The analogue upgrade
December 15, 2017 7:42 AM   Subscribe

We’re living in a digital world, but analog is making a comeback. "Digital isn’t always better. Sure, there are enormous benefits to working with media, files and devices in the digital domain, but we are, after all, still living in an analog world. As human beings, we still touch things with our hands, hear things with our ears and see things with our eyes — all of which are decidedly (and beautifully) analog reception devices."

Nostalgia may be an attraction for everything analogue these days, but trends are upward in sales of books, console gaming (yes I know it's not analogue tech, but it is retro), and of course, vinyl records, and there are a lot of young people doing the buying too.

Bonus

- Bit by Bit: Inside the Rise of Retro Gaming

- Perhaps the car will be the next trend.

- Previously
posted by Juso No Thankyou (111 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
yes I know it's not analogue tech, but it is retro

My personal definition of “analog” has evolved to something akin to Battlestar Galactica’s “no computer networks”, where the endless Internet malefactors : cylons.

Of course when the electrical grid failures start increasing due to climate change and crumbling infrastructure, we’ll have all kinds of opportunities for analog experiences.
posted by Celsius1414 at 7:51 AM on December 15, 2017 [10 favorites]


- Perhaps the car will be the next trend.

Thing is, you'd have to go quite a way back in time to get a truly "analog" car. That is, one without so much as a simple black box controlling the engine.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:01 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I was looking for a red pen recently and realized that I no longer own one. However, I spent yesterday writing an old-fashioned letter on fancy stationery with a glass pen. I'm sure fancy stationery and fountain pens count as retro. I see plenty of people still buying paper calendars and other paper products. There's still a place for these things.
posted by whitelotus at 8:03 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I love my mechanical watch for more or less the reasons outlined in the article. In addition to the 'tactile' nature of the swinging balance wheel and ticking of the escapement, what I really love about it is that there's a connection between my understanding of how it works (though rudimentary) and my ability to see it working. Although I understand on some level how digital timekeeping works, too, there's nothing to see, nothing to embody that working. Incidentally, the Seiko Spring Drive bridges that gap in a beautiful way, and I don't think it's coincidence that it's the only quartz movement to have been embraced by the mechanical watch world.
posted by dbx at 8:04 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


Thing is, you'd have to go quite a way back in time to get a truly "analog" car. That is, one without so much as a simple black box controlling the engine.

Yeah. And it'd be a death trap. Cars have come so far in the past 50 years.
posted by Talez at 8:06 AM on December 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Not to abuse the edit function: vinyl has the same property to me. With a magnifying glass, you can see the ridges; you can understand that the needle is vibrating, etc. With an mp3, it's all happening in a black box! Again, the embodiment of the thing, rather than its tactility, is what makes these things appealing to me.
posted by dbx at 8:06 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I may have just bought an analog synthesizer. It's distinctly less flexible than my digital synth, but it also sounds like hell incarnate, and has so many lovely knobs... Moogs are the shit.
posted by kaibutsu at 8:07 AM on December 15, 2017 [16 favorites]


Thing is, you'd have to go quite a way back in time to get a truly "analog" car. That is, one without so much as a simple black box controlling the engine.

As they become more widespread, electric cars might be able to make promise on that. They're largely much more simple (albiet, still have many digital technologies built in) than ICE engines. I've been pretty impressed with Bollinger Motor's overall vibe and design. Not really 'analog' (it's a fucking electric land rover for christsake) but it's simple, appears to be relatively straightforward, and user-modifiable. This thing is likely vaporware, or at best sees Delorean levels of production...but hottdamn I would buy one in a minute if I could afford it.

I vastly prefer durable goods over digital goods.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:08 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


With an mp3, it's all happening in a black box!

It's not a black box. You just don't understand the levels of abstraction involved. Everything in loading and playing an MP3 can be visualized down to a sub-atomic level. The number of interactions will be utterly ridiculous but it's still understandable once you realize a lot of them are just repeated.
posted by Talez at 8:11 AM on December 15, 2017 [11 favorites]


Analog in music is one of those things where technically it’s shittier (higher noise floor, more distortion) but the results sound better to human ears.

Unless you’re really good with creating, mixing and recording with digital gear. If you’re that person you can end up with incredible results that put most of us other musical creators to shame.

Think of analog like a smeary crutch that helps the amateurs make more pleasing stuff.

And all that said mono bass bumping off a deck of 1200’s through a PA is the best bass in the world and I will fight y’all.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:17 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I buy vinyl, but I mostly listen to MP3s. It’s a different experience. MP3s are convenient. I can call up anything I have with a few swipes or keystrokes. I can listen anywhere. It takes up only as much physical space as my media drive. These are good things.

Vinyl is a commitment. It means I’m going to spend the next 15-25 minutes listening to this side of a record, get up, flip it over, and spend another 15-25 minutes on the other side. I have liner notes. I have big artwork. It’s mine, and it’s there. You relate to the music differently on vinyl.

That said, my MP3s are mine too. I don’t stream music, because I don’t want to pay $9.99 to rent music that might go away tomorrow.

(I also have a bunch of CDs that I never listen to, because they’re ripped to MP3. But the artifact of the physical disc is important, especially for the art/liner notes/etc. Hell, I even have two albums on cassette as there was no other physical form for them. I don’t even have a tape player anymore! Fortunately, I also have them in MP3.)
posted by SansPoint at 8:18 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


The article makes some good points, but this
With decades of digital onslaught, though, it’s easy to forget how good the audio quality on a decent turntable and sound system can be. It took a recent experience of someone spinning vinyl at an event I attended to remind me how good it could still sound.
is 100% rose-tinted nostalgia. For any given amount of money spent on mastering, and any given amount spent on playback equipment, an audio signal chain that's digital all the way to the power output stage will beat the fidelity of an analog one without breaking a sweat.

Even if you like the harmonic distortion, channel crosstalk, intermodulation distortion, restricted dynamic range, wow, flutter, rumble, crackle, pop and hiss that makes vinyl sound like vinyl, there's a digital patch for that.

There is one area where vinyl truly shines, and that's the quality of the sleeve art. Bigger is definitely better there.
posted by flabdablet at 8:19 AM on December 15, 2017 [33 favorites]


But but flabdablet ITS HARD to use those tape and vinyl emulator plugins and I can stem out my DAW to my 4 track and give it all the shitty grit I need hahahaha. (You are 100 percent spot on, btw.)
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: As a vinyl listener, I would never say vinyl sounds better than digital. It sounds _different_, sometimes in ways that might be preferable, but it’s not better.

And this gets more complicated when you talk about mastering and remastering. A digitally recorded album pressed to vinyl has a different sound than an album recorded on analog tape and pressed to vinyl. And digitally remastering an analog recording and pressing that to vinyl is different still.

(I generally avoid vinyl reissues of albums unless they’re particularly rare in their original form, mostly because I don’t trust modern audio engineers to remaster it right.)
posted by SansPoint at 8:24 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


My complaints about digital aren't about the potential of the media or what is done on quality music by talented individuals. It is what the tools have created in terms of day to day audio experiences such as over compression, level maxed commercials, for less use of dynamic range, pause clipping in spoken media to compress overall time without distorting words, some uses of autotune, etc. Even the way different players will handle the transition between tracks/files.

So, yes, there are times I miss just popping a tape in my deck and listening to Pink Floyd with the background hiss and all, and a single flick to the "equalizer" if I feel like a bit more or less bass or mid-range. As pure audio quality that had far lesser potential. As an user experience, it was superior.
posted by meinvt at 8:32 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm never going back to vinyl .. . I recently git rid of my record player and all my records. They were just taking up too much space and not getting enough use. I love MP3s. However, I have recently ditched digital cameras and gone back to film.
posted by fimbulvetr at 8:32 AM on December 15, 2017


SansPoint, I was in a band in the 1990’s we remastered and reissued our stuff in 2017. It was mastered by John Golden himself at Golden mastering. We mastered separately for vinyl, mp3, Apple Music and Spotify.

