Alrighty, here’s a major complaint of mine. Two of them, actually.

There are these two words, digital and analog. Digital roughly means “ones and zeroes” and analog roughly means “not ones and zeroes”. With me so far?

Picture a vinyl record player (for you children of the ’80’s, ask your parents). You take your needle and you place it in the groove. The vibrations of the needle cause the sound you would hear from the record. This is an “analog” method of sound reproduction at its very basic definition. Now picture a Compact Disc player. The CD spins and a laser bounces off the little microscopic pits on the disc. The pits are either there or they’re not there. When there is a pit there, it’s considered a “1”, and when there’s not a pit there it’s a “0” (or vice versa, I can’t remember which). The 1’s and 0’s are collected together to create a sample, a very quick “burst” of sound. The music you hear is comprised of lots and lots of these samples. 44,100 per second to be exact (double that if you count the left and right channels separately). This is “digital” sound reproduction.

So what’s better? The quick answer is the CD. If you count a sample per second as a hertz (the common method of doing so) then a CD has a “sampling rate” of 44.1KHz. This is pretty much adequate – no one complains that a CD sounds subpar when they hear it. However, what is the “sampling rate” of a vinyl record? Well, as the record doesn’t consist of data but rather of a single groove, the sampling ratre paradigm doesn’t really apply, but if you were to force it to apply the rate would be infinity. Now compare infinity to 44,100. Which one comes out bigger?

Of course, this doesn’t take into account real world concerns. Vinyl records are prone to scratches and dust – their storage is “naked” or “exposed” – as opposed to the plastic coating on a CD. You can, of course, scratch a CD so bad it screws up, but it’s harder to do than a record. The data error correction is such that the laser can usually neglect minor scratches (unless it’s so bad as to act as a “prisim”) and dust. Also, a vinyl record is prone to wear due to simple friction – the grooves wear down over time and over excessive use. Finally, the vinyl record usually has to have a cushioned, staticless surface to spin on and a $1000 tonearm to perform at optimum conditions – the $50 boom box you can get at Target produces similar results to the $300 CD stereo component. Plus there’s aesthetic concerns as well – more CD’s can fit in a store and consumers decided they liked the smaller discs as well – you can take them in your car without having to convert them to cassette.

So the official answer to the question is that the vinyl record has the potential to sound better. However, the CD is more practical. It doesn’t have the pops or scratches a record has and it doesn’t have the “tape hiss” which plagues analog cassettes. For all practical purposes it’s superior, but here’s the rub: it’s not an absolute superiority.

Why is this important? Well because an absolute superiority implies that it wins hands down and that, ipso facto, the characteristics which make it what it is make it a superior medium. Translation: the CD is better because it’s digital.

Step in the wayback machine to 1986. You’re sitting there playing Nintendo (once again, ask your parents if you’re not sure). You have your little crappy controller that came with it. Now look down at it – there’s a “D-pad” – the official name for the directional portion of the controller resembling a “+” sign. You hit left, Mario goes left. You hit right, Mario goes right. Now if you want him to go to the right faster, you don’t hit to D-pad harder, you actually have to hold down a different button in addition to the direction. Why is that? Because it’s a digital pad – the directions have values of either “1” (you pressed it) or “0” (you didn’t).

Now it’s a decade later and you’re playing your Nintendo 64. You see two direction pads – one looking like a “+” and one looking like a tiny joystick. You’re playing Super Mario 64. You move the little stick a little bit in one direction, Mario moves in that direction. If you move it all the way, Mario runs in that direction. The little joystick is an analog controller, and the Nintendo 64 was the first to bother with it. Later PlayStation models (the “Dual Shock” ones) had it and every console since does, but Nintendo was the first to innovate it. In this case analog once again means “not ones and zeroes” – the stick had a number of points to it. The PlayStation 2’s Dual Shock 2 controller has analog buttons – they’re pressure sensitive to 256 degrees (though I don’t know if anything takes advantage of them yet).

This pretty much cinched the fact that digital was not absolutely better than analog, until Microsoft unveiled a new force feedback joystick with the tagline of using “advanced digital technology!”.

Now think back to the mediums in which video is delivered. In the late 1970’s to early 1980’s, there were two different paradigms being pushed, the magnetic tape based mediums of VHS and Betamax, and the large compact disc like medim of Laserdisc. Since VHS and Betamax were based on the same principles as the analog audio cassette, calling them “analog” mediums seems an easy fit. Laserdisc, then, as it was a larger parallel of the compact disc (stored movies in terms of ones and zeroes) was a digital medium. Laserdiscs never took off beyond devout movie buffs for various reasons, none of which singly doomed the format – the fact that they were more expensive than VHS, the fact that it was a non-recordable medium, the fact that movies often spanned multiple sides, the fact that the public was being sold on the CD with the tagline of “smaller is better” and here was a LD the size of a vinyl record – the list goes on.

Today we have DVD. DVD is superior to LD in nearly every way – the discs are smaller, movies often fit on one side, the picture and sound is better than LD due to the latest technology, etc. DVD also winds up being a slap in the face of everyone who supported LD all these years. However, DVD employs something known as MPEG-2 compression to work its magic. A movie is still too big to fit on a DVD untouched, so people figured out that if you only draw the portions of a screen which change from frame to frame you can save space. Foe example, if you watch CNN you’ll notice the little CNN logo in the corner never goes anywhere. Were this to be compressed on a DVD, the little CNN logo would only get drawn once (it works a little differently due to the use of “key frames”, but you get the idea). A laserdisc never used any sort of compression, the frames were just presented one after another (which is why, even with a larger disc, movies often spread to two sides – the Star Wars movies spread to four sides each). As a result, for some reason Laserdisc is now seen as an “analog” medium – DVD is now the new “digital” medium.

This is wrong in my opinion – both mediums are digital.

Which brings us to the reason I made this post. There are cell phones out there, and there are a number of different methods of “doing” cell phones. Apparently in the last couple of years there’s been a new type of phone network manufactured, so once again this new type of communication method is called “digital”, and the older method is known as “analog”. I know this because my wife had a cell phone, and then she was lured into trading her phone in for a new digital one. I never knew there was a difference (read: there wasn’t one before they came up with the new ones). But what I started to notice in subsequent cell phone conversations was that there was a “lag” – a fraction of a second passed between the time she would say something and when I would hear it. Also, anything I said took a little while to get to her. This was annoying but tolerable.

Now I have a cell phone and of coure it’s a digital one. The lag is now twice as bad – maybe even worse, since the phones are on different providers. As a result, a cell phone conversation is not entirely unlike a walkie-talkie conversation. I miss half of what my wife says and she misses half of what I say because we’re talking over each other because what we’re saying is not heard instantaneously, so what I’m talking over isn’t being spoken at the moment and vice versa, and the minutes are drained on asking each other to repeat ourselves. Also when the other person stops talking you have to wait for a second or two to see if they really are done talking – a pause which can be easily misconstrued as an awkard or pissed off one.

The final irony is that I can’t tell what’s better – the sound quality is basically the same as the old “analog” phone. For that matter, if this is a digital phone, what was the old phone recieving – a cassette from the sky? This is the final straw for me in the whole “digital = better” debate – a clear “no”.

So, to summize – I hate the fact that there is a misconception that “digital = better”, I hate the way “digital” and “analog” are thrown around as buzzwords instead of useful terms, and I hate the fact that because of these facts a cell phone conversation more than a minute or two long is an excercise in pain.