Why Today’s Recordings Sound Different From Recordings Of The Past

The And Now

There is a myriad of reasons why songs in today’s music recordings so often do not sound as the pieces recorded in the past. Aside from the debated conversation of the actual performance or the quality of the artists, there is a large technical aspect that can be the lead contributor. The technical component, while not entirely, is perhaps the most fundamental as to why MP3’s, streaming audio, or music transmitted to a Bluetooth set of speakers (via an iPhone / iPod, or transmitted by way of Internet/Satellite/FM Radio) does not always sound quite as lush or organic as recordings in the past.

A sound wave is an analog entity. Analog sound waves are continuous, fluctuating forms sent through the air from a vibrating entity. These waves cause variations in air pressure. These air pressure variations are converted to sound via our ear and our brains.

Digital storage, processing  (or transmission) is actually a man made entity. At it’s core digital, by definition is simply a series of ones and zeros. Digital representations of a sound wave are not a continuous or one piece as the true analog sound wave. Digital components store and process sound waves in samples that ‘represent’ the waveform versus adhering something continuous and in a single unit such as an all analog device. Tape, vinyl, or a piece of analog gear interprets and then processes the waveform in it’s raw adulterated state, while digital devices ultimately convert the waveform into series of one’s and zero’s (or on and off states) that represent the sound wave. While neither is truly an exact replica of the original sound source, each has advantages and disadvantages.

Recording Digitally Has Been Around for Decades (however):
Recordings of the past were primarily recorded to analog tape using analog gear. Digital tape, such as ADAT (or transferring from digital tape using an interface known as Light pipe) has been around for decades but it is/was limited to the number of tracks per session (8). Daisy Chaining ADAT machines could increase the number of possible tracks per session (by multiples of 8) but was a bit cumbersome and often problematic. Many times using eight tracks with a single ADAT was typical versus daisy chaining them together to increase the number of possible tracks. Hence, digital recording was not used nearly as much in the professional studio environment as was an all analog recording chain during the past.

It Has Become a Digital Age:
Today, many times the entire recording chain is an all digital platform. In order to record digitally, the original analog wave-forms must be converted to digital information (ones and zeros in discreet states versus the continuous fluctuating entity of the true analog waveform) in order to be captured, processed, or stored differently. Computers and software programs can process and record (or store) audio.  When using only a computer and software program without any additional outside (outboard) gear to track or mix is said to be doing it all ‘in the box’.

Why Digital?
Producing and recording music using one, several, or all digital devices can make the process easier and incredibly faster. The audio is visually laid out, easily view-able, and plainly structured on a graphical user interface versus being hidden or existing on a vague format as was common place in most analog recording devices/studios in the past. Fixing mistakes using a digital audio workstation (a computer which uses a software program to manipulate the audio, using a hard disc or digital medium to store the information) is ridiculously less time consuming compared to fixing mistakes using analog tape. Editing tape and creating composite tracks actually entailed cutting and splicing the tape together. Software programs can cut, and join parts almost instantly using the software interface. There is also room for plenty of error (Ctrl + Z / Apple + Z) that did not exist using analog tape.

Digital recording is much more flexible, efficient, and offers a variety of options. There are a few things that were simply not possible in the past using an all analog recording chain that now are possible to even the novice. For example, audio tracks can be replicated in an instant. Parts and segments of a track can be removed, interchanged, or fixed often within seconds. A variety of effects can be used without moving your person or changing equipment. There is no need to patch a piece of gear in or out. The gear is the software program (Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, etc.) which uses internal software components or additional programs called “plug-ins” to work with the application to add desired effects. Busing out to an effects processor is as simple as selecting a channel from a drop down menu.

What used to take hours in the studio can now take place in minutes, literally. Storing and playing back audio is, for the most part, inexpensive. Insufficient equipment space is almost never an issue because of digital recording technology. There is a myriad of economical options when recording using digital technology which, in itself, has led to a whole new generation of amateur engineers. No longer is it required to rent a studio for $150.00 an hour to record a demo. An $850,000 SSL 4000 G Mixing Desk is not the only go-to piece of equipment if your want to record (or mix) an album. The aspect of digital recording has completely changed the technical, and to a point, administrative side of the recording industry. Digital recording is showing no sign of slowing down. In fact, it is rapidly progressing. It is here to stay.