Mastering engineers who are worth a shit know how this is done. The result was fantastic and light years beyond anything we were able to accomplish in the 1990’s on a purely analog chain.

I say this as a huge fan of analog and vinyl. I’m a HUGE analog nerd. Like, mega. But I’m into it because I like the immediacy and the tactile quality to it. It’s just plain more fun to work with physical media and instruments than it is to stab at something with my fingers.

Basically I prefer analog because I fucking do :-)
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:34 AM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Prominent retro-tech YouTuber Techmoan just posted yesterday on the improbable resurgence of commercially-duplicated, pre-recorded reel-to-reel tapes. Which is probably an even more ludicrously expensive indulgence than you're guessing.

As he points out, the perceived quality of new releases in retro formats is probably due to production practices that make hi-fi sound reproduction a priority. That isn't the case with your average pop CD/MP3 release, and hasn't been for years. The clips he includes sound terrific, even through YouTube, even in cheap earbuds, but that's not because one expensive retro step along the way imbued it with magic, it's because the recording engineers were trying to make something exceptional.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:38 AM on December 15, 2017 [10 favorites]


meinvt: On the other hand, there's badly producted, mastered, and overcompressed analog recordings too. Fewer, yes, but I'm not going to blame bad production on bad tools—just bad producers.

Annika Cicada: I'm glad you got a good remaster for all your work. There are people who know how to do all these things well. I've heard good, really good, mastering on some remastered re-releases of music. But I've also heard very bad remastering. (For example, the 2009 vinyl remaster of DEVO's "Freedom of Choice" has some nasty issues, especially on the outro to "Planet Earth". The 2009 CD remaster is fine, though I prefer the 2008 Japanese mini-LP remaster.)

I generally prefer digital files for the convenience, but if I'm buying an album by a band I love, I'll typically buy it on vinyl. They usually come with download cards anyway.
posted by SansPoint at 8:39 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Western Infidels: And even that perceived quality is dependent on who is doing the production. There's plenty of cash-grab vinyl re-releases from major labels that sound like crap. I'm talking about stuff like a vinyl re-release of, say, Led Zep IV, that's just a CD remaster stamped onto vinyl with only the most token work to keep the needle from jumping out of the groove. (And then they have the gall to charge $30 for it, when you can find a used copy of the same record in perfectly fine condition for a third the price in any used record store.)
posted by SansPoint at 8:43 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Nostalgia may be an attraction for everything analogue these days

a) young people can be nostalgic for things they have never directly experienced
b) if it's not nostalgia then why not, say, a re-creation of the wax cylinder? Why not reel-to-reel tapes (although as noted above, good grief, they're back)

Part of the reason records have made a comeback is that they're super-cheap and easy to make, relatively speaking.
posted by GuyZero at 8:54 AM on December 15, 2017


Even if you like the harmonic distortion, channel crosstalk, intermodulation distortion, restricted dynamic range, wow, flutter, rumble, crackle, pop and hiss that makes vinyl sound like vinyl, there's a digital patch for that.

Here's what you do - get a night job working at a radio station that pays in concert tickets and backstage passes to every show within 300 miles. Don't wear hearing protection, mainly because it doesn't exist yet. Mosh like hell 20 feet from the stack. Maybe there's a couple of fistfights in parking lots and lots of drinking.

20 years later the tinnitus will provide all of that - no fancy plugins needed.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:56 AM on December 15, 2017 [14 favorites]


Vinyl could probably get an upgrade with commoditization of laser turntable hardware. Have a little air jet to blow dust out of the groove. No wear, no no decline in frequency response. You can over sample as much as you want for more dynamic range. Don’t need a DAC either if you use an interferometer style setup and run the diode straight to the line level output.
posted by Talez at 8:57 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


GuyZero: Well, wax cylinder phonographs aren't terribly common. Record players are.

That said, the Cassette Tape revival utterly confounds me. And I say this as the owner of two cassette tapes, and no tape deck.

I remember tapes being eaten. I remember wow and flutter. I remember little tumbleweeds of crumpled tape rolling down the street. Cassettes _sucked_, but it was the only option for portable music for years.
posted by SansPoint at 9:00 AM on December 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


It was kind of sad that the digital coming of age accompanied rapid improvements in portable CD enhancements. The cassette was supposed to go digital which would have completely eliminated wow and flutter from the equation.
posted by Talez at 9:02 AM on December 15, 2017


That's funny because I've recently begun digging the hell out of cassettes because they way the bass mixes down. It's got the gooey compression shit going on that has a nice crappy finesse to it that I enjoy. Maybe my hearing is just garbage lol.
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:04 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


From the FPP:
every one of these experiences happen in an extraordinarily high-resolution analog domain (otherwise known as the real world)
I try not get hung up on changes in language usage, but this one seems to be causing a lot of confusion. "Analog" is, by definition, not real. The name says it all: the electrical signals used in analog equipment are analogous to the real-world phenomena they represent. It's just as much a simulation as a digital representation. Simulations can be fun, and I have no quarrel with those who prefer analog ones, but they ain't real. If you want your music to be real, go see a live performance (maybe even an unamplified one...).

As a side note, there's no reason at all that a CD can't have packaging as large and elaborate as that of an LP. I have several that do.
posted by doubtfulpalace at 9:05 AM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Talez: DAT was a thing, though I only know of one album that actually got a DAT release.
posted by SansPoint at 9:05 AM on December 15, 2017


(and speaking of cash grab remasters the re-release of Stereolab's Random Transient Noise Bursts With Announcements is INFURIATINGLY bad)
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2017


doubtfulpalace: As a side note, there's no reason at all that a CD can't have packaging as large and elaborate as that of an LP. I have several that do.

So do I. They just don't fit on my CD rack, which is frustrating.
posted by SansPoint at 9:06 AM on December 15, 2017


Annika Cicada: I know my hearing is garbage. Combination of loud, crappy headphones in high school, and too many rock concerts without earplugs*. That's why I'm not super-picky about digital formats. I can't tell the difference between a FLAC and a properly encoded v0 MP3, or a 256kbps AAC file from iTunes.

But I can tell when stuff just sounds wrong, regardless of encoding.

*My first club show was Melt-Banana at the old Knitting Factory in Manhattan. I stood under the PA. It's amazing I have any hearing left at all.
posted by SansPoint at 9:09 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


My first club show was Melt-Banana...

/me pauses

So that by default means we're friends, right?
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:12 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


Annika Cicada: I think so.
posted by SansPoint at 9:18 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


It is what the tools have created in terms of day to day audio experiences such as over compression, level maxed commercials, for less use of dynamic range

I kinda hate to point this out, but by the mid-80's radio stations and TV stations were engaging in "loudness wars" featuring all of the above . . . . . using all analog equipment. And then once CD's started to come out we had a new version of loudness wars where the only digital part of the signal chain was the conversion to compact disk - all the recording and mastering was done using analog equipment. This is far more about deregulation and late-stage capitalism than digital audio tools.
posted by soundguy99 at 9:22 AM on December 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


I miss the album as a gestalt. Even when I'm listening to audio on my phone, I'm almost always listening to whole albums. I've never like "shuffle" as a concept. And that's something that vinyl and cassettes can bring back: linear access. And of course a physical talisman, which can feel important.

I think the resurgence of linear formats and "retro" gaming is as much about slowing down the pace and having a different experience than random-access and smoke-break mobile gaming provide. Yes, modern vinyl can sound great, but so can modern AACs (streaming is another thing entirely ... the sound of Pandora and XM radio set my teeth on edge). But the experience of a physical object that can't be skipped or fast-forwarded or repeated without some effort is the distinction that makes the difference.
posted by uncleozzy at 9:27 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


doubtfulpalace said "Analog" is, by definition, not real. The name says it all: the electrical signals used in analog equipment are analogous to the real-world phenomena they represent. It's just as much a simulation as a digital representation.

