vinyl records.jpg Some of you remember vinyl records. And those of you who listened to old vinyl records may insist that they had a richer, deeper sound than the digital music we hear today. There is actually some truth in that statement. While the digital world has improved the quality of many things, music is not one of them.

The sound quality of the CDs and MP3s that we listen to today can't compare to the quality offered by those old vinyl disks.  If you are holding on to those old vinyl records and your spouse, children, or grandchildren are telling you that they are worthless, here is the explanation that you can give them.

We hear different sounds from different vibrating objects because of variations in the sound wave frequency. These sound reach our ears as analog waves. Vinyl records play music in continuous analog waves. So when you listen to an old record you hear every recorded sound in a manner similar to listening to a live musical presentation.

Digital music is completely different. Analog music must be altered to be put into a digital form. This is true for any form of digital music, including music that is put on a CD. For the music to be transferred to a CD it is sampled at non-continuous times. For CDs, it is sampled 44,100 times per second. Each sample is turned into a digital value. The bit-depth determines the number of digital values that each sample can have. For CDs, the bit-depth is set to 16-bits. So the sampling can be any of 16-bits worth of values. Without getting too geeky, that means that each sampling can have 216 or 65,536 different values. Although analog sound can be turned into digital sound with other sampling rates and bit-depths, this sampling rate and bit-depth was chosen so an hour of audio could fit onto one CD.

So, in layman's terminology, to be put on a CD, the analog music that once had an infinite range of possible vibrational sounds and which played in a continuous wave is cut up into little tiny pieces and put back together again.  Normal sampling rates and bit-depths produce enough data to allow our ears to hear a good representation of the audio. Yet a good amount of the audio from the music is actually discarded.

MP3 music is even worse. When you create a song in MP3 format, the digital music, which has already lost some of its content, is compressed it so that it can fit onto our portable devices. This compression removes as much as 90% of audio data. This is true for many other compressed digital formats like AAC, as well.

These methods including sampling and compression are regularly used to turn analog music into digital music.  It is amazing that this music sounds as good as it does. The other amazing thing is that we have completely accepted this digital music as our norm.

In the fifties and sixties people spent hundreds of dollars on stereo systems to make the music they listened to sound better. Today, we are happy listening to music on our iPods and digital music players even though it has much less sound quality. I guess that digital music offers us more convenience and we often substitute convenience for quality.

I regularly listen to digital music, but my husband and I also have a turntable and a collection of vinyl records that we still listen to. That way we can have the best of both worlds!