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A musician’s take on the analog-digital divide

The Audiophiliac reviews Damon Krukowski’s new book “The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World.”

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

A whole lot of words have been written about the differences in sound between analog and digitally recorded music, but Damon Krukowski's approach in his new book "The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World" feels different, possibly because he was a drummer who played in Galaxie 500, one of my favorite indie bands of the late 1980s.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Damon Krukowski.

Naomi Yang

It's probably too late to talk about analog recorded music in 2017, there being precious little of it. With rare exceptions, analog recorded, mixed and mastered new LPs are pretty scarce in the 21st century. So Krukowski's book caught me by surprise, because after devoting a bunch of pages explaining the differences between analog and digital recording technologies, you see that Krukowski is more concerned with the way we hear and connect with music. That's a fascination he and I share, but there's nothing in the book that makes me think Krukowski is an audiophile. He's concerned with the way digital disconnects music from listeners by banishing the noise that was part of analog recording. Digital is noise-free, but maybe that's not entirely a good thing for the sound of music.

Krukowski looks long and hard at noise, observing that analog is noisy, analog tape hisses and LPs have surface noise, while digital is inherently quieter. I knew that before I read the book, so the bigger question is why analog recordings draw people into music in ways that digital never quite matches. Krukowski observes we have immediate access to more music than ever, but with digital he hears notes. He hears less of the space between them, less of the depth below them. There's less noise, in other words, but music seems to have lost something in the process.

Krukowski dives head first into the causes and lingering damage The Loudness Wars have brought to the sound of music. That is, digital fostered a craving for ever louder music, and in the process music lost nuance and shading in the quest to be ever louder. As the audience moved primarily from indoors to noisier outdoors, and into cars, trains, planes and buses, quieter music was drowned out by the din. The solution was to digitally boost the quiet parts of music and make it more consistently loud, which led to the desire to make recordings louder and louder. When compression is used to reduce or eliminate music's natural soft-to-loud dynamics -- when a whisper is as loud as a scream -- music loses some of its humanity, and we disconnect from it. Music becomes background. 

Analog's distortions of the signal's frequency response, noise and speed instability can been reduced, but never eliminated in comparison to digital. But in practice digital's subtler, more subversive distortions have an aesthetic of their own that colors so much contemporary music.

Krukowski comes down hard on streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, and says, "Is it more than coincidence that this profit-making strategy for distributors of media has resulted in a loss of income for the producers of its content?" Right, songwriter and musician "content" earns them pennies as social media giants vie for worldwide domination. If you want to hear Krukowski's music at its best search out his band's old LPs and CDs.

Digitally recorded music is nearly ubiquitous, and has been for 30 plus years, but the good news is there are billions of all-analog used LPs in circulation, so it's not too late for the analog curious among you to hear what you've been missing. A second best option is to search out CDs of your favorite music that was mastered before 1990. Those silver discs tend to be far less compressed and processed than more recent remastered CDs or files of the same music. The streamed versions of that music is likely to be sourced from later, more processed files.

Kurkowski talks about "thick listening," where the listener is rewarded with a deeper music experience than the more casual listener, and that my friends is the point of his book. Digital disconnects the listener, while analog, even with its flaws, does the opposite with the music. Hear, hear!