Digital recording and playback actually involves taking small chunks or samples of the original waveform at timed intervals in attempting to replicate it. This is known as “sampling.” Although digital recording/processing take samples of sound at thousands of times per second, at the end of the day… it is still only taking periodic snapshots of the actual waveform in order to attempt replicating the original sound. This process does not capture every instance of the sound nor is it an entirely uninterrupted process. When audio is processed through digital gear or when recording to a digital medium, the replication is never strictly continuous, in which true analog wave-forms exist.

When converting analog to digital in recording/mixing or when compressing digital sound to store, the audio often goes through a process known as “truncation.” This process deals with the bit count in each sampled word. In short, truncating actually removes some of the sound information from each sample in order to store it or when using a less advanced digital processing program. When needing to use a program that works in smaller bit depths than the current bit depth of your existing audio, the information is truncated. The process is also beneficial for digital storage because after truncation the audio will require less storage space. The bits of information removed in these digital words are “supposedly” inaudible to the human ear. Actual ones and zeros used in replicating the analog waveform are taken out of the original signal in allowing for more songs in less space and when using programs that process using a smaller bit-depth than your existing program.

Although it is constantly improving, the limitations of analog to digital conversion technology comes into play here. Technically, truncation is considered “lossy.” A lossy process means some of the original form, image, or file is removed, in order to convert something or store something. This can degrade the original quality in doing such. Truncation is another part of the digital recording process that can arguably influences the sound.

Quantization is the digital process of sliding an instrument or vocal backward or forward in time in order to assure it is in exact sequence with the beat and/or tempo. It is also a technique used in rounding bits of information when converting analog to digital. In today’s “beat making” recording environment, quantization is far from an uncommon practice. This process is now almost always a digital procedure that occurs using a software program. If something is too quantisized (known as over-quantization) the song or track can take on a machine-like characteristic versus a loose, less than perfect, but realistic vibe that many classic recordings showcased. Hence, quantization can contribute to the overall characteristic of the performance.

Compression in Streaming and Storage:
Music is purposefully compressed today much more than before. The dynamics (general range of the performance or the recording’s varied volume levels) are squashed much more than before in order to be able to play the entire product louder. Without as much dynamic variation, the entire volume level of a song or track can be raised without distortion or clipping. The basis for this is that supposedly the louder a song, the more likely the everyday listener will keep the song on their dial or in their rotation. According to some studies, a range in volume doesn’t win-out over something louder but having fewer dynamics. In addition to the compression in the studio, radio stations compress the audio once more before it is sent out over the airwaves. This practice was always in place, however, today’s radio stations/media networks increase their compression a bit more than in the past.

Streaming and Bit-rates:
All of this compression can sometimes take away from the natural sound a recording might have otherwise exuded. In streaming services such as Spotify the audio is compressed once again in order to provide a more continuous error free (and using less bandwidth) play. For example, Spotify uses OGG  and Apple uses an AAC compression technique by way of certain codecs for their streaming services. This process is actually coding the audio digitally for transmission, and then decoding it for playback at a certain location. The higher the bit-rate, the more actual audio possible at the play back device. Theoretically this means more dynamics can be heard. Standard streaming is at 320Kbps. To some people this translates to audio that ‘breathes’ far less. To combat this, select streaming services offer non-compressed audio at 1,411Kbps at higher pricing.  This bit-rate is the equivalent to a digital FLAC file. Digital FLAC files are said to sound much better than standard CD (16 /44.1) or MP3. However keep in mind the audio is already recorded differently than it was thirty years ago. Lossless transmission / compression simply transports or stores that recorded product with out any loss of data. The product may or may not of already been created using many of the digital recording and mastering techniques at the studio (which ‘possibly’ had a great impact on the sound already).

