Bytes, Bits, and Beats

There’s more that goes into recorded music than meets the eye.

The debate over the audio quality of analog formats like vinyl records and cassette tapes versus digital formats like CDs and digital audio files is a hot one, and one that kicked off primarily with the introduction of the CD in 1982. Today, vinyl has surfaced back into the mainstream while digital audio is the standard. In this month’s feature, “How We Listen,” we set out to determine what exactly the difference is between the two.

Both vinyl and digital audio files have their compromises. Fans of vinyl point out that in digital audio, files with lower sample rates and bit rates actually leave out tiny portions of the music. In turn, vinyl forces audio engineers to cut corners—bass tones are purposely reduced, and the grooves cut into the final product tend to deteriorate over time— not to mention that the grooves in the middle of the disc are of lesser quality than the ones around the edge.

In response to the development of the MP3 in the early ’90s, composer and sound artist Ryan Maguire made a statement with his project, The Ghost in the MP3. The project involved the creation of a recording made up of the lost bits of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner,” the song used in the development of the first MP3. Dubbed “moDernisT” (an anagram of “Tom’s Diner”), the result is remarkably spooky.