time being, I think the result of TS will be to make sets more programmatic, less spontaneous, more planned, and possibly a tad too predictable and boring. It’s going to take awhile for software to come even close to what happens when you dig through a crate.

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