I agree. I got my electrical engineering degrees back in the late 70's and early 80's, and used to read the industry journals dedicated to audio recording and playback, also the consumer orientated "high fidelity" magazines. A lot of the industry journals got into deep esoteric details that I couldn't get my head fully around, but I learned enough from them and the hi-fi magazines to know that every step of the recording chain added coloration to the signal, and playback added more.

My opinion on the analog versus digital for playback is that people should choose what sounds "good" to them given their budget. Conversely I don't need fanatics telling me what's wrong with my playback choices, but if they want to tell me how good their choices sound to them, fine.
posted by King Sky Prawn at 9:32 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


uncleozzy: I'm mostly an album listener, too, though I'll occasionally toss on a single song I like, or shuffle my Smart Playlist of "Five-Star Songs I haven't Played in a Month" when I feel indecisive. I think what's great about the digital music revolution (pre-streaming) is that it made it easier for people to listen to things in the way they prefer. You can listen to a single song on a vinyl LP if you want, but unless you're a professional DJ, you're probably going to have to pick up and drop the needle a few times to get it in the right spot.

King Sky Prawn: Yes, I'm with you. If it sounds good to you, be it tape, vinyl, digital flies, or a stream, then it sounds good to you. I'll draw the line at the High Resolution Audio thing, though. The vast majority of people can't tell the difference between 192k/24-bit audio and standard 44.1k/16-bit, and certainly not on most consumer-grade equipment. It's diminishing returns at that point.
posted by SansPoint at 9:42 AM on December 15, 2017


It's not a black box. You just don't understand the levels of abstraction involved. Everything in loading and playing an MP3 can be visualized down to a sub-atomic level. The number of interactions will be utterly ridiculous but it's still understandable once you realize a lot of them are just repeated.
My point isn't that I don't understand it; in fact in the same sentence I explain that I can somewhat! My point is that I can't see it working, and that's the big difference. Yes, I can visualize everything right down to the Nyquist sampling theorem, but when I hit play, it's a 'black box' - the inner workings are invisible to me. Not so with these other things.
posted by dbx at 9:44 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Haven't read the article or any of the comments, but boy howdy do I want to talk about this so here I go:

I have switched to doing almost all my music listening on records. I have a record player at work. I'm a programmer. So I get questions.

Most of the questions are, "Does it sound better?" And my answer is, "Maybe?" Because that's not why I like listening to records.

I like listening to records because it's restored many things that were missing from my relationship with music. I was missing scarcity. I was missing the process of *hunting* music, even music that I already knew existed.

I was missing ownership of music, responsibility for it. I love Cornelius' album "Fantasma." I scanned it into my computer long ago; it's up on iTunes Match now. For some reason, though, the first 3-4 tracks are now missing off iTunes. They're gone. I have no idea what happened to them.

I know *exactly* what happened to the CD, though. I lost it. I miss that.

I was missing limitations. This week, my copy of "A Deeper Understanding" is at home. So I can't listen to it. Lack of limitations means I've been missing commitment, too: I love that album, and I know I love it because every other week it ends up in my record bag to take to work.

And I was missing the physical presence of music in my space. Records take up space. This is a downside to most people, probably, but it helps me remember what I care about. Even if it's something as silly as music.

But I don't know. Maybe it's "warmer," too.
posted by billjings at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


CURTA
URTAC
RTACU
TACUR
ACURT
posted by leotrotsky at 9:55 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Talez: DAT was a thing, though I only know of one album that actually got a DAT release.

DAT really was for mastering. I’m talking about the Matsushita/Philips Digital Compact Casette. It was backwards compatible with analog tapes and had an MP1/PASC compression algorithm for storing 2 hours of near CD quality audio on a casette.
posted by Talez at 10:03 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


But I guess in the land of squandered format opportunities, MD has to be #1.
posted by Talez at 10:04 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


but when I hit play, it's a 'black box' - the inner workings are invisible to me. Not so with these other things.

That's not really true though.

What sort of amplifier is in your amp? Class AB? Class B? Class T?
Do you know how transistors work? Because then you're ahead of 75% of EE graduates.
What's the frequency response curve of your amp? of your speakers?
How accurate is the RIAA equalization curve on your record player and/or amp?
What kind of motor does your turntable have and how accurate is it in locking into 33 1/3 RPM?

Are Japanese audiophiles who get dedicated power lines run to their house crazy or righteous perfectionists?

I don't know you so maybe you're an accomplished analog electrical engineer. If not, no, you probably don't really know how your analog listening setup works any more than you know how playing MP3s work.
posted by GuyZero at 10:08 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


Vinyl is a commitment. It means I’m going to spend the next 15-25 minutes listening to this side of a record, get up, flip it over, and spend another 15-25 minutes on the other side. I have liner notes. I have big artwork. It’s mine, and it’s there. You relate to the music differently on vinyl.

An experience I commonly had as a teenager in the late 70 and early 80s was lying on the living room floor with a friend, right in front of my parents' huge console stereo, staring at the cover art and liner notes while we listened to an album over and over. I currently have teenagers and they hang out together in different ways that are satisfying to them, but I am nostalgic for those long afternoons when we had nothing better to do together.
posted by Orlop at 10:30 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


I worked for a company in the mid 1980s/90s that made so called UNIX "super mini" computers. We made a lot of our own hardware, esp. the I/O subsystems, for which I wrote a lot of the software drivers. Bringing up a new board was always a very interesting process. I mention this because I recall debugging a firmware problem with one of the hardware guys. We had the I/O board all wired up to a logic analyzer for this purpose. There on the screen I could see a trace of one of the clocks which in *theory* generated perfect square waves (i.e. "ones and zeros"), the leading edges of which were intended to trigger certain other events. I was struck by the fact that the displayed trace was rather far from textbook square, with the leading edge a bit rounded on the front side. The hardware guy thought it looked perfectly adequate. And then it occurred to me, all at once, that there really wasn't anything actually "digital" going on here. "Digital" was just an interpretation/application we were making for what was obviously just another analog signal. That really always stuck with me.

Have things changed since then or is this observation still valid?
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 10:55 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


For a host of reasons too complicated for this text box, it is impossible to generate a true square wave. You can do a pretty good approximation by summing ever smaller sine waves together - but that leads to other phenomena within the circuit (ringing, harmonics, etc) and bounce effects.

I spent 3-4 semesters in college studying this stuff, so you'll have to forgive the brevity.

It's why the whole digital/analog discussion is always so amusing to me. The digital world exists as an expression of analog signals and your analog experience is digitally represented within your mind - as discrete, though asynchronous, electrical neural impulses.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


And I was missing the physical presence of music in my space. Records take up space. This is a downside to most people, probably, but it helps me remember what I care about. Even if it's something as silly as music.

I've been toying with the idea of getting a turntable, for a couple of reasons. One is that a lot of the music I listened to when I was young hasn't been digitized, but can still be found on ancient vinyl.

The other is that I viscerally miss the feeling of putting the needle down on the groove, and that sound of that little crackle when you did.
posted by Orlop at 11:18 AM on December 15, 2017


Have things changed since then or is this observation still valid?

To me the big difference is that digital systems theoretically don't depend on their substrate. They could use electrical signals, or lasers, or gears & pistons and still perform exactly the same operations.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:26 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


billjings: I religiously back up my MP3s, both to a USB hard drive, a NAS, and an offsite backup through Backblaze. And I've had a bad iTunes Match experience, and wouldn't trust it to hold a drive of Justin Bieber MP3s. Even still, I've lost physical music. Someone broke into my parents rental car on a trip to Los Angeles and stole my CDs... it took years to recover some of that music, both in actual CD and MP3s burned to CD (as files, no less.)

