What If Digital Had Never Happened?

Digital audio forever disrupted the way music is recorded, mixed, and mastered—and, to even greater extents, how music is distributed, sold, played, and consumed. Music unmolested by zeros and ones is now nearly extinct.

There's no going back, but what if, in 1983, the Compact Disc had bombed? What if music lovers worldwide had rejected the shiny new digital format because they thought LPs sounded so much better? And what if later attempts at digital formats with higher resolutions also shriveled and died, due to lack of interest by recording engineers and consumers? What if, to this day, music had remained blissfully all-analog?

The digital juggernaut laid waste to much of what had been that all-analog world. Thanks to file sharing and streaming, recording production budgets are in free fall. It's no wonder we've already lost so many great studios: the Hit Factory, the Magic Shop, Record Plant NYC, RCA/BMG New York and Nashville, A&R Recording, Sony Music Studios—all replaced by MacBooks and home studios. The remaining big studios with great-sounding rooms should be placed on the list of endangered species. The engineering knowhow that once passed from one generation to the next is fast being lost. I blame digital.

How much better might LPs sound today had analog technologies of recording, mixing, and mastering continued to advance? Who knows? Had digital been a nonstarter, the 300,000,000 folks (!) who bought Apple iPods might instead have bought 300,000,000 turntables and cartridges. Omigod—with economies of scale, turntable design might have progressed so far that today's budget Pro-Ject turntables would sound like Döhmann models, and affordable cartridges surpass even the best Lyras.

Had the major record labels not pissed away the 1980s and 1990s by reselling their massively more profitable (zero recording costs) back catalogs on CD at artificially high prices that ignored the usual price-lowering factors of ease of manufacturing and far lower volumes of returns for defects, might they have developed a lot more new talent? In short: Would music now be better off had digital never happened?

There's no way to know, but we can look back and see that pre-digital recording was simpler, with less of a fix-it-in-the-mix approach by engineers and bands. How much more solvent might the major and indie labels—not to mention musicians—be today were their music not streamed for free on YouTube, Pandora, or Spotify, or offered in low-cost subscriptions? After all, in our 21st-century digital dystopia, most bands see recorded music as loss leaders, promotions for gigs. And, last but not least—had digital never happened, would we still have vast numbers of bricks-and-mortar stores selling new LPs?

Thanks to streaming, we can now hear more music than ever, but so much of that music is overcompressed and mixed to sound "right" in the car, or through earbuds while listening outdoors, or in trains, planes, and buses. The Loudness Wars, which have been so incredibly destructive to the sound of music, might never have happened had music remained analog and more people still sat down to listen at home. We might even have had time to read album liner notes. Remember liner notes? Another casualty of digital. [sigh]

Digital is so dominant that few of today's young non-audiophiles, even those who buy LPs, have ever heard pure analog music. Most new vinyl is actually DDA or DAA—ie, recorded and/or mixed in the digital domain, because it's faster and cheaper to do so. Even the new stereo remix of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was done [gasp] digitally.

I asked my question of composer and big-band leader Maria Schneider: "What if digital had never happened?"

Her reply: "People would be listening more thoughtfully to music, as they wouldn't be gorging on an all-you-can-eat buffet of 'content' shoved in their face every morning, noon, and night. We'd all have a little more space in our lives for imaginations to flourish, because Internet companies wouldn't constantly be pushing ads at us and sucking us dry for information. We'd have a little peace and quiet again, and in between, we could all just go back to complaining about record companies. Ah, the good old days! I miss them."

Neal Sugarman, cofounder of Brooklyn's premier soul and R&B label, Daptone Records, had these answers to my question: "First thing that comes to mind would be that the Dap-Kings and others in the Daptone universe would possibly be rich. I still believe [that] listening to music in a physical format that people have invested time and money into makes it so much more likely that people would really listen to the whole album. If more people were purchasing records, that would bring in far more income to the artist and record label, so everyone would be earning more money, which might inspire more great records."


John Schaefer, host of WNYC Radio's New Sounds program, took the opposite view: "Seems to me that digital had a leveling effect on the music industry. So if the industry [had] stayed analog, it would be hard to imagine the indie scene thriving the way it has. Even more, digital has meant easy access to all the music that's come before. A generation that thinks nothing of having Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Adele, Dick Dale, and Thelonious Monk on its playlists would probably be a lot more monochromatic in its sensibilities."

As it stands, digital audio has virtually obliterated analog as a recording medium. It's a done deal—but billions of all-analog LPs are still in circulation, and at home I have my share of them to play with my audio system: SME Model 15 turntable, Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue cartridge, and Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono preamplifier. I'm still not sure how or why, but for me, a stylus tracing a groove brings music back to life more completely than does even the very best DAC processing zeros and ones. It's a magic trick that never gets old.—Steve Guttenberg

Anton's picture

If digital had never happened...

1) This month's Stereophile would be featuring a review of the 84,000 dollar Nakamichi 1000 mark IX.

2) Cassettes would still rule the waves. (We would be wishing for something like digital to be invented.)

3) Sony would have moved on from Elcaset to Emcaset, Encaset, etc. We might be up to 'Ewcaset' by now.

4) The Betamax/VHS war would still be going on. (Or, Sony would have invented other failed tape mediums by now.)

5) Records would still be pressed on 80 gram vinyl.

6) Thousands of basement dwelling Everquest addicts would instead be working in record and comic shops treating us in condescending fashion.

