Book Review: The New Analog

The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, by Damon Krukowski. The New Press, 2017. Hardcover, 240 pp., $24.95. Also available as an e-book.

Defining noise is tricky business.

In high-end audio, noise is often defined as the enemy—of music, beauty, truth. Engineers and enthusiasts alike spend significant amounts of time, energy, and money attempting to minimize or control noise so that it has the least possible impact on the source signal: music. In this way—if we are intelligent, careful, and fortunate—we can extract from our stereos cleaner, clearer, more naturally beautiful sound for listening experiences that are enriching, emotionally compelling, and, above all, fun. On the other hand, when noise is allowed to excessively modulate the signal, music can sound relatively abrasive, more mechanical, and, ultimately, less engaging.

In this simplified definition, noise is a problem to be solved, and our efforts to minimize it are noble indeed. Yet in his provocative new book, The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World, musician and writer Damon Krukowski wonders whether there is a time and place for noise, after all. More to the point, he asserts that "noise is as communicative as signal," often containing contextual information that in fact describes time and place.

Should we reconsider our relationship with noise?

To answer that question, we must settle on a definition of noise. Krukowski himself seems hesitant to do so—at least outright—but he does offer clear distinctions between analog and digital media. He writes with a poet's profundity and focus, a drummer's sense of rhythm: "Analog is not simply old, and digital is not merely new"—a sentiment with which most audiophiles would quickly agree. Like many Stereophile readers, Krukowski is not interested in ranking various forms of media. Still, while his own deep-seated allegiance to analog communication sometimes betrays him—he dislikes Facebook, is skeptical of GPS, longs for the days of extensive liner notes—he makes clear that there is much to be gained from digital communication, the potential to reach far larger audiences with a speed and efficiency previously unknown.

Krukowski continues: "Analog media always include noise, necessarily—efforts to minimize noise in analog environments adjust its ratio to signal, but never eliminate it. Digital media, on the other hand, are capable of separating signal from noise absolutely."

Is this correct? Many audio engineers would contend that it is impossible to separate signal from noise absolutely—that, in fact, some amount of noise always travels with the signal, especially when working within the digital environment. Some readers will be tempted to stop here, dismissing Krukowski's premise as little more than uncritical nostalgia at best, willful ignorance at worst.

That would be too easy. Reading on, one finds that Krukowski's perspective was formed not in the listening room or test lab, but in the digital recording studio. There, he says, signal is easily defined as any sound musicians and engineers want to communicate, while noise is simply anything that isn't signal. If we extend these definitions beyond the recording studio, we find ourselves in a world where, depending on our interests and goals, signal and noise constantly shift. In a crowded restaurant, we listen intently to the events of our companion's day (the signal), while tuning out the chatter of nearby tables (the noise). Or we decide to eavesdrop on others, thereby reversing signal and noise.

The limits of analog recording necessitate that sometimes unintended sounds—the clink of cocktail glasses, the rumbling of passing trains, and other audiophile delights—remain in a final mix. With digital technology, the savvy engineer can completely erase these unintended sounds, making it as though they never occurred. We are given silence—or a likeness thereof.

But when noise is erased, what else is lost? And what is compromised when we—artists, engineers, and listeners—no longer have the power to define signal and noise? These are the questions at the heart of The New Analog. Krukowski may not have the answers, but he wants to engage in a thoughtful conversation. Decision makers, he suspects, may not have consumers' best interests in mind.

Take, for instance, music streaming services and their troubling deficit of metadata (footnote 1). Noting the Internet's vast amount of easily accessible and affordable music, Krukowski writes, "[S]treaming services are anxious about leaving their users in that moment of indecision; endless choice means they might make no choice, and not use the service at all. So instead of supplying copious information for listeners to research their interests—the metadata of printed media—Spotify and other streaming services have . . . stripped all music of all but the bare minimum tags." (footnote 2)

Thus, to streaming services, metadata is inessential noise that inevitably interferes with the signal (and profitability) of music. I shared this thought with Enno Vandermeer, cofounder of Roon—a music-player application that strives to reconnect listeners to their digital media, in part through the thoughtful use of metadata. Vandermeer responded via e-mail: "Roon aims to provide a digital update of the 'active listening' experience, which in the past would have entailed listening to radio and reading music press for discovery, shopping for records, reading liner notes for lyrics and insights into performers/producers/composers, researching upcoming concerts, and collecting a deeply personal music library that reflected one's tastes. In effect, what Krukowski is lamenting is the disappearance of the active listening culture that supported—and indeed required—rich sources of music-related information to fuel it."

In this light, Krukowski's plea becomes only more urgent. Audiophiles will sympathize with what he calls "thick listening"—perhaps especially because it does more to describe the differences between active listening (as an event unto itself) and casual listening (as a supplement to some other event) than it does to describe the differences between digital and analog media. Ultimately, Krukowski contends that the thoughtful act of sorting through noise promotes successful, meaningful communication. He celebrates noise in all its various forms, urging us—readers, listeners, thinkers, communicators, consumers—to listen with all our senses engaged.

Not a bad idea.—Stephen Mejias

Footnote 1: Krukowski's relationship with music-streaming services is especially interesting. In his Pitchfork article "Making Cents," Krukowski revealed that "Tugboat," a single by his band, Galaxie 500, was streamed on Pandora 7800 times in the first quarter of 2012, for which the composer royalties totaled just 21¢.

Footnote 2: During a fascinating conversation with Ben Sisario, music columnist for the New York Times, held May 6 at Brooklyn's Rough Trade record store, Sisario politely challenged Krukowski, saying that the entire Internet might be considered today's liner notes. Krukowski conceded the point, with a qualification: "It's not from the artist's expression."

mmole's picture Stephen back on staff?