For me, music serves multiple purposes. I usually have music playing while I'm home, mostly as sonic wallpaper. Sometimes I'll do deep listening, sometimes on vinyl, sometimes with files on my phone. It's all about what I need from the music at the time. We all relate to music differently, and a variety of ways of experiencing music is good for that.
posted by SansPoint at 11:42 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I deeply regret selling the two film cameras a student gave me, but I know that once I headed down that rabbit hole I was never coming back out. I currently shoot with a Fuji X100, which is almost as finicky and irritating as a film camera, with similar controls and levels of frustration.
posted by mecran01 at 11:54 AM on December 15, 2017


And there's the wonderful physical experience of using typewriters! Nothing about them in the article, but my friend at the typewriter shop says a LOT of his sales are to young people.
posted by JanetLand at 12:10 PM on December 15, 2017 [4 favorites]


So, this article and discussion is pretty much pissing me off as an iteration hi-fi assertions (in our wi-fi world) from people too smart to engage it so much that I hardly know where to begin,... so, I'll begin with how I saved money for months for a Walk-man in the 80s. CrO₂ cassettes? The little set of tones at their outset? Anyone? The fidelity was astonishing and iPods improved on astonishing: Someone come to the aid of that man's martini glass from sliding off the minimalist expression of a coffee table...

But I like music played while I do things, filling a physical space, and don't like ear-buds or headsets unless required (not that anyone enjoying the soundboard discriminations of living in their heads and groovin' on don't please me to no end), and was making the observation that Bach exploited the environs of cathedrals to scare the living shit out of people to young students (sans profanity) more than a decade before Byrne turned his attention to it, but owe so much to True Stories I can't even...

The architecture of our times, someone said, not me... So, the ANALOG LOOP is a pretty goddamned important thing that all "appliance" makers seek to diminish and begins with iTunes and has nothing to do with rounded corners. This is a conversation marching squarely across our heads, ich ich ich, if the notion is a "best" way to do any goddamned thing when asserted by any twee, fashionista...err...

And, calm, and, calm...the analog loop can come down to TEXT...and its very corral as informative record or fleeting clue. There is no BEST, only varying differentials among individuals accorded by experience and first exposures and exposure to certain habits and objectives...

Please give me access to a pen and paper while the digital revolution defines the global village if the overhead's not too much, you fuckin' cunts of the world that would sell limited time-shares and mortgage terms to death row inmates with an average waiting time of 15 years...

Some of the seemingly informed opinions on this treaded thread are as bizarre as when word-processing came about and aesthetes claimed it a soul-less endeavor because the poet can survive anything but a misprint, thank you Mr. Wilde.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 12:12 PM on December 15, 2017


Have things changed since then or is this observation still valid?

Nope. Data signaling is all about the eye.
posted by Talez at 12:19 PM on December 15, 2017


Huh. You kinda lost me there lazycomputerkids. Analogue good digital bad? Digital good analog bad?
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:41 PM on December 15, 2017


Who's not lost? It's all good until any limit of choice is asserted (by design). Revolution is not evolution if the former precludes choices of the latter. The analog loop is under assault when the ability to make choices about recording playback are contravened. My attention to it was first directed by graphic designers developing the web.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 12:50 PM on December 15, 2017


All sound and vision are analog.
posted by aspersioncast at 2:06 PM on December 15, 2017


Thing is, you'd have to go quite a way back in time to get a truly "analog" car. That is, one without so much as a simple black box controlling the engine.

The Jeep Grand Wagoneer ran it's carbureted AMC 360 up to 1991. I THINK that was the last production carb car.

But even the black boxes up through the 80s were still light years simpler than now. Like, you can de-solder the boards and replace individual components.
posted by hwyengr at 2:25 PM on December 15, 2017


Asserting fidelity by one's own set of perceptions and objectives is an exercise is expert-ness and purports fictions. As the net see-saws between interactivity and consumption (inevitable), intellectual property seeks protections, and if appliances revoke my control click to protect content, it is through lobbied fictions that protect too few while denying many. Enterprise often seeks to capture our attention while limiting its discovery and it's appalling.

What we experience is our own to explore and the tools for it are actively limited by youthful STEM cultures inheriting technology and manipulated by very knowing patriarchs. Predated really. The very term analog loop is hardly popularized because control is more profitable. The bit ratio of ads to text has approached an inverse proportion I had only conceived in nightmares and streaming cloud subscription is Edvard's Munch's The Scream realized. Fore/back ground Marshall McLuhan-wise and, by golly, an integration I adore as respectfully fear.

"You'll experience what you purchase for the duration we determine," is threatened by the analog loop of our senses and medium and neither cooperative or productive. Love analog; love digital. Protect information and be wary of its lease. Owning the press is not owning a readership, but that's the trend.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 2:51 PM on December 15, 2017


ATT literally made people rent rotary phones.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:28 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


My point being that rent seeking shittinesss is a function of capitalism not an expression of the tension between digital and analog.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:30 PM on December 15, 2017


I don't recall analog devices limiting my interaction by other analog means where digital will subsume all experience without rarefied knowledge to hack it.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:44 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Yeah that was actually next thought. Digital locks on interfaces and integrations are a weapon against the masses that simply do not exist in analog form. (Just put toilet paper in the RO hole on the cassette!!). I love an analog leak port.
posted by Annika Cicada at 3:47 PM on December 15, 2017


An example are ringtones. A device that readily samples any sound limited by design to a consumption market of licensed expression. Now, some models along this arc of development did provide for having a ringtone be anything you damn well pleased, but many did/do not.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:48 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I love an analog leak port.

I believe that's what I'm terming as one end of the analog loop. To experience it by our senses "exposes" it to unwanted recording/distribution and any effort to interdict this human behavior has its reasons that warrant scrutiny.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 3:52 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I guess my bias on this discussion is because I limit my digital ports to analog to digital converters which expressly contain analog interfaces. This means music recording and production gear, not consumer grade digital playback equipment. Well I guess I have an iPhone and Spotify but that’s just a bullshit grade “car stereo test” for the music I write and record.
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:01 PM on December 15, 2017


And anything that takes a digital input and turns it into sound you can actually hear requires a Digital-to-Analog Converter. From there, it's just a question of where you route that analog signal, and how. Even if you have to rip the device open, and solder the speaker cables to a phono plug, you can do something with that analog signal.
posted by SansPoint at 4:17 PM on December 15, 2017


...and turns it into sound you can actually hear...

Did you see Sine Your Pitty on the Running Kine?
posted by lazycomputerkids at 4:32 PM on December 15, 2017


Even if you have to rip the device open, and solder the speaker cables to a phono plug, you can do something with that analog signal.

Well, you have to make sure you have the right voltage levels and impedance match it first.

There really is a reason that people like digital interfaces - as f'ed up as they often are, you can usually fix it in software. Impedance matching though, ugh.

I mean, this is a random snippet from a message board about matching a phono preamp with a power amp:

Keeping the load impedance 10X or greater than the source impedance will minimize insertion loss. So the nearer the load impedance gets to the source impedance, the more signal loss there will be at the input of the loading device. Along with that signal voltage loss you get a worse S/N ratio. In addition the output impedance of the driving device plus the capacitance of the cable between the phono stage and the amp, loaded by the relatively low load impedance, I think, could be giving you a pretty meaningful roll off of high frequencies, but as Mr. Bass notes, because the impedances are not constant but vary according to frequency, predicting the exact frequency response effects is difficult. My guess is that with a 10K amp loading a 6K preamp you'll have lower level, softer overall tone with rolled frequency extremes and worse S/N performance than if you had a 60K ohm or better load.

I have an EE degree and... this is impenetrable. This is analog. It's high priests and holy texts and things not meant to be understood by the laity.
posted by GuyZero at 5:06 PM on December 15, 2017


GuyZero: From my understanding, the digital audio backlash is more about DRM and stuff. Lots of people freaked out about Apple (and other companies) ditching headphone jacks on phones, because "OMG, what if they put DRM on the audio output through the USB/Lightning Interface!"

