The Revenge of Analog: An Editorial and Review
Over the last year or so, I frequently had these feelings and a desire to make something with my hands. I thought about getting into woodworking, even though I have less than zero skills with the craft. I didn't really understand these feelings, but they were very strong. I use the word feelings rather than the word thoughts because this was coming from inside me and I couldn't wrap my head around it. I had an innate desire for something real. It turns out, I had an analog itch that was screaming to be scratched.
I put down my Canon 5d MKIII digital camera, picked up my Hasselblad fully manual analog camera and shot a few rolls of Fuji Velvia slide film. I shipped the exposed film off to be processed, scanned, and printed. The anticipation of seeing what I had created was delightful. I waited nearly two weeks for the results to arrive home. Upon receiving the prints, I had a realization. While the final images were nice, they weren't the main reason for my happiness, my new found enthusiasm for analog, and my sense of fulfillment. Nostalgia also had little to nothing to do with this feeling. It was all about being human and connecting with something real, something tangible, something analog. It was about using more of my senses and being more human, as opposed to the binary digital life I lead on most days. Smelling the film as I placed it into the camera. Hand-winding the film within the A12 camera back. Hearing the distinctive rear auxiliary shutter of the Hasselblad 503CW camera body as I depressed the metal shutter release button. And finally, seeing, touching, and smelling the finished 5x5 prints upon their delivery from the mailman. This was a physical human experience from beginning to end.
In a way, analog is finite, where digital is nearly limitless. Rolls of film cost money. Processing, printing, scanning, and shipping cost money. Each roll of 6x6 medium format film has 12 shots available. The photographer must take time, be mindful, and really focus on each shot. Limitations lead to creativity and imperfections. Both are cornerstones of being human.
As the founder of Computer Audiophile, why am I writing about analog and how does this relate to digital audio? I'm writing about this because I believe many CA readers have similar experiences. Many members of this community have expressed a renewed interest in playing vinyl records after getting more involved with digital audio. There is also a lot to be learned from the analog world that will enhance and make our digital lives even better in the future. In other words, the whole digital music experience has come a long way, but it also has a long way to go and has vast areas of improvement and immersion still to come. Keep in mind, this has absolutely nothing to do with objective measurements or sound quality, and everything to do with the experience. Last, I recently read a new book titled The Revenge of Analog, in which the author David Sax covers this topic brilliantly. Mr. Sax talks to Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem, Pro-Ject's Heinz Lichtenegger, and several people in the heart of digital, Silicon Valley, to help illustrate the who, what, when, where, and most importantly why the revenge of analog is upon us.
I was recently sent a link to a New Yorker article titled What Lady Gaga Finds Appealing In Reel-to-Reel. The article touched on some of the same things I realized when shooting with my medium format film camera. Lady Gaga's new album Joanne was recorded partially to analog tape. In the article recording engineers suggest the reasons why people record in the analog domain have much less to do with the warm sound of tape, and more to do with the spark in creativity and talent that is brought on by using tape, with all its limitations. Recording analog is much more demanding of the artists. I look at it this way, demand more from the best artists and you'll get the best product.
According to David Sax, "Just as the choice of technology ultimately influences the way a record sounds, it also shapes any kind of work. By making certain things easier, and offering limitless options, software can be simultaneously liberating and paralyzing. Sometimes the least efficient option, such as paper and pen, leads to better results, or at least uniquely imperfect ones."
At the end of this article I read that Mr. Sax is the author of “Save the Deli” and “The Tastemakers.” In addition, I discovered his book “The Revenge of Analog,” was published in November, 2016. I ordered the book immediately. The real paper version, not the digital version.
In the book, Sax writes about the revenge of analog things such as vinyl, paper, film, and board games, and the revenge of analog ideas such as print, retail, work, school, analog in digital, and summer (camps). Part of what makes this book so credible to me, is the fact that Sax doesn't interview luddites or old guys who are stuck in the past or seeking nostalgia from their youth. He talks to people on the cutting edge of both analog and digital. As someone who sells vinyl, CDs, SACDs, PCM and DSD downloads, and is involved with remastering some of the best albums ever made, Chad Kassem was a great name to read in this book. Most of us are familiar with Chad and his work and have much respect for him. Although Chad was limited to a single quote in the book, the fact that Sax reached out to Chad suggests he did his homework and talked to the right people.
"When I asked [Kassem] how he find presses, he said, "Any way you fucking can, is how you do it!'"
- The Revenge of Analog
Writing about why vinyl was able to come back in a big way, Sax says the infrastructure was dormant but still largely functional. Records were still in storage and turntables still existed. They just had to be brought back off the shelves. This is far different from the digital world, where in 30 years many music files will no longer exist and if they do exist on a drive of some sort, there may not be an easy way to read the files off that drive. Sax also states that digital actually helped save vinyl because of sites like eBay, Amazon, and Discogs. Without record stores, these online sites helped the vinyl resurgence gain momentum.
