Whenever a new technology is introduced, members of the general public seem to fall into three distinct categories:
- There are a few early adopters – those who see themselves as slightly ahead of the curve and who will stand in line to be the first in their neighbourhood to own these new products.
- The vast majority are regular folks who take a “wait and see” approach. If the product catches on, then they’ll climb on board and start spending money on it.
- Finally, there are a few technological Luddites, who will deliberately eschew the new technology for years afterwards, and insist that there is nothing wrong with what they were using before.
While the number of technological Luddites usually remains constant, I’ve noticed a recent surge in the population of this group, in two entrenched technologies: CDs and digital photography:
- Although CDs have been around since the mid-1980s, and vinyl has long ago disappeared from mainstream record stores, I’ve stumbled across a number of fairly recent articles about the resurgence of the vinyl LP.
- My friend Paul writes a blog. In one article called The Death and Rise of Film (written in January, 2013), he noted a renewed interest in film photography among his fellow photography enthusiasts – 12 years after digital cameras became a mass market item.
What’s going on here? Why is there a sudden increased interest in these “retro” technologies, years (or decades) after they were supplanted by a new technology? After contemplating this for a while, I realized that there are larger forces at work. These were old, analogue technologies and they were replaced by digital versions. Therefore, this increased resistance to their adoption wasn’t merely a comparison of two specific technologies – the film fans and vinyl aficionados are taking part in a larger, ideological battle: digital vs. analogue. The intransigence of these technological Luddites doesn’t mean that their thinking is hopelessly backwards – they are of the opinion that analogue formats are superior to digital formats – and for a compelling reason.
At first, I just didn’t get it – I’ve owned both vinyl LPs and compact discs, and in my opinion, CDs are vastly superior. In fact, the fairly recent “remastered” CDs are significantly better than the CDs I started buying in the 1980s. CDs don’t skip, there are no ticks, pops or crackling from scratches, there is no “wow” from an imperfectly-centred hole in the LP, the speed is always constant, and since there is no stylus to wear down the grooves, the 100th play sounds just as crisp as the first. In fact, many remastered CDs sound so incredible that I often hear material in the music that I’ve never heard before (in any format) – I often feel as if I’m hearing the music for the first time. However, some of my friends still criticize this digital audio format. For years, their argument to me was “CDs sound too harsh, especially on the high end. Vinyl sounds much warmer”.
Finally, after much pondering and rumination, I have finally figured it out. I now understand the appeal of the old technology and the visceral response it elicits. This is what the most ardent adherents have been unable to articulate: analogue formats give the appearance of infinite resolution.
A new, digitized replacement for an existing analogue technology is a novelty, so most of us will jump on the bandwagon and give it a try. However, once we understand how it works, we can also see the inherent limitations of digitization, and it’s those limitations that is such a letdown. In my blog entry, Living Without Boundaries, I talk in more detail about the excitement we feel when no boundaries are visible and the disappointment we feel when we finally see a limitation. Digital formats, by their very nature, are limited because the content composed of a series of binary numbers. When we look back at analogue formats, we see only the content – the boundaries are not visible, and our imagination soars. The prospect of beholding something infinite is once again within our grasp.
Here are a few examples of technologies that have undergone this analogue-to-digital conversion:
Detented Volume Controls: For as long as I can remember, volume controls on stereo amplifiers and receivers always had a nice smooth feel when they were rotated. Then in the early 1980s, I walked into a stereo store and discovered a receiver with a detented control – one that didn’t rotate smoothly, but instead had a series of tactile “steps”. Suddenly, I was limited to 20-25 different volume levels, instead of a (theoretically) infinite number. Naturally, I hated this new feature because I lost my fine tuning ability – I wanted to choose my own perfect volume, and not one from the 20-25 levels preset by the manufacturer. Even though the mechanism was still analogue, the detented volume control was – philosophically – digital.
LED VU Meters: The next stereo equipment innovation was the digital VU meter. I will admit that they did look really futuristic at the time (early 1980s), but I didn’t think that they were as functional. The seemingly unlimited number of sound levels indicated by the old analogue meters were now reduced to twelve, indicated by a dozen LED indicators, which in my opinion, indicated only a recording level range rather than a precise recording level.
Digital Speedometers: The 1980s also saw the introduction of digital speedometers in some luxury automobiles. These also looked very futuristic, but as we all know, they didn’t catch on. Cars today still have analogue speedometers and tachometers. There is something exciting about revving up the engine and seeing the RPM needle move up and down. Watching an LED display of increasing and decreasing numbers isn’t quite the same. Also, “redlining” just doesn’t look as dramatic on a digital RPM display.
Digital Pianos: In many ways, digital pianos offer remarkable advantages for musicians – they don’t require as much space as a standard piano, so they are perfect for small apartments and condos. Most have a headphone jack, so condo-dwellers can practise without disturbing their neighbours. Digital pianos are much lighter than both grands and uprights and can be disassembled fairly easily, so you no longer have to hire piano movers. Digital pianos never need to be tuned, which may not be great news for professional piano tuners, but will save you money over the years. Finally, they are now much more affordable than standard pianos – some models sell for $500-600 at Costco.
Quality-wise, digital pianos are improving continually – these days, even the low-end models use a different sample for each note (instead of stretching or compressing the same sample for adjacent notes). Some higher-end models are even touch-sensitive – the velocity of the key press is measured, and a different “bank” of samples is used for the lighter and heavier key presses. However, the greatest number of sample banks (known as “touch-sensitivity levels”) that I’ve been able to find is five. No matter how hard or softly you pressed middle C, you would hear only five different sounds. When you strike a key on a standard piano with more force, the piano doesn’t simply play the same sound wave a little louder – the timbre of the note itself changes as its string resonates inside the cabinet and causes sympathetic vibrations in some of the other strings (at least when the damper pedal is depressed), creating a harmonic richness that can’t be duplicated on a digital piano. Standard pianos have no limit to the subtle changes in timbre of any note – it’s all proportional to the force with which a key is struck. For this reason, I feel that standard pianos will always be more expressive than digital pianos, and thus will always sound superior.
Compact Discs: You are already familiar with CDs, so let’s talk about how the sound is encoded. CDs have a sampling rate of 44,100Hz. This means that each second of CD audio is broken down into 44,100 bits, which are actually little “pits” burned onto the surface of the CD. When the CD is played, these bits are reconstructed into the original sound wave. Since humans can’t hear sounds higher than 20kHz, this sampling rate will capture all of the frequencies that we can hear, so none of the source material will be lost in the digital conversion. However, there are still a finite number of bits in each second of audio, and I think that this has a psychological effect on some of us.
Since analogue recordings give the appearance of infinite sonic resolution, vinyl adherents will claim that when they lower the turntable stylus into the record groove, they are hearing all of the music recorded on an LP. Listening to the same song on CD chops up the sound into 44,100 pieces per second (per channel). It’s still beyond what what our ears are able to discern, but one could argue that CDs don’t contain all of the musical content. This (in my opinion) is why vinyl aficionados claim that LPs sound better than CDs, and insist that there are harmonics or other sonic nuances present in LPs that just aren’t captured during the digitization process.
Digital Photos: Digital photos are much like CDs – they reduce an image to a series of pixels. Zoom in on a digital image, and you’ll see these pixels quite clearly. You are now staring at the limitation of the medium. However, if you zoom in on a film negative (or scan it at a high DPI setting), the picture may become less defined, but you won’t see any pixels – the building blocks of the image. Film as an analogue image format, gives the appearance of infinite resolution, and the sense that you’re seeing more than can be captured in a digital camera’s CCD.