But, as I noted, as soon as there's a DAC involved, all attempts at DRM go right out the window. If you can get sound out, you can capture it. It reminds me of the time some record label sent reviewers Discmans that were glued shut to avoid having an album leak. It didn't work. See if you can guess why.
posted by SansPoint at 5:16 PM on December 15, 2017


So I agree that analog is a much better universal standard in practice as my crazy talk about impedance matching is usually not an issue. That said, there was DRM on analog interfaces as well and it worked fairly well. Like all DRM systems the content is really protected by the courts and not because the technology is somehow impenetrable.
posted by GuyZero at 5:19 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


MiniDisc gives me the best of both worlds. It's digital and portable, but it's lossy and inconvenient. Win!
posted by obiwanwasabi at 5:25 PM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


DC appliances have always been vexing in an AC world.

So like yeah. Y’all EE folks from the 70’s and 80’s I love ya but DC is just a hell of bull to wrassle and that’s that.
posted by Annika Cicada at 5:39 PM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


Part way through reading this thread I had to get up and clean a bit of dust off my phono stylus.
posted by sfred at 5:43 PM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


How many grooves does a vinyl record have? Both sides.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:46 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


From my understanding, the digital audio backlash is more about DRM and stuff.

I'm pretty sure this is also partly a driver of the switch away from ebooks too. Unless you stay within one particular ecosystem, the process for moving ebooks to your reader is way too complicated. (Yes, there is Ebook piracy, please buy your books. But remember, there was music piracy when Apple ditched DRM). I've had a few conversations that basically ended with, "I'd have finished the damn book by now if I'd bought a physical copy". Even for me, ebooks are such a pain in the backside. Adobe Digital Editions be damned, thanks to no Linux release, I could go though that whole convoluted process involving a windows vm or I could just buy a stack of books.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 5:53 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I know this thread has mostly been about records, but I've actually been making a big effort to start doing as many things as possible away from the computer. I think the word "analog" is overemphasized. It's not so much about analog or digital for me, but about how any media guides my habits and my sense of time and place. I get tired of having a firehose of information and entertainment.

I don't think it's a sign of superiority, or anything. I think there's almost certainly an element of nostalgia to a lot of it. At the same time, I think it's a reaction to something real. There's an acute feeling of having lost control over a lot of things in the world, and I think it's reached the point where I'm less comfortable yielding yet more control to Apple/Netflix/whoever. I don't feel fully in control of even my free time right now, and I'm trying to take steps to change that.

I take all my notes on paper. I'm doing a research project, and I have all my notes written out on index cards that can be sorted different ways (I'd get edge-file cards if they were still available). It keeps me off the internet. The cards are limited in size, and I'm writing by hand, so I have to be more deliberate. I've been having much easier time thinking about my research since I started taking notes this way. I don't know if taking notes quickly is always that much of an advantage, if it means remembering less.

My girlfriend and I have a couple print magazine subscriptions, because we can keep up with current events without having tons of links in the text that pull us into other articles in an endless cycle. I feel more in control of my time when I'm not getting a steady feed of dynamically changing content (I actually feel like I can't control my time when I use this site, but I keep talking myself out of quitting).

I like going to used book stores because of the limitations of the selection and the unexpected things I can sometimes find. I don't like having an endless selection in front of me. And besides, you can't buy a used streaming song or ebook. It's rented. It's not yours. A used book store is part of my community.

I used to buy records, but I lost them all in an unfortunate incident. I keep talking about buying records again, but they're such hot commodities right now that I can't really afford them. $15 for a Red Simpson record? It's a joke. I have Apple Music, and I kind of hate it. There's a lot of stuff that isn't available to stream (most of Shirley Collins' albums, for example). And on the flipside, there's too much of a firehose of entertainment (in other words, the food is lousy and the portions are too small).

I've been thinking a lot about convenience. How the cheap availability of so much stuff alters how I feel about the world. I feel like I put on Netflix or Hulu on in the evenings because it's a convenient way to pass the time. It's not like I'm uninterested in whatever I'm watching, but it feels compulsive. I don't usually turn on the TV with the express intention of watching something specific, I just sit down knowing I'll watch something, whatever it is.

I'm very aware that this is all a reaction to other stuff, rather than a celebration of the merits of paper, or whatever. Either way, it feels necessary.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:06 PM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


On the retro-gaming side, we were pleasantly surprised last weekend when the World of Commodore show — usually getting smaller every year — was way bigger than expected. Our main local supplier of C64 equipment is now down to a dwindling stock of boards and chips, and every system he can refurb gets sold as soon as he can finish it. There was even someone there who makes a (modest) living selling re-engineered PLAs for Commodore computers …
posted by scruss at 6:07 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article The Social Life of Paper argues that paper has advantages which digital does not, and that if we had invented paper AFTER digital, we would see those advantages more clearly.
posted by olopua at 6:32 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Thing is, you'd have to go quite a way back in time to get a truly "analog" car ... As they become more widespread, electric cars might be able to make promise on that.

Electric cars are about as digital as you can get. There is digital conversion of DC battery current to AC motor current that is analogous (hey) to the conversion of CD disk digits to AC sound. Even the accelerator pedal and brakes are digital.
posted by JackFlash at 7:50 PM on December 15, 2017


I may have just bought an analog synthesizer. It's distinctly less flexible than my digital synth, but it also sounds like hell incarnate, and has so many lovely knobs... Moogs are the shit.

Digital Synthesizers are flexible, efficient, and affordable; but Analog Synthesizers have a weird ineffable charm to them. The word to describe analog audio in general is "ineffable", and it's hard to describe.
posted by ovvl at 8:09 PM on December 15, 2017


Analog in music is one of those things where technically it’s shittier (higher noise floor, more distortion) but the results sound better to human ears...
And all that said mono bass bumping off a deck of 1200’s through a PA is the best bass in the world and I will fight y’all.


Hell Yes. Analog in music is technically shittier, but it really does sound smoother and sweeter in certain contexts (decent PA), noise and distortion issues aside. Psychoacoustics are funny.
posted by ovvl at 8:21 PM on December 15, 2017


I own an analog synth, and I got it knowing full well that I could have gotten something much more flexible if I’d gone digital. It’s pretty limited (like, the mod wheel only controls PWM, which is weird) and the tracking is pretty bad. But I like that it’s solidly built and has its own unique quirks. Intentionally programming a quirk into something just sucks the fun out of it for me. It’s like a curated eccentricity, “I think today we’ll use 18% goofiness.”

And the key thing there is that I just have it for fun. Sounding sort of wonky adds to the fun of it.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 8:27 PM on December 15, 2017


(I'll backtrack a bit here, digital audio modelling helps a lot in most concert performance spaces;)
posted by ovvl at 8:35 PM on December 15, 2017


When people talk about analog cars, I was hoping they were talking about a no-screen dashboard.

How did we go from this to this?

Modern dashboard design is actually insane. For every city that implements a no-cell-phone-while-driving rule, some automaker implements a user interface where changing the radio is like a game of Flappy Bird.
posted by weed donkey at 8:37 PM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


I think a majority of what we confuse digital and analog with is the notion of “one button per function”. Digital makes it way easier to build multimodal garbage UI’s. (See android OS)
posted by Annika Cicada at 9:19 PM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


With the demolition of Net Neutrality maybe we'll move away from TV-on-demand to lower bandwidth, text-based applications, or even Victorian-style physical mail delivered three times a day.
posted by mecran01 at 9:20 PM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


The vast majority of people can't tell the difference between 192k/24-bit audio and standard 44.1k/16-bit

...and you can spot those who can, because they will be the ones pointing out the places where intermodulation beat artefacts from ultrasonic noise are faintly audible in the 192k stream but not in the 44.1k stream.

And there is no audible difference between the theoretical 16-bit noise floor at -96dB and the theoretical 24-bit noise floor at -144dB. There just isn't. Turbulence hiss from the capillaries in your head is well above -96dB in any healthy human.

