I wrote the initial cut of this in response to the endless debate in the alt.guitar.amps news group, way early in the morning of 15 May, 1999.


It's not easy to simulate audio with digital.

The standard theory obviously has some holes in it. The idea is that as long as you are sampling and digitizing at "better" detail levels than the human ear can hear, you're in good shape. The problem is that the human ear can distinguish the content differences between the original sound and the synthesized sound of typical digital playbacks.

People can't hear more than about a 20KHz range. And they can't distinguish tones closer than (some frequency difference). The theory is that if you get better resolution than that difference, across the hearable range, you're in good shape.

But this leaves out quite a bit. The wave shape between those samples is different. If you sample 16KHz (which handles the hearing range of most people fairly well) at 48KHz, that's 3 data points per hertz - more than enough, right? Nope. Because the wave can be doing all sorts of funky stuff between those points - and that's lost in the A/D - D/A conversion.

I still recall when I heard my first CD - I was blown away. There were things I'd never heard on that album before. I went nuts on CDs. Then, one day my son drug out an old vinyl album and played it. "Man, these sound so much better!"

I explained to him why he was wrong, of course. But then I gave a listen the next time he had it on. It did sound better. I couldn't identify why, and it galled me. But it just sounded "better". More, I dunno, warmth. More natural. Hard to explain.

And that explained why I no longer enjoyed Dark Side Of The Moon as much. Oh, sure, you can hear stuff on the CD you never noticed on the vinyl (well, unless you had a very expensive system!) but the quality was just different. Something magical wasn't quite happening.

Some people will say it's just the compression or the EQ. And that may be part of it, but it's not quite all of it. Our ears are just incredibly fine analog instruments, and the digital world to date - at least the mass marketed digital world, just isn't up to that quality. Maybe with higher sampling resolution (32 bits and up) and sampling rates (96kHz, 128kHz, or higher) things will be close enough. So far they aren't.

All that said, CDs are "close enough", a lot of the time. They are certainly easier to care for, they're sturdier, and you can't beat the form factor compared to vinyl. And Blue Oyster Cult's first live album is an awesome tour de force on CD. I'm kinda glad I don't have that on vinyl any more, that makes it easier to be content with the CD. 8^)

It's kinda like transistors and tubes. As a gEEk(1), I can't find a good reason to use a vacuum tube over silicon very often. Transistors make more sense in every way. But as a human, listening (perhaps as I play) music, I find a lot of difference.

As much as I like my Peavey Heritage VTX, I'm really enjoying playing that Silverone tube amp through the VTX's cab. The sound is definitely fuller in most cases, enough so that I rarely whine about having only 1 tone control per channel. It's a more honest sound, too, forcing me to play better. It's easier to get more variety out of the strings. Bizarrely, my left hand doesn't cramp as easily - so I must even be playing differently.

Tonight I was playing a song through it that I wrote years ago. My wife has heard me play that song through an L5, and through the Peavey, many times. She hardly ever paid attention before. Tonight I found her looking at me, smiling - she really liked it. Dunno if she heard the difference, or the difference just affected my playing, but I really don't think it was coincidence.

My twelve year old son, who loves power and volume, is happier playing through the Silvertone, despite having less knobs and losing the ability to rattle things off the shelves so easily.

Digital is great. Transistors are great. They have their uses. But they can't do it all, at least not yet.


  1. You can't spell ``geek'' without ``EE''. (EE stands for electrical engineer.)

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Last updated: 01 December 1999

Copyright 1999 Miles O'Neal, Austin, TX. All rights reserved.

Miles O'Neal <roadkills.r.us@XYZZY.gmail.com> [remove the "XYZZY." to make things work!] c/o RNN / 1705 Oak Forest Dr / Round Rock, TX / 78681-1514