Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in 1997, but the principles are still valid today and worthy of repeating.
Like everything else in the world, the audio industry has been radically and irrevocably changed by the digital revolution. No one has been spared.
Arguments will ensue forever about whether the true nature of the real world is analog or digital; whether the fundamental essence, or dharma, of life is continuous (analog) or exists in tiny little chunks (digital). Seek not that answer here.
Rather, let’s look at the dharma (essential function) of audio analog-to-digital (A/D) conversion.
It’s important at the onset of exploring digital audio to understand that once a waveform has been converted into digital format, nothing can inadvertently occur to change its sonic properties. While it remains in the digital domain, it’s only a series of digital words, representing numbers.
Aside from the gross example of having the digital processing actually fail and cause a word to be lost or corrupted into none use, nothing can change the sound of the word. It’s just a bunch of “ones” and “zeroes.” There are no “one-halves” or “three-quarters.”
The point is that sonically, it begins and ends with the conversion process. Nothing is more important to digital audio than data conversion. Everything in-between is just arithmetic and waiting. That’s why there is such a big to-do with data conversion. It really is that important. Everything else quite literally is just details.
We could even go so far as to say that data conversion is the art of digital audio while everything else is the science, in that it is data conversion that ultimately determines whether or not the original sound is preserved (and this comment certainly does not negate the enormous and exacting science involved in truly excellent data conversion.)
Because analog signals continuously vary between an infinite number of states while computers can only handle two, the signals must be converted into binary digital words before the computer can work. Each digital word represents the value of the signal at one precise point in time. Today’s common word lengths are 16-bits, 24-bits and 32-bits. Once converted into digital words, the information may be stored, transmitted, or operated upon within the computer.
In order to properly explore the critical interface between the analog and digital worlds, it’s first necessary to review a few fundamentals and a little history.