I’m a bit of an audiophile, because I really enjoy music that is nicely reproduced, not because I’m up for dropping five figures on an audio component. One of the most enduring debates among audiophiles is analog vs. digital.
I don’t really take a position in this debate. I’ve owned a turntable since my age was in single digits, and never gave up my vinyl collection. I listen to records every week, but I’ve owned a CD player for 34 years. Convenience combined with darn good sound mean digital audio fills more hours of my day.
The recent news that the FCC approved all-digital AM broadcasting got me thinking about how radio is still a mostly analog sound medium, and arguably the most accessible and convenient one, at that. While digital HD Radio has made some inroads, in the US I’ll bet a strong majority of people tuned into live terrestrial radio are receiving an analog signal.
Analog partisans – many of whom also advocate for open reel tape in addition to vinyl – often argue that non-digital audio reproduction sounds more natural. Given that most music in the last decade or so was recorded digitally, they even posit that a digitally sourced recording sounds better when pressed into a vinyl LP than when heard on a CD or streaming service.
If that’s the case, then FM radio, in particular, deserves recognition as a great analog medium alongside records and open-reel tapes. In fact, I’ll argue that radio is the most accessible and ubiquitous sound medium in the world.
I have no doubt in my mind that most music heard on the radio is sourced digitally, whether from a CD, a hard drive or an automation system. At college, community and progressive-leaning commercial stations a small percentage of tunes still come from vinyl records played live on turntables. But I’ll even bet that a portion of those are first digitized for more convenient or time-shifted playback. Moreover, a lot of stations have transitioned to digital airchains, using digital mixing boards and networked components to more efficiently route signals between studios and transmitters.
Yet, in the end, right now all signals must end up as analog in order to be broadcast through the airwaves.
Fidelity vs. Processing
At the same time analog does not inherently equal high fidelity, just as digital fails the same equation. Plenty of music stations – especially commercial pop music stations – use processing that squeezes the life out of everything. Intended to make a station sound louder than adjacent ones, especially for listeners seeking across the dial, this compression makes everything sound shouty and eliminates any variation in dynamics that might have been in the original recording.
The overuse of compression in modern digital recordings is already a source of contention for many music lovers, with the controversy known as the “Loudness Wars.” But when you take an already over-compressed recording and put it through another stage of broadcast processing I find the result to be headache-inducing for more than a few minutes of listening.
Luckily, not every station pounds the hell out of its signal. I find many more college, community and public stations go a lot easier on the processing, letting more of the original dynamic range – the difference between softer and louder signals – come through. Classical stations, in particular, tend to have the lightest touch, since dynamics are considered especially vital to the form compared to rock, pop and R&B.
A little bit of audio processing is almost impossible to avoid in broadcast. In part, there’s a need to keep the softest passages above the noise floor. Even though FM stereo is pretty noise-free, there’s always a little bit of low-level static, which can be more prominent as you get further away from the transmitter. A little bit of compression helps keep the music comprehensible most of the time.
Unfortunately, there’s also the need to keep up with the Jonses. When surrounding stations are keeping the needle pegged in the red, your station risks sounding obscurely quiet by comparison. You may have experienced this phenomenon when spinning the dial in the car. You’re listening to one station at a reasonably volume, then switch to the next and feel like you get blown into the back seat. That’s because the second station is overusing (or abusing) processing and compression to sound louder, at the expense of fidelity.
Fidelity AND Processing
This might seem like I’m saying broadcast processing and compression is a bad thing, or a necessary evil. That’s not necessarily the case. Keep in mind that all music is processed and compressed for distribution. Music that goes to vinyl also goes through some processing that in some ways is pretty similar to broadcast processing. There are peculiarities inherent to vinyl records that need to be compensated for, one of which is a smaller dynamic range than you have with digital recordings (or open reel tapes); a little compression helps keep the music above the clicks, pops and surface noise, and can keep the stylus from physically jumping out of the groove. Though high-end vinyl playback systems can achieve pretty impressive dynamics, in practice a good FM broadcast and decent vinyl record are roughly equivalent.
That said, one might argue that playing vinyl on broadcast radio subjects the music to double-processing. In that case, you could say that playing a CD or digital recording on the radio might yield the best results.
Still, all that is just hypothetical perfectionist prognostication, with real-world effects that are mighty difficult to detect. For most people, analog FM radio sounds pretty good, especially where it matters most: in their vehicles. Compared to portable bluetooth speakers and skinny soundbars, the oft-forgotten car stereo is possibly most people’s best sound system.
I’m not claiming that analog FM radio is the ultimate in high fidelity. Though, having tuned in a ton of internet feeds for World Radio Day this past weekend, I can attest that the online stream for a lot of broadcast stations is unmistakably inferior to what you hear on air. Rather, I’m saying that if there is still value in analog sound, then we must include radio in the mix.
Listen, digital audio is here to stay, and I, for one, won’t be tilting at that windmill. But there are aesthetic and fidelity reasons to enjoy, and sometimes prefer analog audio.
I’m not here to convince anyone to give up their streaming account, YouTube or internet station. But if you enjoy vinyl and care about sound at all, fire up an analog radio sometime, particularly if you haven’t in a while. Tune around to the left end of the dial and you might be surprised in what you experience. Find yourself a full-bodied table radio, a receiver connected to a nice set of speakers or a good car radio and you’re probably in for a treat.