24 bit audio makes sense for mastering, where you might want the ability to mix down hundreds of tracks onto a final master without any possibility of adding more noise than the playback equipment does. But as a format for storage and reproduction of final mixes, 24/192 is complete wank.

Bringing up a new board was always a very interesting process. I mention this because I recall debugging a firmware problem with one of the hardware guys. We had the I/O board all wired up to a logic analyzer for this purpose. There on the screen I could see a trace of one of the clocks which in *theory* generated perfect square waves (i.e. "ones and zeros"), the leading edges of which were intended to trigger certain other events. I was struck by the fact that the displayed trace was rather far from textbook square, with the leading edge a bit rounded on the front side. The hardware guy thought it looked perfectly adequate. And then it occurred to me, all at once, that there really wasn't anything actually "digital" going on here. "Digital" was just an interpretation/application we were making for what was obviously just another analog signal. That really always stuck with me.

Have things changed since then or is this observation still valid?


Having also brought up quite a few new boards, I think it's fairly likely that the clock trace you noticed rounding on was displayed on the screen not of a logic analyzer but an oscilloscope. Scopes are analog devices (though they may have digital internal processing stages). The trace you see on an oscilloscope screen is a visual analog of the voltage level at the scope probe tip.

But the signal itself is neither analog nor digital. The signal just is what it is. It's up to the system that consumes the signal to interpret it, and that fact remains the same whether the system behaviour depends on digital interpretations such as clock transition timings, or on analog interpretations such as those of a music lover exposed to time-varying pressure gradients from a set of decent loudspeakers.

Digital and analog information can both be encoded in countless kinds of signal. The distinguishing feature of digital information that makes it digital is choices between a restricted set of predetermined outcomes; the entire point of digital systems being that these choices - rather than any other aspect of any signals involved - are at least in theory perfectly reproducible.

Think of handwriting on paper. Everybody's handwriting is different. When I write an A, it's not going to look quite like what goes on the paper when you write an A. But it's going to look different from what goes on the paper when I write a B, or a C, or a D...

For the purposes of the digital information transmitted by that A, its exact shape and size and colour and style are simply irrelevant. As long as it's clearly an A and not some other letter, it's served its digital information purpose.

Same thing applies to digital information encoded as voltages or currents or pulses or reflective pits or DNA base pairs. The fact that whatever format you're using to encode your digital information might also have other attributes, like rounding on the leading edge of the visual analog of a voltage pulse as displayed on a scope, is simply irrelevant for the purpose of extracting the digital information encoded in that format, provided only that the format is robust enough to be fit for purpose.

If bending your brain with this kind of distinction appeals to you, I recommend trying to hold it in your mind while digging into noise-predictive maximum-likelihood detection, used for retrieving digital information from the magnetic traces recorded on the surface of a spinning disk. If a smidgen of rounding on a scope trace of an I/O board's clock signal gave you pause for thought, then I expect that you, like me, will end up marvelling that the computers we all use every day actually work at all, let alone as reliably as they do.

Even if you have to rip the device open, and solder the speaker cables to a phono plug, you can do something with that analog signal.

I am heartened to learn that the spirit of nine-year-old flabdablet, holding my precious new Sanyo cassette recorder's microphone carefully in front of the speaker on the six-valve living-room radio until Black Dog got crossfaded to something else by the DJ, is still alive and well.

How many grooves does a vinyl record have? Both sides.

I've not owned one with more than three.
posted by flabdablet at 9:25 PM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


As a synth obsessive who is deeply attached to both digital and analog signal sources (Iris 2 and the 0-coast being my two most inspiration-yielding tools) I guess I feel like the future doesn’t involve dogmatic wholesale repudiation of the one approach or the other but a healthy appreciation of their respective strengths and a willingness to mix the two. I love the intellectual flexibility of digital sound sources: what happens if I take the sound of walking on wet gravel and isolate the frequencies around 1kHz between sample numbers 1200 and 12000?; and the explorative flexibility of analog: what happens if I amplitude-modulate the output of this signal path with the even overtones of this complex oscillator? And then what happens if I treat the one as the input to the other? Both offer unique creative affordances, and I think digital tools, with their inherent focus on the sound object above all else, have caused us to forget that process and paradigm influence the work as much as, if not more than, sheer inspiration does. I don’t care if some VA clone can perfectly replicate the tone of a Minimoog, and I don’t care if my digital synth with 64-point, velocity-variable envelopes doesn’t ring with the sheer warmth of an all-analog signal path. More important to me is how the one or the other shapes my thought, and I wouldn’t give up either path as a creator.
posted by invitapriore at 10:14 PM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


Even if you like the harmonic distortion, channel crosstalk, intermodulation distortion, restricted dynamic range, wow, flutter, rumble, crackle, pop and hiss that makes vinyl sound like vinyl, there's a digital patch for that.

Why yes, I do, and I've spent a lot of money on those plugins.

SansPoint, I was in a band in the 1990’s we remastered and reissued our stuff in 2017. It was mastered by John Golden himself at Golden mastering. We mastered separately for vinyl, mp3, Apple Music and Spotify.

Mastering engineers who are worth a shit know how this is done. The result was fantastic and light years beyond anything we were able to accomplish in the 1990’s on a purely analog chain.


That's because John Golden is good. Although I disagree that you necessarily need to master for all those formats, but a good master to begin with is going to sound great everywhere.

as a format for storage and reproduction of final mixes, 24/192 is complete wank.

Amen. And all that shit above 20k should be filtered off anyway. Because we're not dogs.

One of the things I see from many people is a reluctance to place the blame for the sound of new music where it belongs; the artist. People blame the format, the record company, the producer, the engineer, the mastering guy, but 90% of the sound is what the artist wanted, or at least approved of. Lots of people are involved, lots of people have opinions and contribute, but the artist usually always has by far the most control.
A lot of people really hate that reality.
posted by bongo_x at 11:08 PM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think a majority of what we confuse digital and analog with is the notion of “one button per function”. Digital makes it way easier to build multimodal garbage UI’s. (See android OS)

YES, although when you have analog pathways with digital controls, you can get similarly awful UI. But absolutely, one knob per function goes a long way to making stuff more usable. I think part of the popularity of Roland's digital analog emulations has to be that they're also more or less recreating the interfaces of analog synths (although it would be awfully nice if people would stop making such tiny knobs and buttons).
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:18 AM on December 16, 2017


one knob per function goes a long way to making stuff more usable.

Touch screens are a horribly impoverished control. I will never understand why they have managed to achieve the market penetration they have.

I blame ape-descended life forms so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

And while we're at it, FUCK BUTTONS. Give me sliders and knobs and plenty of them.
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 AM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]


And while we're at it, FUCK BUTTONS. Give me sliders and knobs and plenty of them.

Not me.

Give me miles-deep polyphonic synthesis engines with actual modern envelope control with multistage time-level envelopes instead of Bob Moog and Vladimir Ussachevsky's persistent infection, the ADSR envelope, which is great if you're making do with just four knobs, but is SOOO EFFFING USELESS unless all you want to do is ensure that electronic music never makes it past 1982. Give me four of complex envelopes, three complicated LFOs, intricate matrix modulation feeding a polyphonic (i.e. modulars are right out) architecture…and then build them to the ridiculous one-knob-per-function standard that's the fetish-enforced model for modern synth design for less than $6000. I could wait for that to happen, but I've got this gorgeous sounding Ensoniq ESQ-1 sitting here next to my desk that did all that stuff for about the cost of a beater used car in 1986 and which is so cheap in 2017 that I've got three spares that I bought over the last five years for a sixth of the price of, say, a Dave Smith OB-6 that trades off all the hazarai for a credible rayon of a early eighties synth that was sort of mehokay for its time, I guess.