Perhaps even more interesting are the advantages and disadvantaged of vinyl and digital and how each lead to where we are today. This is really counterintuitive. Advantages of digital such as ripped files and simple copying without generation loss, soon became its disadvantages. Without a physical CD, the supply of music exceeded demand and people were no longer willing to pay for it. As Sax says, "Suddenly, an album was no longer a desirable object worthy of consumption. All digital music listeners are equal. Acquisition is painless. taste is irrelevant. It's pointless to boast about your iTunes collection, or the quality of your playlists on a streaming service. Music became data. one more set of 1's and 0's lurking on your hard drive, invisible to see and impossible to touch. Nothing is less cool than data."
You can probably guess where I'm going with this one. The disadvantages of vinyl records such as size, weight, cost, and effort, became advantages. When people pay for something they tend to value it and gain a sense of ownership with the physical object. This all translates into pride about one's collection. Even more important is the aspect of using more of one's senses when dealing with a vinyl product. The smell of vinyl, the feel and sight of the large album jacket are a far different experience from the swipe of a glass iPad screen.
Wisely skirting around the issue of the importance of sound quality in all this, Sax says, "Up to now I have avoided discussing sound's role in the revenge of vinyl ... as soon as the conversation turns to a comparison of the different sonic qualities of music formats, it becomes loaded with technical arguments on compression rates, speaker frequencies, and dynamic ranges. Audiophiles can spend their lives chasing the perfect weight to balance their turntable's tone arm, and the web is filled with forums discussing whether anyone can detect the difference between a WAV file and an MP3 ..."
I think Sax was absolutely correct to avoid this issue. The revenge of analog and resurgence of vinyl has very little to do with sound quality. Just like the resurgence of paper, pencils, and film has little to do with the quality of the final product.
According to David Sax:
"We don't need to listen to vinyl records today. We can listen to any song on a streaming service. It takes up no space and we can do it just about anywhere that we can get a signal. So why does vinyl matter?
I think vinyl is fundamentally about the emotional connection we have to things and the way we interact with them that's different from the digital equivalent. So a record is something you can feel and you can touch. There's a sense of discovery when you find a record at a garage sale or a record store [that] comes with pride. It's almost like you've hunted it down."
"Then there's the act of listening to it. Not to get all McLuhan, but it's very involved. It involves your physical senses: touch, sight, smell and obviously the sense of sound. And when you get it on, you're not skipping to tracks, you're not flipping back and forth through your email. You're there for twenty-two-and-a-half-minutes of each side.
There's an attraction to that because you are engaging with the music in a more committed way."
With respect to streaming music and analog, Sax says, "It's not one or the other. I live in both worlds so when I am walking or when I'm in my car, I'm listening to digital music but when I'm at home, in my living room, I'm listening to vinyl. It's these two experiences that are complementary to one another.
For digital, the convenience is outweighed by the ubiquitousness of it. If it's all just there and easy and accessed through a couple of taps on the screen, there's less of a reward for a lot of people."
The entire book The Revenge of Analog is filled with stories, anecdotal information, and objective information covering not only the comeback of vinyl, paper, and film, but more importantly, to me, how both analog and digital can coexist and how analog can make digital even better. The entire time I was reading the book, I kept thinking to myself that all audio software developers must also read The Revenge of Analog. There is so much to be learned about improving the digital experience, that I look forward to the coming improvements. I spend so much of my life in front of a screen, whether it's an iMac, iPhone, or iPad, that I long for what I'm missing.
Music is something I cherish and couldn't live without. Yet, I often wonder if my listening experience has really improved, as much as I think it has, with the advent of computer audio. I have no question that the best sound quality I've ever heard, comes from computer based systems. I'm also unequivocal that the advantages of computer audio far outweigh the disadvantages. In other words, there's no way I'm switching to an analog based system. However, this doesn't mean I am satisfied with the current digital experience. The introduction of Roon software is actually a nice step forward with respect to the whole digital experience. Many members of the CA Community have said Roon reminds them of the old album jackets because of all the information it provides and its rich interface. I agree, and believe Roon has changed the listening life of many, for the better. But, digital must get beyond the simple screen swipe and tap. How this is done, is beyond me, but I believe it's necessary. I've often wondered if selling 21st century "album jackets" would improve the digital experience. When an artist releases an album or a single, there is a simultaneous release of a physical product. This product may be similar to an album jacket, but much better because its form mustn't follow the function of holding a physical album. Maybe it's a nice magazine or book that's made available with each new music release. This would enable a hybrid experience of both analog and digital, using each one in the best light. I love the touch, sight, and smell of analog items, but I want to play digital music.
The Revenge of Analog is much more than the fad I once believed it to be. I was often stuck on the red herrings of sound quality and nostalgia, to justify my point of view. It took my own deprivation of analog, immersion in a complete digital world, and my own renaissance of analog photography to understand why analog matters. Analog matters because it's real. In the future, analog will make digital, its one-time nemesis and the very thing that sought to kill it, even better. Analog ideas and the ability to interweave analog and digital is the only way forward.
Edited by The Computer Audiophile0