7) BSR would still be selling two thirds of the world's turntables.

8) We wouldn't be online having this discussion!

9) For hip vintage music source fads, we'd have to be talking 8-tracks or 78's instead of LP. Hipsters would be buying 200 gram shellacs and talking about the dynamics of Rudy Vallee box set releases.

10) Maxell, Kodak, TDK, 3M, Wollensack, Akai, Nakamichi, BASF, Revox, Dokoder, and Tandberg would still be jammin'!!!

11) There would be no Pro-Ject, Döhmann, Lyra, etc. The market would not be niche enough.

12) I would be stuck listening about how Jesus saves instead of listening to music on Sirius on trips through rural areas.

13) We would still all be trying to be caller number three to win concert tickets!

14) We'd still be able to buy record changers.

15) We'd have great arguments about storing tapes in 'played' or 'rewound' status.

16) We'd actually have something that does improve with demagnetization.

17) Kal would be writing about Music in the Round and telling us CD-4 still beats SQ or QS.

18) No digital - no computer aided design....that might be better!

Archimago's picture

Correct on all accounts, Anton.

But seriously, digital had been coming for decades by the 80's. There's no way music would not have been brought "in the fold".

There's nothing wrong with digital of course. And answers like Maria Schneider's has everything to do with human psychology rather than the technology. There is nothing in that response that cannot be done if a person so wishes in analogue or digital.

Glotz's picture

The question should have been ...

What if Streaming wasn't invented?

And I still win concert tickets alllll the time. College radio.

alwool67's picture


tonykaz's picture

I've lately been asking Ministers why Gods been giving Science to Atheists : Ben Franklin gets Electricity, Louis Pasteur got the Germ Theory, why didn't he give these things to Moses? for gods sake!

Anyway, Vinyl had a fairly good run, CDs did too!

But, we're still growing. All these music formats will seem to have the life-span of butterflies compared to Powerline Voltage being with us for 100 years, or so. Even after we go Solar 100%, we'll still have electrical power.

Herreshoff Sail Boats are the beautiful way to navigate Water, as beautiful as Vinyl Playback in it's prime but powerful Jet Skies and Pontoon Boats are what the Marketplace expects and enjoys.

I'm standing with Bernie Sanders say'n : "forget 2016" and the past, we gotta look at and work towards the future. We're gonna get Health Care for all, even if it's over my dead body.

and we're gonna get another "New&Improved" music Format that sounds almost as good as our cherished Vinyl. ( that is if there's anyone around that still remembers how good vinyl sounded )

This is one hell-of-a Vinyl Issue: featuring my old Alma-mater VPI and their latest Scout. VPI was the Best Turntable we offered at Esoteric Audio, Shela was my Contact.

And HR reviews a $17,000 German Turntable.

THE Gigantic story here is JVS getting "gobsmacked", there are precious few things in Consumer Audio that have that effect, I knew of only a small few ( back in 1983 ), Koetsu was one, Linn LP12 was another ( like JA, I was "comfortable and had a tweaky streak" or I simply admired HFNews & Record Review) . Electrocompaniet was another, Bruce Brisson's MH-750 was another. Phew.

I couldn't get/carry the Krell line, the Gramophone & Rick Howard had that exclusive ( we all had our exclusives, it was how we did business back then ). After I closed down Esoteric Audio, one of my Salesmen landed both Krell & Apogee. I've never owned any piece of Krell gear but I wanted to. Oh-well.

Last month it was the Kii transducer system, this month it's a $2,000 VPI and a pair of $38,000 enablers. Phew, one hell-of-an-Issue!!

Tony in Michigan

ps. I started my Import Business by importing KEF Reference R101s, R103.2s and R105.3s. Managing Director Raymond Cooke took my partner George Buckley and me on a nice 1983 Tour of KEF in Maidstone, we ended up importing darn near every Audio piece made in the UK, flying the stuff to Detroit Metro via British Air for .50 cents per Lb. Those were the good ole days. Now KEF seems to have quite young representation visiting far flung Editors, I'd rather visit KEFs Engineering folks again but I'm a Factory rat sort of person. I wouldn't mind owning another pair of R103.2s ( for old times sake )

PAR's picture

" Those were the good ole days. Now KEF seems to have quite young representation visiting far flung Editors, I'd rather visit KEFs Engineering folks again"

If you were to visit Maidstone to chat with the engineering folks then you would be talking to that very same young man who visited John Atkinson. He is not a KEF sales or marketing rep but Jack Oclee-Brown is Head of Acoustics. It's just that he looks around 18 years old :-)

tonykaz's picture

Geez, he's a Phd

and so young looking.

Hmm, I looked him up.

He's much younger, just a baby when we visited in 1983.

Your little note was quite a shock to realize how old I look compared to this nice lad who never got older.

Tony in Michigan

Charles E Flynn's picture

Benjamin Franklin was a deist. Louis Pasteur was a Catholic. We do not know if the charming story you can find with this Google search is true:

Louis Pasteur rosary atheist

drbarney1@yahoo.com's picture

As marketers of cables costing thousands of dollars for solutions to problems which when calculated using laws of physics do not exist (For instance, skin effect at 20 kHz reduces signal current by about 0.01 db.) someone will sell filters which eliminate noise from sun spots or birds shadows passing over solar panels.

tonykaz's picture

we'd still be Carpet Bombing instead of Surgically imprecise, collateral damaging GPS guided Projectiles: our leading Enemies would be much safer!