Recording To Hard Disc and Using Digital Plug-ins Versus Using Complete Analog Hardware Components:
Today, it is not uncommon for digital plug-ins (plug-ins are basically a computer program or smaller program within a program) to do the work of outboard processors or in place of analog gear in shaping or adding effects to the tracks. Instead of having a large analog device (or even a large digital device for that matter) to process the audio when adding, removing, or changing the sound of an individual instrument/vocal, a software program performs the task. Many times the audio is recorded straight to hard disc instead of first running through an analog mixing console or to of any sort of tape (be it analog or digital tape). Analog tape has a bit of distortion naturally. This is caused by an over-polarization of particles on the tape. The BIAS settings on an analog tape machine determine how the electrical signal received will magnetically polarize the iron-oxide particles coated on the tape. Too much polarization in a selected area or on selected particles would sound unnatural. However in having some more polarization than needed on select particles often creates a rich, warmer sound than if the audio was being recorded exactly as was received without over polarization. Certain particles are pulled away from their most accurate respected positions (compression) and are over polarized in which they cannot hold any more of a charge in relation to the amplitude of the waveform being introduced by electricity (saturation). This over alignment (tape / particle compression) and over saturation (tape / particle maximum polarization) can produce a rounder, softened, warm sound than recording straight to hard disc. At the same time transients can be less prominent and harmonics inaccurate.

This situation explained above is not ‘naturally’ possible when recording to disc because the mechanics are a different beast, so to speak. Either the audio it is recorded properly or with levels too ‘hot’ which produces clipping (the digital version of analog being over distorted). There is less in-between when recording digitally (but the window is expanding as time goes on). Not to confuse the quality of sound that is now possible when recording to hard disc, equalization  can be adjusted and additional compression can be added to have the best of both worlds (producing ample transients and bump or roundness where desired).

What we use to listen to music
Another reason recordings do not sound as they did in years previous is because of the playback devices used today. Streaming audio via the Internet or using an iPhone, iPod/hard disc to listen to music versus a record player makes an enormous difference. Records AKA vinyl, while a bit noisy, tedious, and fragile were (are) an all analog playback device. This is the very reason that playing a record seems to fill the entire room with a full “lively” sound. Although there were/are plenty of drawbacks in playing vinyl such as the hiss and crackle that go along with the benefit of that large, filling, aural environment, record players brought an exciting “bigness” not nearly as present as when using the convenient streaming service, a mobile phone (or a CD player). Most homes have stereo speakers much smaller than the average consumer in 1979. Bigger does not equate to better quality but a thumping bass or snare permeating one’s chest leads to the impression of a different audio experience than a mere set of six inch computer speakers.

Consider all of the aspects mentioned above along with today’s speedy production schedules, and we can have music that often does not sound like the recordings of yesteryear.

Not To Confuse Or Mislead
Digital recording definitely has its place. Its ease of use and flexibility make it almost irresistible. It is sometimes theorized that a well-crafted engineer can make a digital recording sound every bit as rich and warm as if he or she used an analog recording chain. Still, whether wanting a product traditionally digital in sound characteristic (harder, hollow, a bit sharp or tight-edged) or predominantly sounding analog (full, rich, heavy, fattened) can depend on a number of things. The type of sound you are trying to achieve, how that sound compliments the artist or song, the budget, the recording time frame available, location, and space all contribute to whether or not a digital production is a fit.

Recordings on the radio, streamed via the Internet, and/or playing on an MP3 player can sound considerably different than the many full, meaty, thick recordings of yesteryear. Sampling, truncating, quantization, compression, digital plug-ins/recording programs, recording straight to disc, speedy production, and certainly using an iPhone verses the Pioneer turntable can all lend to a different sound than what was released in the past. Not to confuse or mislead, great recordings can still (and are) being made. For the large part, the quality and aural ‘character’ of a recording is still reliant on the artist, engineers involved, and how he or she selects and/or uses the gear at hand.

– Ian Billen