We hear all the time how knobs/sliders=physical intimacy when it comes to interfaces and how buttons are the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad unusable impediment to one's connection with a synthesizer, but I'm here to tell you I can do more with a beat-up old ESQ-1 with a properly designed UX in a live, improvisational setting than I can with a shiny new slice of repackaged analogue retro polyphonic. Buttons are as physical as knobs, and even though the instrument I'm singling out here has a nice big vacuum fluorescent displays to go with the single data slider, ten soft buttons, module page buttons, and other assorted switches, I don't have to look at my instrument for a second to know what I'm doing. Hand goes here, click click, slide slide, hand goes there, same thing, and I can dig deep into a deep architecture without needing to pay for the construction and overhead for the 147 knobs that it would take to do a one-knob-per-function implementation of a moderately deep synth from 1985.

I get a little sad because essentially, we've just collectively written off deep architecture as a thing in exchange for the fairy dust of knobs/sliders, and dumbed down hardware polysynths to prehistoric levels of oversimplicity because of the new orthodoxy of analogue, though I'm cheered up again as I'm able to buy astonishingly great instruments from my early years in synthesis for a couple hundred bucks because the cool kids would never dream of being seen on stage with something as gauche as a button-covered synth in a 2-3 space rackmount form factor.

I'm cool with the knobs, too, and have lately been doing gigs with just a Novation Bass Station 2 (mostly analogue and designed by the genius Chris Huggett) and an Electro-Harmonix Stereo Memory Man (not remotely analogue and designed by the genius David Cockerell), though even in the case of the BS2, the tradeoff of knobs/sliders that are not always 1:1 (oscillator section, 4th mixer knob, and envelope section) against being able to buy a glorious little monosynth for $300 is not even remotely an impediment to making decent music. Could do it just as easily with an iPad and a few assignable knobs, or with an iPhone and a combination of a Lemur patch and knobs, and there's a whole contingent out there of people who could be very happily making fantastic music with the technology available to them if we didn't collectively hammer in that only the most expensive, bespoke UX was the only one that actually works.

Give me buttons and miles of menus and roads less traveled by and I'll have a damn good trip.
posted by sonascope at 2:18 PM on December 16, 2017 [5 favorites]


I'm a synth geek. I made music for about 13 years entirely in-the-box, and for most of that time I believed that, unless you wanted the exact sound and behavior of a specific instrument from the past, there wasn't much point in analog synths anymore.

And then my MIDI controller died and I replaced it with a Microbrute on a whim, and realized how wide the gap can be. Yes, you can make good music with just plugins, but the "bad" behavior of analog isn't just weird edge cases but a valuable source of inspiration.

And then I got into Eurorack, and I found that there's no "war" between analog and digital at all. It's just a matter of choosing the most appropriate technology to fulfill the module's function.

A MIDI sequence clocking Brains/Pressure Points (analog) controlling Hertz Donut (digital), going through Natural Gate (analog) and into my DAW for some software FX? Yes please.
posted by Foosnark at 4:58 PM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


Give me buttons and miles of menus and roads less traveled by and I'll have a damn good trip.

Funny, I was just watching a demo of the Jomox Alpha Base and I was struck that the UX is apparently designed to inspire lessons like "just press this sequence of 7 buttons and then chord these two together," resulting in who-knows-what. Probably a quirk of the demo, but it's not a good look.
posted by rhizome at 7:16 PM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


I'm currently reading this thread from the biannual Metafilter zine, Spring 2018 edition. This comment was mailed in via the attached comment card from the back cover. Only two comment cards come with each issue, so I have to choose wisely.
posted by hexaflexagon at 7:38 PM on December 16, 2017 [4 favorites]


"just press this sequence of 7 buttons and then chord these two together,"

My bandmate's got an MFB TANZMAUS and it takes the button-chord model to the extreme of using chord combinations for simple things, like "play." It makes me laugh, but when you're used to it, it's fine...and he's a 5U modular guy who moans about any hint of "menu-diving."
posted by sonascope at 5:43 AM on December 17, 2017 [2 favorites]


sonascope: A friend of mine uses one of those in her live setup, and I have enough trouble wrapping my head around how she makes her beautiful music. Your description of it is not helping.
posted by SansPoint at 7:59 AM on December 18, 2017


aspersioncast: "All sound and vision are analog."

Hmmm.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:52 PM on December 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Give me miles-deep polyphonic synthesis engines with actual modern envelope control with multistage time-level envelopes instead of Bob Moog and Vladimir Ussachevsky's persistent infection, the ADSR envelope, which is great if you're making do with just four knobs, but is SOOO EFFFING USELESS unless all you want to do is ensure that electronic music never makes it past 1982.

Aw. I completely empathize with the desire for more advanced control over the purely abstract parameters of musical sound (two of my most dog-eared books are Harry Partch's Genesis of a Music and William Sethares' Tuning, Timbre, Spectrum, Scale) in the service of music that foregrounds that realm, but I have a hard time agreeing with this in the general case. First, because things like the ADSR envelope are rich enough in spite of their constraints to produce an incredibly varied and compelling sound space, and because those constraints inspire creative workarounds to really humanize electronically-generated sounds; second, and more importantly, because I think the narrative of artistic progress underlying this sentiment is exactly what makes the over-zealous analog fetish philosophically possible, since how otherwise could the notion of going back to basics make sense in the absence of some presumedly more advanced referent?

Things like the Minimoog, or the 303, or whatever limited-but-pervasive tool you might think of, are more than just their sonic affordances: they're cultural markers too, and their use invokes a whole host of allusions that can be just as expansive and expressive as some piece of alien technology out of IRCAM in the ways that they wield history, and memory, and mood. That's a very potent tool, and I can't imagine discounting it just because its value might be more semantic than technical.
posted by invitapriore at 6:59 PM on December 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


Buttons are as physical as knobs, and even though the instrument I'm singling out here has a nice big vacuum fluorescent displays to go with the single data slider, ten soft buttons, module page buttons, and other assorted switches, I don't have to look at my instrument for a second to know what I'm doing.

I think all of this is very personal. I have an ESQ-1 that I got from a family member, and I love it, but it's way less intuitive than the fully analog all-knob Vermona I have. It can do way more, but honestly, programming those envelopes is kind of a pain for me. I'm sure a person can learn to be very comfortable with that interface, but it's been a big learning curve for me, and I don't feel quite as tuned into the instrument (especially because you have to trigger a note to hear any parameter changes, which feels very different than being able to do it on the fly; I have to map the filter to the mod wheel if I want a similar experience to simply turning the filter knob on my other synth).

All this is fine. The buttons-and-slider combo on that synth is, when you get down to it, not inherently any less intuitive than any other setup. I'm sure one knob per function can be pretty lousy if it's set up wrong; I mean, I'd rather have the Ensoniq's menu displays than the teeny, tiny little knobs on that Roland Minimoog.

I think there is a resurgence of interest in digital synths, now that the DX series is hot again (I remember seeing people use them as cheap MIDI controllers, because no one wanted one). There's a recognition that you can do interesting stuff with digital synthesis, and it's valuable to remember that we don't have to be limited by control schemes that were designed in the 60s. It means rethinking a lot, though, and I think it's worth something that one knob per function usually maps to something people can comprehend.

The ESQ-1 is mostly analog anyway, besides the waveforms. Those complex envelopes are digitally controlled, but they're analog. The entire signal path is analog. It's only the initial sound production that isn't. It's not that it would make a huge difference for me either way; it's a great, versatile synth, and I feel extremely lucky to have one (it's not like I could afford to buy one myself). But it's definitely a harder instrument for me to design sounds on than other synths I've used.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 12:31 PM on December 19, 2017


shapes that haunt the dusk: I don't know shit about synthesis, and I'm not a musician, but I suspect a large part of why electronic music fell out of vogue in the late 80s was due to the difficulty of programming digital synthesizers like, say, the Roland D-50 or the (perhaps justly) maligned Yamaha DX7. Instead of creating unique sounds, artists would simply use the presets---maybe slightly tweaked---which led to a lot of very samey-sounding music from artists who would otherwise have created better, more interesting sounds.