David Harper's picture

computers are making us all dumber. example; twenty years ago I had everyones phone number committed to memory. Now I can't remember anyones phone number because they're all on my speed dial list. If I lose my phone I'm screwed. I don't know where I'm driving anymore because I'm just following directions like an idiot;"turn right in three hundred feet. Now continue straight for five miles, then....." If the GPS craps out, I'm totally lost, because I NEVER ACTUALLY KNEW WHERE I WAS GOING!!!

Christian Goergen's picture

You can reverse it. Learn how to read maps. Explore your neighbourhood by foot. Read poems and memorize song lyrics. Don't waste brain capacity with phone numbers.

David Harper's picture

actually, there is no such thing as "wasting brain capacity" the more you exercise your brain, the smarter it gets. This includes memorizing phone numbers. If we could waste our brain capacity high-end audiophiles would have run out of capacity a long time ago.

ok's picture

..and how about analog never happened? – live music and all once in a blue moon and family bonds tightened alright. Isn’t that great?

Robin Landseadel's picture

I was one of those who hated "Digital" right out of the gate. Back around 1981, had a fine little stereo consisting of a NAD 3020 amp, a pair of little 2-way monitors [name lost to time, 1" dome, 6" mid-woofer, 8" x 8" x 10" enclosure, sealed], and a Dual turntable of the era, straight low-mass arm, belt driven, usually low-end Grado cartridges. This system gave me more of a soundstage than any before, while the early digital LPs from Columbia suffered from a near-total suck-out of that soundstaging, where all the ambiance became vague and low-level details disappeared. Even the early Telarcs [the best of a bad lot] suffered from ambience suck-out. This became painfully obvious comparing one of these new digital recordings to Decca or Mercury Living Presence LPs from the late 1950's.

But this is 2017, some 35+ years later, and things have changed. I find it nicely ironic that the device that convinced me that continuing to pursue analog was a waste of time is a $100 DAP that you — Steve Guttenberg — recommended over at CNET. The Fiio X1 looks like somebody else's idea of an I-Pod, requires that you buy its memory [up to 128 g on a SDHC chip] and is pretty basic as regards features and functions. The Fiio X1 sounds way better than the price would suggest. With the line out hooked to another headphone amp or directly to one of my stereos, it produces some of the best digital sound I've encountered. CDs ripped to I-Tunes as Apple Lossless files have more detail, better ambience retrieval and a richer, more complex sound than when playing these CDs on any other digital playback device in the house. The Fiio X1 is capable of playing back 24/192 files but its essential quality of sound comes through playing back Redbook files.

Yes I have turntables, yes I've heard fully functioning certifiable high-end rigs, they sounded absolutely fab. But.

But—all records are off-center, the question is "to what degree?" and at what point one starts to notice. I notice about 1/3 of the time, and I haven't heard improvements in this new golden age of pristine and overweight pressings.

But—all records suffer from Inner Groove distortion, even if the stylus tracks in a straight line, as the velocity of the groove passing by the stylus reduces as one reaches the center of the disc. There's less information to reproduce at the end of a LP than the start, this applies all the time, no matter what.

And then there's the slings and errors of collecting used vinyl, in many cases one's only choice if the choice has to be an LP. No need to go any further in that direction.

Is it worth putting up with all that if I get sound that's way more than "good enough" from a $100 digital player? I think not. And as both analog and digital rigs get better, they sound more like each other. Funny that.

David Harper's picture

I,too,hated digital until I got an Ipod and ripped my CD's to it on Itunes in WAV. Then took it out to my new car, plugged it in with a USB wire, and when the music started, like a revelation it hit me "so this is what's so great about digital". Forty years ago I spent all weekend recording my LP's from an audiophile analog rig onto an audiophile reel-to-reel. This new deal is pretty much the same thing except better in every way.

bilguana's picture

The first iteration of the Laser turntable appeared about the same time as the first CDs. It went no where. Some others got a hold of it and tried to reintroduce an improved version about 15 years ago at THESHOW in Las Vegas. My recollection was that they had poor loudspeakers and other associated equipment and if didn't impress anyone, so it died again.
Perhaps without digital, it might have been perfected.

fetuso's picture

It's human nature to try and find ways to do the same things more efficiently. Generally speaking I prefer analog sound to digital, but I highly doubt there are many artists and engineers who would rather be working with analog tape. Digital is just too easy. And to suggest that analog is always better than digital is also unfair. I have all analog records that sound like crap. It comes down to the recording quality.

dalethorn's picture

I suffered for years with soft tape heads**, acetate, heavy shedding on the tape transports, etc. Then along came "glass and crystal ferrite" heads, which got better over time. Tape became chromium dioxide, then "metal" compounds, etc. So I think that by the year 1990 (when I bought my first CD), or not long after that, that we would have been able to buy reel-to-reel albums that would rival 96-192k downloads - no doubt in my mind.

**The insidious thing about soft tape heads is they can develop grooves that are barely detectable, then with a new batch of tape, "shave" or otherwise corrupt the edges of the new tapes if those are a tenth of a hair wider than the older tapes, despite being "in spec". Check out HDTracks' 96k or better downloads of certain Rolling Stones albums - Let It Bleed for example, where some tape dropouts are pretty obvious.

tonykaz's picture

Where y'all been?

Tony in Venice

mrkaic's picture

...hadn't missed his turn in Sarajevo? What if Hitler's mother had aborted him? What if you were not you, but someone else?

