In The New Analog (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), musician Damon Krukowski, of Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi, presents some interesting thoughts on what we have lost by going from analog to digital. While the book is mostly about music and recording, Krukowski’s ideas bleed into other domains, where analog and digital can be seen as metaphors. He says that:
… we need to look more carefully at what was working well for us in the analog realm, so we don’t destroy it in the rush of digital construction.
Digital is not new, of course, and some of what Krukowski says in the book is a bit anachronistic or simplistic. He remarks about the poor sound of early CDs (those days were marked by the use of LP masters on CDs, a technique that mastering engineers abandoned a long time ago), and he claims that digital streams and downloads “sound worse than 1965’s LPs,” because “they are designed to sound worse.” (This is obviously not true.)
But Krukowski’s goal is noble:
I see the digital disruption of our cultural life as an opportunity to rethink the analog/digital divide and examine what we’ve discarded […] to understand what was thrown away that we still need.
In an interesting chapter called Headspace, Krukowski discusses how headphones provide a false image of sound. He looks at the evolution of stereo sound – it’s a lot older than you may think – and highlights the benefits of (good) mono recordings. Like Krukowski, I’ve come to realize that headphones provide a sound space that is artificial, and much prefer listening on speakers, unless I’m outdoors. (I use headphones to listen to music when I’m walking for exercise, no other times.)
He then gets to one of the main points of the book, and the scaffolding upon which much of his argument is built (italics are the author’s):
… noise is as communicative as signal.
With examples from the history of telephones to the way Frank Sinatra used a microphone, Krukowski points out that eliminating all the noise also gets rid of some of the character of sound. Of course, this is why people who prefer listening to vinyl records like that sound; it’s the distortion and degradation of the medium and the playback equipment, not any sound that is objectively better or cleaner. Krukowski says that his “favorite records sound the worst, because I’ve played them the most.”
He also points out that there is no true silence in the world. Unfortunately, he cites John Cage’s story, from Indeterminacy, about being in an anechoic chamber, where he claims to have heard two sounds:
This story is simply wrong: the “engineer in charge” didn’t know what he was talking about. Cage likely had circulatory problems and tinnitus. It’s interesting that he doesn’t mention hearing his breathing, which he most certainly did hear.
But the point is valid; there is no silence in this world. I have a weather station whose indoor base station measures, among other things, the sound level of my office. At rest, it is 35 dB, which is far from silent. Yet I don’t hear any sound at that level. That noise, which is felt more than heard, makes up much of the world, and trying to remove it would create an aseptic environment. While there is no noise in electronic music, all other music has noise: room noise, microphone bleed, fingers sliding on guitar strings, and more. None of this can be fully removed from recordings, but digital recording often tries to eliminate as much noise as possible.
One thing we have lost because of digital music is record stores. For a couple of years, I hung out in a record store, like those guys in High Fidelity. I enjoyed the discussions and discoveries of new music. I later worked in a bookstore for three years, and the conversations about books and literature were what made the store interesting. We have lost that with Amazon, and with streaming music and downloads.
But in exchange, we have access to most of the music recorded in the last 50 years, if not more. Krukowski rightly points out that:
The time it takes to listen to music is now in shorter supply than recordings. Digital music has created a time deficit.
Krukowski discusses the loudness wars, the way of mastering albums so they are so loud they have no dynamic range. And he talks about how time affects digital recordings; the way a digital signal is discontinuous, leading to a different approach to editing and overdubbing. And he discusses how algorithms have replaced record stores, and how content creators are suffering because of the control of corporations over music selection.
Much of this book is thought-provoking, though some is a bit pessimistic. Krukowski deftly sums up the deficits of digital music and listening, without ignoring its benefits, and hopes that we can pay more attention to the noise, to what we had before. His lucid discussion of these issues avoids a grand call to action; this is not a manifesto as much as it’s a wake-up call. Is he right? Partly. But how much depends on how you think about and listen to music.