Part of the digital resurgence, I suspect, is that we now have hobbyists who grew up with access to cheap-ish, used digital synths and the free time to learn how to get the most out of their various synthesis engines without the pressure to churn out more product for a label on a set schedule. Now that we can hear what these things are capable of, they're getting hot again.
posted by SansPoint at 12:56 PM on December 19, 2017


I don't know shit about synthesis, and I'm not a musician, but I suspect a large part of why electronic music fell out of vogue in the late 80s was due to the difficulty of programming digital synthesizers

I don't know about that. Things just used to change a lot quicker. If a style had been around a couple of years it was time to do something different.
posted by bongo_x at 9:26 PM on December 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


I suspect a large part of why electronic music fell out of vogue in the late 80s was due to the difficulty of programming digital synthesizers

I guess it depends on what you mean by "electronic music", but look at the Billboard top 100 hits chart of 1989, and pretty much everything that isn't Fine Young Cannibals or a "hair metal" band like Whitesnake is nothing but synthesizers and drum machines; Paula Abdul, Milli Vanilla, Janet Jackson, Madonna, NKOTB, Duran Duran, on and on.

And as someone who was a young and enthusiastic musician back in the late 80's, one huge advantage of digital synths was they had memory to store patches. The synth designers may have swung a little too far the other way in terms of reducing the number of knobs and buttons, but I'm friends with some guys who use older analog synths, and the pages and pages of notes they have to take to change from one song to the next is mind-boggling. With the digital stuff a couple of button pushes did the trick, which was exciting back in the late 80's.

And even today most professional keyboard players really don't spend much time programming their own sounds, that I've seen. Mostly minor tweaks to the hundreds of patches already loaded in the thing.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:41 AM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]


I buy physical books. Books are great. Love books.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:27 AM on December 20, 2017


Duran Duran

Dude, the guitar and bass playing in Duran^2 is second to none. John Taylor was great.
posted by GuyZero at 7:26 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


Oh absolutely. But they had a ton of good synth work, too, making them the chart-topping version of some of the more obscure synth bands from the early 80's, and in contrast to something like Bon Jovi, where, sorry keyboard-player-dude, you're mostly there as background chords.

My point was more that "electronic" music wasn't dead due to digital synths, depending on your definition of "electronic."
posted by soundguy99 at 8:52 AM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


It's funny, really, how far my personal experience puts me off the mainstream in modern synth circles, mainly because of the era when I got started.

When I was living with the keyboardist from the Insect Surfers back in 1986, he had a couple Moogs and a brand-spankin'-new Ensoniq ESQ-1, and I'd cut my musical teeth in the mode of Perrey & Kingsley, recording late-night shortwave sounds from my Panasonic RF-2200 shortwave onto 1/4 tape, then cutting the tapes up into a million little pieces, which I'd tape together into unlistenable symphonies of radio noise. The Moogs, a Mini and a Prodigy, were fine...but they were borrrrrring. You were stuck with a couple buzzing analogue waveforms fed through the beloved-but-overused 24dB Moog lowpass ladder, and I could get some passable early OMD sounds, which were already a nostalgic thing for me at the time, but everything was monophonic, stuck in the same-old-same-old analogue groove, and I had just four tracks on my Fostex X-15 to build music, so there wasn't much hope of chords and atmospherics.

The ESQ-1, on the other hand, was gorgeous. I could make glassy, fizzy, angelic sounds, and clattering, warm, throbbing, noisy sounds, and I could play chords and use the sequencer to build complex patterns of notes. The Moogs? I could twist their knobs and I had that direct physical thing...and I had to write down my sounds on index cards in hopes of every getting a sound again. When it came to building sounds, I flew through the ESQ, my fingers darting across the buttons and the value slider. I knew exactly where every single possible parameter was on that thing like a dance master, and I knew the instrument so well that it was all absolutely physical to me, without any sense of there being a barrier between my idea for a sound and my execution of a sound. I looked into the faces of the Moogs and those knobs were just buzz controls, but staying up late with the ESQ, my Radio Shack reverb, and my Fostex, I had a rapport. Still do, in fact, because muscle memory lasts, and while I don't take my fleet of ESQs on the road anymore because it's 2017 and I'm old and don't want to clonk around with a forty-pound keyboard in a case anymore, when I fire up the Ensoniqs, no time has passed.

And those special things you got because it was so much easier in digital? I loved the way you could build envelopes that would blip, then disappear, then slowly fade up before fading out again, because time-level allows you to think in ways that an envelope that Ussachevsky based on the way that physical instruments worked wouldn't allow. I loved that I had three LFOs instead of just one, so that independent actors could be pulling my sounds around in strange, interesting ways instead of just modeling the vibrato of an acoustic instrument (and it's a longstanding habit, because I seldom build a Nord Modular patch without at least eight or nine LFOs zhoozhing up the signal path). Early synthesizers were a subset of the acoustic, and that's fine, in a way. They're straightforward and simple, and their sounds are predictable.

Digital synths, though, could do things those instruments never could, and man–what a world that was. The sound was often hidden behind a layer of menu-mediation, but if you took the time, even that could be very natural. I'm full-tilt on the front panel of an EOS-class sampler/synth, for instance, because it was such a deep playground for me that I was happy to take the time to get through a 400-page manual and master the instrument. In 2017, I'm sad that some of those instruments are now failing because of the irreplaceable ASICs and floppy drives that they depend on (though my analogue Sequential Prophet V is similarly unusable because of age), but I don't lament that I missed out on amazing synthesis because my prime period of cutting my musical teeth took place in the post-knob, pre-boutique era. You learned your gear, or you used old gear.

These days, in my fogeyfication, I can make decent music with almost anything. I love my knobbity Bass Station 2 and my stupid Juno-6, but I'm as happy or happier to use Apesoft Mood or iVCS3 on an iOS device, because they're smaller and lighter than the stuff I had to load into the trunk and every available space in my old Citroen in my early touring days. Mainly, you just have to take the time to learn, pick the UX that works for you, and play play play until your gear is as natural to you as an extra limb.
posted by sonascope at 12:59 PM on December 20, 2017


The secret to avoiding the everyone's-playing-the-same-patch trap, by the way, is to erase all the patches on whatever you buy before you play a note.
posted by sonascope at 1:00 PM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]


but I'm friends with some guys who use older analog synths, and the pages and pages of notes they have to take to change from one song to the next is mind-boggling.

Funny thing, digital synths came up just as analog synths were starting to offer patch saving and MIDI. I think a big part of all this is also that samplers came up in the middle of this transition, which might have helped digital synths in general, saleswise, since the "data slider" interface was very much welcomed (and appropriate) for samplers where it wasn't so much in synthesis. But that's what was happening in the studios and apparently nobody wanted to pay for a Memorymoog or Prophet 5 quite as much after this. If they did, there would have (hopefully!) been enough manufactured such that they wouldn't be unobtainium (at least partswise) nowadays.
posted by rhizome at 1:28 PM on December 20, 2017 [2 favorites]


To be honest, I have no retroactive nostalgia whatsoever for the work involved in “saving” a patch that I make on my analog synths. God, it is tedious nonsense, but it’s worth it. They’re strange little beasts, and they eat their pebbles out of my hands, and at night they cuddle with the VSTs and groom each other.
posted by invitapriore at 5:45 PM on December 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


Funny thing, digital synths came up just as analog synths were starting to offer patch saving and MIDI.

And the Moog Source was all buttons and data knob in '81, no less. Had they used something less fragile than the then-very-now membrane panel for their switches, people might have had less of a visceral buttons-are-inherently-terrible response, because the notion of an affordable synth (made affordable by replacing the expensive infrastructure of knob panels with a button-parameter call to the data knob/slider) with only slightly less convenient process of picking out your parameter and editing it. Of course, the scene-changing DX7 used the same kind of touch-unfriendly buttons, so that didn't help.
posted by sonascope at 5:54 AM on December 21, 2017


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