Nice fodder for speculations, but the fact is that the present is digital and for a very good reason at that. Vinyl, cassettes etc., are cute, but inferior to even the basic 16 bit CD.

tonykaz's picture

We'd be living on the Analog Planet if digital never happened.

No OLED iPhones,

We'd be getting bad directions from people on the side of the road.

No digital and he entire World Stops!, we return to Islam & Roman Catholic Basic understandings governing our lives.

No digital would be a Crushing defeat.

Geez, we're about to get driver-less Cars. ( no more drunk driving tickets ).

Digital turned out to be the Eye of the Needle that we're all rushing to squeeze thru to a better life.

Tony in Michigan

David Harper's picture

we wouldn't be getting "bad directions from somebody on the side of the road". We would look at a map before we left and figure out how to get where we're going.

tonykaz's picture

I worked the Road for decades. I had a large case full of Maps for the entire USA, I always had a map of London England as well as a wide range of other areas I serviced. I acquired maps at every customer service place.

Still, here in the USA, I'd end up asking a Postal Service Mail Man or a Pizza delivery guy who would give precise and understandable directions. ( even with recognizable landmarks )

Today, the iPhone will take you to within 25' of where you need to go.

I'm Old-School, I take pride in being able to remember how to get to anyplace I've ever been to ( in my entire lifetime ) but I'm still anxious to own & use the NEW iPhone and phone Watch! $1,500

21st. Century, here I come!!

[off topic content deleted by JA]

Tony in Michigan

Anton's picture

Remember the Thomas Guide?

Loved it.

I had the one for L.A. and it was the bomb.

The Swiss Army Knife of atlases!

I had a 67 Impala SS with Jensen Triaxials in the back deck and 6.5 inch coaxials in the doors.

A Clarion cassette, later a another brand with cool oval buttons whose name I forget....and I forget the name of the amps I used, too.


tonykaz's picture

Yes, I've owned them and the Delorme Map books of each State.

Jensen Triaxials, fond Memories.

Impala SS was a hell-of-a-car.

I had a 67 Barracuda Notchback 273 V8 that would burn rubber like crazy, my Minister Wife would show off by "punching-it", the little children would scream with delight. We were still youngish. oh-my

Tony in Michigan

David Harper's picture

the 67 Impala SS was awesome. Did yours have the 427? Automatic or stick?

tonykaz's picture

4 Bbl


It was a rubber burner, even with oversize Snows.

I traded a VW W Camper for it.

I sold it for a Olds Custom Cruiser Wagon w/425 cu.in. that broke the record for NY,NY to Detroit ( 10 hours / 700 miles ), it would cruise at 100 mph.

After that I got a new Car every 3 Months till I left GM. Phew.

My wife and I can't quite remember all the Cars we've owned, it's well over 50.

Today, I don't own a Car, I bicycle everywhere I go. ( except Air Travel of course )

My Wife owns a KIA Soul in lipstick Red. ( Kia is pretty much under the GM umbrella )

My next car purchase will be a Cessna

Tony in Michigan

volvic's picture

The first ten years were horrible, afterwards things got better, but it hasn't all been roses. Was enthusiastic about the new format but demo after demo proved the CD format was just no good, and I wanted it to succeed. Most telling demo was a Denon machine in 1983 vs a Linn LP12, no contest, the LP12 won hands down, convinced me to get one. I didn't buy my first CD player till the start of the millenium, a beautiful KarikIII/NumerikIII combo that sold at discount from my local hi-fi dealer as they were making room for the Ikemi.

The digital revolution and consumer tastes accelerated the slow death of the record store and that has been the one casualty that has been the biggest negative of all. Still not all bad, we got the iPod, the ability to travel with 50 uncompressed cd's in your pocket, not to mention how much better CD's now sound through computer audio setup.

Nevertheless, good analogue recordings from the 50's and 60's are what keep me coming back to my turntables even more than my computer audio rig.

If digital hadn't existed the turntable market would now have been even more advanced then it is now and analogue recording techniques even better. It's a case of Good Times/Bad Times with digital in my opinion.

JackA's picture

I hear you about vinyl sound. Personally, I loved it. I just had great difficulty with the non music noise, clicks and pops, etc..

I returnee my very first standalone CD player, when Elton John was full if "hiss" noise on CD, but not on previously issued vinyl LP!

I guess record companies didn't want to invest a lot of money on past music, and just published whatever material they had at hand, giving CD a bad (quality) reputation.

I believe places like MFSL sold out when they see multi-track remixing surfacing. Nothing like having a brand new fresh master to work with, didn't have to be stored on (noisy) tape.

volvic's picture

When I finally got into CD's in the early 2000's, I bought a lot of first edition pressings, I was surprised how my then lowly LP-12 with Linn Basik Plus and Shure V15 MKV cartridge still trounced digital. Things have improved tremendously, so much so that I believe that 16 bit is now more than enough. I have yet to get into high rez downloads will wait, but no rush as I have a vast library of music to listen to.

It is interesting to note that somewhere in the mid 90's manufacturers and record companies started making equipment and music that no longer put the sound behind the speakers but in front of them. My early YBA CD1a throws the soundstage behind the speakers but my Ikemi CD player and Moon 300DAC do the opposite. The same with the music I listen to on CD. Interesting. I do prefer the music behind.