John Atkinson's picture
mmole wrote: Stephen back on staff?

Not as a full-time employee, no. Having resigned from AudioQuest at the end of March, Stephen wants to take some time to work on a novel he has been thinking about for a while. But he will be contributing essays and record reviews and As We See Its as a freelancer.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Welcome back, budding novelist Stephen.

RBrooks's picture

Perhaps a Roman a Clef about snake oil in the audio business.

michaelavorgna's picture

...on titled "Weird New Pop." You can find it listed under "Music" on the main menu. He will also be contributing reviews. . .soon ;-)

Michael Lavorgna

k9gromit's picture

Welcome back, Stephen. Love your stuff! Hope to see a lot of you in the pages of Stereophile.

volvic's picture

Glad he is back in some capacity, Meijias is one of the most approachable and enthusiastic writers Stereophile has ever had and I always enjoyed his opinions and posts. At this time I should also take the time to send a compliment to JVS who exudes great enthusiasm for the musical genre I live and breathe and who also takes the time to speak to his readers. Keep it up JVS ! While I don't always agree with your opinions, I always look forward to reading your posts and columns.

dalethorn's picture

This is great news - not merely Stephen's resurfacing, but this fascinating examination of noise in the real world - the analog world. I know that a lot of folks dismiss the resurgence of vinyl et al, but I've thought for awhile now that the "analog" people are poking into things the rest of us have not been aware of, or are outright ignoring.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Dale.
Thank you. Krukowski tackles many ideas in The New Analog, moving freely between the recording studio, the listening room, and everyday locales from bedroom to city street. Ultimately, he believes that we -- the listeners or readers, speakers, thinkers, consumers -- should be the ones to separate signal from noise. When others (music streaming services, internet providers, and mobile phone carriers, for instance) get to decide what is and is not noise, our enjoyment of art and our ability to effectively communicate our ideas can be compromised.

Anton's picture

I always thought Sonic Youth should have actually been the group called Art of Noise.

Maybe Velvet Underground, too.

Nice to see you back.

Is your book a supernatural thriller?

digitallc's picture

Love his writing style, and particularly enjoyed "The Entry level". Hope to see much more.

tonykaz's picture

We design unintended "noise", vibration & harshness out of everything, don't we? ( except those horrible Harley Davidsons and diesel Pickup F150s.

Being free from Noise is the only benefit of being born deaf.

If this is a book about noise, yuk.

I hope a better description of this book is possible.

Tony in Michigan

ps. maybe the Author can help out here, his help is needed.

John Atkinson's picture
tonykaz wrote:
Being free from Noise is the only benefit of being born deaf. If this is a book about noise, yuk.

Having read the book, which is superb, the author's thesis is basically that "unwanted" noise actually sets the context for perception.

His analogy with GPS is that while GPS can tell you exactly where you are, it doesn't let you know what the context is, and it is that context that is actually equally if not more important. GPS tells you that you are standing on the NE corner of 38th Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, which is where the Stereophile office is. It doesn't tell you that there is a cyclist speeding the wrong way down the Avenue and that he will hit you when you have the light and step out into the street looking in the other direction.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

tonykaz's picture

Well, thanks for the "Superb", I suppose I should read the Book before I make "Review" comments.

Our World falls apart if we turn Off GPS, Air travel needs to know the precise location of other Aircraft. Phew. Tons of other stuff including Ambulances rely on GPS, even our Phones are GPS related ( especially for medical reasons ).

I own a Semi-Anechoic chamber with a noise floor around 20 db., I've been in Anechoic Chambers with noise hovering around 5 db. both can be uncomfortable for life. Our brain seems to filter out the steady 55 db of our surroundings but will pick-out the warning sounds.

You NY'rs live in an immersed noise condition. I was just staying at the Washington Jefferson on 59th & 8th, the constant noise and smell is overwhelming for a Midwesterner like me, I was walking around that Area from all hours of the Night & Day, it's always noisy ( even 6 Floors up ), although you have about 1,500 times more culture, per block, than most ( any ) places I've ever been. ( Heathrow Airport being the exception ).

You're Videos are worthwhile, how did we live without the view of Blackie or High Water, etc. A little Jimmy Diresta & Casey Neistat would be helpful for creation tips, of course, "Content" is King, please keep up the wonderful work. I could see and cherish a "Travels with Herb" Series. ( I'd even support it with a patron subscription ). That Panasonic GH5 seems to be doing a good job )

Tony in Michigan

ps. I'd thought that the "Audiophile" concept is dead and Stereophile is who we are ( I am ). Now I can clearly "see" that Audiophile is very much alive in the cultural world of NY,NY. Although I couldn't find a Vinyl player for sale in Mid-Town, go figure.

Anton's picture

GPS can tell you where you're at, but not where you are.

Anton's picture

I handle this subject with my 'never fails' way of evaluating something...

What Would John Cage Call Noise?

I've heard industrial dance beats coming from an MRI machine, waves of harmony from waves at the beach, atmospheric sounds composed of purely atmospheric sounds, and insufferable noise coming from Hi Fi gear.

Context is right!

sommovigo's picture

Good to read your words, Stephen - and good to know that you're back in the fold.

ajcrock's picture

Stephen you were greatly missed!!!

Anton's picture

Stephen Mejias's picture

Thank you, everyone. It's such a pleasure to contribute to the conversations that take place here and at AudioStream. For anyone interested in learning more about Damon Krukowski's opinions on noise, music, and digital media, we've published a Q&A over at AudioStream.

xjr15's picture

Like analog recording and processing, digital preserves noise in the original recording, but, unlike analog, digital recording and processing does not (except for very low level dithering noise intentionally added to render quantization error inaudible) add noise to the recording. So long as the recording remains in the digital domain, no noise may corrupt or degrade the signal in any way.