What are Analog and Digital?

The fall semester starts next Monday, August 24, 2015. One of the courses I’ll be teaching is “Digital Media and The Arts”. It’s an introductory class intended to examine some of the major art forms and see how digital concepts and technology have influenced them. The basic idea is to see how music, for example, was practiced before digital technology, what happened when digital technology started being used in music making and production, and what creative possibilities did using digital technology make available that were impossible previously.

The course doesn’t get high marks on the graduating survey. I think the reason is that they don’t see the practicality of studying art forms other than music and they certainly don’t want to know anything about the development of counterpoint or early opera…these students are focused squarely on being recording engineers. Anything else is unnecessary fluff. I have to push hard against the administration to keep classes like this in the program. We are a university and not a vocational program. Learning about ancient Greece drama, the “music of the spheres” or how Guido’s “monochord” helped establish our western tuning system is not fluff, at least in my classes.

In order to understand how digital technology has influenced the arts, I have to introduce what digital is and how it works. Just because this generation of students uses digital devices every hour of every day, doesn’t mean that they understand what goes on behind the touch screen or video monitors.

Computers are made up a few basic components. There’s the brain or CPU (Central Processing Chip), digital storage (local or remote…fast or slow), a means of passing digital information around, and a system of input and output. That pretty much takes care of the hardware side of a computer system.

A computer doesn’t even require electricity. Building a mechanical computer is very doable. I remember a Waldrep Christmas in the early 60s when my older brother got a computer from Santa. This was at least 15 years before the first electronic personal computers were available. His calculating machine consisted of a whole lot of plastic parts that moved and shifted around when you cycled a handle on one end. If you wanted to do a calculation, you had to convert any input numbers to binary and then “mount” the input 1|0 values on small plastic extrusions, crank the handle, and then convert the resulting binary output back to decimal. Obviously, the process was very painstaking and difficult. But I was fascinated. It’s worked.

Of course, computing hardware can’t accomplish anything unless there is software written to make it work. And there are various levels of software from the lowest level microcode operating at the chip level, machine code aksing the CPU chip to store values, shift values, add values etc., assembly language code, operating systems, abstraction layers, and finally applications. Users interact with the hardware at the application and operating system level. It gets very tedious if you have to write a program in assembly language or machine code (Yes, I’ve had to do both as a graduate student in computer science).

To be continued…


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

9 thoughts on “What are Analog and Digital?

  • ~ operating system level

    Actually, a program/application can be perfectly developed and executed without any operating system. This may be done to increase the performance of a program.

    ~ very tedious if you have to write a program in assembly language or machine code

    Well, then you should learn the Mercury programming language…

    • I studied computer science a in the 1980s…I’m sure things have changed a bit since then.

  • Kenneth Sky

    Have you ever considered creating a downloadable video tutorial series on high resolution audio? I would encourage you to look at the Luminous Landscape web site as a model both from an economics standpoint as well as an educational one. You already are an educator as well as an expert on this subject. I believe the reach and scope of such a model are almost limitless.

    • Thanks for the idea…their site is very well designed and looks to provide a lot of great information.

  • Need MOOC. Pay Pal ready

  • Hi Mark,

    I’ve taught similar courses very successfully.

    “The basic idea is to see how music, for example, was practiced before digital technology, what happened when digital technology started being used in music making and production, and what creative possibilities did using digital technology make available that were impossible previously.”

    Initially I’d take a slightly more general approach and show how technology has changed art
    – how pigment technology changed painting,
    – how metal technology changed tools and allowed developments in sculpture, and
    – how many developments changed music: drawn/extruded metal to make strings allowed instruments to develop and new music to be created,
    – how tool making allowed the escarpment mechanism to be developed and allowed the building of the piano.
    – How recording forced musical works into 3min pieces.
    – How amplification changed how music was played.
    – Tape recording allowed pieces to be edited in a crude manner.
    – The developments of Schaeffer and musique concrete (sampling in the 40s), as well as using fundamental synthesis with sine waves with Stockhausen in the early 50s.
    – Multi tracking with Les Paul (& Tommy Dowd),
    – Electric guitars and keyboards/organs.
    – Computer music from CSIRAC to Max Mathews, Xenakis and others.
    – Samplers from the mellotron to the Fairlight to modern software based samplers.
    – How large scale PAs led to stadium rock etc.
    – How digital recording went in parallel with analog for many years, the start of commercial multitrack digital (my first exposure was using the Sony 3324 and comparing it to the MCI 24 track machines of the day).
    – The developments of DAWs to the present day.
    – Digital music making from synthesisers in the 60s to now, sampling, DJing etc etc

    Finally, digital is seen as just another technology, and technology has always changed music. Digital now allows very fine and complicated editing, and its commodity nature allows all kinds of synthesis that were not feasible or practical just 20 years ago. I think digital needs to be seen in a broader historical context – technology will develop and it will continue to change music – it’s a great story! Feel free to email me if you want any ideas or material, I’ve collected quite a bit over the years.

  • Soundmind

    I’ve also written programs in machine language for the IBM 1620. 40K of core memory. It was very tedious and I didn’t like it. Punchcards. Machine language is only one step removed from 1s and 0s being written in binary coded decimals from 0 to 9 and a record mark (pound symbol on a phone.) It isn’t even the equal of Assembler language. I’ve also written in Fortran II. I’m dating myself. What did it teach me? Principles of flowcharting that are as applicable today as they were then.

    One difference between digital and analog is that analog is constrained within the bounds of the ability to manipulate the physical properties of materials, the degree and accuracy of magnetizing tape or the degree of cutting and tracing vinyl with a stylus. It’s also constrained by their physical stability which is often poor.

    By contrast digital has no restrictions. Take an electrical waveform of any type, define a maximum deviation, that is an envelope within which the signal will deviate as a worst case and you can devise a digital format to perform within that envelope.

    • I haven’t been that far into the trenches of code and I haven’t made my living programming, but I did get a Masters in Computer Science and did a couple things in assembly language. Analog and digital are two completely different animals…each with their own advantages and disadvantages. But obviously the trend is towards digital.

      • Soundmind

        Electronic devices can be used to amplify, store, transmit, and control electrical signals. You put an analog signal starting at a microphone in and you get an analog signal out ending at the terminals of a loudspeaker. Not counting the circuits used to control signals, that is to deliberately alter them, amplification and storage devices can therefore be compared by the degree and nature of distortion they create to analog signals. The only change which is not considered distortion is the size of the waveform. If it is the same in every other respect, it is not distorted. What’s in the black box between the analog input and analog output is a matter of method, but it’s the results that matter. Analog and digital methods may often exhibit characteristics types of distortions not normally found in the other. Which are more pleasing to human ears? I don’t know, that is entirely up to each individual.

        While digital systems can incorporate computer programming to alter its performance, the overall performance of a system in this regard falls within the provenance of information theory which is a mathematical analysis explaining various kinds of distortions and electronic instrumentation used to evaluate the mathematical parameters of actual signals. In digital systems, formats can be created where increasingly capable schemes can approach the ideal of zero distortion asymptotically to any degree but theoretically never reach it. Analog systems cannot. Once the maximum deviation from zero distortion falls within the range of human perceptibility, further improvement in performance yields no usable improvement, it’s a waste of effort and money.

        A major blunder for those designing systems is to confuse those elements like amplification, transmission, and storage whose function is to not distort electrical signals and control elements whose function is to distort them. The result are systems whose concepts are confused to a point where it is very difficult if not impossible to alter them to undo the compromised results.


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