As for pops and ticks I am with you, when I was looking at going over to CD in the early 80's my lowly Thorens TD-166 was horrible with the entry level Grado I had. I then moved over to a Systemdek IIX and added an Ortofon MC20 that is when things started to go right. The biggest improvement was when I upgraded tonearms on my VPI HW-19, the improvement by the SME IV has convinced me that a well damped tonearm or proper damping is key to controlling resonances that can exaggerate pops and ticks. Oh and also a good line contact stylus, properly set up and that includes dialing in the VTA, yes it makes a difference. Now even second hand records sound quiet. There are some turntables that do a great job of pushing pops and ticks to the side and others that do not.

The digital revolution gave us more convenience but for a long time it did not get us closer to music. Never gave up on vinyl in the 80's and 90's and definitely not giving up on it now. In fact the opposite.

JackA's picture

Volvic, you were purchasing first pressings, I was hunting down white label Promo copies on vinyl. Why? Because what I heard on Stereo FM didn't match what I played on the turntable, the stereo was different. Had no idea they used audio processors the enhance the sound (and minimize ticks and pops).

Was never BIG on equipment, Technics turntable with Audio Technica ML440 cartridge did the trick. Actually, made my own cartridge preamp from Op Amps, a Walter Jung design (featured in High Fidelity magazine). Was nice to thank him years later on the internet!

David Harper's picture

I just got one of these delivered Fed Ex directly from Oppo for 549.00. For anyone who hasn't checked this thing out you owe it to yourself to do it. IMO it's the best digital device I've ever seen.Plays blu-ray,DVD,4K video,SACD,DVD-A,and CD and does it all flawlessly.Has a 32/384 DAC. And a full set of analog outputs in addition to HDMI and coaxial digital outputs. Bluray movies look awesome on it. And the audio from the movie is as good as the video.I believe it's the best component of any kind, dollar for dollar, I ever bought.

NoStrings's picture

There's a funny cartoon on this subject today at wooferandtweet.com

JackA's picture

I believe man was not prepared to handle digital audio on audio CD.
Man was stuck with two common Sony PWM machines to master with, but had no clue what digital distortion would sound like, so, in fear, some were way too conservative. My ears tell me man had great difficulty equalizing sound, lack of bass and/or treble during this period. I believe Digital Audio software, some call DAW, gave man what he desperately needed to refine audio. But it came too late, because computers were initially too slow to process audio.
But, I feel, maybe, 15% of people actually admire impressive sound/audio. So, who cares what the digital age brought us. I use that same figure to describe the amount how admire stereo reproduction. Most people don't even know why the enjoy stereo over mono. I know I didn't, until I obtained multi-tracks of popular music hits. Great article!

JackA's picture

I was always one who wanted to hear outtake, count-off, unedited versions, you name it, of US Top 40, 50's onward. A coworker found some Rolling Stones multi-tracks being used on YouTube. I was busy at the time, but the next day when I asked him to show me, but the video was canceled! That's when I quickly learned about MOGG files. It didn't take me long to find the mother-load of multi-tracks being shared (via RockBand, and Guitar Hero) entertainment discs. When I separated The Beatles tracks, I heard things I never heard before on popular songs. That's when I learned, what I call, sound masking, one or more sounds masking others in Mono form.

But, the point of this is, why do people actually like music. I told a friend about these multi-tracks, and mentioned Billy Joel songs. He starts singing the lyrics like he wrote the songs, when I had to struggle just to comprehend a small portion!! So, I remix Billy Joel's "Piano Man". I must have listened to it a 100 times, all that was left out of the recording!! So, after being blown away by the music, I allow my friend to listen to it and ask, does this rendition of "Piano Man" sound any different. Expecting him to say, "Wow, I never heard it sound like that!", but, instead, he calmly says the vocals sound a little different. Huh???!!

That, alone, gave me a crude idea why people like what, when it comes to music.

JackA's picture

Sure, you can find people like Bob Ludwig preaching about how bad loudness wars are. But, then I find a John Cougar CD that Bob Ludwig remastered, I guess you call it, and ask myself, geez, Bob, could you make it any louder!!??" Taht's when I divorced Bob Ludwig, who's only fame was fitting a lot of audio on vinyl LP and keeping it sounding good.

But, I never, ever, hear these audio experts tell me what I heard on mint vinyl 45s. I questioned why the audio cleared as the songs faded!! I didn't know then, but I do now - compression. So, long story short, loudness (wars) has always been with us, just that you can handle (control) loudness better in a digital world than in a (past) analog world.

JackA's picture

Amazon had free songs that could be had. I heard Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings with her, 1000 Days, 1000 Nights, song, I believe it's called, and loved the contents, but questioned who did the foul sounding audio. Daptone Records would be the last people I ask about digital, allowing Sharon not to sound as good as she (and the music) should.

Steve Smith's picture

I get so tired of this either/or . . .

Bach or Shostakovich?
Basie or Monk?
Beatles or Stones?

Especially when there is AND!

p.s.: Anton, love the Pogo cartoon.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

False polarities
black and white thinking
where there needn't be any.

Thank you.

dalethorn's picture

As a teen when most of my friends and associates were Beatles fans (add Hermans Hermits and a few others), I lived on the dark side with the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, etc. There was a distinct difference then between myself and fellow Stones fans and most Beatles fans, but later in life I think most of us serious music fans have learned to love the best of all worlds. It's fascinating to me, having shopped at the Kent Community store for records in the early 70s, how so many of us joined the resistance from all different upbringings.

