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

The And Now

One might expect there is a myriad of reasons why songs on today’s music recordings often do not sound as the pieces recorded in the past. Aside from the performances or actual quality of the artists, there is a large technical aspect that can be the lead contributor. The technical side, while not entirely, is perhaps the most influential as to why streaming music, music transmitted to a speaker by Bluetooth, originating at an iPhone / iPod or on today’s Internet/Satellite/FM does not always sound quite as big, rich, or organic as recordings in the past.

It has become a “digital age”
Digital recording, processing, and playback mediums do not always replicate the original analog sound wave as did recordings in the past (which were primarily recorded to analog tape using mostly analog gear). Digital recording/signal processing in the professional environment or in a home studio is much different than the days when the equipment was mostly (or all) analog. Today, many times the entire recording chain is a digital platform. In order to record digitally, the original analog waveforms must be converted to digital information (ones and zeros in discreet states versus the continuous fluctuating entity of the analog waveform) in order to be captured, processed, or stored differently.

Why Digital?
Producing and recording music using one, several, or all digital devices can make the process incredibly easier and much faster. The audio is visually laid out, easily viewable, 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 with a hard disc or digital medium in storing it) is ridiculously less time consuming compared to fixing mistakes using analog tape. Digital recording also 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 recoding 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.

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 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 waveforms 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, and this can degrade the original quality in doing such. Truncation is another part of the digital recording process that can arguably influence 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 quantized (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.

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 implicated. However, today’s radio stations/media networks increase their compression a bit more than in the past. All of this compression can take away from the natural sound a recording might have otherwise exuded.

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).

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. 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 iPhone, iPod most streaming services, or a CD player.

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 timeframe available, location, and space all contribute to whether or not a digital production is a fit.

Recordings on the radio, Internet, and/or on an mp3/mp4 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 hard disc, speedy production, and certainly using an iPod verses the Pioneer turntable can all lend to a different sound than what was released in the past.

– Ian Billen

Ian Billen
Copyright © 2018, ianbillen.com

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