When I think of pre-digital in the wider social sense, I think about how difficult it was for indie bands to reach a wider audience, and certainly the Internet was a huge factor, if not *the* factor. But in terms of digital recording and reproduction, from 1990 onward there was a virtual explosion of indie music I could access on CDs as well as the ubiquitous 7" and 10" vinyls coming out of (mostly, in my case) Oregon, Washington, and to some extent California. Many of these were done-at-home digital recordings that wouldn't have been feasible (for quality sound) or wouldn't have been distributed before low-cost digital gear became available.

On the consumer end, I can't begin to compare 3 thousand high-quality digital tracks on a pocket phone or music player to anything before that, because I can access all 3 thousand tracks randomly, whereas in the past I'd have to rewind tape to get to a particular selection, or be satisfied with playing in "album mode", i.e. one after the other in sequence.

JackA's picture

Recording quality or mixing quality? I remixed Paul McCartney's Band On The Run song from multi-track (disappointed in Bonus album track on CD, where someone plays with a volume control). Wow, the remix sounded nice! Stereo came to life. So nice, that a local HD Radio station asked me for a copy. So, anyone can "mix" multi-tracks, even Abbey Road, but it does not mean they focus on HQ sound.

dalethorn's picture

I have several of the ca. 1964 stereo tracks by the Beatles and the Stones which sound wonderful and full of life. Then from 5 years later, 1969, Abbey Road and Let it Bleed, there is little or no natural sound, just heavy overdub for sound effect.

Shootr's picture

Like buying the same album 6 times in 4 years because they don't sound the same after you play them a lot. Like scratching a brand new album and having to toss it and buy another one. Like having far less of a selection of music to hear. Like not being able to afford to record the great music I hear local musicians making on a regular basis. It wasn't all as pure and beautiful as you let on. Not even close. I get the feeling your biggest gripe is there isn't mega-millions available any more for the lucky few. I've recorded and sold DVD's and CD's and made money. I've produced great sounding CD's too that didn't make money. I'll take that over the giant money machine days when spoiled bands wallowed in countless millions while equally talented players couldn't get paid to play a note. We have seen the rise of music over the music business IMO.

David Harper's picture

check out the above website. It tells you which recordings are compressed and which aren't.

rosiemaxx's picture

Records were deteriorating from the 70's onward. Even the new releases that people work very hard on now,seem to be reviewed as"almost as good as the original".I don't know why it is so hard to produce vinyl today,that isn't even as good as ,much less,better than the pre 70's records. I do prefer vinyl,but wouldn't mind if something better came along.


One of the main reasons early CDs sounded awful was that they had to be transported to the pressing plant via the Sony 1630 U-Matic video tape machine. And nothing else.

And it sucked. Badly. CDs didn't start to sound good untll they got rid of it.

Anyone know more about this?

Robin Landseadel's picture

Yes—these first generation recorders anti-alising filters were realized by the use of ten active filtering stages in the analog domain, so these recorders rang like a bell. And initially, all CDs had to be run through these machines. Meanwhile, Decca already had an 18 bit in-house recorder. I'd guess that by the time 20-bit recording came around, the 1610/1630 mastering recorders were no longer useable. I know that anti-alising was realized in the digital domain soon after CDs and CD players arrived. Higher sampling depth/bit rates are really useful in recording. Redbook can be a good musical standard for playback, but the advantages of having extra dynamics in the source recording are obvious and easier to realize at higher bit rates, particularly if the recording requires tweaking at the post-production/mastering stage.

IgAK's picture

This was as much, if obliquely, about what the digital revolution did to our lives in general. Anyone not old enough to remember from experience not just the creativity of the 50's to 70's musical era, but the freedom and privacy we had probably won't be able to understand this fully. Can you even imagine buying a plane ticket with cash, boarding a plane, and debarking all without giving anyone your name nowadays if you did not want to? Yes, this used to be possible and off you went to wherever you wanted to go that did not require a passport and your only worry was the reliability of the plane and the weather it had to fly through. Well, and the landing, of course... Where we are now drowning in passwords, compromised security, and FICO scores - back when (at least American) cash was still all green and not some of the funny off-colors we see now. Did vandals and criminals brag about their exploits on YouTube, encouraging even worse from their viewers to top them? How many school shootings do you remember prior to around 1970?

Sure, digital made a lot of things possible or easier and doable by anyone conveniently at home as well as at work. But did it really make our lives easier and more convenient? Or just more crowded, compacted and actually far busier with longer days because everyone has the same facilities available - forcing ever more competition between everybody and every company to actually make our lives more difficult? Not really a work saver if we analyze the real result to our personal lives. Did the term multi-tasking even exist back then?

We used to remember phone numbers, do (at least simple) math in our heads, be able to read maps and know where we were going without being led by the screen in front of our noses. Or the most convincing blogger with a digital pulpit.

So, my age is showing...with a nostalgia that younger people can only be jealous of - not having experienced what life used to be like. We can't go back without time travel, only just "suck it up" and do the best we can with all this and choose the best new toys for our purposes in these "thumbspelling" times. So I do digital recording, too. And I've done tape transfers to digital. That's reality and we have to work with it.

But is this really "progress" in a human sense?

Anton's picture

Nobody need face opinions not neatly polished to match their biases in this new digital age. People can now head to the news outlet of their choice and never hear a dissenting word that might ignite critical thought.

Example: we can pretend through willful dedication to think things like school shootings are a new phenomenon.


No need to look things up, which is odd, given how easy it has become to do!

Digital has allowed us to ignore more information contrary to our subjective beliefs than ever.

We can turn on the light of the information age, but then we put blindfolds back on to avoid the light.

We see parades of 'social mourning' over the loss of Jim Crow.

Strange days, indeed.

When will we Make Audio Great Again?


dalethorn's picture

For an average person who is working hard and *just* making it, exerting a will to read what the erstwhile opposition has to say is a saintly act, and as unlikely as winning the lottery. Being a longtime computer programmer, I want to write the algorithms to make that happen, but those with the big bucks won't help, or they'll just pretend and continue with business as usual.

Jonathan Tinn's picture

Just a great article. Thank you!

Jonathan Tinn
Evolution Acoustics

IgAK's picture

Anton, there is no need to look up school shootings just because it is easy to do nowadays nor is it willful dedication to avoiding dissenting facts. Nothing is entirely new under the sun. I'm sure you've heard that just because you can do something does not mean you should...or really need to, after using some simple practical discretion?

It should be obvious enough that if it took from 1700 to 1970 to gather that list, this was not a nearly weekly occurrence as it has become of late. So for practical purposes, aside from "how many angels on a pin" Jesuitical hair splitting argumentation, I repeat: How often did you hear about this prior to 1970? How common, the actual point, was it?

Which brings up another digital artifact: the so-called "information age" we are now subjected to and we agree about. You make very good points after that link. More proper to call it the "overload of information age", IMO. I do agree with you that one result of this avalanche of information is the all too common occurrence of the avoidance of dissenting opinions. I see this all the time and the political polarization/radicalization it produces. Inevitable if you hang out with only similar views goading one further off a balanced path! Get in the middle of a crowd chanting "Rah, Rah, our opinions only!" and you are mass-empowered to ignore reality and we see the results every day. Note that the aggregate intelligence of a crowd is that of the most intelligent member...divided by the number of members.

The changes have come just too fast the last 50 years for society to adjust sensibly to them. Too bad we can't take a "time out" to catch up.

So we agree, really, but ironically, your first comment about "willful dedication" supports the previous paragraph while also bringing up a corollary: that willful dedication can also promote willful naivete when it suits to make points. So no, I felt no need to look up the statistics - having accurate information can be key at times but looking up everything just because we can is not necessarily sensible unless you have nothing else to do all day and really is a symptom of the age. We are otherwise in agreement and you make good and literate points.

I do think that being able to instantly Google up correct information on your smart(_ _ _) phone has had an amusing effect on those know-it-alls who used to pull any and all facts and statistics instantly out of their (_ _ _) to show off how brilliant they are. Everybody used to know one or more of those, no? They at least are a lot quieter now.

Robin Landseadel's picture

"It should be obvious enough that if it took from 1700 to 1970 to gather that list, this was not a nearly weekly occurrence as it has become of late."

Additional scrying of the same data base will indicate that death before the age of 35 was much more common back in those halcyon daze of yore. Ultimately, the house always wins/you can't beat city hall.

IgAK's picture

Yes, indeed, ditto, an excellent article, Steve, tx!

To quote a good PM response I got:

"Quality of life in many ways is diminished in this new age. I remember when digital meant using your fingers" (Tx, Mike)

IgAK's picture

Yes, Robin, we have so much more time to create mischief now. And the news clearly shows that we are taking full advantage of it to do so, too.

But I'm not so sure that we can do much scrying - foretelling of the future - from the reflectivity of that database other than to forecast worse. And not everyone remains alive, mentally, after 35, either it seems. So not everything changes - the house always wins, indeed, somehow.

But music helps the living.

ok's picture

"I believe everyone remembers having heard from his elders that the years have become colder than they were and the winters longer (..) And not many years ago the cause of the supposed cooling of the seasons was investigated seriously by some physicists.."

Giacomo Leopardi, 1837

Long-time listener's picture

If digital had never happened, I'd be sitting in an apartment with no space for anything but wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves groaning under the weight of large, heavy LPs gathering dust and scaring off potential girlfriends because they would block out all the light and make my apartment a Silence of the Lambs den--instead of being able to put all of that music on my pocket-sized Fiio X7.

David Harper's picture

I'm a member of a big gym in northern Illinois and I'm always amazed at how many young people,especially the girls, walk around the gym without ever looking up from their phone.Instead of working out, they'll sit on a machine for twenty minutes typing text messages.I have to walk up and ask them if they'd mind if I use it. These people aren't actually experiencing their life. I don't know if they ever interact with other humans face to face. They live in some weird soulless cyberworld where life is reduced to the next text they receive.Even when three or four of them are together they're not really "with" each other at all. They're all looking down at their phone. I wonder if this is some new mental disorder caused by smartphones. Now we have the Iphone ten which is advertised as "a computer in your pocket". It's a thousand dollars.The only thing I want a phone to do is make a call.

dalethorn's picture

Through the looking-glass. Nearly everyone would want to go there at least once as long as they could get back. Then again, ask yourself how many would want to come back if they liked what was on the other side. In our current model, the other side is generally safe as long as we don't poke into the wrong places, and of course we are aware of the exit button at all times. But that's the current model. Changes are coming - big changes.

unrefined-cole's picture

technology is bad fire is scary and thomas edison was a witch

ChrisS's picture

We would be back to the days before the telegraph and Babbage's Analytical Engine...


And listening to one of these...


kjackson's picture

Another BS article about how analog is better.
I listened to records for around 18 years as a teenager and into my late 20s
Early digital sounded bad because labels were using analog masters sometimes pressing masters, made to compensate for records deficiencies, to make the early CDs, Close miking and extra high end sizzle sounding good when applied to records . Not so much for CDs.They were still using record making recording technique to record for digital well into the late 80s. Not to mention that early DACs were inferior to what we have now.
The golden age of recording at least for classical music started in the early 90s and continues to this day. With digital , engineers stopped the horrible close and multiple miking techniques and went to simpler and more accurate setups
I listen on a Aurender music server with 24 bit downloads, CDs ripped to the hard drive, and Tidal streaming. Listening to records was never even close to the sound I get now. Records have bass cutoff, equalized frequency RIAA compressed and decompressed, the sound deteriorates as the needle plays toward the end, bass is mono, pops clicks and rumble, , very short playing time, cartridge dependent sound color, and for gods sake, it's played with a needle. Not very far removed from wax cylinders.
I hated records. I've been around long enough to know the difference

IgAK's picture

Jackson, the golden age of recording classical music *ended* in the 70's.

And not just due to the recording technologies, whatever excuses you may wish to make for the awful sound we first got from digital. Musician's unions and what they did to the cost of rehearsals and everything else to do with large masses of musicians, plus all the rules they choked the musical performances with are even more to blame.

But digital is just now barely starting to sound as good as vinyl, assuming the use of good equipment. The best of hi-rez is barely able to claim points lately with the most exorbitantly expensive gear (I get to hear all of it), and it's still a give and take, there. Vinyl certainly is fussier and more dependent on good equipment, where mediocre or passable sound can be gotten from digital more cheaply. I have, use, and professionally work on and with both digital and analog. I do not make a cult of one or the other or go forward facing backward. This is just what *is*. I do expect digital to surpass...eventually. But it certainly has not yet, unless the absence of analog noise is your sole criteria for your viewpoint. It is, of course *convenient* and I, like many, do find that it is what I reach for most often when I am not in a critical mood or busy with other things I must do. And sure, storage is more convenient, too...so long as the files are backed up... There certainly are advantages to it. But when I really want involvement with the music, the records still spin.

rzr's picture

This article never mentioned analog cassette tape nor i'm sure Steve's or Fremer's favorite medium, analog 8-track. If you are going to talk about the analog past, include every analog medium not just the 1 you want to push. IMO, reel to reel surpasses TT if you get a good tape!
So, to be more open, why don't you compare cassette/8-track to digital playback? Say i'm on a bus or train going to work each day, what would sound better or be more convenient to use for playback? I'm sure you would pick 8-track because it had such a small footprint and was easy to change to different songs, plus the ease of use when the tape got jammed or unwound.
Steve Jobs was a genius coming up with the ipod vs cassette or 8-track.

I enjoy a good vinyl album on my TT setup, but vinyl is not always the best sounding medium plus you can't get most of the newer music on vinyl. With DSD/MQA/SACD, these options give you the same SQ or better than vinyl.

So jump off your vinyl pedestal and report on whats current and review products from both sides of the house: analog and digital. Now you can go back to listening to your 8-tracks!

David Harper's picture

you're right for sure about the IPOD. 40 years ago I spent all weekend transferring LP's to reel to reel. Now my IPOD accomplishes the same thing,only infinitely better.

Ladyfingers's picture

Every vinyl record since the late '70s has had its sound passed though an 8-bit cutter delay. The analogue sound hasn't been analogue for decades.

doctorrazz's picture

I think most of us who have been audiophiles for 30+ years can appreciate your dialogue, however, modern digital recording, at its present levels, at least in 24/96 and above, blows away any Vinyl playback I have heard. I cannot get past all the down side to analogue. Been there done that, and while there has been a hiatus with the loudness wars in mass market streaming. HiFi streaming/rental is now here, and I am tickled pink, with the quality ease of use return of the music to my ears. Pick up a modern Aix 5.1 disc and feast on that. The only record player I have belonged to my long dead grand parents, a Victrola. I still get out my copy of, "who said I was a bum" every few years.

Jack L's picture


"modern digital recording, at its present levels, at least in 24/96 and above, blows away any Vinyl playback I have heard. I cannot get past all the down side to analogue."

Like many many audio fans who went through the time tunnel of audio from
vinyl to streaming, I have chosen to go back to vinyl decades ago.

Why? Analogue sounds much much more musical & being-there than digital.
Only serious music lovers, like yours truly, can appreciate the sonic superiority of analogue over digital.

Mind you, I still own a DVD-audio player that plays 24/96+ audio discs & Blu-ray player that reads HiFi Pure Audio Blu-ray discs. I often stream my favourite music performances thru YouTube on my 4K smart TV.

So what? I still love playing my 1,000+ stereo vinyl LPs over the above said digital media. Simply for much more relaxed musical sound & being-there experience that any digital media todate still fail to deliver.

Digital is for easy access to the huge programme instantly available.
Analogue is for serious music enjoyment.

Listening is believing

Jack L.

doctorrazz's picture

Once again, we have the Subjectivists, and the Objectivist divide. The age old comment, is "we are all entitled to our own opinions, but we are not divorced from the Facts. High Quality Digital mastering, blows away any level of Vinyl reproduction on all measurable metrics. I can understand and appreciate the old school feel, ritual of spinning a disc, Most of us have evolved with the technology, and the improvements in sound reproduction.